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[SOR] Leonora Carrington “My Flannel Knickers”

March 15, 2016

The second story to feature in Sisters of the Revolution may be a bit unconventional but its inclusion is nonetheless a really clever piece of business.

Leonora Carrington was born in Lancashire to wealthy parents. Expelled from a number of public schools due to her rebellious nature, Carrington was educated by a small flotilla of governesses and tutors before finally finding her way to art school in the mid-1930s. Already enamoured of surrealism, Carrington met and fell in love with the German surrealist Max Ernst just in time to see him dragged off by the Gestapo. Driven to depression, delusion, and finally outright psychosis, Carrington fled to Spain before finally seeking refuge at the Mexican embassy in Lisbon where she wound up marrying the Ambassador in order to obtain Mexican travel documents. Carrington eventually settled in Mexico City where she began working with the Women’s Liberation movement.

The decision to include some of Carrington’s work in this anthology is quite a canny move as while she enjoys some fame as an artist, she was also a prolific writer who abandoned the shop-worn Freudianism of conventional surrealism in favour of a style that favoured the fantastical and the autobiographical. Including Carrington’s work in Sisters of the Revolution not only gives the anthology some much needed distance from the increasingly over-familiar pantheon of Le Guin, Russ, and Atwood, it also serves to build bridges between genre literature and other areas of artistic expression where the fantastical has met the feminist(ical). Leonora Carrington is precisely the type of author that I expect to find in a VanderMeer anthology as the story is nothing like the type of stuff that usually gains traction in genre circles.

 

Teeth

 

First published in Carrington’s short fiction collection entitled The Seventh Horse, “My Flannel Knickers” features neither characters nor plot. If I had to boil the essence of the story down to a single sentence I would say that it was a series of surreal images designed to articulate the feelings of alienation fostered by the experience of working as an artist and feeling obliged to perform the behaviour associated with that profession:

Once I was a great beauty and attended all sorts of cocktail-drinking, prize-giving-and-taking, artistic demonstrations and other casually hazardous gatherings organized for the purpose of people wasting other people’s time. I was always in demand and my beautiful face would hang suspended over fashionable garments, smiling constantly.

I love the idea of a constantly-smiling face suspended over fashionable garments and the implication that artists who attend award ceremonies in order to socialise with artists, gallery owners and art collectors are somehow being hollowed out.

An ardent heart, however, beat under the fashionable costumes, and this very ardent heart was like an open tap pouring quantities of hot water over anybody who asked. This wasteful process soon took its toll on my beautiful smiling face. My teeth fell out. The original structure of the face became blurred, and then began to fall away from the bones in small, ever-increasing folds.

Some people interpret this as a reference to aging but I think it’s more to do with the process of self-simplification that accompanies participation in a social scene.

Imagine that you are someone who has acquired a bit of status and name recognition within your chosen social scene. People who see you at parties or conventions will inevitably describe you as ‘the person who does x’ and so you will wind up feeling that your position in the group is dependent upon your continued performance of x. The problem with realisation is that it makes you aware of your motivations for performing x and so alienates you from that activity. You are then confronted with a choice: Stop performing x and run the risk of losing your standing in the group OR retain your position in the group by deliberately simplifying your identity and turning yourself into nothing but ‘the person who does x’.

The story is commenting on the fact that people who want to work in creative fields are obliged to network and make social alliances. This social labour involves the performance of an artistic persona and so serves to alienate you from a persona that might once have been your natural personality.

I went to the dentist. Not only did he cure the three remaining teeth but he also presented me with a set of false teeth, cunningly mounted on a pink plastic chassis. When I had paid a sufficiently large quantity of my diminishing wealth, the teeth were mine and I took them home and put them into my mouth. The Face seemed to regain some of its absolutely-irresistible-attraction, although the folds were of course still there.

Performing your role and retaining your position in the group provides you with some money and/or prestige but a non-negligible chunk of that money and social capital will wind up having to be spent in stuff that will allow you to continue performing that role and being that person. You can convince yourself that you are the person you have turned yourself into but the fact that you are compelled to perform means that you will be forever alienated from that role… it will never be completely yours and it will never completely replace the face that you used to wear. What begins as existential alienation soon decays into spiritual sickness:

This must be me, this beautiful, smiling, fully toothed creature. There I was, sitting in the dark bloodstream like a mummified foetus with no love at all. Here I am, back in the rich world, where I can palpitate again, jump up and down in the nice warm swimming pool of outflowing emotion, the more bathers the merrier. I Shall Be Enriched.

Naturally, this bad faith cannot last for long and the narrator’s identity begins to dissolve. Desperate, she turns to a friend for advice but the only advice that the friend has to offer is a more positive spin on the nightmare that existence has become: You must perform and inspire others to do likewise.

The story concludes where it actually began, with the character living alone on a traffic island. The flannel knickers of the title are neither hollow whimsy, nor a comment upon the character’s sexuality, but rather a form of artistic substance that is conspicuously absent from all the talk of parties and face-eating. “My Flannel Knickers” is a warning produced by someone who tried to network her way to popularity only to discover that the job of performing an artistic persona was far more damaging and unpleasant than anything that might have followed a refusal to fit in:

Thousands of people know my flannel knickers, and though I know this may seem flirtatious, it is not. I am a saint. The “Sainthood,” I may say, was actually forced upon me. If anyone would like to avoid becoming holy, they should immediately read this entire story.

The narrator’s flannel knickers may seem silly and un-sexy but they are something she created and by withdrawing from the world of face-eating and focusing on the production of knickers, the character has become known for her work and not for her ability to smile and knock people dead at cocktail parties.

“My Flannel Knickers” is one of those works that has grown on me the more time I have spent thinking about it. What I like about this story is the way that it feels almost like a polar opposite of the types of works that usually gain traction in genre circles: For starters there is absolutely no plot and rather than a cast of relatable characters we have a single weird viewpoint character who is transformed by a set of surreal social forces. The writing, though competent, is neither emotive nor over-driven and the imagery, while surreal, is nothing that you wouldn’t find slithering about the weirder corners of Twitter. “My Flannel Knickers” is nothing like the well-crafted stories that routinely find their way onto awards shortlists and yet it contains more insight and truth than a dozen Best of the Year doorstoppers.

Simply stated, I have never read a more accurate and insightful description of what it means to participate in any sort of creative scene. Whether we’re talking about genre literature, academic philosophy, or punk rock there will always be people who network themselves into positions of authority and these social shortcuts not only serve to obscure the work, they also encourage everyone else to start forming alliances and performing roles. “My Flannel Knickers” is about the price we pay for allowing the social components of a creative scene to obscure the work, it is about the personal psychological cost you wind up paying when you let the side down and allow yourself to be pigeon-holed and simplified. Leonora Carrington is absolutely and gloriously right: Creativity should be about knickers rather than false teeth.

 

LC

One Comment
  1. Isabel permalink
    May 4, 2016 1:36 pm

    Thanks for this analysis, I like your interpretation, esp:

    “‘My Flannel Knickers’ is about the price we pay for allowing the social components of a creative scene to obscure the work, it is about the personal psychological cost you wind up paying when you let the side down and allow yourself to be pigeon-holed and simplified.”

    But you lose me in the very last sentence: “Creativity should be about knickers rather than false teeth.” I don’t see the knickers as being any better than false teeth, just that they were her only viable alternative to death (she is being forced to be on this island as an alternative to prison — but still a slave while putting off death): “And if anybody steals from me now I shall die and disintegrate to tally.”

    Like

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