With only three-quarters of a century behind him, Salvador Dali is not sure yet whether he is immortal, although there is little dicussion about it among the critics.
If there is any doubt at all, it is probably because his flamboyance sometimes distracts from his talent. He is Spain's El Cordobes of canvas, shocking, totally unconventional, loaded with charisma and never one to turn down an easy buck.
He is a consummate showman with a penchant for talking in riddles, in sententious, sonorous language with suitable dramatic pauses, always -- or almost always -- cloaking the truth. Sometimes the truth he ofers is an Aphrodite wrapped in burlap; at other times it is a snaggle-toothed, dirty old crone in satin and lace.
Only very occasionally does he offer the naked truth; it was in one of those rare moments when he allowed the goose-pimples on his own soul to show to Carlos Pedregal, an interviewer for Spain's mass-circulation weekly Interviu, at Dali's home in Cadaques on Spain's Costa Brava.
Explaining why he has asked that his body be stored in a frozen vault after his death, Dali made no pretense of hoping that medical science might be able to revive him in the future.
"They asked me to spread the word that I wanted to be hibernated, and they told me that if I did, they would hibernate me in exchange for the publicity. Well, it's worth $8,000, so I said, 'Hibernate me then.' I thought it was a good deal."
Asked if he considers himself immortal, Dali confessed, "I do my best scientifically to convince myself . . . But the truth is, I doubt it."
Immortality through his works, the kind of immortality he imparted with limp watches to his 1931 painting "The Persistence of Memory," or to his heaven-hung "The Crucifixion of St. John of the Cross" 20 years later, is not good enough. He would like to come back to life -- but on his own terms.
"I'd like to be the same in every way. One thing that seems doubtful to me and at other times curious, and which I would like to believe in, is the resurrection of the flesh . . . But only with memory, with the same hairs in my nose, with everything exactly the same, because if not, eternity is worthless."
The retrospective exhibit that opened recently at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris not only commemorates Dali's 75th year of life, but also it marks the half century that has passed since he first exhibited in Paris in 1929 as a young Surrealist.
That early Surrealist influence has persisted throughout his life, even though he was disowned by the Paris Surrealist group before moving to the United States in 1940 for several years.
An inspirational system that he calls the "paranoiac critical" method resulted in his realistic representation of fantasy and led later to a technique he calls "hand-painted dream photography," which lends drama to familiar subject matter. The best known example of that is probably "The Last Supper," done in 1955.
Typical of his incurable press-agentry and the need to make the commonplace uncommon, one area of the Pompidou Center will be dominated by a 38-meter-long metal spoon designed by sculptor Kim Hamisky as part of a Dali composition, which also includes an old car, a statue, several umbrellas and artificial rainfall.
As Dali explained to reporters: "I needed something enormous, colossal, a kind of living apotheosis capable of making people understand instantly everything I'm capable of, in other words the impossible."
Immensely talented and energetic even at 75, Dali has many facets other than those of master painter and a genius for self-promotion. He has written books explaining his work; his two Surrealist films are classics; he has designed state sets and costumes and even written parts of ballets; his jewelry designs bear impressive pricetags at some of the most exclusive shops; his "mouth-couch," shaped like two lips, was a new departure in furniture design.
He even turned his hand a few years ago to designing an unmistakably Dalinian bottle for a brand of Spanish brandy. The bottle's bulge and tilt were enough to make you think you were looking at it after drinking its contents.
He considers himself a good person, according to the Interviu interview: "Better than before, although I still can't help feeling immense pleasure whenever there are great catastrophes." When he was a child, he said, "first I wanted to be a cook, that was when I was 5 years old. Later on I wanted to be Napoleon, but after that my ambition never stopped growing, and now I want to be Dali."
Behind the words, calculated to hit you as do paintings of people with open drawers protruding from them, there is a real Deli: But who is he?
If his statements of the magazine interviewer are to be believed, it is a question that he has asked himself for many years. He tossed out this incredible revelation like some decaying bone sharing a luminous landscape with everyday figures on one of his canvasses:
"I had a brother who died of meningitis when he was 5 years old, before I was born. Since my parents were very fond of the dead child, they gave me his name: he was called Salvador Dali. And they treated me as if I were the other one. We'd be walking along the street, for example, and they would say to me, 'The other one sneezed when he passed by here; be careful.' They were forever repeating things like how good-looking he was and things like that.
"Then I wasn't me; I was the dead one. Whenever I went into my parents' room and saw the photograph of my dead brother I couldn't sleep because my head was full of ideas of putrefaction and death. They scared me terrifically.
The thought of my brother was anguishing. Even today I'm anguished by it.
"I've had a constant struggle to affirm my own personality, to overcome the frightening thought that I was really dead. So I had to resort to all kinds of eccentricities, put loaves of bread on my head, crawl on all fours and everything like that. Every odd thing I did was to kill my dead brother and prove that I wasn't him, that I was the living one."