John Bayley

  • 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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in