The surrealists, in addition to other groups in the early 20th century, were preoccupied with actual experience, as it differed from the tepid, perception tainted muck to which the average café patron was accustomed. They wished to overcome their reliance on preconceived notions concerning perception and simply ‘perceive.’ Until they met Salvador Dali, they felt that they were doing an admirable job. Whether their certainty remained is a question that must be addressed through a haze of personal attacks and bandaged pride, so common were the intrigues in the group. In spite of their distaste for bourgeois ideology, one incident seems to illustrate their inability, as a group, to abandon the symbolic vocabularies of the day. In Dali’s painting The Lugubrious Game, there stands in the foreground, a man in white breeches besmirched with feces. This chap in dirty pants was an indication to society that Dali was an ill fellow. The surrealists proper, dada still warm on their breath, were not to be outdone. To them, this unfortunate gentleman’s trousers were a signpost, pointing irrevocably towards a facet of human behavior even they could not support. Dali paints feces, ergo, Dali is a copraphage. This accusation tickled Dali, although he quickly dispelled this myth in order to preserve his budding friendship with Gala Eluard, the member of the group sent to interrogate him on the matter. He was, by his own admission, tempted to create some vividly detailed account of his history of near-pyrotechnic sexual misconduct.
Dali’s involvement in the movement was due to their desire to partake in Dali’s interpretation of the notion of ‘actual experience.’ His work was powered by his apparent ability to see. He speaks of his lifelong capacity to derive from any given set of visual stimuli, the image of his choosing. If he wished to see a Catalonian landscape people with dancers, knights and maidens, he need only sit in a café and glance a the woman nearest him. The fall of her hair might form a stand of trees near the crest of a hill. Her breasts were clearly an assemblage of horsemen embroiled in mortal combat. The curve of her hip was not so much a hip as it was a pair of washerwomen cleaning sheets in a stream, itself borne of the folds in her dress. His exploitation of these multiple images is the visual manifestation of his personal theory of perception, the paranoiac critical method.
Before the descent into the bibliography is undertaken, it is important to examine his attitudes. The tone of a given piece differed according to audience and subject matter, as with any author. Differed is, however, a relatively restrictive term, sadly, for all but a handful of pieces are composed in what is usually considered the voice of Dali—ecstatic reverie. His is the perspective of either an immeasurably self-aware creative genius, or some sort of trickster. It is possible to read something by Dali, particularly the early essays, and conclude that not only can he not be serious, but he says absolutely nothing. Let us assume for a moment that he is indeed joking with every stroke of his pen an laughing at both the reader who dismisses him outright as well as the scholar who attempts to detangle his Gordian prose. Even in this case, calling him a ‘joker’ is a bit naïve. His seems more the profile of Loki (as archetypal troublemaker only, although the parallels between the two are numerous, specifically in their roles the declines of their respective mythologies). A fellow with so integral a role in Ragnarok, whose sons will devour gods and poison the earth, sky, and sea can hardly be described as a simple cut-up. One hardly imagines the figures in Asgard, standing with regal hands on equally regal hips, shaking heads and tut-tutting as Loki and the fire giants storm their strongholds. The reply of Odin the fall of the Rainbow Bridge was not likely, “That darn Loki.” Put simply, while very simple, it is not sufficient to characterize him a troubling and perhaps troubled, figure.
Essays exist, however, in which Dali’s tongue seems nowhere near his noble, Catalonian cheek. In particular, his writings to Gala, who was to become his wife (following her theft from Paul Eluard). The clearest essay concerning the Paranoiac critical method in his early writings is a piece called “The Rotting Donkey.” The concept of putrefaction was only one of the fetishes which, the end of his career, rise to ubiquity in his work. The piece is as close to a direct exposition of his personal mythology as Dali could allow himself to write. Although, in the context of his person vocabulary, Dali is painfully explicit in his writings, this essay is noted for his use of the more widely accepted vocabularies of other people. His desire to express himself clearly to another person in obvious, and one may suppose his relatively new relationship with Gala prompted this comparatively no-nonsense look at the Paranoiac Critical Method.