- The Essential Wyndham Lewis edited by Julian Symons
Deutsch, 380 pp, £17.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 233 98376 7
There is a cartoon by Beerbohm somewhere showing a distended G.K. Chesterton banging the table with his fist and saying he’d ‘had enough of all this bloody nonsense’. It seems surprising now, but for peaceful humanitarians like Beerbohm Chesterton represented a very definite threat to the liberal pieties of the status quo. So did Kipling, whom Beerbohm really feared and hated. Gissing gloated that Barrack Room Ballads showed the real right savagery that was about to burst on the world: and that too now seems a surprising judgment. Yeats is more plausible when he hailed Jarry’s Ubu Roi as evangelist of the Savage God who was to come. But in retrospect the prophecies of apocalyptic brutality, the day when all civilised pretence shall have its end, seem, where the writers who made them are concerned, to have gone off rather at half-cock. Nietzsche is the first in that field: the rest nowhere.
Wyndham Lewis was in his own way a disciple of Nietzsche, but in a style that spoils the purity of the original. Like all ‘no-nonsense’ writers he depends none the less upon the impact of style, which inevitably goes off on its own, creating its own object, a picture of itself rather than a prophecy. The bold self-portrait on the cover of Julian Symons’s excellent selection from Lewis’s work in a sense tells us all we need to know about his manner, which is a kind of distillation of Art Déco – fierce, highly-coloured, angular, ugly, but with a grotesque tactile solidity which compels our attention as an episode in the history of style. Lewis’s style, like Art Déco itself, belongs uncompromisingly to its uneasily vigorous and vanished decade. Its awkwardness expresses itself, but now not much else. It bristles with ideas and assertions, but these have not lived to join a common stock: they seem part of the bakelite and the decoration. The more trenchantly and sardonically relevant to our age Lewis might appear to be, and claim to be, the more he isolates himself. He is the opposite of a Swift or a Voltaire, and the paradox explains why all the actual horrors and torments of the 20th century seem quite other than the kind which Lewis’s Déco monologue expounded, foretold, took relish in.
In a lucid introduction and in linking commentaries between the selections in the book, Julian Symons remarks on the way Lewis ‘formulated a philosophy radically critical of many shibboleths respected by the intellectual society of the period’. He itemises its targets and prophecies under a series of headings: the lack of desire for real freedom; the conformity encouraged by the media, a conformity no less typical of the intelligentsia than of the masses; the ‘revolutionary simpletons’, in politics and art, who worship the fashion of barricades or Surrealism; the advance of feminism, closely linked with homosexuality; the decline of nationalism and its replacement by an international world-order and a melting-pot of countries and races and – a chief target of Lewis – the rise of humanitarianism and respect for life as such.
The conformist intelligentsia of our own day would hardly bother with all this: most of it is both familiar and dated, like the Yellow Peril or the Decline of the West. Symons claims that Lewis was prophetically right about the demise of the family, unisex, and the immense growth of what Lewis called ‘associational life’, controlled by the internationals and the press. He was, however, ‘dramatically wrong’ about the fading of national feeling and religion and the acceptance of a world order. But his rightness or wrongness seems hardly to matter: what counts, as Symons perhaps involuntarily implies, is whether or not one is a ‘Lewisite’ (his book is dedicated to C.J. Fox, ‘most genial of Lewisites’). Bacon observed that religious doctrine is best swallowed whole; but with Lewis, as with Pound, it is not the doctrine we swallow but the poetry and the style – the style being the man. With both writers Modernism really amounts to a way of enjoying art for art’s sake, and it is ironical that two of the most combative and committed writers of their epoch, the ones most porcupined with fretful ideology, should really now be considered as and for themselves – a taste, an addiction.
You are either a Poundian or you aren’t, and the same is even more true of Lewis. Symons clearly revels in him (‘he discussed complex philosophical questions with the jovial slanginess of a man arguing with others in a pub’) and is fascinated by the way he expressed himself. He quotes Eliot’s judgment that Lewis was the greatest English prose stylist of the century. Others, like Anthony Quinton, have called him the worst one. All are right from their own point of view, if we accept that Lewis is a writer who either appeals or does not, but Eliot’s verdict is interesting in two ways. Eliot really did warm to Lewis’s ideas, and the way he expressed them seemed like a return to the sinewy and colloquial manner of Dryden or Johnson, the no-nonsense prose that corresponded to the Metaphysicals’ directness and wit in verse. After flowery and carefully euphonious Edwardian fine writing, the paragraphs of a George Moore or of Chesterton himself with his well-turned paradoxes, Lewis’s style – expressed by the apparent lack of any – might indeed have seemed the thing. ‘The style is not, as it looks, artless, but the product of careful design, devised as the best means of conveying messages about the need for and nature of the changes in society that Lewis, writing in the Twenties, expected to see emerge.’ Yes, but Symons rather gives his own and Eliot’s game away in saying that. Prose style in Johnson or in Dryden is instinctive, unselfconscious, certainly not deliberately graceless and clumsy. In aiming for gracelessness and clumsiness Lewis is really only reversing the George Moore syndrome: instead of a graceful mincing, a savage clowning suited to the new age.
Lewis’s manner tends to cancel itself out, to vanish up its own arsehole as he himself might have put it. That, too, may have been deliberate. His novels self-destruct on every page, consuming in their own energy like the schadenvoll German films of the period – Caligari or Mabuse. Even The Revenge for Love, arguably his masterpiece, and compared by Symons with Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, consumes rather than perpetuates its own dislike of Communist Party practice. In 1933 he published a lengthy poetic satire, One-Way Song. Its theme is the illusions of those who cling to historical ‘Time’, and to revolutionary ideas of progress, but the most lyrical sections celebrate the historic perspective of English poetry and ‘How the pages of Cathay/Came out of the time-bound Ezra into the light of common day!’ A couplet in Yeats’s 18th-century manner reiterates the author’s intention.
These times require a tongue that naked goes
Without more fuss than Dryden’s or Defoe’s.
The enterprise of walking naked requires a new style, but Yeats was to be more successful than Lewis in giving an impression of nakedness.
Much of The Apes of God, published in 1930, was written earlier, and shows Lewis beginning to abandon the clotted Modernist manner of Tarr. Much of Tarr, which came out in 1918, was written during and even before the war, showing that Lewis really was an early innovator and ‘Extremist’, so much so that he found it necessary to smooth and tone down the narrative for its re-publication in 1928. The contrast between Tarr, the artist, and Kreisler, the frenetic man of action and the will to power, is Lewis’s fantasy on his own psyche, but it also represents with considerable force a vision of the pre-war art world, in its flirtation with the wishes acted out by the demonic and Teutonic Kreisler. Lewis later found the thriller a better model for his creative energies than the Mabuse-type film, and used it during the Thirties for the three novels Snooty Baronet, The Revenge for Love and The Vulgar Streak. Explaining the last to H.G. Wells, Lewis claimed his own kind of up-to-dateness: ‘the doctrine by Mussolini from Les Réflexions sur la Violence and from Nietzsche (who got his stuff fundamentally from Darwin) – this doctrine taken over by Hitler and influencing so many minds in Europe might be made to do its fell work on the soul of a character in fiction.’ But Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, whom Lewis invokes, grew naturally in his creator’s mind out of the age’s climate, whereas Lewis’s intentions overwhelm his characters and their violent meaningless actions. As Symons points out, the novels are in fact against violence and in favour of peace and world government, but this makes little difference to the impression they actually make, and to Lewis’s obvious fascination with what he attempts to stand back from. But Symons also remarks on the novels’ powerful underground influence on the style of modern fiction, on Angus Wilson and probably Kingsley Amis too: and on Lewis’s pioneer use of the grimace, developed in pursuit of his view that men are really machines pretending to be human.
T.S. Eliot and Hugh Kenner thought very highly indeed of Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta, published in 1955 with the first part of The Childermass as The Human Age, Kenner even going so far as to say that Lewis here is ‘challenging, without swank or irrelevance, comparison with Swift and Milton’. Certainly they are not good novels, but neither Eliot nor Kenner cared much about good novels. More damagingly, they lack the old style, resembling instead the kind of science fiction turned out by the other Lewis – C.S. Symons cheerfully admits that he ‘pulled through them only with an effort’. Blindness had robbed Lewis of his own way of looking at things, and of that tactile, arrogantly angular trademark in both his painting and prose, most marked in The Apes of God. Symons suggests comparing a portrait, even a photograph, with this prose picture of Osbert Sitwell, served up as Lord Osmund Finnian-Shaw.
In colour Lord Osmund was pale coral, with flaxen hair brushed tightly back, his blond pencilled pap rising straight from his sloping forehead: galb-like wings to his nostrils – the goat-like profile of Edward the Peacemaker. The lips were curved. They were thickly profiled as though belonging to a moslem portrait of a stark-lipped sultan. His eyes, vacillating and easily discomforted, slanted down to the heavy curved nose. Eyes, nose and lips contributed to one effect, so that they seemed one feature.
What are paps and galbs in this context? Answer: an effective part of Lewisite Déco. Dialogue has a similar exactness to the moment, exemplified by the flaccid exchanges between Mr Ratner, a minor Ape, and his Cockney charlady. They have the fidelity of the pub conversation in The Waste Land, but instead of being enclosed in a form of art, they spread shapelessly through pages, as if Lewis had turned the pretension of Naturalism on its head and shown what happened when its prescriptions were logically carried out. His style mocks Naturalism by imitating it, and conveying the total clumsiness of objects, and of behaviour seen in objects.
His characteristic talents are much more evident in the role of reporter and critic than in that of imaginative writer. They go with his skill as a painter of portraits. All these virtues are at their incredible best in the sketches of Joyce and of Eliot in Blasting and Bombardiering, in terms of his own art the funniest and most perceptive things he wrote. The picture of Joyce entertaining Eliot and Lewis in Paris, refusing to let them pay for anything, and receiving with genial hauteur the crumpled parcel of old shoes and clothes sent as a gift by Ezra Pound, is as memorable as the mumbled exchanges about these phenomena that passed between the two involuntary guests. Here the sheer clumsiness of speech, as recorded by Lewis, really pays off in terms of the humour and the presentness of the thing. Eliot and Joyce are there not as artists but as ineluctably comical human machines, trapped in their determined moment, with no backward-looking fame to lend them prospective greatness. None the less, Lewis sees the others and himself in terms of his own art, literally and pictorially. He turns to arrange his tie in the hotel mirror, ‘whose irrelevant imperfections, happening to bisect my image, bestowed upon me the masks of a syphilitic creole. I was a little startled: but I stared out of countenance this unmannerly distortion, and then turned about, remaining standing.’ Accident had obviously converted the mirror to Cubism, charging its irrelevant imperfections with Lewisian meaning.
He does his best, of course, to convey to the reader his own prestige in relation to that of his companions. Joyce ‘pretended’ not to know or to have read Lewis, but this in Lewis’s view was an elaborate ploy, whereas Joyce genuinely knew nothing of Eliot. ‘In alluding to him, with me, he would say “your friend Mr Eliot”, as if Eliot had been an obscure family friend, with whom I happened to be travelling, and who, out of polite humanity, must be suffered to accompany us. As to mentioning his writings, or as to ever a passing reference to him as a poet – that was the last thing that it ever occurred to Joyce to do, it seemed.’ Eliot, ‘in his grim Bostonian growl’, muttered that Joyce was ‘exceedingly arrogant. Underneath. That is why he is so polite. I should be better pleased if he were less polite.’
As a critic of others’ books Lewis had the same acute eye for what was both unexpected and characteristic. Who but he would have observed of Shaw’s St Joan that the cast had obviously been ‘furnished by the Anglican clergy’? Once pointed out, true for ever. It is also typical of Lewis to repeat the criticism of Shaw, first made in The Art of Being Ruled, when he came to write his still memorable study of Shakespeare, The Lion and the Fox. Here St Joan is played by ‘elderly Anglican curates, with their very “kindly” but of course mischievously twinkling eyes and breezy, capable manner’, while Shavian Superman is a genial puppet wearing Jaeger underclothes. Shakespeare naturally resembles Lewis himself in The Lion and the Fox, but that does not preclude some real and valuable insights. If the Machiavellian mixture of lion and fox, in those who exercise power and manipulate others, made a dramatic paradigm for all Elizabethan playwrights, it is subtly used by Shakespeare as an image of a more general human instinct. His ‘colossi’ – Lear, Othello, Antony, Macbeth – are both heroes and simpletons, who show up the men of the world around them, and Shakespeare is unequivocally on their side. Shakespeare is ‘the spectator who is much moved by the actions he describes’, the ‘ideal spectator’. Not a bad definition. Nor was it at all fashionable among critics of the time to claim that ‘there is no utterance in the whole of Shakespeare’s plays that reveals the nobleness of his genius and of his intentions in the same way as the speech with which Othello closes:
Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know it.’
The intentions were important for Lewis, and no doubt he saw himself as a bit of an Othello. Iago’s ‘I am not what I am’ (‘The small and shoddy, when it meets its kind, knows it at once by this sign’) he contrasts with ‘Shakespeare’s own words – I am that I am – where in his Sonnets, through all the veils of his beautiful rhetoric, he is, as Wordsworth said, “unlocking his heart” – are similarly the supreme defiance of the rarest nature, for ever over against the dark satirical crowds saturated with falsity.’ Lewis again: but he goes on, as he often does, to a truly piercing criticism, in this case against Browning: ‘When Robert Browning denied that Shakespeare was capable of such an action as “unlocking his heart” (as Wordsworth said that he did) he classed himself with more nicety than he knew. The romantically machiavellian and detached Robert Browning you writer of plays as he calls himself ... judged Shakespeare with that essential, romantic conventionality that he brought to all his judgments.’ Despite the appearances, and his own implicit claim, Browning is the reverse of Shakespeare, according to Lewis, because his detachment consists in placing other people. The modern line on Othello, so emphatically rejected by Lewis, assumes that Shakespeare creates him as Browning creates the Duke in ‘My Last Duchess’. Lewis detested the stance of imperturbability, and rejected it in Joyce as much as in Browning. His arguments against D.H. Lawrence in Paleface, and against Hemingway, the ‘dumb ox’ of Men without Art, are much less cogent, more routine hobby-horses. The case against Hemingway is particularly unconvincing, because Lewis compares his style with random examples of genuine illiteracy, ignoring the cunning nicety of a style far more obviously artificial than his own. Not only Browning but Lawrence and Hemingway too were for Lewis creatures irredeemably in the Romantic tradition. He himself was emphatically not.