Месечни архиви: февруари 2018

How ‘the Kingfish’ Turned Corporations into People

FPG/Getty ImagesLouisiana Senator Huey Long announcing his presidential candidacy to members of the press in 1935

When the Supreme Court first began to breathe life into the First Amendment in the early twentieth century, the speakers who inspired the newfound protections were politically persecuted minorities: socialists, anarchists, radicals, and labor agitators. Today, however, in the aftermath of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that corporations have the same right as individuals to influence elections, the First Amendment is used by wealthy and powerful business interests seeking to overturn food-labeling laws, securities disclosure laws, and campaign finance regulations. Yet the seeds of this transformation were planted decades ago in a different Supreme Court case—though one eerily evocative of the Trump era—involving a blustery, dough-faced politician who railed against “fake news.”

Huey Long was Trump before Trump. The fiery populist governor elected on the eve of the Great Depression had an aggressive agenda to make Louisiana great again—and little tolerance for dissent. Long set up a state board to censor newsreels and another to decide which newspapers would be allowed to print profitable government notices. When the student paper at Louisiana State University published an unflattering editorial about him, an outraged Long—referring to himself, as autocrats often do, in the third person—sent in the state police to seize copies, saying he wasn’t “going to stand for any students criticizing Huey Long.”

After Louisiana’s larger daily newspapers came out against him, “the Kingfish” declared war. “The daily newspapers have been against every progressive step in the state,” Long said, “and the only way for the people of Louisiana to get ahead is to stomp them flat.” To do so, in 1934 Long’s allies enacted a 2 percent tax on the advertising revenue of the state’s largest-circulation newspapers. Long said the tax “should be called a tax on lying, two cents per lie.”

Led by the Capital City Press, the publisher of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, the newspaper companies challenged the advertising tax in court. They claimed the tax was an effort to silence those who questioned Long’s policies. Long had said as much, promising he was “going to help these newspapers by hitting them in their pocketbooks. Maybe then they’ll try to clean up.” As an editorial in the Morning Advocate warned, if the government can impose special taxes on newspapers that oppose the party in power then “the guarantee of a free press, written in the Constitution of the United States, is at an end.”

One problem for the newspaper companies, however, was that they were newspaper companies. They were corporations, and it was not at all clear that for-profit business corporations had free speech rights. Indeed, the prevailing law was on Long’s side.


In our time, the Citizens United decision has made the notion of constitutional rights for corporations an issue of vital public interest. Nineteen states have called for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and groups like Common Cause, Public Citizen, and Move to Amend have proposed a “personhood” amendment that would declare that corporations are not people and have no constitutional rights. The issue returns to the Supreme Court this term in a high-profile case involving the First Amendment rights of a baker—and his for-profit corporation, Masterpiece Cakeshop—to refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple.

Although the contention that, as Mitt Romney said, “corporations are people, my friend,” seems a very recent and contemporary controversy, corporations have in fact been seeking constitutional protections since the early nineteenth century. Businesses, of course, don’t march in the streets like women and minorities, but they did aggressively pursue expansive rulings of the Supreme Court to strike down laws regulating business. In 1809, the Supreme Court decided the first case on the constitutional rights of corporations in Bank of the United States v. Deveaux. By comparison, the Supreme Court’s first cases on the constitutional rights of African Americans and women were not decided until, respectively, 1857 and 1873.

In the early 1900s, the Supreme Court drew a line. The justices held that corporations were entitled to “property” rights but not “liberty” rights. If the government, for instance, used its eminent domain power to take a company’s land to build a road, the company had the same right as an individual to just compensation. Corporations, however, were not entitled to those rights associated with personal liberty, conscience, or democratic participation.

Applying this principle, the Supreme Court in 1907 ruled against a corporation that, like the Colorado bakery in this year’s wedding cake case, claimed a constitutional right to refuse to do business with certain customers. The company behind Tanforan racetrack, the home at one time of the legendary Seabiscuit, said its freedom of association was infringed by a California law requiring places of public amusement to serve any customer with a valid ticket—in this instance the publisher of a racing form. Even though the Supreme Court was amid a famously business-friendly phase in its history, the justices held that corporations did not have this liberty right.

Just a few years before the Louisiana newspapers’ case came to the Supreme Court, the justices had held that the freedom of the speech was a liberty right too. Would that same rule apply to the freedom of the press? When the Framers wrote the First Amendment, they were thinking of individual pamphleteers and printers, not media corporations. Given the Supreme Court’s view that corporations had no liberty rights, the newspaper companies might find themselves without any constitutional basis to challenge Long’s tax.


When the Louisiana newspapers filed their lawsuit to overturn the advertising tax in 1934, judicial doctrine on the First Amendment also seemed to favor Long. The First Amendment had been added to the Constitution in the Founding era, but the Supreme Court had only just begun to strengthen judicial protection of speech rights after World War I, when a widespread Red Scare led to extensive censorship of political dissenters. Under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, “disloyal” speech became a crime.

President Woodrow Wilson aggressively enforced the law, rounding up socialists, radicals, and pacifists, especially in immigrant communities. More than 1,500 people were prosecuted, including the labor leader and five-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs; he ran his final campaign in 1920 from a prison cell after receiving a ten-year sentence for speaking out against the draft. One movie producer was convicted for making a film about the American Revolution that portrayed Britain, now an ally, in a negative light. The World War I crackdown on dissent was, according to Adam Hochschild in the Review, a “three-year period of unparalleled censorship.”

The Supreme Court did not interfere much with the persecution of dissenters, but the justices, led by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., began to see the dangers of restricting speech and to articulate stronger First Amendment principles. In a 1925 case involving an anarchist named Benjamin Gitlow, the Supreme Court held that state and local governments had to respect freedom of speech even though the First Amendment’s language refers only to federal laws (“Congress shall pass no law…”). In 1931, the justices struck down a Minnesota law that aimed to check the tawdry sensationalism of so-called yellow journalists by threatening to shutter papers that published “malicious, scandalous, and defamatory” material.

Still, the Supreme Court held to the old view that the First Amendment prohibited only “prior restraints.” Government was not allowed to prevent speech in advance, but could punish it after the fact—as Eugene Debs discovered. Long’s advertising tax was not a prior restraint and did not stop the newspapers from publishing anything. Both First Amendment law and the newspapers’ status as corporations created significant hurdles for Capital City and the other companies’ lawsuit.

The Louisiana newspapers, however, had something in common with radicals like Benjamin Gitlow: they, too, were political dissenters facing persecution by powerful government officials eager to quiet them. The advertising tax, like the Sedition Act and the Minnesota law, was being used to punish and silence those who challenged government orthodoxy—exactly the problem that had originally inspired the justices to make judicial protection of speech more robust.

The newspaper companies had another thing going for them: Long, like Trump, filled top government posts with friends and cronies who sometimes lacked the necessary qualifications. In 1932, Long appointed Alice Grosjean, his twenty-four-year-old mistress, as secretary of state in Louisiana. Long’s attorney general, Gaston Porterie, had recently been stripped of his law license for ethics violations. Loyal if nothing else, Long kept Porterie on and had the legislature create a new Bar Association, of which Porterie was promptly named president.

Porterie, who led the state’s defense of the advertising tax, proved to be in over his head. His argument concentrated on the wrong provisions of the Constitution, and as he was not conversant with the Supreme Court’s most recent free-speech decisions, he repeatedly misstated the law. In 1936, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspaper corporations and struck down Long’s advertising tax.

To this day, that landmark decision is often cited for the principle that the freedom of the press protects against any form of censorship, even if not a prior restraint. What has been largely overlooked, however, is that the decision also provided for an important expansion of the rights of corporations.

Eager to establish new First Amendment protections, the Supreme Court rejected its own longstanding rule that corporations had only property rights under the Constitution. Although the freedom of the press was a “liberty” right designed to promote political deliberation and check the government, corporations enjoyed this right, too. In a modern society, the Court decided, media corporations had to have the freedom of the press for that right to be meaningful.

In the years to follow, newspaper companies would be at the center of many of the most important freedom of the press cases. In 1964, in New York Times Company v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court established the right of the press to criticize public figures. In the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, the Supreme Court sided with the New York Times Company and the Washington Post Company to allow publication of the sensitive documents about the Vietnam War. Although some critics of Citizens United might not appreciate it, The Post is a movie about a for-profit business corporation claiming constitutional rights.


Huey Long’s defeat in Louisiana newspapers’ case would provide cover for those seeking to expand the rights of other types of corporations. In the late 1970s, more than thirty years before Citizens United, First National Bank of Boston challenged a Massachusetts law restricting corporate spending on ballot measures. The state lawmakers defending the law argued that political speech was a liberty right inappropriate for a commercial corporate entity. In an opinion by Justice Lewis Powell Jr., the author of the influential “Powell Memorandum” that called for the political mobilization of business, the Supreme Court disagreed. Citing the Louisiana newspapers’ case as a leading precedent, Powell noted that corporations were no longer limited to property rights; they had liberty rights, too.

The Supreme Court would also rely on the Louisiana newspapers’ case to justify its decision in Citizens United: “Under the rationale of these precedents, political speech does not lose First Amendment protection simply because its source is a corporation.” Indeed, the Court envisioned campaign finance laws restricting corporations as a form of political persecution. Like the Louisiana newspapers, corporations were “disfavored speakers” being silenced by campaign finance laws for their unpopular views.

According to a recent study, corporations and their trade groups are behind nearly half of all free-speech cases these days. Businesses have used the freedom of speech to overturn laws requiring tobacco companies to put graphic warnings on cigarette packages, publicly held companies to disclosure of the use of conflict minerals, and food companies to notify consumers of genetically modified organisms. None of these cases would have been possible without the Louisiana newspapers’ case. Instead of a shield for persecuted dissenters from government orthodoxy, the First Amendment was transformed into a sword used by business to strike down unwanted regulation.

Months before the Supreme Court issued its groundbreaking decision in the Louisiana newspapers’ case, Long was assassinated. But the legacy of Long’s attempt at censorship remains. Although he was a populist who championed the little guy over big business, his authoritarian effort to mandate conformity to his views ultimately empowered the very corporate interests against which he so often inveighed.

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Satyajit Ray’s ‘The Hero’ Revisited

CriterionUttam Kumar as Arindam Mukherjee in Satyajit Ray’s The Hero, 1966

It was 1974 and I was a teenager on holiday from my English boarding school, meeting cousins, uncles, and my parents’ ancestral homeland for the first time. The monsoons were heavy that year, but I suddenly found myself rattling all around India—Bombay to Secunderabad, and thence to Bangalore and Madras and Ahmedabad, and finally to Delhi—on never-ending overnight trains. Vendors selling tea clamored around the compartment windows, eager to pass tiny clay cups to passengers; old men sat lecturing everyone on any topic under the sun; the waiter in the dining car assured us, not without obsequiousness, that there was no tea, no coffee, nothing to be had but Coca-Cola.

That curious mix of civility and cacophony came back to me joltingly as I watched the film that Satyajit Ray had made just eight years before my visit, Nayak, or The Hero. In it, Ray sends a handsome star of the silver screen from Calcutta to Delhi to receive a prize. As soon as he boards the train, the professional heartthrob, named Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar), finds himself, by turns, released from his public role and obliged to play it constantly. Everyone recognizes him, sighing over his legend, yet as soon as he’s alone, he’s overcome by memories and dreams that move him to ask himself whether he made the right choice in deciding to become a commercial icon.

For Ray, after a series of films widely acclaimed across the world—and as different as possible from the madcap escapism and song-and-dance routines of Bollywood—The Hero was a chance to meditate on the nature of role-playing, to reflect on the costs of make-believe, and to address perhaps the dominant theme of his middle period, the place of conscience. He had already expressed an eagerness to reach a wider audience, and here he begins to stitch glamor and introspection together into something at once soul-searching and fast-moving. The Hero—only Ray’s second original screenplay, after Kanchenjungha, four years earlier—deepens the central questions of the film he’d made one year before, Kapurush. In that story, a screenwriter confronts a lingering failure of nerve when he re-encounters the old flame he was once too weak to marry. Now, right after a film whose name means “The Coward,” Ray made one whose title, The Hero, carries any number of levels of irony.

In certain ways, The Hero fits the pattern of much of Ray’s earlier work: as ever, the onetime commercial artist, then forty-five, wrote the script, outlined every scene in a red notebook, and composed, or helped to compose, the music. Yet as soon as you hear the broad, almost bombastic chords under the opening credits, you know you’re in for something very different from the world evoked by Ravi Shankar’s fast-flowing sitar in the Apu Trilogy.

Ray is cherished for being a director very much of his place; nearly all his films are set in Bengal, usually around his native Calcutta, where he spent almost his entire life, often in a cluttered apartment without air-conditioning. Yet The Hero is distinctly of its time, as well. The Philips electric shaver in the opening scene—a novelty, surely, in the mid-1960s—tells us something about the cosmopolitan world that its central figure, the larger-than-life movie star, inhabits. Very soon, we’re in a thicket of Mad Men details, from a BOAC bag in the background to a reference to cocaine. Echoes of Federico Fellini’s are everywhere—Uttam Kumar even looks like an Indian Marcello Mastroianni with his blend of debonair, sulky good looks and rumpled vulnerability.

The film is anchored at every moment in Kumar’s performance, and to me it’s an astonishment. Everything about his soft hands as the film begins, his designer socks in two-tone shoes, his baby-faced insouciance, gives us a sense of spoiled entitlement; here is a man who thinks nothing of decorating his home with large, framed glossies of himself. Yet the beauty of Kumar’s Arindam Mukherjee is that he has the capacity to surprise us, again and again. He can be witty and charming and kind. As Ray and Kumar push beneath the leading man’s smooth surfaces, we expect, perhaps, demons and sleepless nights; but we may not be prepared for such grace. The professional hero, after boarding the train, helps an old man open a bottle and is patient with an elderly scold who dislikes all “talkies”; he even uses a glossy picture of himself as an instrument of compassion to heal an ailing child. Maybe because she’s the rare soul who doesn’t need him to be anything other than what he is.

As the film settles into the protected sphere that is the train to the capital—a neighborhood on the move, in effect, as well as a rolling therapist’s couch and a rare chance for a fantasy figure to try to come to terms with inner realities—we realize that what follows will be, in part, an essay on projection. Everyone has some idea of who Arindam Mukherjee is: he’s a “modern-day Krishna,” in the view of one smitten woman, observing him in the dining car; too “god-like,” according to her friend, the high-minded editor of Modern Woman magazine. Others are no less convinced—since they’ve read the papers—that he must be the Devil. Yet the power of Kumar’s performance, which changes with every tremor, is that he can inhabit the movie star and the real man in the same shot; he knows just how to give the world the eponymous hero it demands—and perhaps needs—even as he is never slow to slough off his mask and claim a richer humanity.

Ray’s way with close-ups is as powerful as ever, whether in the confounding tears of an ambitious would-be actress or in the warm, enquiring glances of sari-clad matrons. When Sharmila Tagore, playing the disapproving editor, takes off her glasses at last, she, too, turns into someone beautiful and sympathetic and undefended; we can see why Mukherjee senses that she may be more real as a leading lady than as the woman she presents to the world. “I have a feeling that the really crucial moments in a film should be wordless,” Ray said of his great film Charulata two years earlier; and just before Mukherjee falls into his first dream, we’re given almost two minutes of shots without speech that show us everything we need of innocence and experience, in the eyes of a young girl who’s running a fever, in the self-satisfied preening of a silent figure who turns out to be a publicity-hungry guru.

CriterionSharmila Tagore as Aditi in The Hero, 1966

To dramatize his most urgent concern—how much to make art and how much to create something that will relieve the plight of millions—Ray cast as his leading man in this film about the agonies of leading men the most celebrated matinée idol in the history of Bengali cinema, who appeared in more than two hundred movies before his death at fifty-four. Uttam Kumar was such a titanic figure that traffic stopped across Calcutta when he died in 1980; both a street and a subway station in that city are named after him. One of the film’s troubled themes is whether “a film star is nothing but a puppet,” as the hero’s theatrical mentor has told his young protégé. Yet as Kumar reflects on that, Ray is also addressing how much a director is—or should be—an instrument of the audience’s needs. And how much, perhaps, he ought to woo that audience by including in his cast a two-dimensional dream-figure in shades. 

Meanwhile, the train, in which nearly all the action takes place, is a hive of designs. The compartments frame a latticework of plots as intricate as anything in Graham Greene’s novel Stamboul Train. Almost everyone has a scheme and almost every character, in this film about acting, is more than ready to pretend to be something that he or she is not. A young woman wonders how much she should offer of herself to a predatory stranger, in compliance with her husband’s pleas. An editor muses on whether to abandon her moral high ground. Everyone, essentially, is reflecting back the movie star’s concern about how much selling yourself to the Devil may, in fact, be the right and selfless thing to do, if it can offer those who are suffering a respite from their plight.

The result is a festival of ironies. When figures begin gathering outside the movie star’s window, he knows exactly how to give them what they want; it’s the tut-tutting editor—an emissary from real life—who’s sent into a frenzy and longs to screen herself from their need. Even as the privileged-seeming star wrestles with his angels, nearly everyone around him sees him as a way to advance their own less-than-exalted interests.

At some level, The Hero unfolds like a characteristically sinuous response to the critics (or the inner critic) who regularly asked Ray whether he should not be entertaining viewers rather than exploring their predicaments. When we watch a scene in which Mukherjee’s friend urges him to become more involved in the cause of workers, we can imagine how many argumentative Indians assaulted Ray for being too detached, too refined, too committed to nuances beyond the reach of the common man. And when one chess-player on the make says, “How many people here appreciate fine things?” one can almost hear the exasperated tones of a patrician-seeming artist, constantly being asked why he’s making films for New York and Cannes when the man down the road in Calcutta is in such a desperate state.

CriterionFrom The Hero, 1966

Satyajit Ray would never be a slick commercial filmmaker, but throughout The Hero, he keeps the wheels of his story turning even as such questions revolve in his characters’ heads. And no detail is extraneous. As one aging curmudgeon admits to a love for How Green Was My Valley and another boasts of his trips to America, we’re reminded that, in its first generation after independence, India was constantly wondering how much to call on its own traditions and how much to become part of the global order. When Mukherjee speaks for the mumbled realism of Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart—over the rhetorical declamations of Laurence Olivier—Ray seems to be making his own declaration of independence from the cherished imperial forms.

In almost every shot, Ray picks away at our easy assumptions, and Kumar embodies just what a star should be, as Ray would put it in 1971: “a person on the screen who continues to be expressive and interesting even after he or she has stopped doing anything.” The flashback scenes that keep breaking up The Hero are often abrupt and pull us out of what could be an even more intimate and direct unraveling of poses; it can seem jarring that a filmmaker of Ray’s originality would stoop to dream-sequences about being buried under quicksands of cash or references to companies called Fortune Films. Yet, as we learn that the leading man is an orphan, no stranger to carrying funeral biers, we come to see, ever more painfully, how by succeeding in his art, he can feel he’s failing at some deeper level.

In the end, what distinguishes the art-house film from the would-be blockbuster is that the former is more ready to risk failure. As the movie star in The Hero keeps talking about “my box office” and how much he needs to preserve his image, we see Ray cross-examining big-time movie stars and his own, sometimes over-scrupulous art in the very same frame. That The Hero isn’t as seamless and single-pointed as the Apu Trilogy is part of what makes it so affecting, and enduring. The sign of a master is that he deals in questions, not resolutions; that he pulls us away from the payoffs of plot and into the maze of unsettled enquiry.

Adapted from a text for The Criterion Collection’s DVD of The Hero, released on February 20.

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The World Must Act Now on Syria

Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty ImagesA Syrian man rescuing a child after an air strike on eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, on February 21

The United Nations says it has run out of words on Syria, but we, the undersigned, still have some for the governments, parliamentarians, electorates, and opinion leaders of the powers upon whom the international legal order has hitherto depended.

The world is a bystander to the carnage that has ravaged the lives of Syrians. All has happened in full view of a global audience that sees everything but refuses to act.

Through Russian obstruction and western irresolution, the UN Security Council has failed to protect Syrians. To the extent that it has been able to pass resolutions, they have proved ineffectual. All they have done is provide a fig leaf to an institution that appears moribund. Perhaps conscious of the stain this might leave on its legacy, the UN has even stopped counting Syria’s dead. After seven years, these nations appear united only in their apathy.

It will be redundant to list the nature and magnitude of all the crimes that the Assad regime has committed against Syrians, aided by local and foreign militias, by Iranian strategic and financial aid, by Russian airpower and mercenaries—and by international indifference. The world that watched and averted its eyes is its passive enabler.

Syrians were shot and killed in broad daylight for protesting injustice. They were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. They were bombed and shelled. They were besieged, raped, and humiliated. They were gassed. They were displaced and dispossessed.

Those with the power to act have been generous with expressions of sympathy but have offered nothing beyond the wish that this war on civilians—which they grotesquely call a “civil war”—would end. They call on “all parties” to show restraint, even though one side alone has a virtual monopoly on violence; they encourage all parties to negotiate, even though the opposition is entirely without leverage. They say there is “no military solution” though the regime has given no indication that it believes in a solution of any other kind. Meanwhile, pleas from aid agencies and endangered Syrians fall on deaf ears.

Refugees—the only Syrians to have received some assistance—have seen their plight depoliticized, isolated from the terror that forced them to flee.

Today, as Idlib and Afrin burn, the inevitable is unfolding in Ghouta, the huge open-air concentration camp about to enter its fifth year under siege. What happens next is predictable because the same formula has been applied repeatedly over the past seven years. After holding a civilian population hostage, blocking food, medicine, and aid of any kind, the regime bombs the area relentlessly, in particular its medical facilities, until it capitulates. Those who survive are then forced from their homes that are then expropriated for demographic engineering with the aim of creating politically homogeneous geographies.

While there are no longer any illusions about the role of the Security Council, every member state has nevertheless adopted and pledged to uphold the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine under the UN’s Office on Genocide Prevention. The destruction of Syria was preventable, and can now only be ended by the elected and appointed members of democratic bodies if they fulfill their obligations under R2P to protect Syria’s endangered population from war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and what UN war crimes investigators have themselves labeled the “crime of extermination.”

For the agony of the people of Syria to come to an end, this must be forcibly stopped. The perpetrators of these colossal crimes against humanity must be halted, once and for all. There are myriad geopolitical reasons why this is an imperative, but none as immediate and important as the sanctity of life and the exercise of free will. Inaction would reduce these principles to the status of platitudes devoid of all meaning. To their misfortune, Syrians dared to believe in these principles; they dared to believe that while their struggle for dignity was theirs alone, they wouldn’t be abandoned to such a fate in the twenty-first century.

Today, appealing once more to the ethics and the codes of moral conduct on which democracy and international law are built, we ask you to act now to stop the Syrian genocide: demand an immediate ceasefire, an immediate lifting of all sieges, immediate access for relief aid agencies, release of political detainees, and immediate protection for all Syrian lives.

Affiliations, where given, are for the purpose of identification only:

Yassin al-Haj Saleh, writer, Berlin
Robin Yassin-Kassab, writer, Scotland
Rime Allaf, writer and researcher
Mohammad Al Attar, Syrian playwright, Berlin
Michel Kilo, Syrian writer and politician, Paris
Moncef Marzouki, former president of Tunisia
Burhan Ghalioun, Syrian scholar and politician, Paris
Karam Nachar, Syrian writer and academic, Istanbul
Mohammad Ali Atassi, journalist and filmmaker, Beirut 
Ossama Mohammed, filmmaker, Paris
Yasmin Fedda, filmmaker, UK
Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairperson of the Syrian Network for Human Rights
Nisrin Al-Zahre, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris
Nadia Aissaoui, sociologist, Paris
Leila Nachawati Rego, writer, Spain
Yasser Munif, Emerson College
Mohammed Hanif, writer and journalist
Mutaz Al-Khatib, writer, Syria
Hala Mohammad, Syrian poet, Paris
Samih Choukaer, Syrian musician, Paris
Abdul Wahab Badrakhan, journalist, UK
Ammar Abdulhamid, Syrian-American author and activist
Fares Helou, Syrian actor, Paris
Assem Al Basha, Syrian sculptor, Spain
Ibrahim Al-Jabeen, Al-Arab, Germany
Marie-Thérèse Kiriaky, Social Activist
Professor, Martti Koskenniemi, University of Helsinki
Professor Gilbert Achcar, SOAS
Professor Nader Hashemi, University of Denver
Professor François Burgat, L’Institut de Recherches et d’Études sur les Mondes Arabes et Musulmans (IREMAM)
Professor Fawaz A. Gerges, London School of Economics
Professor Joseph Bahout, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Professor Michael Nagler, UC Berkeley
Professor Wendy Pearlman, Northwestern University
Professor Steven Heydemann, Smith College
Professor Joseph E. Schwartzberg, University of Minnesota
Professor Murhaf Jouejati, National Defense University
Professor Lars Chittka, Queen Mary University, London
Professor Amr Al-Azm, Shawnee State University
Professor Ghassan Hage, Melbourne University
Professor Ahmad Barqawi, Palestinian-Syrian
Professor Jamie Mayerfeld, University of Washington
Professor Stephen Zunes, University of San Francisco
Professor Anna Kathrin Bleuler, University of Salzburg
Professor Carola Lentz, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Professor Love Ekenberg, UNESCO Chair, Stockholm University, Sweden
Professor Annie Sparrow, Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai
Professor James Simpson, Harvard University
Professor Ziad Majed, political scientist, Paris
Haid Haid, Syrian researcher, Chatham House, London
Yassin Swehat, Syrian journalist, Istanbul
Loubna Mrie, Syrian journalist, New York
Rafat Alzakout, theater director and documentary filmmaker, Berlin
Khaldoun Al-Nabwani, writer and scholar, Paris
Ghayath Almadhoun, poet, Palestine, Syria, and Sweden
Subhi Hadidi, writer, Syria and France
Stephen R. Shalom, New Politics
Barry Finger, New Politics
Jason Schulman, New Politics
Omar Kaddour, writer, France
Najati Tayara, writer, Syria and Paris
Marcelle Shehwaro, Syrian activist, Istanbul
Kenan Rahmani, Syrian campaigner
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, University of Stirling
Lydia Wilson, University of Oxford
Thomas Pierret, researcher, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France
Kelly Grotke, writer and academic, visiting scholar at Cornell University
Danny Postel, Northwestern University
Stephen Hastings-King, writer and researcher, Massachusetts
Anna Nolan, human rights campaigner
Rafif Jouejati, Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria
Mohja Kahf, Syrian-American poet and scholar, US
Rami Jarrah, journalist, Turkey
Shiyam Galyon, Books Not Bombs
Afra Jalabi, Syrian writer, Canada
Miream Salameh, Syrian refugee and visual artist, Melbourne
Şenay Özden, researcher, Istanbul
Faraj Bayrakdar, poet, Stockholm
Hanna Himo, Syrian poet, Stockholm
Theo Horesh, author and journalist, Colorado
Christin Lüttich, political scientist, Berlin
Sarah Hunaidi, writer, Chicago
Véronique Nahoum-Grappe, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, France
Husam Alkatlaby, human rights activist, The Netherlands
Maen al-Bayari‏, journalist, Jordan
Michael Karadjis, Western Sydney University
Stefan Tarnowski, translator
Mutasem Syoufi, The Day After
Najib Ghadbian, scholar and activist
Ammar Abd Rabbo, journalist
Laila Alodaat, lawyer, UK
Fares Albahra, Syrian poet and psychiatrist, Berlin
Paweł Machcewicz, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw
Oz Katerji, journalist
Charles Davis, writer, Los Angeles
Pastor David Tatgenhorst, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 
Necati Sönmez, filmmaker, Turkey
Kris Manjapra, fellow, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; associate professor, Tufts University
Zeynep Kivilcim, Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin
Housamedden Darwish, assistant professor, University of Cologne
Vladimir Tarnopolsky, musician, Russia

A full list of the more than 200 signatories can be found here.

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The Impossibility of Being Oscar

Private Collection/© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VEGAP, Madrid ‘Interior of a Café with Toulouse-Lautrec and Oscar Wilde’; undated watercolor by Ricard Opisso

The argument could be made that Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest literary artists of what we persist in calling the fin de siècle—that is, roughly, the period between 1880 and 1900—was at his greatest in two instances of aesthetic theorizing, namely the page-long preface to his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the pamphlet-length essay “The Decay of Lying.” It may seem paradoxical to lay so heavy an emphasis on a couple of snippets from an oeuvre that includes such theatrical masterpieces as The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, as well as the tormented prison testaments De Profundis and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” but then was not Wilde himself the supreme master of paradox? Indeed, turning the received wisdom of the ages upon its head, with the lightest and most elegant flick of an aphorism, was the very essence of his art.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” the preface to Dorian Gray pronounces, with the serene authority of a papal bull—Wilde, with his love of pomp and swagger, held the papacy in fascinated and envious esteem—which raises the further question as to whether there might be such a thing as a moral or an immoral life. Late-Victorian England certainly had no doubt, after Wilde’s headlong plunge into disgrace in 1895, that he was to the highest degree an immoralist, to use his friend and admirer André Gide’s term, and for his crimes consigned him to two years’ hard labor, before stepping back with a snarl of disgust and a grim brushing of the hands.

And it was not just the haute bourgeoisie that rounded on him: numerous fellow artists deserted their former friend and colleague, not a few of them in terror of being themselves seized upon and hauled out of the closet. Henry James, who had met Wilde early on, in 1882, in America, and pronounced him “an unclean beast” whom he found “repulsive and fatuous,” was in equal measures shocked and gripped by the “very squalid tragedy, but still a tragedy” that began with Wilde’s committal for trial on charges of homosexual offenses in the spring of 1895. James wrote to a friend at the time: “[Wilde] was never in the smallest degree interesting to me—but this hideous human history has made him so—in a manner.” In a manner: in the barely breathed cadence both the terror and the wistfulness are clearly to be heard.

The burning question that was asked at the time, and it is a question that glimmers to this day, was why Wilde had not taken advantage of the chance to flee the country that was tacitly offered to him by the authorities on that fateful day—the adjective is unavoidable—April 5, 1895, when a warrant for his arrest on charges of homosexual crimes was held in abeyance for an hour and a half, time enough for him to take the steamer to Calais and immunity from prosecution. Even his mother had urged him to go, but go he would not. “I decided it was nobler and more beautiful to stay,” he told the love of his life, Lord Alfred Douglas. “I did not want to be called a coward or a deserter.” To the end he connived in and embraced his own downfall.

The facts of the affair have become the stuff of legend, so perhaps it is well to reiterate them briefly here. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854, to Sir William Wilde, a highly successful and fashionable eye and ear surgeon, and his admirable if slightly preposterous wife, Jane, who had Italian blood in her veins, and under the pseudonym Speranza wrote patriotic poetry—high-flown doggerel, most of it—for the nationalist press, which on one occasion almost earned her a prison sentence. What a thing it would have been for the highly respectable Wildes had she been convicted: two jailbirds in one family!

Young Oscar attended Portora boarding school in Enniskillen, then Trinity College, Dublin, and progressed on to Oxford, where he became one of Magdalen College’s dubious exquisites, gleefully dressing the part in flowing capes and floppy collars and adorning his rooms with ostrich feathers, fresh lilies, and much blue china. However, he also applied himself energetically to his studies, particularly in Greek and Latin—it was no idle boast when at the last he spoke of himself as having been “once a lord of language.”

At Oxford he came under new and, for the time, revolutionary intellectual influences, including John Ruskin and, in particular, Walter Pater, whose artistic doctrines were to be of the highest significance for Wilde in his life and in his art. Like all artists, of course, he must, if not strike dead the father—the Pater!—then at least deliver him a glancing blow. In the largely one-sided dialogue that is “The Decay of Lying,” dominant Vivian, who is Wilde’s mouthpiece, goes a delicate but decidedly measured step further than his mentor in the drive to relieve art of all supposed debt to mere utility and the commonplace world’s “turbid passions”:

Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of my new aesthetics; and it is this, more than that vital connection between form and substance, on which Mr Pater dwells, that makes music the type of all the arts.

The “new aesthetics” were perhaps not quite the novelty he claimed them to be—the art-for-art’s-sake movement was well underway when he published “The Decay of Lying” in 1889—but no one, not even Flaubert in his letters or Baudelaire in his journalism, had stated the case for art’s total autonomy with such point and assurance, and in such a consummately persuasive prose style. And then there is the breadth of reading, in classical and modern authors, on which much of Wilde’s argument is founded. He knew well whereof he so fluently spoke.

When he finished his studies, it was with the most concentrated single-mindedness and beadiness of eye that he set about making his way in the “world of letters,” as the literary egg-and-spoon race used quaintly to be called. Oddly, perhaps, for one so learned in and committed to the culture of Old Europe, it was in the New World that he forged—ah, how ambiguous that so innocent-seeming little word!—his first lavish success, when he undertook an American speaking tour, lecturing on, among other topics, the art of interior design. The trip was supposed to take up four months, but lasted a year. Though far from home, Oscar had arrived.

In his private life also he seemed to step onto the firmest of ground when in 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, a lawyer’s daughter with a not inconsiderable private income to sweeten the match. They moved into a nice house in Tite Street in London’s Chelsea, where they carried out much interior design and had two children, Cyril and Vyvyan—curiously, these were the names he gave to the pair of debaters in “The Decay of Lying,” though “Vyvyan” there is spelled “Vivian”—but the tender tethers of domestic bliss could not keep Oscar in check for long. As he wrote years later, “Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search for new sensation.” At first the depths of depravity in which he sank himself were not very deep. It is believed he had his first serious homosexual experience in 1886 with the French-born Canadian journalist and art critic Robert Ross, who was to remain one of his staunchest friends and supporters up to, and following, his death.

Here we must pause a moment. Shallow the depths may have been, but they were murky too. “Did Oscar Wilde think of himself as a homosexual?” Nicholas Frankel asks early on in Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentent Years, his fascinating study of the hitherto largely neglected last phase of Wilde’s life. Pointing out that the word “homosexual” first appeared in print, and then only as an adjective, in 1892, Frankel observes:

There must always be something anachronistic about speaking of any Victorian’s “sexual identity.” Sex—whether sanctioned or illicit—was something people engaged in, but it wasn’t yet seen as an expression of one’s sexuality.

All the same, it seems fair to say that Wilde knew his own nature, whatever term he might employ to describe it. “A poet in prison for loving boys loves boys,” he wrote matter-of-factly from Paris, after his release from incarceration and his reconciliation with Douglas—“Bosie”—and he went on to point out, in the dignified, melancholy tone of his last years, that if after serving his sentence he had altered his life and given up “boys,” it would have been to admit that “Uranian love is ignoble.” But which was it that drove him most desperately, the commitment to nobility and true love or the nostalgie de la boue that brought him to the muddied depths where boy prostitutes, or “renters,” paddled and plashed? Or were the depths the depths of the jungle? “It was like feasting with panthers,” he famously wrote from prison. “The danger was half the excitement.”

The particular “occasion of sin,” as the priests used to have it, that put him behind bars was darling Bosie. Douglas has been much maligned, and deservedly so, as many might think, though not Frankel, one of whose aims, in his quiet but persuasively revisionist account, is to scrape at least some of the slime from Bosie’s besmeared reputation:

The relationship between Wilde and Douglas is still widely misunderstood. Douglas has too often been represented as a callous and heartless Judas or Iago figure who spurred Wilde on to not one but two disastrous and fateful actions, before abandoning Wilde each time to face the consequences alone.

One must admire Frankel’s largeness of spirit in seeking to recuperate Bosie’s reputation, but he does not produce a great deal of evidence in support of his case. True, Bosie was more than the spoiled, sniveling brat that posterity has made of him—but not much more. He did push Wilde toward the edge of the precipice, seemingly without any care for the consequences, and even if, as Frankel writes, “he knew and loved Wilde more intimately than any other individual in the period with which we are concerned,” that love had as much in it of selfishness and irresponsibility as “Uranian” nobility.

The first of the “two disastrous and fateful actions” that Bosie took was to persuade Wilde to institute a libel case against his father, the truly vile Marquess of Queensbury—a Mr. Hyde without a Dr. Jekyll—who, knowing of his son’s relations with Wilde, left his calling card at Wilde’s club with a note scrawled across it accusing the fabulously famous playwright of being a “somdomite [sic].” Wilde, in defiance of the advice of many of his friends, went ahead and instituted proceedings for libel, which, as we know, proved a horrible miscalculation, and led to his being charged with acts of gross indecency and sent to jail.

It is likely that Wilde did not fully grasp what a jail sentence meant in those times. “Almost certainly,” Frankel writes, “he still held an exalted and Romantic view of imprisonment: he had once written that ‘an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature.’” A terrible awakening was in store for him at Pentonville Prison, one of the harshest places of detention in Victorian England. “At first it was a fiendish nightmare,” Wilde told another loyal friend, Frank Harris, “more horrible than anything I had ever dreamt of.” On arrival he was made to “bathe” in a tub of filthy water; his hair, those ample locks of which he had once been so vain, was cropped short; and, clad in “the livery of shame,” he was thrust into a cell so confined and noisome he felt he could barely breathe:

But the inhumanity was the worst of it; what devilish creatures men are. I had never known anything about them. I had never dreamt of such cruelties.

It is to Wilde’s great credit that after his release he worked hard to bring about reform of the penal system and achieved considerable results. He was also a vigorous campaigner for the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, under which he had been convicted for homosexual activity. “I have no doubt that we shall win,” he wrote to the activist George Ives in 1898, “but the road is long, and red with monstrous martyrdoms.” Here it should be kept in mind that Wilde the arch-aesthete was also the author of the anarchist-influenced essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism.” Oscar was a man of many parts, not all of them effete.

By the autumn of 1895 Wilde was, in Frankel’s words, “nearing a complete breakdown.” Seriously debilitated by hunger, sleeplessness, and recurring illnesses, he was so weak that one morning he could not get out of bed, and when forced to he fell down repeatedly; in one of these falls he suffered damage to his inner ear, an injury that may well have contributed to his premature death from meningoencephalitis five years later.

As time went on his prison conditions did improve somewhat, thanks in part to the efforts of Ross and, especially, Harris, one of the figures in Wilde’s circle hitherto regarded as a rascal but who comes out of Frankel’s informed and engrossing book with a positively saintly aspect. In the summer of 1896, Harris secured an interview with Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise, the chairman of the Prison Commission, to plead for more lenient treatment for the suffering prisoner, who by now had been transferred from the Piranesian chamber of horrors that was Pentonville to the slightly less punitive Reading Gaol. To Harris’s pleasant surprise, Ruggles-Brise at once dispatched him to Reading to ascertain Wilde’s condition, physical and spiritual.

According to Frankel, “Harris’s visit of 1896 was a turning point in Wilde’s treatment during his two years in prison.” One effect, which was not to last, was Wilde’s pious and purely strategic repudiation of his notions of the nobility of Uranian love. At Harris’s urging, Wilde concocted a long and on the face of it heartfelt petition to the British Home Secretary pleading for early release. Frankel writes:

It begins by observing that, while he had no wish to palliate the “terrible offences” of which he had “rightly been found guilty,” those offences were “forms of sexual madness” and “diseases to be cared for by a physician, rather than crimes to be punished by a judge.”

The capitulation that this two-thousand-word document represents is thoroughly understandable, given Wilde’s plight, yet it is dismayingly sad to see such a proud man brought so low.

In the long, epistolary cri de coeur that is De Profundis, completed in 1897, Wilde excoriated Bosie as the cause of his ruin. Ironically, Bosie did not even know of the existence of this document until many years later. Wilde had left it in the care of Robert Ross, who published it five years after his death. So heavily censored was this version that Douglas himself was able to review it—in Motorist and Traveler!—without realizing that it had originated as a letter to himself.

Yet far from causing Wilde to regard Douglas as a baneful and destructive influence upon him, the torments of his two years in prison seem only to have intensified his passion for the handsome and not untalented young man. As Frankel writes, “The strictly sexual element in their love for each other had disappeared in the early years of their relationship…. But the two men still loved each other, and their continued friendship and affection was a public scandal.” In a letter to his mother, which Frankel has no hesitation in describing as “heartbreaking,” Douglas wrote: “I still love and admire him, and I think he has been infamously treated by ignorant and cruel brutes.”

The scandalous reunion became public when they settled together in Naples, a city Wilde described with relish as “evil and luxurious” and where the recidivist pair, despite a chronic shortage of funds, ate well, drank copiously, and diverted themselves in hot pursuit of boys. This was the second of the two “disastrous and fateful actions” that Frankel considers to have been unjustly blamed on Bosie; to the contrary, he insists—perhaps a little overstrenuously—that the “ill-fated reunion of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in Naples is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented events in the history of literature,” even though it “put paid to whatever hopes of respectability and a decent livelihood Wilde nurtured.”

Respectability: the word immediately conjures the thought of Wilde’s wife, Constance, baffled by the calamity that had befallen her and her children, and always expressive more of sadness than anger or vituperation. Her harshest action was to forbid Wilde access to their two sons, and he went to his grave without ever having a glimpse of them again, except in photographs that she sent him. This was one of the deprivations he found hardest to bear—“what I want is the love of my children”—and for which he could not bring himself to forgive his wife. All the same, he fully realized the dreadful wound he had inflicted on this decent and much put-upon woman: “I don’t mind my life being wrecked,” he wrote to a friend, “that is as it should be—but when I think of poor Constance I simply want to kill myself.”

Wilde’s friends urged him to begin writing again in those last, forlorn years, and he even signed contracts for new work, but it was only a ruse to get hold of some cash, of which he was ever in need—in Paris after his release from jail he stopped his old friend the singer Nellie Melba in the street and, almost weeping in shame, asked her for money. Although he was destitute, he still insisted on living the life of the hugely successful playwright he had once been. “My work was a joy to me,” he wrote: “when my plays were on, I drew a hundred pounds a week! I delighted in every minute of the day.” But was it precisely there, in the joy, the boundless delight, the bullion in the bank, that he had prepared his own ultimate failure? After his release he tried, in Naples and elsewhere, to rekindle the spark of glory, but in vain; all was ashes. “Something is killed in me,” he told Ross. “I feel no desire to write.” And he added: “I don’t think I am equal to the intellectual architecture of thought.”

This last is a highly significant observation, perhaps more significant and more revealing than he realized. Had he ever allowed himself to be the equal of what was required by the excess of literary talent that had been bestowed on him? Had he lived up to his own austere demands, which he set out so dogmatically, despite the lightness of expression, in the preface to Dorian Gray and “The Decay of Lying”? Certainly the plays are great, in their way—Salomé in particular shows him for the subversive artist he could have been, had he had the nerve for it—but somehow they are not quite enough, not quite the fulfilment of his genius. He had, throughout his life, talked away too much of his talent; as one observer put it, “He wasted himself in words.”

There are hints that he knew, or at least suspected, that at the deepest level he had faltered in his task. When he published a revised version of The Importance of Being Earnest, he dedicated it to the ever-faithful Ross, but remarked wistfully that he “wish[ed] it were a more wonderful work of art—of higher seriousness of intent” (italics added). Likewise, of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” he pointed out that it was “drawn from actual experience” and therefore “a sort of denial of my own philosophy of art.”

Could it be, then, that it is precisely in his philosophy of art, rather than the works of art he produced out of it, that his true achievement rests? His plays and his fiction sparkle, they coruscate with brilliant gleams and glitters, but even at its best, his is an art of talking heads, of heads that talk in defiance of that “higher seriousness of intent” that must inform even the lightest work—contrast Wilde and Chekhov, and marvel at what the latter could make out of characters just as flimsy-seeming as the former’s incessantly and sometimes insufferably witty marionettes.

It is a common notion that Wilde set going the conflagration that destroyed him out of a surfeit of success—“a hundred pounds a week!”—but it is also possible to think that what kindled the flame was the awareness of failure smouldering in him from the outset. When Gide asked him if he had been aware that it would all come to ruin, his reply resonated with ambiguous emphasis:

Of course! Of course I knew that there would be a catastrophe… I was expecting it. It had to end that way. Just imagine: it wasn’t possible to go any further, and it couldn’t last. That’s why, you see, it has to be ended.

An artist’s aesthetic will not be denied; that way the profoundest depths await.

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Imagining Violence: ‘The Power’ of Feminist Fantasy

Wikimedia CommonsCaravaggio: Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1598–1599

It can’t be a coincidence that one of the novels getting international attention this year is about women hurting men. In Naomi Alderman’s bestseller The Power (2017; first published in the UK, 2016), adolescent girls discover they have a devastating electrostatic force in their hands that they can use to shock, torture, and kill. It comes from a striated muscle near their collarbones that alarmed scientists call a skein, and that they can observe through MRI scans of newborn baby girls. The teenagers can help older women activate their Power, too.

Beginning in Saudi Arabia, and moving to other countries, women seize political control, and take violent revenge on the men who have enslaved and abused them. They use the Power to defend and liberate themselves, and it changes their view of themselves. “If you were able to live your life as if you were able to cause hurt when you needed to,” Alderman told NPR, “your life would be so different, even if you never ever had to do it. That makes you less afraid all the time.” A girl electrocutes the foster-father who has been regularly raping her: “He spasms and pops out of her. He is juddering and fitting… He falls to the floor with a loud thump.”

But the Power rapidly corrupts, and some women become predatory and cruel. A female officer on guard feels obliged to make an example of an aggressive young male resister. “His scalp crisps under her hand. He screams. Inside his skull, liquid is cooking… The lines of power are scarring him, faster than thought… The body tumbles forward, face first into the dirt.” And men fight back with even more brutality; they try to destroy or steal the Power surgically, to blind and confine the women, to use heavy weaponry against them. Yet, despite the consequences, Alderman believes that being able to hurt and kill would be transformative for women: “If I could go and give to women being sex trafficked right now today in some dirty basement, waiting to be raped,” she said in the same interview, “—if I could go and give them the power to electrocute people at will, even knowing that this might end badly, I would give it to them.”

This bold and disturbing novel received the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, was listed among the top ten books of 2017 by The New York Times Book Review, and was even named by Barack Obama as one of his favorite reads of the year. But it’s not just a book of the moment. The Power is a major innovation in the overlapping genres of feminist dystopia/utopia, science fiction, and speculative fiction. Traditionally, these women-authored stories have been nonviolent and visionary.

One of my favorite early examples is “A Dream of the Twenty-First Century,” a story published in 1902 by the American writer Winnifred Harper Cooley. In her dream, the author is visited by a “healthful, glorious girl” of the future, “the product of a century of freedom,” who describes the utopia to come in the United States. Among the ills repaired are poverty, disease, sexual inequality, ignorance, crime, and war; but the maiden also reports that an enlightened population has finally reformed “an absurd electoral college” that “registered the votes of States instead of counting the majority of all the people.”

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic Herland (1915), three American male adventurers go on a scientific expedition to find a legendary Ladyland or Feminisia, and land in an all-female country led by women who are beautiful, wise, maternal, cooperative, nurturant, and calm. Each of the explorers falls in love with a Herland woman, but not all of them can adapt to a society which is opposed to violence, based on collectivity rather than competition, and averse to “killing things.” When the most aggressive man shoots his gun into the air, he is anesthetized, and eventually deported. But if women in a feminist utopia have a physical, intellectual, or strategic power advantage, the author generally finds a way for them to share it with deserving men. In Gilman’s sequel, With Her in Ourland (1916), the most successful male convert gets to take his wife back to the United States just after the start of World War I, and to learn from her. She even concedes that “men are people, too, just as much as women [are].”

The surge of feminist utopian fiction in the 1970s, including Dorothy Bryant’s communal, spiritual The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You (1976; first published as The Comforter: A Mystical Fantasy, 1971), and Ursula LeGuin’s The Word for World Is Forest (1976), in which the male invasion of a matriarchal planet  introduces killing, continued Gilman’s pacifist themes. Indeed, female resistance to male power in these tales is very rarely physical, violent, or military. Even in the most famous feminist dystopia of the twentieth century, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), women do not rise up against the men of Gilead. They do not attempt to kill the Guardians, Commanders, Eyes, or Angels. Indeed, their only attack on a man occurs when a male Mayday spy is captured and is about to be torn to pieces; a Handmaid saves him from this fate with a quick kick to the head. Despite the infinite possibilities of imagination, most feminist speculative fiction could display the humane tagline: “No men were harmed in the writing of these books.”

Rage and the desire for revenge against male oppressors, however, has emerged in women’s dystopian writing during periods of feminist protest and uprising. We can see it during the first wave of the suffrage movement. Inez Haynes Gillmore, an American writer and suffragist, wrote, “When the first militant in England threw the first brick my heart flew with it. Thereafter I was a firm believer in militant tactics.” In principle, Gillmore believed, militant women should use the actions that had always worked for men: “rebellion and violence.” Yet she was also thinking about suicide as a suffragist tactic in practice:

A young woman, able, successful, happy kills herself in Boston, leaving a note “I die because women are not free”… Next week another young woman commits suicide in New York leaving a similar note. The next week it is perhaps Chicago… Washington… Seattle… San Francisco… New Orleans… You can imagine what a terror, what a horror would spread across the nation, as parents would ask themselves and each other, “will our daughter be next?”

Indeed, in feminist speculative fiction, suicide is much more common than brick-throwing, let alone homicide, as a form of protest. These contradictions between self-defense and self-sacrifice appear dramatically in Gillmore’s largely forgotten novel Angel Island (1914). A precursor of Herland, it tells the story of five men shipwrecked on an apparently deserted South Pacific island who discover that they are being visited and observed by five magnificent winged women. At first, the men are smitten and awed, but they soon decide that they must capture the women and force them to mate and breed: “The future justifies anything. If these girls don’t come to terms, they must be made to come to terms.” With mirrors, scarves, and shiny jewelry plundered from the ship, they lure the women into a hut they call the Clubhouse; lock them in; tie them to the walls with “their hands pinioned in front of them”; and then, as the women struggle and scream, cut off their wings with shears they have been sharpening in preparation.

The Angels survive, but without their wings they are tamed, docile, and helpless, barely able to walk on their vestigial feet, and totally dependent on the men. They marry their captors and have children. But when they realize that the men are also planning to shear the budding wings of their little daughters, their leader Julia decides that “we must stop wanting to fly, we women. We must stop wasting our energy brooding over what’s past… we must learn to walk.” In great pain, they learn to hobble, then to run, on their tiny feet, and to fly on their stubby wings (reshorn every six months). In a triumphant scene, they escape with the children. But the book doesn’t end there. They don’t drop a boulder on the Clubhouse, or go home to their mother country. Instead, the men apologize and successfully persuade the women to return, promising to shear no more. Indeed, the Angels are overjoyed to be reunited with their husbands and, having won this concession, are ready to share their power to fly with the men. Soon, Julia bears a son with wings.

Ursula LeGuin, who wrote the introduction to a reprint of Angel Island in 1988, pointed out that Gillmore handled the shearing scene “evasively”; it’s not shown as a “general sadomasochistic orgy.” Moreover, “the women don’t even act angry. They weep. They go a bit crazy and come out of it.” They don’t plot to fight back or wield some shears of their own. Nonetheless, LeGuin concludes, underplaying a bloody scene and avoiding a bloody response was to Gillmore’s credit. “By giving us neither, Gillmore leaves herself room to show… a real, effective anger, which does not express itself in violence.” LeGuin argues that Gillmore wanted us “all to fly, together”—an uplifting and utopian feminist ending to a very dystopian book.

Not until the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s was the question of female violence really considered in feminist fiction. At a women’s congress in New York in 1970, the short-lived radical group called The Feminists sold a story called “The Twig Benders,” which they ironically described as “feminist pornography.” Signed by “Wilda Chase,” mimeographed on pink paper on the back of a flyer for a pro-abortion rally, and costing twenty cents, “The Twig Benders” reversed the gender roles of sadistic male pornography. In it, women get explosive sexual satisfaction from humiliating, beating, raping, and killing boys and men. The point, of course, was not to titillate feminists, but to reframe and make shockingly visible the violent abuse of women in pornographic writing by men. The author, whose real name was Wilda Holt, was a survivor of incest and sexual abuse. Rage and despair had driven her mad, and in the mid-1970s, she blew her brains out with a handgun.

Never published, or even submitted for publication, “The Twig Benders” survives today only in a few academic archives of feminist history, but it’s uncannily similar to some of the scenes in The Power and a few other feminist fictional texts of the 1970s. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree, and so women writers imagining violence copy the themes of men’s writing. Holt’s work was one of a very small number of feminist stories and novels—a significant, if aberrant, undercurrent in that decades’s placid stream—that explored women’s fantasies of violent resistance and retaliation. In Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), set on the women’s planet Whileaway, a female human-animal hybrid, Alice Jael Reasoner, unleashes her concealed personal power—sharp talons and steel teeth—to kill a Manland invader threatening her with rape. “Was it necessary to go that far?” her friends anxiously inquire. “I don’t give a damn whether it was necessary or not,” Jael replies. “I liked it.”

Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) is one of the classics of 1970s idealist feminist fiction. In her introduction to the 2016 edition, Piercy located the book in the second wave of the women’s movement when “feminist utopias were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have at a time when change felt not only possible but probable.” Her protagonist, Connie Ramos, is a Mexican-American woman from Spanish Harlem who has been confined in a mental hospital much like Bellevue, where, heavily drugged, she has a vision of an egalitarian utopian society of the future. Her real life, however, is a dystopian hell of poverty, abuse, and powerlessness. In the final pages of the novel, waiting on the ward to be lobotomized, Connie puts weedkiller into the staff coffee pot. “I am not sorry, she thought, her heart pounding terribly, and she sat on her bed, waiting.”

Sheel, a Riding Woman in Motherlines by Suzy McKee Charnas (1978), is a tough scout who guards the borderlands between the open plains and the male-ruled Holdfast, which keeps “fems” enslaved and sends warriors out to capture them. “She had killed a total of seven men during a dozen patrols in her lifetime: four from a distance with a bow when she had been sure of her shot, three close-up, bursting from cover on horseback to drive home her hunting lance.” Sheel is one of the rare fighters in feminist dystopian fiction who seems to have succeeded; ultimately, the women are hopeful that the “Holdfast is a dead place and men no danger.” But the reader can’t be sure.

In 2007, the British writer Sarah Hall made feminist counter-violence the theme of her novel Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army). In a post-apocalyptic dystopia set in the far north of England, a small number of women calling themselves Sisters volunteer for a long, excruciating training in guerrilla warfare in order to attack the urban stronghold of the male Authority. In their spartan enclave, Jackie Nixon, their fanatical leader, subjects the women to pain and deprivation in order to make them strong. “What do you think, Sister? Or is that the province of man?” she taunts them. “Are we innately pacifist? A softer sex? Do we have to submit to survive?” The novel was well received in Britain, where it won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and in the science fiction community, where it received the James Tiptree Jr. Award. But in the United States, reviews were mainly negative, and the New Yorker review did not even mention the woman-warrior theme. 

Perhaps a younger generation of feminists has become impatient with the passive female victims of dystopias. Belatedly discussing The Handmaid’s Tale in 2008, Jessa Crispin wondered, “OK, so when do these women start stabbing people?” Now in The Power, the violent feminist dystopia has become a lot more mainstream, and Margaret Atwood is its godmother. At the end of 2011, Naomi Alderman won the opportunity to be mentored by Atwood in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, a competition established in 2002 to “ensure that the world’s artistic heritage is passed on to the next generation.” In one of her most quoted lines, Atwood quipped, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” Alderman takes this epigram seriously. The Power begins with the premise that “much of women’s lives are… circumscribed by the male potential for violence.” Having the ability to kill men, as well as laugh at them, therefore changes both women’s self-image and their opportunities.

Alderman wanted to show readers how women’s lives would be different if they were not afraid. As she told a Literary Hub interviewer, she hoped they would ask themselves:

What would this be like in my life? How would this change things for me? How would it change things for my daughter? How would my work be different? How would my trip back home from the office late at night be different? How would my schooling have been different? How would that encounter I had this morning have been different?

Yet she also forcefully dramatizes the futility of violence, and its inevitable escalation ending in Armageddon.

So why this fantasy now? Alderman is reflecting and channeling the anger of a young generation of feminists who will not forgive, excuse, cover up, and accept male abuse. It’s significant that the Power comes first in adolescence, and that girls make older women aware of it. For decades, there has been a lot of rhetoric about politically-aware third-wave feminists criticizing “naïve” second-wave feminists, and fourth-wave feminist millennials looking down on talky third-wave revisionists. But this round is different.

Women are willing to use their public power to destroy men’s careers, to break up their marriages, even send them to prison. They are not willing to share their power with any man who apologizes and wears a Time’s Up! button. If, as Lindy West wrote recently, “feminism is the collective manifestation of women’s anger,” this feminist wave is a tsunami. Alderman sees herself as part of that wave. “Some of the news has sort of caught up to the book in this very strange way,” she told the Times. “Both have been part of a growing anger over the past decade, which, to me, related to the increasing visibility of certain kinds of misogyny.”

Is The Power the start of a literary trend? It is too soon to tell, for Alderman’s novel also may prove to be an exception to the feminist literary tradition. But the anger is not going away. It seems clear, at least, that no feminist wants to return to Angel Island.

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Hamlet, My Prince of Pigs

What, another Hamlet? There must be a zillion already: Slang Hamlet, First Folio Hamlet, Compressed Hamlet, No Fear Hamlet. Into this field, I toss Hamlet: Prince of Pigs, a Tragicomic. Why a comic? Because comics and plays are twin arts. Both use visual cues as much as words. Both have abrupt breaks between scenes. And their words are mostly dialogue.

Why a pig? In the name “Hamlet,” I hear little ham, little pig. And the pig pun fits! In Shakespeare’s day, if you wanted to mock the king, you’d put on a pig mask. The “swine-snouted king” was a stock figure of fun.

Once Hamlet’s species was set, I hewed to a one-family, one-species rule for the rest of the cast. Thus Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, the murderer, “the bloat king,” is a big fat pig. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is a pig with lipstick. Ophelia is a cat because cats don’t do well in water. So her father, Polonius, and her brother, Laertes, are cats, too. For minor characters, I followed a one-profession, one-species rule. Gravediggers are dogs because dogs are excellent diggers. The players are mice because their play is “The Mousetrap.” The sentries, including Horatio, are rats because, well, rats look handsome in helmets.

You’ll see that Hamlet: Prince of Pigs has been stripped of all fat. And tragedy minus many words is comedy. A pared-down Hamlet is a funny Hamlet. Here are a few scenes from my tragicomic.

Hamlet & The Ghost

Hamlet & Ophelia

Hamlet & the Players

Hamlet & his Mother

Hamlet & Laertes


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Bauhaus in Mexico

The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkJosef Albers: To Mitla, 1940

Not long after their arrival to the United States, the Bauhaus instructors Josef and Anni Albers went looking for America and found it… in Mexico.

Driven from Germany when the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, the Alberses accepted invitations to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina; beginning in 1935 and over the next thirty-two years, they made some fourteen road trips to Mexico, visiting, revisiting, and documenting pre-Columbian ruins at Monte Albán, Mitla, and Uxmal among other sites, some of which were in the process of excavation, while also taking note of traditional adobe buildings.

Tucked into the Guggenheim Museum’s Tannhauser Gallery, the exhibition “Josef Albers in Mexico” makes Albers’s appreciation evident, juxtaposing his studies, typically drawn on graph paper, with both his finished artwork (mostly paintings, one lithograph) and his fastidious arrangements of tiny on-site photographs. Serially organized in irregular grids, and sometimes including picture postcards, these photo-collages (never previously exhibited) appear to be Albers’s means of assimilating what he saw. By breaking down architecture and façades into basic patterns, they also provide a way to analyze his art. (In her contribution to the exhibition catalog, the show’s curator, Lauren Hinkson, suggests that “the iterative logic of the camera” may have been as influential as the buildings themselves.)

The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkJosef Albers: Untitled (Mitla, Mexico), 1956

The show’s pedagogical aspect is appropriate, given Albers’s distinguished career as a teacher at the Bauhaus, at Black Mountain (where students included Robert Rauschenberg, Ray Johnson, and Cy Twombly), and finally at Yale (where the eccentric minimalist Eva Hesse and the psychedelic poster artist Victor Moscoso were star pupils). But the work here is also very beautiful—not least in its economy. Frugality was part of the Albers aesthetic. The modestly-sized works have ample room to breathe.

The welcoming view of the subtly four-colored Variant/Adobe, Orange Front (1948–1958) has a checkerboard structure seemingly inspired by the window-in-wall architecture of Mexican pueblos. (It also suggests an architectural drawing of two pyramids from an aerial perspective, and was a form sometimes seen on Mexican rugs.) Made between 1946 and 1966, using a set range of compositions and formal elements, the 250 Variant/Adobe paintings and drawings presage Albers’s larger and better-known Homage to the Square works, which, according to some, also arose from an interest in vernacular adobe façades.

Some Viriant/Adobe paintings are austerely festive. The deep green, rich brown patchwork of Tierra Verde (1940) evokes the Mexican landscape as it might appear from a great height. The same year’s To Mitla is an amazingly gemütlich crypto-pueblo that—with a cluster of deep red, maroon, and purple rectangles clustered between a baby blue “sky” and the chartreuse earth—would be colorful even by Mexican standards. Adding hot pink to Albers’s palette, Memento (1943) is still more vibrant.

Albers’s photographs of carved stone façades and symmetrical courtyards pay homage less to the square than to the genius of Mayan or Zapotec engineering—as well as the power of strong diagonals. Mexico provided Albers with an alternate classical tradition. The show includes several rigorous line studies clearly inspired by the ziggurats of Monte Albán and Chichén Itzá. Compared to his best-known work, Albers’s early geometric abstractions and many of the Mexican paintings are distinctly free-form (some, from the 1930s, might be described as jazzy), and are frequently concerned with the representation of three-dimensional space. By 1950, Albers is concentrating almost entirely on flatness, rectangles, and the interaction of different colors.

The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkAnni Albers: Untitled (Josef Albers, Mitla, Mexico), 1935–1939; click to enlarge

Albers’s oil on Masonite paintings, whose dimensions rarely exceed (or even reach) two feet by two feet, are both arrogant and unassuming in their simplicity. As anti-expressive as they are, the artist’s hand is nonetheless detectable; some contemporaries, like the hyper-fastidious minimalist Donald Judd, otherwise one of Albers’s champions, found them “slightly too loose and painterly.” Others considered them inconsequential, as Harold Rosenberg appeared to suggest in a Partisan Review interview with the sociologist Melvin Tumin, in which he compared Albers’s aims with those of Barnett Newman. Allowing that both men were excellent painters, Rosenberg explained that the heroic Newman “is involved with the question of the absolute in relation to man,” while Albers, perhaps too corny for Rosenberg to take altogether seriously, “is involved with color relations.” (Albers, who saw his art as “spiritual creation,” once sent word to Rosenberg that angst was overrated.)

Newman, whose most confrontational work (even inspiring physical defacement) is the series of four large-scale paintings titled “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue,” sought to produce awe-inspiring icons. With some 2,000 versions of Homage to the Square, Albers mass-produced by artisanal means modest objects of contemplation that are closer to mandalas (which is perhaps how his disciple Moscoso came to see them) than paintings. I would like to think that, as well as working on what seemed to him an inexhaustible set of circumscribed variables, Albers was inspired by American democracy and a utopian belief that everybody might have an Homage to ponder on the wall. (In fact, Albers’s squares were imitated as a panel design for mid-Sixties dress fabrics, but that’s another story.)

The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkJosef Albers: Study for Homage to the Square: Consent, 1971

It’s touching to find one of the Albers’ Pemex Road maps of Mexico in a vitrine, alongside a guidebook and some of the postcards they sent to friends. And as invigorating as it is to see a half-dozen iterations of Homage to the Square occupying one gallery of “Josef Albers in Mexico,” it is disconcerting that the Guggenheim show omits any trace of Anni Albers (aside from a few photographs of her), even though she accompanied her husband on every one of his trips to Mexico and produced work that, like his, was clearly inspired by what they saw.

A weaver rather than a painter, Anni Albers was an established artist in her own right with a solo show at MoMA in 1949; and her work is elsewhere currently enjoying a revival of interest—in his New Art City, Jed Perl describes her as “the greatest weaver of the [twentieth] century.” It’s confounding, then, not to see even the one example of her “pictorial weaving” reproduced in the exhibition catalog. It seems improbable that the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation would have wished to withhold her work. In the absence of any explanation, her erasure from this otherwise magnificent show smacks of sexism, or snobbery, or both.

The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkJosef Albers: Untitled (Great Pyramid, Tenayuca, Mexico), circa 1940

“Josef Albers in Mexico” is at the Guggenheim through March 28.

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Rulfo: Immortal Scribe of the Dead

Schiffer-Fuchs/ullstein bild via Getty ImagesJuan Rulfo in 1985

How to explain that the centenary of the man who was arguably Mexico’s greatest writer passed last year with barely a notice in the United States?

Juan Rulfo (1917–1986), rightly revered in Mexico and outside, is regarded as one of the most influential Latin American writers of all time. In the United States, too, he has been hailed, in The New York Times Book Review, as one of the “immortals,” and acclaimed by Susan Sontag as a “master storyteller” responsible for “one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century world literature.”

One reason for the surprising neglect of Rulfo today may be that his reputation rested on a slender harvest of work, essentially on two books that appeared in the 1950s. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that with the magnificent short stories of El Llano en Llamas (1953) and, above all, with his 1955 novel Pedro Páramo, set in the fictional town of Comala, Rulfo changed the course of Latin American fiction. Though his entire published work did not amount to much more than three hundred pages, “those are almost as many, and I believe as durable,” Gabriel García Márquez said, “as the pages that have come down to us from Sophocles.” Without Rulfo’s groundbreaking work, which blended the regional realism and social critique then in vogue with high-modernist experimentation, it is hard to imagine that Márquez could have composed One Hundred Years of Solitude. Nor, probably, would we possess the marvels created by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rosario Castellanos, José María Arguedas, Elena Poniatowska, Juan Carlos Onetti, Sergio Ramírez, Antonio di Benedetto, or younger writers such as Roberto Bolaño, Carmen Boullosa, Juan Villoro, or Juan Gabriel Vásquez, among others.

What beguiled all these authors was Rulfo’s uncanny ability to give a lyrical majesty and distinct rhythm to the terse colloquial speech of the poorest Mexican peasants. That achievement may also explain why Rulfo is less esteemed in North America today, for it led to a literary style that was, alas, difficult to translate; the English versions of his work rarely preserve the magic of the Spanish original.

Another reason for Rulfo’s being overlooked may have been his own reticence and publicity-shyness, a refusal to play the celebrity game. Rulfo cultivated silence to a degree that became legendary. My friend Antonio Skármeta, the renowned author of Il Postino, told me that when he was about to be interviewed for a TV show one day in Buenos Aires, he saw Jorge Luis Borges and Rulfo coming out of the studio. “How did it go, maestro?” Skármeta asked Borges. “Very well indeed,” Borges replied. “I talked and talked and once in a while Rulfo intervened with a moment of silence.” Rulfo himself simply nodded at this account of his conduct, confirming the discomfort he felt at putting himself on display.

In the few interviews he gave, Rulfo attributed his reluctance to speak to the customs and reserve of the inhabitants of Jalisco, where he grew up—though other factors, such as the unresolved traumas of the author’s childhood, cannot be discounted. Jalisco, a vast region in western Mexico, has been the scene of an almost endless series of clashes and uprisings. Rulfo would carry with him all his life images of the carnage that followed the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Between 1926 and 1929, the young Juan witnessed the abiding fratricidal violence of his country, specifically of La Cristíada, the Cristero War. That popular revolt, an insurrection of the rural masses that was aided by the Catholic Church, began after the revolutionary government decided to secularize the country and persecute priests. (Readers may recall these events as the setting for Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.) Jalisco was at the very center of the conflict, and the frequent military raids, volleys of shots, and screams kept the young Rulfo shut inside his family’s house for days at a time. Outside, men without shoes were dragged before firing squads, prisoners were strung up and hanged, neighbors were abducted, and the smell of burning ranches singed the air.

The terror was compounded when Rulfo’s own father, like the father of Pedro in Pedro Páramo, was murdered over a land dispute. A grandfather, several uncles, and distant relatives were also killed. Then Rulfo’s mother died, supposedly of a broken heart. In the midst of this mayhem, the future author found solace in books. When the local priest went off to join the Cristero rebels, he left his library—full of books the Catholic Index had forbidden—with the Rulfo family, paradoxically providing a vocation for a boy who would grow up to write about characters who felt abandoned by God, whose faith had been betrayed. Rulfo must have understood, somehow, during those years of dread, that reading—and perhaps, someday, writing—could be a form of salvation. Inspired by the ways that Knut Hamsun, Selma Lagerlöf, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and William Faulkner had given expression to the people of the marginalized backwaters of their homelands, he found the means to describe the terror he had endured in the stories collected in El Llano en Llamas.

In these gems of fiction that English-language readers can enjoy in a recent, vivid translation by Ilan Stavans with Harold Augenbraum, Rulfo immortalized the derelict campesinos whom the Mexican revolution had promised to liberate but whose lives remained dismally unchanged. The men and women he described have been wedged into my memory for decades. Who could forget that group of peasants trekking through the desert to a useless plot of land the government had granted them? Or that bragging, drunken, fornicating functionary whose visit bankrupts an already starving pueblo? Or the idiot Macario, who kills frogs in order to eat them? Or the father who carries his dying son on his back, all the while reproaching him for the crimes by which the son has dishonored his lineage?

Crimes haunt most of these characters. A bandolero is tracked down for hour after hour along a dry riverbed by unknown pursuers. A prisoner pleads for his life, unaware that the colonel who commands the firing squad is the son of a man whom the prisoner killed forty years earlier. An old curandero (or healer) is corralled by a coven of women in black, bent on forcing him to confess to his many sexual transgressions against them. But, as always in Rulfo, the greatest crime of all is the destruction of hope, the orphaning of communities like the forsaken town of Luvina:

People in Luvina say dreams rise out of those ravines; but the only thing I ever saw rise up from there was the wind, whirling, as if it had been imprisoned down below in reed pipes. A wind that doesn’t even let the bittersweet grow: those sad little plants can barely live, holding on for all they’re worth to the side of the cliffs in those hills, as if they were smeared onto the earth. Only at times, where there’s a little shade, hidden among the rocks, can the chicalote bloom with its white poppies. But the chicalote soon withers. Then one hears it scratching the air with its thorny branches, making a noise like a knife on a whetstone.

This description not only gives us a distant taste of Rulfo’s style, but is also a metaphor for how he envisions his invented creatures: smears on the earth, hidden among the rocks, scratching the air in the hope that they will be heard—though it is only a remote, timid writer who listens and affords them the brief dignity of expression before they vanish forever. The bleak world depicted in Rulfo’s stories was on the verge of disappearing in the mid-1950s, with the migration of peasants to the cities and, from there, on to El Norte—victims and protagonists in a global trend that John Berger, for one, so movingly explored in his novels and essays. To read Rulfo in our times, when so many refugees pour out of Central America fleeing violence and thousands of lives are lost in Mexico’s ongoing drug wars, is to become painfully aware of the kind of conditions from which those people are escaping. Migrants who leave their own infernal Comala behind still carry inside its memories and dreams, its whispers and rancors, as they cross borders and settle into new streets. Rulfo’s fiction reminds us of why El Día de los Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead, is more important today than ever as a link to the ancestors who keep demanding a scrap of voicehood among the living.

My own immersion in the hallucinatory world of Pedro Páramo and its evocation of the realm of the dead may illustrate how strongly Rulfo’s fiction affected Latin Americans and, particularly, the continent’s intellectuals. I first read Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo in 1961, when I was nineteen and studying comparative literature at the University of Chile; I was so mesmerized by it that, as soon as I finished, I started to read it over again. Years later, during a lunch with García Márquez at his house in Barcelona, he related that his encounter with Rulfo had been similar to mine. He had devoured Pedro Páramo, reading it twice during one long, enraptured night in Mexico City.

From its opening lines, the novel takes the reader on a mythical quest: its narrator, Juan Preciado, has promised his dying mother that he will travel to his birthplace, Comala, and find his father, “a man named Pedro Páramo,” who had sent the mother and her newborn child away and must now be made to pay for that betrayal. That journey, related in concise, poetic fragments, turns out to be even more disquieting than expected. Abundio, the muleteer who guides Juan down into the valley of Comala, acts strangely, suggesting that nobody has visited this place in a long time and that he, too, is a son of Pedro Páramo. The town itself, far from being the lush paradise of greenery that “smells like spilled honey” evoked by Juan’s mother, is miserable and mostly deserted. The only resident is an old woman, who gives the traveler lodging. Although nobody else appears in those parched streets, Juan hears voices that ebb and flow in the oppressive heat of a tormented night, phantom murmurs so stifling that they kill him. 

As Juan descends into an eternal realm populated with the ghosts that suffocated him, the reader pieces together the parallel story of his father: how Pedro Páramo rose from the dust of a disadvantaged, backward childhood to become a caudillo whose toxic power destroys his own offspring and the woman he loves, finally turning the town he dominates into a burial ground swarming with vengeful specters. Juan himself, we gradually realize, has been dead from the start of his narration of these events. He is telling his tale from a coffin he shares with the woman who used to be his nanny and wanted to be his mother; we are struck with the petrifying knowledge that they will lie there forever in that morbid embrace, alongside the corpses of others whose lives have been snuffed out by this demonic caudillo.

Pedro Páramo realized as a child, after his own father was murdered, that you are either “somebody” in that valley, or it is as though you have never existed. If he was to thrive in turbulent times, he had to deny breath and joy to everyone else. We meet his victims: the many women he bedded and abandoned, the sons he scattered like stones in the desert, the priest he corrupted, the rivals he killed and whose land he stole, the revolutionaries and bandits he bought off and manipulated. Of particular significance are a couple, a brother and sister living in incestuous sin, their inability to conceive a child symbolizing the sterility to which Pedro Páramo has condemned Comala. Unlike Telemachus in The Odyssey, Juan is never reunited with his father, only finding the inferno that his father, like a fiendish demiurge, has created and ruined, a world made with such cruelty and mercilessness that there is only room for one person to thrive.

Televisa, S. A. MexicoManuel Ojeda in the title role of José Bolaños’s 1978 film adaptation of Pedro Páramo

Behind Pedro’s ascendancy there is more than merely greed and a will to power. He has accumulated money and land and henchmen so that he may, like a Satanic Gatsby, some day possess Susana San Juan, the girl he dreamed of when he was a boy with no prospects. But Susana, now a grown woman, has gone mad, and her erotic delusions have carried her beyond Pedro’s reach. The reader, along with the ghosts of the town, have access to her voice, but not the husband who has sold his soul to make her his bride. Nor can Pedro control the destiny of the only other human being he loves: Juan’s half-brother, Miguel Páramo, the spitting image of his progenitor, callous toward men and abusive of women, who is thrown from his horse while jumping over the walls his father erected to protect his land from poachers. Instead of inheriting Pedro’s domains, Miguel joins the souls who wander the earth in search of an absolution that never arrives. Pedro himself is killed by his illegitimate child, Abundio. The novel ends with the death of the despot, who “collapses like a pile of rocks.”

Pedro Páramo is a cautionary tale, one that should resonate in our own era of brutal strongmen and rapacious billionaires. According to the wishful fantasies in Rulfo’s imagination, all the power and wealth that the predators of his day have accumulated cannot save them from the plagues of loneliness and sorrow. Many Latin American authors later emulated Rulfo’s vision of the domineering macho figure who terrorizes and corrupts nations. Faced with the seeming impossibility of changing the destiny of their unfortunate countries, writers at least could vicariously punish the tormentors of their people in what became known as “novels of the dictator.”

What made Rulfo exceptional, a fountainhead for so much literature that was to follow, was his realization that to tell this tale of chaos, devastation, and solitude, traditional narrative forms were insufficient, that it was necessary to shake the foundations of story-telling itself. Though modernity was denied to his characters, isolated from progress by the tyrant of his tale, Rulfo expressed the plight through an aesthetic shaped by the avant-garde art of the first half of the twentieth century. This twisting of categories and structure was indispensable for him to express how a Comala that dreamed of beauty and justice, a place pregnant with hope, could be transformed into a bitter, confusing graveyard. What other way was there to portray the disorder of death? Linear, chronological time does not exist in death, nor in the deranged psyches of those who live as if they had already died. From the perspective of the afterlife, everything is simultaneous, everything has already happened, everything will happen perpetually in the restless minds of the ghosts. Rulfo’s technique of scrambling time and place, this and that voice, his characters’ inner and outer landscapes, imposes on the reader a feeling of helpless anxiety akin to the anomie the specters themselves suffer.

Today, we live in a world where the version of an encounter with the dead that confronts us occurs in a very different form than the one that Rulfo described in his work. Last year’s hit Pixar movie, Coco, celebrated the cultural heritage of the Mexican tradition of El Día de los Muertos with humor and a heartwarming message. In Pedro Páramo, the young man who ventures into the Land of the Dead in search of his origins does not return, as Miguel Rivera does in the Disney film, with a song of optimism and redemption. The purveyors of mass entertainment are certainly aware that most audiences would rather not be fed tales of anguish and despondency. Who can blame moviegoers for preferring happy endings instead of terrifying ghosts murmuring from their tombs that there is no hope?

But life is not a movie, and life always ends in death. Rulfo posed vital questions about the dead and how we can grasp their departure without succumbing to despair. When Latin Americans first read the novel, they were enthralled by it. While each wisp of a scene is presented with the minute implacability of matter-of-fact realism, like a series of images captured by a camera, the cumulative effect is to give a tortured, transcendent, trance-like allegory of a country, of a continent, of the human condition. Such an extraordinary feat of the imagination would be impossible had it not been for Rulfo’s remarkable prose, incantatory yet restrained. Against the grain of the baroque, overwrought style that had seemed to define Latin American literature, each word emerges as if extracted from the soil, leaving readers to apprehend what is held back, to divine the vast unspoken world of extinction, the final silence that awaits us all. Juan Rulfo spoke so eloquently not just for the dead, but for those among us who never really had the chance to live.

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In the Cauldron at Midnight

Münchner Stadtmuseum/bpk/Art Resource; Art © Robert and Gail Rentzer for Estate of Morris Hirshfield/Licensed by VAGA, New York; Art (Ernst): © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, ParisLeonora Carrington with André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst, New York City, 1942; photograph by Hermann Landshoff. At center is Morris Hirshfield’s painting Nude at the Window (1941).

One morning in Mexico City in 1991, the English Surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington and the art historian Whitney Chadwick set off for the Mercado de Sonora, a traditional market in a rough part of town that is also known as a mercado de brujería, or witches’ market. “It is here that the shamans and the curanderas [folk healers] find their supplies,” Carrington explained. After showing Chadwick various healing herbs and miracle cures, Carrington found what she’d been seeking: “one of the best-known curanderas.” They negotiated the price with an attendant, and Chadwick was led alone through a torn curtain to a woman on a low stool with long braids and penetrating dark eyes. “I stood paralyzed,” Chadwick recalled, “remembering stories my uncles had once told of foxes that hypnotized cats by swaying in front of them. I grew more nervous as the seconds passed.” Then she heard a commotion behind her, the curtain parted, and Carrington gripped her arm: “‘Don’t do it,’ she whispered, ‘Don’t do it. This woman works with black magic. She will kill frogs on your body and use the blood. Run!’” Chadwick stood transfixed until Carrington pulled her away, and they fled the market.

This incredible story is not from Chadwick’s latest book, Farewell to the Muse, but from a talk—a “memory piece,” as she described it—that she delivered in Mexico City in April 2017 at the centenary celebrations for Carrington, who died in 2011 at the age of ninety-four. She and Carrington had been friends since the early 1980s, when Chadwick was among the earliest scholars to seek out the more-or-less forgotten women of the Surrealist movement. In fact, one of the rich pleasures of reading this first generation of Carrington scholars—among them Marina Warner, Gloria Orenstein, and Susan Aberth, who wrote the first biography of Carrington—is that they knew her (and often related artists, such as Leonor Fini) for years. We need memoirs from these pioneers.

Chadwick does allow herself one significant anecdote in the introduction to Farewell to the Muse. In 1982, the painter Roland Penrose showed her his remarkable art collection at Farley Farm House, East Sussex. When he learned she was planning to write about the female Surrealists, he shook his head: “‘You shouldn’t write a book about the women,’ he said…. ‘They weren’t artists.’” Chadwick probably glanced around the room at this point, having just seen the work he owned by his two wives, the French poet and collagist Valentine Penrose and the American photographer Lee Miller. “‘Of course the women were important,’ he continued, ‘but it was because they were our muses.’”

The vexed issue of muses undermines the revolutionary program of international Surrealism: the rejection of the rational and of all the oppressive institutions and bourgeois norms that, André Breton and others argued, had led to the ravages of World War I. In place of the military, the family, and the church, Surrealists would celebrate the imagination, sexual liberty, and the promptings of the unconscious. In his first Surrealist Manifesto, Breton called for an art of “psychic automatism” that would record “thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, apart from any moral or aesthetic concerns.” Women were exalted as conduits to these chthonic realms. In the process, Breton and his followers created a mythology out of the way pretty women made them feel.

“Man defines woman not as herself but as relative to him,” observed Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949). Among the writers she skewered, she could have included the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, whose 1924 poem “L’Amoureuse” throws his image over his wife Gala’s like a coat: “She has the shape of my hands, she has the color of my eyes, she is engulfed in my shadow.” But Beauvoir went straight for Breton. The ideal woman of Breton’s poetry, she wrote, “casts the same spell as the equivocal objects loved by the surrealists: she is like the spoon-shoe, the table-magnifying glass, the sugar cube of marble that the poet discovers at the flea market or invents in a dream.” Equating Beauty with Woman relegates women to a land of toys. The Second Sex sold 22,000 copies in its first week alone, and Beauvoir’s analysis of Breton fueled decades of feminist revisions of Surrealism. When Beauvoir criticizes you, you stay criticized.

Can a woman be a muse and an artist? In theory, yes. In practice, the roles seldom overlap comfortably. “All that means is you’re someone else’s object,” as Carrington put it. Although her early self-portrait, The Inn of the Dawn Horse (1937–1938), conveys an exhilarating self-confidence through both the central figure and the animal surrogates around her, especially the galloping white horse, her Portrait of Max Ernst (1939), which depicts the German Surrealist as his alter ego, Loplop, the Bird Superior, bears a mixed message: he carries a tiny horse trapped in a lantern, and the white horse behind him is frozen stiff.

Lee Miller left Man Ray in part due to a dispute over the attribution of their collaborative art. After Breton’s wife Jacqueline Lamba gave birth to their daughter, she struggled with her husband for time to paint. “The women surrealists were considered secondary to the male,” Carrington told an interviewer. Women artists regularly exhibited with the Surrealists, and their art was taken seriously within the Paris group. Breton actively promoted Frida Kahlo’s work. But one can sense the male Surrealists’ ambivalence in watching young and beautiful women develop into mature artists, for example in Max Ernst’s condescending praise of his ex-lover Méret Oppenheim’s legendary Object (1936): “Who covers a soup spoon with luxurious fur? Little Méret. Who has outgrown us? Little Méret.”1

Women were not included in Breton’s promotional group photos of the Surrealist artists, and they are barely mentioned—except as models and muses—in the early histories of the movement. The female Surrealists in all their variety were reduced to one story: the beautiful femme-enfant who nurtures male creativity. “We know more about Kiki of Montparnasse and Nadja than we do of Lee Miller and Valentine Hugo [Penrose],” Chadwick remarked in her Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (1985). After thirty years of feminist reappraisals, and as a result of Antony Penrose’s discovery and release of his mother’s photographic archive, we now know more about Lee Miller than about Breton’s Nadja.

While Chadwick included a chapter on women as muses in Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, only later did she become “fully aware of the fundamental incompatibility of the roles of beguiling muse and committed professional artist.” As Lee Miller said, “I’d rather take a picture than be one.” Carrington threw cold water on the whole romantic notion. “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse,” she told Chadwick. “I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”

Hence Farewell to the Muse, which follows five pairs of women artists from the late 1930s through World War II—no longer the muses or femmes-enfants of Surrealist legend, but creators in their own right. Chadwick’s fascinating account of Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe’s wartime resistance on the German-occupied island of Jersey quickens the pulse even seventy years later. Although other Surrealists, like Paul and Nusch Éluard, engaged in subversive activities in France during the Occupation, these two middle-aged French lesbians in poor health elevated resistance to an art form, risking their lives in a small, isolated community in which even the natives had not quite accepted them. The women created collaged texts, leaflets, and banners in German to “sow doubt in the minds of German soldiers.” Some of their messages (left in cigarette boxes for soldiers to find) were so oblique as to seem surreal: “Ohne Ende” (Without End) read one, alluding to a Nazi pre-war slogan, “Terror without end or an end to terror.” They evaded discovery until near the end of the war, when they were arrested, held in solitary confinement, and condemned to death. In February 1945, the German High Command granted them a reprieve from execution. They were reunited in prison, where they organized a clandestine postal system among prisoners and made nuisances of themselves until the Occupation ended.

Unlike the creative partnerships Chadwick explored in Significant Others (1993), those in Farewell are enlightening but not always inevitable pairings. Frida Kahlo and Jacqueline Lamba Breton, for example, were drawn to each other when they met in Mexico in 1938—during the four-month trip in which André Breton famously remarked that Mexico was “the Surrealist place par excellence”—but their relationship was characterized more by absence than presence. Kahlo’s passionate farewell letter after one parting is undercut by her failure to send it.

Similarly, Lee Miller and Valentine Penrose were linked chiefly through Roland Penrose, the painter-turned-champion of Surrealist art, who divorced Valentine to be with Lee. The three of them lived together at times, and Roland continued to support Valentine financially, but Lee’s artistic career essentially ended with the war. She and Valentine did not share imagery or inspire each other or study together.

Chadwick’s chapter on Carrington and the Argentine-born painter and designer Leonor Fini springs from her access to a fantastic trove of newly discovered letters between the friends. Found in Fini’s Paris studio by the executor of her estate, they offer an account of the dark prelude to Carrington’s mental breakdown—as described in her memoir, Down Below (first published in 1944)—beginning in 1939 when her lover, Max Ernst, was jailed by the French as an enemy alien. Later, after the Germans invaded, he was jailed again as a degenerate artist. Carrington was left alone among suspicious villagers in Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche, writing everyone she knew, frantically trying to free him. “I thought I knew the story behind these letters,” Chadwick writes, but the letters themselves had a

rare and raw immediacy. Written almost day by day with the urgency of one fighting to remain sane, they had the feel of a diary or a personal journal. Addressed to a dear friend by a narrator who is isolated, terrified and enraged, they are both descriptive and intimate…. The world they describe is neither that of the surrealists in Paris, nor one in which women propel the male imagination. Instead they delineate a harrowing mental universe that parallels and intersects with a real world.

Born in Lancashire in 1917 to a wealthy industrialist and his Irish wife, Carrington was fed ghost stories and Irish folklore from the cradle, and raised in a gothic mansion called Crookhey Hall. Considered a wild child, she was expelled from two convent schools for failing to “collaborate with either work or play,” and also for trying to learn to levitate. At her father’s insistence, she was presented at the court of King George V and made to endure a ball in her honor, later unleashing her resentment about the experience in what is probably her best-known story, “The Debutante.” When her father at last consented to art school, she studied in Florence and then at the Cubist Amédée Ozenfant’s new school in London. A fellow student brought her to a dinner party where Max Ernst corked her overflowing beer bottle with his finger—in this case, the perfect gesture.

Even before she met him, Carrington had been swept away by Ernst’s assemblage Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, featured in Herbert Read’s influential early study Surrealism (1936), and also the work Ernst showed at London’s 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition. She recalled “a burning inside” when she first saw his art: “You know how when something really touches you, it feels like burning.”

Ernst was married and forty-six. Carrington was nineteen. When he left for Paris, she followed, “and stayed and stayed.” Carrington would not return to England for fifteen years. Although her chapter is called “The Two Leonors,” one can’t blame Chadwick for lingering on the three-year Ernst/Carrington love affair: the books and art they produced at their farmhouse in the Ardèche, the photographs Lee Miller took of the lovers—Leonora concocting something in her kitchen (like her notorious prank omelet with hair clippings), Max shielding her bare breasts with his hands as she sunbathed, her ever-present cigarette in the foreground.

Leonora Carrington/Private Collection/Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images/© 2018 Estate of Leonora Carrington/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkLeonora Carrington: A Warning to Mother, 1973

The horse-human hybrids Carrington painted on the interior walls of their house made their way into the collage Ernst produced to illustrate her first published story, “The House of Fear,” written in French in 1937 and published the following year. Many of the later elements of her fiction appear in this story. Her nameless heroine is invited to a secret party of horses, presided over by “the mistress of the house—Fear. She looked slightly like a horse, but was much uglier. Her dressing gown was made of live bats sewn together by their wings: the way they fluttered, one would have thought they didn’t much like it.”

Like the Bloomsbury Group and the Beats, the Surrealists could be incestuous, choosing lovers from inside the circle and often remaining close to their exes. When Ernst and Carrington reached Paris, he introduced her to Leonor Fini, his friend and former lover. Tall, dazzling, and bejeweled, Fini cultivated a baroque theatricality; every day with her was a masked ball. Recognizing Carrington as “a revolutionary,” she claimed her as an astrological twin—a feat possible only because Fini lied about her age. “This chronological charade, combined with later cosmetic surgeries, sustained the image of youth and beauty that remained vital to Leonor’s self-image, the sexuality and her sense of her place in the world,” writes Chadwick:

Imperious and mercurial, she was also generous, loving and happy to share her rich intellectual life with the younger woman she considered her double. Like Leonora, she believed that cats possessed highly developed psychic powers, that horses had mythological powers that identified them with the feminine, and that painting was an alchemical process.

While Ernst relished Carrington’s youth, Fini included a full-length portrait of her as a breast-plated warrior in her painting The Alcove: An Interior with Three Figures.

Richard Overstreet/Leonor Fini Estate, ParisLeonor Fini: The Alcove: An Interior with Three Figures, 1939; from Whitney Chadwick’s Farewell to the Muse. The figure standing at left is Leonora Carrington, while Fini herself sits on the bed at far right.

After a riotous visit to Ernst and Carrington in the summer of 1939, Fini left in a huff after slashing all but the face of a portrait of Carrington she’d begun. By the time the contretemps passed and the friends renewed their correspondence, Ernst had been arrested, and the lovers’ idyll was over. Carrington’s mind was unhinged.

For a long time, the factual accuracy of Carrington’s memoir of madness, Down Below, was in question. It has been republished by New York Review Books, with a sparkling new introduction by Marina Warner, and I won’t spoil its revelations here. Suffice it to say that the letters to Fini confirm Carrington’s account up to Ernst’s second imprisonment, and recent research confirms many seemingly outlandish details of her confinement “for incurable insanity” at Sanatorio Morales in Santander, Spain, and her brutal treatment with convulsive drugs. (One of two surviving sketchbooks from 1940—during Carrington’s internment at Santander—recently surfaced and was offered for sale by Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art in New York City.)

The first version of Down Below, written soon after her arrival in New York in 1941, was lost, and Carrington reconstructed her story (in French) at the request of a friend. That manuscript was translated back into English for its 1944 publication in the Surrealist journal VVV. She had been reading her friend Pierre Mabille’s book Mirror of the Marvelous (1940), and drew from it a useful and healing symbolic framework for her suffering, a language for the numinous correspondences she had observed during her breakdown.

Carrington’s deepening interest in esoteric knowledge and traditions, such as alchemy and the tarot—a fascination she’d shared with the Surrealists—would now be encouraged by a new partner, the Mexican diplomat Renato Leduc. An acquaintance she had met through Picasso, Leduc saved her life by marrying her and getting her out of Europe after she escaped from her nurse’s custody. When she ran into Ernst by chance in a Lisbon market in 1941, he was already involved with Peggy Guggenheim. They had each found their separate rescuers. Carrington’s paintings and stories of the early 1940s (such as “Waiting,” included in the new collected stories) show her grieving this loss, and attempting to wrest artistic and emotional autonomy from Ernst while not diminishing their shared past.

After spending most of the war in New York, Carrington and Leduc moved to Mexico, where he took her to meet curanderas and shamans. They joined a teeming refugee community of artists and writers benefiting from Mexico’s remarkable open-door policy for those fleeing European fascism. After her amicable parting from Leduc, she married Emerico (“Chiki”) Weisz, wonderfully described by her friend Chloe Aridjis as a “Hungarian photographer to whom Leonora was married for over fifty years, largely in silence.” They had two sons. Her friendship with the painter Remedios Varo and the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna (dubbed “those European bitches” by Frida Kahlo) was explored in “Surreal Friends,” a 2010 exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. Kahlo’s epithet would have been a livelier title.

Not long after settling in Mexico City, Carrington met the English collector and eccentric Edward James, who helped secure her first solo exhibition at Pierre Matisse’s Gallery in New York in 1947 and left us the most-quoted comment on Carrington’s art: “The paintings of Leonora Carrington are not merely painted. They are brewed. They sometimes seem to have materialized in a cauldron at the stroke of midnight.” In Mexico, Carrington’s visionary art, with its animal hybrids, kabbalistic symbols, and references to world mythologies, found an avid audience. Although she left the country after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre of student protesters, she returned and helped found Mexico’s women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. Long before her death, she had become the most famous living artist in Mexico.

“She hated art historians,” her biographer Susan Aberth recalls. Carrington deplored both the obsessive interest in her years with Max Ernst and the expectation that she would explain her art. Asked what a painting meant, she was likely to reply, “What does it mean to you?” A young cousin from England, the journalist Joanna Moorhead, sought her out in the last years of her life (and has published a new biography of her, The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington2), but Carrington resisted explaining the sources of her art: “You’re trying to intellectualize something, desperately, and you’re wasting your time. That’s not a way of understanding…. It’s a visual world. You want to turn things into a kind of intellectual game.”

Yet the game persists. We can’t see her art only with our feelings, as Carrington had hoped, especially when we are aware of its autobiographical content. (She told Moorhead that “every piece of writing she ever did was autobiographical.”) Most recently, Aberth has been exploring what she calls “invocation paintings,” those works that go beyond depictions of magic circles or otherworldly creatures and that seem part of Carrington’s ritual occult practices: witchcraft, basically. “Carrington’s work is so layered and complicated that I often project it onto the wall and now with the computer I can enlarge it, flip it backwards or upside down, and for you who know her work, that is often necessary,” Aberth explained at the centenary celebration in Mexico. Close examination of Carrington’s painting Sachiel, Angel of Thursday (1967) revealed the angel’s sigil, a special sign to call him forth: “This painting then is not a passive representation but a dynamic invocation.” The director and spiritual teacher Alejandro Jodorowsky and an American friend of Carrington’s, Rita Pomade, have each written about their spiritual apprenticeships to her, which sound like magical journeys inside her paintings: fantastic and dangerous, with blood rites and dream visitations.

In the past few years, Carrington has been included in at least five major exhibitions of female Surrealists—most recently, the White Cube’s powerful show in the summer of 2017, “Dreamers Awake.” Her sculptures can often be seen around Mexico; How Doth the Little Crocodile (based on an earlier painting of the same name) is on permanent display along the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. Her stories, most written originally in French, have been brought together for the first time in The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington: these, too, bubbled up from the cauldron, full of animal stinks, cruel and grotesque meals, and the looming, punitive father-figure, rendered with what Marina Warner memorably called Carrington’s “deadpan perversity.” (In one story, she names a convent “Jesus’s Little Smile of Anguish.”) The narrator of “The Debutante” convinces a hyena to take her place at her dreaded coming-out ball, but the hyena sensibly points out that they don’t look enough alike: she will have to kill the narrator’s maid and wear her face to the ball. “Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off her face,” the narrator replies. “It’ll hurt too much otherwise.” And, of course, the maid’s body must be disposed of, too:

When Mary came in I turned to the wall so as not to see. I must admit it didn’t take long. A brief cry, and it was over. While the hyena was eating, I looked out the window. A few minutes later she said, “I can’t eat any more. Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.”

A small notebook of Carrington’s drawings and absurd stories for children, titled The Milk of Dreams, was published in 2013.3 Some tales are in the mischievous vein of Hilaire Belloc, but without even an ironic moral. In “The Gelatin and the Vulture,” a girl’s parents fail to notice that a vulture has fallen into their dessert and been solidified. In “The Nasty Story of the Camomile Tea,” a boy pees out his window on passersby until an elephant and a horse enter his room and return the favor.

Carrington’s long-overdue 2015 retrospective at Tate Liverpool, co-curated by the Mexican novelist Chloe Aridjis and Francesco Manacorda, Tate Liverpool’s artistic director, also inspired a film, a psychological art world thriller called Female Human Animal (due later this year), starring Aridjis. And lastly, Carrington’s novel, The Hearing Trumpet, published in 1976, has just been released as an audiobook superbly read by Siân Phillips. The pleasure of hearing this mild domestic satire rattle completely off the rails can’t be overstated. It is Down Below reimagined as a comedy, with an affectionate portrayal of Remedios Varo as the elderly protagonist’s deranged sidekick: entry-level Leonora Carrington for readers afraid of the dark.

  1. 1

    In fairness to Ernst, this was not purely belittling, so to speak. Oppenheim had been named for the character Meretlein—Little Meret—in a Gottfried Keller story, “Green Henry.” 

  2. 2

    London: Virago, 2017. 

  3. 3

    New York Review Books, 2013. 

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