The surrealist movement began in the 1920s, and many of its artists continued to do work well into the sixties and seventies. The most famous of these surrealists was Salvador Dali. In 1967, Dali painted what was regarded as one of his last masterpieces entitled Tuna Fishing. In the same year, the song “I am the Walrus” was written by the Beatles as a response to a fan letter they recieved. At this time in American history there existed a considerable resentment towards those in governmental power. In fact, the song and painting were released mere months before the protests of 1968 began, and at the height of the Civil Rights movement. People across the United States protested the war, as well as the lack of basic rights for many men and women. Although “I am the Walrus” was written in order to be confusing and indecipherable, it reflects the creation of an abstract reality, much like the Dali painting, Tuna Fishing, exposing the truths of the time period, and urging its audience to challenge what they are being handed. It should be noted that I will only be analyzing the first two verses of the song.
John Lennon, who wrote the song, intended it to be a protest against the analysis of the lyrics of his music. He was quoted with saying in regards to the lyrics of “I am the Walrus” “Let the fuckers work that one out”. Lennon wanted to ridicule those who regarded his lyrics as worthy of analysis. However, what Lennon failed to realize, though, is that by making his lyrics abstract, he was giving his audience even more room to analyze his work. Similarly, the surrealist movement was about making one’s own reality, not only in the literal sense, like an artist painting things that are not physically possible, but also giving the audience a chance to pull their own reality, hence “sur-reality”, from a piece of art. “I am the Walrus” was intended to be a song thats lyrics are made of strange phrases that are meant to confuse. In the end, though, the song becomes a piece that can be easily compared to the works of Dali, because although they are abstract, the lyrics can still be seen as a reflection of the time period.
The introduction of the song is an instrumental, it sounds psychedelic, with heavy strings with a lazy guitar rhythm that goes from the foreground to the background. The first line of the song is “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”. The line sounds like a jumbled mess upon first hearing it, but when one takes the lyric in context of history at this period in time, it seems like a unifier. “I am the Walrus” was written in the fall of 1967, during the Cold War, in the period following the Korean War and ushering in the Vietnam War. “I am he” is an interesting metaphor, because it instantly connects one person with another by making them the same thing. For example, one can say that they are a student, and according to the lyrics they are also the milkman, the soldier, and the sniper in the trees, aiming at the soldier. Lennon’s lyrics fit the times, when the world is seeing a lot of war, but also organized movements of people.
The Dali painting also reflects the violence happening in the world as well. In the painting Tuna Fishing, which was completed in 1967, several fishermen are depicted in a fantastical battle against fish. The entire painting looks as if it is moving, depicting the fishing like a battle between land and sea. At the center of the painting there is a man, holding a golden dagger, which is emitting light from it, the man is plunging the dagger into a fish which the man has held down with one arm, which reminds one of the next line in the Beatles song “See how they run like pigs from a gun”. Lennon chose to compare people, or those in the previous line with pigs running from a fire arm. Pigs in this line seem to be used to illustrate either death, or impending death, due to the fact that they’re running from a gun, and pigs are animals that are typically slaughtered for consumption. It is as if the people in the previous line are going to die, or are as worthless as pigs going to the slaughter. Much like the people in the line, the tuna fish in the painting are soon to be dead. What is interesting, though is the way that Dali made the fish equal to the men killing them, while Lennon chooses to then separate himself and his audeince.
The tuna fish in the Dali painting, though they are losing and are in the midst of being killed, are still painted in a way that suggests battle is being done with them, like they are equals. Dali, instead of painting the men fishing with poles and a boat, painted them in the water thrashing around with the fish, making them equal because they are dying like soldiers would in a hand to hand battle. Dali goes further in his depiction of the fish as equals, with the wound the golden dagger makes causing the water surrounding the fish to turn slightly bloody. When one thinks of a fish dying, one tends to picture a hopeless creature flapping around on a dry surface. Dali make the fish’s death look much like that of any other man in a battle scene, with blood and an anguished expression. In contrast, where before Lennon wrote “I am he” where everyone is interconnected, the second lines begins with “see how they run”, causing the listener to become an outsider along with the singer of the song. The word “see” gives the effect of the action being pointed out from the outside. The word “they” makes a distinction between those observing the running (the listener and singer) and those doing the running.
At this point in history, there was a huge distinction between Communist and Democratic countries. Communist regimes were seen as the enemy in western Europe and the United States. At the head of the Cold War was the Soviet Union against the United States. When one looks at history in terms of “I am the Walrus” the crazy lines seem to suggest unification in the first line, and then a separation in the second. It echoes the sentiment of the US and Soviet Union, who were at one point allies, and then became separate. In contrast, the Dali painting causes a difference made between those doing battle by making them different species, but he goes on to make a statement about equals due to the humans making equal battle with the fish. The last line of the first verse is “I’m crying”. The words “I’m crying” suggest a hopelessness. The singer, although he is separate from the action at this point, having distanced himself with the words “see how they run” is now crying.
The next verse in the song has the most famous line from “I am the Walrus” which says, “I am the eggman, they are the eggman I am the Walrus”. Lennon has gone full circle again, much like the first two lines, there is at first a unifier, the singer is the eggman, and “They” are also the eggman, but then the singer goes on to separate himself by saying “I am the Walrus”. The use of the word “eggman” is interesting, because can be seen as humpty dumpty. Humpty Dumpty, as the nursery rhyme says, fell from a wall and could not be put back together again, despite the attempts of the king. In this context, the singer is first a being that is easily broken, then he and the audience is easily broken, then only the audience.
“I am the Walrus” and Tuna Fishing are both surrealist, and they both reflected current event and the issues of the time. Although “I am the Walrus” was intended to be a protest against analysis, it still can be seen as surrealist, because its fantastical lyrics encouraged each individual to interpret it their own way. Similarly, the painting, Tuna Fishing, can be seen as reflective of its time period. The fish depicted in the painting are as much warriors as the men within the painting killing them, much like the members of the Cold War were equals. Both the song and painting have a center in chaos as well. “I am the Walrus” is a mass of crazy juxtapositions and phrases that don’t quite make sense, while the painting’s battle and thrashing fish looks to be a center for entropy, they both reflect the period of turmoil in which they were created.