Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Tropes are on the March...

Salvador Dali's most famous painting, The Persistence of Memory, usually gets all kind of meaningful explanations but the main thing that you need to remember about it is that other than it being a micro-textbook for Surrealism it is essentially and intentionally meaningless. The clock and watch faces, the eyelid and eyelashes, the Spanish landscape were all chosen to seem significant but they are in fact deceptive, mockeries of the viewer's search for meaning.

Of the two goals of Surrealism, the destruction or mockery of meaning was the first and greater goal, Freudian psychanalytical dream interpretation came second. Surrealism followed on Dada as the third movement of a group of writers including Andre Breton who branched from Absurdist Theatre to Dada to Surrealism making point after point, all the while denying it, that our own desire for meaning entrapped us in trompe l'oeil illusions and cul-de-sacs of pathos. Sometimes the revolutionaries were a little scary, sometimes eerily prescient, always playing head games.

The academy style which Dali employed to create what people often misinterpret as "super real" illusion is in itself the legerdemain that tricks us in the prestidigitation. The picture started out as random shapes created as "automatic writing". As with most trompe l'oiel illusions one must blank the details out of the mind and grasp the fact that the "limp" "melting" shapes began blankly as just bad shapes. Dali then painted into the shapes symbols to which we impart tremendous meaning: clocks with their tyranny of time and schedule, eyes which suggest personality, sleep, sexuality, and around that a setting of place, like a novelist establishing a story that goes nowhere. And in the forecorner of it a clock is disgustingly and disquietingly overrun by ants.

The ants are actually our clue to the whole game, they could represent a trope, "des fourmis dans les jambes", which Dali employed again in the film, Un Chien Andalou. The phrase, "Se sentir des fourmis les jambes", or "I feel ants on the legs", may or may not represent a genuine French or Spanish idiom as it is purported to be, but it would be an inconsequential thing to say. However, if it was literally true that ants were all over your legs you would jump up screaming! A few bugs show up in our house and out comes the spray until they look like foam puddles! The trope, a play on words, is harmless until it materializes and materially it is a nightmare.

There may or may not be a correlation to Freud in the study of tropes, but the Surrealists were onto the dissemblage of language before the artistic renderings of dreams and fears began. Guiltlessly denying all they would say our interpretations like our fears were our own fault for projecting meaning where there is none.

Ironically, Dali was expelled from The Surrealist Congress after 1938 because of the painting below, The Temptation of St. Anthony, which employs many symbols as meaningful things fraught with the context and association of their meaning. Such a betrayal of principle would never do -- not that Surrealists admitted to or espoused any such things, and one wonders how a Surrealist could vote or act out an expulsion (??).

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