PRINT May 1980

Three Oblique Situations

IN THE BEGINNING IS the word, as interpreted by Roland Barthes, means “the death of the author” for “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”1 Barthes traces the origin of this theory to Mallarmé, whose “entire poetics consist in suppressing the author in the interest of writing.” Furthermore, this removal "utterly transforms the modern text. . . . We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single theological meaning (the message of the author God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.2

As a Marxist, Barthes should have noted that the author belongs to history, not to linguistics. We know from history that Aeschylus invented a new form of writing by selecting three members from the Dionysian chorus to act out human antagonisms. The heart of democracy beats faster when its citizens are divided between those who cling to the past in the name of memory and those who are alienated from it. A tragic reappraisal of social inequality prompted Aeschylus to strengthen positive elements of the Athenians’ democratic revolution. A generation later it incited Euripides, in the name of individualism, to condemn democracy for its militaristic adventures. In our day, what totalitarian state would tolerate the speeches of Aeschylus’ Prometheus or Euripides’ Heracles?

I. Giorgio de Chirico
To survive, the vanguard has to be vigilant. The problem was well posed in the ’20s by André Breton when he set up a mock trial of Maurice Barrés, a former radical thinker who, in his mature years, became a champion of the establishment. To what extent can we consider an intellectual responsible for betraying the ideals of his youth,was the question put at this “trial.” Breton’s main objective was to chide the Dadaists for their disregard of moral problems. Writing on this subject in Surrealism and Painting (1928) Breton says, “It is not in vain that Chirico in his youth made what to us is the most extraordinary voyage. . . . Could one not repeat in relation to him the phrase. . . . of the admirable film Nosferatu when he was on the other side of the bridge did the phantoms come to meet him? However reticent he may show himself to be today on this point, Chirico still admits that he has not forgotten ghosts. In a sudden burst of confidence, that he must regret now, he even named to me Napoleon III and Cavour and gave me to understand that he had had extensive dealings with them.” About Chirico’s post-1917 painting Breton writes “If this man had any genius at all he would have long ago grown weary of this game which consists in mocking his lost genius.” Breton was horrified by Chirico’s return to banal subject matter: The Return of the Prodigal Son, A Roman Legionnaire Gazing at the Conquered Country and by his bothering to copy paintings of Raphael.

It seems to me that Chirico’s relation to phantoms does not correspond to that of the Surrealists. We know that his mannequins were engendered from his brother Savinio’s play Les Chants de la demi-mort whose protagonist was a man without eyes or face. The de Chirico brothers together with Carlo Carrá called their paintings “metaphysical” to convey a sense of estrangement.

Chirico tends to equate metaphysical with madness. He takes it for granted that madness is a phenomenon inherent in every profound manifestation of art. But he has in mind only one kind of madness, for he subjoins: “Schopenhauer defines as mad the man who has lost his memory.”3 In certain of his paintings Chirico uses a mannequin to personify the madman; since the mannequin’s movements are not conditioned by either will or memory, they are blind gestures.

Chirico was the master of the art of dissociation. In an article on “Statues, Furniture and Generals,”4 he drew attention to the “singular appearance of beds, mirror-fronted wardrobes, armchairs, divans and tables when one comes across them unexpectedly in a street in the midst of unaccustomed surroundings, as happens when people are moving house or in areas where dealers show their merchandise on the pavement. The pieces of furniture then appear in a new light; they are clothed in a strange solitude, a great intimacy grows between them, and one could say that a strange happiness hovers in the narrow space they occupy.” Chirico goes on to say that he could imagine that if someone like Orestes pursued by the Furies took “refuge in the little island formed by the furniture displayed on the pavement and let himself sink into an armchair in their midst, then he would suddenly find himself sheltered from all the persecution of gods and men.” The furniture in the street thus becomes “the temple into which Orestes flings himself.” The furniture is a displacement which offers a refuge from memory, not an escape from or reference to memory via identification with the temple where Orestes is rescued from the retribution warranted by his past.

For Chirico the appearance of a metaphysical work is serene, but he adds that under it we detect an element of disturbance. It is serenity that Chirico so admired in Raphael, Poussin, Boecklin, and the portraits of Ingres. No wonder Chirico felt grossly misinterpreted by the Surrealists who included reproductions of his paintings in magazines dedicated to social and psychological perturbations. Chirico criticizes the madness of the present for forgetting its glorious past. His mannequins are modern counterparts of statues, both the carved image and the wooden doll are doomed to function in a world of distorted perspectives. Chirico’s mannequins often look like models for the principle according to which all figures should be reduced in painting to geometric shapes. But the mannequin occupies the center of a stage in which history has been reduced to errors in perspective. The wooden actor has gone beyond good and evil by leaving tragedy behind him. Chirico has abandoned memory-torn Electra and rejected Wagner’s anticlassical solution. As Freud refashioned the child’s soul out of Nietzsche’s elixir of good and evil, so the Surrealists projected Chirico’s dissociations into their Freudian dream of a super-real future.

In his Autobiographie du Surréalisme (1978)5 Marcel Jean included excerpts from Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros (1929) contending that the incentive for shock that had been extinguished in his paintings remained very much in evidence in his prose. According to Jean, reminiscences of some of his earlier works, as well as references to some of his later paintings, combined with a melancholic day dreaming, make Hebdomeros one of the very rare novels that is purely Surrealist. Marcel Jean provides evidence of reminiscences of such things as “that strange building in a street, austere, distinguished and sorrowless.” Shortly after, Jean quotes the following passage of Chirico:

Here we are, says Hebdomeros stretching his arm before his companions as a captain would do to restrain his soldiers from leaping forward. They reached the entrance of a vast hall with a high ceiling decorated in the style of 1880, devoid of all furniture. This made one think of the gambling rooms of the Casino of Monte Carlo. In a corner two gladiators wearing divers’ masks were exercising without any conviction while their teacher was watching them with an expression of boredom. He was a retired gladiator with the eyes of a vulture and a body covered with scars.

Hebdomeros is a book of reminiscences. Surrealism is not interested in refreshing souvenirs; it demands that the artist listen to his mania: the divine rage Socrates spoke of that Freud identified as the voice of the unconscious. Surrealist criticism assumes that the poet has the courage to sign a pact with his Faustian self. To claim, as does Alain Jouffroy in a recent issue of XXe Siècle, that Chirico “is above all judgment” is tantamount to proclaiming him to be infallible. Jouffroy asserts that Chirico’s “sovereignty of a free man conscious of the limits of freedom was never based on anything else but on his power to decide at any given moment on what was most appropriate to his need to astonish.”6 But that power to astonish failed him after 1917. Chirico’s Self Portrait in Black Costume, 1948, is that of a foolish elderly man, about whom it cannot be seriously said, as has Jouffroy, that he “personifies the mystery of individuality.” Are we to repeat about Chirico what Tertullian had said about the mystery of the Holy Trinity, “Credo quia absurdum” (I believe what is absurd)?

II. Salvador Dali
Dali, The Mythomaniac, by Elena Calas7, forcefully suggests that in Dali’s notorious autobiography the barriers between fantasy and reality had been broken down by an author who had signed a pact with a Freudian version of the Faustian devil from which he was finally liberated by the love of a woman. Dali would have been a Surrealist painter and written a Surrealist autobiography even if Surrealism had never existed. His salvation demanded that he forsake his demonic self. From a Surrealist viewpoint, Dali’s error was to believe that Gradiva could personify redemption by advancing toward a historic past rather than the future. It should be recalled that Wilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva, a Pompeian Fancy (1903)8 became famous in psychoanalytical circles as the result of Freud’sDelusions and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva (1907). Gradiva, the name given to a Surealist gallery of the late ’30s, was “borrowed from the wonderful work of Jensen and signified ‘she who advances’ ” wrote Breton, adding, "who else can she be but the beauty of tomorrow, which to most people still remains hidden under a mask.’’9

Dali was obsessed all his life by the need for an inextinguishable love. He first experienced it in relation to the image of a little Russian girl on a sleigh crossing the snowy steppe. Elena Calas notes: “He was enthralled by the child whom he was subsequently to think of as Galushka, the diminutive of his future wife’s name Gala.” In the beginning of his ninth year another feminine image came to haunt him: “The same sentiment that I had for Galushka was born anew. Her name was Dullita.” In one critical instance Dali pulled her by the hair to the top of a precipitous tower. Reduced to its essential overt and covert elements by Elena Calas, this frightening episode unfolds as follows:

Salvador had another idea: to get Dullita up to the top of the Tower. She seemed to want to run away. Half-pulled brutally by the hair, half-cajoled by the promised gift of the diabolo, she mounted the stairs and sat on the parapet of the Tower overlooking the dizzying stark fall into the precipice beyond. With inspired hypocrisy the boy hid his face, expressing shocked concern for her safety at which, as he expected, she turned about and swung her legs over the abyss. Stealthily, he crept forward, the bifurcated end of the crutch aimed at the little girl’s waist. As if sensing in advance the approach of his crutch, Dullita turned towards him and, on her own, leaned against the crutch. The gesture so disoriented Dali that he was spared from committing murder and it saved the girl’s life. Tear-chocked, he tore the diabolo from Dullita’s hands and hurled it with all his might into the void. The substitute sacrifice was accomplished. . . . Although he was twenty-five years of age, Dali had never in his life made love and while crazed with desire for Gala he was in a panic of what she might expect from him; he felt he was approaching the “great trial” of his life and that the hour of the “sacrifice” was ever closer. He had started painting The Accommodation of Desires in which desires were always represented by the terrorizing images of lions heads. Tyrannized by unsatisfied erotic desires, Dali’s heightened pathological state began to threaten Gala’s initial equilibrium; her self-imposed task of wrestling for Dali’s sanity was being countered by Dali’s delusion that Gala was in fact the same person as his fantasied Galushka, by fear of his own “depersonalization” brought about by Gala’s very presence and the annihilation of the solitude so essential to him (a repetition of his rancor against the child Dullita), as well as his insistence on excursions to the summits of the most precipitous rocks where vertigo might easily overcome himself or Gala, ascents which he was to admit, involved criminal intentions on his part. Gala sensed his urge to murder her. The culminating point of the crisis was reached one evening when they were seated on a rocky desolate ledge. This is Dali’s partial account of it. “I threw back Gala’s head, pulling it back by the hair, and, trembling with complete hysteria, I commanded, ‘Now tell me what you want me to do to you! But tell me slowly, looking me in the eye, with the crudest, the most ferociously obscene words that can make both of us feel the greatest shame!’ ” Calmly, determinedly, Gala requested death at his hands. Instead of the ardent proposal he had been expecting, he was offered the gift of freely carrying out his secret guilty urge, his overwhelming life-long urge to respond to the call of “vicious precipices.” Goaded by Gala’s faith in the potentialities of his madness, he promised her this death while feeling utterly disoriented. Lingering murderous intentions almost immediately dissolved—and that for the rest of his life—and finally united in the flesh with his Gradiva, Dali was to emerge from his pathological state, as he recognized, entirely due to Gala’s intuitive handling of him, the power of her love. He summed it up seven years later, his mind lucid: “She was destined to be my Gradiva. ‘she who advances,’ my victory, my wife. But for this she had to cure me and she did cure me.”10

Salvador’s expression of gratitude to his Gradiva culminated in a portrait in which she was represented as Mary at the foot of the crucified Savior. To a Surrealist atheist, Gala in this painting personifies a Gradiva advancing towards the past on false assumptions.

III. Arakawa
Libertas est Christus servire (“Liberty means serving Christ,” St. Augustine). After the “Death of God” freedom consists in serving the people, either in the name of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité or in the name of “the damned of the earth.” In Freudian terms, freedom implies freeing one’s ego from the fetters of the superego. The contemporary artist achieves intellectual freedom through language games, the most interesting of which—whether Surrealist or Expressionist, Figurative or Abstract—involves a reappraisal of existing structures and images.11 Marcel Duchamp’s preeminence in this domain derived to a large extent from his critique of three-dimensionality in the name of four-dimensionality.12 In the last decade or so, Arakawa has excelled in pursuing this critique with his startling diagrams. Arakawa has said that in studies of the problems of communication using undefinable dimensions he was inspired by André Breton’s book, Les Vases Communicants, in which the Surrealist writer developed a personal system of interrelations between an ethical point of view and utilitarian behavior. To Arakawa, “Ethics and only ethics can be identified with the magnetic pole of the point of view.”13

In the catalogue for Arakawa’s 1979 exhibition in Japan his collaborator Madeline Gins considers his increasing preoccupation with the constructions of a “Model” inspired by a passage of Kant. She points out that, “In his Critique of Practical Reason Immanuel Kant wondered: ‘How is it possible to Conceive an Extension of Pure Reason in a Practical Point of View, Without its Knowledge, as Speculative Being Enlarged at the Same Time?’ ” Kant’s passage in chapter VII that Gins is referring to reads: “In order to extend a pure cognition practically there must be an a priori purpose given, that is an end as object (of the will) . . . which is presented as practically necessary by an imperative which determines the will directly (a categorical imperative), and in this case the summum bonum.” In no way can the categorical imperative be reduced to a “point of view.” The summum bonum presupposes three theoretical concepts—“freedom, immortality, God.” Brushing aside these considerations, Gins notes: “By pure reason I understand the primary point—or group of these—of connection, the quantum of intension.” Kant’s famous “Copernican revolution” was to have isolated reason. It is futile to confuse reason with intention in the name of Kant! According to Gins, this point of intension is also “the click of consciousness, which must at the Death of God come to be considered the pivot of certainty.” Certainly not! Without God and Immortality there can be no certainty. De omnibus dubitare is the sole valid existential dictum acceptable to an atheist.

With the “Death of God,” according to Gins, the only bona fide authors are writers of books. She says: “A term for the sum of all detours through which Nature has been led Intentionally, that is the Book.” For Gins, the book in the 19th century becomes a receptacle: “Each in a slightly different way. . . Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud and Edgar Allen Poe. . . . had engendered by the end of the 19th century this capital Receptacle of all human effort.” But the aforementioned authors could not have foreseen the changes of Gins’ Receptacle. For she writes, “Is not the Book a more open-ended Receptacle than once imagined? A hollow tube? A Bottomless? A Conduit, constant from Nature to Model? Arakawa is the first artist I know to propose a direct approach to the construction of This.” This, that is the Model, is to be constructed “only with great difficulty” and, hopefully, with “extensive collaboration.” It will be “be the sensate Poem renewed, a Model of Mind.”

Duchamp believed that “the fourth dimensional continuum is essentially the mirror of the third dimensional continuum.” Although his deductions are incorrect this does not prevent the Large Glass from being a masterpiece of 20th-century art. In 1966, Duchamp said that what he liked about his subtitle for the Large Glass, retard en verre (delay in glass), is its relation to the “poetic aspect of the work” for “it was really poetic in the most Mallarméan sense.”14

Gins explains that in A Man Walking, 1967, and in A Study of Twins, 1967, Arakawa’s schema could be a “hypostatization.” According to Christian theology and Kant in the Trinitarian concept of God, the hypostasis of Christ is distinct from his two natures.

To the multiple points of view realized in his charts Arakawa refers to the “blind spot” theory of the retina. His catalogue includes a reproduction of the “Blind Spot Chart,” from Analytical Philosophy, by Lightner Witmer Ginn and Co. (Boston, 1902). According to Gins, Arakawa’s “painted thinkings” note that “to be an observer is to have a blind spot.” Undoubtedly this “blind spot” chart has been a course of Arakawian chartings which have delighted his admirers. The validity of this old theory, however, is questionable. James Gibson explains: “The retinal image is not something to be looked at by an observer, it is therefore profoundly unlike a picture. There is a distribution of energy on a sensory mosaic but it is not a replica, nor a copy of a model, or a record. It is a continuous ‘input’ as computer theorists say.”15 A poem is a text which conveys a message, verbal or visual. A “sensate poem” could only be the creation of an immortal Author.

The oeuvres of Tanguy, Magritte, and Delvaux confirm the seminal influence of Chirico on these then budding painters of the ’20s. Thus his importance to the history of Surrealism. Where others see in the later Chirico bad imitations of his earlier works, Arakawa admires the subtlety of his variations. Next to a drawing of Hector and Andromache before Troy, 1968, Chirico wrote: “The ability to extinguish every glimmer of life, of the unexplainable flowing of the painted figures, in order to reclothe them with that solemnity and that immobility of the serene and disquieting aspect, as of images containing the secrets of sleep and of death is the privilege of great art.”16 Reappraised in this context, Chirico’s mannequins mark the end of an era that started with Masaccio. Chirico’s Hector and Andromache is derived from Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve.17 One cannot have both: it is either Chirico’s “Chirico” or Arakawa.

Nicolas Calas is a poet diagnostician and polemicist.



1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Image, Music, Text, S. Heath translation, New York, p. 142.

2. Ibid, pp. 142–146.

3. “On Metaphysical Art,” Valore Plastici, Rome, June–Oct. 1919; included in Metaphysical Art, Caroline Tisdall trans. New York, 1971, p. 87.

4. Ibid, p. 151.

5. Marcel Jean, Autobiographie du Surréalisme, Paris, 1978, pp. 218–219.

6. XXe Siècle, No. 80 Paris, 1978, pp. 59–65.

7. Elena Calas, Coloquio/Artes, Lisbon, February 1975, pp. 32–42.

8. Wilhelm Jensen, Gradiva, a Pompeian Fancy, New York, 1918.

9. André Breton, “Gradiva,” La Clé des Chants, Paris, 1953.

10. Elena Calas, Ibid.

11. See my “Freedom Love and Poetry,” Artforum, May 1978.

12. See my introduction to Mirrors of the Mind, Multiples and Castelli Graphics, New York, 1975.

13. Statement made to me on the occasion of My show “Object” that included Diagram of Bottomless 2; See my Objects! published by Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, 1978.

14. See my Introduction to Mirrors of the Mind, Multiples and Castelli Graphics, New York, 1975.

15. James Gibson “Pictures: Perspective and Perception,” Daedalus, Winter 1960, p. 219.

16. “De Chirico by De Chirico,” The New York Cultural Center, 1972, p. 100.

17. For Chinco’s use of Greek puns, see Nicolas and Elena Calas, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection of Modern Art, New York, 1966, p. 76. Also, my “A Tough Nullo Crack,” Artforum, May 1975.