At the first clear word: A Max Ernst comment on Aristotle and Surrealism

At the first clear word

A female hand reaches through an opening on a wall, with fingers awkwardly crossed (often likened to a naked woman’s crossed legs), and seems to be holding precariously a small bright red sphere (or maybe fruit). This in turn is connected by a crude contraption of string, nails and a colored pin to a huge phasmid (a stick insect) oriented upwards, its mouthparts just barely protruding above the wall, offering only a tiny hint of the insect’s existence to anyone who observes behind the separation barrier.  On either sides of the wall two nearly identical plants with long wooden stems have grown to exactly equal heights. The clear blue sky, the simple geometric pattern of the scene, the choice of colors, the meticulously rendered shadows are all reminiscent of De Chirico’s paintings, offering to the scene a strong dream-like atmosphere of stillness and silence and a sober feeling of some eminent disaster. Indeed, if the ball slips from the crossed fingers it will pull the insect down with it to the unseen ground, right at the moment that the insect seems to be reaching (at last?) the top of the wall making itself clearly visible to both sides.

Max Ernst, "At the first clear word" (1923)

Max Ernst, “At the first clear word” (1923)

As is common in many works of Max Ernst, it is not easy to grasp the meaning of this composition and even the title “At The First Clear Word” (1923) seems to perplex things even more. The painting was actually part of a series of murals in the house of the surrealist poet Paul Éluard  (1895 – 1952) in Eaubonne, a few kilometers north of Paris, and it was discovered just in 1967 under layers of old paint and wallpaper. The title comes from one of Éluard’s poems (each line is followed by a possible translation in parentheses):

Au premier mot limpide

(At the first clear word)

Au premier mot limpide au premier rire de ta chair

(At the first clear word, at the first laugh of your flesh)

La route épaisse disparaît

(The thick road disappears)

Tout recommence.

(Everything starts over.)


La fleur timide la fleur sans air du ciel nocturne

(The timid flower, the airless flower of the night sky)

Des mains voilées de maladresse

(Veiled clumsy hands)

Des mains d’enfant.

(Hands of a child.)


Des yeux levés sur ton visage et c’est le jour sur terre

(Eyes raised upon your face and it’s daylight on the earth)

La première jeunesse close

(The first youth is closed)

Le seul plaisir.

(The only pleasure.)


Foyer de terre foyer d’odeurs et de rosée

(Home of land, home of scent and of dew)

Sans âge sans raison sans liens

(Without age, without reason, without ties)

L’oubli sans ombre.

(Oblivion without shadows.)

The rendezvous of friends

Max Ernst, "The Rendezvous of Friends" (1922)

Max Ernst, “The Rendezvous of Friends” (1922)

In the painting “The Rendezvous of Friends” (1922), Max Ernst places a strange congregation of gesturing, caricature-like figures, who he calls his “friends”, in a barren, planetary landscape, under a black, flat sky on which circular orbits are clearly marked.  Among them, wearing a red cape and appearing almost flying, the poet André Breton (1896 – 1966), considered to be the founder of the surrealist movement, and of course Paul Éluard placed in a prominent position. A unique female figure appears standing in the far right, next to the statue-like figure of Giorgio De Chirico: she is Gala Éluard (1894 – 1982), at the time Paul Éluard’s spouse and the woman who later became known as Gala Dali,  Salvador Dali’s wife and muse. Éluard’s glance is lost somewhere in the distance, Gala has her back half turned while Max Ernst himself, sitting on the knee of the dull colored great Dostoyevsky, is soberly staring back at the viewer with a penetrating glance. The picture seems almost comical at first, yet the faces of friends are unsmiling and there’s something almost disturbing in it, as if some symbolic message has to be conveyed and the caricatures are desperately trying to pass it on by gesturing in sign language for the deaf. Symbols and signs were of particular importance for Ernst whose father Philipp was a teacher of the deaf in the small town of Brühl near Cologne. And apart from the gesturing caricatures in “The Rendezvous of Friends” and the hand “At The First Clear Word”, the sign language, the hands’ expressing power and the focusing on hands in general appears in several of his pictures. Breton’s red cape may signify a special importance in the congregation, yet at that time a particular bond between Ernst and Éluard was being developing. During the next couple of years Ernst would travel with Paul and Gala to the Far East and he would become a guest in Éluard’s new house for several months, in a peculiar type of co-existence with Gala. It was at that time that the murals in the Eaubonne house were painted.

The principle of non contradiction

In his “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924) André Breton discusses a fundamental contradiction and a great vision of resolving it. “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality“, he wrote “which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak“. Breton is thus describing a dichotomy between two contradictory, mutually exclusive, jointly exhaustive states and a vision that involves the creation of a third intermediary state. The great Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) was the first to discuss the logical laws of contradictory statements in his work “Metaphysics” where he put forward one of the fundamental laws of logic now known as the principle of non-contradiction (PNC): nothing can be and not be at the same time. “The most indisputable of all beliefs is that contradictory statements are not at the same time true” he wrote (Book Δ, Chapter 6) and even more than that the principle of excluded middle (PEM) holds, according to which there is no intermediary between any two contradictory statements. For Aristotle PNC has a globally applicable character, independent of the subject at hand, making it a first principle and as such non demonstrable. PNC cannot be deduced from any other premises and any attempt to demonstrate it using a firmer and prior first principle would inevitably stumble back on PNC during the process. It creates a clear dichotomy where a statement and its contrary are mutually exclusive (cannot both hold at the same time), there is no intermediary between them (PEM) and they are jointly exhaustive (both cover all possibility).  In Mathematics this dichotomy is fundamental. Contradictions are routinely used as tools to carry out proofs (using the method of proof by contradiction or “reductio ad absurdum”), by simply blocking the way to a specific statement and leaving the opposite statement as the only possible escape, rendering it true indirectly. The notorious proof of the irrationality of the square root of 2 begins by accepting that sqrt(2) is rational and inevitably, after a short chain of arguments, arrives at a contradiction which resolves the matter, demonstrates that the starting point (the rationality of sqrt(2)) is unacceptable and thus proves indirectly that sqrt(2) is irrational. Though not explicitly mentioned, PNC and PEM are fundamental here (“a number cannot be rational and irrational at the same time” and “all real numbers are either rational or irrational”). In 1901 Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) pointed out a disturbing contradiction in the foundations of Mathematics that resulted from Georg Cantor’s naïve set theory (part of which is the informally defined set theory taught in secondary education today). Set membership is subject to PNC and PEM and creates a clear dichotomy between members and non members of a specific set. Salvador Dali phrased it humorously yet elegantly by explaining that “the only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad”. Suppose now that A is the set that contains as members all sets that do not contain themselves as a member (such a set is for example the set N of natural numbers 0, 1, 2, 3, …, because N is not a member of N). Then A is either a member of A or not a member of A. But if A is a member of A then it is not a member of A (as this is the property of all members of A). Similarly if A is not a member of A then A is a member of A (as it possesses the property of members of A). In either case a contradiction emerges which, contrary to the proof of irrationality of sqrt(2), leaves no way of escape: the foundation of naïve set theory is proved thus to be inconsistent. This contradiction became widely known as “Russell’s paradox” and over a couple of decades after Russell pointed out the inconsistency, it led to the development of ZFC set theory (from the names of Ernst Zermelo, Abraham Fraenkel and Thoralf Skolem) that resolved the problem.

Conflicting appearances

In Book Δ of “Metaphysics” Aristotle defended PNC at length against the argument put forward by philosophers that “what appears is true, and therefore that all things are alike false and true“, bringing numerous examples of conflicting appearances, i.e. “things [that] do not appear either the same to all men or always the same to the same man, but often have contrary appearances at the same time“. However, he argued, these are not real conflicts as, the same thing cannot appear differently to the same sense of the same individual at the same time. Human senses for example, he argues,  are not equally authoritative in various circumstances: sight and not taste is the authority when discussing color. It is each time quite clear which authority must be trusted and to support this argument he even offers an experiment: “touch says there are two objects when we cross our fingers, while sight says there is one“, yet it is quite clear which of the two senses has to be trusted. This tactile illusion is discussed in another of his works: “When the fingers are crossed, one object seems to be two; but yet we deny that it is two; for sight is more authoritative than touch. Yet, if touch stood alone, we should actually have pronounced the one object to be two” (“On Dreams”, Chapter 2). Interestingly, among Aristotle’s numerous examples of dichotomy, appears the exact dichotomy between the awake and dream states discussed by Breton in his surrealist manifesto and Aristotle makes clear which of the two is the authority: “Regarding the nature of truth, we must maintain that not everything which appears is true; firstly, because even if sensation-at least of the object peculiar to the sense in question-is not false, still appearance is not the same as sensation.-Again, it is fair to express surprise at our opponents’ raising the question whether magnitudes are as great, and colors are of such a nature, as they appear to people at a distance, or as they appear to those close at hand, and whether they are such as they appear to the healthy or to the sick, and whether those things are heavy which appear so to the weak or those which appear so to the strong, and those things true which appear to the sleeping or to the waking. For obviously they do not think these to be open questions; no one, at least, if when he is in Libya he has fancied one night that he is in Athens, starts for the concert hall“.

A surrealist’s rebus

Returning to Max Ernst’s “At the first clear word”, it is interesting to point out that the murals in the Eaubonne house were painted in the illusionist (or “trompe l’oeil”) manner of Pompeian murals, highlighting details (such as shadows) in a way that presents the viewers with seemingly realistic three dimensional scenes. Apart from its title, which refers directly to Éluard’s love poem, it would not be immediately evident how any erotic dimension could be discerned in “At the first clear word”, no matter how hard one tries to see crossed female legs in the picture.


Details from three of Ernst’s works. Left: “Teetering woman” (1923). Right: “Approaching Puberty” or “The Pleiads” (1921). Center: “At The First Clear Word” (1923)

Yet it is hard not to notice that Éluard’s hospitality was offered for a rather long period of time, having his good friend living under the same roof with his wife Gala too. Beyond that, noticing the obvious similarity between the picture and Aristotle’s description of the “crossed fingers” tactile illusion, Ernst’s composition seems to be transformed into a comment on the PNC, the firmest fundamental first principle of Philosophy and Mathematics according to Aristotle, and the resolution of the great surrealist contradiction. It seems to offer some kind of surrealist rebus where the separation between dream and awake state, the illusion, the contradiction and the envisioned surreal state, still at the time fervently discussed between “Ernst’s friends”, compose an icon of the surrealist plan, as appeared in Breton’s manifesto a little later. It’s no coincidence that Ernst’s allusion to Aristotle’s philosophy points towards his work known as “Metaphysics” (though this is not Aristotle’s original title) and his treatise “On Dream”. After all surrealism was for many surrealists more a philosophical  than an artistic movement: the artistic produce was only its phenotype, its verbal or visual dimension. The wall in the picture appears thus as an allusion to the separation of the two states, the separation that the surrealist movement intends to resolve by creating a third intermediary state of surreality. The contradiction is obvious between observers and senses as described in “Metaphysics”: our sight indicates that the bright red fruit is one while the touch of the person on the other side, as her sight is blocked by the wall, convinces her that two distinct objects are felt. Even the stick insect in Ernst’s picture, a phasmid, seems to have been carefully selected as an allusion to an apparition from the dream state: its very name comes from the Greek word “phasma”, which means “apparition”, due to the insect’s ability to camouflage, resembling a stick or a leave, and present to the observer an example of conflicting appearances, not different than the examples discussed by Aristotle in “Metaphysics”. The tactile illusion is what keeps the apparition of the phasmid in its place: the apparition will vanish if and when the illusion ends. As for the two plants growing in different sides of the wall, they could indicate the equivalence of the two states, that none of the two truths and none of the senses is the authority over the other. André Breton complemented his surrealist vision with the conviction of failure: “It is in quest of this surreality that I am going, certain not to find it but too unmindful of my death not to calculate to some slight degree the joys of its possession“. Surreal state was for Breton unattainable and Max Ernst’s picture appears under this light to serve as a surrealist icon of the great vision, a picture of a surrealist paradise painted on the walls of Éluard’s new house to enclose and inspire the couple, with the philosophical genome of surrealism, touching upon the fundamental laws of logic, carefully encoded on it.

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