Saturday, December 4, 2010

Salvador Dali's essay "The Conquest of the Irrational"

[As I am still in the midst of doing research for my upcoming essay on James Joyce and Salvador Dali (the focus of which can be found inside this piece), I would like to share the following essay because it is a very important part of that research. This is Dali's theoretical introduction to his paranoiac-critical method. It is a very scholarly, sometimes overindulgent piece and, if you haven't read any of Dali's writings before, you'll soon realize that he wasn't simply a painter, he was a polymath. The essay was written in 1936 in French and this is a very rare English translation of it. I must give credit to the translator, Joachim Neugroschel, and the only existent source for allowing me to reproduce it here in a format that I think is a bit easier on the eyes. I've also included some of my favorite paintings from Dali that are good representations of this paranoiac method he so decadently describes below.]

by Salvador Dali 

We all know that the brilliant and sensational progress of the individual sciences, the glory and honor of the “space” and the era we live in, involves, on the one hand, the crisis and the overwhelming disrepute of “logical intuition,” and on the other hand, the respect for irrational factors and hierarchies as new positive and specifically productive values. We must bear in mind that pure and logical intuition, pure intuition, I repeat, a pure maid of all work, in the private homes of the particular sciences, had been carrying about in her womb an illegitimate child who was nothing less than the child of physics proper; and by the time Maxwell and Faraday were at work, this son was noticeably weighed down with an unequivocal persuasiveness and a personal force of gravity that left no doubt about the father of the child: Newton. Because of this downward pull and the force of gravity, pure intuition, after being booted out of the homes of all the particular sciences, has now turned into pure prostitution, for we see her offering her final charms and final turbulences in the brothel of the artistic and literary world. It is under cultural circumstances like these that our contemporaries, systematically cretinized by the mechanism and architecture of self-punishment, by the psychological congratulations of bureaucracy, by ideological chaos, and the austerity of imagination, by paternal wastelands of emotion, and other wastelands, waste their energy biting into the senile and triumphal tastiness of the plump, atavitic, tender, military, and territorial back of some Hitlerian nursemaid, in order to finally manage to communicate in some fashion or other with the consecrated totemic host which has been whisked away from under their very noses and which, we all know, was nothing but the spiritual and symbolical sustenance that Catholicism has been offering for centuries to appease the cannibalistic frenzy of moral and irrational starvation.

For, in point of fact, the contemporary hunger for the irrational is always keenest before a cultural dining table offering only the cold and unsubstantial leftovers of art and literature and the burning analytical preciseness of the particular sciences, momentarily incapable of any nutritive synthesis because of their disproportionate scope and specialization, and in all events totally unassimilable except by speculative cannibalism.
Here lies the source of the enormous nutritive and cultural responsibility of Surrealism, a responsibility that has been growing more and more objective, encroaching, and exclusivist with each new cataclysm of collective famine, each new gluttonous, viscous, ignominious and sublime bite of the fearful jaws of the masses wolfing down the congested, bloody, and preeminently biological cutlet of politics.

It is under these circumstances that Salvador Dali, clutching the precise apparatus of paranoid-critical activity, and less willing than ever to desert his uncompromising cultural post, has for a long time now been suggesting that we might do well to eat up the surrealities, too; for we Surrealists are the sort of high-quality, decadent, stimulating, immoderate, and ambivalent foodstuff which, with the utmost tact and intelligence, agrees with the gamy, paradoxical, and succulently truculent state proper to, and characteristic of, the climate of moral and ideological confusion in which we have the honor and the pleasure to be living.

For we Surrealists, as you will realize by paying us some slight attention, are not quite artists, nor are we really scientists; we are caviar, and believe me, caviar is the extravagance and the very intelligence of taste, especially in concrete times like the present in which the above mentioned hungering for the irrational, albeit an incommensurable, impatient, and imperialist hungering, is so exasperated by the salivary expectations of waiting, that in order to arrive progressively at its glorious conquests close by, it must first swallow the fine, heady, and dialectical grape of caviar, without which the heavy and stifling food of the next ideologies would threaten immediately to paralyze the vital and philosophical rage of the belly of history.

For caviar is the life experience not only of the sturgeon, but of the Surrealists as well, because, like the sturgeon, we are carnivorous fish, who, as I have already hinted, swim between two bodies of water, the cold water of art and the warm water of science; and it is precisely due to that temperature and to our swimming against the current that the experience of our lives and our fecundation reaches that turbid depth, that irrational and moral hyperlucidity possible only in the climate of Neronian osmosis that results from the living and continuous fusion of the soul’s thickness and its crowned heat, the satisfaction and the circumcision of the soul and the corrugated iron, territorial ambition and agricultural patience, keen collectivism and vizors propped up by letters of white on the old billiard cushions and letters of white on the old millyard Russians, all sorts of warm and dermatological elements, which, in short, are the coexisting and characteristic elements presiding over the notion of the “imponderable,” a sham notion unanimously recognized as functioning as an epithet for the elusive taste of caviar and hiding the timid and gustatory germs of concrete irrationality, which, being merely the apotheosis and the paroxysm of the objective imponderable, constitutes the divisionist exactness and precision of the very caviar of imagination and will constitute, exclusively and philosophically, the terribly demoralizing and terribly complicated result of my experiences and inventions in painting.

For one thing is certain: I hate any form of simplicity whatsoever.

It seems perfectly transparent to me that my enemies, my friends and the general public allegedly do not understand the meaning of the images that arise and that I transcribe into my paintings. How can anyone expect them to understand when I myself, the “maker,” don’t understand my paintings either. The fact that I myself, at the moment of painting, do not understand their meaning doesn’t imply that these paintings are meaningless: on the contrary, their meaning is so deep, complex, coherent, and involuntary that it eludes the simple analysis of logical intuition.

In order to reduce my paintings to the level of the vernacular and explain them, I should have to submit them to special analyses, preferably of a scientific rigor and as ambitiously objective as possible. After all, any explanation occurs a posteriori, once the painting exists as a phenomenon.

My sole pictorial ambition is to materialize by means of the most imperialist rage of precision the images of concrete irrationality. The world of imagination and the world of concrete irrationality may be as objectively evident, consistent, durable, as persuasively, cognoscitively, and communicably thick as the exterior world of phenomenal reality. The important thing, however, is that which one wishes to communicate: the irrational concrete subject. The pictorial means of expression are concentrated on the subject. The illusionism of the most abjectly arriviste and irresistible mimetic art, the clever tricks of a paralyzing foreshortening, the most analytically narrative and discredited academicism, can become sublime hierarchies of thought when combined with new exactness of concrete irrationality as the images of concrete irrationality approach the phenomenal Real, the corresponding means of expression approach those of great realist painting — Velasquez and Vermeer de Delft — to paint realistically in accordance with irrational thinking and the unknown imagination. Instantaneous photography, in color and done by hand, of superfine, extravagant, extra-plastic, extra-pictorial, unexplored, deceiving, hypernormal, feeble images of concrete irrationality—images momentarily unexplainable and irreducible either by systems of logical intuition or by rational mechanisms. The images of concrete irrationality are thus authentically unknown images.

Surrealism, in its first period, offers specific methods for approaching the images of concrete irrationality. These methods, based on the exclusively passive and receptive role of the surrealist subject, are being liquidated to make way for new surrealist methods of the systematic exploration of the irrational. The pure psychic automatism, dreams, experimental oneirism, surrealist objects with symbolic functioning, the ideography of instincts, phosphenomenal and hypnagogical irritation, etc., now occur per se as nonevolutive processes.

Furthermore, the images obtained offer two serious inconveniences: (1) they cease being unknown images, because by falling into the realm of psychoanalysis they are easily reduced to current and logical speech albeit continuing to offer an uninterpretable residue and a very vast and authentic margin of enigma, especially for the greater public; (2) their essentially virtual and chimerical character no longer satisfies our desires or our “principles of verification” first announced by Breton in his Discourse on the Smidgen of Reality. Ever since, the frenzied images of Surrealism desperately tend toward their tangible possibility, their objective and physical existence in reality. Only those people who are unaware of this can still flounder about in the gross misunderstanding of the “poetic escape,” and continue to believe our mysticism of the fantastic and our fanaticism of the marvelous. I, for my part, believe that the era of inaccessible mutilations, unrealizable bloodthirsty osmoses, flying visceral lacerations, hair-rocks, catastrophic uprootings, is over as far as experimentation goes, although this era may quite probably continue to constitute the exclusive iconography of a large period of surrounding Surrealist painting. The new frenzied images of concrete irrationality tend toward their real and physical “possibility”; they go beyond the domain of psychoanalyzable “virtual” hallucinations and manifestations.

These images present the evolutive and productive character characteristic of the systematic fact. Eluard’s and Breton’s attempts at simulation, Breton’s recent object-poems, RenĂ© Magritte’s latest pictures, the “method” of Picasso’s latest sculptures, the theoretical and pictorial activity of Salvador Dali, etc .... prove the need of concrete materialization in current reality, the moral and systematic condition to assert, objectively and on the level of the Real, the frenzied unknown world of our rational experiences. Contrary to dream memory, and the virtual and impossible images of purely receptive states, “which one can only narrate,” it is the physical facts of “objective” irrationality with which one can really hurt oneself. It was in 1929 that Salvador Dali turned his attention to the internal mechanism of paranoid phenomena, envisaging the possibility of an experimental method based on the power that dominates the systematic associations peculiar to paranoia; subsequently this method was to become the frenzied-critical synthesis that bears the name of “paranoid-critical activity.” Paranoia: delirium of interpretative association involving a systematic structure—paranoid-critical activity: spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the interpretative-critical association of delirium phenomena

The presence of active and systematic elements peculiar to paranoia warrant the evolutive and productive character proper to paranoid-critical activity. The presence of active and systematic elements does not presuppose the idea of voluntarily directed thinking or of any intellectual compromise whatsoever; for, as we all know, in paranoia, the active and systematic structure is consubstantial with the delirium phenomenon itself—any delirium phenomenon with a paranoid character, even an instantaneous and sudden one, already involves the systematic structure “in full” and merely objectifies itself a posteriori by means of critical intervention. Critical activity intervenes uniquely as a liquid revealer of systematic images, associations, coherences, subtleties such as are earnest and already in existence at the moment in which delirious instantaneity occurs and which, for the moment to that degree of tangible reality, paranoid-critical activity permits to return to objective light. Paranoid-critical activity is an organizing and productive force of objective chance. Paranoid-critical activity does not consider surrealist images and phenomena in isolation, but in a whole coherent context of systematic and significant relationships. Contrary to the passive, impartial, contemplative, and aesthetic attitude of irrational phenomena, the active, systematic, organizing, cognoscitive attitude of these same phenomena are regarded as associative, partial, and significant events, in the authentic domain of our immediate and practical life-experience.

The main point is the systematic-interpretative organization of surrealist experimental sensational material, scattered and narcissistic. In fact, the surrealists events during the course of a day: nocturnal emissions, distorted memories, dreams, daydreaming, the concrete transformation of the nighttime phosphene into a hypnagogical image or the waking phosphene into an objective image, the nutritive whim, intrauterine claims, anamorphic hysteria, deliberate retention of urine, involuntary retention of insomnia, the chance image of exclusivist exhibitionism, an abortive act, a delirious address, regional sneezing, the anal wheelbarrow, the minute error, Lilliputian malaise, the supernormal physiological state, the painting one stops oneself from painting, the painting one does paint, the territorial telephone call, the “upsetting image,” etc., etc., all this, I say, and a thousand other instantaneous or successive concerns, revealing a minimum of irrational intentionality, or, just the opposite, a minimum of suspect phenomenal nullity, are associated, by the mechanisms of the precise apparatus of paranoid-critical activity, in an indestructible deliriointerpretative system of political problems, paralytical images, questions of a more or less mammalian nature, playing the role of an obsessive idea.

Paranoid-critical activity organizes and objectifies exclusivistically the unlimited and unknown possibilities of the systematic association of subjective and objective phenomena presenting themselves to us as irrational concerns, to the exclusive advantage of the obsessive idea. Paranoid-critical activity thus reveals new and objective “meanings” of the irrational; it tangibly makes the very world of delirium pass to the level of reality.

Paranoid phenomena: well-known images with a double figuration—the figuration can be multiplied theoretically and practically-everything hinges on the paranoid capacity of the author. The basis of associative mechanisms and the renewal of obsessive ideas permits, as is the case in a recent painting of Salvador Dali’s, the presentation, in the course of elaboration, of six simultaneous images none of which undergo the slightest figurative transformation—an athlete’s torso, a lion’s head, a general’s head, a horse, the bust of a shepherdess, a skull. Different spectators see different images in the same painting; it goes without saying that the realization is scrupulously realistic. An example of paranoid-critical activity: Salvador Dali’s next book, The Tragic Myth of Millet’s “Angelus,” in which the method of paranoid-critical activity is applied to the delirium fact that constitutes the obsessional character of Millet’s painting.

 The Angelus (1859) by Jean-Francois Millet 

Archeological Reminiscences of Millet's Angelus (1935) by Salvador Dali

Art history must therefore be refurbished in accordance with the method of “paranoid-critical activity”; according to this method, such apparently dissimilar paintings as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Millet’s Angelus, Watteau’s Embarkation for Cythera actually depict the very same subject matter, that is to say, exactly the same thing.

The flagrant lack of philosophic and general culture in the cheerful propellers of that model of mental deficiency that calls itself abstract art, abstraction-creation, nonfigurative art, etc., is one of the authentically sweetest things from the viewpoint of the intellectual and “modern” desolation of our era. Retarded Kantians, sticky with their scatological golden means, never stop wanting to offer us on the new optimism of their shiny paper, this soup of abstract aesthetics, which in reality is even worse than those colossally sordid warmed-up noodle soups of neo-Thomism, which even the most convulsively famished cats wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. If, as they claim, forms and colors have their own aesthetic value beyond their “representational” value and their anecdotal meaning, then how could they resolve and explain the classical paranoid image, with its double and simultaneous representation, which can easily offer a strictly imitative image, ineffective from their point of view and yet, with no change, an image that’s plastically valid and rich? Such is the case with that tiny ultra-anecdotal figurine of a sprightly reclining pickaninny in the style of Meissonier; the boy, if looked at vertically is merely the ultra-rich and even plastically succulent shadow of a Pompeian nose—highly respectable on account of its degree of abstraction-creation! The ingenious experiment of Picasso simply proves the material conditional nature, the deifying and ineluctable nature, in regard to the physical and geometric precisions of aesthetic systems, biological and frenetic systems of the concrete object. Since I feel inspired to do so, permit me to speak to you in verse:

The biological and
dynastic phenomenon
that constitutes the Cubism
the first great imaginative cannibalism
surpassing the experimental ambitions
of modern mathematical
Picasso’s life
will form the not yet understood
polemical basis
in accordance with which
physical psychology
will reopen
a gap of living flesh
and obscurity
in philosophy.
For because
of the anarchic and systematic
we shall know physically
and without the
“problematic” psychological innovations
with a Kantian flavor
of the “gestalt-ists”
all the misery
objects of conscience
localized and comfortable
with their cowardly atoms
the infinite and
For the hypermaterialist thought
of Picasso
that the cannibalism of the race
“the intellectual species”
regional wine
the family fly
of the phenomenologist mathematics
the future
that there is such a thing as extra-psychological
“strict figures”
the imaginative fat
the monetary idealisms
transfinite arithmetics
and sanguinary mathematics
between the “structural” entity
of an “obsessive soul”
and the conduct of living beings
in contact with the “obsessive soul”
for the soul in question
totally exterior
to the understanding
gestalt theory
this theory of the strict
and structure
has no
physical means
the analysis
or even
the registering
of human behavior
with regard to
and figures
physically delirious
there is no such
thing now
as far as I know
as a physics
of psychopathology
a physics of paranoia
which might be considered
the experimental basis
of the coming
of the
the coming
philosophy of “paranoid-critical” activity
which some day
I shall try to envisage polemically
If I have the time
and the inclination.

There exists a perpetual and synchronic physical materialization of the great semblances of thought such as Heraclitus meant when he intelligently wept his heart out at the self-modesty of nature.
The Greeks realized it in their statues of psychological gods, a transformation of the obscure and turbulent passions of man into a clear, analytical, and carnal anatomy.

Today, physics is the new geometry of thought; and, while for the Greeks, space such as Euclid understood it was merely an extremely distant abstraction inaccessible to the timid “three-dimensional continuum” that Descartes was to proclaim later on, nowadays space has, as you know, become a terribly material, terribly personal, and terribly meaningful physical object that squeezes us all like real blackheads.

Whereas the Greeks, as I have said above, materialized their Euclidean psychology and feelings in the nostalgic and divine muscular clarity of their sculptors, Salvador Dali, faced in 1935 with the anguishing and colossal problem of Einsteinian space-time, is not content with anthropomorphism, libidinous arithmetic, or flesh: instead, he makes cheese. Take my word for it, Salvador Dali’s
famous melted watches are nothing but tender paranoid-critical Camembert, the extravagant and solitary Camembert of time and space.

In conclusion, I must beg your pardon, before the authentic famine that I assume honors my readers, for having begun this theoretical meal, which one might have hoped to be wild and cannibalistic, with the civilized imponderable factor of caviar and finishing it with the even headier and deliquescent imponderable of Camembert. Don’t let yourself be taken in: these two superfine semblances of the imponderable conceal a finer, well-known, sanguinary, and irrational grilled cutlet that will eat all of us up.

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