Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2096
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 earlier work. The “gay monster” of the title, derived from Voltaire’s epigram that we prefer a lively monster to a bore, is the Bailiff. Pullman has convinced a ferryman to carry them across a body of water from the plain to the steps of the city. They regret their boldness, however, as they are left exposed to the desolation and cold outside the city walls. The Bailiff has not yet entered, however, and as he does he notices the two newcomers and asks Pullman to visit him at his headquarters. Pullman and Satters enter the city with the Bailiff, experience the return of bodily sensations, and stop to rest at one of the impressive city’s many cafes. There they meet a man named Mannock, who recognizes them as newly entered citizens and offers to help them until they can be settled.
At first, the city its inhabitants call Third City seems a utopia. It is ruled benignly by the “Padishah,” who represents God’s power. Its citizens have no need to work, are comfortably housed and fed, and entertain themselves by shopping or with discussions in the cafes. Lewis reveals the true nature of the city slowly and suspensefully as Pullman’s intellect analyzes and explains it for the obtuse minds of Mannock and Satters. It is in fact a dystopia that is reminiscent of the world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four (1949), which, like Monstre Gai, is also a satiric version of the welfare state of post-World War II England. The inhabitants are supported by an authoritarian system that nourishes their bodies and degrades their minds. Moreover, as in a modern big city, only certain classes of inhabitants are comfortable; the city has impoverished sections where dangerous youth gangs (one of which Satters joins for a short time) victimize the citizens. Worst of all, as Pullman at length learns, there is a ghetto where all the women (a medieval contempt for the daughters of Eve motivates the rulers of the afterlife) are imprisoned under appalling conditions which foster the vice and crime from which the Bailiff profits.
Third City thus expresses Lewis’ negative opinion of British socialism. Yet the theological dimension of this fiction is still more important than the political. Third City is a kind of Purgatory or Limbo for souls who are unsuited for Heaven or Hell. Yet no purgation, as T. S. Eliot has observed, occurs there as it should in an orthodox Christian Purgatory. That is Lewis’ point: Christianity has become so decadent that even its supernatural institutions have lost their meaning. There is no hope for Pullman’s purgation, although Third City’s theological basis allows Pullman to use his experiences there to help him understand the morality of his life on earth. He makes a harsh judgment on his past life when he attends a political rally in which Hyperides, who has entered the city with his followers, the Bailiff, and a spokesman for the Catholic faith named Father Ryan all present their views. Pullman, who was born a Catholic and educated by the Jesuits, believes that he should respect the otherworldly view that man should turn from earthly ambitions and think of saving his own soul. Yet Pullman, whose fame as writer has given him entree to the circles of both the Bailiff and the Padishah, is fascinated (as Lewis himself was) by political power. Pullman sees no hope in supporting the Padishah. The ruler of Third City is too bored with this decadent Purgatory and indeed with mankind itself even to control the Bailiff’s rackets.The Bailiff may be a monster, but he is a gay one, and his sincere appreciation of Pullman as a writer and observer of human life flatters Pullman and makes them useful to each other. Pullman enjoys the luxuries with which the Bailiff provides him and sticks with him even after he assassinates Hyperides.
Yet the Bailiff’s days of influence in Third City are numbered. The women in the ghetto revolt and kill the police chief, and a brutal retaliation provokes the Padishah to move against the Bailiff. The Bailiff must flee to his home planet, and Pullman and Satters accompany him to a planet known as Matapolis, light-years away.
If Third City is a decadent Purgatory, the Matapolis of Malign Fiesta is a decadent Hell. The name is a combination of the Greek word for city, polis, and the Latin word mactus (which is also the root of matador), for “sacred” and “sacrifice.” Once again, the reader learns about the nature of this city slowly as Pullman himself penetrates its structure. The Bailiff tells him that Matapolis is primitive compared to Third City but not unpleasant. Pullman learns from the Bailiff’s mother that Matapolis is a Punishment Service ruled by Satan, who uses the Hebraic name Sammael. Pullman is terrified when Sammael calls him in for an interview. Instead of treating him like a “sinner,” however, the Devil shakes hands with Pullman, explains that he punishes mankind only as a favor to God, and arranges a tour of the Punishment Service for Pullman.
Pullman survives his terrifying visit to the chief torturer, Dr. Hachilah, and Sammael is impressed with his self-control and insight into human nature. Taking him further into his confidence, Sammael explains that he (like the Padishah in Third City) has become bored with the role God has given him as “Satan.” There was never any battle between God and the Devil: Sammael simply left Heaven when God insulted the angels by creating man. Now he sees that neither the angelic nor the human nature is satisfactory. Men are short-lived and foolish (this Puritan detests women and anything to do with human reproduction), but he must admit that they are more intelligent and enterprising than angels. Sammael therefore proposes a “Human Age” in which the angels will mate with humans (sex being a necessary evil) to create superior beings over which Sammael will rule. Pullman fears that God will stop this obvious challenge to his authority, but Sammael assures him that he is God’s equal and that divine power cannot span the immense distance between Heaven and Matapolis.
Thus convinced, Pullman uses his intellectual gifts and human insight to assist Sammael’s plan by founding a university, in which Pullman is assisted by the great physicist (saved from the Punishment Center) Dr. Heinrich Schlank, and by establishing an information-gathering system. (The Bailiff is rescued from being punished for his mistakes in Third City in order to help establish a spy network.) The main step in the “humanizing” process is the “malign fiesta” of the title. A huge entertainment is staged for the angels and human women in order to excite the long-atrophied sexual instincts of the angels. Despite some violence, the fiesta is a huge success, and the “miscegenation” of the human and the angelic proceeds.
Pullman knows that his actions are wrong, but he feels a fatal attraction to Sammael’s energy and intelligence. He is terrified when messages reach him, apparently from God, telling him of his wickedness. Nevertheless, he has cast his lot with Sammael, even though he becomes convinced that the Devil is mad with pride. At the end of Malign Fiesta, he learns that Sammael is not only a madman but a liar as well. A huge host of God’s angels appears over Sammael’s headquarters, having easily traveled the distance that the Devil claimed was unspannable. Pullman is swept up by two “White Angels,” who say that no harm will come to him, and the book comes to an end as he is carried away.
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