Saturday, April 4, 2009

Salvador Dalí: 'Crazy'?

In a recent article in Personality and Individual Differences, Caroline Murphy (Oxford University) explores the psychological landscape of Dalí, asking "was he really 'crazy', or did he just pretend to be"? Her thesis favours the prior.

Admitting that this question is difficult to answer, given Dalí's tight editorial control over his public persona and records thereof, plus his fabricated autobiography, The Secret Life, Murphy nevertheless plunges into the available records, searching for snippets of authenticity. From letters, diaries, records of interviews and literary texts she gleans the following potential indicators of psychopathology in Dalí's indubitably eccentric personality and biography.
  • Hallucinations. Dalí reported having hallucinations in childhood, for instance, he "would imagine baby kangaroos drowning in their mother's pouch full of milk" (Murphy, 2009, p. 766) and had imaginary 'friends' (Galuchka and Dullita).
  • Phobias and obsessions. Murphy reports that in childhood Dalí had a phobia of blushing (ereutophobia) and in adulthood of grasshoppers (acrididophobia), the female body, becoming a father, and travelling. Additionally, she notes apparent hypochondria.
  • Unusual sexual behaviour. Murphy describes Dalí as a sexually alienated autoerotic.
  • Paranoia. Details of Dalí's behaviour and outbursts portray him as suspicious, displaying vigilance for assassination attempts and ruination at the hands of others.
  • Uncontrollable temper tantrums. Accounts written by Dalí's sister Ana Maria, suggest that he 'terrorized' his family in childhood and had at least one sudden bout of unreasoned rage at school.
  • Narcissism and megalomania. Convinced of his genius and uniqueness "Dalí was accustomed to constant adoration. ... So high was his sense of self-importance that he even claimed domination over Surrealism itself. In an interview with Halsman, he was asked, 'What is Surrealism?' and in reply he answered, 'Surrealism is myself' " (Murphy, 2009, p. 768).
  • Exhibitionism and transvestism. Murphy relates Dalí's fondness of painting in the nude, cross-dressing, vanity and eccentric attire. She vividly describes his 'bachelor-girl' outfit: "It consisted of a silk blouse with enormous puffed sleeves, a low neckline and a necklace and bracelet of pearls. He attacked the shirt with scissors so that one of his nipples, a shoulder, and his navel could be seen. He cut his knees and armpits so that they were bloodied and his trousers were put on inside-out. The final touches were an enormous red geranium placed behind his ear and a grotesque stink that he manufactured out of fish glue, aspic, and goat manure" (Murphy, 2009, p. 768).
  • Other personality and social difficulties. A range of descriptions are collated, from extreme timidity and self-consciousness, to inappropriate laughter and brutal and tactless comments.
  • Non-conformity, obstinacy and contrariness. Dalí himself wrote: "my continual and ferocious need to feel myself 'different' made me weep with rage if some coincidence should bring me ... into the same category as others. Before all and whatever cost; myself alone! Myself alone! Myself alone!" (The Secret Life, p. 116).
  • Inability to look after himself. Murphy describes Dalí's difficulties with the practicalities of life, losing keys and wallets and being poor at managing money, as well as struggling in public (e.g., she describes an incident where he could not buy new footwear due to a fear of showing his feet in a shoe shop).
  • Callousness, coldness and manipulative indifference. Dalí is characterized as having difficulties with emotional attachment, as lacking empathy and as being manipulative and cruel.

Taken collectively, Murphy suggests that these facets meet the diagnostic criteria for Atypical Psychosis on the DSM-III (psychoses with confusing clinical features that make a more definitive diagnosis difficult). Additionally, Dalí may have met the diagnostic criteria for a number of personality disorders (Paranoid, Schizoid, Histrionic and Narcissistic). We might question whether this analysis is sufficient to make Dalí posthumously 'crazy' (not having received psychiatric treatment in his lifetime).

Despite such indications of potential mental illness, Dalí thrived as a successful artist, inventor, designer, lecturer, and was not rendered incapacitate. Perhaps Dalí could better be portrayed as displaying what Frank Barron (1993) called 'controllable oddness', a seemingly paradoxical melding of psychopathological and healthy traits, which Barron argued facilitates creative production. The pertinent question is whether experiences associated with mental illness do aid artistic creativity, and if so, how, and to what extent. Alternatively, society may select as successful artists those who seem to be eccentric, thus, an element of eccentricity may be associated with success rather than creative ability. Certainly, Dalí's self-belief, self-propaganda and motivation facilitated success (supported by a vivid imagination and technical skills).

One might argue that Dalí's personality was ideally and adaptively suited to the subversion of Surrealism and perhaps inextricably linked with the inner explorations of an obscure and bizarre nature that it encouraged. In this sense, his identity may have been a Surrealist construction to some extent, and as such he would be correct, rather than displaying megalomania, in asserting that "Surrealism is myself". Ultimately, the status of Dalí's sanity is impossible to decipher, but Murphy's speculations on the matter make an interesting read.

Reference: Murphy, C. (2009). The link between artistic creativity and psychopathology: Salvador Dalí. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 765-774. Read the abstract here.