The Theme of Cannibalism in Two Paintings by Salvador Dalí
In 1933, Salvador Dalí executed the painting The Enigma of William Tell. This shows William Tell holding his newborn son in his arms. The child has a raw steak on his head, as though to suggest that his father wishes to devour him. The painting famously provoked profound indignation among Marxist Surrealists, including André Breton, owing to the fact that William Tell had been portrayed with Lenin’s face. Dalí sought to depict the figure of an authoritarian and abusive father who devours his own offspring: the kind of father against whom he himself had rebelled. William Tell, Lenin, and Salvador Dalí’s own father all share the same capacity to arouse fear; they all wield the same harsh and threatening power. In his book, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, the artist explicitly compares the figure of his father to that of William Tell and of other fathers who devoured their children, such as Saturn, Abraham, and Guzmán el Bueno.Footnote 1 Dalí sets the cannibal father in contrast to the figure of his son as victim, an ‘object-being’ that acquires the shape of William Tell’s child.
Another interesting feature of the painting is the tiny figure in the shape of Gala, Dalí’s partner. Looming over her is William Tell’s huge foot, ready to squash her at any moment, with only the slightest movement. Through this image, Dalí wishes to refer to his father’s glaring opposition to his relationship with Gala, a woman ten years his senior and already married to poet Paul Éluard.
The figure of William Tell is also evoked in Autumnal Cannibalism, a work which Dalí executed in 1936. In this second painting we note, in the foreground, two figures locked in a tender embrace and in the process of feeding off one another, using some cutlery. The male figure, on the right, is squeezing one of the two oblong breasts of the female figure, while plunging a spoon into the same breast with the other hand. The female figure, in turn, is aiming a fork at her partner’s head. The reference here to William Tell and, more specifically, to the latter’s son, is especially evident in the apple resting on a steak on the male figure’s head.
Within this painting it is possible to find several autobiographical references suggesting that the two figures portrayed are the Dalí-Gala couple. Dalí identified with William Tell’s son, as already noted in relation to the previous work. The background of the painting is also reminiscent of the Cap de Creus mountains, while the maritime vegetation and the typical white building in the distance recall the village of Port Lligat, near Cadaqués, where the Catalan painter had sought refuge with Gala, after fleeing from his father.
The idea of intense love as an act of symbolic cannibalism partly recalls certain reflections by Sigmund Freud, who was the main source of inspiration for Dalí and for the Surrealist movement as a whole. In his well-known Three Essays on Sexuality, Freud explicitly speaks of the erotic ‘cannibalism’ implicit in the sexual drive, which is always a combination of cruelty and libido, sadism and masochism.Footnote 2 Similar considerations are also to be found in Carl Gustav Jung, who in Symbols of Transformation observes that “as a power which transcends consciousness the libido is by nature daemonic: it is both God and devil.”Footnote 3
The Fear of Being Devoured as an Archetype of the Collective Unconscious
One of the elements that powerfully draws the viewer’s attention in these two works by Dalí is the fact that cannibalistic fantasies are deeply rooted in the collective unconscious. One of our greatest ancestral fears is of being eaten. Fairy tales prove highly revealing, in this respect, because they are recounted to children by adults and express the most genuine fears of both. Judging from children’s tales, one of the greatest dangers is that of being devoured. Pinocchio, for example, has learned from the Talking Cricket (who metaphorically represents the voice of our own conscience, with its moral imperatives) and from all his true friends that every mistake has consequences and that one must behave earnestly, remain vigilant and be wary of strangers, because bad people, like Mangiafuoco, have a big mouth. In fairy tales, characters who eat may be frightening, like Mangiafuoco, or nonhuman, animal-like. Little Red Riding Hood, a young girl, is devoured by the Big Bad Wolf, a virile image of brute force.Footnote 4 By contrast, Pinocchio–a little boy–plays the role of the hero who is swallowed by a whale, a huge creature, only to resurface from the ocean depths as though from the netherworld. Equally popular are Charles Perrault’s Tom Thumb and the Brothers Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel, two fairy tales that were already in existence long before these authors recorded them, showing that the cannibalistic nightmares they enclose evoke major archetypes of the collective unconscious. Similar fears are expressed by stories about zombies and vampires. These figures represent undead creatures seeking to regain the vital energy they have lost by biting the living and sucking their blood: acts that, in the light of a psychoanalytical interpretation, bear all the marks of incorporation.
Symbolic Cannibalism: Jacques Derrida and Jean Paul Sartre
As French philosopher Jacques Derrida explains, the fear of being eaten is not limited to anthropophagic cultures, but also applies to nonanthropophagic ones. In the latter too, we find a sort of symbolic cannibalism which has to do with the capacity for annihilation. Derrida writes: “the so-called nonanthropophagic cultures practice symbolic anthropophagy and even construct their most elevated socius, indeed the sublimity of their morality, their politics, and their right, on this anthropophagy. Vegetarians, too, partake of animals, even of men. They practice a different mode of denegation.”Footnote 5
In other words, the symbolic cannibal is someone who devours our soul, someone who is capable of reducing us from the state of subject to that of mere object. The symbolic cannibal does not use his teeth, because his gaze is enough–as in the case of the petrifying gaze of Medusa described by French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. In one of his best-known examples, Sartre imagines himself peeping through a door hole, driven by jealousy or depravity. In this condition, Sartre writes, “my consciousness sticks to my acts, it is my acts, and my acts are commanded only by the ends to be attained and by the instruments to be employed.”Footnote 6 “My attitude,” Sartre goes on to explain, is in this case a “pure mode of losing myself in the world, of causing myself to be drunk in by things as ink is by a blotter.”Footnote 7 “Suddenly, however, I hear footsteps along the corridor: someone arrives and catches me in this embarrassing act. At this very moment, I suddenly become the object of another person’s gaze. I am no longer simply absorbed in the spectacle I am contemplating, I am no longer simply lost in the world of things, I no longer feel like the source of every perspective. Suddenly, I become an object for someone else, a reference to someone else; I am subsumed into a perspective which does not originate from me. The feeling of shame I experience in becoming the object of another person’s gaze “is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the Other is looking at and judging.”Footnote 8
Other people, Sartre notes, may become our own “hell,” or doom, because through their gaze they can reduce our transcendence to a mere object. The feeling of shame stems from this suffering we experience under the objectifying gaze of the Other. Shame–Sartre writes in Being and Nothingness–"is shame of oneself before the Other.”Footnote 9 Shame, therefore, takes root within me the moment I realize that another person is looking at me; the moment I start to perceive myself as a mere object of his gaze and judgement. Similar considerations may be advanced with regard to the shame of showing ourselves naked. “To put on clothes,” Sartre notes, “is to hide one’s object-state: it is to claim the right of seeing without being seen; that is, to be pure subject. That is why the Biblical symbol of the fall after the original sin is the fact that Adam and Eve ‘know that they are naked.’”Footnote 10 According to Sartre, then, shame coincides with the dread that man experiences with regard to his own objectification (a constant possibility) and the ‘Gorgon effect’ that surrounds him, which is to say Medusa’s petrifying gaze–an image that symbolically evokes the suffering associated with the feeling of shame. Through the appearance of other people, I find myself in the condition of passing judgement upon myself as though I were an object, for it is as an object that I show myself to others.
Not just shame, but also other feelings like pride and fear, can lead me to perceive myself as the mere object of the Other’s gaze. Sartre, who was actively involved in the French Resistance as a member of the ‘Combat’ group, was all too familiar with the fear of being seen by the enemy or of being caught by a sharpshooter’s gaze through the gunsight.Footnote 11 This experience must no doubt have contributed to Sartre’s development of the phenomenology of the objectifying gaze. Dalí offers a compelling representation of this gaze through the figure of William Tell’s son. The latter is the object of his father’s gaze and has a bow aimed at him, from which an arrow is about to be fired. No doubt, in this situation, William Tell’s son must be experiencing fear, just as Dalí must have feared his authoritarian father. Dalí’s idea of being nothing but an object in the eyes of his father must have been reinforced by various other factors–not least, the fact that the artist had been conceived three years after the death of his elder brother,Footnote 12 whose name he had inherited.
The theme of the objectifying gaze is also the focus of Sartre’s play No Exit. This drama, which Sartre dashed down in 1943, soon became one of his most popular works. It unfolds in a single act, with a fixed setting and three characters–Garcin, Ines, and Estella–who are doomed to live in a state of perpetual wakefulness and to share the same room for the whole of eternity. The drama suggests that they are dead or, rather, that they are dead consciousnesses–living dead. In the opening scene Garcin is lead into the room where the drama will unfold by a butler, whose glazed and motionless eyes he immediately notes–the butler never blinks. In the third scene Ines and Estella make their appearance, and the door of the room seems to close for good. Hell begins and Garcin states:
Yes, now’s the moment: I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I’m in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. (He swings round abruptly). What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. (Laughs). So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl”. Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is – other people!Footnote 13
The Ethics of Care and Mothering Persons: Sara Ruddick
As we have seen, the fear of being eaten, which is to say of being destroyed and annihilated by the Other (even symbolically), manifests itself in a particularly prominent way during childhood. Every mother has to deal with this fear of her child from the very start. For the child, the mother embodies the good subject, which is reassuring and nonthreatening. To draw upon the language of fairy tales again, the mother may be said to represent the fairy (think of the motherly figure of the Blue Fairy in the tale of Pinocchio), who stands in contrast to the devouring ogre (in Pinocchio, Mangiafuoco or the whale). Unlike the ogre, the mother does not eat the child but, on the contrary, provides food for him to eat. At times she even offers herself as food, by giving the child her breast. Authors dealing with the ethics of care tend to stress the link between motherhood and that original act of generosity that consists in bringing something to life and nourishing it, through food but also through education and devoted attention.
One author who explicitly refers to the motherhood model is Sara Ruddick. In Maternal Thinking,Footnote 14 she lays out the methodology for the ethics of care by taking the experience of motherhood as her starting point. Caring for, educating and promoting the growth of the Other is similar to breastfeeding, for else it would be difficult to make sense of the assonance that exists in the English language between terms such as ‘nurse,’ the verb ‘to nurse,’ ‘nursery,’ and ‘nursing home,’ but also–and especially–‘nurture’ (in the sense of moral upbringing). While the ethics of care identifies maternal values as moral principles, the symbolic dimension implicit to this is precisely the one stemming from the primary nourishment-related function of the mother, who as ‘nourisher,’ preserves her children’s life. A mothering person is someone who offers nourishment to the life form he or she interacts with. According to Ruddick, mothering persons are therefore men and women with virtues and capacities of considerable moral worth: while mothers embody naturally loving beings, the ‘mother’s job’ is a practice that revolves around ‘motherly behavior’ and can be carried out regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
The Myth of Cura
The ethics of care also recall the myth of Cura, which offers some interesting insights for our enquiry. According to the myth, which Hyginus narrates in the Fabulae,Footnote 15 Cura was crossing a river when she stopped to collect some mud and started molding a human figure. When Jove arrived, Cura begged him to breathe life into the figure, and Jove agreed. Later, however, a dispute broke out–which also involved Terra Mater (Mother Earth)–as to who had the right to name the new creature. After all, each of the three had contributed to its coming into being in a particular way. Saturn was summoned to adjudicate the dispute and ruled that Jove was entitled to the spirit of the new creature and Terra to its body, yet only after its death. But as long as the creature was still alive, it would be entrusted to Cura, who had molded it. Finally, the choice was made to name the creature ‘man’ (homo), as it had been fashioned out of the soil (humus).
Cura, therefore, is capable of keeping body and soul together: precisely what the objectifying gaze–the symbolic cannibal devouring our soul–does not do. The myth of Cura, in this respect, represents the mothering person, which is to say the individual who recognizes us in our transcendence, without reducing us to an object that, in Sartrean terms, is absorbed and petrified by the Other’s gaze.
The Maternal Gaze: Luigi Pirandello
The maternal gaze, therefore, is the exact opposite of Medusa’s gaze as described by Sartre. We wish to protect ourselves against the objectifying gaze, as much as we wish to be exposed to an accepting and recognizing gaze. Sartre analyses those situations in which we are disturbed by the realization that we are the object of another person’s gaze, as we sense ourselves becoming the object of such gaze and wish to flee it, so as to preserve our transcendence. At other times instead (but this is a possibility Sartre overlooks), the gaze of the Other that recognizes us in our transcendence and loves us, makes us feel alive, allowing us to fully perceive our own transcendence. For while it is true that we can only feel like objects under the objectifying gaze of the Other, it is equally true that only the accepting gaze of the Other can allow us to really feel like subjects. In The Phenomenology of the Spirit,Footnote 16 Hegel illustrates this point well: it is only through the dialectic of recognition between two consciousnesses that an individual consciousness can attain the level of self-awareness. Psychology too shows that the child progressively acquires a sense of self through the dialectic of its relationship with its mother. Without another consciousness to mirror us, we cannot fully perceive our own transcendence.
Sartre’s analysis of the objectifying gaze may be contrasted with a compelling text by Luigi Pirandello, in which the author laments the absence of the accepting gaze of his deceased mother. What Pirandello misses is the gaze and thought of his mother, which–in accepting him–had made him feel alive, providing crucial support. Now that his mother is dead, he himself feels dead. This is exactly the opposite of what we find in Sartre, where the Other’s gaze is petrifying, deadly–hell. In Pirandello the Other’s gaze is a source of life, it’s absence a cause of death, even for those who survive. The author writes:
I mourn because you, Mother, can no longer give me a reality! A support, a source of comfort, has fallen away from me, from my reality. When you sat down there in a corner, I used to say: “If she thinks of me from a distance, I am alive because of her.” And this supported and comforted me. Now that you are dead (…) you cannot think of me as I think of you, you can no longer perceive me as I perceive you. It is indeed for this reason, Mother, that those who believe that they are alive also believe that they are mourning their dead, when in fact they are mourning their own death, a reality of theirs that is no longer to be found in the feelings of those who have left them.”Footnote 17
All this is vastly different from what Sartre writes: whereas in Sartre’s examples of a man eavesdropping, of a scouting party (see note 11) etc., we find the fear, even the dread, of being seen; here, by contrast, we have a profound desire to be seen. For Pirandello, to be seen or thought of does not mean to be objectified, but rather to be confirmed in terms of one’s own existence and truth: “without your gaze I no longer exist,” says Pirandello; “your gaze petrifies me,” says Sartre.
Returning to Salvador Dalí
In the life and oeuvre of Salvador Dalí we find the Other’s gaze in both forms: the objectifying form, represented by the artist’s father, and the recognizing one, embodied by his partner Gala. In addition to being Dalí’s partner, Gala was in every respect a mother for him (and not just because she was older).
In his relationship with women, Dalí himself fluctuated between domineering and objectifying attitudes and relations based on genuine recognition. In The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, Dalí recounts a significant episode in his relationship with the little girl Dullita, which even reveals some sadistic traits of his personality:
Dullita opened her eyes and said, “Let’s play at touching each other’s tongues”, and she raised her head slightly, bringing it even a little closer to me, while sticking out the tip of her tongue from her deliciously moist, half-opened mouth. I was paralized by a mortal fear, and in spite of my desire to kiss her I pulled back my head and with a brutal gesture of my hand I threw her head back, causing it to strike the laurel crown noisily.
I got to my feet again, and my attitude must have struck her as so menacing and resolute that I could feel by her absent look that she was ready to submit to any kind of treatment without offering the slightest resistance. This stoicism in which I felt in addition the presence of a principle of acquiescence on her part accentuated my growing desire to hurt her. […] I threw myself on Dullita’s body and I again squeezed her waist with all my might. […] I could then have brought progressively heavier objects to keep her pinned down there. And when I finally freed her from this torture I would kiss her on the mouth and on her bruised back, and we would weep together.Footnote 18
This connection between sexuality and cruelty–depicted in Autumnal Cannibalism and analyzed by Freud in Three Essays on Sexuality–is a recurrent feature of Dalí’s personal relationship with women. His autobiographical accounts betray a deep fear of engaging with women, a feeling of insecurity and inadequacy which, combined with the artist’s markedly narcissistic personality, lead him to re-channel his repressed tenderness and affection as a domineering and violent energy. In such a way, he unconsciously sought to neutralize the ‘threat’ posed by females. Dalí recalls that as an adolescent he regarded women as the greatest danger to his soul, a soul extremely vulnerable to the storms of passion. In some of the sketches included in his autobiography, Dalí gives the female figure, and especially Gala, the appearance of a mantis,Footnote 19 thereby expressing his simultaneous fear and desire to be ‘swallowed’ by her erotic passion. Healing from this phobia of the feminine universe was offered to him by his relationship with Gala, the greatest and most enduring love of his life. Dalí needed to symbolically neutralize the threat embodied by the mantis-woman, and Gala afforded him the opportunity to do so. At first, Dalí expressed his sadistic tendencies with Gala as well; but, unlike other women he had met, Gala proved capable of healing him, not least in entirely unexpected ways. When Dalí asked Gala to teach him how to make love, since he was completely inexperienced, Gala unexpectedly suggested that he kill her. This should have been an appealing request for the sadistic Dalí, but instead it caught him off guard: it neutralized the artist’s fear of being devoured, curing him of it. This is how Dalí describes the whole episode:
My erotic passion had by now reached the limits of dementia and, knowing that I still had just enough time, I repeated to her in a more tyrannical, deliberate way,
“What do you want me to do to you?”
Then Gala, transforming the last glimmer of her expression of pleasure into the hard light of her own tyranny, answered,
“I want you to croak me!”
“Are you going to do it?” she asked.Footnote 20
I thought: she will teach me love, and after that, as I have always wished, I shall come back alone. She wants it, and she has asked it of me! But something limped in my enthusiasm, and the conviction of my resounding resolve to murder, instead of resounding within the armors of my Machiavellism with the sonorous prestige of fine bronze, rang only with the defective noise of tin! What is wrong with you, Dalí? Can’t you see that now, when your crime is being offered to you as a present, you don’t want it any longer! (…) Gala thus weaned me from my crime, and cured my madness. Thank you! I want to love you! I was to marry her.Footnote 21
This encounter with Gala, which healed Dalí, occurred in September, which is to say in autumn, at Cadaqués, the background landscape in Autumnal Cannibalism. Once freed from his sadistic drives, Dalí passionately kisses Gala, as though to devour her mouth; but this time, his cannibalism is no longer a destructive, evil and murderous one: it is a good kind of cannibalism, based on a fusion, an exchange, an act of sharing. The desire to symbolically eat Gala, so as to merge with her, is also expressed by the image of Gala blurring with the grapes that Dalí is savoring in that cannibalistic September autumn:
Seated on a dry-rock wall Gala ate black grapes. It was as if she were growing brighter and more beautiful with each new grape. And with each new silence-rounded afternoon of our idyll I felt Gala sweeten in unison with the grapes on the vines. Even Gala’s body seemed to the touch to be made of the “flesh-heaven” of a golden muscat.Footnote 22
For these reasons Dalí nicknamed Gala ‘Gradiva,’ after the protagonist of the Wilhelm Jensen novelFootnote 23 discussed by FreudFootnote 2,4 in virtue of her healing powers. In Autumnal Cannibalism, Gala is no longer portrayed as the mantis-woman devouring Dalí, because the two figures in the painting eat one another, in the pursuit of the highest, ultimate union, merging together. For Dalí Gala is more than just a partner, lover, adviser, and muse: in a way, she is also a mother. Perhaps a mother is what Dalí needed most of all–that is to say, a ‘mothering person’ as defined by Sara Ruddick. In Autumnal Cannibalism, the female figure has two oblong breasts that turn into milk, symbolizing precisely the maternal figure.