In the beginning of the twentieth century, a peculiar stirring in the universe, one Salvador Dali. Born to Catalonian parents in the north of Spain, Dali was the couple’s second. Their first had died prior to Dali’s birth, and it was into this bizarre situation of overshadowing that the young artist was thrown.
Salvador Dali is perhaps best known for his work, “The Persistence of Memory”, a landscape of sorts depicting a melting or “soft” clock, and a variety of surreal objects and vistas. Even in this relatively early image, we can see the intimations of a mysticism that would come to draw under its umbrella most of the relevant symbolic and ideological content of the last several thousand years, along with prescient winks to the future of mankind.
But before we attend to this most pressing of matters, we had better revisit the young Dali, to best understand and contextualise his later works. Dali knew from a very young age that his brother had died unexpectedly, and he could see that his parents had never truly overcome the shock or the grief associated with losing a child. His brother had been precocious, intelligent and creative, and Dali referred to him later as himself, in a form too true and perfect for this world.
Dali began to experiment with his reality at a very young age. In “The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali”, he recalls a memory where he was transfixed by the sight and smell of the carcass of a small animal in a barn, and, running back and forth between the clean air of the outside and the rank scent of the creature, became ecstatic. He later pushed a small boy from a bridge, and looked on with some measure of satisfaction. He then returned to his village, where he alerted the population that the boy had fallen on his own, and delighted in the ensuing chaos.
In school, Dali came to begin to understand his ability as a showman and as a surrealist. He would leap down the large flight of stairs in his schoolyard, attracting the attention of his peers and his teachers as he came perilously close to death. He maintained that he could feel his spirit flying free during these moments, and began to get intimations of the person he would become in his later years.
Dali studied art at a prestigious college in Spain, but was later expelled or left of his own accord, depending on whom you speak to. He immersed himself in the Surreal, meeting the movement led by Andre Breton and quickly becoming a fixture of the scene. Dali began to study, also, anything from the mathematical treatises of the renaissance to Freud and Jung’s psychoanalysis, and everything in between. He became a true renaissance man.
Dali believed that the world was comprised of both soft and hard aspects, somewhat akin to how the human body has soft flesh and hard bones, or how the consciousness of the human goes from the softness of sleep into the hardness of waking reality. We can see parallels to this soft/hard duality everywhere: in the genitalia of mammals, in the principle of the yang and the yin in Chinese philosophy, in the notion of Apollo and Dionysus in the Greek, and in the notions of rational and irrational, the defined and the vague.
Dali was obsessed with the irrational, with the aspects of the human mind that had remained unconscious or out of sight. He desired to bring into coherent relief the worlds of the unconscious mind, all of the archetypal imagery, the symbolism, and the meaning we carry around inside of our heads but never attend to. To this effect, he began painting drawers in his human figures, and attended a lecture wearing a diving suit to symbolise his role as an explorer of the deeper level of cognition.
In a culture where we have barely scratched the surface of the potential of the irrational or transrational mind, where its main expressions have been through art, music, drama and literature, it is only rational that we begin to incorporate these modes of awareness, perception and behaviour into what are traditionally considered “rational-only” domains, such as science, philosophy, psychology and so on. This is not to suggest a jettisoning of the rational; rather a synthesis of the two.
We can see the rational mind as being perhaps represented in the operations of the prefrontal cortex, that aspect of the brain which analyses and plans; and the irrational or spontaneous consciousness as being represented in the operations of the anterior cingular cortex, which is the region of the brain most active in “flow” states, wherein an individual is appropriately responding to his environment in real time.
Dali was attempting to marry the prefrontal and anterior cingular cortexes, the rational and the irrational, the soft and the hard, and I believe we can all benefit from this kind of synthesis, this bringing together of opposites, if we understand how to use it as a tool in our own thinking. We simply must consider both sides of the story, all approaches to an object, before we can say we have truly understood it.
In his later career, Dali became fascinated with nuclear physics, and began to develop his own peculiar brand of “nuclear mysticism.” He recognised along with the best minds of quantum mechanics that the cosmos is a vibratory phenomenon, consisting of fields and their properties, form and pattern; and that this is all affected by the observer and may in fact hinge entirely upon him. Niels Bohr reminded us of something the philosophies of the East stumbled across hundreds and even thousands of years ago: that we do not speak of reality, rather our theories, whether they are describing the smallest subatomic behaviour or the largest superclusters, are descriptions of our nervous systems and their present limitations. Translating this into art, Dali painted such works as the Leda Atomica and the Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, which shows his aforementioned work in the stages of atomic dissolution.
A discussion of Dali would surely be of no merit if we left out perhaps his finest accomplishment: the development of what he termed “the Paranoiac-Critical Method.” This trick of consciousness, if we may call it that, was to induce a delirious or paranoid state in which the individual begins to see double images and suggestive forms in what had previously been normalised facets of perception. This is not at all unlike the game of cloudwatching we all played as children, in which we would pick out the forms of horses, mountains, dragons and cities. Dali takes this one step further, and asks us that we project this into all aspects of our daily lives. To avoid the obvious pitfall of madness that comes with the territory of manipulating ones’ perception, Dali then recommended that these visions or perceptions be treated with the utmost in critical analysis, eking from them their deeper meanings, symbological associations, and potential effects on consciousness. We can see again in this the play of the soft perceptions of the paranoia phase, and the hard perceptions and manipulations of the critical.
We can see in Dali perhaps the archetype of a truly mystical human being, albeit one with a colossal ego: someone who took in the knowledge, symbology and content of his culture, his word and his life, and exported it with the technique and skill of a master. Upaya, indeed. I would urge you all to seek out his written works, to avail yourselves of his brilliant artworks, and to experiment with the novel techniques of consciousness he pioneered and developed.
To Salvador Dali, an inimitable personage in a world ripe for mystical manifestation.