Dali, Freud and the Unheimlich

Josh Sonnier

Salvador Dali said that Sigmund Freud's brain was, morphologically, a snail. This comment leaves no doubt in the mind of the reader that Dali admired Freud immensely. As a vocal fan of Freud, Dali most likely had his worldview shaped, altered, honed, bent or distorted by Freud's theories. In contrast are Dali's reactions to Neitzche. Having devoured the writings of Neitzche during a "lion's banquet" lasting 3 days, Dali claimed to have completely digested the philosopher. The most visible results of this experience are Dali's antennae. Having seen the thick, saturnine pelt of Neitzche, Dali realized that the accomplishments of the philosopher would seem insignificant in the harsh light of his own. "I will surpass even his moustache." Freud, however, influenced Dali for some time, perhaps most fundamentally in his writings about the uncanny.

The uncanny (unheimlich), or that which elicits creeping horror or dread, is addressed in his appropriately titled essay, "The uncanny." The validity of Freud's theories, in the theatre of Psychoanalysis, will not be examined here, but will be used in an attempt to understand Dali's motivations and conceptions, particularly in his writing. Freud offers a register of possible definitions for unheimlich and heimlich spread evenly across such topics as underground streams, demonic possession, and one case where the antonyms mean exactly the same thing (this occurs in English as well-- flammable/inflammable). For the bounds of this essay, the meaning of uncanny will be one quoted by Freud, and earlier by Schelling: "everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light." This seems to convey the feeling of the uncanny that most are familiar with-a sort of behind-the-back creepiness.

Freud’s uncanny stems from the opening of our baby eyes, with or without the adorable Shirley Temple eye rubbing in order to face repressed fears and tacit assumptions about the way that we interpret the world. A very common example of this, according to Freud, is the adult reaction to realistic dolls. While not a fearful response, it calls to the mind questions faced as a child concerning what is alive versus what is not. The inverse of this is also a good example of the uncanny response—the adult fear of clowns. These diamond-eyed harbingers of unholy mirth, slinking as they do from one rank, steaming tent to another, their true faces hidden behind perhaps tons of gesso, blush, and bootblack. With the cryptdoor slam of each oversized shoe, this creature paints its portrait of terror on face after candy stained and upturned face. Well, perhaps not, but this is exactly the difference between uncanny fear and stark, raving, wall shattering madness. That many children fear clowns, even the most innocuous, burger-hawking sort, is hardly in dispute. It is most often thought that these entertainers’ features are too drastic, or their manners too overwhelming to instill comfort. Adults, while ostensibly glad to encounter clowns at carnivals, circuses, parades, etc., often speak of their remembered fear, now dissolved into a pale ‘creepiness.’ Recall the creeping dread of the uncanny.


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