“It was, after all, a new civilisation that I—and a few other people—was making the blueprints for . I, like all the other people in Europe so engaged, felt it to be an important task. It was more than just picture-making: one was manufacturing fresh eyes for people, and fresh souls to go with the eyes.”
So Wyndham Lewis, years later, recalled the early years of the twentieth century, when indeed it seemed as if Lewis and his companions were fashioning new eyes and new souls. All the arts were in vibrant motion, and the names of the creators still capture some of the excitement of that time: Igor Stravinsky, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Wyndham Lewis.
Among a crew of gifted artists, Wyndham Lewis seemed, at the beginning of this century, to be one of the most widely gifted of them all. He was a novelist, a critic, an essayist, a painter, and a philosopher. He created the Vorticist movement, which began as a theory of pictorial art and moved—via Ezra Pound—into literature as well. For a time it must have seemed that Lewis himself would be the vortex, the driving, creative center of modern art.
Such was not the case, and Rude Assignment: An Intellectual Autobiography, first published in England in 1950 and only now available in an American edition, is Lewis’ attempt both to explore and explain his career as a writer, thinker, and artist. The book has “one engrossing subject: namely to meet and to destroy unjust, prejudiced, and tendentious criticism—past, present, and future. It is my object to dispel misconceptions (about myself, or about my work) whether they derive from ill-natured and tendentious criticism, or some other cause.”
Rude Assignment is, then, an “intellectual autobiography.” Lewis addresses his personal history only as it affects his career and his work; this is not the story of Lewis the man, but of Lewis the artist. More than that, it is the story of Lewis as an example of the artistic-intellectual “type” and how that type fares in the contemporary world. As he states, “A secondary aim is to elicit a pattern of thinking: to show how any one of my books is connected with every other: that they are a litter of books, not really discrete: how the critical books carry forward what is, in fact, a type of thinking, belonging to a certain type of mind.”
The type, to be sure, is the artist, particularly the writer; Lewis’ contention is that the modern world is strikingly unsuited for real art—that is, art that is unbiased, unsentimental, and above all, unafraid of reality. Taken singly, any one of these qualities is a severe handicap to public acceptance; taken together, as Lewis notes in gloomy but undefeated remembrance, they lead to personal attacks on the artist and conspiracies against his work.
In reviewing his career, Lewis points to three fatalities that worked against him. The first was that, as an uncompromising intellectual—“Mr. Ivory Tower,” as one woman called him—he was at odds with the majority of the public, since they were allergic to the masterpiece, averse to any exposure to serious literature. The minority public, the intelligentsia, the truly literate—where Lewis’ books should have been met with some respect and understanding—was riddled with coteries and cliques, animated not by artistic concerns but by political quarrels.
The second fatality was Lewis’ bent for satire. This made many enemies; it also provided his critics with an opportunity to dismiss his writings as either unimportant or as simply malicious. In fact, however, characteristic of Lewis’ satiric works, as his most notable, The Apes of God (1930), is his primary interest in the type, not the individual. Satire, “the reflection of moral nausea,” as intellectual historian Crane Brinton has termed it, at its best transcends the contemporary to attack universal human failings; Lewis may have reacted to a set of particularly irritating conditions—the between-war period and W. H. Auden’s “low, dishonest decade”—but his work cannot justly be dismissed as either transitory or merely malicious. His true errors, he insists, were not artistic, but political—this was the third and most damaging fatality that haunted his career.
For Lewis, politics was more than the conventional ins and outs of party and faction—it was a serious view of the world that required both moral and intellectual integrity. He felt himself surrounded by...
(The entire section is 1855 words.)