Friday, October 25, 2019

The texture of orchid petals and the colour of Limbo

I'm reading The Hearing Trumpet, by Leonora Carrington, and for such a slim book it's slow going. It started off riotously funny and clever but then I was stopped cold by the winking nun.
While he spoke I was able to examine a large oil painting on the wall facing me. The painting represented a nun with a very strange and malicious face. [...] The face of the nun in the oil painting was so curiously lighted that she seemed to be winking, although that was hardly possible. She must have had one blind eye and the painter had rendered her infirmity realistically. However the idea that she was winking persisted, she was winking at me with a most disconcerting mixture of mockery and malevolence.
I thought, I need to pay careful attention, so for a few days I lived my life and danced my dance and read something "light" and "escapist" (though that book turned out to be neither really), until I thought I was ready to devote some energy to understanding what Carrington had laid before me.

And I read the words and I read more words and I flipped back the pages and I carried it with me, even while I skimmed other texts about eloquence and nonmainstream sexual practices and pearls.

The early pages of the novel put me in mind of The Crying of Lot 49 — the humour, the secret society, the sense of conspiracy and paranoia, and the reference to Remedios Varo.

Once Marian arrived at the institution, I couldn't get Yoko Tawada out of my head, these people with their strange manners, these surreal images.

Where I'm at, the text is a correspondence within a secret book within the book, folding in on itself. I love these buried-treasure texts — reading becomes an archeological dig, a trip down the rabbit hole.

I thought perhaps some research might enlighten me on this section of the book before I backtracked my way through it. Most summaries of the book gloss over this episode entirely, leading me to believe that it is insignificant. Some readers confess to finding it boring. I wondered briefly if anyone had actually read it, apart from the handful of academics who wrote their thesis on obscure subjects: Carrington's surrealist treatment of space and time, gothic aesthetics in Carrington's surrealist use of myth, that surrealist women could be both muse and creator, something about gender and the divine.

Internet searches for the winking nun eventually led me to René Magritte. In the May 1933 issue of Le Surréalisme au service de révolution there appeared a drawing by René Magritte of a sexually transgressive nun, entitled Vierge retroussée (Trussed-up Virgin)
Winking beneath a halo, the robes of this "virgin" are pushed back to expose a pair of gartered black stockings and a provocative pair of pumps, indexing both her sexual transgressiveness generally and her residence within a homoerotically charged convent environment more specifically.
While my searches began to procure more and more references to his drawing, it was days before I managed to track down the image itself.

In the meantime I learned that "winking nun" might be a veiled reference to a vulva. Certainly Magritte's nun's draped robes have a certain vulvular aura about them, topped by a hooded clitoral winkle.

Carrington's nun is not obviously sexualized, at least, not on the surface. In fact, Marian surmises she has some physical affliction that contorts her face.

Confined to a patriarchal institution and not bound by societal norms, what could she possibly be winking about?
"It might be the Zurbarán school," she said, looking uncommonly thoughtful. "Probably painted in the late eighteenth century. Spanish of course, an Italian could never have done anything so enchantingly sinister. A nun with a leer. Unknown master."

"Do you suppose she is really winking, or is she blind in one eye?" I asked, anxious for Georgina's opinion on a more personal aspect of the lady.

"She is definitely winking; the bawdy old bag is probably peeking at the monastery through a hole in the wall, watching the monks prancing around in their knickers." Georgiana had a one-track mind. ""It is beautiful," she added. "I wonder the Gams let it hand amongst their hideous possessions. Everything in the house ought to have been burnt long ago apart from the leering abbess."

Certainly the painting had a force all of its own.

[...]

"Yes," said Georgina, "how those Spaniards understood the painting of black drapery. So much more superbly blackly depressing than anyone else's black. The old Lady's habit had the texture of orchid petals and the colour of Limbo. It really is a wonderful painting. Her face surrounded by that white starched frill is as luminous as the full moon, and just as bewitching." Somehow I felt that Georgina understood the painting of the leering abbess better than I ever could.
I think my obsession with the winking nun is enhanced this week by my having attained some tangential psychological epiphany in a highly sexualized context. I'm learning how to be in my body and outside of my body at the same time. This is one of the magic tricks of great sex, but it's also a lesson learned from aging. I think Carrington knew it.

As for the abbess's tractate, it tells of falling into ecstasies and a witchcraft of salves; sexual acrobatics, cross-dressing, and a sinful ointment. Nocturnal restlessness, inner turbulence. Ultimately the abbess's body is bloated with death and bursts, giving birth to an angel.

As yet I can find no lay explanation of this history, but if I understand the summaries, it sets off something like a grail quest. Perhaps the body is the vessel.

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