Time and Western Man Critical Essays

Wyndham Lewis


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The basic theme of this work is Lewis’ concern over the way in which Bergson and his followers have, in Lewis’ opinion, undermined the twentieth century view of reality. Certainly the reader would benefit from having some substantial knowledge of the philosophical work of Bergson, Spengler, Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell. The book would, then, seem to be of interest exclusively to professional thinkers. Lewis, with his enormous confidence, was not dismayed by professional scrutiny; nevertheless, he meant Time and Western Man to be a popular commentary on certain philosophers’ work, and it can be read as such, if one remembers that he is a satirist and polemicist and therefore not to be completely trusted in his interpretation of complicated ideas.

The main idea to be grasped, if the book is to be read by the layman, is that Lewis is much exercised by Bergson’s theory—which is accepted, with variations, by the other philosophers mentioned—that time and change are the ultimate realities, that things are only “real” in relation to their place within the constantly changing stream of becoming, and that intuition, rather than intellect, is mankind’s most important tool for making sense of life. Defining reality as “temporal,” or as constantly changing, Lewis believes, undermines everyday facts and normal trust in the human mind’s ability to order reality. Common sense, according to Lewis’ reading of Bergson and his followers, is discredited, and the immediate objects of human experience lose their authenticity.

Clearly, that is an oversimplification of Lewis’ complicated argument, which is itself an oversimplification of the work of philosophers who question positivism. Very roughly, positivism embraces the idea that knowledge is based on sense experience. Lewis’ enemies might be called “relativists” or “postrelativists,” since they distrust objects as touchstones for truth and believe that immediate experiences are “true” only within the constantly changing stream of time.

The book may seem to be of limited interest, applicable only in the world of hairsplitting theorists and unworldly thinkers; Lewis, however, is not an academic but an activist, fighting for the life of society and the arts in the real world. It is in the first half of the book that the lay reader will feel most at home, since it is here that Lewis attempts to expose the relativists’ pernicious influence, particularly in the world of art.

In book 1, appropriately titled “The Revolutionary Simpleton,” Lewis claims that the relativists’ emphasis on reality as a kind of sensational flux has debased the arts, which, in the hands of too many artists, have become romantically softheaded and infantile. If reality is sensation, the recording of sensations, however silly or unimpressive, is worthwhile. Artistic structures are repudiated as “artificial,” and the subject of art can be anything, since all action is leveled. Lewis finds this kind of thinking manifested at its worst in the work of Gertrude Stein; he argues that for all of her claims of doing serious work, she is...

(The entire section is 1281 words.)