A quick simple ditty
Can capture the world
In a moment so pretty
Like petals unfurled
And all o those epics
That came long afore
And dither like sceptics
Til the moments no more
Quick look now and see
As the words drift away
Let the moment take thee
On this wonderous day
By the lake there’s a drake
There a crow swoopin low
And the sunny sun sun
And the trees in the breeze
Laps those fine little hairs
like grass and perhaps
No one else much cares
just run o the mill
But still I stare and
wonder what will
“If a man would be alone, let him look to the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
** featured image is Lieve Verschuier’s ‘the great comet of 1680 over Rotterdam’ (1680)**
but relief is coming running with cunning ferocity
history is imploding, corroding
making room for a new awakening
so clamber out of that chasm of conformity
and rise up into the rhythms of rhapsody!
stray not away we were told all the while
stray not away we were told with a smile
now comes the day when like poets we stray
and wander the hills with a smile everyday
adrift on the sea, all alone, castaway
and so stray away, go astray I say!
cast away the mind and find
that rhythmic rhapsody inside
and wander under Monet’s pastel skies
or sail to Gauguin’s tropic paradise
or follow the fleet footsteps of Hemingway
or sit and sway beside the old man who plays guitar
under the blue moon with shining eyes far away
serenading “the things as they are”
gleefully crooning and festooning the night and the stars
with beauteous lunar tunes
or drift o’er the swirling Venetian lagoons
but stray not away from that lyric tranquility
stray not away from that toxic tactility
for to stray is to waylay
that wonderous world of mutability
into which one could stray
and go astray for a fleeting infinity
stray away go astray I say
stray away into the patterns of poetry
and soon the patterns of poetry
will stray into thee!
“to be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting” – E. E. Cummings
“for man, consciousness is the smallest part of thought, the most superficial. Conscious thinking takes place in words, communication signs, and here the origin of consciousness reveals itself. In short, the evolution of language and the evolution of consciousness (not of reason but only of reason’s becoming conscious of itself) go hand in hand… our becoming conscious of our own sense-impressions, the power of fixing them and, as it were, setting them outside ourselves has increased in the measure that the constraint grew to transmit them to others by signs… The nature of animal consciousness brings it about that the world of which we can become conscious is only a surface and sign-world, a world made universal and common… with all becoming conscious there is united a great fundamental corruption, falsification, superficialising and generalisation”
– Nietzsche, The Gay Science (354)
Nietzsche identifies that consciousness emerges as a result of language, but he does not specify written language, which is a key differentiator. He does however, like Julian Jaynes, talk of consciousness as the ‘smallest and most superficial part’ of thought (Jaynes says something similar when he uses the metaphor of a man with a torch) and even touches on the idea of a varying degree of consciousness which comes with severity of need. Nietzsche here talks of this crucial ‘fixing’ of sense-impressions and ‘setting them outside ourselves’ in consciousness, which is similarly expounded by Jaynes by way of the metaphor and ‘the illusion of continuity’. This ‘fixing’ is best thought of however in terms of Lacan’s Symbolic order, established following the mirror stage during which the child affixes words or rather submerges the surrounding Real, unknowable, objective world with a reality encompassing veneer of language (Jaynes was working on emergence of consciousness in childhood before he died but did not get so far in his formative writing on this), providing surface order in reality. A crucial missing piece here then is in the distinction between literacy and orality, as later identified by Marshall McLuhan (with astounding exactness to Jaynes, considering their vastly different theoretical approaches). Historically speaking, introspective consciousness came about at the exact same time as recorded, written language – and this was simply because this was the historic point at which humanity was able to bury enough of the surrounding Real beneath words. This ‘weakening of the auditory by the advent of writing’ (Jaynes, p. 221), that is, of orality by literacy, thus also led to, in Jaynes’s view, the ‘silencing’ of the inner voice, which was no longer necessary except for in times of greatly increased levels of stress, which is exclusively the result of a weakening on the Symbolic (i.e. the crucial stepping stone to consciousness and the entry into the ‘silent’ world of literate man). The same process of becoming conscious now occurs in all children from literate societies (i.e. you do not have the capacity for introspection pre-mirror stage which is around 18 months) and this is so fundamentally embedded into society that we know no other way (McLuhan cites somewhere a case of a boy in a tribe who learns to read and becomes literate, and experiences a seismic change in terms of his perception of reality – Carothers in Gutenberg Galaxy?). It is likely that pre-literate, ‘verge-of-consciousness’ societies underwent a seminal change in brain chemistry, which was the direct result of writing taking over the crucial function of storing memory: knowledge became externalised and able to be passed along, and so too did an extensive cache of words and so means of logically comprehending the surrounding world by subsequent generations. The key differentiator between bicameral and conscious man is the eradication of ‘trial and error’ modes of thinking.
Notably, Nietzsche also expands on this idea that consciousness is intrinsically interwoven with the herd mentality. A parallel can here be drawn between the conscious herd, which are contained by their Symbolic order, and the unconscious Ubermenschian mind, who are cast off into that abyssal unknown, and so capable of breaching Symbolic bounds, such as the psychotic who inadvertently stands outside of the Symbolic order of language in Lacanian thought (but by Oediapal structuration or Symbolic Constitution?). Nietzsche argues that consciousness evolved ‘only with regard to usefulness for community and herd.. and even those with the best will to understand himself, to know himself, will nonetheless bring into his consciousness only what is not individual in him, his ‘average’.. thought is continually outvoted by the character of consciousness’. A link is to be drawn here with Nietzsche’s discussion of evolution, which he saw not as the archetypal ‘survival of the fittest’, but rather as the prolongation of the ‘average-est’.
Nietzsche lay down and wine spilled from the seems of his mouth as he grinned. Around him were his friends, many fellow philosophers, all whom were admired and revered, but who were as mere shadows on a cave wall in Nietzsche’s almighty presence. He was the greatest among them. They rejoice and recite poetry and reflect deep into the dark night, reclining on cushions under sprawling aphoristic stars and truth shines down on their conversations which run unbridled and free as wild horses streaming over grassy hills. Close by a young man, wide-eyed and wide-eared, writes frantically anything that the prophet utters. What seems a mere jocularity to Nietzsche seems of greatest importance to the young man. He must capture it all, for in these moments of jest, in the swill of wine, his mind dances at its Dionysian zenith. Nietzsche looks up to the stars, and silence adorned those around him. A comet streaked by like the flick of a quill. Then he whispered to no-one and to all: perhaps it isonly in this faithful world of myth, in all its gleeful artistry, that we can find any truth… gaze out into those vast nebulas, those abyssal straits, where all potentials of the imagination are spread out before us.. it is time to relinquish this mind-shackling obsession with the definite, and instead, all hail the infinite!
NB: featured image is Brion Gysin’s ‘Calligraphie’ (1960)
This weekend I got see one of my favourite Salvador Dali paintings, ‘The Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, up close at the Freud museum in London. What a moment it was! I’ve written about this painting many times, but like most I’d only ever seen it reproduced in books or through online images etc. The work was all the more impressive as it enables you to see all the tiny intricacies, and Dali really was a master miniaturist. To give an example, ‘The persistence of memory’ is the size of a postcard and yet it has all the depth and intricacy of a painting 10 times the size! The detail on the figures (see some cropped pics below) is sublime, and what strikes me most is his incredible grasp of shadow… it is like he has perfected exactly how a shadow must fall onto every object within a landscape with absolute precision. The paint spats and oozes and circulates in currents of colour making it even more dream-like and psychedelic in reality (Kay Jamison writes about the circumambulatory consistencies in works by the great so-called ‘mad’ or manic-minded painters like Van Gogh and Edvard Munch and so maybe Dali’s tapping something deeper here..). The significance of the painting to The Freud museum also bears mentioning. Dali, like most all the surrealists, worked at the aestheticisation of Freudian psychoanalysis, and so Freud was a hugely significant figure for his life and ideas. Dali met Freud at his London house on July 19th 1938, and brought this painting along with him. Dali took artistic inspiration from their meeting, drawing many pictures of Freud, and even likening Freud’s cranium to the spiralling shell of a snail, using it thenceforth as a symbol for Freud in many subsequent works. Freud was somewhat taken aback by Dali, and called him a ‘mad Spaniard’, but was still deeply impacted by their meeting. Freud later said: “I was inclined to look upon the surrealists, who have apparently chosen me as their patron saint, as absolute cranks. The young Spaniard, however, with his candid fanatical eyes and his undeniable technical mastery, has made me reconsider my opinion”. Not a bad legacy eh? To convince the founder of psychoanalysis that just maybe there’s something to surrealism after all? Breton famously kicked Dali out of the movement, and yet it was Dali, NOT Breton who convinced Freud of their significance. To top the weekend off, on Saturday I presented a conference paper at Birkbeck university on Salvador Dali and decay aesthetics (this can be read after the images from the exhibit below).
Dali paper given at Birkbeck London:
Deciphering Visions of Death and Decay in the Paranoiac Art and Writing of Salvador Dali
The legendary Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali was an artist who relished the eccentric, the audacious, the dionysian. In youth he was expelled from schools, and in adulthood he was expelled from entire movements – and loved it. His iconic dream-galvanising works bearing spindly-legged elephants and rhinoceri, oozing camembert clocks and death masks, flaming giraffes, giant locusts, anthropomorphic cliffs and rock formations, are at once farcical fantasies and probing explorations of self. Buried beneath these scenes of Rabelaisian absurdity we so often find an overriding sense of desolation and decay: endless crumbling landscapes and wandering spectres; fossilised architectures, and apocalyptic scenes of war and terror. But what do they signify? As a member of the surrealists, a movement borne of the seismic discovery of the Freudian unconscious, his art worked towards the aestheticisation of psychoanalysis; the uprooting and artistic exposition of dream psychology. Psychoanalysis inherently centers around ideas of the decaying psyche: and dreams likewise work at appeasing some repressed urge, some looming, festering obsession or neuroses.
Paranoiac critical method
Dali wrote extensively on his craft and its engagement with such psychoanalytic ideas – appearing alongside the likes of Jacques Lacan in Minotaure in 1931, even meeting Freud himself in 1938, and he developed a revolutionary means of self-analysis which he hailed the ‘paranoiac critical method’. This was a means of designating and systematising the kaleidoscopic cornucopia of his dreams. He described how the method “organizes and objectivizes, in an exclusivist manner, the limitless and unknown possibilities of the systematic association of subjective ‘significance’ in the irrational… it makes the world of delirium pass onto the plane of reality” (from Dali’s 1935 essay ‘The Conquest of the Irrational’). Harnessing the recurrent images of his dreams, he placed himself ‘on the couch’ so to speak, painting a symbolic, ‘manifest’ rendition of his ‘latent’ emotional state. And Once these private fantasies and visions of madness are deciphered, through his recollections of childhood and the key events in his life, there begins to emerge a very precise and evocative rendition of inner thought and feeling.
The great masturbator
Taking one of Dali’s famed earlier works, ‘The Great Masturbator’ (1929), as an example, we can see this manifest-vs-latent composition at work. First and foremost we see the domineering downward facing profile of Dali, the shape of which mirrors a Catalonian rock formation he used to visit alone as a child. So immediately we have this strong sense of childhood shame radiating from the painting. A boy’s grazed knee in the upper right further reinforces this child-like timidity in the overwhelming angelic presence of Gala, his lifelong love, who is adorned with the image of a drooling lion, symbolising burning lust, as she nuzzles his nethers. Dali had a great phobia of locusts, and so the giant locust covering Dali’s mouth here represents his great looming fear of sex in youth, the antennae recreating his signature sweeping moustache and perhaps representing his adult self. This fear of sex and sexual desire in his youth stemmed (at least in part) from his father, who used to leave out a book with grotesque pictures of sufferers of venereal disease as a warning of what happens to sexual deviants (Secret Life). Ants are a recurrent symbol of death and decay in Dali’s work, this stemming from a vivid childhood memory of a dead bat covered in ants, which he proceeded to bite into for reasons known only to himself. Here then the locust’s abdomen being covered in ants perhaps represents this slow death or ebbing of his fear: in other words, his rising sexual confidence. This is then bolstered by the small egg in the bottom centre, which represents hope and fertility in his work, and the two embracing figures close by who represent this faint and distant hope of a lasting and passionate relationship. Thus, we see how these images work at some hidden logic: the maniacal manifest content cloaks an underlying latency and truth.
Persistence of Memory
Especially important for Dali is this idea of the decay of time, and of memory, and this is something best evoked in what is likely his most famous work, ‘The Persistence of Memory’. The ironic title, contrasted utterly with the oozing clocks which signify the ebbing flow of time and memory, toys with the inherent contradictions of dreams and the inner world; the subconscious as the inverse of the waking mind, which is geared at fabrication; the rebus of the dream. The work can be seen to evoke similar ideas to that which Jean-Paul Sartre explores in his classic existentialist novel, Nausea, in which Antoine Roquentin describes the inevitable corruption of memory as we think on the past: “we only receive the scraps of images, remembered or invented… sometimes I happen to pronounce some of those beautiful names you read in atlases… they engender brand new pictures in me… but for a hundred dead stories there remains only one or two living ones. These I evoke cautiously, occasionally, not too often, for fear of wearing them out” (Nausea, pp. 52-53). The decay of memory here then is equated with the decay of truth: as we reminisce on the past more and more the fabrication of ‘false memories’ ensues, and so it is that Dali’s biography, The Secret Lifeof Salvador Dali, is littered with these self-admitted ‘false memories’ which are something more like the shadows of memories due to their gradual dissipation.
Un chien Andelou
Another of Dali’s most iconic works was in a very different medium: the 1929 silent film ‘Un chien andelou’ or ‘An Andalusian dog’, written with Louis Bunuel. Shot in the vein of a Freudian dream sequence and urging the viewer to free association, it centers loosely around a young woman’s turbulent love life. She ages and meets many different men, but none seem to have the same lasting effect on her as the very first man she meets. This man, oddly enough, is garbed in nuns clothes on their first meeting, and appears violent towards both her and her subsequent lovers (presumably out of jealousy), but nevertheless her love for him supersedes all others. At one point in the film we see a pair of rotten donkey corpses draped over a pair of pianos – this was the image Dali was said to have based the entire film around (Secret Life). They are tied to a piece of rope along with broken tablet pieces bearing the ten commandments, and 2 bewildered priests (one of which is Dali himself), and dragged aggressively toward the woman in what appears to be a symbol of his forcing his religious beliefs upon her. This nightmarish image of the rotten donkeys then, contextualised by the presence of other Christian iconography, seems to evoke the testing of Christian ideals, of one’s faith.
Metamorphosis of Narcissus
Another iconic Dalinian work is the ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, an ekphrastic painting which contains the entirety of Ovid’s myth of Echo and Narcissus in a singular image. The two central images of the figure and the hand clasping an egg essentially denote Narcissus’s changing psychology as he gazes into the water. The left figure image is Narcissus as he famously gazes on himself in the lake’s reflection, and on the right is a metaphorical rendition of what he finds lurking there… he finds self-love, and so the egg, which represents blossoming love and fertility, symbolises how, as he gazes into the watery depths, he falls in love with his own image.. How he drowns in his own image even. The mirror image being a gigantic hand is particularly pertinent in that it represents at once this idea of an aggrandisement of the self (narcissism) but at the same time this idea of how love denotes, in psychoanalytic terms, the ego-ideal: which is the perfected and grossly augmented rendition of self. So through these 2 central mirrored images we have a depiction of both outer world and inner psychology, and the decay of reality through narcissistic self-love.
But there was one particular image which plagued Dali for much of his life, an image which he described as at once ‘the most troubling of pictorial works, the most enigmatic, the most dense, the richest in unconscious thoughts that has ever existed’ (The Tragic Myth of Millets Angelus). This image was Jean Francois Millet’s Angelus, and it not only appears in a plethora of Dali’s artwork, in various forms, but was also the primary influence for his paranoiac-critical manifesto, The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus (1933). The painting seems to have been for Dali, the very pinnacle of that manifest-latent divide: a kind of mythologised rendition of the very essence of surrealism and psychoanalysis. The grim aspect of the standing figures left Dali no doubt that here were two people mourning a child, and he continued to write his entire Tragic Myth, based on this unproven belief. Many years later he expressed ‘the great mythical theme of the death of the son, an essential sentiment that became apparent in my Tragic Myth, was confirmed once my thesis had been completed, without my having yet been able, until recently, to verify it’ (intro, Tragic Myth). His obsession, reflected by the innumerable allusions and appearances of the Angelus in his artworks, led to this astounding discovery, only verified a century after the work’s conception by modern x-ray technology. Hidden deep beneath the many layers of soil and paint, there lay the unquestionable outline of a small coffin, the size of which would suit only a child… Dali was right all along…
Dali’s angelus / conclusion
The image is above all, a symbol of lurking truth behind all obsessions, all repressions; the kernel of trauma, the origin or source point which Freud seeks to locate and uproot. But the Angelus also seems to act as a symbol of Dali’s own buried childhood, the haunting by his youth, and the curse of age. The decaying landscapes which are overlooked by these looming seers of the Angelus are transformed under their gaze. They are statues: solid, unfaltering monuments of the object, manifest world, lost and misplaced totems in the vast and eternal dreamscapes of unknown latency…