Time and Western Man

by Wyndham Lewis
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1281

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 not to be taken any more seriously than one would take the work of the minor, popular literary “entertainer” Anita Loos. The belief that art is a product of high skill and imagination applied to interesting ideas, says Lewis, is abandoned by some artists for the celebration of the moment, for the recording of the most trivial sensation. Artists act like children, recording childish responses to banal phenomena which have been given authenticity by the philosophers whom Lewis despises.

Certainly there is something to be said for Lewis’ argument, and Gertrude Stein, in particular, with her simplistic style and unstructured tales, has always been viewed with some skepticism. She may, in fact, seem small game for Lewis’ sometimes lethal satirical attack. Yet he does not stop there. He is quite willing and able to take on other arts and other artists—some of considerable moment. Lewis’ attack on what he sees as the intrusion of flaccid, relativistic ideas in the work of the Russian ballet impresario Sergey Diaghilev is mischievously healthy; he pricks the bubbles of artistic pretension, regardless of whether the reader agrees with him. Indeed, he often demonstrates in his attacks on the promotional hot air of the modern arts that skill which is the mark of a great satirist: the ability to make the reader enjoy arguments with which he strongly disagrees and which he would reject out of hand had they been presented with less brio.

In general, Lewis believes that the philosophy of “sensation,” as opposed to the philosophy of “fact,” has been taken up by too many modern practitioners of the arts as an excuse not only for sloppy work but also for simply bad art. He points to artistic presentations on the stage, in the plastic arts, in music, and in literature whose patent formlessness is passed off as “true” because it is just like the formlessness of sensation. The works are inchoately simple and sincere and are therefore regarded as equal to, if not better than, the old works of skilled, polished calculation.

Yet there is more to the chapters on the artists than a blanket denunciation. Lewis is something of a crank on many occasions, but his charges are not entirely without foundation, particularly with respect to fringe characters such as Stein. He does provide the kind of arguments which make it possible to think about new kinds of art with some defense against the excesses of faddishness and unthinking enthusiasm.

More than that, however, Lewis is often an extremely perceptive critic when he is dealing with artists whose works he does not wholly endorse but nevertheless recognizes as artistically important. He sees, for example, that James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is an imposing contribution to the development of the novel, and he connects Joyce to the English tradition of humor as manifested in the work of the eighteenth century writer Laurence Sterne. What Lewis does not like about Ulysses is its seemingly indiscriminate piling up of brute detail. He claims that Joyce, Stein, and Ezra Pound are all under the influence of Bergson, all “time” writers, self-indulgent and disorganized; however, he also can distinguish the lesser talents from the greater. His comments on Pound, for example, are particularly interesting, as are his careful distinctions between Joyce and Marcel Proust, but he is unrepentant in accusing all of them of a flabbiness which he traces directly to the ‘‘duration-flux” of Bergson and his followers.

Whether the reader agrees with Lewis about the works’ value and influence, there is much perceptive commentary on the arts of the post-World War I period in the first half of the book. The real danger faces the reader without much critical background. The major philosophical idea of this section is easy to understand and easy to take with some skepticism, but Lewis’ arguments are uneven and sometimes eccentrically wrongheaded. The reader not only must be on the lookout but also should know the text of the original materials well, partly because Lewis is unashamedly attempting to persuade and partly because he is such a fine artist, so ebullient, so wittily seductive.

Book 2 is less successful, in part because it is more committed to point-by-point argument and to building, with considerable repetition, the case against the philosophers and their followers. There are, however, chapters which go beyond obsessive argument to consider the influence of Lewis’ adversaries on particular aspects of the real world. This section really does demand some substantial preparation; one needs to have read some Bergson and perhaps some works of George Berkeley, whom Lewis admires but whom he sees as having precipitated the whole group into their sensationalism with his theory that there is no existence of matter without perception of the same.

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