Crystal Skull - Damien Hirst

Perversions made possible by the machine age

Have just been rereading George Orwell’s essay, Benefit of Clergy, a critique of Salvador Dali’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali.


“As a record of fantasy, of the perversion of instinct that has been made possible by the machine age, it has great value.”

That set me thinking. What kind of perversion is Orwell talking about here? The machine age has certainly made a lot of things possible , not all of them good. I suppose you could say that lying around for hours in a centrally heated living room, getting fat bingeing out on TV, junk food, computer games or even books, was a kind of perversion made possible by the machine age.

But those are relatively superficial things. The lifestyles, behaviour, habits and even perceptions that cause them can all be changed. But instinct goes much deeper than that. Is he really saying that machines have changed our basic instincts, the fundamental nature of what we are? If so, what instincts exactly? And how have they changed?

“What Dali has done and what he has imagined is debatable, but in his outlook, his character, the bedrock decency of a human being does not exist. He is as anti-social as a flea. Clearly such people are undesirable, and a society in which they can flourish has something wrong with it.”

Decency is a word you don’t hear much these days. It sounds so old-fashioned. Like some kind of loony Tory back-to-basics kind of thing. Ask anyone what they’d rather be: rich or decent? See what I mean?

“Dali’s fantasies probably cast useful light on the decay of capitalist civilization. But what he clearly needs is diagnosis.”

Decadence is another word you don’t hear much these days either. Back in the 60s and 70s, before Margaret Thatcher told us there was no such thing as society and Richard Dawkins told us life was all about The Selfish Gene,  the phrase bourgeois decadence was so common it became a tired old cliché. Now, when capitalist civilization seems to be collapsing around our ears, you never hear that word any more.

“It will be seen that what the defenders of Dali are claiming is a kind of BENEFIT OF CLERGY. The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word ‘Art’, and everything is O.K. Rotting corpses with snails crawling over them are O.K.; kicking little girls in the head is O.K….”

That’s something else that has changed massively since Orwell’s day. Kicking little girls in the head is still not OK, obviously. But rotting corpses aren’t just OK, they’re mainstream. And not just for the minority of super-rich art aficionados who can afford to pay millions for Damien Hirst’s dead cows or Tracey Emin’s blood-stained underwear. Just switch on the television any evening. Whether its CIS , Embarrassing Bodies or the News at Six, rotting corpses are the stars of the show.

“One can see how false this is if one extends it to cover ordinary crime… If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another KING LEAR.”

Oh how times have changed! In Orwell’s day even Shakespeare wouldn’t have got away with it. In our day, Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith didn’t just get away with it, the Queen made Sir Jimmy a Knight of the Realm  and gave Cyril an MBE. Is that what Orwell meant by the decay of capitalist civilization and the perversion of instinct made possible by the machine age I wonder?

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