Diamond Skull, Damien Hirst

Perversions made possible by the machine age

I’ve 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.”

George Orwell, Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali

Which 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 in a centrally heated living room bingeing out on TV, junk food, social media and computer games is a kind of perversion made possible by the machine age.

But those are relatively superficial things. Lifestyle, behaviour and habit can all be changed. It might not be easy, but it’s do-able. But instinct goes so much deeper than that. So deep you could say it’s hard-wired into our genetic makeup. Is he really saying that machines have changed our DNA? If so, what instincts has the machine age perverted? And how have they been perverted exactly?

“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.”

George Orwell, Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali

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….”

George Orwell, Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali

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.”

George Orwell, Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali

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 honoured Sir Jimmy with a Knighthood and Cyril with 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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