There is a fiery explosion in the darkness, baseball players batting and sliding, a face decaying into a mustard yellow residue of what was once a living, breathing life, atomic particles embedded into the bombed walls of a dilapidated room from which there appears to be no immediate escape. This is the setting of Salvador Dalí’s oil painting, Uranium and Atomica Melancholica Idyll (1945). It is bleak, violent and viscerally jarring, a cacophony of random elements all strewn together to form a picture of absolute chaos.
Painted by Dalí in the maelstrom of World War II’s destructive aftermath, it is more than just a typical surrealist commentary on the absurdity of war. Dalí’s visual symbology and use of spatiotemporal elements also convey a Freudian melancholy rooted in object-loss and reality-testing, positioning the viewer in the middle of America’s phantasmal post-war ego. Thus, he not only conveys melancholia, but he digs deep into its psychical etiology.
Freudian theory on melancholia
In 1917, Sigmund Freud, perhaps the most famous psychoanalyst, published an essay titled “Mourning and Melancholia.” In it, he makes a distinction between the natural response of mourning and the depressive state of melancholia, diagnosing the latter to be a “profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment” (my italics). It was the inhibition of self-regard, that “impoverishment of his ego,” that differentiated melancholia from mourning. So although, like mourning, melancholia represented the “real loss of a loved object,” it diverged from it in the sense that the object-loss was not always known nor conscious, but buried deep within the unconscious abyss of our ego or “that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world.” The object-loss rests outside the perceptible confines of consciousness, leading to a longing that is so deep that a “turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis” consumes the melancholic.
In response to this essay, Giorgio Agamben emphasizes the phantasmal nature of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory regarding melancholy, stating that “covering the object with the funereal trappings of mourning, melancholy confers upon it the phantasmagorical reality of what is lost…[which] opens a space for the existence of the unreal and marks out a scene in which the ego may enter into relation with it.” It is this distinct warping of reality, the creation of a transient, illusory and unexplainable world that Freud terms “reality-testing,” that Dalí borrows from the psychoanalytic tradition and infuses into his art.
Atomica Melancholica is no exception, for it is a product of World War II, its very name and existence a reaction to Dali’s distress over the dropping of two American atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Thus, by approaching this painting through the historical lens of war, violence and death, there is an obvious theme of depression running through it that anchors it in the object loss and phantasms of the typical Freudian analytical framework.
In Atomica Melancholica, we are presented with myriad distorted and decaying figures, some human and others not, of which I will focus exclusively on three: the baseball players, the melancholic face and the broken uterus-like creature — a triumvirate of symbols, seemingly unrelated, that depict Freudian melancholy; the unconscious loss of loved objects and the portrayal of the phantasmagorical.
In accordance with Freud’s object-loss theory, Dalí adroitly utilizes the images of the baseball players, all playing the game nonchalantly even within a backdrop of complete violence and destruction, perhaps to symbolize the loss of intangible American ideals: freedom and leisure. The disintegrating face of one of the batters confirms that this is not a celebration of a great American pastime, but rather a brooding prediction of its impending destruction. This batter is simultaneously fighting an unknown, but assuredly unreal object, symbolizing the clash of values with the enemy, the violence inherent in war.
Positioned in the center, there appears to be a melancholic face — light blue in hue, ambivalent in expression — formed by the strategic placement of flying birds, almost as if nature itself was melancholic. It is slightly tilted, overlooking all the chaos and activity occurring inside the bombarded room, what we recognize as the ego. The face is not just melancholic, but it is melancholic precisely because of its surroundings. Just like Freud believed, the ego is mediated by the external world around it. In this way, melancholia is not just a natural disposition or mourning over an observed loss, but rather an unrealized, nonsensical, distorted reaction to something much deeper and more pervasive: the world as we know it.
Lastly, a uterus-like creature commands the left side of the painting. It is grotesquely alive, but itself hanging onto its last breaths of life — tongue out, unidentifiable black mush dripping from its closed eyes as if crying over its broken fallopian tube. The death of the uterus, the site of life, is not random, but perhaps symbolic of the toxic after-effects of nuclear bombardment on humanity; the loss, or perversion, of women’s reproductive capabilities. Dali was male, but his implicit sympathy over this issue represents Freud’s unconscious loss, one that is indirect and perhaps repressed, but still impactful and omnipresent in the ego. It is the absurdity of this symbol that reflects how reality becomes unreality, how melancholy grasps the sensory and imprisons it in a chokehold, transducing it into the Freudian, the phantasmal, the absurd.
Spatiotemporality: the ego and id
Dali visually demarcates the line between the conscious and unconscious, the id and the ego, by contrasting light and darkness and juxtaposing oppositional elements. The distorted figures reside deep within a dark bombarded room. However, there are rays of light that shine through circular window-like portals, offering a glimpse into an external world — one that is lighter, bluer and more peaceful. There is a red-clothed human wandering around in a green field under a water tower, seemingly aimless, undisturbed and idyllic. There is no greater juxtaposition than the chaos of the darkened room contrasted against the pastoral and sunny peacefulness of the external world, but such is Freud’s description of melancholia, how it is different from mourning; it is a “turning away from reality,” a perversion of the id, as opposed to rational sadness that eventually fades with the passage of time.
Furthermore, the image is not just spatially divided, but also temporally demarcated, albeit less obviously. At first glance, one would presume that the lightness of the external world conveys a sense of hope and optimism, a longing for peace. However, the elephants with elongated legs in the upper-right hand corner, symbolizing imperial colonization of the land they are approaching, are portentous forebodings of a dark, nearing future. Perhaps the external world is peaceful now — 1945 being the year that WWII ended, immediately after the bombing of Japan — but it is just as prone to the same destruction, violence and chaos of the inner psyche. Even with real peace restored in the form of Germany and Japan’s surrender, Dali conveys, the world is doomed to repeat itself; time is blurred, for the prospect of annihilation is past, is present and is near. In this way, the unconscious begins to resurface to the conscious, a process that Freud coined transference:
We soon perceive that the transference is itself only a piece of repetition, and that the repetition is a transference of the forgotten past not only on to the doctor but also on to all the other aspects of the current situation. We must be prepared to find, therefore, that the patient yields to the compulsion to repeat, which now replaces the impulsion to remember, not only in his personal attitude to his doctor but also in every other activity and relationship which may occupy his life at the time.
The actual process of transference, which involves the constant repetition of the melancholic disposition here, is mimicked spatiotemporally. It’s almost as if Dali wanted to portray the mechanics of psychoanalysis visually — not just emphasizing the cyclical nature of melancholia, but showing it in history’s repetition. Thus, the object-loss of American values and peace, no matter how intangible, how far within the grasp of understanding it is, is still felt. While mourning sees a denouement of pain, melancholy does not, at least in the absence of psychoanalytic intervention, Freud seems to suggest. For in melancholia, he states, there are “countless separate struggles” which are “carried on over the object, in which hate and love contend with each other.” Here, you have the warring representation of hate and love, of war and peace, of stability and instability, these dualisms contending with each other just as the ego and id function relationally for dominance.
More than a critique of war, Atomica Melancholica is an aesthetic representation, through non-representational symbolism, of the inner ego; the psychical remnants of war and destruction, even after the advent of established peace. More tellingly, it is inherently Freudian in the sense that it depicts his psychoanalytic theory of melancholia insofar as Dali visually assimilates the elements of object-loss and reality-testing, both of which paint a world of total absurdity, randomness and illusion. The inner depths of the melancholic mind, just like this surrealist work of art, begs for interpretation and clarity.
This essay has been readapted from an original essay written by the author for a Princeton University course.
Agamben, Giorgio. “Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture.” Theory and History of Literature 69. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914- 1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works (1917).
Freud, Sigmund. “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis II).” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII (1911–1913): The Case of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works. 1914.
Freud, Sigmund and James Strachey (ed). The ego and the id. New York: Norton, 1962.
Rose, Gilbert J. “Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dalí: Cultural and Historical Processes.” American Imago 40(4). 1983.