The Enigma of Desire: Salvador Dalí and the conquest of the irrational

by Zoltán Kováry

June 29, 2009


The life-work of Salvador Dalí is a great challenge for the psychology of art from a psychoanalytic point of view. According to my theory, the inner experiences that were expressed and concealed in his works were formed by family secrets and related mourning process. I try to approach this hypothesis using the „crypt” theory of hungarian-french psychoanalysts Miklós Ábrahám and Mária Török. I also aim at associating Dalí’s certain typical animal motifs, such as the maned lion’s head, the crabs and the (praying) mantis with a universal symbol, the so called “vagina dentata”. The symbol of aggressive female sexuality and predatory motherhood represents the emergence of feelings and anxiety related to the castration complex and to the related universal topics of birth, death, sexuality and individuation, and its appearance in Dalí’s work reflects dramatic conflict solving mechanisms as the possible artistic elaborations of this developmental crisis.



The life-work of Salvador Dalí is a great challenge for the psychology of art from a psychoanalytic point of view. Complex interactions can be detected among the life events of the painter, the psychopathological aspects of his extravagant personality and the characteristic system of symbols present on his surrealistic paintings. The situation is further complicated by the great artist’s intimate relationship with the contemporary psychoanalytic theory and his inclination to self disclosure that was often characterized by exhibitionist exaggerations. According to my theory, the inner experiences that were expressed and concealed in his works were formed by family secrets and the related mourning process. This hypothesis shall be hereinafter approached from a psychological point of view using the “crypt theory” of Miklós Ábrahám and Mária Török. I also aim at associating Dalí’s certain typical animal motifs, such as the maned lion’s head, the crabs and the (praying) mantis with a universal symbol, the so called “vagina dentata”. The toothed female genitalia, as the symbol of aggressive female sexuality and the incorporating mother represents the emergence of feelings and anxiety related to the and to the related universal topics of birth, death, sexuality and individuation, both on individual (dreams, fantasies, works of art) and collective (myths, initiation rites) levels, and their appearance in Dalí’s work reflects dramatic conflict solving mechanisms. While analyzing the vagina dentata’s role in Dalí’s oeuvre, I shall also investigate the painter’s complex relationship with women and his own sexuality and present the possible artistic elaborations of this developmental crisis.

1. The “psychopathologic iconography”

Salvador Dalí, or “the Renaissance man converted to psychoanalysis” as was called by Sarane Alexandrian (Maddox, 1992) said the following about the possible interpretations of his works:”To describe my pictures in everyday language, to explain them, it is necessary to submit them to special analyses, and preferably with the most ambitiously objective scientific rigour possible.” (as quoted by Maddox, op. cit. 64.). Dalí supposed that surrealistic art and science (more exactly psychoanalysis) are together capable of conquering the unconscious, the “irrational”. Sigmund Freud, his idol of youth, did not entirely share the ardent optimism of Dalí and his contemporaries: he considered 95% of surrealists insane, although his meeting with Dalí in 1938 convinced the aged master to a certain extent (Bókay and Husz, 1997). The Hungarian Mihály Bálint was also skeptic about the perspectives of psychoanalytical interpretation of artistic creation. According to Bálint, from the three areas of the soul (Oedipus conflict, basic fault and creation) only the first two can be approached psychoanalytically, while we can only speculate about the psychological background of creation (Bálint, 1994). However, both Oedipus conflict and creation evolve from more archaic levels, hence the process of creation can be considered as a compensatory mechanism, which is driven by primary love and its cessation: basic fault. In the words of Dalí: “The enigma of desire: my mother, my mother, my mother...”.

The history of Dalí's family is afflicted by peculiar secrets. The ancestors lived in northern Catalonia, a region where the constantly blowing, icy wind, the Tramontana was considered responsible for the weird or furious behavior of certain people living in that area, as well as for the homicides or suicides committed in the region. Since Dalí’s grandfather was supposedly terrified by the potential influence of the Tramontana, he moved with his family to Barcelona. One day, after the loss of a significant amount of money on the stock-market, his paranoia enhanced and he started shouting from the window of his balcony that thieves had wanted to steal his money and to take his life. Suicide could be prevented on that day, but unfortunately he succeeded three days later. The family was ashamed of the act and tried to keep it in secret along with the suicidal attempt of one of Dalí’s uncles. Salvador was afraid from the hereditability of this family disease and therefore he was trying to convince everyone about his sanity throughout his life (Gibson, 1994).

After birth, the painter was named after his dead brother (similarly to Van Gogh, Halász, 2002), which he considered later as his parents’ “unconscious crime”. In his memoirs Dalí recollects the moment of realization as follows: "For the fist time in my life, I was shocked to recognize the absolute truth about myself. A psychoanalytical study helped me to understand the tragic basis of the structure of my personality. The matter at issue is that my dead brother, lies deep within my soul, and he was loved so much by my parents that I was even named after him: Salvador. This terrific shock was like an enlightenment. It explains why I felt fear on every occasion when I entered my parents' room and saw the picture of my dead brother covered with fine lace. His beauty induced the extremely opposite reaction of me visualizing this ideal brother in the state of a final decay during the whole night while I was lying in my bed. I could only fall asleep if I was thinking about my own death. I felt as if I were lying in a coffin and only then could I finally calm down" (as quoted by Gibson, op. cit. 491.). We shall later refer to the characteristic motives cited above.

Felípa, Dalí’s mother was an extremely indulgent woman, who lived for her family. Although she gave birth to a girl later, supposedly she was already longing for a girl before the birth of the second Salvador: she treated the young Salvador as a girl, and dressed him in girlish clothes (later Dalí even painted a portrait of himself as a young boy wearing such clothes). The painter’s affection for androgynous people probably originated from the sexual uncertainties arising from such childhood experiences. According to a contemporary , M. P. Rodriguez, his later wife, Gala also represented the “archetypal androgyny” to the painter (Rodriguez, 2000). In Rodriguez’s opinion, these childhood experiences were also the sources of Dalí's identity disturbances, sexual problems, childhood enuresis and the anger towards his mother as expressed later on the painting entitled "The Sacred Heart" (according to several psychoanalytic authors (e.g. E. Jacobson), aggression plays an important role in the process of inner differentiation from the Object (see: Mitchell and Black, 2000)). Aggression is related to the painting, as it became later infamously famous with the title “Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of my Mother”, and contributed to the conflict between Dalí and his father in 1929. Contrary to other family members, Dalí never captured his beloved mother again in his artwork; in the opinion of Rodriguez, the above mentioned painting of 1929, “The enigma of desire: my mother, my mother, my mother...” was actually inspired by his future wife Gala. By this time, Felípa was already dead: she died in 1921 from cancer of the uterus. Later in his life, the painter tried to express the unspeakable feelings generated by this deep trauma by means of the exhibitionism so typical of him and by using the archaic symbols of dreams. In the book of Barbara Creed entitled “The monstrous feminine” there is a photo of him posing behind a woman’s hip with a crab lying in the lap (uterus) (Creed, 1993). It reminds one of the famous words of Hungarian novelist, Karinthy: “I cannot tell it to anyone, so I’m telling it to everyone...”.

The father, Salvador Senior, who worked as a notary, was a highly respected man with an authoritarian personality: Dalí feared him all of his life and dared to oppose him only after Gala’ appearance in 1929. The father made a heavy impression on the child Dalí as once he explained his late arrival home saying “I shit myself”. Dalí found humiliating the fact that his fearfully admired father rather made a “Greek tragedy” of that embarrassing situation than sneaking in the house. He claimed that this case completely changed his personality and was the turning-point in his life. His father’s shameless public confession of the disgraceful reason of his late arrival was a real trauma for the already clumsy and shy child, who on the other hand could still not get rid of his faecal obsessions (Gibson op. cit.). Dalí later immortalized the incident on the painting entitled “The Lugubrious Game” and this work is considered as his first truly surrealist one, the “psychopathologic iconography” of which seriously worried André Breton and the other surrealists (Maddox, op. cit.).

Salvador Junior was born nine months after his brother’s death and became a spoilt, obstinate child. His parents felt guilty of the death of the elder son and according to certain biographers (e.g. Gibson), they always treated the younger Salvador as if he was the dead brother. Dalí grew up in a pathologically overprotected environment and was allowed to do whatever he wanted to. During his later life Dalí even expected his family and friends to behave the same way towards him as his parents did. Whenever he was denied something, he burst into a violent rampage and left his faeces everywhere behind; he suffered from enuresis even at the age of eight (according to classical psychoanalysis, this urethral-erotic hyperfunction was the source of Dalí’s exaggerated ambition, which later became one of the central characteristic features of the painter’s personality). In school, Dalí behaved in an introverted manner and suffered from erythrophobia (a fear from flushing and feeing ashamed). His mantis phobia, the signs of which can be detected on his several paintings later, also developed during this period. Moreover, he often behaved in a bizarre and violent way: he pushed a boy over a bridge on to the rocks, jumped off the stairs on purpose or bit into a bat carcass full of ants (Maddox, op. cit.).

His theatrical and exhibitionist behaviour and his sexual anxiety developed in puberty. One of Dalí’s major fears was related to masturbation: at that time, medicine considered it to cause impotence, homosexuality or insanity. As for Dalí, masturbation was almost the exclusive source of sexual pleasures throughout his life, nevertheless he was the first and still is the only artist with an artwork in which masturbation played an important part (Apparatus and Hand, 1927, The Great Masturbator, 1929). Besides his masturbation-related fears, sexual defeatism was also typical of the young Dalí: he found his penis small and limp compared to that of the others’ (Gibson, op. cit.). The impotence related anxiety might have been symbolically expressed in his paintings by the crutches supporting objects and body parts that are not able to stand by themselves. Voyeurism also played an important role in his life: he described penetrating voyeur experiences even from his childhood and he could never get rid of this inclination (for instance, he entitled one of his early paintings “Voyeur”). Later he was keen to organize orgies with the exclusive participation of women with small breasts and men having feminine lines, since – as mentioned above - he was strongly attracted by androgyny and only found people of this type perfect. His sexual orientation was a mystery even for his contemporaries. Lozano was absolutely sure about Dalí’s homosexuality, although it was crystal clear that Dalí would not admit it to anyone, nor in the least would have he acted like a homosexual person. However, there is no doubt about that he preferred male bodies to female ones.” (Gibson, op. cit.). The poet Federico Garcia Lorca tried to seduce Dalí and to have a sexual intercourse with him twice, but Dalí denied everything (Gibson, op. cit.). Allegedly, when Lorca came home from America and heard that Dalí had found the woman of his life, he was shocked because he was convinced that the painter had erection only with a finger in his anus (Genzmer, 2000).

Dalí met Gala in 1929, a 10-year-older woman, who was still the wife of Paul Eluard at the time. According to the literature, the couple had a rather pervert married life: they liked watching the other having sex with a third person. The love between Gala and Dalí put an end to the almost incestuous relationship between Dalí and his younger sister and completely got the already eccentric young man out of his mind (Maddox, op. cit.). The woman became Dalí’s muse in whom he saw the ancestral androgyne and regarded her as the union of all things. His passion was close to insanity: for instance once he felt a really strong temptation to push her down over a rock. When asking what to do, the woman replied that she wanted him to do so (Genzmer, op. cit.). Allegedly, they made love only once and afterwards the painter preferred masturbation over having sex with his wife. Dalí claimed that he was terrified of all sexual intercourses because in his childhood his father “accidently” left a medical book about venereal diseases and their clinical symptoms on the piano, as a result of which Dalí lost his interest in all traditional forms of sexual relationships and developed a syphilis phobia (Gibson, op. cit.). In the book entitled “The Tragic Myth of Millet's Angelus” Dalí wrote that the fear of sexual relationships infiltrated his whole life and that he typified sexual acts with the most extreme bestiality, violence and wildness until he found himself totally incapable of performing them. This impotence occurred not only because of his possible physical inabilities, but also for he feared the annihilating power of the sexual relationship and because he had the obsession that its consequences caused instantaneous death (Dalí, 1986, 74.).

2. Inhabitants of the crypt

The parallel existence of total straightforwardness and complete suppression was one of the characteristic features of Dalí’s personality. Symbols of exhibitionistic self-disclosure and depth psychological self-analysis in his paintings (e.g. in Angelus) are examples for the former, while unmourned losses (his brother and mother) and unrevealed secrets (insanity and suicide in his family, sexual ambivalence) support the presence of the latter. According to Hungarian psychoanalyst Imre Hermann, secrets “strive for being kept and revealed at the same time... indeed, people with secrets constantly feel the pressure of disclosure. Unsuccessful cases might cause a neurotic character." (Hermann,1995, 56-57.). According to Miklós Ábrahám and Mária Török, these psychological phenomena that are often secondary to "hidden mourning and secret love" are called “crypts”. Hermann was concerned about the healing effect of unrevealing the secret, but Ábrahám and Török were not so confident about the beneficial consequences of such verbal absolution. The unspeakable nature of the secret and its destructive influence on the Self causes “incorporation” and “preservative repression” of the experience, and hence forms a crypt, an intrapsychic tomb in the unconscious (Ábrahám and Török, 1998). As this crypt is the product of a “preservative repression” and not the Freudian “dynamic repression”, it does not manifest itself symbolically (e.g. Freudian slips) or physically (e.g. clinical symptoms), and only dreams and fantasies of funerals, tombs and corpses refer to its existence. These visual manifestations dominated Dalí's imagination since his childhood. He could only fall asleep if he was thinking about his death. Then, he felt as if he was lying in a coffin and only then could he finally calm down. Motifs of decay such as bustling ants, which represent the content of his fantasies, can often be detected on his paintings. The bat carcass that the young Dalí bit into was also covered with ants (Maddox, op. cit.).

The works of Dalí can be literally considered as auto-bio-graphies: in his visual (and sometimes verbal) artistic expressions he regularly used the contents of his dreams and hallucinations - a process he called the paranoid-critical method (“critical and systematic objectivation of delirious associations and interpretations”, Maddox op. cit. 47.). Several allusions to Dalí’s peculiar inner world can be detected on the paintings of his surrealistic period, the 1920s and 1930s, the accepted interpretations of which are well known (e.g. Maddox op. cit., Rodriguez op. cit.). However, with the adaptation of Ábrahám's and Török's theory of "hidden mourning and secret love", Dalí’s biographical events and the artistic symbols of his paintings might gain new interpretation.

According to Ábrahám and Török, when mourning reaches the stage of being impossible to express verbally, the process of introjection, which beneficially affects the organization of the Self, is being replaced by the incorporation of the lost Object. In the model of Stavros Mentzos, incorporation corresponds to a more primitive form of internalization than introjection and identification, and it typically occurs when the differentiation of the Self and the Object is disrupted early, or in the case of regression (Mentzos, no year indicated). This mechanism corresponds to the replacement of the Self with the Other, the development of which is particularly trivial in Dalí’s case, since in his traumatic experience, the unmourned, dead Other and the Self have a common symbolic denotation: Salvador, which refers to Jesus Christ as well (catholic motifs commonly appear on the paintings of his the late period, commonly considered as retrograde). Dalí claimed that this pain in the inner silence and the transposition of the unbearable reality remained in the unconscious until he read that particular psychoanalytic study. Unfortunately, we do not know, which study it was, nor are we sure about the years of that event. According to László Halász, Dalí started reading psychoanalytic literature at the age of 18, in 1922. (Halász, 2002). Dalí’s mother died of womb cancer one year earlier, in 1921, which probably have increased the artist’s interest towards psychoanalysis.

The mentioned sameness of these symbolic denotations  are related to the blurred boundaries of the Self and the Object. On one hand, "Salvador" was the beautiful older brother, the object of his parents’ desires and feelings, but at the same time, “Salvador” himself was the dead Salvador’s substitute. According to certain contemporary self-developmental models, serious pathological processes can develop if the core of the Self is composed of the representation of the Other (Target, 1998). The biographies, confessions and memoirs of Dalí confirm that the artist suffered from diverse and complex psychopathological symptoms, such as circumscribed phobias, affective disorders, sexual problems, narcissistic symptoms, disorders of the Self or even bizarre behaviors and hallucinations that are considered as prodromal psychotic signs (Maddox op. cit., Gibson op. cit.). These symptoms can not only be attributed to Dalí’s family background and to the special educational manner of the mother, as emphasized by Rodriguez, but in my opinion, the above mentioned traumatic, unsolved losses could also contribute to their development. According to the interpretation of Ábrahám and Török, the “mourning disease” can unconsciously influence several psychopathological syndromes, including affective psychosis, fetishism, anorexia, pedophilia, sexual apathy, impulsive behavior, kleptomania or various psychosomatic symptoms (Ábrahám and Török, op. cit.).

Ábrahám and Török proposes, that "secret love" that one feels for the unmourned object can reach extreme heights if it is felt toward a parent, brother or sister, and in Dalí’s life both a love towards his mother and his brother existed. The strong relation between love and death can be detected in Dalí’ personality: both in his primary object-relations (dead mother) and in his narcissistic development (shared Self with the dead Salvador). Due to its unacceptable nature, the desire towards the dead brother remained unfulfilled, and therefore it became an intrapsychic secret, impossible to express verbally. It was only in 1965, when Dalí painted a picture of his brother (“Portrait to My Dead Brother”), while his mother only appeared on the ominous “The Sacred Heart” painting and on the photograph in the book of Barbara Creed. It appears now, as if both the brother and the mother would have been imprisoned in the intrapsychic tomb. The incorporation of the lost Object is a defense mechanism, which protects the person from the pain that is caused by the inner reorganization during mourning. Incorporation, as reflected by the fantasy of eating the (dead) Other can be detected is Dalí's life (he bit into the dead bat that he found as a child) and is also present in his works, for example in the painting “Autumn Cannibalism”. Food and cooking were one of Dalí’s obsessions. “Cooking is very close to painting” he claimed (Maddox op. cit. 54.). The literal incorporation that is probably related to oral voraciousness emphasized by Melanie Klein, substitutes the other oral act, the “introjective” speech, since the latter cannot fill the mouth due to its prohibition to be verbally expressed. Thus, the mouth incapable of speech (the act that according to Hermann symbolically replaces attachment) becomes “the eager mouth, which longs for eating, before it speaks” (Ábrahám és Török, op. cit. 135.). Increased oral tendencies may occur not only during the process of internalization, but also during externalization, which occurs at the same time (see Mentzos, op. cit.). Gosch, a contemporary of Dalí said about the unstoppable verbalization of the painter, that Dalí’s arguments were unchallengeable as his intelligence was special and undefeatable (Gibson, op. cit. 149.). The verbal destruction of the Other is a sublimated expression of oral aggression and it is related to early envy also emphasize by Klein. Oral aggression as being the subject to projective defence may generate paranoid anxiety against which the fragile and vulnerable Self can be protected by a narcissisistic personality structure (Kernberg, 1993). Dalí’s paranoidity and narcissistic grandiosity are well known as well as the (even more important) fact that he could create an outstanding art out of these psychic symptoms (“Art is me”). This subject, i.e. the premiere of the painting entitled “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” even served as the reason for the meeting between Dalí and Freud mediated by Stefan Zweig (Bókay és Husz, 1997).

As a result of the related unspeakable shame, secrets and humiliation, the incorporated and idealized Object of love may become devaluated and disgusting. Ábrahám and Török called this process “faecalization”; which may be connected to the final rotting in the citation from Dalí and to his faecal obsessions. In Dalí’s early, emotionally driven fantasies different forms of death and destruction relating to the Objects of love appear. Their appearance may reflect the failure of abjection, which – according to Kirsteva – is considered to play an important role in the formation of the Subject (Pálmai, no year indicated). The paradox object or the abject is attractive and repulsive at the same time, since it incorporates the contradiction of the normative Object of the Subject. According to the documents of Dali’s oeuvre, this abject has a major role in the painter’s structure of desire and Self-organisation. During common Self-development, phenomena such as signs of aging and death, visions of a disintegrating corpse, pregenital organisation, autoerotism evoked by regression and love turning into homosexuality are separated from the forming identity by the act of abjection, and they remain particularly important for Dalí for a long period of time.

Untold secrets have transgenerational impacts as well, the psychological aspects of which are marked by the term “phantom” by Ábrahám and Török. In Dalí’s family many such secrets existed: the death of the elder brother and the insanity and suicide attempts of the ancestors. These insane or death relatives (grandfather, uncle, older brother), who were prohibited to talk about, may have become the inhabitants and phantoms of Dalí’s internal crypt. Presumably, the mother, whose dead was too early, tragic and unmourned, joined the company of the “crypt inhabitants”. In the 1920s, the most progressive phase of his career, Dalí did not often mention his emotions towards his mother, not even using the language of his art and even when he did so, it manifested in an aggression that was hard to understand – “Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of my Mother” (in Angelus, he already mentioned his fears; however, he started to write the book much later, only at the end of the 1930s). According to the crypt theory, (for melancholic people) pure idyll that is free from aggression is the most valuable treasure and it must be “buried in a crypt constructed of the stones of hate and aggression” (Ábrahám és Török, op. cit. 143.). It is well-known that Dalí was attracted to perversity and aggression: “From early childhood he was abnormally imaginative, selfishly preoccupied with his own pleasures, cynically parading his audacity and his perverse violence.” (Maddox, op. cit. 7.). As long as the walls of the crypt that were constructed of aggression stand, painful melancholy, which is the sign of incomplete mourning, does not develop. Dalí’s well known hypomanic manifestations (characterized by elevated affect, constant logorrhoea, grandiosity, impulsivity and eccentric outward appearance) might also represent the fight against depression and anxiety. It is a well documented phenomenon of the object-relations theory and a therapeutic experience as well that manic defence may prevent the collapse caused by depression (Segal, 1997).

Nevertheless, aggression and the related guilty conscience and depressive anxiety being generated by the crisis caused by losses and (unexpressed) mourning altogether may become a major inspirational source of creative processes. According to György Vikár, “We can assume that every crisis induces unconscious fantasies that act as reparatory mechanisms for the Self. It depends on the result of the internal fight whether these fantasies become conscious and whether they become the scientific or artistic product that is compatible with the reality of a creative personality. It is certain that an optimal level of the defence mechanisms of the Self is required to render the psychical pain and the destructivity of the original fantasy bearable for the personality...” (Vikár, 2006, 323.). Using the terms of Melanie Klein - mourning, destructive fantasies, guilt, need for reparation – André Haynal mentions the same, suggesting that tombs, which are the very first artworks of the humankind are also the products of the mixture of destructive and creative processes (as quoted by Vikár, op. cit.). On the grounds of the investigation of (artistic) creative processes, many authors, who approached this subject from different aspects came to the same conclusion, namely that destruction and creation are interconnected phenomena (e.g. Koestler, 1973, Spielrein quoted by Etkind, 1999, Fromm, 2001); and in an optimal case, destructive impulse is combined with talent and serves the process of creation.

3. Vagina dentata

His falling in love with Gala may also have encouraged Dalí to cope with the crisis. But besides the fulfilment of desires, the appearance of the woman made the ”monsters of the underworld” and anxieties materialize as well. In these monsters eroticism and death are closely intertwined. In Angelus Dalí writes that he was afraid of the destroying power of the sexual act and therefore it became his obsession that its consequences caused instantaneous death. This fear overcame him again at the beginning of his relationship with (Dalí, op. cit.). Dalí’s confession could even be compared to the interpretations of psychoanalytic case studies at the point where he admits that Gala in reality took the place of his mother to whom he owed the terror of the sexual act and the belief that it would fatally bring about his total annihilation. Moreover, the speculates that his fear of sex emerges from ”a decisive traumatic incident of exceptional savagery that happened in my earliest childhood and was directly related to the Oedipus complex. In this particular case it is a question of a recollection or a ‘false recollection’ of my mother sucking or devouring my penis.” (Dalí, op.cit. 82.) We know that according to Ferenczi (1997) the coitus, feared so much by Dalí, is a symbolic form of returning to the mother’s womb because in the genital drives of the adult the most ancient desire, the return to this state (from which with birth he was expelled) is reborn (Ferenczi, 1982.). In Dalí’s case it was his mother’s illness, why the desired maternal body, the womb was associated with cancer, the castrating creature, the annihilating disease. (Sexuality and illness – as we have already seen above – were closely interconnected in his imagination when he was a child.) To conquer this ambivalence, Dalí resorted to autoeroticism throughout all his life, during which the hands and his own body were capable of representing and substituting the dual union of the mother and the child (Hermann, 1984). In dreams and myths, this type of intertwining between desires and anxieties is often expressed by the different forms of vagina dentata, the archaic notion of the toothed vagina. (We can see nice examples of vagina dentata representations in Fellini’s Casanova. After a narcissistic crisis, followed by an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Casanova wanders into a dreamlike scene, enters a building that looks like a whale and here uncanny figures are projected on the walls with a rudimentary projector.) Under the photo of Dalí in Barbara Creed’s book we can read the following caption: “Salvador Dalí keeps a wary eye on his version of the dentata” (Creed, op.cit.).

Fear started to dominate the painter’ life in 1929, after his meeting with his mother’s substitute, Gala. At that time the 10-year-older woman – as we have already referred to it –Â was still the wife of Paul Eluard and the evolving relationship, together with Dalí’s controversial painting the “Sacred Heart”, led to a confrontation between Dalí and his feared father. The unusual psychological complexity of this situation (Dalí – dead mother – father, Dalí – father – Gala, Dalí – Gala – Eluard) might have had a significant effect not only on the painter’s presumed crisis but also on his artistic activity. 1929 was a significant year in Salvador Dalí’s life from an artistic point of view as well. This was the year when his first exhibition in Paris was opened, the success of which made him very soon the leading figure among the Surrealists. Together with his friend, Luis Bunuel, they shot their famous surrealistic film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), while several of his masterpieces were also painted in this year: The Lugubrious Game, The Enigma of Desire, The Great Masturbator, Illumined Pleasures, The First Days of Spring, Sacred Heart, Unsatisfied Desires and last but not least The Accommodations of Desire. It is striking that in all the paintings made in this period we can find the motifs of the lion or the roaring, maned lion’s head. On this subject Rodriguez says the following when talking about Unsatisfied Desires: Unsatisfied desires was the first painting inspired by his desire for her [i.e. Gala – Z. K.]. In this canvas appear mixed desires, fears and sexual phobias, represented by lion jaws Dalí’s fears of sexual encounter with a woman.”(Rodriguez, op.cit. 40.). I would like to add to this legitimate statement that the lion’s head is probably the indirect representation of the vagina dentata as a universal symbol: the mane may stand for the pubic hair and the open mouth could be the toothed vaginal orifice. It may seem contradictory that we can see male lions in the paintings still we are talking about a female symbol; but on the one hand, with Dalí the masculine and the feminine were never completely separated (see the question of androgyny), and on the other hand, the vagina dentata refers to the ”phallic”, aggressive aspects of femininity. In the painting The Accommodations of Desire, in the top right hand corner there is a white stone on which we can see a female lower body and in its lap there is a white patch that forms the silhouette of a mane, with a lion’s open mouth in the centre. This symbol perfectly illustrates Dalí’s controversial relationship with women and femininity, thinking of either his mother or his wife Gala. The ambivalent female lap – according to a Hungarian writer, Menyhért Lakatos: “the big, greedy beast” (Lakatos, 1975)Â – is the object of desire, but at the same time also the source of the deepest anxiety. This is the place where Eros and Thanatos meet.

The vagina dentata is a universal symbol frequently occurring in the religions and myths of the world (Hoppál, Jankovics, Nagy, Szemadám, 1994). This symbol of aggressive female sexuality and devouring maternity expresses feelings and anxieties related to the castration complex, and in a broader sense to the intertwining and universal questions of sexuality, birth and death, both on a personal (dreams, fantasies, works of art) and collective (myths, initiation rites) level. According to the entry in International dictionary of psychoanalysis (Mijolla, 2005) the phenomenon originates from the infantile sexual theories which presume the equation of the mouth and the vagina. Depending on the assumed underlying psychodynamic events, different psychoanalytic approaches attribute diverse meanings to the  fantasies of fear of the mother, women and castration. Thus their appearance may be induced by, among other things:

  1. the projection of oral-sadistic drives
  2. the fear of punishment for a desire for fusion with the mother, which is an incestuous bond
  3. anxiety caused by a desire for coitus as an intrauterine regression (after Ferenczi)
  4. a sadistic interpretation of the coitus, the primal scene
  5. the fantasy of incorporation during coitus (Melanie Klein)
  6. the fear of vengeance because of the woman/mother’s own castratedness (René de Mondry)
  7. but it can also represent the persecutory Object (Hanna Segal)
  8. while being devoured by the genitalia could also represent bisexual desires.

Though Freud refers to the unconscious association of the female genitalia with the mouth in one of his lectures in Introduction to psychoanalysis (Freud, 1993), Barbara Creed finds it strange that the vagina dentata is never mentioned in Freud's writings. In his work, The Uncanny, published in 1919, the Viennese master nevertheless mentions that the sight of the female genitalia might generate a special kind of anxiety in neurotic men. In this case, the “uncanny” feeling is explained both by the castration anxiety, a significant element of the repressed Oedipus complex (because of the sight of the lack of the penis); and by so called mother womb fantasies. According to Freud “It often happens that neurotic men declare that they feel there is something uncanny about the female genital organs. This uncanny (“unheimlich“) place, however, is the entrance to the former home (“Heim“) of all human beings, to the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning. There is a joking saying that 'Love is homesickness' (“Liebe ist Heimweh.“ (Freud, 1998, 76-77.). Thus both the castration complex and the womb fantasy (“I’ve been here before”) become the source of the ”uncanny” independently, though the last sentence of the quotation above seems to hint implicitly at what Ferenczi develops later into a complex theory (Ferenczi, 1997). According to Barbara Creed, the father of psychoanalysis did not arrive, for one reason or another, at the conclusion that The Accommodations of Desire, the body of the mother where we all long unconsciously to return to, says Ferenczi, also generates fear of castration and annihilation anxieties in the Subject. However, according to later theories (see Chodorow, 2000) it does not necessarily develop because the sight of the lack of the penis reminds the Subject of the possible paternal punishment for the forbidden incestuous desire. Freud, who always thought of women as the castrated ones and never as the castrators, did not take into consideration those mythologies and works of art (as well as dream and fantasy formations) that unambiguously attest the existence of this phenomena. According to Creed: “The myth about women as castrators clearly points to male fears and phantasies about the female genitals as a trap, a black hole which threatens to swallow them up and cut them into pieces. The vagina dentata is mouth of hell – a terryfying symbol of women as the devil’s gateway... The vagina dentata also points to the duplicitous nature of women, who promise paradise in order to ensnare her victims.”(Creed, 1993. 106.). We can find the already mentioned photography of Dalí and the womb with the crab in the annex of Creed's book. The significance of the dreamlike image is overdetermined in the Freudian sense: on the basis of what has just been said it refers not only to the death of the mother and to the unspeakable mourning but also to the fear of women as castrators and to the strange story of Dalí's virility (?).

When talking about the great Catalonian painter, apart from the lion's head and the crab, a third animal motif can be linked to the vagina dentata, to the exciting theme of the “aggressive female sexuality and the devouring maternity”. The mantis, specially the female praying mantis that devours her male counterpart during the copulation represents the Kleinien concept of incorporation during the coitus fantasy. Dalí's related ideas are fully developed in his already mentioned The tragic myth of Millet's Angelus. While examining the couple of Millet's “maddening” work Dalí realized that the woman's stance perfectly corresponds to the female praying mantis' waiting attitude and the insect perfectly illustrates the tragic myth residing in Millet's Angelus. This myth is nothing else but what is felt like a man's (in our case Dalí's) inevitable fate, the annihilation by the motherly, female castrator during sexual intercourse. Dalí believed that he would suffer during a sexual intercourse the same way as a male praying mantis (Dalí, op.cit.). The image of the praying mantis implies the intertwining of eroticism and death, the theme of oral aggression, incorporation and cannibalism. As a looser association Dali mentioned that the mantis' stance could be compared to a kangaroo that was ready to attack and also that the symbol aided the emergence of mother-related fantasies, as the picture of this animal resembleed special and upsetting intra-uterine conditions (Dalí, op.cit.). At the same time, the image of the praying mantis leads to the circle of ideas related to the sacrum, hence becoming the bearer of what is called in George Bataille's Erotism the inseparable unity of erotism, death and the sacred (Bataille, 2000).

4. Erotism, death and the sacred: a journey into the underworld

Mircea Eliade, the genius of comparative religion, while analyzing the symbolism of castration and the vagina dentata, via the motif of initiation, refers to important sacred elements as well (Eliade, 1999). For him castration is equal to symbolic death, an important moment of initiation that makes the ”breakthrough in plane” possible, after which the initiated is reborn and the dimension of the sacred opens up for him. He describes an African rite in detail, in which the operators wear lion (!) and leopard skins and attack the novices’ genital organs. Sometimes operators are literally called ”lions” and for circumcision (that is castration) they use the verb ”to kill”. After subincision the initiated becomes – similar to the gods – androgynous (!). In the initiation scenarios the means for causing ritual death, besides castration/circumcision, is the analogous process of being chopped by a deity; one version of this is being ground and swallowed by the teeth of Mother Earth’s vagina dentata. Several myths tell the story of passing through the vagina dentata and the dangerous entering into caves and chasms, which are the symbols of Mother Earth’s interior, the mouth of hell and the devil’s gateway (Creed uses the same expressions when she speaks about the vagina dentata’s psychological significance). The passages separate those who are unable to break away from the direct, profane reality from those who are able to experience the higher truth, ”the sacred” (Eliade, 1999). These symbols may appear not only in myths, but in dreams, fantasies and hallucinations as well.

According to Jungian psychology, which is close to Eliade’s approach, in these myths and dreams the underworld symbolizes the unconscious and the descent, or ”kathabasis” represents the beginning of the individualization process (Jung, 1993). During this ”descent into hell” the hero or the novice has to fight the monsters of the underworld, that is his own complexes, and integrate the liberated contents of the unconscious. It is followed by a spiritual and mental ”rebirth” of a more complete personality, the centre of which is no longer the ego but the centre and totality of personality, the ”Selbst”. The structure of psychological, psychotherapeutic and mythological narratives shows great similarity and this is by no means an accident. The evolvement of individual existence and fate, which proceeds from the original ”innocence” through ”the fall” to ”redemption”, may be paralleled with a universal historical theme that is present, irrespective of time and space, in the processes of both individual and collective myth-formation (Hesse, 2000). This narrative shows analogy with the characteristics of ”taking a journey” and ”pursuing consummation” from Lawrence Elsbree’s five generic plots; while after Northop Frye (in the case of a favorable outcome) it can be approximated to the archetype of comedy (McAdams, 1988). The following table lists the parallelisms:

Psychoanalytic situations Mythological situations
Intrauterine situation (Ferenczi), dual union (Hermann), symbiosis (Mahler) Paradisiacal state, innocence
Trauma of birth (Rank), separation (Mahler), basic fault (Bálint) Fall, relapse into sin, expulsion
Desire for intrauterine regression (Ferenczi), re-approximation (Mahler) Paradisiacal nostalgia, desire for restoring the archaic state
Malignant regression (psychopathological phenomena), benign regression (therapy, Bálint), ”regression in the service of the ego” (Kris) Travelling in the underworld, symbolic death (being torn, swallowed), process of initiation
New beginning (Bálint), individualisation process (Jung), reintegration of the personality during therapy Rebirth, experiencing transcendence, breakthrough in plane, redemption

5. Journey into the underworld, psychopathological crisis and the creative process

In the history of human culture ”Promethean” people have regularly appeared, who have undertaken the dangers of the ”journey into the underworld” in order to acquire knowledge and to bring ”the message of gods” to the people. These mediators are always the chosen ones, the initiated: prophets, shamans, philosophers, artists and sacred madmen who gain their special knowledge by their ecstatic travels in the ”other world”. These ”travellers” are often lonely, misunderstood people from the periphery of society who are considered to be insane (Földényi, 1994). In mythology those who convey the message of gods and the spiritual leaders are often androgynous, because of their divine origin, or hermaphrodites who carry the characteristics of both sexes, like Hermes. (Kerényi, 1984). (We have already touched upon the role of androgyny in Dalí’s life from another aspect.) The motif of descending into hell can also be found in the Virgilian motto of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (”If I cannot bend Heaven, I shall move Hell”), the ”self-analysis” that serves as the experimental basis of The Interpretation of Dreams can also be considered a kind of internal descent into hell.

Before his journey the shaman, who may be identified as the ”prototype” for the traveller or the one who descends into hell, goes through a disintegrational phase or crisis which Eliade calls ”psychopathological crisis” (Eliade, 2005). From a psychological aspect the different forms of this internal journey (dream, madness, possession, psychedelic states, inspiration) may be considered as regression; using the concepts of mythology they represent symbolic death and initiation and they are the prerequisites for the birth of the new and for reintegration. When travelling certain parts of the personality regress and the internal contents fall under the influence of primary processes. Ernst Kris, a leading figure in psychoanalytic ego psychology who also excelled in the psychology of art, called this process a ”regression in the service of the ego”, the inspirational sub-phase of which (inspiration) is followed by elaboration (creative work). The transitional regression or ”disintegration” needed for creative work is different from psychotic disintegration in that a ”creative subsystem within the ego” (Beres, quoted by Kraft, 1998) takes over the problems of the whole personality and guarantees that those processes which are indispensable in the creative solution of the crisis, namely reintegration and creative work remain intact.

Based on the facts mentioned above it wouldn’t be surprising to consider Salvador Dalí as such a ”Promethean” figure as well, a kind of modern shaman who experienced his visions, the raw material for his art, in ecstatic (internal) travels and descents into hell. But the creative ”paranoid-critical method” that he described goes beyond this and is more complex than the average surrealistic efforts of trying to liberate regressive psychic mechanisms and the automatism of the unconscious. Dalí elaborated his dreams, fantasies and hallucinations using very strict critical principles before turning them into works of art, while – as it is characteristic of great artists and is stressed by Freud (Freud, no year indicated) – distancing them from their original, personal sources. Therefore his progressive paintings made at the end of the 1920s and in the 1930s are not simply the documents of his adventures in the unconscious: they express general truths of existence and this is what renders power to their exceptional suggestiveness.


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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Zoltán Kováry "The Enigma of Desire: Salvador Dalí and the conquest of the irrational". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available May 24, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2009, Published: June 29, 2009. Copyright © 2009 Zoltán Kováry