Letters, Dreams And Other Writings
Remedios Varo, translated by Margaret Carson
Published by Wakefield Press
In brief: intriguing and illuminating for committed Varo fans; but for newcomers to her world, this is not the place to start.
Remedios Varo was one of the most visionary painters of the twentieth century, but perhaps one of the most underrated. If you’re not familiar with her Surrealist paintings, stop reading this and go feast your eyes right now on remedios-varo.com. You can come back and thank me later.
This gleaming little book brings together a selection of Varo’s short texts. The texts were found in her private notebooks, and were never intended for publication. They appeared in 1997 in a Mexcian edited collection, of which this book is the first English translation.
The texts are sly, subversive, startling and often hilarious, and they provide fascinating sidelights on her visual work. Indeed, a whole section of the book is devoted to Varo’s commentaries on specific paintings and the visions behind them. Apart from one (rather muddy) black-and-white image of her sculpture Homo Rodans, however, this book is unillustrated. Read her commentaries with a catalogue (or webpage) of the paintings in question propped open on your knee; it’s worth the faff.
From an occultist point of view, the most immediately attention-grabbing item is Varo’s letter to Gerald Gardner. She begins by telling him that she and her friend Leonora Carrington have been reading his book (unspecified, but probably either Witchcraft Today or The Meaning Of Witchcraft), and that she would like to begin a correspondence with him to exchange experiences and results. This letter must have been written in Spanish – she says that she doesn’t speak English, and that Carrington translated Gardner’s book for her. I’m no expert on Gardner (Wicca’s not my bag), and I have no idea whether he would have been able even to read the letter. Little further information is provided in either the endnotes or the translator’s introduction, but since no other correspondence with Gardner is mentioned, I’m guessing he didn’t reply.
It’s fairly commonplace for Surrealists (and others) to use occult imagery in their work, but sometimes the occultism is only skin deep. What distinguishes serious magicians such as Varo, Carrington and Ithell Colquhoun is that they operate at the level not just of images but of method. For me the most fascinating aspect of this book is that it reveals glimpses of Varo’s obsessive methods in action. The most obsessive of all seems to be her preoccupation with chance and causation.
For example, both in the letter to Gardner and in another, pseudonymous letter written to an (apparently random) stranger, Varo describes magickal operations using ordinary household objects. She says she arranges them into solar systems around the house, and by repositioning their elements is able to provoke actions and events:
For instance: I move a can of green paint some five centimeters to the right, I stick in a thumbtack next to a comb and, if Mr. A… (an adept who works in tandem with me) at that same moment places his book on beekeeping next to the pattern for cutting out a vest, I’m sure that there will come about, on Avenida Madero, the encounter with a woman who interests me […]. In a relatively short time, one can establish, by means of these operations, myriad cause-and-effect relationships by combining and varying the object-elements.
Cause-and-effect relationships are one of the zones where Surrealism and (certain strands of) occultism come closest to each other. Compare Grant Morrison’s famous exhortations in “Pop Magic!”:
As a first exercise in magical consciousness, spend five minutes looking at everything around you as if ALL OF IT was trying to tell you something very important. […] Five minutes of focus during which everything is significant, everything is luminous and heavy with meaning, like the objects seen in dreams. […] Next, relax, go for a walk and interpret everything you see on the way as a message from the Infinite to you.
with André Breton’s discussion in Nadja of what Surrealists call “objective chance”:
An almost forbidden world of sudden parallels, petrifying coincidences, and reflexes peculiar to each individual, of harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see, if only they were not so much quicker than all the rest. I am concerned with facts of quite unverifiable intrinsic value, but which, by their absolutely unexpected, violently fortuitous character […] present all the appearances of a signal, without our being able to say precisely which signal, and of what.
Of course, despite their obvious similarities, both objective chance (Surrealism) and magical consciousness (chaos magick) become ever more complex as you get into them more deeply, revealing profound differences between the two. (I’m planning a series of blog posts that will consider those differences and similarities in more depth, so stay tuned.) The solar systems on Varo’s table may have revolved around either objective chance or a kind of chaos magick avant la lettre, or both: the texts in this book drop tantalising hints that Varo had developed her own theory of causation, magickal consciousness and objectivity.
But hints are all she gives us – in her writings, at least. It’s through her paintings, rather than in these intriguing but slender texts, that Varo invites us into her world. An almost forbidden world, where everything is luminous and heavy with meaning.
Wakefield Press book cover reproduced under fair use.
3 thoughts on “The Solar System On My Table”
PS A couple of Surrealist friends have also pointed out (in response to this post) that Varo’s solar system of household objects parallels Leonora Carrington’s (anti-)psychotic thinking during her confinement in a psychiatric hospital in Spain, documented in the book Down Below.