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Suszysnki: At least I can make small talk

“The Giantess” is one of my favorite surrealist paintings. A large woman in a rust colored dress with a wheat field of air around her peaceful face implores viewers to dig further. Upon closer inspection, one might notice the set of small hands (I assume her hands, but one can’t be too sure) holding a delicate egg in front of her chest and the birds peeking from her cape.

The painter, Leonora Carrington, is a fascinating person. She married Max Ernst when she was 19 and he, 46. After he was interned in a prison camp, Carrington went mad and wound up in a mental institution in Madrid. She then married Renato Leduc, a Mexican ambassador, for a short period of time in order to escape Europe. Mexico became her home and where she married her third and final husband. She died there in 2011. She was also a lover of Octavio Paz and attended Frida Kahlo’s wedding, although Frida did not seem to look favorably upon her.

Perhaps more interesting though, is how she managed to be a giantess in a field of male Surrealists. At the time, there was a term for childish, wild women that male painters tended to look upon as muses, “la femme enfant.” She didn’t let the term deter her.

In 2017, a complete collection of Carrington’s stories was released to the world. These stories are extremely strange, but inside her plots of talking iridescent sheep and carnivorous bunnies, Carrington stoically raises her middle finger to every male Surrealist painter that thought he could use her to unlock his creative genius.

Just like her paintings, Carrington’s stories drop the viewer head first into a world that does not make sense right away. There are often the fingertips of a plot there, probably a talking horse, and maybe a locked-up sister that is actually a vampire phoenix. The thing to remember is that these worlds are Carrington’s reality.

The first story of the collection is called “The Debutante.” The narrator is forced to attend a coming-out ball but instead convinces her friend the hyena to attend for her. The hyena remarks, “I’d love to go. I don’t know how to dance, but at least I could make small talk.”

The hyena is quite a bit hairier than the narrator and she has paws. But it’s no matter, before the ball, they pounce on the maid and take her face: “In front of the mirror, the hyena was admiring herself in Mary’s face. She had nibbled very neatly all around the face so that what was left was exactly what was needed.”

Not entirely unsurprising, the narrator’s mother doesn’t notice her daughter’s absence until a good way into the evening. “We’d just sat down at the table … when that thing sitting in your place got up and shouted, ‘So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don’t eat cakes!’ Whereupon it tore off its face and ate it. And with one great bound, it disappeared through the window.”

I could count off the number of recognizable Surrealist female painters on one hand. Two of them mentioned in this column spent considerable time battling mental demons. In politics, too, I would argue similarly. There aren’t enough women and the women who are trying to make their way into that debutante ball, like Sen. Kamala Harris, are met with attitudes like she’s “too ambitious.”

Perhaps former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s more astute comment on the fact that Susan Rice smiled on television is enough to drive a woman to madness: “She was actually somewhat charming on TV, something that she has not seemed to care about in the past.”

Farther into Carrington’s collection, in the “The Neutral Man,” the narrator attends a masked ball. When the narrator shows up “thickly plastered” in “electric green, phosphorescent ointment” with mock diamonds dusted across her face to look like the night sky, she realizes she’s the only one dressed up. She meets a magician, “a man of such neutral appearance that he struck me like a salmon with the head of a sphinx in the middle of a railway station,” while she’s trying to hide a greasy pork chop that some ecclesiastical dignitary pulled from his “rich, crimson cummerbund.”

He offers her unwarranted advice: “You must know, my dear lady, that esoteric path is hard, bristling with catastrophes. Many are called, few are chosen. I would advise you to confine yourself to your charming female nonsense and forget everything of a superior order.”

These stories were written as early as the 1930s, yet the realities of the debutante or masked ball are not too far. Recently, Rep. Ted Yoho called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez something crass, but he should have called her a hyena instead of a dog. Politics aren’t esoteric, they just fall into ancient ruts, and they certainly bristle with catastrophes.

Pigs wallow in the mud in order to stay cool, and they like it. They sink down into those trenches and roll around with each other. Indulging without restraint. It must be difficult to get out of those ruts when all you see are other pigs. After all, we are only given the greasy porkchop from beneath the cummerbund to digest if we dare read the news.


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