The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis
Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist
“Wyndham Lewis is surely the least read and most unfamiliar of all the great modernists of his generation,” Fredric Jameson remarks, “a generation that included the names of Pound and Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence and Yeats; nor can it be said that his painting has been assimilated any more successfully into the visual canon.” Lewis’s work is normally reckoned less than the sum of its many parts: novelist, painter, poet, polemicist, critic, but in the end nearly a dead letter. His repute might now be higher if he had written less and painted more: if he had written only Tarr (1918, 1928), Time and Western Man (1927), The Revenge for Love (1937), and Self Condemned (1954), and otherwise kept his brushes active and his mouth shut.
Lewis was born on November 18, 1882, aboard his father’s yacht, then moored at Amherst, Nova Scotia. Christened in Montreal, he retained Canadian nationality for the rest of his life. In 1888 the family moved to England, and lived comfortably on the Isle of Wight till Lewis’s father ran off with one of the housemaids. There was still enough money to send Lewis to decent schools, including Rugby, and later to let him study art at the Slade, but gradually the checks arrived later than expected, and the amounts inscribed were not enough to support an artist who liked restaurants and champagne. Lewis earned little; he lived mostly by borrowing money which he neglected to pay back.
Jeffrey Meyers’s biography is richly informative, fair, lively, and in every good sense disinterested. He is sympathetic to Lewis, but not besotted with him. He gives Lewis’s many causes their due, and he elucidates every fuss, but he does not demand that the reader beat all those antique drums. He doesn’t fudge the political issues. Lewis’s reputation never recovered from some extraordinarily foolish articles he wrote about Hitler and gathered into a book peremptorily called Hitler (1931). He tried to undo the damage with The Hitler Cult (1939), but it was too late. Most of his contemporaries thought him, on every political question, an idiot. Auden and MacNeice in their “Last Will and Testament” (Letters from Iceland, 1937) wrote:
We leave the Martyr’s Stake at Abergwilly
To Wyndham Lewis with a box of soldiers (blonde)
Regretting one so bright should be so silly.
On September 2, 1939, the day before England declared war on Germany, Lewis sailed for Canada. He lived out the war in Toronto, miserably poor and hating his life. In 1946 he went back to London as art critic for The Listener, a post he held with honor. But he started going blind in 1951, and had to give it up. He died on March 7, 1957.
Jeffrey Meyers doesn’t hedge the fact that Lewis was one of the most obnoxious men of his time. Only Bertolt Brecht and Evelyn Waugh are in the same league when it comes to nastiness. In sexual achievement, anything Augustus John could do, Lewis determined to do better and more. He treated his women abominably: got them pregnant and then cleared off. In financial dealings, he was a sponger. He never forgave anyone who helped him, especially if the help came in the form of money. His strongest instinct was to find persecution and mischief where they did not exist: he felt wounded so often that he must have taken pleasure in the feeling.
John says in his autobiography that Lewis, living the bohemian life in Montparnasse, played the part of an incarnate Loki, bearing the news and sowing discord with it. “Sarcasm, with daring touches of scurrility, was his strong card.” I think what he mostly felt was disgust that he couldn’t entirely transform his appetites into ideas: many of them remained in the deplorable environment of discarded mistresses, creditors, patrons he despised, and venereal diseases he regarded as proof of his virility. His methods were “a whisper here, a dark suggestion there.” It is true that his women cared for him, and stayed in his vicinity even when he had replaced them in bed. It is also true that some of his peers admired him, notably Yeats, Pound, and Eliot, who thought him “the most fascinating personality of our time” for reasons not stated.
Proof of Lewis’s genius seems to me clearer in his paintings than in his writings. Despising “the Impressionist fuss,” the fuss over the lazy felicities of Nature, he made his art an art of line: his paintings emphasize lines, outlines, setting limits for the moment upon whatever he deems to be the case. An effect of the macabre is gained by applying to ostensibly human occasions shapes drawn from animal, vegetable, and mineral sources. The paintings seem to have issued from another planet, a place governed by rules not necessarily superior to ours but evidently different. The Surrender of Barcelona (1936) is a painting that removes Barcelona from Spain as assiduously as it removes every other expectation aroused by its title. The drawings for Timon of Athens are extraordinary, though they might with equal cogency be attached to any work of notable virulence. As for the portraits: the 1938 portrait of Pound is more genial than the first Eliot portrait of 1938 or the portrait of Edith Sitwell (1923-1934), but they all seem to minister to the painter’s desire to hasten his sitters to their deaths or, while they survive, to their fated prisons.
The power of Lewis’s fiction, and the limits of that power, issue from his theory of comedy. “The root of the Comic is to be sought,” he writes, “in the sensations resulting from the observation of a thing behaving like a person. But from that point of view all men are necessarily comic; for they are all things, or physical bodies, behaving as persons.” The imagination that construes people in this way is associated with the eye, Lewis’s favorite sense. “Dogmatically, then,” he says, “I am for the Great Without, for the method of external approach, for the wisdom of the eye, rather than that of the ear.”
In writing, he continues, the only thing that interests him is the shell, the actions and appearances of people, not their internality. “The ossature is my favourite part of a living animal organism, not its intestines.” Of course the ossature is just as internal as the intestines, but Lewis’s novels, like his paintings, proceed as if this were not so. In the portraits the skin seems to be stretched, like a bank robber’s stocking mask, over bones which do not share accommodations with veins, gut, and blood.
In Time and Western Man, Paleface, The Art of Being Ruled, Men Without Art, The Roaring Queen, and The Writer and the Absolute, Lewis attacks virtually every manifestation of modern literature and philosophy for presenting life as if from the inside: this is what the seemingly diverse attacks upon Proust, Joyce, Hemingway, Lawrence, Pound, Bergson, Woolf, and Sartre come to, Lewis’s contempt for inwardness, and especially for the philosophies of Time that allow us to distinguish between mechanical time, mere chronos, and some deeper, private time made available to intuition, memory, and chance.
To write Lewis’s kind of fiction, it would be necessary to assume that when two people look at each other, each regards the other with such suspicion that the look turns him into an object, hostile in principle and, if it moves, a dire contraption. Sentences that mime the experience of looking have as their first obligation the elimination of anything that might betoken affection or sympathy. Lewis’s aesthetic is a function of his disgust, so he joins one sentence to another not according to any principle a reader would recognize as natural or otherwise privileged but on the assumption that every appeal to the natural is impertinent.
In both versions of Tarr, the memorable chapters are those in which the characters, puppets one and all, find themselves engaged in social rituals. Otto Kreisler and the widow Mrs. Bevelage, dancing in the Bonnington Club, are limbs running amok. The fact that Mrs. B. is whirled into something resembling rapture accounts for Lewis’s recourse to a diction ready-made to deal with such vulgarity:
The widow had come somewhat under the sudden fascination of Kreisler’s mood: she was really his woman, the goods, had he known it: she felt deliciously rapt in the midst of a simoom—she had two connected thoughts. All her worldly Victorian grace and good management of her fat had vanished: her face had become coarsened in those few breathless minutes. But she buzzed back again into the dance, and began a second mad, but this time nearly circular, career.
The vision of a puppet in abrupt contact with an emotion is always enough to disgust Lewis. At such times his glance dismembers the object it lights upon. The entire mechanism is disassociated into fragments until whatever coherence they have had seems a sordid function of chance. Here is a passage from The Childermass (1928):
A longshoreman fidgets at the movements of the small observer, finally thrusting first one longbooted leg and then another into his bark, a giant clog whose peaked toe wavers as he enters its shell, he walks off wagging his buttocks as he churns the rudder-paddle upon the rusty tide, an offended aquatic creature. A stone’s-throw out he stops, faces the shore, studying sombrely in perspective the man-sparrow, who multiplies precise movements, an organism which in place of speech has evolved a peripatetic system of response to a dead environment. It has wandered beside this Styx, a lost automaton rather than a lost soul. It has taken the measure of its universe: man is the measure: it rears itself up, steadily confronts and moves along these shadows.
Fredric Jameson, quoting from this passage, says that it arises as a protonarrative form from the situation of the portraitist before his model, a relation organized in Lewis’s case into “two mechanisms squaring off against each other, each quasi-automatically readjusting itself to the automatic movements and tremors of its opposite number.” The relation between the model and the eye that takes its inventory might be congenial in another writer, but in Lewis it becomes a “reciprocal interaction of tics and twitches ordered into an obligatory circuit, a reflex of vasomotor action and reaction which provides the spectacle of a ceaseless exchange of sparks between any two existents felt as contrary or opposing poles.”
Jameson’s reading of Lewis is based upon the notion that the most influential formal impulses of modernism—he has in view Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, and Pound—have been “strategies of inwardness, which set out to reappropriate an alienated universe by transforming it into personal styles and private languages.” Lewis’s strategy has been different. While his peers, Impressionists to a man, kept faith with the illusions of subjectivity, he produced a form of Expressionism which, as Jameson argues, “marks those illusions with the stamp of their own spuriousness, keeping the place of the Real warm by deforming its caricatural substitutes in the realm of the sheerly phenomenal.” The official modernists, according to Jameson, invested in “the valorization of myth and symbol, temporality, organic form and the concrete universal, the identity of the subject and the continuity of linguistic expression.” Lewis should be read, however, as a postmodernist and poststructuralist writer, stressing “discontinuity, allegory, the mechanical, the gap between signifier and signified, the lapse in meaning, the syncope in the experience of the subject.” Jameson would persuade us that Lewis’s style, “the only true English futurism,” should be approached as the political sign of a postindividualist age. He makes him sound like Jacques Derrida.
The question is: what is a nice Marxist like Jameson doing promoting Wyndham Lewis? Lewis hated Marxism, despised everything proletarian, and stayed longer than any of his colleagues with the glamour of Hitler. The explanation is that Lewis’s enemies were also Marx’s enemies. Lewis attacked liberal humanism, bourgeois subjectivity, and the strategists of inwardness far more effectively than any Marxist critic did. Compare him with Christopher Caudwell, the best that English Marxism could produce in his time, but inept. Lewis’s friends are not Jameson’s, but they have the same enemies. So it is not surprising that Jameson is thrilled by Lewis’s futurism which, he says, “projects the symbolic value of an antitranscendental, essentially democratic option—the machine as against the luxury furnishings of the great estates, with their ideology of natural beauty, the sheer production of sentences as against the mysteries of poetic creation and the organic primacy of the beautiful or the masterpiece.”
What Jameson admires in Lewis is his satirical collage, which “draws heavily and centrally on the warehouse of cultural and mass cultural cliché, on the junk materials of industrial capitalism, with its degraded commodity art, its mechanical reproduceability, its serial alienation of language.” Lewis uses the cliché against itself, not to achieve homogeneity of tone—such an impression would hold out the possibility of the unification of subjectivity—but “a kind of perceptual freshness reinvented out of the unexpectedly virulent interaction of stale and faded substances.”
Finally, Jameson proposes an entirely unconvincing comparison between Lewis and Lawrence: on the strength of the famous letter in which Lawrence repudiates “the old stable ego of the character” in favor of a deeper, more elemental sense of life, Jameson finds “remarkable affinities” with Lewis’s satirical program, “by which Lewis meant to underscore the nonethical, purely external mode of his new representation as cubist-caricatural, its materialist techniques affirming their kinship with the visual, rather than the temporal, arts, with space rather than time, and knowing a symbolic mission to discredit the shapeless warm organic durée of the inner monologue and of a psychology-oriented subjectivism.” This seems to me far more confused than Lewis’s account of Lawrence in Paleface; Lewis at least recognized that he and Lawrence were alien to each other, and that they could not make common ground against their colleagues.
But the really peculiar part of Jameson’s argument turns on the question of the “Strong Personality.” Having argued that Lewis is postindividualist and committed to the dispersal of subjectivity, he has the problem of explaining how Lewis could insist on making an exception in favor of himself: worse still, how he could turn that exception into a cult of the fascist personality. Jameson is clear that the ideal of the Strong Personality is
the central organizational category of Lewis’s mature ideology, and the primary “value” from which are generated all those more provocative, yet structurally derivative ideological motifs and obsessions of racism and sexism, the attack on the Youth Cult, the disgust with parliamentary democracy, the satiric aesthetic of Otherness, the violent polemic and moral stance of the didactic works, the momentary infatuation with Nazism as well as the implacable repudiation of Marxism.
But he offers to explain Lewis’s commitment to this ideal by saying that ideology is “not a coherent system of ideas, but rather the desperate response to a contradictory situation.” The situation, as Jameson then describes it, isn’t in fact at all contradictory, it is perfectly straightforward. Jameson identifies Lewis’s situation with that of the petty bourgeois subject, terrified of being overwhelmed, crowded out of his already cramped space, by the “anonymous and faceless multitude.” It begins to appear that Lewis’s satire has far more to do with money, his own ungenteel poverty, his dependence upon patrons, and such factors, than upon any grander or more disinterested motives.
Socialism or communism is fantasized in Lewis, according to Jameson, “as the completion of this process of levelling, and as the definitive loss of even this embattled and precarious, historically threatened status to which the petty bourgeois subject desperately clings.” If you add a conspiracy theory, and imagine an evil genius in the guise of the Bailiff in The Human Age, Lewis’s fiction then becomes “the unmasking of a vast cosmological plot by the Zeitgeist to reduce strong personalities to the level of the mediocre and the mindlessly standardized.” The only answer to such a conspiracy is a still stronger personality capable of bringing the mob to heel.
It is edifying that a Marxist can find so much worth bothering about in Wyndham Lewis. Admittedly, Jameson is more interested in Lewis as symptom than as genius: but that is only to say that his supreme concern is to produce, from evidence that threatens to postpone the production indefinitely, a Marxist apocalyptic vision. By calling Lewis a political novelist, Jameson can deal with the symptomatic aspects of the work without too much ado. Naturally, he is angrier with the degraded world that provoked Lewis than with anything in Lewis himself. But I don’t see how Jameson’s account of the degraded world of commodity values takes the harm out of Lewis’s response to it; or removes Lewis’s motives, by recourse to a situational politics, from psychological consideration which suggests that they are understandable but mean.
Jameson has not convinced me that Lewis was clearheaded where Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, and Pound were bewildered; or that he mastered a Zeitgeist rotten with subjectivity while they lay victims to it. “The approach of a post-individualistic age argues powerfully for the discovery of Lewis’s kinship with us,” Jameson says. The assertion is premature on every count. The approach of such an age is not clear to me, and I suspect it is a mirage in the eye of the Marxist beholder. “Lewis’s kinship with us” is very odd. People used to scold Lionel Trilling for that “us,” and demand to know whom he meant. There can’t be many people in the category that includes Fredric Jameson. Then again I wonder what he means by referring to “kinship”: it seems a singularly inappropriate word, given the particular force and bias of Lewis’s work.
In any case I can’t see how Lewis’s politics gives Jameson any comfort. It is probably true, as Alfred Kazin has been maintaining, that the sense of self and freedom in contemporary fiction is extremely feeble. This argument doesn’t contradict Christopher Lasch’s position in The Culture of Narcissism: clearly, if we were secure in our sense of self, we wouldn’t feel the need to cultivate it or shore it up. Jameson takes pleasure in a vision of the dispersed self, presumably because such a predicament would find a Marxist answer as the only hope. Lewis would help the work of dispersal, but his politics thereafter would give not only Jameson but many others a rough time.