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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Notes on Dali George Orwell

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 Harrisâs autobiographical writings are an example) can
without intending it give a true picture of its author. Daliâs
recently published Life [The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (The Dial
Press, 1942)] 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 Daliâs 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 Halleyâs comet:

* Suddenly one of my fatherâs 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 âdelirious joyâ 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.â

A year earlier than this Dali had âsuddenly, as most of my ideas
occur,â 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 âuntil they had to tear her, bleeding, out of my reach.â

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 âfive-year planâ), 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 Galaâs head, pulling it by the hair, and trembling
with complete hysteria, I commanded: âNow 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!â

* Then Gala, transforming the last glimmer of her expression of
pleasure into the hard light of her own tyranny, answered: âI want
you to kill me!â

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 âMaecenas.â 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. . . .

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 goatâs 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 Daliâs 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. . . .

But if you talk to the kind of person who can see Daliâs 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
donât like rotting corpses, and that people who do like rotting
corpses are mentally diseased, it is assumed that you lack the
æsthetic sense. Since âMannequin rotting in a taxicabâ 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
Kulturbolschewismus: on the other (though the phrase itself is out
of fashion) âArt for Artâs sake.â 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 âArt,â and everything is O.K.: kicking little girls in
the head is O.K. . . . 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.

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.

When Orwell says that even a reborn Shakespeare couldn't get away with
"raping little girls," he was either reflecting the mores of the times
(1944) -- or he forgot about Hollywood.



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