Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1855
“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 partisans who rejected this standard of honesty, opponents who attached supreme importance to the labels and no value to the contents.
“Politics is for the Twentieth Century what Religion was for the Sixteenth and Seventeenth. In a time so exclusively political, to stand outside politics is to invite difficulties: or not to identify yourself, in passionate involvement, with one or other of the contending parties.” In a sense, Lewis managed to commit both of these sins. He was outside politics in the usual sense, preferring to consider it as an objective observer, becoming a participant only in certain limited and specific struggles. Even then, he resolutely refused to hold to a false consistency and so was called everything from a crypto-Nazi to a Stalinist; no faction claimed him and all united against him.
According to Rude Assignment, “politics” in this sense cost Lewis dearly: in lost work, suppressed publications, and damaged reputation. His novel The Roaring Queen (1936) was printed and bound—and then kept from the public because of possible legal problems. It was not published until 1973. His series of antiwar pamphlets during the late 1930’s, such as Left Wings over Europe (1936) and Count Your Dead, They Are Alive (1937), were discounted as pro-Nazi propaganda. Well might Lewis lament toward the end of Rude Assignment: “Today I should not write such books at all. People ought to be allowed to drop to pieces in any way they choose. I even disapprove of propping them up. Let nations, like men, die in peace.”
It seems clear that politics did harm Lewis’ literary career; he was too often and too much on the wrong—or at least the unacceptable—side. The tone of his polemics was guaranteed to irritate even the uncommitted, and it certainly infuriated his opponents, such as George Orwell. Nevertheless, one must question Lewis’ self-assessment, for ultimately politics—even in the disputatious sense that Lewis practiced it—was not the major obstacle to his career or the main obstacle to full recognition of his achievements. Later generations are likely to be either forgiving or benignly neglectful of an artist’s politics: Auden’s flirtation with the Left, Pound’s more serious dealings with the Fascists have not significantly disturbed their literary reputations; surely Lewis’ antiwar writings and mild—and every qualified—praise of Adolf Hitler in the early 1930’s cannot be held against him. The truth is, they are not.
What caused the most objections to Lewis during his career, and what still impedes his full acceptance as a major writer, was his thoroughgoing and vociferous rejection of the prevailing aesthetics of the literary revolution of the early part of the twentieth century. While Lewis was—and generally remained—on fairly friendly terms with authors such as Joyce, Pound, and Eliot, he was definitely opposed to what he perceived as their philosophical and theoretical foundations. His prime attack on these foundations came in Time and Western Man (1927), which remains his premier critical work, a study of considerable subtlety and complexity but one that rejects what many accept as the essential works of the modern period.
In Rude Assignment, Lewis restates his earlier purpose: “As to Time and Western Man, it will be sufficient to say that in my view, at the period at which I wrote it, the philosophy in the ascendant was destructive, and that it should be combated. In its pages—and it is a book of considerable length—I provide a very detailed answer to that disintegrating metaphysic.”
Lewis viewed his work as a defense of Western culture, an attack on the “time-philosophers” he saw as picking apart the fabric of that culture. He rejected relativism, impressionism, and “time-philosophy” in general, and he rejected most of the individual works that sprang from them; in particular he undertook a lengthy, detailed, and highly critical analysis of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Even Lewis admits that he might have been too sweeping in his attack: “I was perhaps too forcible. At that time I was about the only writer in English-speaking countries who gave utterance to such opinions, and I had to insist in order to be heard.”
Lewis was heard, and in Rude Assignment he assesses the turmoil and damage that resulted; he does not back away from his criticism, and he insists that it remains valid. The idea of “Western man” may have become almost absurd after two bloody world wars and the increasing brutalization of, by, and for the omnipotent State—but Lewis maintains that the idea and the ideal were once worth defending—until events proved that Western man was determined to commit moral and intellectual suicide.
In a sense, Rude Assignment is Wyndham Lewis’ account of his part in that struggle to preserve the essence of Western man. Once again, as so often in this work, he is concerned with the type, a type that once predominated. Isolated as he was, Lewis still felt kinship to that vanishing type: “I had all the confidence of a herd—that was not there. In England there had been numbers of us at one time. I knew that from the books I read. Many of their authors thought the way I did.”
By the time he wrote Rude Assignment, Lewis had become convinced that this type had all but vanished and that the time of Western man was past. His pessimistic conclusions are belied by the vigor of his style, the toughness of his outlook, and the besieged yet enduring nature of his reputation. Even those who believe that he is mostly wrong about Joyce or mistaken concerning Pound know that Lewis still has something to say about these artists—something that inspires more than dismissal.
This edition of Rude Assignment, edited by Toby Foshay, with six letters from Ezra Pound edited and annotated by Bryant Knox, reveals Wyndham Lewis in the full power of his polemical, critical, and stylistic abilities. The illustrations—all, significantly enough, self-portraits—reinforce the essential point that Lewis was an artist in all senses of the word.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Wyndham Lewis considered himself to be one of those fortunate few chosen to draw up the blueprints for a new civilization. Yet by the time he wrote Rude Assignment at mid-century, he had come to realize that a variety of circumstances had made him not a primary architect but a critic of the vast design then abuilding. He might have preferred to be the prime draftsman (he certainly regretted the particular structure rising), but he realized that to be a critic was to play an important role, one which called for vision, clarity, and, above all else, unflinching intellectual honesty.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9
The New York Times Book Review. XC, February 10, 1985, p. 29.
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