The Persistence of Memory

A surprising thing about Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” -- one of the most recognizable works of art in the world -- is its small size, all of 9-1/2 x 13 inches, only slightly larger than an ordinary sheet of paper. Its compact dimensions are unexpected because the iconic surrealist painting depicts a broad vista with a shaded beach in the foreground and a massive sunlit cliff on the horizon, overlooking blue-green waters. The cliff is recognizable as the edge of Spain’s Cap de Creus peninsula along the Mediterranean coast in Dali’s native Catalonia. However, the rest of the painting leaves little doubt that this is a pure dreamscape, with three melted pocket watches draped like deflated balloons in the foreground, along with a giant rubbery head also lying on the beach like a deflated balloon. A fourth watch, seemingly intact, is crawling with ants.

“The Persistence of Memory” is an example of what Dali called his “hand-painted dream photographs” in which he combined readily identifiable locales, such as the seaside cliff from his home region, with wholly fantastical elements drawn from his unconscious. A student of Freud, Dali repeatedly plumbed the unconscious for material to use in his paintings. He was known to employ a technique he learned from Capuchin monks to wake himself up when he was drifting off to sleep so he would remember the dream images that came to him. He wrote, “I am the first to be surprised and often terrified by the images I see appear upon my canvas. I register without choice and with all possible exactitude the dictates of my subconscious, my dreams.”

Critics frequently surmise that the melted watches in Dali’s painting are a comment on Einstein’s special theory of his relativity, which ended Isaac Newton’s fixed cosmic order of time and space. Dali, meanwhile, insisted they were inspired by a melted Camembert cheese. However, his statement on the subject points to something beyond mere melted cheese. The watches, he said, were "nothing more than the soft, extravagant, solitary, paranoiac-critical Camembert cheese of space and time.” Whatever that means.

What is the significance of the painting’s title, “The Persistence of Memory,” and what does it have to do with the soft watches? The connection becomes clear when we realize that time, or duration, is essentially a function of memory. Without memory, everything happens right now. It is only when we recollect prior moments that we get the sense that time has passed. The physicist Peter Lynds argues that time is not an external phenomenon at all but a neurobiological process in which the mind strings together a series of impressions to create the perception of movement, much like still images threading through a projector to make a movie.

Much is made of the juxtaposition of hardness and softness in Dali’s painting, with the hard outcropping of rock on the horizon, representing the external world, contrasted with the soft watches, which represent the essential subjectivity of time. It is noteworthy that each of the watch faces we can see points to a different time. In reality, we can synchronize our watches so they all point to the same time, and we can measure it with great precision. But we are still measuring nothing more tangible than memory.

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