In the Service of the Rêvolution:

The Hallucinogenic Dalí and the Paranoia-Critical Method


“I have never taken drugs, since I am a drug. I don’t talk about my hallucinations, I evoke them. Take me, I am the drug: take me, I am hallucinogenic!”

--Salvador Dalí, Dalí by Dalí

In the decade after World War I, as Europe lingered in the psychological, economic and social havoc wrought by the world’s first truly modern war, contemporary European artists undermined centuries of intellectual thought based on rationality and the success of the scientific method through what eventually became known as the surrealist movement. Although surrealism largely dissipated as a popular movement during the lead-up to World War II, its impact on intellectual history and thought survived long after the death of its major figures. André Breton, largely credited as the movement’s founder and author of The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, gave a speech to the Congress of Writers in 1935 in which he said “‘transform the world,’ Marx said; ‘change life,’ Rimbaud said. These two watchwords are one for us,” implying that to realize the surrealist rêvolution, or dream revolution, an artist must change the world by changing the way people perceive and interpret it. In his autobiography referenced above, Salvador Dalí exclaims that “I am a drug...I am hallucinogenic!” In spite of his personal and philosophical quarrels with Breton, the ultimate goal of Dalí’s art is fundamentally in line with Breton’s vision: to alter the minds of those who see it by changing how the viewer perceives his world, particularly the all-reducing lens of reason and the internal consistency it provides. Dalí’s paranoia-critical method changes how the viewer sees the world by (1) deliberately manifesting his perspective as the artist in his work, thereby championing the importance of the individual and its inherent subjectivity, and (2) blurring the line between the real and the unreal through his “paranoiac irrationality,” in which one object can be perceived in two contradictory ways.

Dalí broke with many of his contemporary surrealists, who passively received the basis of their work from dreams or randomness, by deliberately manfiesting his perspective as the artist into his work. Due to its close ties to Dadaism, early surrealism often romanticized the “dream-state,” even going so far as holding an individual’s dreaming life as equally important as what one does during their waking life. For example, in Arp’s Automatic Drawing (left), the role of the artist is to merely be a conduit for the random shapes that the artist unintentionally doodles on the page. However, surrealist painting in its later phases, under the artistic leadership of Dalí, soon became an outlet for the artist to manifest his individual perspective in his art, just like Breton transitioned in the inspiration for his literary works from trances (sometimes, drug-induced) and “periods of sleeping-fits” to a more deliberate approach, such as attempting to write from and simulate the perspective of someone with a mental disease or psychological disorder.

In Dalí’s painting and accompanying poem, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (below), he transforms the Greek myth of Narcissus, the tale of a young man who, after spurning the affections of the nymph Echo, loved the image of himself so much that he drowned after trying to touch his reflection in a pond, into a story about Dalí’s own life. In the poem, Dalí describes the flower that bursts from the egg in the ossified hand to be “the new Narcissus, Gala -- my narcissus,” referring to Gala Éluard, his wife whom he frequently called his personal savior. Further, Dalí often saw himself as having been born in the shadow of his brother’s death at the age of seven and whose name he was given. The many shadows and planes of reflection, the featureless face of Narcissus, and Narcissus’s own reflection in the water are the shadows of the dead brother still haunting Dalí, trying to pull him down into the kingdom of Hades, following with the Greek superstition of a man losing his soul if he looks at his reflection in water. Dalí later claimed that he “conquered death with pride and narcissism,” directly praising the benefits of narcissism and pride in one’s self. Dalí’s one iconographic addition to the myth of Narcissus in the painting is the stone hand, which highly resembles surrealist contemporary Man Ray’s Main Ray (below). In Ray’s work, his first name corresponds to the French word for hand, main, and by naming the piece in a nearly autobiographical way, he seems to be saying that his creative power can be summed up as a hand carrying the globe of the universe, hence Main Ray. However, whereas Man Ray’s personal allusion is mainly playful wordplay, Dalí’s personal representation in his work is completely serious. In the The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, the hand carries an egg rather than a globe, a symbol that carries an important significance within alchemy, a field which many surrealists including Breton considered a close analogy to their work in that they both attempted to produce more from the composition and rearrangement of less, whether that be physical materials or dreams and experiences. For an alchemist, the egg is an ideal, well-balanced form. It is a microcosm, for all is contained in it: the beginning and the end, the initial phase of the biological cycle and the empty shell. In this sense it also represents opposites (between protected pre-life and unprotected life), just like the sharp contrast between the warm, lively figure of Narcissus and the cold, ossified hand. Dalí visually metamorphoses the undefined head of the genderless Narcissus into an egg, or an unformed person, held by a seemingly non-living, stone hand and thus blurs the line between the micro- and macrocosm, the individual and the world. In this visual transformation lies the heart of his message and a statement on the import of individuality in the spirit of the surrealist rêvolution: without the narcissism that defines man, he fades into nothingness and melts away into society and the all-encompassing, non-living physical world.

In Slave Market with a Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (below), Dalí once again seems to intentionally insert himself into one of his paintings thereby emphasizing the surrealist passion for the individual. A famous example of double image, Dalí’s painting demonstrates how one picture can simultaneously evoke two images through the two robed nuns who also form a bust of Voltaire in the center of the painting. The two clerical figures dressed in all black and white bear a striking resemblance to Dalí’s cameo in Un Chien Andalou (below) produced a decade previously and, in inserting this into his work, Dalí has inserted a distant but salient form of himself, almost a cameo of a cameo, into the piece. In the scene in the film, the sexually frustrated male protagonist is rushing towards the female protagonist, but his charge is prevented because he is suddenly dragging a piano, two priests (one of whom is Dalí) and a dead horse. The weights he must carry seem to symbolize the baggage of society (high culture, religion) that represses individual freedom and prevents man from doing what comes natural. By using his own image as the conduit that links the painting to a statement on the import of individuality, Dalí shows that he can, as Breton frequently said, participate in the work as actor and spectator simultaneously.

In his paranoia-critical interpretations of Millet’s The Angelus (below), Dalí seems to outwardly attack the esteemed impressionist painting by creating numerous variations of it, each with their own unique systematic explanation of the couple who docilely bow their heads in prayer at the time of the Angelus. Dalí was obsessed with the painting as a child and claimed that there was a missing piece to it, which was literally confirmed decades later when an X-ray scan found that there was once the coffin of the couple’s dead child in the ground, but which was subsequently covered up to make the piece more appealing to buyers. Though they differ drastically from one another, all of Dalí’s paranoia-critical versions are explanations set in alternate worlds that invert the original’s theme of solemnity and obedience. Dalí presupposes that he knows the true story of the painting: the hidden erection under the man’s hat or that the woman is actually preparing to devour her husband like a praying mantis. By asserting his role as the artist to dramatically interpret and re-create the painting, he unmistakably asserts the importance of the individual to his audience.

Beyond just being a subject in his own work, Dalí also advances the rêvolution by merging the real and the unreal in his through the lens of paranoiac irrationality so as to unnerve the viewer out of their traditional modes of thinking and perception. Dalí most succinctly described the purpose of his paranoia-critical method as “systematizing confusion and thus helping to discredit completely the world of reality.” A classic example of Dalí’s dual interpretations of reality is Lydia, a woman who came to believe that the writer Eugenio d’Ors was trying to communicate with her in a veiled manner through his newspaper articles. Thus she interpreted d’Ors’s articles as secret communications to her, and was capable of creating coherent relationships where, in effect, there were none, through an elaborate system of coincidences, plays on words and all kinds of ingenious interpretations of meaning, thereby forming a systematic interpretative structure. While this system of paranoiac interpretations only existed in her mind on a strictly literal level, she manifested it in the real world by thinking it and tangibly making the world of delirium pass as reality. In his paintings, Dalí similarly creates a new system of meaning from elements taken from the external would which would otherwise be unrelated to one another and therefore challenges reality with a competing version of it.

For instance, in Metamorphosis of Narcissus (below), Dalí blurs the line between the animate and the inanimate in order to attack the rigid rationality of the objective world. By interpretively reflecting the depiction of the original Greek myth across the vertical axis of the painting, Dalí metamorphoses the rock-like Narcissus into the ossified hand, and blurs the division between the two objects, one of which represents a living being and the other which represents a part of the body. On a material level, these two objects themselves also seem to be fusions of the living and the nonliving in that they represent living things but are made of inanimate elements. Further, the group of naked people mirrors a chessboard with a single piece on it, seemingly challenging the scientific rule of the conservation of matter and the supposedly immutable laws of nature. In essence, Dalí seems to be invoking the message of his most famous work, The Persistence of Memory (left), that the laws that supposedly govern the world are not absolute. In the painting, time itself is also subject to change over time, represented by the clock covered in ants indicating decay and the drooping watches perhaps alluding to Einstein’s contemporary scientific discovery that time is relative and not absolute.

In Slave Market with a Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (below), Dalí paints a scene that seems to be completely ordinary at first glance: the slave market is in the middle of a completely bare landscape save a single stone structure. The scene is so everyday that the shirtless woman who watches from the same perspective as the viewer appears weary and bored as she rests her head on her arm. However, right in front of her eyes is a masterful double-image of two contradictory and diametrically opposed entities, two nuns and the fiercely anticlerical Voltaire. The French philosopher not only despised the church as an institution, but also argued that faith was essentially worthless when compared to the almighty reason, asking “What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No.” However, Dalí’s double-image seems to counter both faith and reason, favoring instead the supremacy of an irrational paranoia that is tied to neither discipline. The two nuns, obvious symbols of faith, together transform into a reification of reason, a bust of their philosophical enemy. Similarly, the double-image of the bust of a leading rationalist thinker seems to be a logical contradiction for while the double-image simultaneously portrays both images, they cannot be seen at the same time by the viewer just like in physics two objects cannot occupy the same space. So what is the painting of? Which image is real? The viewer is left to decide for him or herself, but must acknowledge that such intricate and contradictory meaning can be hidden in the everyday.

In Millet’s Architectonic Angelus (below), Dalí turns a simile into reality and thus blurs the line between the imagined and the real. The painting is of two large white figures mirroring the man and woman in Millet’s original; however, in this version, one of the figures seems to be absorbing the other through a white straw-like tube. While it is possible that Dalí is showing the female devouring the male like a praying mantis after the sexual act following his aforementioned suspicion of this, because of their positions in relation to the original piece with the man on the left and the woman on the right, it is more likely that the male figure is absorbing the female figure. In fact, Dalí seems to be alluding to the legal concept of femme couverte that was practiced in France during Millet’s time and had long precedence in English law whereby “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated or consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection and cover she performs everything.” The legal notion that when a woman marries she is absorbed by her husband is literally depicted in Dalí’s painting as if it were some peculiar biochemical process, where she is transformed into something like an extra organ or physical extension of her husband. Further, the grotesque ending to Un Chien Andalou (below), which was co-written by Dalí, is another modified image of The Angelus with the male and female protagonists decaying and covered in ants, a complete perversion of a traditional fairytale ending. Just like Dalí tinkered and tweaked with Millet’s impressionist painting and strong French cultural icon in paint, he similarly subverted reality by putting his irrational and somewhat mocking stamp on another artist’s work in film. In all three paintings, Dalí creates the surreal by adding unreal elements to scenes firmly grounded in reality (in myth, history and art) and perverts reality by creating surreality from it.

The thought-provoking techniques of Dalí arguably led surrealist painting to reach its upper limit of expressive power. Dalí fundamentally advanced the surrealist movement by developing surrealist painting from the passive to the active, the abstract to the concrete and the disjointed to the systematic. Through his painting, he epitomizes the ideal surrealist by combining Breton’s three allegorical figures that he argues are the best surrealists -- the child, the madman and the dreamer. Dalí’s paintings show the unfettered individualism of a child unconditioned by societal constraints, the paranoid explanations of a madman, and the reality-bending images of a dreamer unabashedly dreaming while awake. In all of these efforts, Dalí uses his art to advance the cause of the surrealist rêvolution by changing the world through changing the way people interpret it, or, in his words, being the hallucinogenic.