NOTE: Watchmen will be spoiled below. And maybe a little melted.
On page 16 of Chapter 4, Jon and Janey have a discussion (verging on a fight) about his experience of time. He gives her examples, just as he’s been doing for us throughout the chapter: “In 1959, I could hear you shouting, here, now, in 1963.” Also, in his typically impersonal way, he spends most of the conversation with his back to her, staring at a painting on their wall.
The web annotations zero in on that painting:
The picture on the wall is Salvador Dalí’s “Persistence of Memory” (1931), one of his most famous paintings, which features watches melting on a tree branch and a sofa.
As is often the case, the annotations are useful but not entirely accurate. The title of the painting is The Persistence of Memory (including the definite article), and there’s no sofa in it. Here, take a look for yourself:
A watch melts on a tree branch, yes, as well as on a solid block from which the tree somehow grows. The third watch melts atop an object that could be many things, but a sofa isn’t one of them. The Museum of Modern Art in New York (which houses the painting) calls it a “monstrous fleshy creature”, and notes that it could be Dalí’s own face in profile, which appeared similarly in some of his other works from that period such as Illumined Pleasures and Face of the Great Masturbator. There could be a visual pun at work here, as watches themselves have faces — the last one, face down, is beset by ants, which for Dalí were a symbol of death and decay.
Overall, these watches symbolize a destabilization and deformation of time. Leslie Klinger suggests that “Jon may have selected this print for his apartment as a physical representation of his own unique relationship with time,” (pg. 128) but I don’t think so. If anything, Jon experiences time as even more stable and perfectly formed than the rest of us do. His metaphor, when he uses one, is of an “intricately structured jewel”, an image that suggests super-hardness, not the super-softness of Dalí’s watches. That softness is closer to Jon’s father lamenting (in reference to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), “If time is not true, what purpose have watchmakers?”
So what does it mean for this painting to appear on Jon’s wall, and in Watchmen at all? To find out, let’s start with a little context. Dalí today is nearly synonymous with Surrealism, but he associated himself with the Surrealist movement for only a dozen years of his long life, joining in 1929 and then beginning to attack it in 1941, an attack which, well, persisted, until his complete rupture with the Surrealists in 1948. He would live another 41 years. Nevertheless, The Persistence of Memory is squarely within Dalí’s surrealist period, so it’s worth taking a look at what that movement represented, and how it might relate to Watchmen.
Surrealism as we know it today emerged in 1924, with the publication of the Surrealist Manifesto by French writer, poet, and philosopher André Breton. Like many artistic and cultural movements, it had a fractious beginning, with multiple claimants to its foundation and definition, but Breton has emerged as its historically recognized leader, and he functioned as such throughout the movement’s heyday. Breton had served as a psychological counselor in World War I, treating shell-shocked soldiers, and he was fascinated with the theories of Freud, particularly his concept of the unconscious mind.
Breton proposed to tap into that unconscious, bringing its products into the world as literature, and eventually as art, films, and theatre. He adopted two primary methods for collecting unconscious thought: automatism and dreams. Automatism, the production of words or drawings with little to no conscious mediation, was his emphasis in the early days of the movement, but over time it revealed its limitations, whereas the exploration of dreams proved endlessly fruitful. Breton attracted a cadre of followers, entranced by the possibilities of elevating irrationality and using it to overthrow what they saw as oppressive political and social structures. In 1929, Dalí became one of those followers.
The Paranoiac-Critical Method
Breton was energized by Dalí, writing in a 1929 exhibition catalogue that Dalí’s art is “the most hallucinatory we know”, and that it “constitutes a real threat” against bourgeoisie rationalism and order. (Dalí, pg. 84) Dalí, for his part, embraced the movement enthusiastically, frequently invoking the word “surrealist” to describe various aspects of his works, and introducing new concepts such as the “surrealist object”, including his famous Lobster Telephone. Even more importantly, he introduced a new avenue for bringing images from the unconscious into the waking world, an approach he called his “paranoiac-critical” method.
With this label, Dalí uses the concept of paranoia differently from how we understand it today. Rather than a persecution complex, he frames paranoia as the perception of connections and overlaps where none exist in reality, but which are difficult to gainsay with any rational argument — the same mental mechanisms which create and propagate conspiracy theories. Dalí cultivated this mindset in his creative phases, resulting in canvases that teemed with multiplicities of meaning, and images that presented themselves differently when seen from different viewpoints, such as the bodies of women making up the face of Voltaire. In his essay “The Rotting Donkey”, first published in 1930, Dalí sees the potential of this mindset:
I believe the moment is drawing near when, by a thought process of a paranoiac and active character, it would be possible (simultaneously with automatism and other passive states) to systematise confusion and thereby contribute to a total discrediting of the world of reality. (The Surrealism Reader, pg. 264-265)
Systematize confusion and discredit reality. This is an agenda particularly relevant to our times. The surrealists rather naively believed that such an action would overthrow the alleged rationalism behind World War I, fascism, and the rise of Hitler. In our own era, we’ve seen right-wing movements in the U.S. and elsewhere systematizing confusion and discrediting reality to their own advantage. Aspiring dictators and their media machines systematically undermine any authority outside their own — scientists, academics, journalists — and insist that any misfortune that befalls themselves is a result of conspiratorial persecution rather than their own shortcomings. In creating a paranoiac alternate reality, they are able to discredit the evidence of their followers’ eyes and ears, resulting in a surreal landscape which always serves their own ends.
There’s nothing quite so sinister in Watchmen — for once, the book is actually less grim than our world. Sure, it’s true that Ozymandias’ great practical joke systematizes confusion through an enormous surrealist object teleported into New York, and discredits reality by pulling a hoax on the world’s superpowers, but at least he’s doing it in an attempt to avert nuclear catastrophe, rather than simply seizing and maintaining power. That said, his Burroughs-esque stare at his wall of televisions certainly feels reminiscent of Dalí’s paranoiac-critical method, and his own cut-up mental state can be seen as a paranoiac one, systematizing ethical confusion such that he is able to discard it. As Dalí says, the paranoiac reaches “conclusions that often cannot be contradicted or rejected and that in any case nearly always defy psychological analysis.” (pg. 265) How can anyone tell if he’s gone crazy?
In a larger sense, and one more relevant to the scene we’re examining, the simple fact of Dr. Manhattan discredits the reality of the world that existed before him. We can see this in Nite Owl I’s sudden sense of irrelevance and subsequent retirement, and even more starkly in Professor Milton Glass’s article at the back of this chapter. Glass says, in reference to Jon Osterman’s American-associated omnipotence, “A feeling of intense and crushing religious terror at the concept indicates only that you are still sane.” Glass also asserts that Dr. Manhattan’s “very existence has deformed the lives of every living creature on the face of the planet”, just as Dalí’s solid objects deform the watches that drape over them.
One of Watchmen‘s best traits is the way it realistically portrays the impact on a national psyche of the emergence of supernatural powers, and the geopolitical power struggle that would ensue over control of those powers. As we gaze at Osterman gazing at Dalí, a metatextual level of surrealist subversion presents itself, albeit as a reversal — acknowledging real connections that have been ignored rather than paranoiacally imagining connections that don’t exist. The mainstream superhero universes of 1985 teemed with magic, superhuman abilities, and hyper-advanced technologies, but with almost none of the political or cultural impact those things would inevitably have on the world. Moore, by introducing just one superpowered individual and logically following the deforming consequences of his arrival, soundly discredits mainstream unreality, seeing the connections where they would naturally be and making us question how we could ever have missed them.
Juxtaposition and Dreams
Dalí sometimes demonstrated unexpected connections through his use of the double image — arrangements of objects that look like multiple things at once — but also relied heavily on simple juxtaposition of objects, such as the lobster on the telephone. Many surrealist artists used juxtaposition as a strategy for surprising and provoking the viewer, as memorably appears in the work of René Magritte. Magritte’s images routinely place objects in unexpected relation to each other, such as The Beautiful Relations, which shows facial features placed onto an open sky, with a hot-air balloon as one of the eyes, or Golconda, which shows dozens of men dressed for work, hanging midair at various heights in front of an unassuming block of flats.
Watchmen, being a comic, exercises its juxtapositions more between words and images than within images themselves, but it does so almost constantly. I’ve written before that if the book hadn’t been called Watchmen, it may as well be called Juxtaposition. In some scenes, such as the interpellated panels from Tales Of The Black Freighter, or Rorschach’s journal entry at the end of Chapter 2, the words and images overlap in numerous and multi-layered ways at once. In other, more story-oriented sections, such as the one where Dalí’s painting appears, the juxtaposition is a little more restrained, but it’s still definitely there. Take Janey’s words over the newspaper image in panel 1 of the Dalí page, or Jon’s narration from Mars overlaying panel 9. In fact, I would argue that Jon’s entire experience of time, living through all of it at once, is the ultimate multi-layered juxtaposition, making his reality into a constant surreality.
Like the other surrealists, Dalí was fascinated by dreams as well. He called his work “hand-painted dream photographs”, and devised various methods to keep himself as long as possible in the borderland between sleeping and waking, the better to retrieve products of the dream-state. Watchmen depicts a surreal dream too — Dan’s nightmare on page 16 of Chapter 7. There’s no question that this dream speaks to what dwells in Dan’s unconscious, so let’s take a closer look.
Dan’s dream, like much of Dalí’s work, is suffused with a mixture of libido and fear. It springs from the previous scene, his episode of impotence with Laurie — a scene, by the way, which leverages juxtaposition with the television narration to effects both funny and poignant. As the dream starts, we see a silhouette of the Twilight Lady, reflected in Dan’s glasses. This character, introduced just a few pages earlier, pretty clearly symbolizes the sexual side of Dan’s adventuring, even before we see her in the dream — a part of himself that he keeps meaning to throw away, but you know how it is. Her appearance in his lens repeats the motif we’ve been seeing throughout the chapter, starting with the cover, of lens reflections.
He runs up to her, fear on his face, framed in the crook of her arm. They embrace, their feet wreathed in smoke, and peel each other’s clothes away like rinds. They stand naked, embracing, this time on a flat plain leading to a mid-panel horizon. and then she peels another layer — Dan’s skin sloughs away, revealing his costume underneath. Then it’s his turn — he peels the Twilight Lady to find Laurie underneath, in her costume, the horizon having lowered to their knees. The two of them embrace, and the motif of body framing repeats, except that framed in between their two bodies is the beginning of a nuclear explosion. The explosion grows larger and larger, the horizon very low in the panel, until it engulfs them, removing the horizon altogether and peeling the final layer of their flesh to reveal embracing skeletons beneath, an image that repeats yet another motif, the graffiti of the silhouetted lovers first seen by Rorschach on page 11 of Chapter 5. Thus ends the dream — after this death-sex image, Dan awakes on the final panel of the page. We are left with the products of his unconscious — frustrated desire, rampant fear, and a sense of unreality to Dan Dreiberg, who becomes a flimsy wrapping around Nite Owl II.
Blots and Simulacra
Dalí’s work wasn’t sequential, and therefore each of his works must be taken on its own, but nevertheless he would have found some of these images familiar. The flat plain with its horizon is common to many Dalí paintings, The Persistence of Memory included. He showed his own flesh deformed often, especially early in his Surrealist period, and possibly even in The Persistence of Memory itself. He also featured his wife and muse, Gala, in many paintings that revealed her form emerging from some other construction, as in Galatea of the Spheres and Lapis-Lazuli Corpuscular Assumption. The bodies that shred away like tissue paper echo the super-softness that fascinated Dalí in many early works, where he showed formerly stable objects like clocks and cellos melting away like Camembert in the sun.
In particular, not only did he make no secret about his fear of sex, he highlighted it in painting after painting. Breton said about Dalí in a 1952 interview, “On the mental plane, no one was more struck by psycho-analysis than he, but, if he uses it, it is to maintain jealously his complexes, to carry them to exuberance.” Dalí was not interested in becoming “well-adjusted” or “curing” his psychological struggles, for if he rid himself of them, where would he find the images that kept spilling onto his canvases? In this way, he connects to yet another Watchmen character: Rorschach.
Walter Kovacs adopted an explicitly psychoanalytic image around which to base his identity, but he didn’t do this from a sense of introspection. Indeed, he wonders in his journal, “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”, using the “us” to explicitly include himself in that category of stability and mental health. He is what others wish to see in him, but he wastes no time looking into himself.
Surrealist art sought to render visually the landscape of the unconscious, via automatic drawing and the depiction of dreams. Rorschach blots, on the other hand, are meant to go the other way — abstract images intended to stir unconscious associations. Rorschach, like Dalí, uses psychoanalytic imagery to reinforce his own neuroses, not to “solve” them, though unlike Dalí, he doesn’t do it quite so intentionally. Dalí’s own double images operated on a similar principle, allowing the viewer to receive the painting based on idiosyncratic and unconscious responses. Paranoiac Face is an emblematic example. Art historian Kirsten Bradbury describes it thus:
The painting was based on a photograph of African villagers. At first sight, Dalí believed that the photo was of a Picasso face, as he had recently studied them. He showed the card to Breton, who thought it was a picture of the Marquis de Sade, who interested him. Therefore Dalí rationalized that the individual’s mind gives an image the desired characteristics; viewers see what they want to see. (Essential Dalí, pg. 67)
Viewers see what they want to see, or what their unconscious directs them to see, just as in Rorschach blots and Rorschach himself.
We haven’t quite finished the roundup of surrealist images in Watchmen. While Dan’s dream is likely the most surrealist moment provided by Dave Gibbons, as the artist of Watchmen, there is also an artist in Watchmen, one whom the text explicitly identifies as a surrealist: Hira Manish. Manish receives this description on the last page of Chapter 8’s back matter, and in that same chapter we see the only canvas of hers shown in the story, her rendering of the monster that will be teleported into New York.
Once again, this illustration is a mix of sexuality and fear, and I would make the case that it’s a Dalínian double image as well, what I’ve described before as “pretty clearly a nightmare version of female genitalia.” Even the panels surrounding this image on page 11 refer to sex and pregnancy as both potential pleasure and potential horror, and though we don’t get to see it, Manish is clearly sketching this bizarre vision from a real model, albeit one based on her work, a strange loop of representation and reality.
In “The Rotting Donkey”, Dalí refers to the products of his paranoiac-critical method as “simulacra” — semblances of the dream world given tangible form in our world. He calls them “new and menacing”, and tells us that connoisseurs of images “have long ago learned to recognise the image of desire hidden behind the simulacra of terror”. (the Surrealist Reader, pg. 266) Surrealist paintings are simulacra in image form, but surrealist objects move these simulacra into all three dimensions. For Veidt’s grand joke, nothing less than a giant surrealist object would do, and he explicitly procures a surrealist to ensure that this object would contain the requisite equal measures of fear and desire.
The Persistence of Memory
So it’s pretty clear at this point that the appearance of a surrealist artwork in Watchmen can draw our attention to the surrealist moments of Watchmen: the systematized confusions, the juxtapositions, the unconscious eruptions of dreams and unbidden associations, and the paranoiac death-sex simulacra which provide the book’s most terrifying moments. What can we make of this specific surrealist painting appearing on Doctor Manhattan’s wall?
As I’ve said, I disagree with Klinger that Jon may have picked it out to symbolize his relationship with time — while his all-at-once juxtaposed experience may be intensely surrealist, it represents a crystallization of time rather than a liquefaction of it. Instead, if we’re going to make a headcanon story about how that painting arrived in the apartment, I’d speculate that Janey herself bought it and hung it, attempting to use a familiar cultural artifact to find her way toward understanding Jon’s massively changed perspective. She fails to understand it, as the page so clearly proves.
However, as a phrase, “the persistence of memory” captures a great deal about Watchmen. That phrase could serve as an alternate title for Chapter 9, in which Laurie’s memories persistently bubble up through her conversation with Jon, eventually overcoming her own mental blocks to present her with the fact of her father’s real identity. Tellingly, it is only by Jon persuading her to consider his surreal experience of overlapping moments that she can put the pieces together. Even beyond this chapter, Watchmen has flashbacks galore — in fact the very scene in which the Dalí painting appears is itself a flashback.
What’s more, the persistence of memory is a theme in Watchmen overall — for Sally Jupiter and her ever-brightening past, for Rorschach and the images that haunt him, for the spirit of ’77 and how it refuses to stay banished. Thus, both the specific painting and the movement it represents pertain directly to Watchmen, a book peppered with surrealist moments, which tells its story through persistent memories, and which itself plays on our memory of both bygone superhero conventions and those that were very current to its decade.
Just one more thing before I wrap up: according to Dalí expert Dawn Ades, the artist had a close relationship with one Robert Descharnes, a French photographer who served as Dalí’s secretary through to his death, and managed his copyright beyond that. (Dalí, pg. 206) This name is awfully close to the “human sensitive” Robert Deschaines, whose brain gets cloned and placed inside Hira Manish’s enormous surrealist object. Given that Dalí was still alive while Watchmen was being written, and therefore Descharnes’ name might have been in the news from time to time, I have to wonder whether this is coincidence, or whether Moore found inspiration for a character name from a surrealist-adjacent real-life figure. Perhaps I’m just seeing connections where none exist, but if so, wouldn’t Dalí be proud?
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