Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3053
A staunch elitist whose barbed wit won for him many enemies, Wyndham Lewis began his literary career writing the first literary form with which he had become familiar: the short story. Later, he claimed that the short story was “the crystallization of what I had to keep out of my...
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- Critical Essays
A staunch elitist whose barbed wit won for him many enemies, Wyndham Lewis began his literary career writing the first literary form with which he had become familiar: the short story. Later, he claimed that the short story was “the crystallization of what I had to keep out of my consciousness while painting.” Despite this seemingly negative attitude toward a form in which he continued to write throughout most of his lifetime, Lewis’s stories reflect the diversity, values, and creative concerns of his other artistic endeavors. In fact, literary critic E. W. F. Tomlin says of The Wild Body that it contains “almost the whole of Lewis.” Lewis himself is occasionally a character in his stories, and even when he is not there personally, many of the figures reflect his experiences as a student, a lover, a soldier, and an artist, as if the fictive and the nonfictive merge. His lifelong belief was that art should be about something, that politics, theology, philosophy—all human beings’ intellectual concerns—are implicit in any serious work of art. Most of his short stories are satires that focus on the divided person: the split between mind and body, between good intentions and negative results, between the creative spirit and commercial needs, between surface appearances and hidden realities. The imagery reinforces these ideas: in them, clean and hard is good; soft and mushy is bad.
Lewis’s prose style is unforgettable; characterized by structural clarity, vivid visual descriptions, striking metaphors, a range of diction, and a sense of discord, all with a biting edge. Stories such as “Some Innkeepers and Bestre” and “The Cornac and His Wife” are small gems, beautifully conceived. In keeping with his artistic theories of the vortex, continually in motion round a fixed and motionless center, his short fiction shifts perspective and attention but maintains a still, unchanging artistic center. His is the eye of a painter, who, in a few words, can capture the essence of “a slut of a room, dribbling at the sink, full of unsavoury pails, garishly dirty” (“Unlucky for Pringle”) or of an athletic Frenchwoman on a cold day (“Some Innkeepers and Bestre”):The crocket-like floral postiches on the ridges of her head-gear looked crisped down in a threatening way: her nodular pink veil was an apoplectic gristle round her stormy brow; steam came out of her lips upon the harsh white atmosphere. Her eyes were dark, and the Contiguous color of her cheeks of a redness quasi-venetian, with something like the feminine colouring of battle.
The Frenchman in the hotel window of “A Soldier of Humour” and Carl in The Wild Body are sketched in black and white with “dazzling skin and black patches of hair alternating”; many of the early stories describe the small things (such as a fishing boat, an athletic interest, an arrested conversation) that become the focus of human obsessions.
The Wild Body
Lewis’s first collection of short stories, The Wild Body, began as a travelogue, a sociological documentary characterized by realistic detail and a fragmentary vision, but developed into a far more complex dramatization of modern human beings. “Inferior Religions” and “The Meaning of the Wild Body” comment on the stories’ meaning and construction and emphasize Lewis’s vision of human absurdity, echoing Henri Bergson’s idea of humanity as “a thing behaving like a person” and therefore comic. A Lewis character is often driven by obsessions beyond his control and mechanically repeats patterns that create both comedy and pathos. In The Wild Body the inhabitants of the Pension Beau Séjour, Francis the wandering musician, Bestre, and Cornac and his wife (poverty-stricken traveling entertainers savagely at odds with their village audiences) are just such creatures, while the Soldier of Humour, Ker-Orr, Lewis’s projected persona, is self-described as a “barbarian clown large, white and savage” and as a “forked, strange-scented, blond-skinned gut-bag, with its two bright rolling marbles with which it sees, bull’s-eyes full of mockery and madness.” The innkeeper in “A Breton Innkeeper” is a study of a domineering personality, a bullying, bellowing menace, a murderous “buffoon” characterized by empty and mechanical behavior patterns. Patient Eldred in “The Room Without a Telephone” is at times a “clown” whose mind was “blotted out by his frantic vanity” and his “spiteful animal” self. Lewis’s detached narrator provides a surreal edge to even his most realistic tales.
Lewis’s metaphors provide clues to his themes. He describes many of his characters as animals, a bestiary of modern people: horses, camels, walruses, sea lions, ferrets, dogs, placid cows, silly goats, sharp sheep, or even “some strenuous amoeba.” John Leslie in “Junior” declares “We are a beastly race”; the head of Misrow in “The War Baby” reminds one of a “snake’s sling-like extremity,” and diners at a popular restaurant are “a lot of glum-looking cattle” who need stirring up. One character has “clam” eyes. The Wild Body, in particular, focuses on humans as primitive, like “big, obsessed, sun-drunk insects.” Lewis as anthropologist scrutinizes strange new species of human beings and categorizes them according to their animal parallels, from the French or Spanish settings of The Wild Body stories or the English settings of his later tales. The French landlord in “Unlucky for Pringle” has an “animal-like selfishness and self-absorption,” while Pringle’s portmanteau lets loose its squashed contents “like a flock of birds and pack of dogs.” “Cantleman’s Spring-Mate” describes humans as “the most ugly and offensive of the brutes because of the confusion caused by their consciousness” and Cantleman as “an animal disguised as an officer and gentleman”; it advocates a return to raw animal nature. Eldred in “The Room Without a Telephone” is “like a sea beast—but blowing blood.”
Lewis was particularly disturbed by the modern movement toward standardization and mechanization. His stories repeatedly attack human beings for “herd” behavior and “herd” philosophies. Similar to his herd images is his description of humanity as “a pea disguising itself from a million other peas soft, subtle, clever, insolent.” His other images focus on machines: The sun appears “bitterly and mechanically.” Many of his characters seem little more than robots or automatic machines, endlessly repeating the same dull tasks, the same inescapable patterns, the same windup dialogue. For Lewis, stupidity, primitive behavior, and mechanical patterns are interrelated and sum up the absurdity of all mankind. Bestre, Brocatnaz, and various other inhabitants of the Breton Coast (The Wild Body) are elemental figures, seemingly rugged individualists who give rein to their “wild bodies” but in fact are cogs, “bobbins,” “puppets,” and mere “shadows of energy” caught up in “the complexity of the rhythmic scheme,” “a pattern as circumscribed and complete as a theorem of Euclid” (“The Soldier of Humour”). The Frenchman in “Bestre” fixes Ker-Orr “with the blankness of two metal discs”—his eyes; at a trapeze performance the clown is “a cheerful automaton” and his barker, inspired by him, springs back and forth “as though engaged in a boxing match” as the audience howls with delight. Mr. Patrick, a shopkeeper in Rotting Hill is like “a wound-up toy,” while the socialist parson, Rymer, is at times “an infuriated animal”; “X” in “Tyronic Dialogues” defines himself as an “animal” and his friends as “automata”; Arghol yawns in “mechanical spasms,” “Father” François is described as “automata,” the face of a woman reclined in bed is “a flat disc sideways on the pillow,” and a young boy’s face might physically change as he imagines himself “a steamroller” or a “sightless Juggernaut” (all in The Wild Body). The pugilists in “The Man Who Was Unlucky with Women” spring left and right like mechanical toys or batter away like “a compact, seemingly heavily-loaded machine.”
Related to his emphasis on the animalistic and the mechanistic is Lewis’s interest in sudden, unpredictable violence, the meaningless events that will have a country parson scuffling with an angry opponent in the local pub and ignominiously kicked in the genitals (“The Bishop’s Fool”) or the cuckold husband of “The Man Who Was Unlucky with Women” frustratedly picking vicious fights with strangers at every opportunity and being unexpectedly killed by an enraged wolfhound that takes his warlike exhibitionism as a direct challenge. All the early stories in The Wild Body include violence, brutality, and callousness. Brobdingnag dispels the bruises left on his wife by an unknown rival by adding his own, while Brotcotnaz believes that he can kill an invalid woman with impunity. The patterns are behavioristic: cause-effect patterns of stimulus-response. “The French Poodle” connects the motives that would cause an animal lover to kill his own pet with the horrible death that the pet owner is doomed to face in the trenches.
In contrast to the mechanistic and animalistic are a few characters who have learned to control mind and body, ones Lewis sometimes calls puppet-masters. For example, Ker-Orr in “A Soldier of Humour” operates with detachment as he uses his body as “a stalking horse.” Cantleman is another such figure, for he imitates the murderous callousness of nature to assert his own superiority amid a world of trench warfare and inescapable horror.
Lewis’s sense of place is directly related to his sense of humanity. The distant foreign settings of The Wild Body—the hotels and boardinghouses, cafés and bars—emphasize the narrator’s alienation, while the insufferable restrictions of domestic hells in other tales contrast with the lonely but open spaces of homeless vagabonds. Frequently Lewis depicts rooms and flats as microcosms reflecting the world of their owners, their personality and essence. “Unlucky for Pringle,” for example, traces the rootless Pringle’s search, from Morocco to Canada to Chelsea, for the perfect accommodations, ones harmonious with his sense of self and with his need to extract sensations from his environment while imposing his own personality on it. With a gusto for common things, he might pass “like a ghost through a hundred unruffled households,” whose peaceful landladies he enjoys; yet Pringle awakens such hostility in observant landlords that his lodging houses “vomit him forth” unassimilated. “The Rot” in Rotting Hill in turn describes the narrator and his wife’s encounters with both the dry rot of his own apartments and the dry rot of the new socialism as a stream of lazy, unmotivated repairmen make them feel like bruised grapes “in a basketful of glass marbles”; they dream of workers accusingly declaring that the couple themselves are the dry rot that infects the heart of their home and country. “The Room Without a Telephone” attacks socialized medicine as a diseased system that turns the individual into a guinea pig, promotes monumental waste, and endangers human life, accusations summed up in the treatment of patient Paul Eldred, whose confinement in a room without a telephone spells near doom.
Rotting Hill sketches the bedraggled people and patterns of post-World War II London, a place that Lewis describes as rotting, both physically from the wartime bombing and the dry rot produced by neglect and metaphorically from the political and social decay. Basically a political treatise, it captures a period of shortages, rationing, and depressing poverty. In “Time the Tiger,” Lewis describes a London morning as “a constipated mass, yellowed by the fog, suspended over a city awaiting the Deluge” and city streets “like Pompeii with Vesuvius in catastrophic eruption, a dull glare, saffronish in colour, providing an unearthly uniformity.” As is frequent in Lewis’s books, many of the stories depend on a conflict or disagreement between two characters representing totally opposite points of view, morality, politics, or social conditions, with Lewis’s literary persona sometimes appearing as the representative of one side of an argument. In “The Bishop’s Fool,” for example, Lewis describes a chance meeting with a village rector, whose admirable but foolish views sum up what Lewis saw going wrong all over England: a Christian-influenced movement toward socialism, the dominance of the Labour Party, and the potential for England to perpetuate the abuses of a godless communism—socialism without Christian restraint. In “Time the Tiger,” two old friends, a Tory and a socialist, exchange views and insults in a friendly fashion until an opinionated woman turns the disagreement into a permanent separation and the predatory “tiger,” time, consumes the last of the world that they once knew. In “My Disciple,” the Lewis persona is accosted by an advocate of spontaneous, undisciplined child art, in “My Fellow Traveler to Oxford” by a leftist undergraduate with firm opinions, and throughout the Rotting Hill stories by plumbers, carpenters, and other assorted repairmen halfheartedly trying to shore up the decay that threatens to engulf him, while Britannia herself (in “The Rot Camp”) begs alms and sings “Land of Hope and Glory” in “a cracked wheeze.”
Some of Lewis’s stories focus on the artist, his life and vision. A bitter central theme is the hostile treatment of artists and the fate of the artist in modern society—beset by poverty, fearful of failure, tempted to compromise his talent for short-term financial gain. “Doppelganger” argues through its portrait of Thaddeus Trunk, an aging and purposefully eccentric artist, that “a man’s publicity is a caricature of himself.” Beset by adoring students, Trunk has chosen to play “the Dispenser of Culture” and in doing so has submerged his creative and spiritual self for the applause of “a horde of anonymous beings.” His Doppelgänger, in the guise of a distant cousin, calls attention to Trunk’s concern with his reputation and his betrayal of his art simply by being what Trunk should be but is not, a quiet, private artist, true to his artistic vision, a gadfly showing up the limitations of Trunk’s admirers. As such, the Doppelgänger wins the heart of Trunk’s wife, who sees in the double the real “Thaddeus,” and the two leave the publicity-seeking Trunk “a shadow, a shell” of whom “the vulgar” would have the last word about “what his actions signified.” “The Cornac and His Wife” portrays a melancholy showman who is a victim of his own audiences; as he manipulates them, they demand and elicit the kind of humor that they prefer, so that instead of puppet-master he becomes in part puppet, contorted to conform to the desires of his audience.
Related to his concern with artists is Lewis’s Nietzschean belief that women are traps set for the creative man. In “The Code of a Herdsman,” he voices his contention that “women, and the processes for which they exist, are the arch conjuring trick.” He calls women “chocolate-cream traps” or “lush red sex-fruit” and finds situations such as those in “The War Baby” and “Junior” all too typical. The women in such stories are overweight, indolent, soft, and determined. “Junior” describes mankind as “walking factories for procreation” and women as walking “time-bombs” whose “delight-producing machinery” will inevitably produce a child to trap a man in marriage and domesticity. The hero of “Junior” flees his mewling son, his wife, and a home transformed by marriage into a woman’s club; forced by bad publicity to return home, he renounces them all, only to be taunted that the child was not his anyway and that he does not have “the guts to have a child.” The young man in “The War Baby,” desperate to find just the right kind of woman to seduce before going off to war, is reminded of another more subtle battle, the battle of the sexes: “All women seemed to feel that they should have their luxurious battles too; only they were playing at dying, and their war was fruitful.” In this case, a woman chosen to affirm life before frontline confrontations pursues the young man with letters and after her death leaves him obliged to support their child, a dull, homely daughter, “a blast of God’s irony.” “Children of the Great” focuses on a similar irony, the child of a famous historian, totally lacking his father’s arrestingly handsome looks, his sharp intelligence, and his interest in the world of the mind yet courted and pursued by women who adored his father, until captured by a rich, clever girl who sees him as the holder of valuable genes and a potential breeder of remarkable children, throwbacks to their grandfather, and uses him as such. Cantleman, the main character in “Cantleman’s Spring-Mate,” treats women with the same animalistic power that makes him a successful soldier. Assuming that “all women were contaminated with Nature’s hostile power” and might be dealt with as secret agents or enemies, he craftily plans to outwit Nature by paving the way for the sexual “devouring of his mate” with the courtship niceties that women demand but then committing the sexual act with “the same impartial malignity” that he displayed “when he beat a German’s brains out.” The brutality of some of Lewis’s male characters is directly linked to their sexual drive and their fear of the power it might give women over them.
Lewis effectively depicts neurotic compulsives. For example, he details the lunatic behavior of Captain Polderdick, in “The King of the Trenches,” who races about pretending to be a “flying pig” (a nickname for a World War I British bomb) and who sends fusillades into the enemy camp, precipitates retaliatory attacks, and then heads for the safety of the back lines. The busybody Lionel Letheridge (nicknamed “Pish-Tush”) rushes about spraying dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) to drive out a supposedly ghostly inhabitant of a neighbor’s apartment, while the beach bum (a comic Cuchulainn) who finds a yachting cap (in “The Yachting Cap”) is convinced that it has overpowered his consciousness and led him to challenge the sea to battle and that he can escape the sea’s clutches only by giving the cap back to the sea. Some of Lewis’s stories follow traditional genre lines, made slightly offbeat, such as the ghost story in “Pish-Tush” or the bank robbery and con game in “The Two Captains.”
Lewis believed that “true satire must be vicious,” and his stories reflect this viciousness in their attack on mechanistic behavior, scheming women, brutish men, dull heads, compromising artists, wrongheaded liberals, and general social and political corruption and decay. Lewis’s fiction seems modern, and indeed his avant-garde stance anticipated the self-conscious, surrealistic fiction of later generations.