Carry On, Leonora: 3

(Here the piece returns to old obsessions about what story is, and what it is for. It’s no coincidence that at a certain point during this summer, sitting peering out at the Libyan Sea in the tiny Cretan port of Chora Sfakion, I felt the need to download a digital version of Ernst Neumann’s Jungian study of The Great Goddess, as I was clearly visiting my anima for Sunday lunch at the time…)

What ‘Oink!’ does, in a parallel manner to its juxtaposition of the mythic and the absurd, is suggest a relationship between Leonora Carrington’s art and her fiction. There is a sort of narrative here, just as in her stories there is a sort of ekphrasis: each refers to the other and is dependent on the other to varying degrees. It is not, as ever, an equal relationship: her visual gifts, it seems to me, far outweigh her verbal ones. She is a see-er more than she is a teller, a seer before a narrator. But the relation between the two is a significant element here. 
I was introduced recently to G.S. Morson’s idea of ‘narrativeness’, the idea that we identify in certain successions of events a binding, driving quality which helps us, in re-telling or indeed inventing those successions, to make sense of them: ‘Narrativeness may be defined as the quality that makes narrative not merely present but essential.’ There are those of us who feel, with Galen Strawsen, that such bindings and drivings may be interesting, but only constitute one kind of sense, perhaps not actually an essential one:

“…I do, like the American novelist John Updike and many others, ‘have the persistent sensation, in my life…, that I am just beginning’. The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s ‘heteronym’ Alberto Caeiro (one of 75 alter egos under which he wrote) is a strange man, but he captures an experience common to many when he says that: ‘Each moment I feel as if I’ve just been born/Into an endlessly new world.’ Some will immediately understand this. Others will be puzzled, and perhaps skeptical. The general lesson is of human difference.”

Similarly, Leonora Carrington states, ‘I don’t think we are one person, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a whole complete individual…The ego is a very practical thing, but relatively superficial. there are many egos within each person.’

For us, then, narrativeness is perhaps a sense of story as a more fleeting presence – that it could begin, or end, or, more often, that we are in the midst of it, or are aware of the possibility of story, or many stories. In fact, the plethora of story traces makes it less likely that we need to latch onto one, identify with it, and pursue it by the traditional act of narrating it. Rather we are its reader, picking up one book off a table for a moment, or its watcher, flicking onto a channel briefly, or we are its witness, walking into a gallery and glimpsing a painting by Leonora Carrington.

Because Leonora is of Strawsen’s camp, radically questioning herself from moment to moment through the twinned media of art and writing, we find ourselves confronted by the traces of narratives that both do and do not matter hugely. Her version of narrativeness, then, questions the role of story in constructing delusional continuities, even as her iconography undermines our ability to put together a coherent model of reality. 

As a result, narrative appears as an almost coherent – or, more hopefully, sufficiently coherent – matrix, a pattern which enables us to get by, to make a kind of sense that may or may not relate to reality. It is in just this sense that we do not question, while dreaming, that the dream makes sense, and, while awake, continue to assign meaning and indeed narrative to a phenomenon we essentially have no such convincing model for. While we are dreaming, we do not know what we are doing, but we tell ourselves – or rather the dream tells us – that we do. Sensing narrativeness, then, can sometimes awaken us to the fundamentally provisional nature of this act.

It was at this sort of point that, standing in Venice in front of ‘Oink!’, I realised that, for Leonora Carrington, Surrealism was exactly that: a surmounting of realism as a mode of handling reality, rather than a surmounting of reality itself, which is already ‘sur-‘ our capacity to experience it, except perhaps in the ecstasies of the mystic, or the instants in which, as here, a complex of elements – iconographic and narrative material, but also quite quotidian imagery, estranged from its usual context – combine into the symbolic. 

Her work is disconcerting in exactly the right way, and in fact ‘disconcert’ is a germane verb to use here, because ‘Oink!’ seems to require one type of concerting, or gathering of disparate elements in an unusual context, the aesthetic, in order to disassemble another, the usual self with all its assumptions and prejudices about itself and the world it places itself in.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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