It sounds too weird to be true. 1955, Paris. Rosa Parks is sitting down and Menzies is brushing his bootstraps. Salvador Dali, the famed surrealist painter many of us would associate with the orange-tinted glasses of Midnight in Paris, comes thundering to an elite university with a cauliflower-filled Rolls-Royce. His purpose? A speech on “Phenomenological Aspects of the Critical Paranoiac Method.” There might be some self-promotion too; he had already described the “supreme pleasure… of being Salvador Dali.” And in 1971 he appeared on the Dick Cavett Show carrying an anteater. But beneath the simple shock value and easy surrealism, it becomes clear Dali was onto something; the humble cauliflower is considered one of the best examples of the legendary golden ratio.
Dali described the reasoning behind his pranks fairly frequently but obscured by his ‘Dalinian’ English (ours is too “foggy and imprecise”), it was often ignored. The golden ratio, based on the Fibonacci sequence of numerals, able to be depicted in a logarithmic spiral, fascinated him. Cauliflowers, rhinoceroses and anteaters’ tongues were to Dali essential manifestations of a glorious shape; deserving of an explicit depiction in his The Sacrament of the Last Supper. But why the fascination? It seems natural to a visual artist, particularly one as outlandish as Dali. But examples go back centuries, including Vermeer’s Lacemaker and Hokusai’s Great Wave.
But again; why shapes? In a world where every year seems to bring more alienation between science and art, chasing mythic geometrics seems utterly useless. But I don’t want to argue that. The fact is that shape, the idea of geometry itself, is the unsung magic of not just art but our entire cultural consciousness. While our sentences and signs sail boldly on, it is shape that holds up the ship. The golden ratio is famous for its beauty and symmetry. Hence, its ability to impel noted artists to stunts of cruciferous proportions. But its prominence remains as just one shape – and its natural expression in a spiral dampens its use in writing. So, writers use other shapes. And two of the best examples are the circle and the line.
Cormac McCarthy is probably as far away from Salvador Dali as you can imagine. The consummate minimalist, he’s as likely to turn up to the Smithsonian with commas as he is with cauliflowers. But in The Road, he uses shape as much as Dali does, albeit in a completely different way. Un-chaptered, The Road lurches forward episodically, its ashen paragraphs culminating in heart-wrenching echoes of conversations between a father and son, starving in a nuclear wasteland. But just as he brings each episode to a glass-like conclusion, he murks it up, and a new circle joins a chain. McCarthy made a novel not just about a road, a line, but made it out of circles as well. The phallus has been laid over the line like plastic wrap and suffocated its beauty. In his lateral thinking, McCarthy has killed minimalism’s Hemingway-bell, and created something more holistic and elliptical.
But then, that is only one kind of beauty; and a whole different thought can come from rearranging our shapes.
In all the times I watched Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away as a child, one of my favourite movies, there was always one small thought nagging me. Why does the train run only one way? One teacher’s answer was that it was a symbol of Chihiro’s inevitable growth. I couldn’t disagree but was still unsatisfied. It wasn’t until recently that I realised. While McCarthy had crafted a line of circles, Spirited Away depicts a circle out of lines; the train is the emblem of that. When it goes around the bend, it might have crumbled to dust. A true line would go on forever; but the curve suggests that when another train rumbles beneath the bathhouse bridge, it’s the same train, or perhaps its sibling, having come full circle, somehow. Another example is in Japanese collaborative poetry: renga. As each poet contributes their verse, the poem grows farther and farther from its source, and ends without “unity”. But just like the spirit-train, impermanence, expressed through a wandering line, ultimately returns in something new, though not by any circle small enough for us to see. Wabi-Sabi, loosely translated as the pathos of things, is often exoticised as ‘anti-beauty.’ But although it approaches art in a fundamentally different way, its materials are the same; shapes and geometry, and in its own unique way, is just as beautiful.
But I hear coming from left and right: Isn’t this too abstract? What’s the point of linear-circular and circular-linear poetry in 2023? This is a valid point.
I would argue that the opposing forces that shape art shape our society just as much. Look at an essay like Circles, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. What McCarthy and Miyazaki made into art, Emerson made into a guide. By co-opting the humble circle into his philosophical worldview, he could communicate his ideas, his antidotes to self-doubt and conformism, in a clear and readable way. The beauty of shapes isn’t just aesthetic and noble, but pedestrian and social too. Even for something as banal as a frustrated conversation with ChatGPT, there is a logarithmic spiral of rage. And for something as serious as the destruction of the planet, there is a cracked glass road. Universalism is often a dangerous concept, but perhaps there’s something in the idea that shapes are a unit, something that we can construct a world of thought out of.
When Salvador Dali walked into the Sorbonne, his world was shifting rapidly. The cauliflower was his answer. I don’t know if we’ve found ours yet. But if we want the inspiration to make something that matters now, we need to go beyond just our cultural abstractions. If we want to make something both sincere and ironic, ephemeral and classical, beautiful and kitsch, we have to root it in the magic of shapes, and not just the cultures that they have kept afloat.