The Novels

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Although The Human Age is described as a trilogy, the first book was written in 1928, long before the other two were conceived, and Wyndham Lewis left still another volume in the series (“The Trial of Man”) unfinished at his death in 1957. The Childermass is different in form and tone from the later volumes; it has virtually no plot, adopts an unsympathetic attitude toward its characters, and is more political than theological in its theme. It contains some of Lewis’ most impressive descriptive prose, and its opening lines immediately reveal to the reader the hallucinatory vividness of his painter’s eye:The city lies in a plain, ornamented with mountains. These appear as a fringe of crystals to the heavenly north. One minute bronze cone has a black plume of smoke. Beyond the oasis-plain is the desert. The sand-devils perform up to its northern and southern borders. The alluvial bench has recently gained, in the celestial region, upon the wall of the dunes.

After publishing the first section of The Childermass, Lewis intended to go right on to its second and third sections, but he said that the need to make a living prevented him from continuing such a difficult work for a limited, highbrow audience. In 1951, however, a successful television dramatization of The Childermass led to a commission for its continuation and subsequent adaptation for radio.

With its long dialogues and otherworldly setting, The Childermass is well suited for dramatization. It falls roughly into three parts: a series of discussions by James Pullman and Satters about the strange land to which they have been ferried after their deaths; their wanderings over its shifting space-time terrain; and their observations of the Bailiff holding court outside a city which they are told is “Heaven.” The discussions are all one-sided and didactic, because Satters, although he died an old man, is mentally a schoolboy and appears as his true mental age in the afterlife. Satters is repeatedly called Pullman’s “squire.” Thus Pullman and Satters are one of the many “doubles,” inspired in part by Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, that fill Lewis’ fiction.

Pullman the intellectual lectures Satters the average sensual man about matters such as the way their past lives influence their present condition, the nature of the inhabitants of the plain (who live in foxholes), and the way its scenery shifts as if it were projected on a cinema screen. Lewis’ characteristic satiric targets, such as the twentieth century concern with appearing youthful, the decadent styles of writers such as Gertrude Stein and James Joyce (Pullman physically resembles the latter), and homosexuality (Pullman becomes Miss Pullman for a while), are all discussed by this pair. When they begin roaming over the plain, Lewis’ attitude toward what he calls the “time philosophy,” a doctrine in which the solid, spatial world of three dimensions is dissolved in a relativistic world of space-time, is dramatized as they enter zones which represent seventeenth and then eighteenth century England. Lewis reveals his opinion of the thoughtless brutality of the average man when Pullman and Satters meet a miniature version of Thomas Paine and Satters squashes him underfoot while Paine struggles to escape his grasp.

The final third of the novel takes place outside the “so-called Yang Gate,” where the Bailiff interrogates those who wish to enter “Heaven.” The court is like a Punch and Judy show, with the hunchbacked Bailiff playing Punch and with minor roles played by “puppets” with names such as Alf, Barney, and Harold. The Bailiff is a spokesman for the “time-philosophy,” and he is challenged by a commonsensible Scotsman named Macrob, who accuses him of being a Red revolutionary. As in a puppet show for children, the insults and violence grow until Macrob pulls the Bailiff’s nose and is beaten to death by one of the Bailiff’s thugs. Criticism of the Bailiff is nevertheless continued by a character known as Hyperides, who has an aggressive band of followers and who counters the Bailiff’s relativistic time-philosophy with a doctrine clearly influenced by Fascism that asserts the value of tradition and authority. Hyperides’ disciple Alectryon argues with the Bailiff about the legitimacy of homosexuality, but a disciple named Polemon poses the question for debate with which the book ends: “So the battle for the reality can be joined at once for the idea of reality. Who is to be real this hyperbolical puppet or we? Answer, oh destiny!” The debate about which side best represents the “real” world is postponed while the Bailiff returns to his “citadel of Unreality,” and Pullman and Satters move away into the unreal “nowhere” of their ghostly existence.

Had the work been continued in the 1920’s, Lewis would probably have continued the ponderous debates between the followers of the Bailiff and those of Hyperides. In the 1955 Monstre Gai, fortunately, elements such as plot and character displace the static dialogues and descriptions of...

(The entire section is 2096 words.)