Remembering Dalí: An Analysis of Two Paintings
Towards the end of the 1980’s The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibition of the complex, enigmatic and harrowing work by Dalí. I must confess I was unconsciously frightened; it was this fundamental anguish which opened Dalí forever to me. As I remember it, Dalí struck me from the start; the first sketch which opened the exhibition was entitled “Painted with the right hand while masturbating with the left.” (Many years later, in 1973, Dalí was to paint Hitler Masturbating). And in the same room, hundreds of small ink drawings repeating themselves differently. Dalí’s Cape Creus populated by skeletal figures; bones and sea gathered upon the shore. The mountains of Cataluña —mountains also to be found in the Persistence of Memory— providing the distant background. And within the exhibition in surreal Montreal, strange watches I had never seen before; Dalí’s now too famous, now too obvious, soft-watches.
This Journal inquires about what may lie behind two of his paintings. It therefore continues my decision to try to make Journals in DA much more philosophical and critical than they are. The two paintings in question are: Persistence of Memory (1931) and its 20-year-older kin Disintegration of Persistence of Memory (1954). The ideas were first presented in a PhD seminar on Heidegger’s views on time held in my Colombia. (Heidegger’s difficult vocabulary has obviously been altered.)
The space which is this canvas opens human temporality in a truly enigmatic manner. The surroundings bring us close to our endangered earth. A blue horizon recovers for us the daily appearance of the natural clock which dates our days in continuous cycles of sunrises and sunsets. What does the sunshine bring forth? The mountains of Dalí’s childhood; more generally, the very space of our own childhood. In this sunset —which is simultaneously a sunrise— sunrays provide the light which allows for the appearance of the painter’s head itself anchored in placid sleep. Dalí himself appears anchored as a fetus is anchored before life unto the womb. Resting almost faceless, he lies over the hills of his youth.
Nature’s abundant vegetation makes its appearance as a lonely tree devoid of life which emerges from an overconfident cubic structure which does not realize it is itself made out from the deadening wood which it supports. And it is on this leafless-lifeless tree that a clinging soft-watch appears. Arising out of thin air, amoeba-like, it signals our time. We realize more soft-watches have been hung by Dalí for us to see. And yet we need ask: why only four? Why not five or six? Why not an infinity of soft- watches reminding us our own finitude? Perhaps four have been carefully chosen by Dalí to remind us of the three-dimensional temporal structuring provided to us humans by our natural understanding of present, past and future tenses. “Was”, “is” and “will be”; a triad which conforms our daily perception of ordinary time. Still, the fourth watch remains a mystery.
The first soft-watch lies projected upwards hanging from the leafless tree. It signals with its only pointer a continuous now at around 6:00; the hour of dusk, the hour of dawn. Time seems to have been forever immobilized by Dalí. Yet it is so far from being a regular watch, that its mechanism has failed. Melting softly, it has ceased to be the watch of our ordinary lives. Its pointer has ceased to point as it should. It signals instead another time, the future time when trees will be no more for our lack of understanding our own temporality. This futuristic watch lies covered by the sky’s bluish reflection which brings us back to the natural time of our natural surroundings.
A second soft-watch, which again is no watch at all, makes is appearance. It is this watch which reflects the constant being thrown of human beings into their present existence. Thrown unto existence one finds Dalí’s fetus-like face over the sand which sustains him; the sand of the bony beaches of cape Creus. It is the very same dust to which we will return. Showing another hour, this soft-watch melts in time —not over a rotting tree —- but rather over the profile of the artist himself. The time of the watch attempts to become a body, and yet it cannot; it fails. The watch’s time does not, cannot, capture our own temporal nature. Dalí is thrown into deep sleep within the canvas present before us right now. Dreaming of what was, the persistence of our memories springs forth; at times liberating, at times torturing. The time of watches, even of soft-watches, points to a temporal dimension beyond their constant ticking. In contrast, the creator in dreaming of time recognizes the true foundation of our desire for everlasting timelessness. Watches melt so that our present time is not reduced to a mere ticking time-bomb. We owe this to Dalí. As we watch at this very moment Dalí’s painting, time redefined suddenly makes its appearance through us.
In a moment, now forever gone, the third angle of temporality is revealed; this one takes us back in time to what has been. It pushes us as in a fall over a solid cubic structure which will explode 20 years later in Dalí’s reworking of the original, a new painting entitled Disintegration of Persistence of Memory. The pointers in this third watch signal an impossible hour; an hour which is simultaneously before and after six. Fallen in time, each of us is present awaiting his inmost creative death. How can this be so? Because the twelve o’clock pointer signals a mortuary fly awaiting our demise. And yet memory persists, clinging overconfident to its ticking time frame. But it cannot remain so.
The threefold nature of our temporal existence –with a past, a present and a future—lies open before us who are set in motion by Dalí’s dreaming of the persistence of memory, But enigmatically there appears a fourth clock providing a new angle of vision; perhaps providing an original depth to all existing watches that are currently handcuffing our modern wrists. This watch alone seems oblivious to its own future disintegration in the mirror painting painted 20 years later. It alone is not a soft-watch. Under the “Persistence of Memory” the surrealist project still finds a certain security, a certain rest. Earth and sky may still cover the painter, comforting him.
With this fourth watch, a premonition of disaster. Lying mysterious in its own secluded corner, it does not even reveal its pointer. Perhaps it has none. We don’t know; we can never know for it is closed and will remain so forever in the painting. It lies there, mocking us in self-sufficiency. Not only is it not soft and melting, it also stands firmly entertaining itself. It appears enclosed upon itself as an erotic apple whose reddish tonality invites us constantly to try to open it, and at the same time warning us about the consequences of doing so. Bloody is this watch upon which insects gather as in a festive spirit. It is trodden by concentrating ants. They trod the watch as we trod the beaches lit by the movement of the sunlight covering Cataluña’s mountains and Dalí’s portrait. It takes twenty long years, it appears, for Dalí to open this fourth anomaly. This first painting’s persistence fails to understand the aquatic world of the womb from which we all arise in time. To even try to open this ant-ridden all-too-hard watch, there must first appear before us the “Disintegration of Persistence of Memory”.
The world of calming blues has left. It is now another time; two decades have gone by. And now fifty years have passed since then for us in 2005 still confronted daily with the mystery of our temporality. In Dalí’s later painting the world has become golden as a desert in which the temperature melts even soft-watches and the reality they have tried to safeguard. The force of the primordial dissolves everything present.
The same mountains appear as other, as foreign. Why? Not so much because of the different coloring, but rather because the land has broken away as if by a tectonic plaque. The mountains of youth, of innocence, have broken away from the security which previously allowed Dalí his placid dream. Properly speaking, the continent now appears there in the distance. It was once closest, now it remains inaccessible. We stand over water where once continental land ruled. The world has become a permanent becoming in which time itself becomes transformed. Memory disintegrated has nowhere now to anchor itself firmly. The solid ground has become liquid. Earth becomes once again marine; but not really, the world simply once again knows itself to have been marine. Memory must constantly forget this to remain as solid as can be.
And not even that is true, for one sees not water, but rather a thin canvas supported by the weakened branch of a new minute, but still leafless tree, which carries upon itself all the weight of sanity. Our previous tree has given birth to itself, but dwarfed by the passage of time. Surprisingly it isn’t even held in place by the strength of the cubic form which supported it 2 decades ago. How, then, could it support the whole of the coetaneous canvas which it carries? It might be really supported instead by the very canvas which opens itself before our spectator’s eyes as a new skin awaiting our explorations. By watching Dalí’s watches unfold, we ourselves sustain that tree which stares at us in the anguish of one who knows himself soon to collapse. And yet the elder tree of decades past has sprout a sibling; disintegration seems to allow for the possibility of the rebirth of self-sufficient trees freed from the necessity of leaves.
What has happened to the watches we have watched? Quite a lot. The angle of future existence supported by the changed tree explodes. Its bluish tranquility gives way to the metallic color of lifeless minerals. The pointer is thrown in flight into pieces. It has imploded; only a natural shadow remains. This watch can no longer be winded. Time has undergone a further transformation from the one we found in the Persistence of memory. A deeper time, the foundational time of poetry, is glimpsed. Implosion has rid the previous soft-watches of numbers, leaving instead the shadow of their mathematics. Shadows which provide the key to our most human possibility, a glance into our mortality which lies hidden from us busying ourselves at all times without any temporal depth, relying constantly on watches which have remained dangerously overlooked.
But something rather different occurs below the watery surface with our second watch. The portrait of the artist as a young man lies now dissolved in the uncertainty of he who no longer governs his own time. Creativity gains control over our desire to control time. Dalí reveals our desire for immortality as the dangerous desire which possesses us. Opening itself to its most primordial temporal depth, each face looses its definite figures. Conscious of the body’s temporality, Dalí liberates the body from itself and its sufferings. It is only then that the dangerous liberation from the time of ticking watches takes place. The logic of numbers lies revealed; numerical data no longer dates.
Our third soft-watch —–which previously anchored itself firmly on the cubic structure— now appears fully submerged undergoing with certainty the process of its own unstoppable rusting. Void of life, it appears golden metallic much like king Midas’ attempt to govern the temporality of his loved ones. It has moved indicating 12 o’clock. Twenty years have gone by in only five minutes. The time of those who are ill, as ill as Hans Castorp —Thomas Mann’s wonderful hero from The Magic Mountain —– has appropriated our temporal existence. The time which reveals a never-ending afternoon is done away with; the canvas instead reveals the longest day ever recorded as the few last instants of the drowned man to whom his life is suddenly revealed.
And what has occurred to our enigmatic fourth soft-match? It has been displaced unto the depths of the canvas. Now it appears open, almost just as any other watch does; now we seem to know it. And yet, underneath the nuclear structures with which Dalí fell in love in his later years ––which were to include the marvelous mathematic of the rhinoceros— we humans can hardly even see. The grounding of what is, must remain forever unfathomable. This uncertainty, which persists even after the disintegration of memory, requires the dignity of a courage free of illusions. It is in the courage of humans such as Dalí —-and his compatriot Don Quixote—- that we today may at least take a glimpse of those depths which are denied to us ordinary temporal beings. In doing so they provide us with the possibility of disintegrating our morbid assurances. Perhaps in this way alone can there come into being the beautiful Venus of Milo whose body reveals the bullfighter who knows of his instantaneous temporality in confrontation with Nature. Herein lies the magic —-far from the persistent memory of Nordic experiences—- of Dalí’s beautiful painting entitled The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1970).
B) Dali on the Internet
(Note: FOR AN IDENTICAL PRESENTATION WHICH INCLUDES SOME PHOTOS, PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING: link )