Persistence of identity: There are no accidents of meaning.
What does Dali’s confusing, compelling, at times mystical, at times disturbing imagery mean? According to Dali’s flippant answer to the question regarding the meaning of Persistence of Memory, it merely represents melting camembert cheese. Yet, at the time of the painting, in the early 1930s, Dali was fascinated with Freudian psychoanalysis. Of course, in psychoanalysis, there are no accidents of meaning. A Freudian analyst would say that unconscious conflicts, the push and pull of sexual-aggressive instincts vs. societal rules that emphasize self-regulation, decorum, and repression even, the anxiety of the ego stuck between the harsh task master that is one’s conscience and the wild, feral instinct that is the id – these would all spill onto Dali’s canvas. His fears, wishes, hopes, desires, conscious and unconscious, known and unknown, would be reflected in his work.
Dali’s work, by virtue of his style and surrealist orientation, cannot and will not have a singular interpretation. In fact, Dali might say that searching for a singular, definitive interpretation of his work would be a boring and ultimately futile task. If we continue with the Freudian theme, each individual viewer will inevitably mix in their own unconscious fears, conflicts, and desires into their perception of his paintings and the meaning he or she constructs from them.
I am looking forward to performing an original dance work, the Persistence of Identity in the Flux Contemporary Dance Festival in London, Ontario later this week (see still images below).
What I would like to do in the Persistence of Identity is to offer a kinesthetic interpretation of the psychological themes in Dali’s paintings, The Persistence of Memory (1932) and The Disintegration of The Persistence of Memory (1954). In colloquial terms, The Persistence of Memory is also referred to as The Melting Clocks. Some critics suggest that the watches are subconscious representations of the relativity of time and space, but, there is no universal agreement on the meaning behind the paintings or on the artist’s message. The two paintings, completed over twenty years apart, span Dali’s Freudian phase and a phase when he was interested in science, nuclear physics, and the inherent destructive potential of nuclear science. These two periods in Dali’s creative life seem so different – on the one hand, psychoanalytic concepts of psychological development, human nature, frights of the unconscious, and, on the other hand, physics, science of the atoms, and nuclear warfare. Yet, it is interesting to notice that one theme common to both of these periods is that of destruction and obliteration. The destruction inherent in the possibility of nuclear warfare needs no explanation. With respect to Freudian psychology, destruction is relevant to both thanatos, the drive towards death, aggression, and destruction, and also to the idea that destruction is one of the greatest fears of each human being. Sometimes the symbolic destruction (of one’s life work; one’s identity; one’s life purpose) is, in fact, more feared than the destruction of one’s body and actual literal death because these symbolic deaths lead to a crisis of meaning. Existentially speaking, a crisis of meaning can be more painful than the most elaborate physical suffering. The stories we tell ourselves about the world, the people in it, our own life story – these are the building blocks of identity and if they crumble, meaninglessness and apathy take over.
As a psychologist in training, themes related to Freudian concepts are of special interest to me. In this dance work, I am working with concepts of identity creation and destruction, identity as a site for constant negotiation (Foucault has evidently had an influence on the way I think about identity and personality); identity as self-contradictory, not harmonious. For Freud, the drive for aggression and the drive for pleasure were the main motivators and the conflict between these basic drives and the inevitably repressive rules of civilized society shaped nearly every little behaviour, every miniscule existential choice, and every dearly held belief about the self. The Persistence of Identity will focus on exploring emotionality and psychology of fluctuations within personal identity: fluctuations that are welcomed, feared, invited; fluctuations that may be surprising, joyful, or aggravating.
The aim of this work is to highlight the parallel themes that people attend to in very different ways, depending on their social location and field of study. For instance, the theme of self-destruction will be replete with very different sets of meanings if is investigated within nuclear physics, Freudian psychology, or contemporary dance. One of the objectives of Persistence of Identity is to illustrate that while the themes of continuity, identity flux, and self-destruction may be perceived in radically different ways depending on the viewer’s perspective, there is an existential commonality that draws people towards studying, understanding, exploring, and expressing their impressions related to these themes. We fear destruction. We want meaning. Yet we also experience urges to destroy others – symbolically or literally. Sometimes, we even experience conscious and unconscious urges to destroy ourselves. How is all of this reconciled in the human mind?
Other images from Persistence of Identity (photo credit: David Sutton/Alina Sotskova):