This weekend I was lucky enough to go and see one of my favourite Salvador Dali paintings up close at the Freud museum in London. ‘The Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ (1937) is a painting I’ve written about many times, but it is only when you really see it up close, that you begin to take in the true depth and intricacy of the work. It is much smaller than I had imagined, as I had always thought it would be a few meters tall and wide, for only that could capture the scale of the myth and the events of the painting. But much like ‘The persistence of memory’, which is the size of a postcard, it is relatively small (perhaps a3 sized – see image below). Yet the depth and intricacy of such a small painting, the detail on each and every one of the figures – all fully formed and realized – is staggering. But there is also a dimension – and I’d never really considered this in the images I’d seen printed in books – through the way the paint spatters and oozes and circulates, perambulates in currents of colour making it even more dream-like and psychedelic in reality. With the epigraphs on the walls of the gallery wherein Dali speaks of inhabiting madness whilst painting, I was reminded of Kay Jamison’s book Touched With Fire, in which she writes about the circumambulatory consistencies in works by the great so-called ‘mad’ or manic-minded painters like Van Gogh and Edvard Munch. It seems as if Dali is somehow tapping into these mentalities here.. The significance of the painting to The Freud museum also bears mentioning, for Dali, like most all the surrealists, worked at the aestheticisation of Freudian psychoanalysis, and so Freud was a hugely significant figure for his ideas. Dali had met Freud at his London house (the house where this very exhibition was held) on July 19th 1938, and Dali had brought this painting along with him. So this was a kind of symbolic return for the painting. 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 himself was taken aback by Dali, and later called him a ‘mad Spaniard’ (surely this brought major boasting rights to Dali considering the stature of some of Freud’s best known patients), but he too was nevertheless 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 hey? To convince the very 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. So anyway, to finish the weekend off, on the Saturday I presented a conference paper at Birkbeck university on Salvador Dali and the symbolism of death and decay within his work.
It is well known that surrealism was very much driven by psychoanalysis, and is often viewed as the aestheticisation of psychoanalysis. Aside from the huge influence of the freudian unconscious, one of the main processes the surrealists adopted from his theory was dream censorship: the galvanising process of envisioning repressed drives which are constrained by the reality principle. By way of the dream-work the manifest image censors the latent emotion, a process which is central to the daily recuperation of the psyche in satisfying the suppressed urges of our primal, you might call ‘iddish’ selves. In Surrealist works we similarly see how, as in dreams, the ‘commonplace vocabulary of everyday life’ (a phrase used by Ballard) in the form of objects, recognisable persons and locations are reinvigorated, infused with deeper meaning. What’s crucial is that this recuperative process reveals an inherent artistry of the unconscious which generates narratives and recurrent phantasmagoric images. Essentially then it is this instinctive artistry that is being channeled by the Surrealists.
In 1924, at the very dawn of the movement, the surrealist figurehead Andre Breton proclaimed that the movement be situated in the ‘province of poets and scholars’, and it is within this juncture, the meeting point of theory and aesthetic, which we might situate the work of J. G. Ballard.
‘The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them — first to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason. The analysts themselves have everything to gain by it. But it is worth noting that no means has been designated a priori for carrying out this undertaking, that until further notice it can be construed to be the province of poets as well as scholars, and that its success is not dependent upon the more or less capricious paths that will be followed’
Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)
Like the Surrealists, much of Ballard’s work incorporates and fictionalises psychoanalytic theory, especially that of Freud, Jung and R. D. Laing. We see this in major works like Crash which toys with Freud’s notion of the Death Drive, and Vaughan’s incessant pursuit of the ‘fertilising’ event of death. Even in much later works like Kingdom Come, which toys with the ideas put forward by Wilhelm Reich in his psychoanalytic work on Nazi Germany The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). In The Atrocity Exhibition Ballard seems to be tackling questions brought about by Laing in his seminal The Divided Self (1960), which rebuffed widespread ‘psychiatric jargon’ which commonly ‘speaks of psychosis as a social or biological failure of adjustment, or maladaptation of a particularly radical kind, of loss of contact with reality, of lack of insight’ (Laing, p. 27). Laing’s work demonstrated a sensitivity and empathy which was hitherto unforeseen in its field, instead proposing that ‘sanity or psychosis is tested by the degree of conjunction or disjunction between two persons where the one is sane by common consent’ (Laing, p. 36). We’re therefore seeing such a disjunction through the contrasting central schizoid character Traven and the ever-watchful psychiatric voice of Dr Nathan whose inability to look beyond rationality leaves him grasping in the dark.
Many of his short stories also engage such Surrealist themes. ‘Mr f is Mr f’ for example is a 1961 short story which tells of a man, Charles Freeman, who is steadily absorbed back into his mother’s womb, receding into a childlike state as the narrative progresses, and with this into a state of madness and hysteria. In the story Freeman’s body shrinks and his speech regresses into nonsensical babble but his consciousness, internalised dialogue and inner workings remains within an aged purgatory. The transformation takes place whilst Freeman sleeps, which recalls Freudian notions of the cerebral actions during sleep denoting an unconscious desire to return to the womb. Freud explains that ‘the biological purpose of sleep seems therefore to be rehabilitation… our relation to the world, into which we have come so unwillingly, seems to involve our not being able to tolerate it uninterruptedly. This from time to time we withdraw into the premundane state, into existence in the womb. At any rate, we arrange conditions for ourselves very like what they were then: warm, dark and free from stimuli’ (Freud, Introductory Lectures on Analysis  p. 117.). As Freeman descends further and further into this state of infancy Ballard describes how ‘he now felt clearly for the first time what he had for so long repressed. Before the end he cried out suddenly with joy and wonder, as he remembered the drowned world of his first childhood’ (Ballard Short Stories Volume 1, p. 360).
High Rise is one of the most overt galvanisations of Freudian theory, grappling with many of the concepts of repressed atavism discussed in Civilisation and Its Discontents, in which Freud posits ‘the neighbour is not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to take out their aggression on him… if the physical counter-forces that would otherwise inhibit it [the id] have ceased to operate, it manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage that has no thought of sparing its own kind’ (Freud, p. 48). The main characters who appear in the novel each serve to embody Freud’s iconic structuralisation of the psyche comprising ego, id and superego: these being Laing, Wilder and Royal. Whilst the plot centers around Robert Laing, we are nevertheless made aware of the gradual ascension of the brutish, impulsive Richard Wilder (i.e. the ‘wild’ unrestrained id) from the bowels of the high rise, towards the palatial bounds of the upper floors, those governed by the high rise’s architect and godly creator, Anthony Royal (who embodies the superego; he is ‘royalty’; the designer; the instructor; the conscience; and the watchful father whose omnipresence keeps primitive impulses at bay). Meanwhile Robert Laing (i.e. the ego, the self, after R. D. Laing), the central character, acts as the neutral point between these two polarities and is therefore situated fittingly in the middle section of the edifice, a balance which is strained as the id (Wilder) gains momentum and the superego subsides (i.e. the death of the superegoic Royal). As Wilder ascends, civilisation crumbles, and upon the Oedipal killing of Royal, his symbolic father, Laing finally submits to his inner beast. The high rise itself therefore acts as a concretised physicalisation of the Freudian psyche within the novel.
Whilst Ballard frequently alludes to Surrealism within his work, such narrative incorporation of psychoanalytic theory runs much deeper: an underlying process apprehended from the Surrealists which plays a significant role in the overall hermeneutic of his work. But above all, Ballard utilized Surrealism as a force for good, its redemptive capacities. As he stated in 1966, in Surrealism “what uniquely characterises this fusion of the outer world of reality and the inner world of the psyche (which I have termed “inner space”) is its redemptive and therapeutic power. To move through these landscapes is a journey of return to one’s innermost being” (J. G. Ballard, ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’, New Worlds 1966).
NB: featured image is Magritte’s ‘philosopher’s lamp’ (1936)
In his novel Perfume, Patrick Suskind exposes the almost total inadequacy of language in evoking the senses, and in particular, evoking scent. Scent is a domain symbolically ‘quarantined’ from all other senses. How so? Think about the use of symbolic language in the evocation of the senses, and how, for the most part, you can find direct and fundamental examples of the senses demonstrating a convolution of the symbolic order (surface language) and the real or the hidden kernel object (das ding). With the sense of hearing, this can be most overtly seen for example with onomatopoeia whereby audible sound merges with language. Touch does something similar – words like ‘smooth’ and ‘rough’ express a sense of the objective merged with language, and so still we have that crucial tether between the two which goes beyond the symbolic veneer. With touch in language sound often acts as a byway; sound becomes the way by which a texture and so the sense of touch becomes manifest. These real-symbolic evocations of the senses are cross cultural, as what we’re talking about is obviously on a deeper level than the words themselves, more structural and yet not linguistically so.
More abstractedly though nevertheless still crucially entwined with objectivised language is the sense of taste: we use words like sharp, or bitter – coming from the Germanic word bite, or tang, which comes from an old word for the blade of a knife. These words for the sense of taste – much like the words for touch which use audible sounds – are using object textures, that is, by way of the sense of touch, thereby again demonstrating a tether between symbolic language and real object. It is important to emphasise then – and this is most evident with the sense of smell and taste – that whilst 2 senses can be inherently tied in their biological, sensory function, they are not in any way linked in their symbolic function. I’m aware such isolated examples may seem insufficient, but actually what is vital is the mere existence of any single example of Symbolic words being in any way tethered to the Real.
However, there are no words in the field of scent, which can not possibly demonstrate a tether between symbolic and real. This is the same for sight, which, being what we might locate as the ‘foundational’ sense in the creation of language, is inherently and crucially detached from the real – in fact it’s primary function is exactly that, to shield the real in a reality-encompassing veneer. So whilst with touch and hearing and taste we have this kind of tiered, cross-fertilisation of the various senses in order to evoke the real object, this is distinctly absent from the remaining 2 senses: sight and smell. Why is this important? This unique dislocation of symbolic and real in the realm of scent is, I believe, key to pinpointing why it is that only with the sense of smell, can we form associations with much more abstract concepts such as memories. The reason being that smell has no possible direct tether to the symbolic universe. If smells were symbolically registered, then we would be incapable of associating certain smells with certain memories as we now do. This also explains why Freud situated scent in such a pivotal role in the designation of the neuroses.
“love is a phenomenon which takes place on the Imaginary level, and which provokes a veritable seduction of the Symbolic, a sort of annihilation, of peturbation of the function of the ego-ideal. Love reopens the door – as Freud put it, not mincing his words – to perfection. The ichideal, the ego-ideal, is the other as speaking, the other in so far as he has a Symbolic relation to me, which, within the terms of our dynamic manipulation, is both similar to and different from the imaginary libido. Symbolic exchange is what links human beings to each other, that is, it is speech and it makes it possible to identify the subject… the ichideal, considered as speaking, can come to be placed in the world of objects on the level of… narcissistic captation… this attachment is fundamentally fatal. That’s what love is. It’s one’s own ego that one loves in love, one’s own ego made real on the imaginary level”
– Jacques Lacan, Seminar 1: Freud’s Papers on Technique