"I respired. Nothing was mysterious any longer. The scent of Saint Sebastian was
a pure pretext for an aesthetics of objectivity" (21).
Salvador Dalí's "St. Sebastian" (1927)
Points of Reflection
The Bible: Psalm 23
1. do the poetic images in verses 1-3 suggest coercion? Does God, here configured as a shepherd, exert restrictive control over the narrator?
2. visualize the valley described in verse 4, embellishing what you see in your mind's eye with details from your own imagination. Are you visualizing an array of present and visible dangers which fail to alarm the shepherd and his sheep, dangers hidden and unseen in the darkness, or a total absence of frightening stimuli?
3. how does it shape your reading of verses 5-6 to learn that David, the presumed author, would one day be king of Israel himself?
The Bible: Luke 12:24-34
1. does the animal rights activism that pervades western culture today prevent some twenty-first century readers from moving beyond the first verse of this passage, or do most of us still consider humans to be of more value than other animals?
2. do verses 29-30 constitute a call to apathy and laziness? What is Jesus' point in this passage?
3. humans are, once again, configured here as sheep under the care of a shepherd. Does this metaphor either offend or encourage you?
4. is Jesus' anti-materialism politically impractical, something that no modern politician could ever recommend?
5. how does verse 34 retroactively inform the verses that preceded it?
Salvador Dalí's prose poem "St. Sebastian" (1927)
1. Dalí's writing can be tricky to decipher for a number of reasons. At this point in his life, he is a Catalan painter writing in French about philosophy as well as art, adopting a fantastic subject position in which his imagination transports him from place to place, scenario to scenario. Stay with him--endure--and you might suprise yourself by successfully wresting some unlooked-for insight or veiled truth from the experience. We will not attempt to closely interpret every image or sentence in "St. Sebastian," but we will try to make sense of some of its key passages.
2. In "St. Sebastian," a cryptic prose poem, the young and still atheistic Dalí begins by claiming that whereas Nature tends to hide itself out of modesty, Art can reveal Nature by making it quantifiable (19). (It might help to know that, in October of the same year, Dalí refers back to this essay in "My Pictures at the Autumn Salon" and explains that by irony he means "naked reality," not the "roguish wit" suggested by the English sense of the word.) In "St. Sebastian," Dalí provides the example of ocean waves that, as noted by a fisherman friend of his, are better as depicted in Dalí's art because there they can be counted. Can you generate additional examples of something in Nature which, when depicted artistically, reveals a previously hidden facet of itself?
3. Dalí maintains that the best way to consider the suffering of another person is to adopt an "elegant" mode of approach "between inaction and passion" (20, emphasis added). What do you think? Does the prose poem which follows successfully maintain this balance instead of veering towards either callous inaction or hysterical passion?
4. Dalí's mind's eye envisions the subject of the poem, a Roman martyr and saint usually depicted with arrows interpenetrating his body, standing at the head of a staircase in Italy, lit by a disinefected, "aseptic" light that so closely reveals every detail of his bleeding body that it becomes "impossible for [Dalí'] to feel perturbed" (20). Consider some of those artistic portrayals of suffering that you have encountered in television and film, as well as the more static arts like painting and sculpture. Does art tend to temper or otherwise alter your instinctive, knee-jerk response to the idea of a particular type of pain?
5. why suggest that the arrows penetrating St. Sebastian each have a particular temperature, that the breeze blowing past this painful scene leaves a physical impression on St. Sebastian's body, and that at the martyr's feet lie "precision instruments of unknown physics . . . offering their crystals and aluminums to the disinfected light" (20)? Why describe "the smell of the seas" as "constructed and anatomical like the pieces of a crab? What does Dalí appear to be attempting?
6. why does the imaginary Dalí shut his eyes for a moment (21)?
7. Dalí discovers at the feet of the martyr a Heliometer for Deaf-Mutes, an astronomical instrument "of a lofty physical poetry" here used to measure distances between, not stars, but differing "aesthetic values" as well as between a range of "sensual values" (21). Presumably, this instrument "for Deaf-Mutes" measures such things with recourse to neither music nor voice, and only limited reliance on vision (21). Can one possibly reconcile this devaluation of sensuous data with the poem's apparent celebration of closely defining and analyzing visual objects? What should we make of this tension?
8. Dalí suggests that, looking through the heliometer's magnifying glass, he is able to look at a "succession of clear sights" as if they were "a simple and eurythmic architectural organism" (22). In other words, he is able to observe dispassionately, artistically, sights that might otherwise provoke uncontrolled emotion within himself. Looking through this magnifying glass, "all the plastic possibilities are stabilized" (22, emphasis added). What types of things, apparently, provoke Dalí's desire for greater emotional control?
9. why might it matter to Dalí that he be able to consider St. Sebastian as "free of symbolism" (22), with a "mode of objectivity" that allows him also to "[observe] with calm a stellar system" (22-23)?
10. does Dalí appear ready to reduce all provocative stimuli to dry, static, meaningless objects in his imagination, or does he allow them the pulse of aesthetic life? Why does he refer to various spectacles passing in front of his mind's eye as "simple facts giving rise to new lyrical states" (23)?
11. what might Dalí, a painter, mean when he praises the "mass-produced utility" of "antiartistic displays," opposing them to "sublime" and "putrefied" art? What type of art does he appear to prefer?
12. at this end of his prose piece, Dalí decries "putrefaction" in life and art as lacking "spirit and naturalness." What examples does he provide of this "world of the putrefieds" (24)?
Salvador Dalí's lecture "The Moral Position of Surrealism" (Mar. 22, 1930)
1. Dalí opens his lecture by denouncing lectures, generally, as quite unlike that purest of surrealist acts which he identifies as . . . what (219)?
2. the young and iconoclastic Dalí claims that lectures can, in the right hands, be used for highly "demoralizing and confounding purposes," taking aim at what institutions (219)?
3. Dalí asserts that he and the other Surrealists wish to, methodically, draw attention to the "confusion of Western thought" instead of dismissing it as "vagueness or mindlessness" (219). With the help of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, they mean to illuminate the ugliness of the human mind instead of reducing its mechanisms to pleasant table talk. What uncomfortable examples of the mind's machinations does Dalí provide (219-20)?
3. each of these examples concerns abnegation--presumably selfless acts of self-renunciation. What is Dalí maintaining is true of such selflessness and other "so-called elevated human emotions" (220)?
4. how does Dalí go about justifying his decision to write "J'ai craché sur ma mère" (I spit on my mother) across a picture of the Sacred Heart (220-221)? (As a note, his beloved mother was dead when he did this, and his father's decision soon thereafter to disown his son was in part a response to this.)
4. why does Dalí prefer the postcard and Art Nouveau architecture to what was then considered high class art throughout Europe (221)?
5. why does Dalí so frequently recommend a process of "demoralization" in the midst of a talk entitled "The Moral Position of Surrealism"? What does he mean by the demoralization he promotes?
6. in searching for a new mode of perception, Dalí arrives at the mental illness of paranoia in which reality is organized in such a manner so as to be served through the control of an imaginative construction" (221). Dalí finds in paranoia an enviable, "remarkable acuteness of attention" that rejects normality and tradition, and this concept inspires what he will soon be calling the paranoiac critical method by which he will create paintings containing double images which war with one another for the viewer's attention. Are such paintings fun to look at, or irritating, in your opinion? Consider a few of Dalí's works, including Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion (1930), Swans Reflecting Elephants (1937), and The Image Disappears (1938).
7. Dalí suggests that, with the properly "violent paranoiac intensity," one might begin to see many images in one, destabilizing our sense of reality by causing us to question our current understanding of truth. Does this sound like the mental meanderings of someone convinced that life holds no meaning whatsoever (nihilism), or of someone searching for a truth not readily apparent?
8. like other Surrealists, Dalí advocates the use of what array of altered states as a way of reaching a truth ignored by the "putrefacte having his coffee" (221)?
9. in what way are those apparently normal people walking the streets of Barcelona "betrayed by automatism" (221-222)?
10. which does Dalí present as consonant with humankind's "most legitimate aspiration," the "reality principle" or "pleasure principle" (222)?
Salvador Dalí's Apparatus and Hand (1927)
1. refer to the art terms handout: does this painting, as a whole, appear balanced, artistically speaking? What about its central figure? Has this slightly humanoid, white apparatus achieved a stable equilibrium?
2. does this painting convey a sense of motion, or imply stasis?
3. what array of strategies does Dalí employ to convey a sense of three-dimensional space on this flat canvas he used to create this painting?
4. which parts of the painting bear a high degree of verisimilitude (realism), and which elements seem quite unfamiliar and even artificial?
5. does Dalí attempt to reproduce the female body realistically in this painting? How many different times do he capture such a body, or part of it?
6. the deep red hue of the hand at the apex of the painting's central object demands the viewer's attention. Why place such an appendage at the top of the human-like figure on which it rests? What does this color connote, here and elsewhere in the painting?
7. does this painting appear more preoccupied with life than with death?
Salvador Dalí's The Great Masturbator (1929)
1. can you identify the self-portrait of Dalí's face hidden within this painting? Why might the eyes be closed, as if in sleep?
2. does this painting convey a particular attitude towards auto-eroticism (masturbation) and phallatio (oral sex)? Is it critical, detached, conflicted, celebratory, or something else?
3. what might be connoted by this painting's various, enigmatic symbols, including the grasshopper, the egg, the white lily, the shells lodged in a crevice, and the lion-like figure with the enormous tongue?
4. can you locate any blood in this painting?
5. what do you make of the possible symbolic signification of the objects precariously stacked atop one another?
6. what's going on with the much smaller figures in the painting, the ones standing on terra firma?
7. does Dalí cast on the central figures the cold, clinical and "aseptic" light evoked in the prose piece "St. Sebastian," or a warmer light?
Salvador Dalí's The Persistence of Memory (1931)
1. why render clocks as malleable, melting even, like camembert cheese in the hot sun?
2. do the fly and ants serve a similar symbolic function?
3. what might the egg in the distance symbolize?
4. is the title of this painting apt? Why or why not?
The Persistence of Memory (1931)
Oil on canvass
Dr. Paul Marchbanks