Wyndham Lewis Essay - Critical Essays

Wyndham Lewis Short Fiction Analysis

A staunch elitist whose barbed wit won for him many enemies, Wyndham Lewis began his literary career writing the first literary form with which he had become familiar: the short story. Later, he claimed that the short story was “the crystallization of what I had to keep out of my consciousness while painting.” Despite this seemingly negative attitude toward a form in which he continued to write throughout most of his lifetime, Lewis’s stories reflect the diversity, values, and creative concerns of his other artistic endeavors. In fact, literary critic E. W. F. Tomlin says of The Wild Body that it contains “almost the whole of Lewis.” Lewis himself is occasionally a character in his stories, and even when he is not there personally, many of the figures reflect his experiences as a student, a lover, a soldier, and an artist, as if the fictive and the nonfictive merge. His lifelong belief was that art should be about something, that politics, theology, philosophy—all human beings’ intellectual concerns—are implicit in any serious work of art. Most of his short stories are satires that focus on the divided person: the split between mind and body, between good intentions and negative results, between the creative spirit and commercial needs, between surface appearances and hidden realities. The imagery reinforces these ideas: in them, clean and hard is good; soft and mushy is bad.

Lewis’s prose style is unforgettable; characterized by structural clarity, vivid visual descriptions, striking metaphors, a range of diction, and a sense of discord, all with a biting edge. Stories such as “Some Innkeepers and Bestre” and “The Cornac and His Wife” are small gems, beautifully conceived. In keeping with his artistic theories of the vortex, continually in motion round a fixed and motionless center, his short fiction shifts perspective and attention but maintains a still, unchanging artistic center. His is the eye of a painter, who, in a few words, can capture the essence of “a slut of a room, dribbling at the sink, full of unsavoury pails, garishly dirty” (“Unlucky for Pringle”) or of an athletic Frenchwoman on a cold day (“Some Innkeepers and Bestre”):The crocket-like floral postiches on the ridges of her head-gear looked crisped down in a threatening way: her nodular pink veil was an apoplectic gristle round her stormy brow; steam came out of her lips upon the harsh white atmosphere. Her eyes were dark, and the Contiguous color of her cheeks of a redness quasi-venetian, with something like the feminine colouring of battle.

The Frenchman in the hotel window of “A Soldier of Humour” and Carl in The Wild Body are sketched in black and white with “dazzling skin and black patches of hair alternating”; many of the early stories describe the small things (such as a fishing boat, an athletic interest, an arrested conversation) that become the focus of human obsessions.

The Wild Body

Lewis’s first collection of short stories, The Wild Body, began as a travelogue, a sociological documentary characterized by realistic detail and a fragmentary vision, but developed into a far more complex dramatization of modern human beings. “Inferior Religions” and “The Meaning of the Wild Body” comment on the stories’ meaning and construction and emphasize Lewis’s vision of human absurdity, echoing Henri Bergson’s idea of humanity as “a thing behaving like a person” and therefore comic. A Lewis character is often driven by obsessions beyond his control and mechanically repeats patterns that create both comedy and pathos. In The Wild Body the inhabitants of the Pension Beau Séjour, Francis the wandering musician, Bestre, and Cornac and his wife (poverty-stricken traveling entertainers savagely at odds with their village audiences) are just such creatures, while the Soldier of Humour, Ker-Orr, Lewis’s projected persona, is self-described as a “barbarian clown large, white and savage” and as a “forked, strange-scented, blond-skinned gut-bag, with its two bright rolling marbles with which it sees, bull’s-eyes full of mockery and madness.” The innkeeper in “A Breton Innkeeper” is a study of a domineering personality, a bullying, bellowing menace, a murderous “buffoon” characterized by empty and mechanical behavior patterns. Patient Eldred in “The Room Without a Telephone” is at times a “clown” whose mind was “blotted out by his frantic vanity” and his “spiteful animal” self. Lewis’s detached narrator provides a surreal edge to even his most realistic tales.

Lewis’s metaphors provide clues to his themes. He describes many of his characters as animals, a bestiary of modern people: horses, camels, walruses, sea lions, ferrets, dogs, placid cows, silly goats, sharp sheep, or even “some strenuous amoeba.” John Leslie in “Junior” declares “We are a beastly race”; the head of Misrow in “The War Baby” reminds one of a “snake’s sling-like extremity,” and diners at a popular restaurant are “a lot of glum-looking cattle” who need stirring up. One character has “clam” eyes. The Wild Body, in particular, focuses on humans as primitive, like “big, obsessed, sun-drunk insects.” Lewis as anthropologist scrutinizes strange new species of human beings and categorizes them according to their animal parallels, from the French or Spanish settings of The Wild Body stories or the English settings of his later tales. The French landlord in “Unlucky for Pringle” has an “animal-like selfishness and self-absorption,” while Pringle’s portmanteau lets loose its squashed contents “like a flock of birds and pack of dogs.” “Cantleman’s Spring-Mate” describes humans as “the most ugly and offensive of the brutes because of the confusion caused by their consciousness” and Cantleman as “an animal disguised as an officer and gentleman”; it advocates a return to raw animal nature. Eldred in “The Room Without a Telephone” is “like a sea beast—but blowing blood.”

Lewis was particularly disturbed by the modern movement toward standardization and mechanization. His stories repeatedly attack human beings for “herd” behavior and “herd” philosophies. Similar to his herd images is his description of humanity as “a pea disguising itself from a million other peas soft, subtle, clever, insolent.” His other images focus on machines: The sun appears “bitterly and mechanically.” Many of his characters seem little more than robots or automatic machines, endlessly repeating the same dull tasks, the same inescapable patterns, the same windup dialogue. For Lewis, stupidity, primitive behavior, and mechanical patterns are interrelated and sum up the absurdity of all mankind. Bestre, Brocatnaz, and various other inhabitants of the Breton Coast (The Wild Body) are elemental figures, seemingly rugged individualists who give rein to their “wild bodies” but in fact are cogs, “bobbins,” “puppets,” and mere “shadows of energy” caught up in “the complexity of the rhythmic scheme,” “a pattern as circumscribed and complete as a theorem of Euclid” (“The Soldier of Humour”). The Frenchman in “Bestre” fixes Ker-Orr “with the blankness of two metal discs”—his eyes; at a trapeze performance the clown is “a cheerful automaton” and his barker, inspired by him, springs back and forth “as though engaged in a boxing match”...

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