Heads Up!

Again, it’s a strange thing, how I landed on this, reading what Salvador Dalí has to say on something that bears relevance to what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have to say about the abstract machine of faciliaty-landscapity in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’. I was listening to a podcast that I tend to listen every week, that is inasmuch as I remember to listen to it, and, somewhat randomly, there was this tangent about how Dalí came up with what he called paranoiac-critical method. It was explained as having to do with how one finds meaning in the depictions of this and/or that, yet the meaning isn’t given, nor stable. In other words, the point was that, for Dalí, meaning is never stable and one could be looking at the same thing, whatever it is, let’s say a painting, to keep this visual, and see something which another person might not see.

Anyway, intrigued by this obscure tangent on surrealism, I did some digging and ended up reading Dalí’s ‘Conquest of the Irrational’. Apparently this issue is also covered in his other works, even before this, but this is what I was able to find, so I’ll focus on that. If you are interested, I recommended looking this up because this is not a long text. It’s only about seventeen pages of text, the rest of the pages containing reproductions of his paintings (that you may want to browse through after reading the text).

The text is interesting reading, albeit it’s, at times, a bit heavy to read because the style is … uhm … let’s say out of the ordinary. For example, he refers to himself in the third person, explicitly as Salvador Dalí, which comes across a bit weird in 2019. That said, I’m not particularly familiar with how people expressed themselves in the 1930s, so I can’t say if his style is erratic or just a sign of the times. It could also be the English translation that makes it a bit weird. At first I wondered if I was reading a preface, but it seems that that’s not the case. Be as it may, the style is certainly out of the ordinary, surreal, if you may. I mean if you think that reading Deleuze and Guattari is tough (which it is), you’ll be most certainly thinking what the hell am I reading when you go through this. The levels of panache are just through the roof in this one.

I expect some familiarity with landscape, so if you are not familiar with the concept, like at all, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the issue before attempting to make sense of this. Right, summarizing the first couple of pages (7-9), Dalí seems (I can’t be sure, not having read more on this, how he views things at around when this was written) to lament over the fact that art has turned into something “cold and unsubstantial”, that is to say made bland and generic, lacking in creativity and expressiveness, while the sciences have been particularized, made so specialized that they are burning hot in their specific takes into this and/or that, which, consequently has resulted in them lacking in any kind of general synthesis, except when they start to cannibalize one another. He (9-10) goes on to suggest that, perhaps, the surrealists, himself included, should be the ones cannibalized, being not exactly what one would typically call artists, nor scientists for that matter either, but rather something else, something in between, something very, very extravagant and intelligent, like the “caviar” of his time, and thus very fitting to be irrationally consumed for the taste of it. To be specific, he (10-11) states that:

“For, if caviar is the vital experience of the sturgeon, it is also that of the surrealists, for, like it, we are carniverous fish who, as I have already insinuated, are swimming between two kinds of water, the cold water of art and the warm water of science, and it is precisely in this temperature and swimming against the current that the experience of our life and of our fecundation attains that agitated profundity, that irrational and moral hyper-lucidity which is only produced in this climate of neronian osmosis brought about by the living and continual fusion of sole’s thickness and crowned heat, of the satisfaction of the sole’s circumcision and sheet-iron, of territorial ambivalence and agricultural patience, of acute collectionism and propped-up cap-peaks, of white’s letters on the billiard-table cushions and white letters on the old pirate bands, of all sorts of tepid and dermatological elements which preside over the notion of the ‘imponderable’, simulacrum-notion unanimously recognized as existing simply to serve as epithet to the unrestrainable taste for caviar, and also simulacrum-notion which already conceals the timid and gustatory germs of the concrete irrationality which, being only the apotheosis and paroxysm of this imponderable objective, brought about by the exactitude and the divisionist precision of the caviar of the imagination, will constitute in an exclusivist and moreover philosophic fashion the terribly demoralising and terribly complicated result of my experiences and discoveries in the pictorial domain.”

Aaaaaaaaahm, I mean, I’ve been told that I tend to be quite convoluted when I express something, but I reckon I’m nothing compared to this. I get it, but sheesh, you need a dictionary to get through this! It is pretty complex, unnecessarily so, which is, of course, only so, so fitting, considering how he (11) wraps this up in the next sentence:

“For one thing is certain: I hate simplicity in all its forms.”

To be productive and not just frothy 2.0 (or more like 8.0, to be honest), he turns his attention to what he (11) calls his pictorial struggle. He (11) elaborates on this struggle, noting that people don’t really understand how images work. That said, he (11-12) adds that it’s not particularly surprising that they don’t get it because he doesn’t get them either and he is a painter of images! The point is that he should know, yet he doesn’t, at least not any better than anyone else, really. Then again, he isn’t saying that there’s no meaning to images. In his (12) words:

“The fact that I myself, at the moment of painting, do not understand my own pictures, does not mean that these pictures have no meaning; on the contrary, their meaning is so profound, complex, coherent and involuntary that it escapes the most simple analysis of logical intuition.”

In other words, what he paints carries meaning, yet he nor no one else can put it into words. That always fails, no matter how one tries. In his (12) words:

“To describe my pictures in everyday language, to explain them, it is necessary to submit them to special analyses and preferably with the most ambitiously objective scientific rigour possible. Then all explanation arises a posteriori, once the picture already exists as phenomenon.”

Simply put, we find ourselves out of words when we attempt that, never quite doing justice to the art, yet that’s exactly what is after, as he (12) goes on to add:

“My whole ambition in the pictorial domain is to materialise the images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision.”

Remember how he likens his project to caviar, being in between arts and science, pushing out something that looks like art, but for the sake of science, if you will. I know! I know! Crazy! But you just have to like it or, alternatively, read something else which is more suited for your intelligence. I mean, caviar is not for everyone, as he might explain it. So, in a nutshell, as he (12) adds, what’s important is that:

“The important thing is what one wishes to communicate: the concrete irrational subject.”

Now, that may seem a bit odd but that’s exactly what he is after, being very precise about our irrationality. He (12) continues:

“The means of pictorial expression are place at the service of this subject. – The illusionism of the most abjectly arriviste and irresistible imitative art, the usual paralysing tricks of trompe-l’œil, the most analytically narrative and discredited academicism, can all become sublime hierarchies of thought and the means of approach to new exactitudes of concrete irrationality.”

Now, if you’ve done your background reading on landscape, as suggested, there’s actually little that should rattle you. I mean, landscape art, be it in the form of a painting (typically oil painting) or, more comtemporarily, in the form of rectilinear wide angle photos of the great outdoors, the pretension to mimesis is very apparent. The point is that it’s very alluring, yet illusory. We take something 2D to be 3D. Now, for Dalí, this just doesn’t cut it. That’s because it has this need to conform to what appears to be the reality. It’s all very superficial. What he (13) wants to do is to point out this superficiality by taking the irrational, what’s supposedly not real, and render it in ‘realistically’ like done by realist painters and photographers.

Importantly, Dalí (13-14) insists on not treating these “unknown images” that the surrealist seeks to create as something merely to be put into words, like dreams that need to be deciphered, because that renders them into something that they are not. In his words, he (14) wants to retain their “virtual and chimeric character”. That said, he (13-14) acknowledges that this is pretty much impossible because once expressed, they end up interpreted (explained in words), and actualized (made tangible, in some shape or form). Therefore this results in what he (14) calls “concrete irrationality”, something that is both virtual and actual, beyond representation, yet, I reckon, playing on the central notion of what is (re)presentation. So, as he (14-15) goes on to point out, there’s actually no need to lament over this, inasmuch as one gets something out of it. Sure, there is the tendency to treats images as mere representations, matching what’s out there, which, supposedly tells us something about the world and ourselves. However, if this move is put to the service of expressing what he (15) refers to as the “unknown world of our irrational experiences”, we are no longer dealing with representing what’s out there, as if waiting to be represented pictorially, but with something that can be made real out of the virtual. So, in summary, thus far, as we are dealing with visual art, it’s worth emphasizing that he is not attempting to explain the works of visual art (to put them into words, as afterthoughts) but letting them speak for themselves through the visual medium.

Dalí (15) turns his attention to what is known as “[p]aranoia: delirium of interpretive association bearing a systematic structure.” Turning this into activity, what he calls paranoiac-critical activity, he (15) states that people engage in a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge” which is “based upon the interpretive association of delirious phenomena.” Now that’s a load of fancy terms that needs to be explained. What he (15) means is that the way we come to see the world (or sense it, to avoid ocularcentrism) is not voluntarily directed, that is to say intentional. Instead, it all happens under the hood, or so to speak. In his (15-16) words:

“[F]or, as we know, in paranoia the active and systematic structure is consubstantial with the delirious phenomenon itself; – all delirious phenomena of paranoiac character, even when sudden and instantaneous, bears already ‘in entirety’ the systematic structure and only becomes objective a posteriori by critical intervention.”

In other words, the way we see the world is not the same as the way we think we see the world as the latter process takes place after we’ve already seen the world. Yes, it’s active and structured, but only in the sense that it occurs prior to our conscious engagement with it. From the moment we think it, it is thus passive. He (16) further elaborates this:

“Critical activity intervene solely as liquid revealer of images, associations and systematic coherences and finesses already existing at the moment when delirious instantaneousness is produced and that alone, for the moment to this degree of tangible reality, are given an objective light by paranoiac-critical activity.”

So, as already explained, what we think of our engagement of the world is not our engagement with the world as that has already taken place once we start pondering about our own engagement with the world. Now, this does not mean that this afterthought is simply useless, as he (16) clearly points out. This activity can help us to understand how it is that we make sense of the world. In other words, we can understand how we make sense of reality by examining surrealism. In his (17) words:

“Paranoiac-critical activity organizes and objectivizes in an exclusivist manner the limitless and unknown possibilities of the systematic association of subjective and objective phenomena, which appear to us as irrational solliciations, exclusively in favour of the obsessing idea. By this method paranoiac-critical activity discovers new and objective ‘significances’ in the irrational; it makes the world of delirium pass tangibly onto the plane of reality.”

In short, this paranoiac-critical activity that he explains here is a method, an exercise or a tool that allows us to realize how we make sense of the world. Now, I reckon we don’t need his method, as such. We already make sense of reality. That’s quite obvious. However, what’s important here is that he pinpoints how this happens, which, in turn seeks to push us to take a critical look at our own engagement with the world. To be clear, reality is not just something given, out there, waiting for us to uncover its secrets, or, if it is, we are not talking about it, in itself, but rather how we come assemble it, to construct it, to organize it, to make sense of it. The way he (17-18) explains it, it is we who give it form:

“Paranoiac phenomena: common images having a double figuration; – the figuration can theoretically and practically multiplied; – everything depends upon the paranoiac capacity of the author. The basis of associate mechanisms and the renewing of obsessing ideas allows … simultaneous images to be represented without any of them undergoing the least figurative deformation[.] … Different spectators see … different images; needless to say that it is carried out with scrupulous realism.”

In simpler terms, whatever we are dealing with, whatever the phenomena we are facing, there’s always more to it than meets the eye. That extra bit is always our own making. It’s what allows us to see the same thing as different without any alterations being needed for that to be the case. As emphasized by him, what’s remarkable about this is that it can be achieved by an artists, such as a painter, with meticulous attention to detail, to the point it reaches photorealism. One could actually add here that photography is par excellence in this regard, hence my point about it being photorealistic, not merely realistic. Anyway, this also works the other way around, so that completely different works, such as paintings, can be taken to mean the same thing, as he (18) goes on to add.

Following the brief beef he (19-23) has with certain proponents of abstract art, namely the “[s]ticky and retarded Kantians of sections d’or”, for what I take to be overdoing the abstract, asserting that “forms and colours have an aesthetic value in themselves, apart from their representative value and their anecdotal significance”, that is to say what seems to be gripping to a duality which gives primacy to the mental, ideal or structural over the material or bodily, despite the Kantian improvements to this dualism (consider how he refers to “this theory of the strict appearance and of the structure” that “does not possess physical means permitting analysis nor even the registration of human behaviour vis-à-vis with structures and appearances presenting themselves objectively”), he (24-25) ends his text with something titled as ‘The Tears of Heraclitus’.

Before I jump to that and conclude this essay, what I take from his strong opposition to certain forms of art is that it’s foolish to think that one can escape representation by ignoring the underlying issue, like, for example, by going fully abstract. I think this is a deeper issue that has to do with how we consider something, like a painting, to represent something, something out there, or so to speak. So, for example, to link this to landscape, it’s we who are in the habit of stating that a landscape painting represents a certain landscape. We can compare the painting to what it represents to see if it is the case, followed by nodding approvingly or shaking our heads disapprovingly for misrepresenting reality (simulation vs. simulacrum, in the terms used by Jean Baudrillard). In the latter case we object to the misrepresentation of reality, which is either to be considered intentional, when, for example, some eye sore out there has not been included in the painting or it has been depicted in a rather flattering way, or unintentional, when what’s out there has changed after the painting was finished. There isn’t much we can do about the reality no longer matching the painting, but, oddly enough, this is a central concern in landscape studies, how the depictions of reality come to function as the models for how reality looks and how people buy into that. For me, it’s silly that we do this, that we project ourselves to the world and let it work its magic on us, without ever being like, hold on, this our making, why are we fussing over this? Simply put, the way I see it, the problem is not whether something represents something else, nor whether that representation is faithful to the original or not, but that we assert something as the original, when, in fact, to me, as inspired by Deleuze and Guattari, we should be asking a very serious question: what is original anyway?

As I’ve answered that question a number of times in my essays already and I think you know the answer anyway (assuming you’ve read my essays and/or Deleuze and Guattari), I’ll wrap this up by returning to the final pages by Dalí, who actually answers that question for you, assuming that you can make sense of his writing (which, I acknowledge, is a lot to ask) and happen to know to who Heraclitus was (which is not a given these days) and might be able to explain why he was in tears, weeping intelligently, as Dalí (24) puts it. In his (final) words (25):

“Believe nothing of it, behind these two superfine simulacrums of imponderability is hiding, in better and better condition, the very well-known, sanguinary and irrational grilled cutlet which shall eat us all.”

Now, to leave you hanging, I’ll let you figure out that yourself (albeit I reckon I sort of explained it all already). So, instead of doing that, I’m going to wrap things in up by summarizing why I found this text interesting. It sure is dated, like a fine wine, caviar or camembert (as he might refer to it), granted, but I reckon it’s not just fine vintage, a good batch of something rare, but it’s also way, way ahead of its time. Okay, it’s tough to follow, from start to finish, not only at times. That said, getting past that, letting yourself not to get all worked up by his style of writing, he is certainly on to something, something big. What I find super fascinating is how he identifies the central problem that haunts western art and, by extension, the dominant image of thought, how people tend to associate with what they see in order to anchor themselves in reality. You’ll find the works included following his text particularly helpful in explaining this. You’ll be faced with all kinds of … monstrosities, that’ll push you to see things, regardless of whether you like it or not.

Take something like plate 30, ‘The Paranoiac Face’, which didn’t open up to me at first, when I looked at it just by looking it up online, but gave me a holy shit moment when I looked at in in the book where it’s flipped 90 degrees. I can no longer not see it. Apparently this painting is based on an actual photograph that Dalí received in the form of a post card. He happened to look at it vertically before looking at it horizontally, which led to him to see things, or so to speak. Now, I couldn’t see that because my first look was horizontal but when I saw it in the book, flipped on its side, I could no longer not see the face. It’s now there even when I look at it horizontally. In addition, according to Haim Finkelstein (189), Dalí experienced this face as Picasso, whereas fellow surrealist André Breton experienced it as Marquis de Sade, as explained in Finkelstein’s book ‘Salvador Dalí’s Art and Writing, 1927-1942: The Metamorphoses of Narcissus’, the point here being that one’s background affects how we come to see something, something that actually isn’t even there, just out there waiting for us to uncover it (this being based on a random photograph that, when turned on its side, happens to look like a human face). Now, how Dalí and Breton saw this or that in the photo strikes at the heart of this issue, which is something that the text examined in this essay doesn’t go on to address. That said, while he may have addressed this in his other works, this is a matter that I’ve already addressed in reference to Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Edward Sapir, Gabriel Tarde and Valentin Vološinov, as well as to Deleuze and Guattari, so I won’t get into it. In short, the point is that what we see is not just out there, waiting for us to see it (objective), as already pointed out, nor is it up to the individual (subjective). Instead, as (nearly) all human experience is shared (collective), what you see is always conditioned by who you’ve become and who you’ve become depends heavily on the circumstances you find yourself.


  • Baudrillard, J. ([1981] 1994). Simulacra and Simulation (S. F. Glaser, Trans.). Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
  • Dalí, S. (1935). Conquest of the Irrational (D. Gascoyne, Trans.). New York, NY: Julien Levy.
  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Finkelstein, H. (1996). Salvador Dalí’s Art and Writing, 1927-1942: The Metamorphoses of Narcissus. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.