The images of surrealism are the iconography of inner space. Popularly regarded as a lurid manifestation of fantastic art concerned with states of dream and hallucination, surrealism is in fact the first movement, in the words of Odilon Redon, to place “the logic of the visible at ‘the service of the invisible.” This calculated submission of the impulses and fantasies of our inner lives to the rigours of time and space, to the formal inquisition of the sciences, psychoanalysis pre-eminent among them, produces a heightened or alternate reality beyond and above those familiar to either our sight or our senses. What uniquely characterises this fusion of the outer world of reality and the inner world of the psyche (which I have termed “inner space”) is its redemptive and therapeutic power. To move through these landscapes is a journey of return to one’s innermost being.
– J. G. Ballard, ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’, 1966 for New Worlds
In celebration of Federer’s record-breaking 8th Wimbledon win today, here’s a short extract from a great 2006 essay written about the experience of watching Federer by Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace (a link to the full article can be found at the bottom of the page):
Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.
Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s. You too may find them so, in which case Spain’s mesomorphic and totally martial Rafael Nadal is the man’s man for you — he of the unsleeved biceps and Kabuki self-exhortations…
A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.
One thing it is not is televisable. At least not entirely. TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy. Television’s slow-mo replays, its close-ups and graphics, all so privilege viewers that we’re not even aware of how much is lost in broadcast. And a large part of what’s lost is the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting. This loss is simple to explain. TV’s priority, during a point, is coverage of the whole court, a comprehensive view, so that viewers can see both players and the overall geometry of the exchange. Television therefore chooses a specular vantage that is overhead and behind one baseline. You, the viewer, are above and looking down from behind the court. This perspective, as any art student will tell you, “foreshortens” the court. Real tennis, after all, is three-dimensional, but a TV screen’s image is only 2-D. The dimension that’s lost (or rather distorted) on the screen is the real court’s length, the 78 feet between baselines; and the speed with which the ball traverses this length is a shot’s pace, which on TV is obscured, and in person is fearsome to behold…
Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws. Good analogues here include Michael Jordan,(7) who could not only jump inhumanly high but actually hang there a beat or two longer than gravity allows, and Muhammad Ali, who really could “float” across the canvas and land two or three jabs in the clock-time required for one. There are probably a half-dozen other examples since 1960. And Federer is of this type — a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to. His movements are lithe rather than athletic. Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces. Particularly in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light…
What sets Dali apart from the majority of the surrealists was his willing suffusion into the consumer landscape, a move which infuriated many of his fellow surrealists including the founder of the movement, Andre Breton. Breton dubbed Dali ‘Avida Dollars’, an anagram of Dali’s name which translates as ‘eager for dollars’. Dali took centre stage in many advertising campaigns of the 60s and 70s including Brainiff airlines in 1968, Lanvin chocolate in 1969, Nissan and Iberia airlines in 1972, Alka Seltzer pharmaceuticals in 1974.
He also designed the cover for various issues of Vogue in the 40s.
He even updated the now iconic design logo for Chupa Chups logo in 1969 which remains relatively unaltered to this day.
Dali’s art continues to influence advertisers in and around the twenty-first century, in the form of global brands like Lipton Ice Tea, who produced a Russian ad in 1998 inspired by his soft self-portraits:
Volkswagen also released a Dali inspired ad in 2008 to promote their new Polo Bluemotion:
Although one of the main aims of the surrealists was to contest the post-war consumer-capitalist spectacle by reinvigorating the imagination, Dali was attuned to the overwhelming power of the capitalist machine. Ideologically, he perhaps preempted the later Pop artists whose popularity peaked in the 60s, who understood that the only way to tackle the spectacle was to become a part of it – thus the very form of art became the means by which people were able to perceive the truth of modernity and their total subsumption by the spectacle.
Dali’s involvement in advertising was thus far more than a mere capital-led endeavour, rather, it was demonstrative of an artist wholly in tune to the subconscious forces at play within Western society.
“a Hooloovoo is a super-intelligent shade of the colour blue… [in preparation for the arrival of the president of the galaxy] the Hooloovoo had been temporarily refracted into a free standing prism for the occasion”
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Exorcise the skies
Of light and nimbus, lo the
***I originally wrote this as part of a conference paper which analysed Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, but the ideas were a little too abstract and veered more into psychology as opposed to literature, and I couldn’t clearly express my meaning so I instead decided to cut it out. I’ve put it on here as a reminder to myself as it might be worth returning to and rooting up further at some point***
In Perfume what scent allows for, and which Grenouille exemplifies, is the exposure of a total inadequacy of language which is unique to the evocation of the senses: scent is a domain Symbolically ‘quarantined’ from all other senses. How so? I’ve really been struggling to conceptualise this. Let’s first think about the use of Symbolic language in the evocation of the senses, and how, for the most part, we can find direct and fundamental examples of the senses demonstrating a convolution of the Lacanian Symbolic order and the Real or the hidden kernel object (das ding). With the sense of hearing, this can be most overtly seen for example with onomatopoeia whereby audible sound merges with language. Touch does something similar, which can be seen clearly with words like ‘smooth’ and ‘rough’ which express a sense of the objective merged with language, and so still we have that crucial tether between the two which goes beyond the purely Symbolic veneer. With this example of touch in language sound acts as a byway; sound becomes the way by which a texture and so the sense of touch becomes manifest. It’s also important to acknowledge that these real-symbolic evocations of the senses are cross cultural and multi-lingual, as what we’re talking about is obviously deeper than the words themselves, more structural and yet not linguistically so (my Spanish and Italian friends both gave copious examples).
More abstractedly though nevertheless still crucially entwined with objectivised language is the sense of taste: we use words like sharp, or bitter – coming from the Germanic word bite, or tang, which comes from an old word for the blade of a knife. So these words for the sense of taste – much like the words for touch which use audible sounds – are using object textures, that is, by way of the sense of touch; thereby again demonstrating a tether between Symbolic and Real. It is important to emphasise then – and this is most evident with the sense of smell and taste – that whilst 2 senses can be inherently tied in their biological, sensory function, they are not in any way linked in their Symbolic function. I’m aware such isolated examples may seem insufficient, but actually what is vital is the mere existence of any single example of Symbolic words being in any way tethered to the Real. Which leads onto my next key point, which is that there are no words in the field of scent, which can possibly demonstrate a tether between Symbolic and Real. This is the same for sight, which, being what we might locate as the ‘foundational’ sense in the creation of language, is inherently and crucially detached from the Real – in fact it’s primary function is exactly that, to shield the real in a reality-encompassing veneer. So whilst with touch and hearing and taste we have this kind of tiered, cross-fertilisation of the various senses in order to evoke the Real, this is distinctly absent from the remaining 2 senses: sight and smell.
So why is this important? Well this unique dislocation of Symbolic and Real in the realm of scent is perhaps key to pinpointing how it is that only with the sense of smell, can we form associations with much more abstract concepts: the most overt of such being memory. The reason for this stems from the fact that smell has no possible direct tether to the symbolic universe. If smells were symbolically registered, then we would be incapable of associating certain smells with certain memories as we now do. This also explains why Freud situated scent in such a pivotal role in the designation of the neuroses (see Rat man case, 1909).
‘He backed up against the wall, closed his eyes and flared his nostrils… he had the prescience of something extraordinary – this scent was the key for ordering all odours, one could understand nothing about odours if one did not understand this one scent, and his whole life would be bungled if he, Grenouille, did not succeed in possessing it. He had to have it, not simply in order to possess it, but for his heart to be at peace… this scent was inconceivable, indescribable, could not be categorised in any way – it really ought not to exist at all. And yet there it was as plain and splendid as day. Grenouille followed it, his fearful heart pounding, for he suspected that it was not he who followed the scent, but the scent that had captured him and was drawing him irresistibly to it… the source was a girl… For a moment he was so confused that he actually thought he had never in all his life seen anything so beautiful as this girl – although he only caught her from behind in silhouette against the candlelight… And now he smelled that this was a human being, smelled the sweat of her armpits, the oil in her hair, the fishy odour of her genitals, and smelled it all with the greatest pleasure. Her sweat smelled as fresh as the sea breeze, the tallow of her hair as sweet as nut oil, her genitals were as fragrant as the bouquet of water lilies, her skin as apricot blossoms… and the harmony of all these components yielded a perfume so rich, so balanced, so magical, that every perfume that Grenouille had smelled until now, every edifice of odours that he had so playfully created within himself, seemed at once to be utterly meaningless. A hundred thousand odours seemed worthless in the presence of this scent. This scent was the higher principle, the pattern by which the others must be ordered. It was pure beauty.’
Patrick Suskind, Perfume (1985), pp. 40-44.