Dalí proclaimed that he didn’t know the meaning of the work—this has given scholars and art lovers alike plenty of room to impose meaning on the painting. While the clocks are widely thought to symbolize the omnipresence of time, Dalí refused to associate them with anything other than a French cheese: He referred to them as the “camembert of time.” Dalí takes hard, mechanical objects and renders them limp—although time controls society’s waking hours, it is often bent in dreams and in memory. The gathered ants (and the single fly, perched on a clock) appear as they might on rotting flesh, alluding to death and decay. These objects are familiar, but distorted and taken out of context, as things often are in dreams. The face-like form, sleeping in the center of the work, looks like a bone-dry cow skull at first glance. With time, the skull begins to reveal human characteristics: long eyelashes, a nose, and even the wisp of a curled mustache.
This isn’t the last time Dalí would include many of these symbols in his work, and around 30 years later, he returned to The Persistence of Memory
with The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory
(1952–54). The work takes his 1931 painting and updates it to reflect the more contemporary anxiety of nuclear warfare. Dalí referred to work from the early 1950s as part of his “Rhinocerotic period”—rhinoceros horns that evoke missiles launched under water.