Dali's Lobsters- Surrealism and the Artifacts of Postmodernism

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Question- How many Surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer- A fish.

This past summer a special exhibition of Surrealist art was on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery, entitled The Color of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art. With the exhibit being local I jumped at the chance to spend extended time with this important 20th century movement in the arts, and bought my first ever 100-handpainted-Canvas-Surrealist-Art-Painting-on-promotion-free-shippingmembership to the art gallery. I went to the exhibit multiple times, sometimes only for an hour, sometimes only spending time in one room, or sometimes just watching the Surrealist films in the cinema. What comes below is a series of impressions I jotted down on my iPhone notepad while on these visits - themes, aphorisms, vignettes, mini-gestalts and mild disturbances that arose as I spent time with the artifacts on display.

I choose the word artifact intentionally. In Jeremy Johnson's recent article on William Irwin Thompson, he writes:

"If you ever crack open Ever-Present Origin, you'll notice Jean Gebser pays special attention to the symbols and cultural "artifacts" and "texts," be they paintings, statues, poems or the myths themselves. You'll find the same careful attention to art and culture in Thompson's books. Expect a fascinating journey through the evolution of consciousness through an interplay of science, myth, art and imagination. This is a much needed and balancing alternative to other theorists who focus on consciousness from a strictly psychological (transpersonal or otherwise) and developmental perspective".

I very much agree with Jeremy here; if we're to truly recognize and understand a structure of human consciousness, we must (also) study in detail the many cultural artifacts emanating out of these unique noetic constellations (1). All too often in mainstream Integral theory the structure-stages of consciousness are presented with simple labels only, a highly anemic version of these rich and multifaceted cultural codes. This can lead to a crude use of these concepts on the one hand, or a nervous skepticism on the other, neither of which is very helpful. To strike a middle path we must- to riff on the famous phenomenological phrase- "return to the things themselves"! In my view, the movement of Surrealism is a wonderfully rich place to observe the emergence of the postmodern geist as it resists, reacts to and pushes off from the confines of a modernity it can no longer abide. There are genuine emergences (multiple perspective taking, collage), the digging up of the rejected past (the magic and the mythic), and the unearthing of zones repressed by the modern moment (sexuality, the unconscious). There is darkness and light, dead ends and new openings, all wrapped up in a riddle of the unusual and absurd. I offer the following works of art and my notes as a meditation on the postmodern via the cultural phenomenon known as Surrealism.



   The unreal, the surreal, the un-realing of the Real.            The uncanny.













The kinetic, the subtle, the dissolution of surrealits

the material phenomena.

The noumenal.









The unleashing of energies both dark and light,

Eros and Thanatos.       M-Dali-Narcissus










The dark. The Gothic.


                                                                    The absurd.















The magical, the mad,




the festive and fantastical,

                 the ferocious.









   The incomprehensibility of time. salvador-dali-clock










                                 film  Film, cinema, and

above all- stimmung (mood).



                      Shadows, scorpions, eyeballs, desire. bruneul









The mysterious recesses of the human psyche. Freud. Hallways.

                                                                        Dreams, associations, memories.




purveyors of the marvelous















The disorienting world of the labyrinth- and the monster within it. Part human and part beast we are.






   Centaur, minotaur, integration?














The cutting up of reality,collage_1collage_corneel


                                  the mash-up, fragmentation, collective writing.


Collage-"the joining together of unlike elements".




The odd, the oddball, the inventive, the unexpected.

Humor. Picasso uses a car as a monkey head. picassoAnd it works!


      Salvador Dali and his lobsters. 



The mythic and the magic. 



           Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was a close contact. Trips to the Pacific Northwest, to Alaska, meetings with Emily Carr and the Group of Seven. The surrealism_img5collecting of native masks, feast dishes and other artifacts. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City was frequented.






Nature, natural histories, inherent meaning in all things,

                                                                 animals, animalia, animism, the wild.



Man animal transformations in Surrealist art were witnesses to Primal forces and a world view in which man was not necessarily the center of the universe”.



The scorpion and 



       the perfect instrument of death.





             Politics, the political, polemics, Marxism, revolution against capitalism. Andre Breton goes to Mexico, meets with Frido Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky, they write ‘Manifesto of an Independent Revolutionary Art’. DRBretonTrotsky_b


It finishes:

Our aims:

The independence of art — for the revolution.

The revolution — for the complete liberation of art!



                          Androgyny. Desire.  fwsubversion3Exploding sexual convention,

liberating repressed desire.


Breaking down stereotypes.

The Marquis de Sade,

the divine Marquis. monumentRadical liberty, unbound desire


 Bellmer_The-Doll_231-218Perversion. Transgression.


Dismemberment and the obscene. The problem of gender differentiation.


The convergence of erotic objects with violence and fragmentation. Hans Bellmer’s Dolls.


"An unconventional approach to social and aesthetic conventions"- to say the least.






Enamored by science, wary of rationalism, a desire to subvert science.


Automatic writing, receptivity, creative flow.



                                     the elemental.





(1) For more information on structures of consciousness, I recommend a great little paper by Allan Combs and Stanley Krippner called Process, Structure and Form: An Evolutionary Transpersonal Psychology of Consciousness. www.sourceintegralis.org/Process,%20Structure,%20and%20Form.pdf   . The last section is out of date.

Here's an excerpt from the abstract for the paper:

"In the spirit of William James, we present a process view of human consciousness. Our approach, however, follows upon Charles Tarts original systems theory analysis of states of consciousness, although it differs in its reliance on the modern sciences of complexity, especially dynamical sys- tems theory and its emphasis on process and evolution. We argue that consciousness experience is constructive in the sense that it is the result of ongoing self-organizing and self-creating (autopoietic) processes in the mind and body".

Also, for a summary of structures from the view of Wilberian Integral theory, cf. Sean Esborn Hargens An Overview of Integral Theory, particularly the section titled 'All Levels: Depths and Complexity'.

*Stimmung- for an excellent discussion on the concept of stimmung, cf. the Entitled Opinions podcast on 'The Philosophy of Moods'. Episode 119.

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  • Comment Link David Marshall Thursday, 10 November 2011 06:16 posted by David Marshall

    Very beautiful post, Trevor. I liked the text as much as the paintings. It's a cool journey reading that. I always found Dali and the surrealists interesting as well. I'll have to linger on it more later.

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Thursday, 10 November 2011 10:53 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    It was a spring January that December when I heard the lights go out as the sun rose. “Good bye” the postman roared, as he rang my door knocker to deliver my email in a box so open I couldn’t remove the tape by myself. “Just in space for coffee” I plumed, while I poured the milky-black letters into our soup. The dog meowed in the bird cage, and I worried that my saddle soap had gone dry as a sponge in water and wouldn’t be able to dirty it. With one exception, the postman always sang twice, but time never caught up with us, so he didn’t get a chance, again. It was, the beginning upon a once time

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Thursday, 10 November 2011 10:58 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    Loved it! Thanks, Trevor.
    are you familiar with Gregory Colbert's Ashes and Snow?



    I think the zeitgeist of this work moves beyond postmodern surrealism into the very new. What do you think?

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Friday, 11 November 2011 00:32 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    David, thanks for the words, much appreciated. Look forward to hearing if more comes up for you.

    Bonnitta, thanks. That paragraph you wrote made me chuckle and chuckle. Why is surrealist humor so funny?! It got me thinking of Monty Python and how well they used that sort of humor in their work.

    And Gregory Colbert- wow. I've never heard of him, even though his traveling exhibition is "the most attended by any living artist in history" (?!). Thanks for introducing me to his work. I would agree that it seems to have moved beyond the postmodern (Surrealist) moment into new territory. Those videos brought forth a lot of emotion in me. Some of it deeply sad, sad at how magnificent and beautiful the Earth and creation is, and how we so often don't realize it as we stomp all over it.

    However, another aspect of the videos reminded of something we've been reading in a class in seminary this semester. The key text in my Pastoral Leadership class is Dorothy Soelle's 'The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance'. In it she talks about praise, praise for creation, as a form of resistance (not the only, but the one the videos reminded me of).

    She writes: "There is a deep relation between mysticism and aesthetics, between the joy of God and beauty: relatively little thought has been given to this thus far. The audible mark of that relation is what tradition names in the old word "praise"...The oft-lamented spiritual impoverishment of today has to be recognized above all in this ability to praise life...Giving praise does not easily come on its own; to name what has been inflicted on life is something that suggests itself much more readily...We are all guardians of joy and responsible for making life's beauty visible and audible. Mystical joy needs and produces beauty. It is a pure act in which they whom joy has overtaken become participants in creation. With all the seraphim and cherubim they exclaim, "behold!""

    Thanks for the Colbert videos. They made life's beauty visible and audible.

    "Being here is magnificent"- Rainer Maria Rilke.

  • Comment Link Paul Duke Friday, 11 November 2011 14:11 posted by Paul Duke

    This is exciting stuff Trev, and deeply connected to my own project. Thank you for stimulating me all over again to continue the exploration into the surreal and unconscious.

  • Comment Link David Marshall Saturday, 12 November 2011 02:46 posted by David Marshall

    Trevor, one thing that comes up for me is something you allude to a couple of times in the piece, states.

    If we view these paintings just in terms of waking-state structures, we might have to conclude that some of them are the works of a madman or very unhealthy postmodernism, the type that is flooded with Magic and Mythic perspectives without knowing how to order them.

    It's possible there is something of that going on here, that Dali, for example, was given to some pre/trans fallacies. But if we add states, particularly the dream state, which you mention, then it looks a little different.

    Just viewing it from the perspective of waking-state structures, we might find many interesting postmodern insights illustrated here, but in some of them not in such a way that includes modern realism or rationality. That is, just from that narrow perspective, some of the paintings don't "make sense."

    But the dream state has its own way of making sense, as does the causal. Some things that happen in the dream state make no rational sense, and yet they are nevertheless deeply meaningful in some way that is hard to put a finger on.

    The lobster on the telephone makes no rational sense; I can't see how it makes post-rational sense, either, but nevertheless it strikes a deep chord. It is slightly unsettling, and yet at the same time seems to belong there. It satisfies some dream state kind of sense.

    I think it could be interpreted in other ways, as some kind of post-rational or postmodernism (just considering waking-state structures and evolution,for example), but that was just one thing that came up for me, that it seems to involve the dream state.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Sunday, 13 November 2011 20:47 posted by TJ Dawe

    David - the link to dreams is very potent in Dali's work. He designed the dreamscapes in Hitchcock's 1945 movie Spellbound. Gregory Peck describes a dream to Ingrid Bergman, and the cinematic representation of it is incredible: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzxlbgPkxHE

    later in the movie they decipher what some of the elements mean, but just on its own, the sequence is haunting exactly the way a dream is.

    Haruki Murakami - one of my favourite novelists - explores dream territory quite a bit. the Wind-up Bird Chronicle - which I consider his masterpiece - climaxes in a dream-like reality. Many of his novels involve this kind of thing. A character slips into another world which is dreamlike, and what happens there has consequences in the "real" world.

    Murakami's work, incidentally, is listed in the wikipedia entry for "post-postmodernism," in a paragraph about metamodernity, "typified by a continuous oscillation, a constant repositioning between attitudes and mindsets that are evocative of the modern and of the postmodern but are ultimately suggestive of another sensibility that is neither of them; one that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths and relativism, between a desire for sense and a doubt about the sense of it all, between hope and melancholy, sincerity and irony, knowingness and naivety, construction and deconstruction."


  • Comment Link David Marshall Monday, 14 November 2011 02:35 posted by David Marshall

    T. J., that's really interesting. I hadn't seen that post-postmodern Wikipedia page, and I'm not familiar with the authors, either. I will definitely check them out.

    I've also been meaning to go on a Hitchcock binge with a friend of mine, so I will definitely add Spellbound to the list. Thanks for the clip. It looks pretty cool.

    I like the sound of the definition for "post-postmodern" in the Wikipedia article: "Evocative of the modern and of the postmodern but are ultimately suggestive of another sensibility that is neither of them; one that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths and relativism."

    I don't think I've ever heard a perfect or comprehensive definition of postmodern fiction, but I got some more bits and pieces from the article. I think a comprehensive definition might be useful. That's an interesting subject, an integral theory of fiction.

    Getting back to Dali, I've always liked him and still feel there is something in there to figure out. I've always liked the melting watch picture, for example. I've always found it nicely suggestive of another dimension. That's really the best art, isn't it, when there is some kind of transmission.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Monday, 14 November 2011 03:09 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Thanks Paul, great to hear.

    David, thanks for the great observations, I really look forward to adding to the thread; however, I got a big paper due Tuesday morning that I'm working on, so I'll come on Tuesday afternoon when I can give my addition more care. I started one this afternoon on dreams, and then started puling out books by Freud and others and after an hour had to cut that off as I knew where that was going! :)

    TJ, thanks digging out that post-postmodern definition I too found it intriguing, particularly the part that David highlights. Anyway, gotta run, be back shortly with much more to say!

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 16 November 2011 00:10 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Alright, back and good to go. So David these are some of the things that've been brewing since they were sparked by your comments.

    It's hard to know where to jump in the river but let me start here. I heard a recent statement from Wilber the other day that I think's important here. (Via David Martin):

    "In his description of the ‘Integral’ transformation, Ken suggested that, in contrast to previous inflections, rather than rejecting past human narratives, a hallmark of this inflection is the explicit inclusion of wisdom and experience from all previous epochs".


    This is very similar to Jean Gebser's view of 'integral' consciousness, which was one where all previous structures of consciousness would be brought on-line at once. So when I approach the Surrealists or other postmodernists I ask myself what did they bring forth that was of value that needs to be included or preserved in that higher integration.

    But not only that, if you look at the Surrealists here with a specific eye to that next meta-integrative/historically inclusionary structure-stage, it's impressive to see how many things that the Surrealists unearthed/(re)discovered/ brought forth. Dreams, myth, magic, the interconnectedness of all things, the unconscious, nature, animism, deep libidinal drives etc. In a way they do a substantial amount of pre-integrative unearthing work, and are quite intuitive about what's been wrongly left behind (not to mention bringing forth several new perspectives/capacities as well). For this I have deep gratitude for their work.

    However, as you point out, this random cacophonous unearthing can become very problematic when one becomes, as you so nicely put it, "flooded with Magic and Mythic perspectives without knowing how to order them". Not only can this look "mad", as you say, but many postmodern artist and intellectuals actually went mad, with many flirting deliberately with madness as a possible way to cross the borders and limits of the modern world around them (and in them). Many committed suicide too, too many. Also, and it probably doesn't need to be said, but just in case, the widespread (often wholesale) rejection of the modern rational mind was deeply problematic and something that would be rejected from an integralist point of view today. That rejection of rationalism often led to irrationalisms and vitalist hopes, and this led Surrealist leader Andre Breton into some territory bordering on fascism, as a different but similar path did for Martin Heidegger.

    So, it seems to me there's still a great embodied project of re-integration ahead of us, to truly make that integralist vision a reality. In that direction, I like your focus on states as a reframing/locus of investigation of some of the Surrealist work. It seems to me that not a lot of work has been done by integral scholar-practitioners on states since Wilber moved to the Wilber-Coombs Lattice. And I would agree with you that there's something so very compelling about some of the Surrealist work, Dali's in particular (why is that lobster phone so funny, yet seem so strangely right too? what's he tapping into?). A further investigation into what's going on here, and what might be worth integrating, still remains to be done.

    In terms of the dream work, many of the Surrealists were indeed very much into dreams (Dali and Max Ernst in particular), and much of this had to do with Freud's works being translated into French in the 1920s, subsequently gobbled up by the young Surrealists in France. Wilber's got a good section on dreams and magic consciousness in Up From Eden that's worth revisiting (pages 48-56 in my text, section entitled When the Dream Was Real).

    Well those are some of things that came up for me, hope some of that was of use. I want to finish here by offering a few resources for further investigation into Surrealism and postmodern art for anyone interested. There are three podcasts worth checking out on my favorite podcast Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature):


    i) The Avantgarde (Episode 90)- an overview of the 20th century avantgarde movement in the arts, which includes Surrealism.

    ii) Georges Bataille (Episode 26)- was in and out of the Surrealist movement, but there's much overlap. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Bataille

    iii) Romanticism and Organic Form (Episode 105)- important precursors in the lineage.

    cheers, thanks David (et. al)!

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Thursday, 17 November 2011 18:49 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Hi Trevor,

    This was a great visual ride with your poetic commentary. Dali has always been one of my favorite artists. There is just something about the work that cracks you open or melts your mind like The Persistence of Memory painting.

    Thanks for referencing my article in regards to cultural artifacts. A study of the evolution of consciousness without these is precisely as you say, anemic. It's missing the vital blood that enables you to participate, to some degree, in the various structures of consciousness. Even the sophistication of a highly abstract, conceptual system of ideas can be no match for viewing a single painting. It does something to you. This is what attracted the theorist Owen Barfield to studying poetry. He believed it could actually change your experience of consciousness and perception.

    "Return to the things themselves!" - Yes, whole heartedly agree. We certainly need a more participatory mode of experience if we are going to work towards an integral "structure" of consciousness. I suspect the integral, too, will be less conceptual but a kind of irruption in the same sense of these paintings convey. Only the 'integral' structure is a kind of mystic experience. It unites rather than drives mad. Or perhaps the madness is of another caliber and quality.

    "There are genuine emergences (multiple perspective taking, collage), the digging up of the rejected past (the magic and the mythic), and the unearthing of zones repressed by the modern moment (sexuality, the unconscious). There is darkness and light, dead ends and new openings, all wrapped up in a riddle of the unusual and absurd. I offer the following works of art and my notes as a meditation on the postmodern via the cultural phenomenon known as Surrealism."

    Trevor, I love this and once again feel it's on point. The tightening lock-trap of rational consciousness, which Gebser believed was a deficient phase of the "mental" structure, is getting addressed exactly how it needs to.

    The paintings are true, but they are absurd. If they are not the kind of scientific and materialistic truth, what are they?

    These paintings are not necessarily antithetical to science, as you mentioned they can be enamored with it, but the kind of consciousness that our scientific and industrial age carries with it is cause for alarm.

    Part of what I've had to read lately is a lot of theory and philosophy on technology, and the interesting thing Heidegger noted was that the "essence" of technology was not technology at all, but the "enframing" - Heidegger's own version of a structure of consciousness, that "challenges forth" reality to give up its resources, unlock its power and become a means to an end and standing-reserve for human destiny. In other words, another way of describing Gebser's deficient mental-rational structure of consciousness.

    Art has a kind of intuitive and healing sense about it. It shows us what we are missing in our consciousness, what has been left out and what the waking conscious mind, or collective ego (culture) is doing that is un-holistic and fragmenting. Surrealism is a perfect mirror for us to check out what has been too dominant and what has been too atrophied. So it's really fascinating to see magical and mythical themes pop up all over postmodern art.

    Now, I'm even more curious to see what kind of art forms are emerging in the contemporary scene.

    OK, I think I'll just end up rambling here so I'll stop. Maybe more thoughts later! Once again, great piece here. Left me much to think about. I'll be showing my girlfriend this article when she gets home (she's a huge fan of Dali and is way more knowledgeable about art).


  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 22 November 2011 01:32 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Thanks for these additions Jeremy, so rich as always.

    I'm glad you're bringing out Gebser's "deficient phase of the mental structure". That's so important and is fleshed out in his work in a way (ie. nuance, detail) that never was equally done in Wilber's (for instance). I also think Heidegger's work is very important in that regard, and I'm glad you're bringing that in. I've spent a fair bit of time with 'The Question Concerning Technology' and other texts, and he makes a pretty compelling/startling case for this deficient (if not pathological) modern mind (enframing, technicity and all the rest of it). I took a pass through this territory from a similar but slightly different angle in an essay on 'Instrumental Reason'.


    I'm not necessarily saying you should read it (and if you do, read only the first two parts), but just to point out that this is central to my work as well. In terms of Heidegger's view on all this, I want to also point out one more resource. It's an Entitled Opinions podcast on Heidegger that's excellent. It's Episode 102. Robert Harrison's monologue on the "oblivion of Being" is stellar, and as far Heidegger goes, this is quite an accessible introduction:


    The Surrealist were certainly railing against these deficiencies, and rightly so in my view. A project that still needs desperate and ongoing attention.

    At any rate, thanks again Br. Jer!, always enjoy what you add to the discussion.

  • Comment Link David Marshall Wednesday, 30 November 2011 23:36 posted by David Marshall

    Trevor, those are great observations. I really see those pictures differently after you pointed those thinks out. Whole worlds were opened up for them, weren't they. It was as though suddenly so many things that weren't legitimate subjects for art suddenly became legitimate or returned to their field of awareness and contemplation.

    I like your list: "Dreams, myth, magic, the interconnectedness of all things, the unconscious, nature, animism, deep libidinal drives etc."

    It is tragic what happened to many postmodern artists, isn't it? When you add musicians, the list of "fallen" postmodern artists is really staggering. Neil Young's Tonight's the Night is one of the classic statements about that, I think. I have been contemplating a response to your Young and Waits post. :)

    I think another thing these surrealists bring back, and one of the things that interested me in Dali years ago, is simply a return to wonder and exploration and the unexpected and the unknown. The rational world tended to simply pathologize anything that wasn't rational or scientific or realistic (as far as I know this carried into art criticism, but I am not entirely sure) and put a lid on what is known and possible, and of course pre-modern art had even more severe restrictions than that. But postmodernity undid all those constraints, which is partly its gift and partly its undoing.

    Trevor: "That rejection of rationalism often led to irrationalisms and vitalist hopes, and this led Surrealist leader Andre Breton into some territory bordering on fascism, as a different but similar path did for Martin Heidegger."

    I think that's a really interesting and important point. With "unhealthy" postmodernism, people were and are liable to get carried away by lower structures or lower subtle energies. This is quite common, isn't it.

    I wonder if this "aperspectival madness," as Wilber has called it, led to a kind of confusion and disjointedness and even incapacitation that is perhaps best reflected by those mannequin pictures up above, particularly the one with the four legs. I wonder if those pictures describe how he felt.

    I appreciate this post and your reflections on it, Trevor. I never spent too much time contemplating art inter-subjectively, and I find I see more when I do and hear your ideas.



  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Monday, 05 December 2011 20:42 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    thanks for those reflections David.

    I appreciated you pointing out the emphasis on wonder in Dali and others. I hadn't seen that myself, but now that you mention it it is there, so thanks for adding that to my awareness. And in a culture that would "pathologize anything that wasn't rational or scientific or realistic" as you say, this was a brave act to bring back wonder. and so important (in the 'dis-enchanted world' of modernity etc.).

    I've also enjoyed "contemplating art-intersubjectively" here, and returning to the things themselves with you and Jeremy and others; it's a rich space to experience the possible robustness of multiple perspectives and collective inquiry. Let's be sure to include more of that in our future writings and endeavors. I've had one brewing on modernist architecture for a while now (there are few things I despise more than modernist architecture!) so that might be a good one to push forward on. Anyway, thanks for the words David, and- let's hear an article from you soon too! :)

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