Desmond Morris is a zoologist, ethologist and surrealist painter. Author of dozens of titles, he is best known for his groundbreaking books on human behaviour, including The Naked Ape and Manwatching. His most recent book is The Lives of the Surrealists, published in 2018 by Thames and Hudson.
1 – How do your interests in surrealism and human and animal behaviour have a bearing on each other? Does the one influence the other?
They involve two completely different brain processes.
My behaviour studies involve objectivity, classification, quantitative analysis, prediction and experimental verification.
My surrealism involves irrational intuition, imagination, poetic thought, and unconscious inspiration.
Recently I have split each year between my two activities. I spend one half of the year writing a new book and the other half painting work for an annual exhibition.
I find that, if I exhaust one type of thinking, I am then ready for the other type.
The only cross-over between these two activities involves the visual knowledge that I gain from my scientific activities. The biological processes I study give me a deep-seated understanding of growth patterns, organic shapes, display colours, and postures and markings. All of this knowledge sinks into my brain and is there to help me when devising new imagery in my surrealist paintings. There is no direct copying, of course, but my biological knowledge seeps through into my unconscious influences.
2 – Decades after the seminal The Naked Ape, have your ideas on human behaviour changed or developed further?
They are always developing as I make new discoveries, but the ideas I expressed The Naked Ape have not changed basically. My insistence on the importance of inborn influences on our behaviour was thought to be outrageous when the book first appeared, but since then much new research has supported my ideas. The only alteration in the text when it was re-published 50 years after it first appeared was that I had to change the figure for the human population of the world from 3000 million to 7500 million, and this change is the cause of many of the problems that face the planet today.
3 – Surrealism explores and celebrates the non-rational in human nature. Is there a parallel there with other areas of human endeavour, for example with mysticism?
Surrealism involves exploring the mysterious, the arcane, the obscure, the perverse contradictory, and the esoteric, but it does not involve a belief in the supernatural or the sacred and is strongly opposed to all forms of religion.
Mysticism is defined as: the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect that may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.
There is therefore a link between the two, but they are not the same.
4 – Your groundbreaking psychological work was appearing just as the West was becoming aware of older psychological traditions from the East, such as Sufism. Did you find any echoes between your own observations and those that were starting to appear around the same time from other sources?
Only that we were both questioning and challenging the established intellectual traditions of the time. The 1960s was a wonderful period for the freeing of thought processes.