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George Orwell > Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali > Essay

Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali


Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something
disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying,
since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.
However, even the most flagrantly dishonest book (Frank Harris's
autobiographical writings are an example) can without intending it give a
true picture of its author. Dali's recently published LIFE comes under
this heading. Some of the incidents in it are flatly incredible, others
have been rearranged and romanticised, and not merely the humiliation but
the persistent ORDINARINESS of everyday life has been cut out. Dali is
even by his own diagnosis narcissistic, and his autobiography is simply a
strip-tease act conducted in pink limelight. But as a record of fantasy,
of the perversion of instinct that has been made possible by the machine
age, it has great value.

Here, then, are some of the episodes in Dali's life, from his earliest
years onward. Which of them are true and which are imaginary hardly
matters: the point is that this is the kind of thing that Dali would have
LIKED to do.

When he is six years old there is some excitement over the appearance of
Halley's comet:

Suddenly one of my father's office clerks appeared in the drawing-room
doorway and announced that the comet could be seen from the terrace. . .
While crossing the hall I caught sight of my little three-year-old sister
crawling unobtrusively through a doorway. I stopped, hesitated a second,
then gave her a terrible kick in the head as though it had been a ball,
and continued running, carried away with a 'delirious joy' induced by
this savage act. But my father, who was behind me, caught me and led me
down in to his office, where I remained as a punishment till dinner-time.

A year earlier than this Dali had 'suddenly, as most of my ideas occur,'
flung another little boy off a suspension bridge. Several other incidents
of the same kind are recorded, including (THIS WAS WHEN HE WAS
TWENTY-NINE YEARS OLD) knocking down and trampling on a girl 'until they
had to tear her, bleeding, out of my reach.'

When he is about five he gets hold of a wounded bat which he puts into a
tin pail. Next morning he finds that the bat is almost dead and is
covered with ants which are devouring it. He puts it in his mouth, ants
and all, and bites it almost in half.

When he is an adolescent a girl falls desperately in love with him. He
kisses and caresses her so as to excite her as much as possible, but
refuses to go further. He resolves to keep this up for five years (he
calls it his 'five-year plan'), enjoying her humiliation and the sense of
power it gives him. He frequently tells her that at the end of the five
years he will desert her, and when the time comes he does so.

Till well into adult life he keeps up the practice of masturbation, and
likes to do this, apparently, in front of a looking-glass. For ordinary
purposes he is impotent, it appears, till the age of thirty or so. When
he first meets his future wife, Gala, he is greatly tempted to push her
off a precipice. He is aware that there is something that she wants him
to do to her, and after their first kiss the confession is made:

    I threw back Gala's head, pulling it by the hair, and trembling with
complete hysteria, I commanded:

    'Now tell me what you want me to do with you! But tell me slowly, looking
me in the eye, with the crudest, the most ferociously erotic words that
can make both of us feel the greatest shame!'

    Then Gala, transforming the last glimmer of her expression of pleasure
into the hard light of her own tyranny, answered:

    'I want you to kill me!'

He is somewhat disappointed by this demand, since it is merely what he
wanted to do already. He contemplates throwing her off the bell-tower of
the Cathedral of Toledo, but refrains from doing so.

During the Spanish Civil War he astutely avoids taking sides, and makes a
trip to Italy. He feels himself more and more drawn towards the
aristocracy, frequents smart SALONS, finds himself wealthy patrons, and
is photographed with the plump Vicomte de Noailles, whom he describes as
his 'Maecenas.' When the European War approaches he has one preoccupation
only: how to find a place which has good cookery and from which he can
make a quick bolt if danger comes too near. He fixes on Bordeaux, and
duly flees to Spain during the Battle of France. He stays in Spain long
enough to pick up a few anti-red atrocity stories, then makes for
America. The story ends in a blaze of respectability. Dali, at
thirty-seven, has become a devoted husband, is cured of his aberrations,
or some of them, and is completely reconciled to the Catholic Church. He
is also, one gathers, making a good deal of money.

However, he has by no means ceased to take pride in the pictures of his
Surrealist period, with titles like 'The Great Masturbator', 'Sodomy of a
Skull with a Grand Piano', etc. There are reproductions of these all the
way through the book. Many of Dali's drawings are simply representational
and have a characteristic to be noted later. But from his Surrealist
paintings and photographs the two things that stand our are sexual
perversity and necrophilia. Sexual objects and symbols--some of them
well known, like our old friend the high-heeled slipper, others, like the
crutch and the cup of warm milk, patented by Dali himself--recur over
and over again, and there is a fairly well-marked excretory motif as
well. In his painting, Le Jeu Lugubre, he says, 'the drawers bespattered
with excrement were painted with such minute and realistic complacency
that the whole little Surrealist group was anguished by the question: Is
he coprophagic or not?' Dali adds firmly that he is NOT, and that he
regards this aberration as 'repulsive', but it seems to be only at that
point that his interest in excrement stops. Even when he recounts the
experience of watching a woman urinate standing up, he has to add the
detail that she misses her aim and dirties her shoes. It is not given to
any one person to have all the vices, and Dali also boasts that he is not
homosexual, but otherwise he seems to have as good an outfit of
perversions as anyone could wish for.

However, his most notable characteristic is his necrophilia. He himself
freely admits to this, and claims to have been cured of it. Dead faces,
skulls, corpses of animals occur fairly frequently in his pictures, and
the ants which devoured the dying bat make countless reappearances. One
photograph shows an exhumed corpse, far gone in decomposition. Another
shows the dead donkeys putrefying on top of grand pianos which formed
part of the Surrealist film, Le Chien Andalou. Dali still looks back on
these donkeys with great enthusiasm.

    I 'made up' the putrefaction of the donkeys with great pots of sticky
glue which I poured over them. Also I emptied their eye-sockets and made
them larger by hacking them out with scissors. In the same way I
furiously cut their mouths open to make the rows of their teeth show to
better advantage, and I added several jaws to each mouth, so that it
would appear that although the donkeys were already rotting they were
vomiting up a little more their own death, above those other rows of
teeth formed by the keys of the black pianos.

And finally there is the picture--apparently some kind of faked
photograph--of 'Mannequin rotting in a taxicab.' Over the already
somewhat bloated face and breast of the apparently dead girl, huge snails
were crawling. In the caption below the picture Dali notes that these are
Burgundy snails--that is, the edible kind.

Of course, in this long book of 400 quarto pages there is more than I
have indicated, but I do not think that I have given an unfair account of
his moral atmosphere and mental scenery. It is a book that stinks. If it
were possible for a book to give a physical stink off its pages, this one
would--a thought that might please Dali, who before wooing his future
wife for the first time rubbed himself all over with an ointment made of
goat's dung boiled up in fish glue. But against this has to be set the
fact that Dali is a draughtsman of very exceptional gifts. He is also, to
judge by the minuteness and the sureness of his drawings, a very hard
worker. He is an exhibitionist and a careerist, but he is not a fraud. He
has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce
his morals and jeer at his paintings. And these two sets of facts, taken
together, raise a question which for lack of any basis of agreement
seldom gets a real discussion.

The point is that you have here a direct, unmistakable assault on sanity
and decency; and even--since some of Dali's pictures would tend to
poison the imagination like a pornographic postcard--on life itself.
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.

Now, if you showed this book, with its illustrations, to Lord Elton, to
Mr. Alfred Noyes, to THE TIMES leader writers who exult over the 'eclipse
of the highbrow'--in fact, to any 'sensible' art-hating English person--
it is easy to imagine what kind of response you would get. They would
flatly refuse to see any merit in Dali whatever. Such people are not only
unable to admit that what is morally degraded can be asthetically right,
but their real demand of every artist is that he shall pat them on the
back and tell them that thought is unnecessary. And they can be
especially dangerous at a time like the present, when the Ministry of
Information and the British Council put power into their hands. For their
impulse is not only to crush every new talent as it appears, but to
castrate the past as well. Witness the renewed highbrow-baiting that is
now going on in this country and America, with its outcry not only
against Joyce, Proust and Lawrence, but even against T. S. Eliot.

But if you talk to the kind of person who CAN see Dali's merits, the
response that you get is not as a rule very much better. If you say that
Dali, though a brilliant draughtsman, is a dirty little scoundrel, you
are looked upon as a savage. If you say that you don't like rotting
corpses, and that people who do like rotting corpses are mentally
diseased, it is assumed that you lack the aesthetic sense. Since
'Mannequin rotting in a taxicab' is a good composition. And between these
two fallacies there is no middle position, but we seldom hear much about
it. On the one side KULTURBOLSCHEVISMUS: on the other (though the phrase
itself is out of fashion) 'Art for Art's sake.' Obscenity is a very
difficult question to discuss honestly. People are too frightened either
of seeming to be shocked or of seeming not to be shocked, to be able to
define the relationship between art and morals.

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.: kicking little girls in the head is O.K.; even a film
like L'Age d'Or is O.K. [Note, below] It is also O.K. that Dali should
batten on France for years and then scuttle off like rat as soon as France
is in danger. So long as you can paint well enough to pass the test, all
shall be forgiven you.

[Note: Dali mentions L'Age d'Or and adds that its first public showing was
broken up by hooligans, but he does not say in detail what it was about.
According to Henry Miller's account of it, it showed among other things
some fairly detailed shots of a woman defecating. (Author's Footnote)]

One can see how false this is if one extends it to cover ordinary crime.
In an age like our own, when the artist is an altogether exceptional
person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as
a pregnant woman is. Still, no one would say that a pregnant woman should
be allowed to commit murder, nor would anyone make such a claim for the
artist, however gifted. 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. And, after all, the
worst crimes are not always the punishable ones. By encouraging
necrophilic reveries one probably does quite as much harm as by, say,
picking pockets at the races. One ought to be able to hold in one's head
simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a
disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense,
affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it
shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of
what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall
in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration
camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, 'This is a good book
or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.'
Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the
implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human

Not, of course, that Dali's autobiography, or his pictures, ought to be
suppressed. Short of the dirty postcards that used to be sold in
Mediterranean seaport towns, it is doubtful policy to suppress anything,
and Dali's fantasies probably cast useful light on the decay of
capitalist civilisation. But what he clearly needs is diagnosis. The
question is not so much WHAT he is as WHY he is like that. It ought not
to be in doubt that his is a diseased intelligence, probably not much
altered by his alleged conversion, since genuine penitents, or people who
have returned to sanity, do not flaunt their past vices in that
complacent way. He is a symptom of the world's illness. The important
thing is not to denounce him as a cad who ought to be horsewhipped, or to
defend him as a genius who ought not to be questioned, but to find out
WHY he exhibits that particular set of aberrations.

The answer is probably discoverable in his pictures, and those I myself
am not competent to examine. But I can point to one clue which perhaps
takes one part of the distance. This is the old-fashioned, over-ornate
Edwardian style of drawing to which Dali tends to revert when he is not
being Surrealist. Some of Dali's drawings are reminiscent of Dürer, one
(p. 113) seems to show the influence of Beardsley, another (p. 269) seems
to borrow something from Blake. But the most persistent strain is the
Edwardian one. When I opened the book for the first time and looked at
its innumerable marginal illustrations, I was haunted by a resemblance
which I could not immediately pin down. I fetched up at the ornamental
candlestick at the beginning of Part I (p. 7). What did this remind me
of? Finally I tracked it down. It reminded me of a large vulgar,
expensively got-up edition of Anatole France (in translation) which must
have been published about 1914. That had ornamental chapter headings and
tailpieces after this style. Dali's candlestick displays at one end a
curly fish-like creature that looks curiously familiar (it seems to be
based on the conventional dolphin), and at the other is the burning
candle. This candle, which recurs in one picture after another, is a very
old friend. You will find it, with the same picturesque gouts of wax
arranged on its sides, in those phoney electric lights done up as
candlesticks which are popular in sham-Tudor country hotels. This candle,
and the design beneath it, convey at once an intense feeling of
sentimentality. As though to counteract this, Dali has spattered a
quill-ful of ink all over the page, but without avail. The same
impression keeps popping up on page after page. The sign at the bottom of
page 62, for instance, would nearly go into PETER PAN. The figure on page
224, in spite of having her cranium elongated in to an immense
sausage-like shape, is the witch of the fairy-tale books. The horse on
page 234 and the unicorn on page 218 might be illustrations to James
Branch Cabell. The rather pansified drawings of youths on pages 97, 100
and elsewhere convey the same impression. Picturesqueness keeps breaking
in. Take away the skulls, ants, lobsters, telephones and other
paraphernalia, and every now and again you are back in the world of
Barrie, Rackham, Dunsany and WHERE THE RAINBOW ENDS.

Curiously, enough, some of the naughty-naughty touches in Dali's
autobiography tie up with the same period. When I read the passage I
quoted at the beginning, about the kicking of the little sister's head, I
was aware of another phantom resemblance. What was it? Of course!
RUTHLESS RHYMES FOR HEARTLESS HOMES, by Harry Graham. Such rhymes were
very popular round about 1912, and one that ran:

Poor little Willy is crying so sore,
A sad little boy is he,
For he's broken his little sister's neck
And he'll have no jam for tea,

might almost have been founded on Dali's anecdote. Dali, of course, is
aware of his Edwardian leanings, and makes capital out of them, more or
less in a spirit of pastiche. He professes an especial affection for the
year 1900, and claims that every ornamental object of 1900 is full of
mystery, poetry, eroticism, madness, perversity, et. Pastiche, however,
usually implies a real affection for the thing parodied. It seems to be,
if not the rule, at any rate distinctly common for an intellectual bent
to be accompanied by a non-rational, even childish urge in the same
direction. A sculptor, for instance, is interested in planes and curves,
but he is also a person who enjoys the physical act of mucking about with
clay or stone. An engineer is a person who enjoys the feel of tools, the
noise of dynamos and smell of oil. A psychiatrist usually has a leaning
toward some sexual aberration himself. Darwin became a biologist partly
because he was a country gentleman and fond of animals. It may be
therefore, that Dali's seemingly perverse cult of Edwardian things (for
example, his 'discovery' of the 1900 subway entrances) is merely the
symptom of a much deeper, less conscious affection. The innumerable,
beautifully executed copies of textbook illustrations, solemnly labelled
LE ROSSIGNOL, UNE MONTRE and so on, which he scatters all over his
margins, may be meant partly as a joke. The little boy in knickerbockers
playing with a diabolo on page 103 is a perfect period piece. But perhaps
these things are also there because Dali can't help drawing that kind of
thing because it is to that period and that style of drawing that he
really belongs.

If so, his aberrations are partly explicable. Perhaps they are a way of
assuring himself that he is not commonplace. The two qualities that Dali
unquestionably possesses are a gift for drawing and an atrocious egoism.
'At seven', he says in the first paragraph of his book, 'I wanted to be
Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.' This is
worded in a deliberately startling way, but no doubt it is substantially
true. Such feelings are common enough. 'I knew I was a genius', somebody
once said to me, 'long before I knew what I was going to be a genius
about.' And suppose that you have nothing in you except your egoism and a
dexterity that goes no higher than the elbow; suppose that your real gift
is for a detailed, academic, representational style of drawing, your real
MÉTIER to be an illustrator of scientific textbooks. How then do you
become Napoleon?

There is always one escape: INTO WICKEDNESS. Always do the thing that
will shock and wound people. At five, throw a little boy off a bridge,
strike an old doctor across the face with a whip and break his spectacles
--or, at any rate, dream about doing such things. Twenty years later,
gouge the eyes out of dead donkeys with a pair of scissors. Along those
lines you can always feel yourself original. And after all, it pays! It
is much less dangerous than crime. Making all allowance for the probable
suppressions in Dali's autobiography, it is clear that he had not had to
suffer for his eccentricities as he would have done in an earlier age. He
grew up into the corrupt world of the nineteen-twenties, when
sophistication was immensely widespread and every European capital
swarmed with aristocrats and RENTIERS who had given up sport and politics
and taken to patronising the arts. If you threw dead donkeys at people,
they threw money back. A phobia for grasshoppers--which a few decades
back would merely have provoked a snigger--was now an interesting
'complex' which could be profitably exploited. And when that particular
world collapsed before the German Army, America was waiting. You could
even top it all up with religious conversion, moving at one hop and
without a shadow of repentance from the fashionable SALONS of Paris to
Abraham's bosom.

That, perhaps is the essential outline of Dali's history. But why his
aberrations should be the particular ones they were, and why it should be
so easy to 'sell' such horrors as rotting corpses to a sophisticated
public--those are questions for the psychologist and the sociological
critic. Marxist criticism has a short way with such phenomena as
Surrealism. They are 'bourgeois decadence' (much play is made with the
phrases 'corpse poisons' and 'decaying RENTIER class'), and that is
that. But though this probably states a fact, it does not establish a
connection. One would still like to know WHY Dali's leaning was towards
necrophilia (and not, say, homosexuality), and WHY the RENTIERS and the
aristocrats would buy his pictures instead of hunting and making love
like their grandfathers. Mere moral disapproval does not get one any
further. But neither ought one to pretend, in the name of 'detachment',
that such pictures as 'Mannequin rotting in a taxicab' are morally
neutral. They are diseased and disgusting, and any investigation ought to
start out from that fact.

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