Wyndham Lewis World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3741

Lewis was not good at school things and turned in a weak performance as a student at Rugby. It is interesting, therefore, to realize how, by cultivating the one field in which he had both an interest and an aptitude, he opened other opportunities for himself. Essentially, it is through...

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Lewis was not good at school things and turned in a weak performance as a student at Rugby. It is interesting, therefore, to realize how, by cultivating the one field in which he had both an interest and an aptitude, he opened other opportunities for himself. Essentially, it is through his work as an artist that he developed his interest in literature and established himself as a productive writer and critic. That his writing often makes its impact through visual means suggests that it is the artist’s keen eye and sensitivity to form that shaped it.

The intellectual ferment that Lewis experienced as an art student in Paris became a part of his life in London after he returned there in 1909. Meeting Pound was crucial in Lewis’s life, because Pound was at that time emerging from his Imagist period, in which he sought to write precise, spare, visual poetry aimed at projecting single, vivid images and was moving toward vorticism, a literary and artistic movement closely connected to Imagism. Lewis, attracted to this new movement, became its reigning guru.

The overt art of the vorticist is a geometrical art of surfaces. It was this element of vorticism that affected Lewis’s writing. He wrote of surfaces, not of substrata. He is not the penetrating psychological writer that Henry James was, because it would have been philosophically abhorrent to Lewis to write that way. In Men Without Art, he calls James a creator of “great disembodied romances,” something he himself never could or would be.

Lewis spent his first thirty years trying to find himself. Just as he was finding his niche, World War I intervened. The society that he had created for himself was disrupted by the war. Blast, his greatest literary triumph to that point, was discontinued in 1915. Within the year, Lewis was in military service, although much of his service was as a member of the Canadian War Artists rather than as a combatant. He was involved in only one combat, the battle of Passchendaele; within a short time, he was reassigned to London to do two large war paintings. His war experience, however, left him bitter. He believed that it had robbed him of productive time.

Philosophically, Lewis had already revealed some of his feelings about Friedrich Nietzsche in Tarr, where the notion that artists must dominate women is a central theme. His association with Pound, Yeats, and Eliot confirmed his own elitist views and encouraged his political conservatism. Just as Pound became a voice for the Fascists in Italy, Lewis sided with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party that was beginning to take hold in Germany in the late 1920’s.

Although Lewis repudiated his earlier, pro-Nazi stand in two long essays, The Hitler Cult (1939) and The Jews, Are They Human? (1939), his image as a Fascist sympathizer was difficult to dispel. The same currents that underlay his pro-Nazi sympathies were reflected in much of his superbly written literary criticism, which, despite its excellence of style, was based upon such wrongheaded prejudices that it created a breach between him and some of the most notable intellectuals of his day.

Lewis’s attack in The Apes of God on the Sitwells and the Bloomsbury Group was in a sense an outgrowth of the vorticism that he had earlier tried to promote. Satire is always cutting, but Lewis’s satire has an acerbic quality beyond all expectation. This quality emerges again in Men Without Art, in which Lewis’s attack upon Hemingway so infuriated the renowned novelist that he eventually retaliated by presenting a scathing portrait of Lewis in A Moveable Feast (1964).

Lewis’s earliest writing was characterized by vigor, by strong visual imagery, and by striking use of stream of consciousness. All of these characteristics became hallmarks of his style as his writing progressed. He was a writer well in control of language and all of its effects. His juxtaposition of characters creates the dramatic tensions that make his books bristle with excitement. The cutting satiric edge that discomfited some readers of Lewis’s books is clearly evident in The Art of Being Ruled and The Apes of God, both of which are polemical. The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in Shakespeare’s Plays (1927), Time and Western Man (1927), The Childermass (1928), and Paleface: The Philosophy of the Melting Pot (1929) are all products of the same approach to society, each of them addressing the ills of the world in heterodox ways.

Lewis’s emphasis is usually on the place of artists in modern society. He examined the artists of his day—Pound, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and others—and found them sometimes superficial and derivative, practitioners of style at the expense of ideas. He had unqualified kind words for few writers of his own period.

Along with his bitterness about the war, Lewis later cultivated a bitterness at not having received the recognition that he felt was his due. He turned against democracy, adapting an attitude quite like that of the American journalist and writer H. L. Mencken, whose term “boobocracy” coincided well with Lewis’s view of government by the people. In Lewis’s eyes, fascism offered artists greater hope than a government that had no elite class. He considered Hitler a man of peace and downplayed his anti-Semitism. The publication of his ill-conceived and badly researched Hitler in 1931 drew harsh condemnation and resulted in Lewis’s losing a number of painting commissions.

Lewis’s writing of the 1930’s did not sell well. Additionally, Lewis suffered from continuing bouts of ill health, some of it related to venereal diseases contracted almost two decades earlier. He lived a financially precarious existence, which caused his bitterness to accelerate. The six-year exile in North America that World War II imposed upon him did little to assuage his feeling of alienation and neglect. When they returned to England, the Lewises found a nation in disarray. They endured food shortages and other inconveniences, but perhaps Lewis felt more at home in England now than ever before. His Rotting Hill (1951) is a collection of stories that depicts postwar Britain, and it has less invective than Lewis’s earlier work. He entered into a period of intense productivity that continued until his death.


First published: 1918

Type of work: Novel

Lewis focuses on a group of artists in Paris before World War I, using the protagonist, Tarr, to espouse his own aesthetic and moral philosophy.

Although Tarr is concerned largely with two artists, one English and one German, involved with the same woman, Lewis is concerned more broadly with reaching generalizations about the English and German temperaments and about the perceptions of life peculiar to each society. Frederick Tarr is a British artist who, not unlike Lewis, lives in Paris during the Edwardian period. Tarr, like Lewis, has no great fondness for Germans, although he is engaged to Bertha Lunken, a German art student. His need for her is largely physical, and once that need has been satisfied, he finds it inconvenient to have her around.

Bertha is a stereotypical German—that is, a German built on Lewis’s personal, quite negative stereotype of Germans. Tarr wants to end his engagement because he finds Bertha tedious and uninteresting. His sexual attachment to her is also fading, a fact that he attributes to his devoting all of his creative energies and imagination to his art, leaving little for his sexual indulgences. Tarr clearly is plotting his break with Bertha in such a way that he will be perceived as taking the moral high road. He will sacrifice his personal relationship for the greater good: his art.

Tarr goes to Bertha’s flat, decorated with egregious kitsch that offends Tarr’s artistic and tasteful soul. He tells her as gently as he can that marriage is not in their future. Bertha makes a prototypically bourgeois retreat into heaving sobs, reinforcing the Irish author Oscar Wilde’s observation that “tears are the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones.” Tarr leaves, feeling quite the cad, but he promises to see Bertha soon again.

Meanwhile, Otto Kreisler, a German artist living on a pittance that his father doles out fitfully, returns to Paris from Italy. Kreisler four years earlier shed one of his paramours, who promptly married his father, leaving Otto’s inheritance diminished. The father, a bourgeois German businessman, disapproves of his son’s artistic pursuits and wants him to return home and do something worthwhile—to wit, go into business. Kreisler’s allowance is late, and when he arrives in Paris, he is destitute. He tries to borrow from a well-heeled friend who had helped him in the past, but this friend, Ernst Volker, has tired of him and has replaced him with Louis Soltyk, a Pole. Ernst knows from experience that Otto never repays his debts.

Otto goes to a café to eat and there meets Anastasya Vasek, to whom he is greatly attracted. He pours out his woes to her in a sequence that shows how Lewis views German sentimentality as a commingling of love and sorrow. He accepts an invitation to a dance that he knows Anastasya will attend, but before it occurs, he comes upon Anastasya and Soltyk in a cafe. He is insulting to Soltyk and through much of the rest of the book seeks Soltyk out in public so that he can insult and humiliate him, obviously setting the scene for a duel.

Meanwhile, Otto meets the spurned Bertha on the way to the dance and uses her to humiliate the other guests. He and Bertha kiss quite publicly. When this is reported to Tarr, he writes to tell Bertha that he is returning to London. The day after the dance, Otto’s overdue allowance arrives with a command from his father that he return to Germany. Otto replies that he will kill himself in exactly one month. Tarr does not actually go to England but merely moves to another part of Paris so that he can work without interruption. When he finally sees Bertha and Otto together, he befriends Otto because he thinks it is ironically appropriate that these two exemplars of German sentimentality be paired. Tarr now finds that he is attracted to Anastasya and has deep aesthetic conversations with her.

Meanwhile, Tarr observes Otto’s increasing aggressiveness toward Soltyk. Otto several times rushes up to Soltyk in public and slaps his face. A duel is inevitable. When the morning of this encounter finally comes, their seconds try to effect a compromise. Suddenly, Otto agrees to forget the duel if Soltyk will kiss him publicly. Soltyk leaps upon Otto, pummeling him, while the seconds engage in their own combat. As they seek to lead Soltyk away, he strikes out at Otto, who fires his pistol and kills him. Five days later, Otto is captured and jailed. He hangs himself in his cell, delivering on his promise of suicide.

Back in Paris, Tarr and Anastasya are having an affair as Tarr gradually ends his relationship with Bertha. When he learns, however, that Bertha is pregnant with Otto’s child, he marries her out of pity. He continues to live with Anastasya. After two years, Bertha divorces Tarr to many someone else. Tarr and Anastasya never marry, but Tarr fathers three children by another woman.

This novel, Lewis’s first, is a satire on the decadence of the Edwardian era. Tarr’s main function is to espouse Lewis’s philosophy. Otto Kreisler emerges as a more fully developed character than Frederick Tarr. Realizing this, Lewis later admitted that perhaps he should have called the novel “Kreisler” rather than Tarr.

The Revenge for Love

First published: 1937

Type of work: Novel

This political satire views the political Left in Spain during its civil war and in London in the 1930’s, making trenchant comments about politics and art.

The Revenge for Love is generally regarded as Lewis’s most successful novel. Despite its sometimes stinging satire, the book has a warmth and gentleness that distinguishes it from Lewis’s other writing, particularly his writing of the 1930’s. The novel is arranged in seven parts; Lewis is slow but calculated in bringing together its various characters and situations. The writing is vivid. The novel’s visual effects are meticulous and detailed.

The setting of the first section is Spain during its civil war. Percy Hardcaster, a Briton who is in Spain as a Communist organizer, is in prison waiting to be tried. A verdict against him will result in his execution. Rather than await the outcome, Percy, with the help of a Spanish double agent posing as a prison guard, escapes. The guard, Serafin, is shot and killed; Percy is injured and loses his leg.

The novel then shifts to London, where Lewis introduces a number of leftist intellectuals and artists. Among them are Victor Stamp, an Australian painter, and his wife, Margot. They are impoverished, and Victor is losing confidence in himself as an artist. In the next section, Jack Cruze, a tax consultant, is introduced, along with a successful young painter, Tristram Phipps, and his wife, Jill. Jack is interested in Tristram because he paints nudes. He quickly falls in love with Tristram’s wife and one day, accidentally seeing her nude, is totally inflamed with passion. By the next section, Jack and Jill are having a torrid affair (one inevitably recalls what happened to Jack and Jill in the well-known nursery rhyme).

The fourth section of the book is pivotal. It involves a party at the home of Sean O’Hara, a gunrunner. At the party, Lewis juxtaposes armchair leftists and committed leftists who fight for their beliefs. Percy Hardcaster represents the latter element. Jill, as a representative of the former, articulates her views, which Percy denigrates. Jack beats Percy up for insulting Jill. In this section, Lewis shows clearly his suspicion of the leftist views among intellectuals in London during the early 1930’s.

In the next section, Victor Stamp and Tristram Phipps, who cannot support themselves on their art, become art forgers in an art factory that turns out old masters to order. Lewis comments satirically on artistic integrity and how it can be compromised in a society in which artists cannot support themselves legitimately. He had written about this problem much earlier, addressing it in his early essays in Blast and the Criterion.

Ultimately, Victor is persuaded to go back to Spain with Percy to run guns that the leftist Spanish forces will use against the Fascists. In the book’s final section, Victor and Margot are in the Basque country on the French/Spanish border. Margot has had dire premonitions of what the outcome will be, but she cannot dissuade Victor from running the guns until the last minute, when she frightens him by telling him that he is soon to be arrested. The two strike out to cross clandestinely into France. Meanwhile, Percy is captured by the Spanish Civil Guard and imprisoned.

In prison, he reads of how Margot and Victor wandered off in the rain and fell off a cliff to their deaths. Percy’s tears are both for the loss of his friends and for the loss of ideals that he has held dear. The Revenge for Love is an anti-Communist manifesto of sorts. It reflects Lewis’s intellectual conservatism and explains to an extent his flirtations with Fascism, which, in his eyes, offered artists more than Communism could.

This novel differs from Lewis’s other works in that it is compassionate and, at times, warm. The characters are well developed and exceptionally well balanced against each other. The dramatic tensions both in Lewis’s characters and in his basic situations are sustained and assure a high level of reader interest.

Self Condemned

First published: 1954

Type of work: Novel

History professor René Harding leaves England in 1939 for Canada to wait for the war to end and in so doing comes to realize the difference between history and reality.

It is easy to read Self Condemned as an autobiographical novel, although to take it as point-by-point accurate autobiography would be a mistake. The book’s protagonist, René Harding, and his wife, Hester, leave Britain for Canada in the year that World War II erupts and, like Lewis, settle around Toronto. Harding arrives in Canada with little notion of what he will do there, but soon he is employed at the University in Momaco, whose anti-British faculty members do not accept him and make him feel always the outsider.

The Hardings endure the cruel winters holed up in the Blundell Hotel, where the boring routine of their lives oppresses and depresses them. The news that they get from the radio is discomfiting, and the future seems tenuous at best. When the hotel burns down, the Hardings are further dislocated. Lewis writes of the fire as the Italian poet Dante wrote of the tenth circle of Hell. Fire and ice intermix in the cold Canadian night as firefighters pour water into the inferno.

When the hotel’s manager finds that the owner set fire to the building to collect the insurance, Mr. Martin, the owner, murders her to avoid detection. Shortly after the fire, Harding is invited to teach in the College of the Sacred Heart, which offers a more hospitable environment than he found in Momaco. The priests, eyeing him as a possible convert, treat him with warmth and deference.

If Harding feels disembodied in Canada, his wife feels even more alienated. She becomes hysterical at times, and Harding tries to ignore her, retreating into his work. Hester suffers a breakdown and ultimately throws herself in front of a lorry, which squashes her, but spares her head. In the morgue, Hester’s head seems strangely dissociated from her body, a heavy-handed indication of Lewis’s separation of emotion from intellect. In this image, intellect prevails. Although affected by her death, Harding views it as her final attempt to derail him from his professional pursuits, but he will not allow that to happen. Emotionally spent, he accepts a teaching position at an American university, where he functions successfully even though he is thoroughly disillusioned.

In part, Lewis is pointing in Self Condemned to the dislocations that war wreaks upon a populace. More than that, however, he is pitting history against life’s daily realities, questioning perhaps the validity of history or at least cautioning readers not to put absolute faith in it. The interplay of intellect and emotion is evident throughout the book both overtly and symbolically. The interplay of fire and ice when the Blundell Hotel burns is a major part of this symbolism, which is—in this case, quite consciously—derived from Dante’s the Inferno, the first canticle of La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802).

The Hardings are involved in a marriage that has become pointless and is strained nearly to the breaking point by the exile into which the couple is forced. This exile, however, is the glue that holds the union together. The Hardings are in a trap. The husband finds his escape from that trap when he ignores his wife’s excesses of emotion. She, however, pursues a more active course and, by her suicide, tries to regain her control of René from the grave.

Blasting and Bombardiering

First published: 1937

Type of work: Autobiography

Lewis recounts the effects that the war had on his life from 1914, when Blast was first issued, to 1926, when The Art of Being Ruled was published.

Perhaps Blasting and Bombardiering was an attempt at exorcism. Lewis was disenchanted with the role of the artist in society long before World War I erupted, but his war experiences deepened that disenchantment and added to it a cynicism that festered within him for much of the remainder of his life. The title of the book, of course, refers to Lewis’s editorship of the avant-garde journal Blast, which, although suspended after two issues, made a significant artistic statement in its day, and to his training as a bombardier after he entered military service in 1916.

The book is divided into five sections, the first of which deals with the London literary scene as the war became a reality, focusing on the publication of Blast. The next two sections have to do with Lewis’s entry into military service and with his service, first as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery serving in France and later as a painter of war pictures attached to the Canadian army and stationed in London.

The next section deals with postwar England, a period when Lewis was semiretired, trying to find himself after the shock of the war. He was a dedicated womanizer and lived to a large extent on the patronage of various rich women with whom he had liaisons. The period from 1919 to 1926 was a fallow one for Lewis, although he was working regularly on his writing and published six important books between 1926 and 1929. These books were all in the formative stages during his semiretirement.

The final section focuses on Lewis’s three closest literary associates: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce. He regards Pound as brilliant and important for his influence on other writers, most notably Eliot. He discusses Pound less charitably in some of his other writing. Lewis thinks that Eliot was lackluster, with occasional moments of artistic brilliance. He considers Joyce idiosyncratic but extremely promising. His view of these three writers was tempered by the fact that war intervened in all of their lives, diverting them from their true courses, which would inevitably have led to a more classical art, to a detached literature.

Although Blasting and Bombardiering extends for nearly a decade beyond the end of World War I, the impact of that war is evident on every page. The central theme of the book has to do with the inroads that war (and by extension, philistine society) makes upon art and artists.

A valuable side benefit in this book is found in Lewis’s thumbnail sketches of some of the intellectuals of his day, aside from those aforementioned. His comments about Nancy Cunard, Rebecca West, T. E. Lawrence, Augustus John, T. E. Hulme, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, William Butler Yeats, and others with whom he was closely involved as an artist and a writer are highly subjective and largely unsubstantiated, but they provide shrewd and sharp insights into these people.

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