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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 790

The “god” of Wyndham Lewis’ title is the artist, the true artist, such as Lewis himself, who was a well-known painter as well as a novelist and social critic. God’s “apes,” or imitators, are the affluent dabblers and hangers-on who usurp and trivialize the role of the artist in society. The story opens in the Follett London mansion. Lady Fredigone and her husband, Sir James, are in their nineties. Doddering but still part of Society, they are attentively visited by hopeful relatives such as Dick Whittingdon and Horace Zagreus, who has captivated Lady Fredigone with his verbal brilliance.

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Zagreus, a dilettante who has devoted his life to a succession of vibrant enthusiasms, has just acquired the latest in a long series of young “geniuses” in whom he will inculcate his own exquisite sensibilities. His handsome new protege, Dan Boleyn, inarticulate and unlettered, is thrilled to learn of his unsuspected gifts. Zagreus is passing on the flame which he in turn acquired from his mentor, the mysterious Pierpoint, who never appears although he is often mentioned. Pierpoint has elaborated his “apes of God” diagnosis of London society, and Zagreus, his chief minister, is to propagandize his philosophy and “recruit” new prospective keepers of the flame. To this end, Zagreus sets up an intensive training program for the dim-witted Dan, who is informed of this honor in an encyclical which describes the attributes of “the apes of God.” A rigorous routine of social calls is prescribed in which Dan is exposed to prototypical varieties of “apes.”

Julius Ratner, the “Split-Man,” is one of Dan’s “lessons.” Ratner is a Jew, an adherent of Sigmund Freud, who has risen from doubtful origins to affluence as a book dealer and publisher. He is obsessed with his psychiatric complexes, which he discusses endlessly. He, too, is a (now somewhat skeptical) disciple of Pierpoint, once recruited by Zagreus, whom he continues to supply with funds. Naive Dan is appalled at his conversation and especially his diagnosis of Zagreus as a repressed homosexual. Equally educational is a visit to Zagreus’ cousin (and rival for the Follett fortune), Dick Whittingdon, “the world’s prize ape.” Whittingdon, whose acquaintance with art is negligible, holds court in his studio (one of ten he has rented, thus depriving real genius from thriving). The high point of the visit is the display of Whittingdon’s collection of artistically fashioned whips. Dan’s final visit of a grueling day is to a lesbian (pseudo-) artist who, thinking him a model, forces the flustered innocent to strip. So goes the ape parade.

Zagreus now takes Dan along on social engagements, where he astounds and offends his hosts with his long, glitteringly paradoxical harangues. The training program culminates at a huge Lenten party given by Lord Osmund, his brother Phoebus, and his sister Harriet Finnian Shaw, all practitioners of the arts. The costume party is a wicked mockery of philistine England, highlighted by a magic performance by Zagreus and his friends. Before, during, and after the performance, comic fiasco follows fiasco, many centering on drunken Dan’s ineptitude. Among the guests is “Blackshirt,” costumed as an Italian Fascist, who rescues Dan (clothed in a dress because of an earlier fiasco) from the persistent attentions of a “masher.” Dan’s savior proves to be Pierpoint’s political secretary and business manager, Starr-Smith. Followers of “the great Absentee” have become increasingly dismayed with the activities of Zagreus, especially his endless procession of protege “geniuses” who are, in fact, ungifted dullards, and they want to undermine his position.

The irrepressible Zagreus rebounds from his troubles. After a few days, Dan receives a long letter terminating his apprenticeship. Zagreus was mistaken in Dan’s “genius” but now has a true disciple, Archie Margolin (Whittingdon’s former protege), whose loathsome but naive uncle has replaced Julius Ratner as one of Zagreus’ Maecenases. As Dan prepares to leave London, the city is girding itself for the General Strike of 1926, a harbinger of the end of the old order.

Zagreus, oblivious—like all the other “apes of God”—to a crumbling social reality, pays a new visit to Sir James and Lady Fredigone (whom he has asked for ten thousand pounds for his artistic mission) to introduce his new protege, Archie. Sir James, sitting in his chair, proves to be dead—to the glee of Lady Fredigone, who has stolen her apoplectic husband’s bell so that he could not ring his manservant. She coolly informs Zagreus that she now has the ten thousand pounds and has “circumvented” Dick Whittingdon. As Zagreus accepts her marriage proposal and melts into her withered arms, she hears a street band caterwauling a popular song to an insistent drum beat. Death the Drummer has come.

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