Apoplectic Gristle

David Trotter

  • Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis by Paul O'Keeffe
    Cape, 697 pp, £25.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 224 03102 3
  • Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer by Paul Edwards
    Yale, 583 pp, £40.00, August 2000, ISBN 0 300 08209 6

The day he first met Wyndham Lewis, shortly after the end of the First World War, Ernest Hemingway was teaching Ezra Pound how to box. The encounter took place in Paris, where Pound had a studio, and Lewis, impassive beneath his trademark wide black hat, seemed content to watch in silence. ‘Ezra had not been boxing very long and I was embarrassed at having him work in front of anyone he knew, and I tried to make him look as good as possible,’ Hemingway wrote. So wide was the margin between master and pupil, both in musculature and in technique, that Hemingway could without difficulty refrain from doing his opponent any damage. Lewis, he felt sure, wanted to see Pound hurt. He was careful not to oblige. ‘I never countered but kept Ezra moving after me sticking out his left hand and throwing a few right hands and then said we were through and washed down with a pitcher of water and towelled off and put on my sweatshirt.’

What is startling about Hemingway’s recollection of the event, in his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964), is the way in which it uses all this washing-down and towelling-off as the basis for an assault on Lewis’s character. Hemingway remembers himself as clean, above all; and clean, furthermore, after his carefully controlled exertions, in a thoroughly modern way. Lewis, on the other hand, wearing the kind of bohemian ‘uniform’ favoured by the ‘prewar artist’, remains somehow archaic and insalubrious. ‘Walking home I tried to think what he reminded me of and there were various things. They were all medical except toe-jam.’ Lewis is dirt, then, or an abortion. ‘Under the black hat, when I had first seen them, the eyes had been those of an unsuccessful rapist.’ There might presumably have been some hope for Lewis had his eyes merely been those of a successful rapist.

Lewis describes his visit to Pound’s Paris studio in the first of his two volumes of autobiography, Blasting and Bombardiering (1937). No one answered his knock, but the door was open, so he went in.

A splendidly built young man, stripped to the waist, and with a torso of dazzling white, was standing not far from me. He was tall, handsome and serene, and was repelling with his boxing gloves a hectic assault of Ezra’s. After a final swing at the dazzling solar plexus Pound fell back upon his settee. The young man was Hemingway. Pound got on like a house on fire with this particular statue.

By comparison with Hemingway’s, Lewis’s description of the event is coolness itself. It does subtle damage to Hemingway by not discerning in him the agency or control over events his undeniable physical superiority might be thought to have generated. By this account, it is Pound, rather than Hemingway, who brings the bout to a conclusion; and he does so by falling back on a settee – a fixture not ordinarily available in the average gymnasium for the use of wobbly punters. Statuesque or supine, neither protagonist is left with much of a leg to stand on.

And yet there is in the description’s coolness a certain residual heat. The stance Lewis favoured was not in fact one of detachment. He liked to get up close, in the world’s face. Immediacy mattered to him, and a vivid trace often survives in his writing of the impulse that gave rise to it. Here, for example, he makes no effort to avoid the cliché of the house on fire. The cliché is his first thought about Pound’s fondness for Hemingway, we are allowed to think, and the first thought will do. It will do, however, not just because it fills space, but because its familiarity in general terms is also its diagnostic value in this particular context: Pound merits a cliché because he has become a cliché, a walking susceptibility. Such fusions of impulse and diagnosis are the hallmark of Lewis’s writing at its best. They also got him into a lot of trouble.

Paul O’Keeffe’s new Life of Lewis does not hold back on the toe-jam. Some Sort of Genius is, among other things, a compendium of the many reasons people found to dislike its subject. Lewis became, sometimes by circumstance, sometimes by design, the sponsor of a wide range of opportunities for fear and loathing. Women were especially favoured in this respect. O’Keeffe observes that in all his relationships with women Lewis sought to present the image of a man with no attachments or encumbrances. The models available to him included his father, a swashbuckling veteran of the American Civil War who made a habit of infidelity and eventually left his wife for good in 1901, when Lewis was 18; and Augustus John, his celebrated predecessor at the Slade, whom he sought assiduously to emulate, and whose ever-varying seraglio became an object of fascination. But Lewis’s presentation of himself to women, and to the men with whom he conferred about women, had a polemical edge to it, a toxicity entirely lacking, as far as one can tell, in John’s sexual munificence. From an early age, Lewis cultivated what could be termed anti-pathos: a strategic, rather than merely tactical or opportunist, avoidance of sentiment. This strategy was to manifest itself in his art as a preference for the abstract, in his writing as a preference for satire and invective, and in his politics as a tough-mindedness shading almost imperceptibly into advocacy of tough action.

One of the few testimonials that survive from Lewis’s relationship with Iris Barry, with whom he lived from 1918 to 1921, is a telegram handed in to the Leicester Square Post Office at 3.35 p.m. on 1 June 1920: ‘PLEASE PREPARE CHOP EIGHT – LEWIS.’ Barry used its reverse as a shopping list. As she cooked Lewis’s steak and onions that night, she was also preparing the second of their two children. The pregnancy had been his idea, or so she claimed. She had been made to feel that a second child (the paternity of the first was in some doubt) would be irrefutable proof of her commitment to him. By early August, at any rate, Barry had installed herself in the Nursing Institute at Mitcham in South London. Lewis, however, was nowhere to be seen. ‘The distance is very great,’ he complained, ‘and you are awkward to get at.’ After all, he had a studio to find, and a patron for a new journal. Lonely, a little scared, and at a loss as to what to do about the imminent arrival, Barry pleaded with him at least to let her know where he was. He had already left London for a fortnight’s holiday in France with T.S. Eliot.

This holiday has since become a part of Modernist folklore. It was the occasion on which Eliot, at Pound’s behest, delivered a parcel containing a pair of old brown shoes to a distinctly unappreciative James Joyce. The shoes apart, Eliot was having a good time. He considered Lewis the most profitable person he had had to talk to for a long time. In Saumur, Lewis fell off his bicycle, and was soon looking for someone to sue. When, appeased by a row with the proprietor of the cycle shop, he got back to Paris – Eliot was meanwhile on a tour of Gothic churches – he found Barry’s letter waiting for him. Replying on 28 August, he said that he wasn’t yet sure about his movements. He seems to have been in no great hurry to proceed to Mitcham. ‘I don’t suppose you will void your foetus for several weeks yet,’ he cajoled; he would make arrangements about the child on his return. The harshness is clearly a demonstration, a performance, albeit one in which it is hard to tell the dancer from the dance. A telegram dispatched the same day was more encouraging. Lewis told Barry not to worry, and sent his love. Maisie Wyndham was born on 1 September. Neither parent was to have much to do with her upbringing.

If having sex with Lewis seems to have been a thankless task, then lending him money was about as much fun as amputation. Sometimes the same person was required to fulfil both functions. Ida Vendel, the mistress acquired as a lifestyle accessory in Paris in April 1905, he thought of as his ‘German allotment’. Ida’s father had been a wealthy merchant, and Lewis was soon, and thereafter almost as a matter of policy, in debt to her. Indeed, the difficulty he found in extricating himself from the relationship had as much to do with its monetary as with its sexual arrangements, and he didn’t really feel free of it until his mother had paid Ida what he owed her. Its termination, in the summer of 1907, meant that he now required alternative sources of revenue, as his friends and relations were soon to discover. ‘He’s a cool card with other people’s money,’ Augustus John complained in January 1908: ‘I don’t know how much of mine he’s calmly appropriated, without so much as a “thank you”.’

The one thing even less likely to meet with gratitude than a loan was an outright gift. At the end of 1923, a group of well-wishers established a joint fund to provide Lewis with a stipend of £16 a month for as long as he might remain in need of it. The result was the usual mayhem, as dark suspicions flourished, and lifelong friends fell out. On one occasion, a delay in the dispatch of the monthly cheque elicited an unforgiving response: ‘WHERE’s THE FUCKING STIPEND? LEWIS.’ O’Keeffe dismisses this story as apocryphal, but he does not seem in much doubt as to the brutality with which Lewis often treated those who sought to help him. Earlier that year, Lewis had spent some time in France with one of the people who was to contribute generously to the fund, the painter Richard Wyndham. Sitting outside a café in Toulon, he told Wyndham that he was a ‘Narcissus’ and probably a ‘bugger’. People, Wyndham remembered him saying, are only friends insofar as they are of use to you. Lewis, it seems, did not so much bite the hand that fed him as mistake it for the main meal.

The rehearsal of anti-pathos is not, of course, all there was to Lewis, even if his behaviour as a young man left room for little else. O’Keeffe provides evidence of what love meant to him, and friendship. He was capable of spontaneous acts of generosity, such as the unstinting support he offered Denis Williams, a 26-year-old Guyanese painter, in 1949-50. ‘Rarely,’ O’Keeffe observes, ‘did Lewis act in anybody’s exclusive interest but his own.’ In this case, he did. He wrote admiringly about Williams’s work, and found him a job at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Southampton Row. By this time, he had also come across, and managed to hold onto, patrons he did not resent (the most notable being Sir Nicholas Waterhouse). Even so, the interest of Some Kind of Genius lies to a large extent in the ample evidence it provides of the deliberate cultivation in the life of tendencies which shape the art and the writing. Anti-pathos was not just the condition of Lewis’s work as a writer and artist – its nourishment, so to speak – but one of its dominant qualities. The work is inconceivable without an understanding of the antagonisms which in its making fused impulse and diagnosis.

O’Keeffe has written a book about conditions rather than qualities. Accordingly, it is hiatus, not productivity, that provides him with his raw material. He is never happier than when his subject can be manoeuvred into some sanctuary from the requirements of the creative act: a training-camp, say, or a dugout, or a hospital ward. All that matters, really, is that Lewis should be able to write a letter or two and still have enough energy left over to pick the kind of quarrel the victim was not likely to forget in a hurry. O’Keeffe’s descriptions of Lewis’s service as an artillery officer and battlefield artist during the First World War and his harrowing ‘exile’ in Canada during the Second are exemplary. Fortunately for him, Lewis’s failures to complete a book or a painting were often as titanic as the work whose production they impeded. O’Keeffe devotes many pages to the four years it took the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to extract from Lewis the picture it had commissioned, on 10 June 1942, of the Anaconda American Brass Foundry near Toronto. No sooner had the Committee’s long-suffering representative at last got the damn thing out of Lewis’s Notting Hill studio and into a taxi than he asked for it back.

O’Keeffe’s emphasis on conditions rather than qualities looks like a deliberate choice. He has abstained throughout not only from assessment, but from anything other than the most cursory description of Lewis’s work as an artist and writer. I can’t remember reading a biography so utterly abstemious in critique and evaluation, so wary of the minor self-aggrandisements that accompany the biographer’s possession of and by his or her subject. Most biographies amount to a celebration of the triumph of mind over matter. This one opens not beside the cradle, or at the distant root of some genealogical tree, but in a Pathology Museum, where the cross-section of its subject’s brain, suspended in a jar, reveals ‘a pituitary gland swollen to a solid ovoid mass, six centimetres in height and four centimetres from front to back and from side to side’. (As a result of this tumour, Lewis’s sight began to fail in 1937; by 1950, he had gone blind.)

If biography as a genre is on trial in Some Kind of Genius, so is the more or less routine mythologising of Modernism. O’Keeffe explodes a number of stories about Lewis which have been accepted as unimpeachable fact by previous biographers (that he was born on a yacht off the coast of Nova Scotia, that he had a child by Ida Vendel). More generally, he encourages a degree of scepticism about the distance some Modernist writers sought to put between their art and the constraints of everyday existence. T.S. Eliot, appearing momentarily but to electric effect, from the Mitcham point of view, as a recalcitrant partner’s holiday companion, seems to have wandered in from a different movie altogether: the one in which, for many years now, he has gone about his official Modernist business of parcel delivery and meditation on ecclesiastical architecture.

Paul Edwards begins Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer with the kind of sentence O’Keeffe has taken enormous trouble to avoid. ‘This study,’ he declares, ‘the first to cover comprehensively Wyndham Lewis’s work in literature and painting, is written from a conviction that Lewis is of major importance in both fields.’ We can be in no doubt that the value of the work will be absolutely central in what follows.

In fact, these two books complement one another uncannily, as though the authors, like the two campus novelists in David Lodge’s Small World, had agreed to divide up the world between them. By secret treaty, as it were, O’Keeffe got to do facts, and Edwards opinions. The opinions, it should at once be said, are the fruit of immense dedication. Edwards has written widely about Lewis over the past twenty years, and is responsible for no less than six volumes in the invaluable Black Sparrow Press editions of the writings. The great and abiding virtue of his study is its patience. Lewis, the book proclaims on each of its 549 pages of text and sumptuous illustration, is finally to receive his due.

Edwards needs to be patient, and versatile. For in his Modernist phase in particular, from around 1908 to around 1930, Lewis continually changed direction, sometimes in accordance with his understanding of the market, but more often prompted by an obstinate will to experiment. He sought to reinvent himself, to make himself new, by mutations of mode and emphasis. He switched from genre to genre and medium to medium, supplying the lack of a will to experiment in one from its over-abundance in another. In his Modernist phase, Lewis effectively became, for the purposes of literary and artistic revolution, a serial careerist.

Lewis studied intermittently at the Slade from January 1899 until June 1901, when he finally engineered his own expulsion. He had begun writing verse, and his sonnets won the approval of the scholar and critic T. Sturge Moore. The painters with whom he consorted – Walter Sickert, William Rothenstein, Augustus John – chose to regard him as a poet. ‘The Fine Arts they imagined were already in good hands,’ he recalled in Rude Assignment (1950), his second volume of autobiography, ‘namely their own.’ But it was as a writer of prose sketches that he first made his mark, when three pieces appeared in the English Review in May, June and August 1909. His literary career was thus one of several launched by the Review’s perceptive editor, Ford Madox Ford (or Hueffer, as he then was). Lewis is said either to have thrust his bundle of manuscripts wordlessly into Hueffer’s hands, or to have burst into the bathroom and read them aloud, while the editor sat in his tub, as O’Keeffe puts it, ‘nonchalantly plying his sponge’. These sketches were the product of holidays in Brittany, where Lewis had found, or thought he had found, a culture whose ritualised antagonisms were a physical reflection of his own developing metaphysical commitment to anti-pathos. By August, it seems, the editor’s charm had worn off. ‘Hueffer,’ he explained to Moore, ‘is a shit of the most dreary and uninteresting kind.’

At this stage, Lewis would have been more widely known as a writer than as an artist. However, the success of Roger Fry’s first Post-Impressionist exhibition, in 1910, generated a flurry of experiment in the visual arts, and Lewis took up his brush again, to considerable effect. Within a year so, his work was sustaining comparison with that of major figures in the Continental avant-garde. There followed, between 1913 and 1915, the period of his most intense commitment to geometrical abstraction. Blast appeared, Vorticism arose. During what he thought of as the ‘Blast days’, that heady period of Vorticist carnival brought to a halt, in his case, for a while at least, by the combined effects of gonorrhoea and officer training, Lewis trafficked assiduously between media. ‘My literary contemporaries,’ he recalled in Rude Assignment, ‘I looked upon as too bookish and not keeping pace with the visual revolution.’ He would show them the way in a novel, Tarr (1918), which was about as abstract as he could make it, though in the end not altogether un-bookish. In an original and highly instructive chapter, Edwards demonstrates the lengths to which Lewis went to keep abstraction going after the war. As he rightly insists, the paintings and drawings of the immediate postwar period offer a glimpse of what a critical English Modernism in dialogue with the European avant-garde might conceivably have looked like.

Before and during the war, avant-gardists had made quite a splash, even in an England that relied for its excitements on the dreary and uninteresting Hueffer. After the war, however, Lewis’s expectation that he might be able to emulate in England the success Picasso had achieved in France soon began to fade. He had always attributed his own relative lack of success to the deficiencies of the culture in which he found himself operating, and in 1924 he set art and literature aside in order to concentrate on a systematic analysis of those deficiencies. The neglect endured by genius in the modern world is a constant theme in books like The Art of Being Ruled (1926) and Time and Western Man (1927). The former attributes postwar revolutions in attitude and lifestyle to monopoly capitalism’s insatiable appetite for markets; the latter examines the deepening connections between the emergence of a consumer society and developments in modern literature and philosophy. At their best, these books have the diagnostic value of the cultural criticism of Walter Benjamin or Siegfried Kracauer, with both of whom Lewis shared a fascination for Charlie Chaplin, if little else.

When Edwards claims that Lewis’s polemical writings constitute ‘a permanent insight into the nature of modernity’, I’m very nearly ready to believe him. The reservation has to do with the trace in the arguments they mount of an impulse that might be regarded as mildly psychotic. Lewis meant The Art of Being Ruled as a survival guide, an antidote to Machiavelli. So intent was he on tough-mindedness, however, on a thorough-going decontamination of liberal pieties, that he came to regard the imminence of Fascist rule with an equanimity which could easily be (and was) mistaken for endorsement. Equally disturbing, in its way, is the chapter on Ezra Pound in Time and Western Man. Lewis begins by recalling the generosity and grace Pound had unfailingly shown towards him whenever he was in need of help. He then declares that for the purposes of his ‘new enterprise’ he must henceforth dissociate himself altogether from his former ally and benefactor, now exposed as a ‘revolutionary simpleton’ and a parasite on genuine talent. The critique, although by no means unperceptive, has an edge to it which derives in large part from the satisfaction Lewis so obviously took in not being grateful.

In 1921 Lewis had embarked on another ambitious project, a Rabelaisian fictional anatomy of postwar Britain. Two hefty portions, held back for a while by his skirmishes with the spirit of Charlie Chaplin, finally and circuitously achieved publication at the end of the decade: The Childermass (1928), a work of theological science fiction set in an encampment of the dead on the banks of the River Styx; and The Apes of God (1930), a satire on amateurism in general, and Bloomsbury amateurism in particular, in which Richard Wyndham features as the vacuous Dick Whittingdon. Lewis also renovated his Vorticist creed by publishing a revised edition of Tarr, in 1928, and collecting his early Breton sketches and essays, in much-altered form, as The Wild Body (1927).

Anti-pathos finds a name in these works: satire, laughter, the absurd. Laughter, Lewis explained in ‘Inferior Religions’, a scintillating essay which serves as a manifesto for The Wild Body, is the ‘brain-body’s snort of exultation’. Laughter at once acknowledges and expresses (or performs, since it is ‘all that remains physical in the flash of thought’) the idea that the absurdity of the human condition is not relative – the product, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, of social and cultural difference – but absolute. For Lewis, laughter is what being might look like from the point of view of non-being; and antagonism, which puts being at risk, is the primary cause of laughter. ‘The opposing armies in the early days in Flanders stuck up dummy-men on poles for their enemies to pot at, in a spirit of ferocious banter.’ The fiction of the 1920s indefatigably keeps non-being’s point of view in mind by means of a kind of prose impasto: a poultice or compress of descriptive detail applied to human existence in order to draw out its fundamental absurdity, its basis in antagonism. The main casualty of these convulsive literary mantraps is the idea of ‘character’ as a steadily deepening awareness of self and world. One might find a precedent for them in Rabelais, perhaps, or in that noted Vorticist firebrand, Charles Dickens. But Lewis’s concoctions have a pungency all their own. The account in ‘Bestre’, one of the Wild Body stories, of a woman whose ‘nodular pink veil’ is an ‘apoplectic gristle’ round her stormy brow has stayed in my mind ever since I first read it thirty years ago.

In November 1930 Lewis travelled to Berlin to find a German publisher for The Apes of God. Two months earlier, the German people had elected 107 National Socialists to the Reichstag. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party could now claim 17.5 per cent of the total vote, second only to the Social Democrats’ 21.9 per cent. Lewis watched from a balcony in the Berlin Sportpalast as Goebbels and Goering held forth to a crowd of twenty thousand. In the world’s face, as ever, he also took in the lavish decadence of late Weimar democracy, checking for himself the stubble on the chins of the transvestites. On his return to London, unable to resist such an opportunity for diagnosis on a world-historical scale, he wrote the first study in any language of Adolf Hitler and the rise of National Socialism. His motive was to create tolerance in Britain for this latest Continental manifestation of authoritarian doctrine, and he therefore argued that Nazi anti-semitism was a mere sideshow, a ‘racial red-herring’. The book brought him a visit from Dr Hans-Wilhelm Thost, English correspondent for the Völkischer Beobachter and Der Angriff, and a spy, who thought it ‘not at all bad for an Englishman’, but rather misleading where the Judenfrage was concerned. Its argument slung together pretty much at random, its jacket cheerfully festooned with swastikas, the book still haunts Lewis’s reputation. It is, for example, the prime exhibit in John Carey’s withering indictment of his life and work in The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992).

Edwards discerns a ‘new humanity and concern for ordinary people’ in Lewis’s fiction and painting from 1935 onwards. The head-banging had to stop sometime, and it may have stopped during the series of operations Lewis underwent between 1932 and 1937, as an old gonorrhoeal scar in his bladder became infected (O’Keeffe has the details). Edwards sees in the return to portraiture after 1937, in novels like The Revenge for Love (1937) and Self Condemned (1954), sometimes regarded as Lewis’s best, and in Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta (1955), which resume The Childermass, a ‘recognition of the experience of the other’. The later work, he says, constitutes a Kierkegaardian advance from aesthetics through ethics to theology. No doubt the imminence of mere death, as opposed to the vital deadness advertised by the Vorticist mantraps, had something to do with it.

Edwards looks in great detail at the process of self-examination and the commitment to theological enquiry which give the later work a new and formidable gravity. The problem with this work, as he acknowledges, is that its agenda required it either to reject or to transform the principle of creative antagonism. Under taxing scrutiny, in Self Condemned or Malign Fiesta, the psychosis eventually dissolves, and with it a great deal else. ‘Just as Lewis’s drawing lost a certain kind of intensity when he began to recognise the inner reality of others,’ Edwards observes, ‘so did his writing.’ In the writing, at least, the loss is absolute. The opening pages of Self Condemned would have been a rank embarrassment to the author of ‘Inferior Religions’. Edwards proves a subtle and informative guide to Lewis’s deepening moral and spiritual preoccupations, and many readers will find his defence of the later work entirely persuasive. I didn’t, quite, in the end, because a part of me wants to insist that wild bodies are what Lewis did best. It’s the apoplectic gristle, stupid.

Edwards’s study deserves to remain for some time the standard point of reference in debates about the overall shape and status of Lewis’s work, and it will have the entirely beneficial effect of diverting attention away from the over-emphasised ‘Blast days’. Gristle-fanciers, however, may continue to find themselves drawn to The Wild Body and its like. In ‘Inferior Religions’, Lewis spoke of beauty as an ‘icy douche’ of ‘ease and happiness’ provoked by whatever suggests the perfect conditions for an organism. For Leonardo, he said, beauty was a ‘red rain on the side of shadowed heads’, for Uccello it was a ‘cold architecture of distinct colour’ and for Korin the ‘symmetrical gushing’ of water. ‘Cézanne liked cumbrous, democratic slabs of life, slightly leaning, transfixed in vegetable intensity.’ Of these, Lewis’s own idea of beauty was closest to Cézanne’s. Unlike Cézanne, however, he did the transfixing by anti-pathos. Whether or not it brought him much ease and happiness is hard to say.