We’re going back to our roots today by looking at two Orwell essays from his collection All Art is Propaganda. Both essays explore power-worship. This topic is timely, because of the violent, and very public, break-up of Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson.
What does power-worship have to do with Saatchi and Nigella? Nigella blended her private and public life to sell a special form of power-worship. Her relationship with Saatchi had more than a hint of power-worship. The dysfunction in their relationship mirrors the problems that Orwell identified in society when power-worship becomes the dominant ethos.
So, power-worship has everything to do with this power-couple. And Orwell’s got something to say about that. On with the show!
The first essay, Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali, was scheduled for print in 1944, but its British publisher shelved it on grounds of obscenity. Benefit of Clergy is a review of The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, a book Orwell characterized as “a strip tease act conducted in pink limelight”. To Orwell, Dali is the epitome of power-worship and the desire to be worshiped. Dali wants to be Napoleon.
The second essay, Raffles and Miss Blandish, was also written in 1944, but published in Horizon, the British magazine from which the CIA/IRD-funded Encounter (1953-1990) would later draw editorial talent*. (IRD, the Information Research Department, was the British spying organization to which Orwell handed over his list of communist “fellow travelers” in 1949; a list which included Encounter’s future editor Stephen Spender. Red scare or red recruitment drive?) Raffles and Miss Blandish is about the moral decay of crime stories over the period 1900-1940; Orwell believes this moral decay is attributable to power-worship.
The personality cult of Dali and the genre-wide power-worship in crime fiction display similar symptoms, according to Orwell. Power-worship is expressed sexually as sadism and masochism. It is expressed ethically as lawlessness.
Let’s draw some parallels.
Saatchi made millions as an art promoter, not just any promoter, but promoter to the richest artist in the world, Damien Hirst. Hirst’s art is famous for preserved sharks, rotting cow heads etc.
Dali was an art promoter– he made millions selling rotting cattle as art. Actually, Dali was selling donkey carcasses to well-heeled saps before Damien was a glint in his father’s eye.
Dali was a necrophiliac and sadist. He bragged about his narcissism. He liked to hurt women, or dream of hurting them, physically and emotionally. He liked to suck up to rich and powerful people. Dali thought that the normal rules didn’t apply to him.
Dali’s wife Gala was a masochist. Her idea of foreplay was to ask her husband to kill her, which annoyed Dali: he was titillated by the thought of killing her, but the fact that she wanted him to do it was a turn-off.
I don’t know anything about Saatchi’s sex life. I do know that he likes to hurt women, physically and emotionally. He likes to suck up to powerful people. He enjoys his power in the art-world and is phenomenally arrogant. I know that Saatchi’s marriage to Nigella is abusive; he thinks this abusiveness is normal; and that he filed for divorce. There’s a lot of Dali in Saatchi, and it’s likely there’s some Gala in Nigella.
It’s not hard to see how Saatchi’s behavior is violent and lawless. But what about the worshiper? What part does Nigella own?
Nigella Lawson: the domestic goddess, the “queen of food porn”. What is she selling? Her television personality is a whored-out Delia Smith minus culinary expertise. Nigella isn’t selling food, she’s selling the fantasy of a ‘kept woman’, which– if we’re honest– has more appeal to most women than dreams of corporate stardom.
What do I mean by ‘kept woman’? My first introduction to the concept was at a cocktail party hosted by a gay couple, one of the guys was a friend of my parents, and my folks had not yet met his partner. The partner turned out to be a muscular fellow who cultivated a biker mystique. When their introduction reached the ‘What do you do?’ phase, my mom answered that she was a housewife. The partner hissed: “I wish I could be a kept woman!”, then stomped away in a huff. His better half didn’t know what to say.
Since then, my understanding has evolved: a kept woman is used in private and valued in public. She is sexually desirable, and therefore a prized object. A warm pie cloistered behind closed (luxurious) doors. She serves whoever owns her, and that’s fine by her, as long as her owner is powerful and prestigious. What bursts the fantasy? 1) When her owner looses prestige or 2) When she’s no longer valued. When she’s taken for granted.
The sales pitch exploded very publicly for Saatchi’s soon-to-be ex-wife; it exploded via option two. Her public/personal life will never seem as glamorous again.
The ‘Kept Woman Fantasy’ is not the foundation of a healthy marriage. But it is an expression of power-worship from the viewpoint of the worshiper. When Dali was young, he found his own “Maecenas” in the Vicomte de Noailles, but through arduous self-promotion Dali was eventually able to swap roles.
It’s easy to sympathize with Nigella in her time of humiliation. However, the damage Saatchi did to her is a natural consequence of the lifestyle-choice she cashes in on. A worshiper will attract someone who wants to be worshiped. Saatchi was an ass long before Nigella married him.
The Nigella/Saatchi saga displays facets of what Orwell saw happening throughout the Anglosphere. How did power-worship kill crime stories? According to Orwell, power-worship devalues ethical conduct and replaces the rule of law with “might makes right”.
Until recently the characteristic adventure stories of the English-speaking peoples have been stories in which the hero fights against odds. This is true all the way from Robin Hood to Popeye the Sailor. Perhaps the basic myth of the Western world is Jack the Giant Killer, and there already exists a considerable literature which teaches, either overtly or implicitly, that one should side with the big man against the little man. Most of what is now written about foreign policy is simply an embroidery on this theme, and for several decades such phrases as “play the game,” “don’t hit a man when he’s down” and “it’s not cricket” have never failed to draw a snigger from anyone of intellectual pretensions.
Orwell compares the Sherlock Holmes stories to Edgar Wallace’s writing.
He (Sherlock Holmes) reasons logically from observed fact, and his intellectuality is constantly contrasted with the routine methods of the police. Wallace objected strongly to this slur, as he considered it, on Scotland Yard, and in several newspaper articles he went out of his way to denounce Holmes by name. His ideal was the detective-inspector who catches criminals not because he is intellectually brilliant but because he is part of an all-powerful organization.
What type of behavior goes hand-in-hand with this power-worship? Violence and sadomasochistic exploitation. Orwell goes on to describe the subject matter of a typical 1940s crime novel:
The book contains eight full-dress murders, an unassessable number of casual killings and woundings, an exhumation (with careful reminder of the stench), the flogging of Miss Blandish [and her repeated rape- a.nolen], the torture of another woman with red-hot cigarette ends, a strip-tease act, a third-degree scene of unheard-of cruelty, and much else of the same kind. It assumes great sexual sophistication in its readers (there is a scene, for instance, in which a gangster, presumably of masochistic tendency, has an orgasm in the moment of being knifed), and it takes for granted the most complete corruption and self-seeking as the norm of human behavior.
Where does power-worship lead us? Lawlessness. The rule of policy. The personality cult of the dictator.
In America, both in life and fiction, the tendency to tolerate crime, even to admire the criminal so long as he is successful, is very much more marked. It is indeed ultimately this attitude that has made it possible for crime to flourish upon so huge a scale. Books have been written about Al Capone that are hardly different in tone from the books written about Henry Ford, Stalin, Lord Northcliffe and all the rest of the “log cabin to White House” brigade.
It is a daydream appropriate to a totalitarian age. In his imagined world of gangsters Chase is presenting, as it were, a distilled version of the modern political scene, in which such things as mass bombing of civilians, the use of hostages, torture to obtain confessions, secret prisons, execution without trial, floggings with rubber truncheons, drownings in cesspools, systematic falsification of records and statistics, treachery, bribery and quislingism are normal and morally neutral, even admirable when they are done in a large and bold way.
Does Orwell’s list remind you of anything? Drones, preemptive war, puppet governments, disposition matrices, “least misleading” answers… lawlessness.
Orwell believed art was vitally important because it teaches people how to think. What does power-worship look like through the lens of the Anglo-American public?
People worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it. A twelve-year-old boy worships Jack Dempsey. An adolescent in a Glasgow slum worships Al Capone. An aspiring pupil at a business college worships Lord Nuffield. A New Statesmen reader worships Stalin.
Santa Muerte? Obama? Hollywood? The hierarchy of academia, the military, etc? Which alter do you worship at? Has Gala crept into your life?
Power-worship was such a disgusting, modern phenomenon to Orwell that he was forced to make a concession to something he hated almost as much: the Britain of his grandfather. At least grandpa’s mores set some limit to depravity. He compares a 1910 crime novel to one from 1940:
Comparing the schoolboy atmosphere of the one book with the cruelty and corruption of the other, one is driven to feel that snobbishness, like hypocrisy, is a check upon behavior whose value from a social point of view has been underrated.
IMHO, that’s a terrible sentence with a profound meaning. Let’s switch off the food porn.
*Encounter was set up despite an agreement between the CIA and the British government that the spying agency would not spend money propagandizing in Great Britain. Contrary to the wishes of his ELECTED government, Kim Philby was the MI6-CIA liaison for Encounter. (Note how MI6 is not abiding by instructions from outside itself.) The Foreign Office was also in on the plot, the aim being to promote an anti-Soviet leftist agenda with the help of a lot of rich people.
You’ll probably have noticed that the CIA drew many agents from Orwell’s milieu, that is, Western-educated, elitist, socialists. You may remember from my previous posts that when the Brit Stephenson staffed the OSS, he hired a hell of a lot of Soviet double-agents. Other UK-USA joint propaganda operations, like Encounter, were the brainchild of CIA/MI6/IRD agents with pronounced leftist sympathies– and loyalties beyond their respective elected governments.
Is socialism just a euphemism for serfdom? Are the blue-stockings rolling back 200 years of citizens’ rights? What’s the least untruthful answer?