The Paranoiac-Critical 

Richard P. van Pelt, Ph.D.  •  January 20, 2020

Surrealism and Salvador Dalí

People have sought ways to understand Salvador Dalí paintings for as long as Salvador Dalí art has existed. Each time a Dalí painting or statue is for sale, the subject re-arises. Even his most famous paintings defy rational understanding. Clocks melt, elephants have impossibly long, spider-like legs, giraffes burn, tigers devour and life in general has been given over to visions and dreams. Yet people continue to seek understanding.

Salvador Dali’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
A Mad Tea Party, 1969

Dalí, Freud and the subconscious/unconscious mind

The most important foundational principle is that Dalí was a strong believer in the importance, perhaps even the preeminence, of the subconscious or unconscious mind. Based on the wholesale rejection of the society that brought about such massive death and destruction as was witnessed in World War I, and the subsequent rejection of the rational underpinnings of a society that could cause such mayhem, another course of human behavior was sought. The teachings of Sigmund Freud, whose psychotherapeutic methods were used to treat the innumerable soldiers suffering the psychological injuries of war, became the basis for forward thinkers in the years after that Great War.

If rationality brought about warfare and a class system that both elevated and subjugated members of society in an essentially random manner, then irrationality would represent the antidote. Within any society, iconoclasts purport to pronounce the path to the future while destroying the status quo. So, in the 1920s, the path forward was highlighted by the notion that through the tapping of the real mind, the subconscious, truth could be revealed.

Alchimie des Philosophes: Le Roi et la reine, 1975. For sale. framed. Salvador Dalí. colored lithograph

Salvador Dali’s Alchimie des Philosophes:
Le Roi et la reine, 1975

Dalí and Leonardo da Vinci

In order to support this process, Freud sought an understanding of arguably the greatest mind in history—that of Leonardo da Vinci. He published Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, which explored the artist/inventor’s sexuality in an attempt to connect great thought with Freud’s theory. Indeed, da Vinci did use irrational methods, as would be expected of an artist and inventor who made such quantum leaps past the minds of the time. If one is to invent or design, one must move past the forces that created the present.

Dalí was influenced both by Freud and da Vinci, interpreting them into his own concept, which he called the “paranoiac-critical method.” Among other things, the paranoiac believes things that are false. Yet through their illness, they allow their minds to “elevate” to a new level of reality—a better, more correct frame of reference. In imagining the meaning of Plato’s allegory of the cave, one can readily come to the conclusion that what is reality to a prisoner in the cave is manifestly not objective reality. To the cave- dwelling prisoner, who knows no better, the shadows and the reflecting voices and sounds constitute reality. Thus, it is the frame of reference that governs reality.

To Freud and Dalí, people are imprisoned by their false perception of reality, and it is the enlightened person who sees beyond the falsehoods to the truth. The same can be said, within an entirely different frame of reference of paranoiacs. Their reality is just as real as the observers of the shadows on the cave wall.

Salvador Dalí, Moïse et le Monothéisme by Sigmund Freud: La Famine, 1974
(Moses and Monotheism, by Sigmund Freud: The Famine, 1974)

Etching over color lithograph on lambskin, based on the highly controversial book, “Moses and Monotheism, written by Freud very shortly before his death.

Dalí, truth and paranoia

In psychology, paranoia is a mental illness that manifests in one of three ways: paranoid schizophrenia, delusional disorder and paranoid personality disorder. Typically, the paranoid person believes, irrationally, that others are plotting against him or her, to the point of very real delusions and/or hallucinations.

For Dalí, truth and therefore falsehoods, are constructs of the past because they are taught by those who were restricted to, and governed by, the status quo. Dalí read Freud’s landmark book, The Interpretation of Dreams” by the time he reached the age of 20, and it forever changed his life. He later said that the book was “one of the capital discoveries of my life, and I was seized with a real vice of self-interpretation, not only of my dreams but of everything that happened to me.”

In essence, the Paranoiac Critical Method is a mental state that permits the mind to operate based on a completely different reality. It is neither paranoid, critical nor even a method, which in the rational world would imply a reasoned process that can be described formulaically. Despite its name, the Paranoiac Critical Method is one of Dalí’s most enduring contributions to art. Dalí was many things, but he was not paranoid. He was, however, able to enter a mental state that allowed him to free himself of reality, envision to the point of hallucinating (without the use of chemicals,) remember his visions and then reduce them from the mental to the physical in the form of art.

He explained, in true Dalínian style, that “[the Paranoiac-critical method is a] spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.” There is always a temptation to translate and interpret anything said or done by Dalí to allow for some level of understanding, but this is fundamentally an exercise in futility as it attempts to rationalize the irrational—and not simply the accidental or incidental irrational, but the purposeful irrational. Dalí relished his mind’s ability to feel perfectly comfortable in areas that few people would understand. This made him feel like a modern da Vinci—set apart from the ordinary and mundane so as to be venerated for all of history.

Salvador DALÍ (1904-1989) Memories of Surrealism: Surrealistic King, 1971 Etching, drypoint and lithograph in colors on Japon paper Signed and numbered 'F XXXVII/XL' in pencil Total tirage of 500. Dalí blindstamp. for sale

Salvador Dali-Memories of Surrealism: Surrealistic King, 1971

Dalí, Freud and art

It is simple to see and understand how Dalí and Freud would mesh so seamlessly. Freud believed in the supremacy of the mind separate from conscious reality and Dalí trained himself to raise his subconscious and unconscious platforms while subverting his conscious mind. Freud, as a psychiatrist believed that mental illnesses have root causes in unresolved issues that are stored in conflict zones within the hidden mind. For him, the treatment of mental illnesses should be focused on dealing with the repressed realities being subverted. For Dalí, his artistic genius could be explored and tapped precisely by his manic creative bursts resulting from the mining and exploitation of his inner reality.

Dalí was neurotic in a series of ways. Freud himself initially thought him to be an “incurable nut case,” which is a remarkably non-clinical term coming from a psychotherapist whose job it was to actually treat “nut cases.” Of course, Freud changed his mind when he discovered just how simpatico the two minds were.

Freud and Dalí met in London on July 19, 1938, a year before Freud died. Dalí brought along his painting, Metamorphosis of Narcissus (which he completed months earlier) to ask Freud about it. Freud reportedly agreed that it would make an excellent tool for psychoanalytic study.

Salvador DALÍ (1904-1989) Moïse et le Monothéisme by Sigmund Freud: Moïse sauvé des eaux, 1974 Etching over color lithograph on lambskin Signed lower right From the suite of 10 etchings over lithographs on lambskin, contained in the portfolio of the same name with texts by Sigmund Freud from the last work he published (1939) on religion.

Moïse et le Monothéisme by Sigmund Freud: Moïse sauvé des eaux, 1974 (Moses and Monotheism, by Sigmund Freud: Moses separates the waters, 1974)
Etching over color lithograph on lambskin, based on the highly controversial book, “Moses and Monotheism, written by Freud very shortly before his death.

Picasso and Dalí

People, in their search for understanding attempt to group things and people. They compare and contrast to seek commonalities. They do this with artists as they do with everything else, and the two Modern Masters, Picasso and Dalí, are inevitably the subjects of such analysis. There are similarities between Dalí’s form of Surrealism and Picasso’s Cubism. However, in Cubism multiple perspectives are

simultaneously viewed, whereas in surrealism, the multiples are of layers of the mind, not of the eye. Picasso sought to show the same subject from differing optical perspectives, whereas Dalí sought to show a subject from an entirely different mental state. Indeed, in his own words, Dalí declared that, “My whole ambition in the pictorial domain is to materialize the images of my concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision…”

The persistent dichotomy of reality created by the world of Freud and Dalí can be summarized by Freud himself. “In classic paintings, I look for the unconscious—in a surrealist painting, for the conscious.” Classic artists are subjected to the hidden forces, whereas surrealists have brought the hidden to the surface.