Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1699
Wyndham Lewis 1882(?)-1957
(Full name Percy Wyndham Lewis) Canadian-born English novelist, essayist, critic, short story writer, editor, poet, autobiographer, and dramatist.
One of the leading and most controversial figures in British literary and artistic circles in the first half of the twentieth century, Lewis has garnered equal measures of praise...
(The entire section contains 37475 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Wyndham Lewis 1882(?)-1957
(Full name Percy Wyndham Lewis) Canadian-born English novelist, essayist, critic, short story writer, editor, poet, autobiographer, and dramatist.
One of the leading and most controversial figures in British literary and artistic circles in the first half of the twentieth century, Lewis has garnered equal measures of praise and censure for his brilliant prose style, startling originality, brash personality, and pro-Fascist political leanings. He was instrumental in establishing the anti-Romantic movement in literature in the early 1900s and the Vorticism movement in art in the years before the First World War; wrote extensively about politics and aesthetics in the 1920s and 1930s; and was the art critic for the Listener in the 1950s. A gifted painter, Lewis's writing shows his concern with revealing "external" life using objective, visual techniques, in stark opposition to the "internal" technique of stream-of-consciousness employed by such contemporaries as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Marcel Proust. His short stories, mostly satires, reveal an acerbic sense of the comic and seek to give voice to his complex aesthetic, political, and philosophical theories. Lewis's anti-democratic, elitist political views and satirical attacks on other writers made him an unpopular figure for much of his career, but his talents as a literary stylist were admired by such distinguished writers as T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. Recent critical attention has focused on his skills as a satirist, his portrayals of the suffering artist, his Cartesian philosophical views, and his innovative style.
Lewis was born aboard a yacht off the coast of Nova Scotia to an American father and English mother, and spent his early years in Canada and Maine before moving with the family to England in 1888. His parents separated shortly thereafter, and Lewis was raised by his mother, to whom he remained very close. After attending a series of day schools in London and then the public school Rugby from 1897 to 1898, Lewis entered the Slade School of Art. Upon completing his formal studies in 1901, he traveled extensively in Europe for seven years, writing, studying, painting, and living the unconventional life of an artist. Lewis returned to London in 1909 to pursue his painting in earnest, soon making a name for himself with his radical post-Impressionist style. He also quickly became acquainted with the literary notables of his day, including Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Sturge Moore, Ezra Pound, Rebecca West, and Yeats. In 1909 Ford published Lewis's first short story, "The Pole," in The English Review, and in the following years additional short pieces, many of which were written during his stay on the Continent, appeared in other influential literary magazines. During these pre-World War I years, Lewis was also active in organizing the Vorticist group, an abstract art movement that reacted against Futurism and Cubism and which emphasized the use of geometrical lines, impersonality in art, and classical detachment and control. Pound and Lewis together founded a periodical, Blast, in which to promote the ideas of the movement, but because of the onset of the war and financial constraints, they managed to publish only two issues. However, with Blast, Lewis established his reputation as a brilliant, defiant, and highly original thinker whose anarchic ideas often troubled more conventional critics. A good-looking, brash, and arrogant young man, Lewis also became something of a personality and had a number of mistresses, several of whom bore him children.
In 1916, after completing his novel Tarr, which he had been working on since his years in Europe, Lewis enlisted in the army, eventually becoming an officer. Tarr was published at the end of the war to excellent reviews but did not sell well, further establishing Lewis's position as an avant-garde writer. In 1920, Lewis's mother died, which had a great effect on him emotionally. Already embittered by the war, he felt that his mother's death was caused by its effects, and in the following decades his writings, many of which were political in nature, were aimed at preventing another such event. He favored rightwing politics, despising liberalism and pacifist democracy—which he considered catered to the weaknesses of the "herd" and encouraged conformity—and advocated a system that promoted a strong, stable authority under which he believed intellectuals and artists could flourish. Lewis's literary output in the 1920s and 1930s was prolific, and included some of his best-known work, including The Art of Being Ruled (1926), a rabid critique of politics, art, and society; Time and Western Man (1927), an assault on the literary-philosophical positions of the leading writers of his day; The Wild Body (1927), a collection of short stories that had been written before the war and were revised to reflect his current aesthetic and political theories; and The Apes of God (1930), a venomous portrayal of the members of the literary establishment. The latter work did a great deal to alienate Lewis from critics and other writers, but he never apologized for his unpopular opinions and barbed commentary on what he considered were the shortcomings in others' work. From 1927 to 1929 Lewis edited and wrote for the literary review The Enemy (he said he found the literary persona of the "enemy" suitable to his temperament), which was perceived as being sympathetic to Fascism. In his essay Hitler (1931), he praised Adolph Hitler's rise to power and expressed approval of National Socialism. Although he retracted these views in his later essays, The Hitler Cult and The Jews, Are They Human? (1939), Lewis's name was permanently tainted by his earlier, pro-Fascist politics.
Just before the outbreak of World War II, his popularity and reputation in deep decline, Lewis moved to North America with his wife, a woman he had met in 1918, married in 1930, and who stayed with him through his numerous infidelities. The couple lived in virtual poverty for a good part of their stay in the United States, with Lewis earning a little money painting portraits and relying on the goodwill of friends. They enjoyed some stability during Lewis's year-long appointment at a small college in Ontario, Canada, before returning to a life of shortages and rationing in London in 1945. In 1946 Lewis became the art critic for the Listener, an influential post he held for five years. His years abroad had softened him somewhat, and in his reviews he offered insightful and generous appraisals of younger artists. Although Lewis was beset by blindness in his last years, he continued to write, in 1954 producing what many consider his finest novel, Self Condemned, a tragic story about a self-destructive rationalist living in exile who denies human feelings in his commitment to discovering the truth. Critics consider the work to be based on his humbling experiences in North America. Lewis died in 1957 of a brain tumor.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Lewis wrote in 1935 that "The short story . . . was the first literary form with which I became familiar. . . . The 'short story' was the crystallization of what I had to keep out of my consciousness while painting." Lewis's first literary recognition came from the publication of his short stories in influential literary journals, and early admirers found his work marked by a structural clarity evident in his visual art that announced him as an original talent and thinker. The stories revealed also his anti-Romantic, realist bent and his gift for savagely humorous satire. The 1917 story, "Cantelman's Spring-Mate," considered one of his best, is a fine example of Lewis's controlled, descriptive, hardedged style. In his 1927 collection, The Wild Body, which he called "essays in a new human mathematic," Lewis rewrote some of his early stories and added new ones to form a sequence of satiric tales told by a single comic narrator who recounts his adventures among the peasants of Brittany. Like his other work, the stories explore the contrast between the cultivated intellect and the savage, mechanized body and reveal his low opinion of women. Also included in the collection are two important essays, "Inferior Religions" and "The Meaning of the Wild Body," in which Lewis expresses the aesthetic, philosophic, and comic theories undergirding the stories in the collection. The other volume of stories published during Lewis's lifetime, Rotting Hill, is a series of sketches about life in London's Notting Hill after the Second World War and conveys the atmosphere of what he considered the "universal wreckage and decay" of post-war socialist Britain. The tone of this collection is a far cry from the lively satire of the earlier stories, and in this later work Lewis's descriptive realism gives way to the construction of types to make clear his distaste for the social and cultural politics he describes. Before he died, Lewis had intended to publish another book of short fiction, but the project never materialized. Unlucky for Pringle: Unpublished and Other Stories, published in 1973, includes unpublished pieces and others written between 1910 and 1956 that were not collected in the two other volumes.
Lewis never enjoyed popular recognition, in part because his inaccessible style is often underwritten by difficult philosophical or aesthetic theories, but for most of his career he was considered a force in intellectual circles, even when his reputation was at a low ebb. Although Lewis's work was praised highly by some of his literary contemporaries, including Eliot, who called him the greatest prose stylist of the twentieth century, other critics found fault with his pro-Fascist politics, his brutal and unbalanced attacks of other artists' work, and the aggressive theorizing in his non-fiction and fiction alike. Early reviews of singly published stories and his Wild Body collection were mixed, with some critics heralding their originality and zest and others characterizing them as brutal, vulgar, and confused. Critical analysis of Lewis's work after his death has been concerned mainly with his novels, essays, and criticism, generally considered his best works, which showcase his incomparable idiosyncratic style and his devastating critical insight. Opinion of his stories in Rotting Hill is largely negative, and most critics consider it a tired, unimaginative attack on socialist politics. However, recent studies of the Wild Body collection have unanimously praised those stories' brilliant use of satire, strong sense of form, and psychological astuteness. Lewis is a difficult writer whose highly individual style, penetrating eye, and aggressive opinions, critics agree, reveal him to be one of the most fascinating and unsettling figures in modern literature.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 220
The Wild Body 1927
Rotting Hill 1944
Unlucky For Pringle: Unpublished and Other Stories 1973
Other Major Works
Tarr (novel) 1918
The Caliph's Design (essay) 1919
The Art of Being Ruled (essays) 1926
The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare (criticism) 1927
Time and Western Man (essays) 1927
The Childermass (novel) 1928
Paleface; The Philosophy of the "Melting Pot" (essays) 1929
The Apes of God (novel) 1930
The Diabolical Principle and the Dithyrambic Spectator (essays) 1931
Hitler (essay) 1931
The Doom of Youth (essays) 1932
Enemy of the Stars (drama) 1932
Snooty Baronet (novel) 1932
One-Way Song (poetry) 1933
Men Without Art (criticism) 1934
Left Wings Over Europe; or How to Make a War about Nothing (essays) 1936
Blasting and Bombardiering (autobiography) 1937
Count Your Dead! They Are Alive!, or, A New War in the Making (essays) 1937
The Revenge for Love (novel) 1937
America, I Presume (essays) 1939
The Hitler Cult (essay) 1939
The Jews, Are They Human? (essay) 1939
Wyndham Lewis the Artist, from "Blast" to Burlington House (essays and criticism) 1939
The Vulgar Streak (novel) 1941
America and Cosmic Man (essays) 1948
Rude Assignment: A Narrative of My Career Up-to-Date (autobiography) 1950
The Writer and the Absolute (essays) 1952
The Demon of Progress in the Arts (criticism) 1954
Self Condemned (novel) 1954
Malign Fiesta (novel) 1955
Monstre Gai (novel) 1955
The Red Priest (novel) 1956
Wyndham Lewis on Art (criticism) 1969
The Roaring Queen (novel) 1973
Enemy Salvoes (criticism) 1976
Mrs. Duke's Million (novel) 1977
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SOURCE: "Some Modern Pessimists," in The Spectator, Vol. 139, No. 5. December 17, 1927, p. 863.
[In the following excerpt from an early review, Taylor finds the "noise and fury" of Lewis's satire in The Wild Body distasteful]
In The Wild Body Mr. Wyndham Lewis finds matter for his savage mirth, his "beast of humour," in the more glaring towns of the Spanish border, and the more brutish spots of Brittany. . . . When he devotes his inordinate vocabulary of scorn to express his Timon-like hatred of mortality by conjuring up the bestial or preposterous figures that give him a painful joy, the noise and fury are too much for me, who fall to thinking with what deadly quietness Swift undertook the assassination of his kind. Mr. Lewis, that hater of the Romantics, here exhibits himself as a Romantic of the worst French kind in his taste for monsters. His Bestre is as much a romantic grotesque as Quasimodo, and obscene as Quasimodo is not. Lashing himself into mirth, Mr. Lewis is a startling spectacle. Since, of course, his is no ordinary mind, one or two of these sketches have a tortured power, like some of the interlinear patterns in his other books that look like scorpions stinging themselves to death.
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SOURCE: "Wyndham Lewis," in A Reviewer's ABC: Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present,W. H. Allen, 1961, pp. 268-71.
[In the following review of The Wild Body, originally published in the New York Post in 1928, Aiken admires what he considers Lewis 's first-rate narration in his psychological short stories, but finds that the writer's self-conscious theorizing mars his otherwise brilliant work.]
Mr. Wyndham Lewis is something of a cornac himself—he is not without curious resemblances to his admirable portrait of a showman in the story called "The Cornac and His Wife." In this story we are presented with a melancholy creature who is in a sense a victim of his own audiences. His audience works him, just as he, too, in turn works his audience; a queer kind of reciprocal puppetry. The public expects, demands, extracts from the sad cornac the kind of humor it wants. His mere presence there, in the ring, provokes the public to a particular appetite: they are unable to look at him without becoming excited; without beginning to desire to see him excited. And at the proper moment, when the mutual chemical or psychological influence has reached the right pitch, the cornac goes into action. He and the audience throw themselves into the ritual, which has become inevitable for them, each playing on the other. The cornac thus becomes something which is not exactly himself: a current passes through him, or a string pulls him, and he is drastically changed. He behaves to something outside himself. He is thus two people (at least): a man, and also a man whom an audience has contorted to a particular end.
In his new book Mr. Lewis is very much in that plight. He is on the one hand a very original observer of human nature, a brilliant chronicler of its small beer, with a queer, angular, muscular, awkward and sometimes ungrammatical prose at his command—a prose which despite its lapses is astonishingly effective. He strikes one as being a very independent creature: the kind of fellow who knows exactly why he prefers Latour to Lafitte, who has discovered for himself that salt is good with this and pepper with that, and who measures out the ingredients for a salad with the atomizing eye of a connoisseur. One feels also that he has the power to survey this curious world into which we are born with a very remarkable degree of detachment—a detachment so complete as almost to amount to genius in itself. There is something of the behaviorist in him: he habitually sees emotions as actions, ideas as responses to stimuli, and takes an almost sadistic delight in pursuing a character through rigidly logical sequences of cause and effect. He has, in short, a very keen mind, and a very vigorous imagination, and one can at first discover no good reason why he should not be one of the most brilliant of contemporary writers of fiction.
But there is also, on the other hand, that aspect of Mr. Lewis which makes one think of the cornac being acted upon by his public. One gradually becomes aware, as one reads these delightful and highly idiosyncratic stories, that Mr. Lewis is perpetually adopting a role: he is, in fact, being forced into a special part. His awareness, whether vague or definite, of an audience there in the background—an audience waiting to see whether Mr. Lewis is clever or not (and, if so, how clever)—is an unresting one and an uneasy one. It gives him a nervous manner, a high degree of self-consciousness; it takes away from him precisely that pure freedom of mind with which he appeared to be starting out. His detachment is swallowed up in this other reaction: he remembers that something unusually dexterous is expected of him, and in his anxiety to produce a startling effect he begins, now and then, when he suspects he is not being too closely observed, to indulge in a questionable sleight or two.
Thus, in the present book [The Wild Body], he appears in two lights. He is a first-rate narrator of psychological short stories; and he is also, less fortunately, a theorist with an ax to grind. His ax is the theory, not especially original, of the comic; and throughout his book he is periodically taking this out and giving it a polish, and then burying it again, or simply forgetting it in the pleasure of creation or observation for its own sake. This is the clever side of Mr. Lewis, and one cheerfully enough admits that it is clever.
But wouldn't it be a relief to Mr. Lewis, as well as to his audience, if he were told that after all he needn't bother to try to impress us in this fashion? One needn't be a crank to be interesting—and there are moments when one sees Mr. Lewis well along the road to crankiness. There are amusing things in the essay entitled "Inferior Religions"; though one finds some difficulty in seeing it as a work of genius (cf the remarks of Mr. T. S. Eliot on this subject). And one can extract a certain amount of dubious pleasure in watching Mr. Lewis's efforts to project himself as a kind of observing character, or recording instrument, in the first of these stories. He informs us that he is large and blond and fiercely humorous, with flashing teeth. Now and again in the later stories he remembers to remind us of this, but for the most part he forgets it. The projection doesn't quite come off. The truth is, it is not good enough. Or perhaps the trouble is that Mr. Lewis could not wholly give himself up to it. Sufficiently sophisticated to see the notion as an engaging one, and the role as amusing and original, he was also too sophisticated to be able to carry it out wholeheartedly or simple-mindedly.
So we go back to the stories themselves. And here we are on solid ground. They are brilliant, and they show everywhere a psychological astuteness of a high order. They are at the same time actual and queer. They have that consistence in oddity for which the only convenient word is genius. If only Mr. Lewis would content himself with this admirable tale-bearing as regards the foibles of human behavior and forget for a while that he thinks he has a philosophical mission, one feels certain that he could write fiction that would make any living writer green with envy.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1880
SOURCE: Foreword to Rotting Hill, Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1951, pp. vii-xii.
[In the following essay, the foreword to his volume of stories Rotting Hill, Lewis characterizes his work in the collection as showcasing the "universal wreckage and decay"prevalent in politics and social life in post-World War II, socialist Britain.]
If I write about a hill that is rotting, it is because I deplore rot. For the decay of which I write is not romantic decay. But specific persons or Parties are in no way accountable for the rot. It is either the fault of everybody or of nobody. If we exist, shabby, ill-fed, loaded with debt (taxed more than any men at any time have ever been), let us recognize that the sole explanation of this is our collective stupidity. If it soothes us to pin the blame upon our masters, past or present, by all means let us do so. The fact remains that this is only a subjective judgement. But who is responsible for ten years of war in a generation? All human groups, whether French, German, Italian, Polish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Czecho-Slovak, or any other are like our own a raw material, and are not responsible for the shape they take. I should add that our ostensible masters are raw material too. War is what is immediately responsible for the chaos which afflicts us at the present time. No cause can be assigned for these fearfully destructive disturbances (though of course we account for them in this or that conventional way, in our history books and in our conversation). The most recent wars have entirely altered our lives, that is all we can say.
In 1945 we ended a second, a six-year spell of war. We came out of this a ruined society, our economy destroyed, our riches vanished, our empire reduced to a shadow of itself, but our island-population (optimistically built-up to the absurd total of fifty millions) undiminished and requiring just as much food as when we had the money to pay for it. Naturally everybody was dazed. But into this situation burst a handful of jubilant socialists, voted into power, with an overwhelming majority, on the Labour ticket. They were in no way dismayed by the national situation; they proceeded to extract by huge taxation, direct and indirect, the colossal capital needed to stage a honeymoon for the liberated manual-working mass. This of course gave no one any time to despair at the disappearance of national prosperity. The majority of the nation was highly stimulated: and if the landed society was taxed out of existence, the middle class in rapid dissolution, on the whole England became a brighter rather than a darker place. To symbolize this extraordinary paradox the capital city burst into festivities all along the south bank of the Thames; there was whoopee at Battersea, there was the thunder of orchestras in a new national concert-hall, a thousand peep-shows, culminating in a Dome of Discovery lower down the river. This was staged in the ward sanctified by Shakespeare. In the Parliament the lamb lay down with the lion; the Tory bleated softly and snoozed beside the rampant socialist lion: all England seemed to have decided to forget that it had lost everything, and to live philosophically from day to day upon the Dole provided by the United States.
Such is the situation at the moment of writing. In spite of this extremely brilliant, if exceedingly artificial situation, nevertheless decay is everywhere, as might be expected. If an aristocratic society suddenly drops to pieces, after many centuries, and if a mercantile class of enormous power and wealth drops to pieces at the same time, there is inevitably a scene of universal wreckage and decay, as when demolition work is in progress. In a great city like London large areas, until ten years ago expensive and "select", become shabby or even slummish overnight; the food and other shortages make an end of good restaurants, the shortage of power dims the streets, the high cost of everything turns a well-heeled citizenry into a shoddy, shabby herd, which shuffles round the shops from morning till night in a dense tide.
For the seamy side of socialist splendour the socialists are blamed. Mr. Patricks, the socialist shop-man whose toyshop you are invited to visit in the ensuing pages, says that his customers even blame the heat and the cold, the rain and the snow and the sleet on the Government. And then, of course, the very bounty of the socialists, their lavish honeymoon spending, militated against the austerity of life and dedication to work which was required to build the New Jerusalem. Decades of ca' canny and the ingrained habit of go-slow, producing a population of the laziest workmen in Europe, has proved the arch-enemy of socialism. So there is a big cancer, a deep rot in the heart of the industry now controlled by the new masters, which it may require a very harsh dictator to eradicate.
I have now supplied you with the credentials of the Rot which is the subject matter of this book of stories. Among the persons gathered between the covers of Rotting Hillthose who are more or less adult talk a good deal about the situation created by the rapid conversion of England into a Welfare State; the toiling majority naturally do not discuss "Welfare States", merely respond vocally to the pleasant or unpleasant stimuli for which the "high-ups" of whatever political philosophy are responsible. But most of my personnel belong to the disintegrating middle-class, and they naturally discuss the Welfare State since it has a good deal of bearing upon their destinies.
At this point I should perhaps meet the question, to be anticipated after the above delivery of the credentials of the Rot, "Is this a political book?" Not more, it can truthfully be answered than some of Charles Dickens' books, and all by Mr. Shaw, to go no further afield. If my characters are obsessed by politics, it is because today our lives are saturated with them. It is impossible for a work of narrative fiction worth reading to contain less politics than Rotting Hill. And those who would contradict me and assert that contemporary fiction can be otherwise than steeped in politics are those who would prefer that you would not have anything to do with books that cause you to use your rational faculty. Best to confine your reading to Detective Stories and to Western Yarns! Nay why read at all, they would argue? Why not save paper so that the Government may have more for its multifarious bureaucratic activities—more than it already takes? Just turn on Dick Barton, then take the dog for a nice long treecrawl and go to bed and dream of next summer's Butlin Camp holiday!
"Socialism" is a word to which we need not pay very much attention. Socialism is merely the name of something which is happening to us, something which could not otherwise than happen, in view of all historical factors present, above all the proliferation of mechanical techniques. If we refrain from looking upon it as a purely political phenomenon we shall understand it better. In the present work there is, however, one factor which is especially stressed; namely, socialism seen as a final product of bible-religion.
Conscience is at the root of the principle of Social Justice—without it what would be there? That ethical impulse is of a potency to which no "law of nature" could attain. It is all that remains of Protestant Christianity excepting Christmas Carols, the sacraments of baptism and of marriage, especially in villages where the church is the only public building: and except for burial, of course, since there is nowhere you can dispose of a corpse except the churchyard. But the conscience is almost entire still with some people, though they regard God as quite as Victorian a phenomenon as The Lady of the Lamp and would couple the Bible with Euclid as part of the quaint furniture of childhood.
They would be very surprised indeed to hear they had a conscience. Let me try and show in a few words, how absolutely impossible socialism would have been without the Christian religion. Mr. Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps as much as Mr. Gladstone are good church-going Christians: and their "socialism" is Mr. Gladstone's "liberalism" taken to its ultimate conclusion. In other words, liberalism was an early stage of socialism. And the nineteenth century of liberalism was demonstrably a product of Christianity: it was at long last the Christian seriously trying to put the New Testament into practice. The culmination of this movement, still using the word "liberal" to describe itself, was Lloyd George's National Insurance Act. That was a most revolutionary measure, far more "Advanced" than any adopted in any other country at that time. Finally, the logical conclusion of Gladstone and Morley, and Lloyd George and all their fellow preachers of social fair play, of social justice, was for the classes possessed of money and power to surrender them, and, of course, for England itself as a nation owning a quarter of the globe to surrender everything—as has recently been done in the case of England's greatest possession, India—except this island; and even that must in the end not be looked upon with too possessive an eye.
Now, without the teaching of the New Testament—and we must not forget the Old, and that the Jews were the most moral nation the world has ever seen—or some similar teaching such as Stoicism (and there are exceedingly few teachings of this type), no man gives up anything he has acquired whether it be wealth or land or goods. Why should he? He will fight to defend them with desperation. If you informed him that "Property is a theft" he would laugh at you. Such a saying, in the first instance, to be successful, had to appear with a supernatural sanction. To test the accuracy of what I am saying, you only have to consider whether you would give up anything but a small fraction of your property in order to share it with your less fortunate fellows. There are very few of us who could willingly do so. But a long process of religious conditioning (latterly operating through such words as "decency", "Fair play", etc. etc.) has led us to a point at which we empower the State to deprive us of practically everything. This is the work of Jesus.
As I have suggested, it would be absurd to take to task contemporary socialists for carrying to its ultimate conclusions nineteenth-century liberalism. It would be slightly more sensible to criticize the earliest liberals (for, as you would assert, their sentimental and unreal policies), as undoubtedly you would do, were you a catholic or felt no longer, even in "hangover" form, the spell of the Sermon on the Mount. Above I have advocated the discarding of the political approach to contemporary happenings. And I cannot do better than to end this foreword upon a reminder of this earlier counsel. Let me couple with this the advice that you look upon the politician as it is best to look upon a war, as a visitation of the Fiend.
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SOURCE: "The Wild Body: A Sanguine of the Enemy," in Nine, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1953, pp. 18-27.
[In the following essay, Wagner argues that the collection of stories The Wild Body embodies Lewis's theory and practice of satire, explaining that his political thinking and comic sense have their roots in the conflict between the savage body and the cultivated intellect, and further that satire is at the heart of Lewis 's realism.]
When Wyndham Lewis defined politcs, in America and Cosmic Man, as "a melodrama for teen-aged minds," he was hinting at what he was to elaborate in Rude Assignment, namely that "There are no good politics." Yet although there can be no "good" politics, he also asserted in Rotting Hill that contemporary fiction must be steeped in politics to be a true reflection of reality; this, in short, has been his dilemma. His art was born in war, he has recently written, and his "philosophic criticism", or political "pamphlets" (as he calls a work of over four hundred pages), grew out of his creative work. It is thus consistent that we can find in The Art of Being Ruled, which he has called a "key-book", concepts of human nature which subsume his work and in which his earlier satire is embedded.
In The Art of Being Ruled, that book of "jujitsu for the governed", Lewis finds that all political thought tends to federate opinion, and that for the politican the true individual must be "an indelicate interloper, a walking lie, a distrubing absurdity". This individual, who is to-day forced into the position of enemy or outlaw, or man who says No, was in classical societies the quintessence of the group and his life accordingly intense. Thus, Lewis proposes, the group or syndicalist ideal, under which head he particularly classes socialism deriving reciprocally from the lust for power and Bible-religion, chiefly thrives when the individual, as to-day, is idle. All these and their related ideas bear strongly on Lewis's satire and especially illuminate The Wild Body, answering perhaps the puzzled reviewer of The Times Literary Supplement who inquired at the time, "we may ask why we should have to accept Mr. Lewis's emphasis on the body."
The Wild Body, containing work reprinted and revised from The English Review of 1909 and The Tramp of 1910, embodies a theory and practice of satire from which Lewis has never swerved; indeed, an article in The London Mercury of 1934, he wrote on the art of laughter adds little to what we have in his earliest published stories. Yet the concept of "wild" in his satiric terminology derives from subsequently expressed political beliefs, especially from the idea of the "person" and the "thing". In Paleface, he put this distinction succinctly:
"In Rome what constituted 'abnormality' was the being either a slave, a stranger or a minor (of whatever age) within the potestas of some head of a family. A slave and, originally, a stranger, or 'peregrinus', was legally a 'thing'. . . . All animals were naturally 'things'—a lion in the forest or a wild bee was a 'res nullius', but a watch-dog or a slave was not 'wild', so could not be affected to another person than his owner by capture."
With certain reservations, this statement, opposing the Roman "person" to the "thing", or the normal, free, and (for him) formal element in the state to the abnormal, or "wild", is the basis of Lewis's political thinking, and provides the division on which his satire is based. Elsewhere, he advances the distinction as between Goethe's puppets (things) and Natures (persons). In Count Your Dead: They are Alive! he simplifies it further.
The "thing", or puppet, in this system, is what is sometimes called the common man. These mass organizations Lewis likens to-day to larvae, or, in another place, to performing mice, "hallucinated automata" produced by stereotyped environment and a standardized education. This element of our society has neither the desire nor the ability to improve; they are the "changeless Many". In this view, and here alone, I think, he approaches his closest to Machiavelli, with whom he has so often been compared. There are two places in Machiavelli's work, Chapter XVIII of The Prince and Chapter III of the First Book of the Discourses, where he calls men bad, a fundamental tenet of Machiavelli's thought that escapes Mr. Burnham and invalidates his otherwise admirable study. Lewis, however, does not call the mass of the people evil; indeed, he would be likely to agree with Machiavelli's statement that "the aim of the people is more honest than that of the nobility, the latter desiring to oppress, and the former merely to avoid oppression". What he does say is that they passively resist improvement: "Men and women like nothing so much as being 'classified'," and again, "People ask nothing better than to be types," and again, "in the mass people wish to be automata." Lewis wrote these phrases in 1926; it took George Orwell about a quarter of a century to learn this and write his dangerous 1984, dangerous because, as Professor McLuhan of Toronto University has suggested, it projects into the future a world that already exists.1
It is, then, the "thing", or puppet, coerced by his environment, who provides the pabulum of satire, rather than the "person", or Nature, who resists the social stereotype, or "group rhythm" as Lewis calls it. This latter, the true individual, free of class, race, sex, or youth prejudice, is what Lewis terms the "Not-Self"; the former is the "wild body" or, as he has put it in another work, the "savage robot".
The wild body, surrendering to the group rhythm, must be the target of laughter, for he lacks "continuity" and falls into the fluxes of his time, becoming like Ratner of The Apes of God, "split", in the sense of divided against himself, against that small part of him that still retains traces of the higher "Not-Self". This split, incidentally, is not a Jekyll and Hyde affair, it is what Lewis calls a "longitudinal" cleft existing coevally in the character—this is shown also in illustrative form in the vorticist chapter-head of Part V of The Apes. So we read,
"The more highly developed an individual is, or the more civilized a race, this discontinuity tends to disappear. The 'personality' is born. Continuity, in the individual as in the race, is the diagnostic of a civilized condition."
It is the function of the artist, in this system, to maintain our continuity or "differentiation of existence", in a world where personality is equivalent to "person"-ality. In this world, only the "person" is fully free, for only he truly lives. It is the stereotyped "thing" who, owing to his loss of individuality, or life, becomes for Lewis "Mechanical" or a "Mechanism".
Such, in the most general terms, is the background to the theory to be found in Lewis's earliest satire. It is on the dichotomy between the wild body and the cultivated intellect that he bases his first work—"it is upon that essential separation that the theory of laughter here proposed is based". In the section of the book entitled "The Meaning of the Wild Body" he elaborates this. The mind is to be "the laughing observer", the body simply "the Wild Body". The observer is clearly the showman, Kerr-Orr, "ringmaster of this circus" as he called him in 1950. But we must keep in mind that Kerr-Orr is only an intermediary, not in any sense the heroic "Not-Self". He is simply, as Lewis has so often claimed to be, the detached spectator, or observer of life. When Lewis wrote that his art grew out of war, we must remember that his first contact with war was as an "observer", namely in the Royal Artillery. If we also recall the slight autobiographical association he has made with Tarr, it is only one step to see that Bertha, or "big Bertha" as she indeed is, as the German artillery piece and also as woman representing emotion, makes a natural symbol from which the intellectual and English Tarr would want to disengage himself. If this seems over-subtle, I recommend Part III of Blasting and Bombardiering. In passing, one should add that the various alter ego's, which Lewis has assumed in an effort to achieve this necessary detachment, include the Herdsman, Blenner, the Crowd-Master or Cantelman (variously spelt), the Enemy, Ned, Kemp, and Major Corcoran (with a significantly militant eyeglass), but not, however, the Tyro. So we read in The Wild Body,
"The Comic is always strenuous and cruel, like the work. It never flowers. The intermediary, the showman, knows that. He knows the brutal frisson in contact with danger that draws the laughter up from the deepest bowel in a refreshing unearthly gush."
Kerr-Orr is this. So, later, is Tarr. In the first Egoist Ltd. edition, there is a subsequently excised "Prologue" in which we read, "Tarr is the individual in the book, and is at the same time one of the showmen of the author". The rest of the characters in both works are wild bodies, or "things". To say this, however, does not entirely account for Lewis's method of approach to the subject. He tells us that while it is impossible to breach the gap between the two, between flesh and spirit, between not-being and being (and that, in fact, such an effort of self-observation would be disastrous—"Such consciousness must be of the nature of a thunderbolt. Laughter is only summer lightning.") yet "The root of the Comic is to be sought in the sensations resulting from the observations of a thing behaving like a person". He gives as an example of this Kantian instance of incongruity, a man running for a train and just catching it in time, the comic effect being produced by the sight of his nicely calculating eye in contrast with his body which is like a sack of potatoes. "His eye I decided was the key to the absurdity of the effect."
In other words, the eye, prototype of the intelligence for Lewis, is detached in an anomalous fashion, which is absurd, from the action of the body, and this detachment, one microcosmic of Lewis's political views, too, is the basis of his comedy. "The deepest root of the Comic is to be sought in this anomaly."
Thus, in order to project the wild body, Kerr-Orr, the showman, must, like Tarr, possess a high intelligence quotient. Such is what we find. Kerr-Orr's approach is a detachment, he says, between his "gut-bag" and his "two bright rolling marbles", or "bull's-eyes full of mockery and madness". He confesses to these two "Me's" and claims "I hang somewhere in its midst operating it with detachment". This showman, then, may observe and put on the platform for us "puppets", wild bodies, or "Appropriate dummies" (as he called the same element in One-Way Song), creatures so elementary they are lifeless machines, gargoyles engaged in a ritual, a ritual resembling the dance of an inferior religion—"All religion has the mechanism of the celestial bodies, has a dance." Kerr-Orr explains that the kind of laughter he represents must be primitive in origin, and is therefore easily located in the peasant communities of Brittany. For the primitive Breton peasant, he tells us, usually designs his laughter to wound. With him the Comic is "always strenuous and cruel" indeed, since for him it is part of fate. That is, he cannot rise above his circumstances and so remains identified, even in laughter, with the often brutal nature of his everyday work. Kerr-Orr here goes on to explain that the civilized man is a greater realist because his philosophic understanding, or imaginative appreciation (as in the artist), enables him to transcend the primitive condition of the peasant who stays "surrounded by signs, not things". "The Cornac" exemplifies this, for the laughter at this clown is torn out of the Breton peasant's own life, and is a means of revenge for the onlookers on this life to which they are so hopelessly subject. This, then, is what "Inferior Religions", the section of the book Lewis tells us explains the title and where T. S. Eliot, in The Egoist, saw genius, really means. In his essay, "The Dithyrambic Spectator", there is a passage dealing with religion which substantiates this. In fact, the real meaning of "Inferior Religions" is hinted at when we find Lewis writing to Lord Carlow at the time of the English publication of The Wild Body as follows:
The pattern of these 'wild bodies' is all made up out of the shape of living people, into which, as you will see, was introduced the principle of a fanatical obsession, which accounted for the pattern: showing how energetic men attach themselves to an inferior cult, lacking a greater one. Since to-day is the day of Inferior Religions, as you will agree, how very topical these stories are!
In this way "The fascinating imbecility of the creaking men machines . . . involved in a monotonous rhythm from morning till night" gives us the "set narrow intoxication" of someone like the Frenchman of "A Soldier of Humour", enslaved to his desire to become more American than the Americans (a prescient critique, indeed). All these "great comic effigies" (as he called them later) live in "a pattern as circumscribed and complete as a theorem of Euclid". They are "essays in a new human mathematic", "bobbins" or "studies in a savage worship and attraction". They are merely enacting inferior religions, symbols of what Lewis has called our "little age". This idea, of idiotic service to some mechanistic ritual, underlies all Lewis's satire and affects both theme and imagery. Even in the recent Rotting Hill we find that what he really objects to in contemporary England is the people's "will-to-live as a machine". Only the detaching power of unholy laughter can free us from the spurious philosophies of our day. Introducing his 1921 exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, Lewis defined the Tyro (a periodical of which name he was editing this year) as follows: "An elementary person; an elemental, in short." And he goes on,
"These immense novices brandish their appetites in their faces, lay bare their teeth in a valedictory, inviting, or merely substantial laugh. . . . This sunny commotion in the face, at the gate of the organism, brings to the surface all the burrowing and interior broods which the individual may harbour."
In short, laughter reveals reality. And although Lewis gives other explanations of his characters (which are obviously not to be ignored), the evidence given in the stories themselves is that the Frenchman is a wild body to the inferior religion of his would-be Americanism, the "Poles" of their "literary political" state of exile and of parasitic and poetic indolence, Carl of his crude appetites, of his "stupid madness, or commonplace wildness", Zoborov of his fight with Mademoiselle Péronette for the Beau Séjour, while "the odious brown person of Bestre" is enslaved to the ritual of his ocular warfare with the painter Rivière. The Cornac, with his wife and "haggard offspring", are slaves of their "implacable grudge" against their public, a "death struggle", as Kerr-Orr describes it, with an audience who long nightly for these clowns to break their necks. In brief, all these puppets are presented as "carefully selected specimens of religious fanaticism".
This juxtaposition of animal-machine, often in a caricature of religious ritual, percolates the whole of Lewis's work. Lord Osmund, in The Apes, gives thus "the effect of the jouissant animal—the licking, eating, sniffing, fat-muzzled machine". Lady Fredigonde, seated in her chair which is for her an "elaborate animal dwelling", moves her head "upon the ruined clockwork of her trunk". The magnificently described peasant girl at the opening of The Revenge For Love walks with "great clockwork hips", while one of Jack Cruze's secretaries here sways her hips in front of Tristy "in clockwork rhythm". Jack himself is a "love-machine". Coriolanus, we are told in The Lion and the Fox, is "congealed into a kind of machine of unintelligent pride". In The Tyro No. 3 a character called X. defines himself as "an animal", calls his friends Q. and D.T. automata, and has the following exchange with an interlocutor called F.:
"F.—'I feel that my words, as I utter them, are issuing from a machine. I appear to myself a machine, whose destiny it is to ask questions.'"
"X—'The only difference is that I am a machine that is constructed to provide you with answers. I am alive, however. But I am beholden for life to machines that are asleep.'"
This technique is particularly pervasive in The Wild Body,for what is it that Kerr-Orr (or "Cairo" as he is also called, hinting at Lewis's interest in Egyptian art, perhaps) learns concerning the pseudo-American Frenchman but "the important secret of this man's entire machine", while, looking at "Father Francis" (or "The Musician" as he appears in manuscript form), he wonders "what emotions had this automaton experienced before he accepted outcast life?" This reverend father's passion is, indeed, "stereotyped into a frenzied machine".
In The Revenge For Love this puppetry is taken one stage further and we are faced, I think, with an interesting question. For, with two exceptions, this book is peopled by "machines" or "things"; in fact, it was originally entitled False Bottoms, everything in it being a false bottom from the basket taken to Hardcaster at the beginning (food covering seditious material) to the Stamp's car at the end, even to Margot's death over a precipice, another sort of false bottom. These communists live "the machine-life of an hysterical, half-conscious, underworld", they are "sham underdogs". Percy himself is a "shell of the rational man". (Father Francis is first seen as a "shell" by Kerr-Orr.) Yet it is difficult to read this book without feeling some pity for the uncompromising Hardcaster, not so much because of the physical injuries he suffers, as because he realizes the unreality of his companions or realizes, to paraphrase Lewis himself, that politics can never be "good" but we must live in a political world. "Do you suppose that these people are real? Do you think they exist?" even Victor asks Margot, whose love of another sort (emotional as opposed to intellectual) is revenged for equal refusal to conform to the falsification of our world. Yet it is not enough to say that Percy—or Margot—"prolongs his authenticity unpardonably," as the admirably intelligent jacket of the recent Methuen re-issue of this novel puts it. One simply cannot read the last paragraphs of The Revenge For Love without pity for Margot, or even without agreeing with Roy Campbell in Light On a Dark Horse when he suggests that under "the frozen mask of misanthropy" Lewis can write astonishing lyrical prose when he wishes. Yet we are told, in Rude Assignment, to read this work dispassionately. Kreisler, whom he describes as "a machine (a 'puppet', not a 'nature')", is "expected to awaken neither sympathy nor repulsion in the reader". Hardcaster is likened to Groucho Marx and Blasting and Bombardiering provides the rider that Karl Marx's function in our society was similar to that of the Marx Brothers. The last advice given in "The Code of A Herdsman", in The Ideal Giant publication, is "The terrible processions beneath are not of our making, and are without our pity." In this sense, The Apes of God may be the nearest to "pure" satire Lewis has written, as he himself has recently suggested, though I would myself put The Wild Body up as a close contender for this kind of "pure", dispassionate gift in his canon. But The Revenge For Love raises another point.
It is answered, I believe, in two ways; first, that in his comments on his own work Lewis is often thinking of the creator. The creator, for him, must remain totally aloof, free of passion, and register the truth. We, however, as readers, and indeed as "things", may presumably be permitted a moment's pity for puppets like Margot in whom we recognize such as a heartrending account of part of our condition. Secondly, Lewis's satire admittedly treads a hairline with tragedy. "We are tragic beings", he has written in Rude Assignment. Exactly. How does The Childermass close but with Polemon's acclaimed remarks to the Bailiff, "'Agreed, puppet, and we on our side will treat you as though you were real for the purpose of this examination. So the battle for the reality can be joined for the idea of reality. Who is to be real—this hyperbolical puppet or we? Answer, oh destiny!'" When we read that Mr. Patricks, the shopkeeper of Rotting Hill who resembles Sartre in looks, "is himself like a wound-up toy", we are reading a tragic statement. For if the majority of human beings today are simply "monuments of dead imperfection", like the "things" of The Wild Body, it is scarcely a matter for rejoicing. So we read in this work.
"Laughter is the representative of tragedy when tragedy is away. . . . Laughter is the emotion of tragic delight. . . . Laughter is the female of tragedy."
Again, "'Comedy being always the embryo of Tragedy'", Tarr says to Bertha, "'the director nature weeps'." Introducing his 1937 exhibition, Lewis wrote, "as what we experience in life is not all pleasant, and the most terrible experience, even, is often the most compelling, the result is a tragic picture, as often as not". "There is laughter and laughter, and that of true satire is as it were a tragic laughter", he wrote in Satire and Fiction, a pamphlet in defence of The Apes of God. So Bestre is "a tragic organism", while the Frenchman "was convinced the greater part of the time that he was taking part in a tragedy". In short, what he has called the "tragi-comic" method of his painting is that of his early satire and the comic type is primarily a "thing" failing in intellectual energy in a basically tragic way:
"A comic type is a failure of a considerable energy, an imitation and standardizing of self, suggesting the existence of a uniform humanity—creating, that is, a little host as like as ninepins."
Such satire, then, plays on an obtuseness to difference—"All difference is energy." Consequently, as it cannot help but be concerned with the reform as well as exposure of vice and folly, it must be strong and militant. Kerr-Orr says, "Violence is of the essence of laughter (as distinguished from smiling wit): it is merely the inversion of failure of force." Kerr-Orr, we note, is a soldier of humour; he is to be found "manoeuvring in the heart of the reality", and when he finds life, his inclination is "to make war on it and to cherish it as a lover, at once". His laughter, explicitly, is "reminiscent of war". Again, "Everywhere where formerly I would fly at throats, I now howl with laughter." Bestre combines man's laughter and manslaughter in his formidable eye. So does also an early character called Beresin, in an uncollected short story, "The War Baby". "Smiling wit", however, is what Lewis calls "Humour" rather than "Satire", a distinction he elaborates in the first part of Rude Assignment. In association with Kerr-Orr, one should add, "humour" has not taken on this pejorative connotation. In Blasting and Bombardiering he wrote that Blast No. 1 accorded the first "blast" to humour (in the sense of cosy wit of the Punch type); actually he was incorrect, humour is assigned the fifth "blast" as "Quack ENGLISH drug. . . . Arch enemy of REAL". It gets the third "bless" when in the hands of Shakespeare and Swift, and Blast No. 2 confirms, "The English 'Sense of Humour' is the greatest enemy of England".
It but remains to point out that the method of presenting these puppets is by the manner Lewis calls "fiction from the outside" or "the philosophy of the eye". This only applies to technique, the artistic impulse is by no means necessarily visual—"There can be no pure visual impulses in the art of Letters, I believe." The eye, for Lewis, is life. Ludo, the blind beggar of Rot in "The Death of the Ankou", represents the figure of death, himself dies. (The word Rot conveniently combines for Lewis both a Breton commune and a belch—in One-Way Song, he wrote, "I belch. I bawl. I drink.") In Rotting Hill, Rot is what is affecting, in its many forms, contemporary England, and in the title story, "The Rot", the narrator significantly says No to a representative of this new society. Thus when Rymer enters here with a patch over one eye and eructates, he is halfway to Ludo and ironically reminiscent of his creator who is now himself tragically blind, about the most cruel fate that could have been devised for the author, in Blast No. 2, of the statement, "My soul has gone to live in my eyes, and like a bold young lady it lolls in those sunny windows."
In The Art of Being Ruled Lewis wrote, "I am an artist, and, through my eye, must confess to a tremendous bias. In my purely literary voyages my eye is always my compass." Blenner, in Blast No. 2, has very bright eyes, as opposed to the crowd around him who are blind. In The Tyro No. 2 Lewis wrote that the eye gives us "an incessant analysis of the objects presented to us for the practical purposes of our lives". This is the method that gives us the caricatures of The Wild Body. Whether or not the English art critic, Patrick Heron, is correct in claiming that Lewis, in his graphic work, always finds the outline first, certainly such is his technique in his "fiction from the outside". "The ossature", he wrote in Satire and Fiction, "is my favourite part of a living animal organism." "Give me the outside of things", he repeated in Blasting and Bombardiering. And in that important chapter at the end of Tarr, where Anastasya asks Tarr to define art and life, Tarr claims that a statue lives by its external form, by its absence of "inside". He says, "this is another condition of art; to have no inside", and he goes on, in a paragraph omitted from the revised edition, to explain this:
"Instead, then, of being something impelled like a machine by a little egoistic fire inside, it lives soullessly and deadly by its frontal lines and masses."
In The Wild Body Deborah uses her eyes as weapons against Sigismund, "she threw knives at him sometimes with her eyes", while of course for Bestre the eye is an armament of some consequence. Significantly, Kerr-Orr confesses that he has learnt a lot from Bestre. "He is one of my masters." This militant use of the eye against the surface of things naturally produces machine imagery, especially that of military machinery, like "bombs". Take the word "disc", an object whose shape was meaning much to Lewis in his graphic work of this time: the Frenchman's eyes are found fixed on Kerr-Orr "with the blankness of two metal discs". Bestre's hand is a "pudgy hieratic disc", while in bed Deborah's "flat disc of face lay sideways on the pillow". The vorticist eye of young Will Blood (originally Will Eccles in The Tyro No. 1) catches Gladys, "the dreary waitress, in her bored jazz", and,
"Models her with his blue eye into a bomb-like shape at once, associating with this a disc—a marble table—and a few other objects in the neighbourhood".
Before Percy and Jack fight in The Revenge For Love their eyes "signalled defiance". Even the fatalistic Kreisler's eyelids are to be found "clapping to like metal shutters".
It will be objected that Lewis is not always consistent, in the rest of his work, with this ideal of "fiction from the outside". It is true that there are notable instances of the interior monologue, or stream of consciousness, such as, to select the most obvious examples, the handling of Lady Fredigonde in The Apes or Satters in The Childermass. But in Satire and Fiction Lewis explains that the interior monologue can be used justifiably in satire either as a parody of the interior monologue (such as in the "Stein-Stutter" sequence in The Apes or the skit on Virginia Woolf's style at the start of Part VI of The Revenge For Love) or it can be used, appropriately, to describe the thought-streams of the very young, the very aged, half-wits or animals. It was to these categories that he again confined the technique of the interior monologue in Louise Morgan's interview with him in Writers at Work.
Satire, then, such as we have in The Wild Body, affords the possibilities of "a great externalist art", and indeed, he wrote in 1930, "Satire is in reality nothing else but the truth". Exactly twenty years later he wrote, "where there is truth to life there is satire". What is truth? He has defined truth, in The Writer and the Absolute, as "what is". Conversely, Kemp, in The Ideal Giant, says, "Reality is the 'thing which is not', for the creative artist". That is to say, life as we "futile, grotesque, and sometimes pretty spawn" live it is a sham, a "reality" only. The honest artist can alone provide truth and satire, being closest to "the 'classical' manner of apprehending" can best give us that picture of ourselves which alone will lead to reform. The odd, lively, and picaresque characterizations of The Wild Body are not to be thought of as eccentric, but rather as arithmetical equations of life, stereotyped "things". Or, better, in Tarr's words, "The Many they are the eccentric. . . . "
Satire, dealing with men not manners, unconcerned with pleasure ("If you want to be 'happy'," Lewis once advised, "you must not be a man, but a pig.") relying on the least emotional of our senses, can alone truly reform. And by implication the theory of the wild body itself suggests that our tragedy is that we live historically, rather than satirically—"the romantic traditional outlook . . . results in most men living in an historic past", we read in The Diabolical Principle and The Dithyrambic Spectator. Satire is the only realism that exists for Lewis, so much so that when I asked him recently in conversation whether a forthcoming work of his we had been discussing was to be a satire, he corrected me by replying, "They call my work satire". In Paleface he believed that the
"tragic sloth, and unwillingness to admit anything unpleasant of the Many, is our main difficulty in proposing a change of orientation for our satire, or indeed in proposing a realistic effort of any sort."
We do not satirize, that is, what we are, so much as what we have been; we tend to smile at the foibles of our past and thus fail to progress. Only the laughter, therefore, lives, for only he knows the perpetual present. Only he can be the true realist and the fully civilized man. For only the individual who sees all satirically, externally, and non-romantically, is, in the final analysis, the "person", or Nature, of the political ideal. So Lewis could write, over a quarter of a century ago:
"What I shall especially neglect is to analyse the artificial character of this puritanical gloom, settling in a dense political smoke-screen about us, gushed from both official and unofficial reservoirs. I shall confine myself to remarking that the person who meets all these sham glooms with an anguished De Profandis, in-instead of a laugh (however unpleasant), is scarcely wise, though he may be good."
1 The last part of The Writer of the Absolute deals with the work of George Orwell, whose language Wyndham Lewis rather naturally finds pedestrian and his ideas insipid. This provoked an attack from the pen of V. S. Prichett in The New York Times recently. Interestingly, Orwell is the only writer—with the possible exception of Gertrude Stein—attacked by Wyndham Lewis both for his writing and for his influence. It must be remembered that in all his attacks on leading writers of his day Lewis nearly always accords considerable significance and executive skill; cp. "Ernest Hemingway is a very considerable artist in prose fiction," Joyce is "a writer of great importance," Lawrence is "one of the most justly celebrated of English novelists." Their work as diagnostic of our civilization is what he criticises. Mr. Grigson does not make this quite clear in his sympathetic little study, A Master of Our Time.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2188
SOURCE: "Tarr into Cantelman," in Wyndham Lewis, New Directions, 1954, pp. 49-57.
[In the following excerpt, Kenner contends that the protagonist of Lewis's short story "Cantelman 's Spring-Mate " is a fusion of two characters, Tarr and Kreisler, from his novel Tarr, and embodies Lewis's interest in the interrelated conflicts between mind and body, logic and emotion, intellect and animal nature.]
Lewis joined the army as a bombardier, shortly after finishing Tarr, and took his problems with him to France. Out of the complex experience of the war came two new efforts at focus: a story called "Cantelman's Spring-Mate" and an essay, "Inferior Religions."
"Cantelman's Spring-Mate,"3 the best of his early stories, which Joyce and Pound admired and on account of which, it is now difficult to believe, an issue of the Little Review was banned from the mails three years before the more notorious affaire Bloom, presents a new Lewis persona, an amalgam of Tarr's detachment and Kreisler's scornful sensuality. This fusion is conveyed by a new mutation of the Lewis prose, a thick suave pigment, marvelously sensuous, yet crisper and more conscious than anything in Tarr. The affairs of the body—specifically, sexual affairs—are consigned, Tarr-fashion, to mechanism; they aren't touched by Kreisler's hysterical sense of doom. At least, Cantelman doesn't think they are. he is free, therefore, to indulge in Kreislerian sensualities, and if only because he doesn't fend off the sensual world with an epigram, his human reality is superior to that of Tarr. He notices the redness of a chance girl's cheeks, the animal fulness of the childbearing hips, "with an eye as innocent as the bird or the beast," and laughs "without shame or pleasure."
Cantelman is an infantry officer on leave; hence his urgent compulsion to bring the world into focus as a Dance of Death. He is half conscious, half animal; and it is human consciousness that has brought the War about. "Had it not been for that unmaterial gift that some bungling or wild hand had bestowed, our sisters and brothers would be no worse than dogs or sheep. . . . Should not the sad human amalgam, all it did, all it willed, all it demanded, be thrown over, for the fake and confusion that it was, and should not such as possessed a greater quantity of that wine of reason retire, metaphorically, to the wilderness, and sit forever in a formal and gentle elation, refusing to be disturbed?"
This is the Tarr component of Cantelman talking: Cantelman is a Tarr whom the exigencies of war have pressed into enforced brotherhood with legions of inferior beings. In his Parisian art world, Tarr moved freely enough not to have thoughts about other people forced on him. They were foolish, no doubt, but their foolishness wasn't dragging him toward death. Cantelman's "present occupation, the trampling boots on his feet, the belt that crossed his back, was his sacrifice, his compliment to, the animal." No such sacrifice was exacted of Tarr. Kreisler underwent that for him.
The army hasn't even nonanimal compensations. Cantelman regards his brother-officers with "steady gnawing anger at such a concentration of furious foolishness." He shares their uniform but not their fatuous veneration for their own status as officers and gentlemen. Out of disgust with the human ("the newspapers were the things that stank most on earth, and human beings anywhere were the most ugly and offensive of the brutes because of the confusion caused by their consciousness"), he decides, since no rational oasis offers itself, to retreat to "the madness of natural things" and take a casual spring mate; the creatures of nature in spring are busily copulating, and neither copulation nor death is for the bird or the insect anything but a mechanically violent matter of course. Since an animal occupation is exacted of him, he may as well play the part fully.
In the narrow road where they got away from the village, Cantelman put his arm around Stella's waist and immediately experienced all the sensations that he had been divining in the creatures around him; the horse, the bird, and the pig. The way in which Stella's hips stood out, the solid blood-heated expanse on which his hand lay, had the amplitude and flatness of a mare. Her lips had at once no practical significance, but only the aesthetic embellishment of a bull-like flower.
He immediately discerns that Nature has trapped his antiromanticism in romance, that his appetites, instead of revenging him on the merely human, have engaged him with death. Stella is, like all women, he reflects, "contaminated with Nature's hostile power."
With a treachery worthy of a Hun, Nature tempted him towards her. He was drugged with delicious appetites. Very well! he would hoist the unseen power with his own petard. He would throw back Stella where she was discharged from, (if it were allowable, now, to change her into a bomb) first having relieved himself of this humiliating gnawing and yearning in his blood.
So on their third meeting, when she enfolds him "with long arms, full of the contradictory and offending fire of spring," Cantelman to the ceaseless tune of a nightingale turns to "the devouring of his mate." "He felt that he was raiding the bowels of Nature, not fecundating the Aspasias of our flimsy flesh, or assuaging, or competing with, the nightingale." He remains convinced that his gesture of contemptuous possession has outwitted Nature; in the trenches he reads gravely through her frequent letters about an expected child without comment, and fails to perceive that the animal world, in so perpetuating itself, has in fact made use of him.
The theme of this story, that one's willed assessment of the emotional texture of things does not in fact liberate one from their logic, is crucial in Lewis's best fiction. That at least is what Lewis would want the commentator to say. In point of fact, a certain critical charity is involved in calling it the theme of "Cantelman." One needs to read very closely and sympathetically to see that though Cantelman twice creates his own poetic world, each time under the impression that he is seeing things as they are, he is all the time unawares playing an insignificant part in a real world inaccessible to human notation. A less finicky reading reveals Lewis's prime energy flowing into Illusion No. 1, Cantelman's "tough" identification of himself with the amatory processes of nature, and an imperfect contrast between this and Illusion No. 2, Cantelman's "undeceived" perception that "the miraculous camouflage of Nature" harbors "everywhere gun-pits and 'nests of death.'" The final sentences, where schematically the screw should turn, sound tacked on: "And when he beat a German's brains out, it was with the same impartial malignity that he had displayed in the English night with his spring-mate. Only he considered there, too, that he was in some way outwitting Nature; he had no adequate realization of the extent to which, evidently, the death of a Hun was to the advantage of the animal world."
Animal life thrives on death and is polarized toward it; hence the more animal people are, the more lethal. The paradox that won't quite dissipate is that one doesn't deal with animals but with "the sad human amalgam." Whether you try to deal with it as rational or as animal, the presence of the other component prevents it from seeming quite real. "Inferior Religions" (published in 1917) is an attempt to focus, in a way useful to the artist, this conviction of human unreality and the contrary conviction of human significance.
Lewis the artist has been intensely interested in people all his working life ("who would paint a tree when he could paint a man?"); it has been an anomalous, trancelike interest, however. It is in part professional necessity that underlies this anomalousness. The painter who responds not to a fashionable itch but to a deep creative necessity contemplates people because he wants to do something with them. They are food for his work. The nature of his work requires him to concentrate on their animal integuments; but the emotions behind this work (assuming that he is not painting them because he is paid to), the emotions which he will seek to incarnate in his rendering of this integument, preoccupy him with their saturnine inscrutability; it is difficult to say whether they are emotions engendered in him by creative pressure alone, or by his response to some mystery concealed in his subjects. So what sort of reality underlies this animal form was a subject for Lewisian speculations from the days when the young painter, fresh from two years at Rugby and two more at the Slade School of Art, was working in Paris and Munich and spending summers in Brittany.
In coastal Brittany, his first lunar world, where the peasant language, still Celtic, bristles with angry sibilants, Lewis first cultivated his novelist's eye. "The Atlantic air, the raw rich visual food of the barbaric environment, the squealing of the pipes, the crashing of the ocean, induced a creative torpor. Mine was now a drowsy sun-baked ferment, watching with delight the great comic effigies which erupted beneath my rather saturnine but astonished gaze." The three stories in the 1909 English Review are sketches of these comic effigies; "Inferior Religions" was written to preface a fuller collection of them, which for various reasons did not appear until 1927 (The Wild Body). The Breton figures are "intricately moving bobbins"; Brotcotnaz for instance, a fisherman who regularly beats his wife, "is fascinated by one object, one at once another vitality. He bangs up against it wildly at regular intervals, blackens it, contemplates it, moves round it and dreams. All such fascination is religious."
But this activity, while comic, is mechanical: the intricate lurching of the carapace. When you see people in that way, you are ignoring whatever warmth and allure human beings put forth. That is precisely why this way of seeing recommended itself to Lewis as an artistic vision. That is also why he discarded the sensuous part of the "Cantelman" prose—a rich enough medium for sexual themes to make D. H. Lawrence sound philosophic—and exaggerated its crispness to the point of mechanism. Instead of, Rubens-like, "borrowing the colour of Life's crude blood, tracing the sprawling and surging of its animal hulks," the artist desiderated by him would recognize that human reality lies far below blood and hulks. But since human realities are inaccessible to inspection, he would remain convinced of the essential unreality of the "personality" whose gestures he can depict. It is a screen maneuvered in front of the unspeakable, or in front of a void. Hence the most arresting section of the essay:
The chemistry of personality (subterranean in a sort of cemetery, whose decompositions are our lives) puffs up in frigid balls, soapy Snowmen, arctic carnival-masks, which we can photograph and fix.
Upwards from the surface of existence a lurid and dramatic scum oozes and accumulates into the characters we see. The real and tenacious poisons, the sharp forces of vitality, do not socially transpire. . . . Capriciously, however, the froth-forms of these darkly-contrived machines twist and puff in the air, in our legitimate and liveried masquerade.
Though this social world, the artist's material, is unreal, we have now discovered its significance. What it signifies is the degree of tension within.
You may blow away a man-of-bubbles with a burgundian gust of laughter, but that is not a personality, it is an apparition of no importance. But so much correspondence has it with its original that, if the cadaveric travail beneath it is vigorous and bitter, the dummy or mask will be of a more original grotesqueness.
There are duller lives, however, for whom this chemical imagery of ferment and travail would imply too much. They are the robot ready-mades of his next group of novels (1927-32); ". . . a certain category of spirit that is not quite inanimate and yet not very funny. It consists of those who take, at the Clarkson's4 situated at the opening of our lives, some conventional Pierrot costume. This is intended to assure them a minimum of strain, of course, and so is a capitulation. In order to evade life we must have recourse to these uniforms, but such a choice leaves nothing but the white and ethereal abstraction of the shadow of laughter."
Impressively written as this is, it really brings us back to Tarr again. "The travail within" remains private. There is still no formula for envisaging these persons in interaction. Their social machinery interacts, their mechanical bodies interact, and that is all. The essential person—whatever that may be—is enclosed in his private world. What has happened is that Lewis's way of visualizing his characters one at a time has been elevated into a theory about the way the characters exist. And all this—and so all Lewis's fiction—has its germ in the entranced sunbaked torpor with which Lewis, himself congealed, he has confessed, "in a kind of cryptic immaturity," observed on the Breton shingle the primitive antics of an alien race.
3 Reprinted 1953 in the Little Review Anthology.
4 Clarkson's: London theatrical costumer's.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1725
SOURCE: "Self Condemned: Last Wills and Testaments," in Wyndham Lewis, Twayne Publishers, 1968, pp. 136-65.
[In the following excerpt from a book-length study of Lewis's life and work, Pritchard considers Lewis's collection of stories Rotting Hill an artistic failure, noting that the collection 's lack of vitality and imagination mirrors the grey austereness of socialist Britain that was the target of Lewis's reproach in the stories.]
Before his fiction and criticism of the 1950's began to appear, Lewis published Rude Assignment, a last enormous effort to explain, justify, qualify, and assert once more various positions he had taken—or had been accused by others of taking. An invaluable document about his past as revealed in the books he wrote, it is perhaps not to be read through or appreciated as an entity so much as to be consulted for the backgrounds and outlines of controversies and misunderstandings. Ideally, Rude Assignment was to clear the air and reveal what a considerable writer (and, incidentally, splendid chap) was Mr. Wyndham Lewis. There is no indication that the book accomplished this objective, but with the publication of Rotting Hill in the following year Lewis entered a period when, for the first time since the late 1920's, he was accorded some kind of recognition, however embarrassed or grudging it often sounded. But the relative attention he enjoyed did not affect the character of his books—as contrasted with the way a much greater public recognition encouraged Faulkner's self-congratulatory rhetoric during the same period. Mr. Rose is undeniably right when he suggests that the evidence of the letters shows the Enemy to have mellowed, yet no softening of fiber is to be found in the novels and short stories that are explicitly preoccupied with the human condition in an epoch of more bad times than were dreamt of in the 1930's.
Generalizing about the concerns of this fiction must take account of the fact that it varies greatly within itself as to quality: Rotting Hill, and even more so The Red Priest, are vastly inferior to Self Condemned and The Human Age; still, the books are united in that none of them displays technique as an object for admiration. It is instructive to compare the austerely highbrow opening of Tarr ("Paris hints of sacrifice. But here we deal with that large dusty facet known to indulgent and congruous kind:") with these sentences from the Foreword to Rotting Hill: "If I write about a hill that is rotting, it is because I deplore rot. For the decay of which I write is not romantic decay. . . . If we exist, shabby, ill-fed, loaded with debt (taxed more than any men at any time have ever been), let us recognize that the sole explanation of this is our collective stupidity. . . . The most recent wars have entirely altered our lives, that is all we can say." This alteration seems to be of such magnitude as to make stylistic inventiveness inappropriate, an anachronistic survival in the age of socialism and the welfare state; and certainly it is true that the stories in this book exhibit a lessened vitality consonant with the low-grade pain that throbs through most of them.
The book's title was suggested, Lewis tells us coyly in a footnote, by "a friend in Washington" who had gleefully penetrated to what truly underlay his Notting Hill address. The friend, residing in Washington in a rather special sense, was Ezra Pound; the "rot" had in fact invaded Lewis' apartment; and in the story of that title he imagines a snarling carpenter addressing him with axe in hand: "You can keep your plaster and your rotten wood, Mr. Lewis! You are the dry rot I'm after." Lewis, who is on stage through most of the volume, finds himself harried by plumbers and carpenters, cultivated by a socialist clergyman who wants to buy one of his pictures ("The Bishop's Fool"), and plagued by a devotee of spontaneous child art ("My Disciple") or by an up-to-date undergraduate with strong leftist opinions ("My Fellow-Traveler to Oxford").
Clearly it is difficult to generate much dramatic excitement when the author, in propria persona, lounges about receiving visitors or dealing with workmen; so the best parts of these often too relaxed narratives are the conversations about England's postwar experiment and attempted recovery. Their thinness as art is evident in that they do not deepen upon rereading; this remark will not sound like carping when we add that Rotting Hill is the first of Lewis' fictions about which it could be made.
Although the stories contain a few bright moments of well-being, their prevailing atmosphere is one of failure. It is often assumed, mistakenly, that Rotting Hill is simply a document of Lewis' own contempt and hatred for socialist Britian; this reading can be arrived at only by disregarding much of what happens in the stories and by ignoring the biographical note that very obviously enters them. Lewis' letters reveal that he had staked a good deal on his knowledge, even his hope, that the postwar world would be a new era, though he knew also that to be reborn into it might well be a grueling process, especially as old age came on. In a letter to Sturge Moore, previously quoted, the placid world of Hampstead domesticity was looked back on, but not to the obscuring of future necessities: "Whereas the very scale and intensity of the misery that will threaten every nation afterwards will assure heroic measures of public control, which automatically should end the selfish chaos into which our western society had drifted—I hope I am not too sanguine." Whether or not Lewis was sanguine, the stories in Rotting Hill testify that even war and exile could not turn the professional satirist into a revolutionary enthusiast. What they did instead was take most of the joy out of the satire, and replace it with a combination of annoyance and self-reproach; it is as if the carpenter had really said to Mr. Lewis that "You are the dry rot I'm after."
In only one story, "Time the Tiger," does Lewis manage to objectify his conflicting responses to the new society. It is in the heart of the story's hero, Mark Robins, that the low-grade pain is concentrated; and his heart is in tune with the London morning: "The sky was a constipated mass, yellowed by the fog, suspending over a city awaiting the Deluge." The pain finds ample correlation in the most unpromising of materials for the encouragement of anything but low-grade action: shirts with too small buttonholes, too short shoelaces, vulgarly colored postwar tweeds, uncuttable bread, a tea made by combining "alleged Darjeeling" with "pseudo Ceylon," and, for breakfast, something called Strawberry Jam "recognized by housewives as mainly pectin / or carrot pulp, given appropriate colour of course and flavor to match."
Mark's best friend, Charles Dyat, has decided not to cooperate with the new austerity but to make use of whatever bribes and other shady devices can improve creature comforts. To Charles' cynicism, Mark responds with an earnest defense of the Labour government, and eventually makes the point that he is not a convert to socialism but rather has been reborn a socialist since the world in which he and Charles grew up no longer exists. The seeing of an Existententialist film Time the Tiger is the occasion for an extension of the argument about immediate effects and harassments into the philosophic; it is Mark's tendency to replace the image of time as devourer with a less melodramatic one—that of time as a firework fizzling away. And indeed, at dinner with Charles' sister Ida, who is a romantic image of timelessness for Mark, things fizzle away: the Dyats insult Bevan and the socialists; Mark is shocked and annoyed; the dinner and the relationship fall to pieces.
Nothing would have been easier, especially considering what Lewis' fiction has made of previous men of commitment, to expose Mark's naïveté and have him learn something about the incommensurability of politics and the individual. But such an easy score is no longer open to Lewis—at least in this story. The hero's depression is a product of trying to hold the idea of a socialist experiment in his mind while he spoons out strawberry pectin or whatever it may be; as such, the repression cannot be relieved by instant fictional solutions. Or to use another image, the rot is there; and no reason presents itself for its not remaining there in the foreseeable future.
Rotting Hill is the greyest and least artistic of Lewis' fictions because it virtually admits that the imagination is powerless and irrelevant in the new world to which men have been reborn. Yet, and this is the particular fascination and difficulty in dealing with such a work, this collection of stories is in many ways a more admirable and valuable book to have appeared in 1951 than the productions of writers who made the transition from an old world to a new one with effortless smoothness. The limitations of most of these stories are obvious enough; their virtue as a collection consists in the way they unfailingly place us in a material world—England as a recuperating patient who may be doctored to death by well-meaning socialist physicians.
More tentatively, the book is also Lewis' most candid and dispirited questioning of the efficacy of imaginative style in such a world. If the artist is really on the way out, then perhaps this most important of fizzles should be registered by at least one writer. There is a fanciful ending to the final story in the book titled "The Rot-Camp," where the "I," Wyndham Lewis, encounters in a suitably fantastic way first Roy Campbell and his retinue of bullbaiting aficionados, then Augustus John out hunting once more for gypsies, and finally Britannia herself looking shriveled and wasted, begging for alms. The author responds by dropping a lucky three-penny bit into her mug—which appears to contain a phony dollar bill: "In a cracked wheeze she sang 'Land of Hope and Glory.' I must confess that this last appartition, and its vulgar little song, rather depressed me." That Lewis then proceeded to disregard his own prediction of the extinction of art and to transform his depression into something else is the really marvelous story of the novels that follow Rotting Hill
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4479
SOURCE: "The Short Stories of Wyndham Lewis," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall, 1970, pp. 615-24.
[In the following essay, Materer discusses Lewis's comic theory and sense of irony in The Wild Body, arguing that the narrator of the sequence of stories, Ker-Orr, like Lewis, views the world from a detached but not disinterested perspective and sees comedy as springing from the discrepancies between human beings' physical bodies and intellectual aspirations.]
The short stories of Wyndham Lewis were enthusiastically received by critics like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot when they were first published and have earned renewed praise in the past few years. As an editor of The Little Review, Pound, supported by Eliot in The Egoist, championed Lewis' early writings and welcomed him as a fellow revolutionary.1 In recent years, V. S. Pritchett and John Holloway in England, as well as Raymond Rosenthal in America, have praised the restrained, sardonic style of Lewis' collection of stories, The Wild Body.2
Nevertheless, while satires like The Apes of God, novels like Self-Condemned, and criticism like Time and Western Man and The Lion and the Fox, are reissued in paperbacks, Lewis' stories appear only as isolated selections.3 Since his stories suffer more than most short pieces from being read apart from the original collection, the unavailability of The Wild Body is doubly unfortunate. Like Joyce's Dubliners, Lewis' stories are more a sequence than a collection. Narrated by a single character, the tales develop a richly comic thesis about the peasant life that they explore.
All but one of the stories have a Breton setting. They grow out of Lewis' experiences, a decade before he founded a school of abstract painters in London, as he travelled and painted in Brittany.4 Like Gauguin some twenty years before, Lewis left his Paris studio to find subjects more spontaneous and colorful among the Breton landscape. The influence of Lewis' painter's eye, we will see, animates every page with visual details.
Though not a painter, Ker-Orr, the narrator of The Wild Body, is an adventurous, self-sufficient wanderer like Lewis himself. He is a gay picaro who moves impulsively from inn to inn, where he meets characters as grotesque and vivid as any Henry Fielding found on the London road. Ker-Orr introduces himself, in the words of the title of the first story, as "A Soldier of Humour."5 Though an extremely violent man, he says that he makes one important concession to civilization: "where formerly I would fly at throats, I now howl with laughter": "The result is that I am never serious about anything. I simply cannot help converting everything into burlesque patterns. And I admit that I am disposed to forget that people are real—that they are, that is, not subjective patterns belonging specifically to me, in the course of this joke-life." (p. 4)
So obsessive is his comic sense that his own large, unwieldy body seems ridiculous to him: "This forked, strange-scented, blondskinned gut-bag, with its two bright rolling marbles with which it sees, bull's-eyes full of mockery and madness, is my stalking horse. I hang somewhere in its midst operating it with detachment." (p. 5)
This self-description explains what Lewis means by a "wild body." The humor, as well as the pathos, of man's nature is that his body is continually embarrassing his mind. This theory comes from Bergson, whose lectures Lewis attended at the Collège de France. In "Laughter," Bergson asks, "Why do we laugh at a public speaker who sneezes just at the most pathetic moment of his speech?"6 His answer elucidates much of Lewis' comic technique. If our attention is drawn, Bergson writes, to our physicality, it can make our intellectual or spiritual aspirations seem ridiculous—much as an inappropriate suit of clothes can make our body seem ridiculous. Such an emphasis on our material qualities suggests, he continues, that "the body is no more in our eyes than a heavy and cumbersome vesture, a kind of irksome ballast which holds down to the earth a soul eager to rise aloft. . . . inert matter dumped down upon living energy. The impression of the comic will be produced as soon as we have a clear apprehension of this putting the one on the other."7
The influence of this comic theory is increasingly evident in the first three stories of The Wild Body. In "A Soldier of Humour," Ker-Orr meets a Frenchman who speaks bad English with, however, a recognizably American accent. Rosenthal describes the story as a "prophetic farce—prophetic of the waves of Americanization which, some decades later, were to inundate Europe. . . ."8 The Frenchman, Valmore, has the idée fixe that he appears to everyone as an authentic American. But when Ker-Orr casually punctures his pretensions to Yankeeism, he makes an influential enemy who is able to turn the whole of a Spanish town, where Ker-Orr hopes to make an extended stay, against him. To the townspeople, Valmore is indeed an American; to them, Americanism is simply a function of Valmore's enormous wealth.
But Valmore's very appearance contradicts his claims to Americanism, which he can never forgive Ker-Orr for noticing. At first, however, his incongruous appearance is a riddle to Ker-Orr:
He was dressed with sombre floridity. In his dark purple-slate suit with thin crimson lines, in his dark red hat-band, in his rose-buff tie, swarming with cerulean fire-flies, in his stormily flowered waistcoat, you felt that his taste for the violent and sumptuous had everywhere struggled to assert itself, and everywhere been overcome. But by what? That was the important secret of this man's entire machine. . . . Had I been of a superior penetration the cut of his clothes in their awkward amplitude, with their unorthodox shoulders and belling hams, might have given me the key. (pp. 15-16)
The key of course is that he is dressed in his own deluded version of how an affluent American would dress. As in Bergson's theory of laughter, unrealistic pretensions lead to a rigid, mechanical approach to life. The reference to the "secret" (idée fixe that causes his rigidity) of Valmore's "entire machine" recalls Bergson's suggestion that "Something mechanical encrusted on the living" is the essence of the ridiculous.9
Though his dress provides the clue, his face is the real evidence; it is a standing embarrassment to his attempt to appear as his ideal of a boyish, open-handed American:
His straw hat served rather as a heavy coffee-colored nimbus—such as some browningesque florentine painter, the worse for drink, might have placed behind the head of his saint. Above his veined and redly sunburnt forehead gushed a ragged volute of dry black hair. His face had the vexed wolfish look of the grimy commercial Midi . . . it had been niggled at and worked all over . . . by a hundred little blows and chisellings of fretful passion, (p. 15)
The story develops leisurely as Lewis shows how Valmore's physical appearance betrays his pretensions.
But "A Soldier of Humour," like most of the stories in The Wild Body, avoids the static quality extensive description can produce. The story moves steadily toward an ironic reversal. As Ker-Orr is preparing to leave the town, Valmore has made unlivable for him, he meets three old American friends. Large, loud, vulgar, and wearing the authentically baggy clothes Valmore affects, they are true Americans. Under Ker-Orr's direction, they win the confidence of their "Fellow American" and then humiliate him by introducing Ker-Orr as a highly esteemed friend. The irony is that Valmore's rigidity has forced him to accept any American opinion as oracular and thus must welcome the man he most despises. The "soldier of humour" wins his first skirmish.
A similar reversal and concentration on external appearance emerge in the next story, the ironically titled "Beau Séjour." The setting of the story might have come from Joseph Andrews, but the characters bear the mark of Dostoyevsky (an early work like "The Landlady") as well as of Fielding. The main character is a Russian exile named Zoborov, a morose wandering-student type who has long ago stopped paying rent, thanks to the reluctance of the weak-willed innkeeper, Mademoiselle Péronnette, to throw him out. But Zoborov is an essential peacemaker in the quarrels of Péronnette with Carl, a huge German who became "engaged" to the landlady after she lent him a large sum of money. She is disgusted with Carl because he seduces the maids; Carl is disgusted with her because she will no longer lend him money. Ker-Orr does not see all this at first, but he obtains what he dryly calls an "insight. . . into the inner social workings" of the inn one night when he hears an uproar outside his room, which is across from Mademoiselle Péronnette's. As he looks across to her door, he sees a
long white black-topped lathe . . . contorted against it. It was [Carl] now quite naked. With his bare arms and shoulders he strained against the wood. . . . His eyes blazed above a black-bearded grin, with clownesque incandescence. He was black and white, dazzling skin and black patches of hair alternating. His thin knees were unsteady . . . his grin of protest wandered in an aimless circle, with me for centre. . . .
The floorboards groaned to the right, a stumpy figure in stocking feet, but otherwise clothed, emerged in assyrian profile, in a wrestling attitude, flat hands extended, rolling with professional hesitation, with factitious rudeness seized the emaciated nudity of the german giant beneath the waist, then disappeared with him bodily down the passage to the left. It was Zoborov in action. (pp. 72-73)
Though he does not pay his board, clearly Zoborov earns his keep.
Ker-Orr takes these goings-on with a droll detachment, as when he strolls into the kitchen one day: "but noticing that Carl was holding Mademoiselle Péronnette by the throat, and was banging her head on the kitchen table, I withdrew" (p. 76). These little domestic tensions explode one night when Péronnette is quietly mending socks, Ker-Orr is reading, and some of the parasitic lodgers, who, like Zoborov, are supposedly penniless Russian exiles, are loitering about. Carl suddenly appears and empties a revolver at Péronnette. Zoborov gets the blame for this shoot-up. The wild firing misses the innkeeper and wounds slightly one of the parasites; when Zoborov tires to help the wounded man, Péronnette denounces him as a troublemaker, and an emotional reconciliation with Carl takes place as they agree to use the peacemaking Russian as a scapegoat. A chaotic party is held to celebrate the new accord and to announce that Carl and Péronnette are now partners in the inn. But still another battle explodes that night. Ker-Orr leaves early next morning to avoid beholding the no doubt absurd outcome of another night of rushing forms in the corridor and wildly slamming doors.
The rebuke Zoborov receives at the hands of the "lovers" is an amusing comment on the thankless role of the peacemaker. But the dénouement of the story gives the tale a further twist. Ker-Orr returns a year later to the town to find Zoborov luxuriously dressed, with obsequious peasants crowding around him. As the Russian ostentatiously orders drinks, he explains that when the new partnership of Péronnette and Carl bankrupted the inn, he—Zoborov—simply bought it. Now, of course, it seems a foolish assumption to think, simply because he did not pay his board, that Zoborov had no money. What, Ker-Orr asks, happened to the other Russian parasites? The affluent Russian owner of a thriving Breton inn replies, "'Oh, I've cleared all that rubbish out! . . . I only have three Russians there now. I kept them on, poor devils. They help me with the work. Two act as valets. I know what Russians are, being one myself, you see! I have no wish to go bankrupt like Mademoiselle Péronnette.'" (pp. 106-107)
Lewis' descriptive prose and painter's eye are at their best in the third story, "Bestre." The plot of this story is even less complex than "A Soldier of Humour." It merely concerns the way another Breton innkeeper, Bestre, matches insulting grimaces with a Parisian painter. The gaiety and power of the story is in the verbal portraits of Bestre. All these descriptions illustrate the innkeeper's power to intimidate his enemies by the power of his piercing glances, which have an instinctive feeling "for his prey's most morbid spot; for an old wound; for a lurking vanity. . . . On a physical blemish he turns a scornful and careless rain like a garden hose" (pp. 127-128). Because of this ability, Ker-Orr tells us, "I learnt a great deal from Bestre. He is one of my masters" (p. 129). What Ker-Orr learns is the trick of spotting the revealing details in a person's physical appearance, like Valmore's strange dress and wolfish face, and of using them to reveal his character. Such a satiric technique came naturally to Lewis, who later painted the great character studies of Ezra Pound and Edith Sitwell that now hang in the Tate Gallery.
Ker-Orr satirizes Bestre's petty squabbles by showing how a rigid, mechanized quality characterizes his grimaces. "With a flexible imbrication reminiscent of a shutter-lipped ape, a bud of tongue still showing, he shot the latch of his upper lip down in front of the nether one, and depressed the interior extremities of his eyebrows sharply from their quizzing perch" (p. 115). Mechanical and animal images dehumanize Bestre, making him, as he lumbers about pursuing his petty schemes, a comical grotesque. Yet it is just his grotesque vulgarity that gives his insulting glances their force:
His very large eyeballs, the small saffron ocellation in their centre, the tiny spot through which light entered the obese wilderness of his body; his bronzed bovine arms, swollen handles for a variety of indolent little ingenuities; his inflated digestive case, lent their combined expressiveness . . . with every tart and biting condiment that eye-fluid, flaunting of fatness . . . could provide. . . . his brown arms were for the moment genitals, snakes in one massive twist beneath his mammillary slabs, gently riding on a pancreatic swell, each hair on his oil-bearing skin contributing its message of porcine affront. (pp. 116-117)
The description is devastating, but it raises the objection that Ker-Orr has descended to Bestre's level. This objection brings us to the one shortcoming in The Wild Body. The object of Lewis' satiric descriptions, as well as Ker-Orr's motives, seems too petty to motivate such massive attacks. Of course even a great satire like Pope's The Dunciad is open to such an objection. But the problem is a real one here because Ker-Orr satirizes Bestre for the very kind of petty activities that the narrator, as with Valmore, indulges in himself. Ker-Orr even admits, as he meditates on Bestre's activities, that in his descriptions he takes "A human species, as an entomologist would take a Distoma or a Narbonne Lycosa, to study" (p. 120). In a story called "Franciscan Adventures," this cold, pseudoscientific attitude toward people becomes offensive because it makes Ker-Orr seem haughty and condescending toward the itinerant minstrel he describes. Lewis is aware of this problem, as when he has Ker-Orr admit in a passage quoted earlier, "that I am disposed to forget that people are real. . . . " But the admission implies no guilt, and it does nothing to alter the false note this attitude strikes in "Bestre," nor the chilling, contemptuous tone that spoils "Franciscan Adventures."
The three remaining stories fortunately avoid this condescending tone and reveal the range and power of Lewis' irony. V. S. Pritchett (like Rosenthal, impressed with Lewis' "prophetic" qualities) thinks that The Wild Body stories are "prophetic of contemporary black comedy. . . ."l0 "Brotcotnaz" best illustrates this sardonic comedy, and another, "The Cornac and His Wife," shows how Lewis anticipated the black humorists. The remaining story, "The Death of the Ankou," demonstrates how smoothly and powerfully Lewis' comic theme modulates into a tragic one.
"The Cornac and His Wife" describes a troup of saltimbanques, itinerant circus performers who earn a meager existence by performing pathetic gymnastic and comedy acts before the Breton peasants. This story also reveals a pictorial inspiration; these unfortunate saltimbanques recur in a series of pictures Picasso painted around 1905. Like Picasso, Lewis stresses the bewildered suffering of these jugglers and clowns: the supressed ferocity of the father, or "showman," toward the tight-fisted audiences, the bedraggled mother, the mournful children. But Lewis is more interested in how they defy their fate than in how they suffer it.
Their violent sense of humor helps explain the saltimbanques ' endurance. The showman's comedy routine with the clown, in which he responds with heavy blows to the clown's impertinent witticisms, pleases the rough peasants, whose "laughter is sharp and mirthless and designed usually to wound" (p. 159). As Ker-Orr explained earlier, laughter is an expression of violence. But such violent laughter is also an expression of defiance. The showman understands this: "He knows the brutal frisson in contact with danger that draws the laughter up from the deepest bowel in a refreshing unearthly gush. He knows why he and the clown are always black and blue, his children performing dogs. . . . He knows Fate, since he serves it, better than even the peasant." (p. 160)
This conception of a defiant laughter, inspired probably by Nietzsche's Zarathustra, allows Lewis to find humor in perverse and bitterly ironic situations. In "Brotcotnaz," the ironic reversal characteristic of these stories is a violent and even gruesome one. Brotcotnaz's wife, Julie, makes her hard life as a poor fisherman's wife and keeper of a rarely used inn bearable by secret brandy tippling. Despite her attempt to seem prim and respectable, the "many tiny strongholds of eruptive red" in her face betray her secret. Her husband, also a drinker, is suspected of having killed his first wife through a series of beatings, and he seems headed toward the same end with his present wife. But when he drinks, he's violent—that's his character; and her character will not allow her to complain—after all, she is his wife. With this fatalistic detachment, which in Ker-Orr's mind is akin to comic detachment, their relationship thrives: "The morning after a beating—Julie lying seriously battered upon their bed, or sitting rocking herself quietly . . . her head a turban of bandages, he noiselessly attends to her wants, enquires how she feels, and applies remedies. . . . He addresses her on all occasions with a compassionate gentleness. . . . They are resigned, but none the less they remember the cross they have to bear" (pp. 219-220). As things are going, surely one day he will kill her; but at the same time, he will sincerely mourn her. His reactions are too simple to seem sinister. He walks with "an easy, dainty, and rapid tread, with a coquettishly supple giving of the knees at each step, and a gentle debonair oscillation of the massive head" (p. 214), as if he were a marionette or mechanical man. In other words, he is a "wild body."
The resolution of this conflict comes swiftly. Three weeks after Ker-Orr's initial stop at the inn, he returns to find an unaccustomed stir around it. Julie must have had a last and fatal fight with Brotcotnaz, Ker-Orr assumes. When he enters, he expects to see Brotcotnaz dominating the crowd, grandly receiving condolences, eyeing the available women for a third spouse and a new dowry. Instead, it is Julie, alive, who dominates the crowd, while a crestfallen Brotcotnaz sulks in a dark corner. Julie is displaying the damaged arm and leg she received from a heavy cart. But this dreadful accident is not what depresses Brotcotnaz. Even Julie, in fact, is secretly pleased by this painful misfortune. For Brotcotnaz now realizes that his wife is no longer fair game for his beatings; if she loses her limbs, he "could scarcely proceed to destruction of the trunk only. It was not difficult at least to appreciate the sort of problem that might present itself (p. 226). Julie immediately grasps the opportunity she now has to dominate her brutal but childish husband. The change is clear already as she accepts the brandy Ker-Orr offers her: "She took the drink I gave her, and raised it almost with fire to her lips. After the removal of her arm, and possibly a foot, I realized that she would be more difficult to get on with than formerly. The bottle of eau-de-vie would remain no doubt in full view, to hand, on the counter, and Brotcotnaz would be unable to lay a finger on her: in all likelihood she meant that arm to come off." (pp. 230-231)
The extreme irony of Brotcotnaz's lament that he can no longer beat his wife, as well as the undertone of violence, supports Pritchett's opinion that Lewis anticipated the Black Humorists. Lewis' tone, however, is far more controlled than that of writers like Heller, Vonnegut, or Pynchon. The black humorists agonize over what they portray; an undertone, not only of violence, but of fear and loathing makes their comedy "black." Lewis' distinction, on the other hand, is that he retains the detached, traditional tone of comedy. Here again he is a follower of Bergson's theories. The "wild bodies" he describes are too innocent to arouse fear, and Ker-Orr's amused appreciation of all he sees controls the reader's reactions. Like the old saltimbanque, he knows that what is fated can be accepted with a defiant laugh or an ironic grimace.
But in the final story we will examine, Ker-Orr finds it impossible to laugh. Irony can lead either to laughter or to fear and pity. It leads to the tragic in "The Death of the Ankou" because Ker-Orr and, by implication, all of us are brushed too closely by fate. The story begins again in a Pardon, or Breton café, where the book of local folklore Ker-Orr is reading leads him to a startling merger of his imaginative and real life. He reads of the blind Breton death god, or Ankou, and how "the gaunt creature despatched from the country of death traversed at night the Breton region. The peasant, late on the high-road . . . felt around him suddenly the atmosphere of the shades, a strange cold penetrated his tissues, authentic portions of the Néant pushed in like icy wedges within the mild air of the fields and isolated him from Earth, while rapid hands seized his shoulders from behind" (p. 166). As he raises his eyes from the book and looks out into the dim, smoky room,
With revulsed and misty eyes almost in front of me, an imperious figure, apparently armed with a club, was forcing its way insolently forward . . . its head up, an eloquently moving mouth hung in the air. . . . It forced rudely aside everything in its path. . . . He passed my table and I saw a small, highly coloured face . . . the terrible perquisite of the blind was there in the staring, milky eyeballs. . . . Where he had come was compact with an emotional medium emitted by me . . . this overweening intruder might have been marching through my mind with his taunt convulsive step, club in hand. . . . The impression was so strong that I felt for the moment that I had met the death-god, (pp. 172-173)
Ker-Orr gets to know the catalyst of his vision, in reality a blind beggar called Ludo; and he turns to a powerful analysis of how the blind must relate to their unseen world.11 But even though he is now familiar with Ludo, he tells us, "I still experienced a faint reflection of my first impression, when he was the death-god." (p. 178)
On his final visit to the blind peasant, he finds Ludo ailing. Ker-Orr remarks, "'Perhaps you've met the Ankou.' I said this thoughtlessly, probably because I had intended to ask him if he had ever heard of the Ankou" (p. 180). Ludo behaves like a frightened child when he hears this thoughless but casual remark, cuts off the conversation, and moves back into the cave where he lives. Ker-Orr is puzzled, but reflects that "Perhaps I had put myself in the position of the Ankou . . . unseen as I was, a foreigner, and, so, ultimately dangerous" (p. 182). With this subtle reversal of roles, the story reaches a restrained and ominous climax. The dénouement is contained in the single sentence that concludes the story: "Later that summer the fisherman that I had been with at the Pardon told me that Ludo was dead." (p. 183)
The death-god passed Ker-Orr by and, fixed instead on the object of his original fear. The power of the story lies in what Lewis does not say. No one knows for sure what Ludo dies of. He, like any of us, could have been felled by a random stroke from the death-god; we are as blind to fate as Ludo was to the world around him.
"Brotcotnaz" and "The Death of the Ankou" reveal the quality that distinguishes The Wild Body: a detached but not disinterested tone. In Ker-Orr, Lewis creates a persona who is interested in everything, but who lets nothing surprise him or throw him off balance. He accepts the world with an ironic laugh or shudder, but sees it always in a clear, cold light.
1 See Pound's editorial in The Little Review, IV (May 1917), 17-18; Eliot, "Tarr," The Egoist, V (September 1918), 106.
2 Pritchett, "Public Eye," New Statesman, LXXIV (1967), 119-120; Holloway, "The Literary Scene," in The Modern Age, Boris Ford, ed. (London, 1964), p. 76; Rosenthal, ed., A Soldier of Humor and Selected Writings (New York, 1966), pp. 19-21. Lewis first published The Wild Body in 1927 (London: Chatto and Windus). The two stories that are printed in a separate section at the end of The Wild Body and which do not develop the "wild body" theme are not considered here.
3 Rosenthal's anthology, A Soldier of Humor, reprints two of The Wild Body stories, "A Soldier of Humour" and "The Death of the Ankou," as well as the best of Lewis' war stories, "Cantelman's Spring Mate," and two stories from his 1951 collection, Rotting Hill. Two of Lewis' war stories are reprinted as an appendix to the new edition of his World War I autobiography, Blasting and Bombardiering (Berkeley, California, 1967).
4 The movement was influenced by Futurism and Cubism and was called (at Pound's suggestion) Vorticism; it was publicized through Lewis' magazine BLAST (1914-1915). Though it was basically a school of painters, Vorticism had a literary contingent as well, and both Pound and Eliot published in BLAST.
5 When Lewis first published this story in The Little Review, he was actually serving with the British forces during World War I. His experiences at the front lines in France profoundly affected the conception of laughter Lewis develops in his stories. See Blasting and Bombardiering.
6 Henri Bergson, "Laughter," in Comedy, Wylie Sypher, ed. (Garden City, New York, 1956), p. 93.
7Ibid., pp. 92-93.
8A Soldier of Honor and Selected Writings, p. 19.
9 "Laughter," p. 84.
10 "Public Eye," p. 119.
11 These speculations on blindness seem especially powerful when one knows that Lewis was to become totally blind in 1951.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3738
SOURCE: Introduction to Unlucky for Pringle: Unpublished and Other Stories, Vision Press, 1973, pp. 7-17.
[In the following introduction to a collection of Lewis's short fiction, Fox and Chapman provide an overview of Lewis's work in the genre and touch on some major elements that mark his short stories, including their peculiar sense of dark comedy; rootedness in the politics and culture of the day; unsympathetic portrayal of women; interest in violence; and recurrence of the figure of the Impostor.]
Recalling the early stages of his career, Wyndham Lewis wrote in 1935 that "The short story, as we call it, was the first literary form with which I became familiar . . . The 'short story' was the crystallization of what I had to keep out of my consciousness while painting."1 The latter part of this statement would seem to relegate Lewis's short fiction to a disproportionately secondary place in his œuvre. For, from the beginning of his 45 years as a visual and literary artist, Lewis was quite prolific as a fiction writer and, with the exception of the later 1920s and the 1930s, the short story figures prominently among his works in this field.
Lewis's first published stories appeared in 1909—a year after Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale and a year before H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay—and the last stories published during his lifetime were contemporary with Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and Lawrence Durrell's Justine. It is not only that the time-span of Lewis's creative life makes it difficult to place him as a writer. The diversity of his fiction is also formidable, ranging as it does from The Apes of God (which, he wrote, paid unprecedented attention to "The externals—the shell, the pelt, the physical behaviour of people"),2 to Self Condemned which, in its intensely subjective analysis of self-destruction, stands comparison as a tragic novel with Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Gogol for the early writing; Dryden, Pope, Smollett, Swift for the satires; the Classics for The Human Age—few critics attempting to place Lewis into a literary tradition look to his contemporaries. In one of the earliest reviews of Lewis's writing, Rebecca West suggested Dostoyevsky's influence on Tarr, and I. A. Richards, talking about The Childermass more than 40 years later, invoked Dante, Plato and Fielding. Like D. H. Lawrence, Lewis had no time for "novels that were copies of other novels," and both writers—in their very different ways—used fiction to embody and explore their predilections. Such formal beauties as integritas, consonantia, claritas—preoccupations of Joyce as well as of Stephen Dedalus—were not primary considerations with Lewis. That art is " about something" was axiomatic for him and, as he wrote in Men Without Art (1934): "Implicit in the serious work of art will be found politics, theology, philosophy—in brief all the great intellectual departments of the human consciousness."3 Lewis's concept and practice of the fiction of ideas is nearer to the Augustan satirists, in its assertion of positives by the savagely indignant destruction of falsity, than to the varying degrees of Peacockian sophistication in contemporaries such as Norman Douglas, Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley. It is much easier to say which writers Lewis is not like than to suggest resemblances and, in literature as well as in painting, it is as a unique phenomenon that he must finally be considered.
The present volume gathers together works of short fiction by Lewis which have remained unpublished or, having been scattered through little magazines between 1910 and 1956, were never collected for purposes of a single book. Naturally of special interest are the previously unpublished stories, most of which were apparently destined for inclusion in a volume to have been entitled The Two Captains. The bibliography of E. W. F. Tomlin's British Council pamphlet on Lewis (1955) mentioned an impending book of short fiction, but this book never materialized.
In any event, the stories published here for the first time are part of a 1930s reworking of "The Crowd Master," initially published in Blast No. 2 (1915); "Junior," "The Two Captains" and "The Man Who Was Unlucky With Women" (all from the 1950s); and three tales written by Lewis during his 1940 stay in Sag Harbor, New York—"The Yachting Cap," "The Weeping Man" and "Children of the Great." Not included in this volume are any of the stories in the two collections of short fiction Lewis published in his lifetime, The Wild Body (1927) and Rotting Hill (1951).
All of the previously unpublished stories are not of equal literary merit. Nor are they generally on a par with the stories Lewis managed to have published during his life-time. Yet, when grouped together with other unfamiliar Lewis material, even marginal works by the author of Tarr and The Wild Body take on added interest sufficient to warrant publication, especially if an effort is made to show how such stories blend with the general corpus of his fiction. Juxtaposed in this way with what turn out to be related works, they also enlarge the understanding of Lewis's literary aims. It should be remembered, however, that Lewis habitually did considerable revision on his writings in the "proof stage of their production. Since none of the previously-unpublished stories apparently went to press, they lack that extra "Finish" characteristic of The Enemy at his proof-slashing best. There have been additional difficulties about the text of at least some of this heretofore-unprinted material. The final typescripts of the stories seemingly to have been published in the 1950s—those of "The Two Captains," "Junior," "The Weeping Man," "The Yachting Cap," "The Man Who Was Unlucky With Women" and "Children of the Great"—were unavailable. But good carbon copies or other duplicates were found. In the case of "The Two Captains," a holograph mostly in Lewis's hand helped the editors rectify a number of imperfections, mainly dropped commas or simple typographical errors, in the carbon-copy typescript. Any lapse of a more elaborate order is signified accordingly.
The book called Rotting Hill was made up partly of sketches from life in the Notting Hill area of London during the post World War II "Crippsean Ice Age" with its pervasive physical and metaphorical "rot." The stories in this present book, on the other hand, are notable for, among other things, the absence of the political preoccupation prevalent in Rotting Hill But obviously there are similarities, quite apart from the drive and sparkle of Lewis's prose at its best. The Rotting Hill ambience of the bedraggled Britain of the 1940s obtrudes somewhat in "The Two Captains," and Lewis's life-long fascination with rooms and flats as microcosms is as apparent in "Unlucky for Pringle" as it is in the Rotting Hill sketch called "The Rot." The historian Paul Eldred in another of the Rotting Hill tales is as much a "celebrated ruin" exploiting forever afterwards the temporary visitation of a muse as is Thaddeus Trunk in "Doppelgänger" (1954), a story included here.
But the stories in this new collection are more closely related to The Wild Body than to Rotting Hill if only because, as a whole, they are in the category of what might be called pure fiction as opposed to semi-fictional reportage. The Wild Body, a modern classic, is a book which, like Rotting Hill, brings together works sharing a common theme. In the former collection that theme is the primitive human breed, like "big, obsessed, sun-drunk insects,"4 which fascinated Lewis as painter and writer in his early years. As such, The Wild Body's inspiration comes closer than that of most of his other books to drawing on themes simultaneously at work in his pictures. Lewis's pre-World War I drawings abound in strange, ritualized figures. But Bestre and Brotcotnaz in The Wild Body are as much "executants of a single ritual" (the phrase is Walter Michel's) as are the figures in such drawings as "Indian Dance" and "Courtship" (1912). "Their enormous vitality," writes Michel, "is in the service of an obsession."5 Lewis observed humanity like an anthropologist scrutinizing a newly-discovered species of homunculae, at once unbelieving and delighted by their absurdity. These wild bodies, driven either by demoniacal ides fixes or the vagaries of a perverse autonomic system, cavort over the canvases and through the stories of the young Lewis.
In The Wild Body Lewis defined his theory of the comic as rooted in "observations of a thing behaving like a person."6 This is an idea to which Lewis adhered throughout his career and it is evident in most of the stories here collected. Polderdick ("The King of the Trenches"), for instance, is as mechanical as his "Flying pigs," and Kipe in "The Yachting Cap" is a tatterdemalion Canute as elemental as the ocean he defies. Similarly, Monsieur Chalaran in "Unlucky for Pringle," with his "Animal-like selfishness and self-absorption," is very much in this Lewis tradition and that story as a whole is a tale merely transposed from the French or Spanish settings of the original Wild Body universe into an English scheme of things. "Unlucky for Pringle" has been chosen as the title story of this collection because, though written while Lewis was still in his twenties, it provides a precocious demonstration of virtually all his gifts and attitudes as a writer. With hindsight, the critic might see in this story an uncannily accurate premonition of the fate that awaited Lewis in the subsequent five decades of Anglo-Saxon literary history.
All of Lewis, it can be said, is in "Unlucky for Pringle." There is, for instance, the presence of the rootless connoisseur of rooms from Brittany to Morocco, via frigid Canada, Bayswater and Chelsea; there is the "gusto for the common circumstances of his life," and the ability to infuse the lowliest objects with a bizarre and exciting vitality. But there is also, embodied in Pringle, that "Mysterious power of awakening hostility" which Lewis later ascribed to Rousseau in The Art of Being Ruled (1926) and which he felt in himself. From his position "outside," Lewis persevered all his life in starkly recording—through his social and literary criticism as well as in his fiction—what in Self Condemned (1954) he called "The madhouse of functional character." But like Monsieur Chalaran, this malignantly insane element does not relish the presence of a recording mind. In "Pringle" the crash of a looking-glass, customarily an omen of misfortune, should have warned the hero of the consequences of his "Mystic contentment." Like the ultimate fate held for René Harding by the Hotel Blundell in Self Condemned and that reserved by the Anglosaxon cultural establishment for Lewis himself, the destiny of Pringle's lodging house was to "vomit him forth; it could not assimilate him . . . its inhabitants became filled with mysterious hatred for him."
Together with "Pringle," the other writings in the first section of this book give a preliminary display of how Lewis worked from the raw material of life, whether it was the Roland-centred domestic constellation of "A Breton Innkeeper" or the fictional presentation of an actual salon event under the shadow of war in the "Crowd Master" story. The rest of this collection exemplifies in an even more positive way the main themes evinced in all of Lewis's literary work. It is these themes, to the extent that they manifested themselves in the stories that follow, which determined the form given to this book as a whole.
First there is world war, a twentieth-century fact of life which, in Lewis's case, makes itself powerfully felt not only in the autobiographical Blasting and Bombardiering (1937) but also, if more obliquely, in later books such as Self Condemned and The Human Age (1955). Lewis called the war of 1914-18 "a cyclopean dividing wall in time: a thousand miles high and a thousand miles thick, a greater barrier laid across our life."7 However, as C. H. Sisson has suggested, Lewis was intellectually steeled, as his Georgian contemporaries were not, to absorb a shock of these proportions. "The Lewisian apocalypse was a pre-war affair," says Sisson. "It was not an excitement borrowed from events but an intellectual performance of his own."8 Perhaps as a consequence of this, Lewis's most fascinat-ing fictional insight into what the war was doing to Western Man came in a story written prior to his initial taste of military action. In the words of a Rotting Hill character created years later, Rob Cairn in "The French Poodle" (written 1915) swiftly finds himself "Forcibly, violently, reborn" once he becomes a soldier on the western front. This whole story is a subtle analysis of that shell-shocked rebirth and also of the war's wider implications. Even in 1915, when martial enthusiasm on the home front had still not given way to weary disenchantment, Lewis's Cairn, with grim prescience, sees the great conflict as "The beginning of a period, far from being a war-that-will-end-war." In "The King of the Trenches," on the other hand, the focus is on mad Captain Burney Polderdick for his own sake rather than for purposes of any general exploration of the meaning of the war. This is, par excellence, a cracking good front-line yarn, although Burney shares some of the characteristics of the hollow-men protagonists found elsewhere in Lewis's fiction, being "A sort of prolongation" of his old self. As monarch of "The terrible narrow Kingdom" of his madness, he merits a prominent place in the galaxy of gargantuan puppets which remain impressive monuments to Lewis's distinctive literary powers.
Unlike Polderdick, however, with his typically modern addiction to mass, mechanized violence as an outlet for pent-up savagery, some of Lewis's characters find their release in metaphysical battles and on another front: against Woman as personification of "The devil Nature." The fictional Benjamin Richard Wing in Lewis's "The Code of a Herdsman" proclaims, for instance, that "women, and the processes for which they exist, are the arch conjuring trick: and they have the cheap mystery and a good deal of the slipperiness, of the conjuror."9 In most of his literary depictions of women, Lewis fell far short of the ease and grace that typified his portrayal of them in scores of paintings and drawings. In his fiction there is a degree of the deliberately grotesque, but also of genuine awkwardness, about the presentation of his female characters. At the same time, a number of his main male personae ridicule their women companions rather in the manner of the "propagandist indictment of the feminine" brilliantly paraphrased by Lewis in The Art of Being Ruled, where the female physique is pilloried as a "chocolate-cream trap to catch a rustic fool."10 Describing the projected theme of Self Condemned to a publisher seven years before the book's appearance, Lewis wrote: "Woman has been called 'the eternal enemy of the absolute': so our perfectionist (René Harding) must encounter immediate difficulties when he comes in contact with woman."11
The central male characters in "Cantelman's Spring-Mate," "The War Baby" and "Junior" are by no means perfectionists. Instead—except for John Leslie in "Junior"—they are self-styled übermenschen. Leslie differs from his two forbears in that he is not aggressively intent on dominating Woman but, like a debased Cantelman figure, flees from an overbearing and over-fecund femininity which he both fears and despises.
Yet there is a strange beauty about some of the very images of derision heaped on characters like the pregnant Tets in "The War Baby" who is "softly sculpting a Totem, whereas others had not had that art—or craft." Gestation—"The toad-life at the bottom of the tank"—is a central, indeed menacing fact in all three of these stories just as, along with creation and nativity, it served as an important theme for Lewis's painting during that arduous period of exile, the 1940s. The women portrayed here, however, emerge as anything but defeated parties from the contests into which they are plunged. Tets, for instance, scores a vicarious victory, and a contemptuous Perdita is able to hurl the epithet "insane" at John Leslie in "Junior." "Insane" (though also heroic) is the description René Harding too might merit. "She has the effrontery to set herself up as my defender against myself," complains Kell-Imrie in bewailing the machinations of the much-lampooned Val in the novel Snooty Baronet (1932).12 It could be said that this was also the role of Hester in Self Condemned, and Lewis had René suffer a living death as the penalty for ascribing to the protective Hester nothing more than an "effrontery" meriting only haughty rejection. In "Pish-Tush," the bluff Lionel Letheridge learns the price of unduly crossing womanhood. His actions arouse the virulence of that "volatile aura" which necessarily is all Constance-the-Spook retains of the redoubtable female life-force, with its "Mysterious indomitable will."
As do many of Lewis's stories, "Pish-Tush" ends with an eruption of violence. To Lewis, violence was of the essence of human personality. "Within five yards of another man's eyes we are on a little crater, which, if it erupted, would split up as would a cocoa-tin of nitrogen," he wrote in The Wild Body. This explosiveness lurks beneath the surface of personality and "The finest humour is the great play-shapes blown up or given off by the tragic corpse of life underneath the world of the camera."13 Memorable "play-shapes" swarm through Lewis's fiction and elsewhere in his work. He revelled in close-ups of such elephantine grotesques: Bestre and Brotcotnaz in The Wild Body, Kreisler in Tarr, the Bailiff in The Human Age, Jack Cruze in The Revenge for Love (1937), Charlie the janitor in Self Condemned, Augustine Card in The Red Priest (1956), Borzo the hotelkeeper in Filibusters in Barbary (1932) and Brandleboyes in America I Presume (1940). In the present stories there is "Bob" Allen Crumms racked by the same "convulsions of meaningless mirth" as shook Harding when he pondered the hotel fire and the "Absurd" extinction of Affie, the wily but lovable hotel manageress in Self Condemned. Or there are the Card-like fighting transports of Dickie Dean in "The Man Who Was Unlucky With Women," or the superb anti-oceanic posturings of Kipe, the bum à la Beckett rendered with a flamboyant Lewisian twist in "The Yachting Cap."
Finally there is another Lewis speciality represented in the pages that follow. This is The Impostor. The American academic faculty to which René retires at the end of Self Condemned was unaware that this celebrated British historian had become by that time "A glacial shell of a man," the authenticity of whose work was by now merely a delusion. Far more deliberate and relentless in his activities as Impostor was Vincent Penhale in The Vulgar Streak (1941), whose bourgeois mannerisms were as carefully counterfeited as his false fivers. In the present book, "The Two Captains" explores the idea of The Counterfeit not only in its characterization but also, as in The Vulgar Streak, in its Social Credit-like ruminations on the subject of money. As for "Children of the Great," it in part is an elaboration of a concept later broached again by René Harding when he remarks: "The children of the great are their deeds. Their biological offspring is generally the dullest or vilest."14 But, beyond this, "Children of the Great" provides another variation on the Impostor theme in the person of Derek Gilchrist, a living "libel upon the great." An authentic reincarnation of the Genius of whom Derek is a cruel parody ultimately takes shape in the story, just as a similar personification of The Real materializes in "Doppelgänger," the third and finest study of an Impostor figure included here. Thaddeus Trunk is a great poet who has been transformed by his clamorous, adoring public into a publicity figure. It is Thad's folly actually to become this figment of his fan-club's imagination. As a pioneer Student of Publicity—a subject dealt with at length in such books as Time and Western Man (1927) and Doom of Youth (1932)—Lewis was well qualified to probe the techniques of "image-building" responsible for sundry forms of star status in contemporary western society. "A man's publicity is a caricature of himself," says the narrator of "Doppelgänger." "It is really how the public sees 'greatness.'" The destiny of Thaddeus Trunk, majestic word-man consumed by his "publicity scarecrow," has obvious parallels in the real-life world of letters, which—under the logic of twentieth-century civilization—tends to be as dominated by the star system as is show business.
Thus this collection ends with Lewis re-emerging from the realm of fiction and assuming once more his equally characteristic functions as sociologist. His command of this latter genre forms a natural whole with his gifts as fictionist, especially as short-story writer. The Art of Being Ruled draws on the same masterly sense of group rhythms as does "A Breton Innkeeper"; or, in the category of travel writing, the account of film-star absurdities in Filibusters in Barbary; or, among the novels, the microcosmic goings-on at the Hotel Blundell; or, even in Lewis's painting, the abstract of mob dynamics represented by the great 1914-15 oil, The Crowd. In the crowd, yet not of the crowd: this is the quintessential Lewisian position. Lewis "Manoeuvres in the heart of reality," with a voracious eye alert for any new "stylistic anomalies" worthy of satiric note. Lewis called his Wild Body stories "essays in a new human mathematic" and spoke of wanting "To compile a book of 40 of these propositions, one deriving from and depending on the other."15 In a sense, The Art of Being Ruled might qualify as that book. In any event, as Geoffrey Grigson once wrote, "All Lewis's work is one work."16 And it is with this unity in mind that the reader should approach the stories here collected.
1 Walter Michel and C. J. Fox, eds., Wyndham Lewis on Art.London: Thames and Hudson, 1969, pp. 294-5.
2 W. K. Rose, ed., The Letters of Wyndham Lewis. London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1963, p. 191.
3 Wyndham Lewis, Men Without Art. London: Cassell and Co. Ltd., 1934, p. 9.
4 Lewis, Rude Assignment. London: Hutchinson and Co. Ltd., 1950, p. 117.
5 Walter Michel, Wyndham Lewis: Paintings and Drawings. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971, p. 49.
6 Lewis, The Wild Body. London: Chatto and Windus, 1927, p. 246.
7 Lewis, The Writer and the Absolute. London: Methuen, 1952, p. 38.
8 C. H. Sisson, "The Politics of Wyndham Lewis," Agenda (London), Autumn-Winter, 1969-70, p. 109.
9 Lewis, "Imaginary Letters: The Code of a Herdsman," The Little Review (New York), July, 1917, p. 6.
10 Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled. London: Chatto, 1926, p. 276.
11The Letters of Wyndham Lewis, p. 410.
12 Lewis, Snooty Baronet. London: Cassell, 1932, p. 308.
13The Wild Body, pp. 238-9.
14 Lewis, Self Condemned. London: Methuen, 1954, p. 261.
15The Wild Body, p. 233.
16 Geoffrey Grigson, A Master of Our Time. London: Methuen, 1951, p. 18.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7800
SOURCE: "Natures, Puppets and Wars," in Wyndham Lewis: Fictions and Satires, Vision Press, 1973, pp. 47-67.
[In the following essay, Chapman examines the development of Lewis's style and themes in his early stories and their later revision in The Wild Body, pointing out that Lewis's early socio-psychological concerns were later abandoned for a greater interest in more abstract philosophical ideas.]
Looking back on his first published writings, Lewis recalled their genesis in his "long vague periods of indolence" in Brittany:
The Atlantic air, the raw rich visual food of the barbaric environment, the squealing of the pipes, the crashing of the ocean, induced a creative torpor. Mine was now a drowsy sun-baked ferment, watching with delight the great comic effigies which erupted beneath my rather saturnine but astonished gaze. . . . The characters I chose to celebrate—Bestre, the Cornac and his wife, Brotcotnaz, le père Françis—were all primitive creatures, immersed in life, as much as birds, or big, obsessed, sun-drunk insects. (Rude Assignment, 117)
These primitive creatures were eventually to emerge as "wild bodies" in the 1927 collection of that name, but in their early form these pieces are not, in the accepted sense of the term, short stories. They are plotless travel sketches peopled by Breton "characters" whose idiosyncratic social relationships are the raison d'être of the vignettes.
"The Pole" was published in Hueffer's The English Review in May 1909; it was, Lewis recalled, "My first success of a practical nature." An exercise in imaginative social psychology, "The Pole" describes the curious phenomenon of permanent Slav boarders at Breton pensions. With the analytical eye of the social scientist, Lewis states his proposition at the outset; the remainder of the piece offers illustrative case-histories and inductive generalizations about the type. These early stories, wrote Lewis twenty-five years later, were "The crystallization of what I had to keep out of my consciousness while painting," and although the eye of the visuel is very obvious, it is usually subordinate to the polemical design of the whole.
"Some Innkeepers and Bestre," Lewis's second publication, appeared in the following issue of The English Review and showed similar preoccupations.
The truest type of innkeeper is to be found in France. And as these papers deal with some of my experiences in Brittany last summer it is chiefly with France that I am concerned. (473)
"These papers" suggests that Lewis saw his early publications as imaginative reportage or documentaries rather than fictions, and his tone is often that of the sociologist—of the recorder rather than the creator:
So the study of the French innkeeper is especially fruitful, for he veritably puts his whole soul into his part, everything in him blossoms prodigiously within the conventional limits of his trade. (479)
The reality that Lewis records, however, is not at all mundane. Delighting in the absurd, the grotesque and the bizarre, the more civilized "I" of the narrative wanders amongst the primitive "sun-drunk insects" assiduously noting their behavioural tics and exploring the tensions between roles and personalities. "So subtle is their method and manner of charming the public that it has an opposite effect," writes Lewis of his "eccentric exponents" of the astonishing art of innkeeping. As if to support his general truth by concrete evidence, Lewis appends—as exemplum to moralitas—the case-history of Bestre.
In The English Review version of the story, rather than seeing Bestre in action, the reader is told about his furious and demonic battles of glares. Presentation of character is limited by the exemplary role in which it functions—like the Poles, Bestre is a footnote in Lewis's thesis in social psychology. When these stories were reworked for publication in The Wild Body (1927) it was, however, the sociological aspect which was relegated to the footnotes, and the characters, rather than the thesis, become the raison d'être of the writing. In turning "The Pole" into "Beau Séjour," Lewis is not so insistent in his attempts to "nail things down"; the discursive exposition becomes a short story and, in Lawrence's phrase, the characters "get up and walk away with the nail." From the multiplicity of minor characters in "The Pole," Lewis selects the ménage of Mme Peronette, Carl and Zoborov, placing their interrelationship into a formal framework. Picaresque meanderings take on beginning, middle and end; minor characters, if not omitted altogether, are strictly subordinated to the central relationship. Similarly, in the transition from "Some Innkeepers and Bestre" to "Bestre" (as it appears in The Wild Body), the prolegomenous, discursive material—"Some Innkeepers"—is filtered out completely, leaving the magnificently grotesque Bestre at the centre of the stage.
Although The Wild Body is still very much written to a thesis, this is not expressed in exegetical running commentaries as in the early versions, but stated separately in two essays, "Inferior Religions" and "The Meaning of the Wild Body." These expound the philosophical assumptions which underlie the comic vision of the stories:
First, to assume the dichotomy of mind and body is necessary here, without arguing it; for it is upon that essential separation that the theory of laughter here proposed is based . . . we have to postulate two creatures, one that never enters into life, but that travels about in a vessel to whose destiny it is momentarily attached. That is, of course, the laughing observer, and the other is the Wild Body. . . . There is nothing that is animal (and we as bodies are animals) that is not absurd. This sense of the absurdity, or, if you like, the madness of our life, is at the root of every true philosophy. (243-244)
Reason is the "laughing observer" and the "wild body" is the autonomic physiological system to which it is fettered. Not only can the reflective intellect observe the absurdities of others, but—standing back from the wild body in which it is housed—it can apprehend its own absurdity. In the light of this Cartesian dualism, there is something fundamentally absurd in the very fact of human existence; Kerr-Orr, the narrator, recognizes this in himself as well as in others:
This 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, is my stalking-horse. I hang somewhere in its midst operating it with detachment. (5)
It is Kerr-Orr's Socratic awareness of his own position which places him above the mechanistic wild bodies. He operates his autonomic system: the wild bodies are operated by theirs. Representing mind over matter, he struts through the Breton countryside searching out bizarre examples of the machine in control of the operator or "The thing" running away with "The person."
Lewis's concept of comedy, of course, derives a great deal from Bergson and, as Geoffrey Wagner has written, "Bergson's Le Rire is a primer of Lewisian Satire." The French philosopher's basic point about comedy—that it is "la transformation d'une personne en chose"—becomes the crux of Lewis's definition:
The root of the Comic is to be sought in the sensations resulting from the observations of a thing behaving like a person. But from that point of view all men are necessarily comic: for they are all things, or physical bodies, behaving as persons. . . . To bring vividly to our mind what we mean by "Absurd," let us turn to the plant, and enquire how the plant could be absurd. Suppose you came upon an orchid or a cabbage reading Flaubert's Salambo, or Plutarch's Moralia, you would be very much surprised. But if you found a man or woman reading it, you would not be surprised.
Now in one sense you ought to be just as much surprised at finding a man occupied in this way as if you had found an orchid or a cabbage, or a tom-cat, to include the animal world. There is the same physical anomaly. It is just as absurd externally, that is what I mean.—The deepest root of the Comic is to be sought in this anomaly. (246-247)
Paraded and presented by Kerr-Orr, The Wild Body is a collection of such anomalies.
Kerr-Orr is the Lewis-man of these stories, and the persona is representative of a type which recurs throughout Lewis's fiction—"The nature." In The Art of Being Ruled (1926), Goethe's distinction between puppets and natures is quoted with approbation. Homo stultus is mechanical, puppet-like, ignorant: "Natures," the super-species, are distinguished by self-awareness and control. Even if all men are fundamentally absurd, some are less so than others—Kerr-Orr is one of these:
I know much more about myself than people generally do. For instance I am aware that I am a barbarian. By rights I should be paddling about in a coracle. My body is large, white and savage. But all the fierceness has become transformed into laughter. . . . Everywhere where formerly I would fly at throats, I now howl with laughter. . . . My sense of humour in its mature phase has arisen in this very acute consciousness of what is me. In playing that off against another hostile me, that does not like the smell of mine, probably finds my large teeth, height and so forth abominable, I am in a sense working off my alarm at myself. So I move on a more primitive level than most men, I expose my essential me quite coolly, and all men shy a little. . . . I will show you myself in action, manoeuvring in the heart of reality. (3-4, 5, 7)
This physically primitive "soldier of humour" has harnessed his natural violence. As his mind gazes dispassionately upon his own "Anomalies" and upon the world's, the fundamental ubiquitous absurdity gives rise to a philosophy of laughter:
It sprawls into everything. It has become my life. The result is that I am never serious about anything. I simply cannot help converting everything into burlesque patterns. (4)
It is as a connoisseur of the grotesque that Kerr-Orr catalogues specimens for his human menagerie. Anxious to catch the slightest comic nuances of behaviour, he installs himself in the midst of his exhibits, often acting as catalyst as well as recorder:
It was almost as though Fabre could have established himself within the masonries of the bee, and lived on its honey, while investigating for the human species. (120)
The physical closeness of Kerr-Orr's scrutiny—like a gorgonian lens—turns people into things. The description of Ludo, the blind Breton beggar, petrifies the living face into a mask—physiognomy becomes form.
As I looked at him I realized how the eyes mount guard over the face, as well as look out of it. The faces of the blind are hung there like a dead lantern. Blind people must feel on their skins our eyes upon them: but this sheet of flesh is rashly stuck up in what must appear far outside their control, an object in a foreign world of sight. So in consequence of this divorce, their faces have the appearance of things that have been abandoned by the mind. What is his face to a blind man? Probably nothing more than an organ, an exposed part of the stomach, that is a mouth. (179)
This is what Lewis elsewhere calls "The truth of Natural Science" as opposed to the "Truth of Romance": the non-human gaze which plays over the "dry shells and pelts of things," confining itself to the "visible machinery of life" ("Studies in the Art of Laughter").
While action explodes all around, Kerr-Orr, like a ringmaster in a well-organized arena, surveys and controls his charges with consummate ease. He is "The showman to whom the antics and solemn gambols of these wild children are to be a source of strange delight" (232). This is not the Lawrentian fascination with the primitive: Lewis is less interested in the differences between the civilized and the unsophisticated, and more in their similarities. The Breton peasants exhibit, writ large, the "solemn gambols" of all humanity. In laughing at them we are not, like visitors to Elizabethan asylums, laughing at these "carefully selected specimens of religious fanaticism" (234). These grotesques are not on show as curious mutations of nature. Lewis postulates no norm against which his madmen are to be measured, but rather suggests that this "Madness" be taken into account in any definition of humanity. Driven by various permutations of idées fixes, ruling passions, fetishes and the arbitrary functioning of their autonomic systems, the wild bodies are units in "A new human mathematic," the basic premise of which is that "we have in most lives the spectacle of a pattern as circumscribed and complete as a theorem of Euclid" (233).
One such theorem is the ritual of violence performed by Brotcotnaz on his wife. These beatings are his bloody obeisance to dark gods. Julie, the wife, suffers her perpetual crucifixion in doleful silence:
Her eyes are black and moist, with the furtive intensity of a rat. They move circumspectly in this bloated shell. She displaces herself also more noiselessly than the carefullest nun, and her hands are generally decussated, drooping upon the ridge of her waist-line, as though fixed there with an emblematic nail, at about the level of the navel. Her stomach is, for her, a kind of exclusive personal "calvary." At its crest hang her two hands, with the orthodox decussation, an elaborate ten-fingered symbol. (208)
The imagery suggests Julie's martyrdom at the hands of Brotcotnaz's "inferior religion": only the rat-like furtiveness of her eyes distances her from the conventional hagiological type. Julie, too, bows the knee to an inferior religion of her own: she secretly drinks, and attempts to pass off her bruises as "erysipelas." Although both "secrets" are widely known to friends and neighbours, Julie pretends, for form's sake, that certain things are true. The neighbours, also for form's sake, are party to the groundrules of their private ritual and the whole affair becomes a complex skein of unspoken assumptions and understanding.
The Brotcotnazs' ceremony of violence is like the formal, highly-patterned dance they perform for Kerr-Orr. The steps are preordained and there is no margin for improvisation. Yet there is no real contact: each partner is aware of what is to come, and the partern exists independently of themselves:
"Viens donc, Julie! Come then. Let us dance."
Julie sat and sneered through her vinous mask at her fascinating husband. He insisted, standing over her with one toe pointed outward in the first movement of the dance, his hand held for her to take in a courtly attitude.
"Viens donc, Julie! Dansons un peu!"
Shedding shamefaced, pinched, and snuffling grins to right and left as she allowed herself to be drawn into this event, she rose. They danced a sort of minuet for me, advancing and retreating, curtseying and posturing, shuffling rapidly their feet. Julie did her part, it seemed, with understanding. (218)
The dance is a pastiche of reality; attitudes are donned like masks as these two peasants act out a courtly minuet. Just as the minuet exists beyond the dancers, or a Euclidean theorem beyond the page, so the violence of Brotcotnaz is almost impersonal, having its genesis beyond the personalities involved. Running in behavioural grooves seemingly too deeply scored to be changed, their life-style is as mindless a ritual of stimulus-response as that of Pavlovian salivating dogs. However, a near-fatal accident to Julie serves to break the pattern and, like an interrupted dance, things are never the same afterwards. The iconographical fetish of action is smashed, the "inferior religion" falls apart, and Brotcotnaz cannot assimilate the new events into his old ways.
The machinery of habit, the "religious" fascination of people for things, and people for people, all are functions of the wild body. The violent energy which erupts periodically in the brutality of Brotcotnaz is often a feature of these characters—in "The Cornac and His Wife" the violence is just as great, but exists beneath the surface, emerging as the performer's hatred of his audience. The Cornac is head of a troupe of itinerant acrobats who scrape a meagre living by giving displays to groups of Breton villagers. He and his wife have an "implacable grudge" against the spectators:
With the man, obsessed by ill-health, the grievance against fortune was associated with the more brutal hatred that almost choked him every time he appeared professionally. . . . These displays involved the insane contortions of an indignant man and his dirty, breathless wife, of whose ugly misery it was required that a daily mournful exhibition should be made of her shrivelled legs, in pantomime hose. She must crucify herself with a scarecrow abandon, this iron and blood automaton, and affect to represent the factor of sex in a geometrical posturing. (136, 137-8)
As with Julie, this life is a self-willed perpetual crucifixion: habit is both torture and palliative; there is no escape from the ritual pattern of existence. The performance witnessed by Kerr-Orr is a ceremonial defiance of the audience. Because a local by-law forbids the appearance of his young daughter, the old man is forced to drag his own weary body through the painful contortions of the act for the pleasure of the audience. A "whistling sneer of hatred" acknowledges the applause; he is aware that they have come to see "The entire family break their necks one after the other" (139). The laughter of the clown and the crowd is another expression of this violence; another primitive response to the latent dangers of the act. "The herd-bellow at the circus is always associated with mockviolent events, however, and (this) true laughter is torn out of a tragic material" (162). The reflex actions that Lewis explores—the nervous laughter in the face of tragedy, the "brutal frisson" inspired by danger—are the gut-reactions and mysterious spasms of the human mechanism. As in a Giacometti sculpture, the "civilized" accretions which have gathered around the wild body are pared away, until, in these Breton peasants, "That small, primitive, literally antediluvian vessel in which we set out on our adventures" stands revealed.
Bestre, the finest creation of The Wild Body, is, like the Bailiff in Childermass, a superb grotesque. The story is very simple: Bestre, a Breton innkeeper, indulges in furious battles of glares with a Parisian artist and his wife. The plot charts the battle and details Bestre's tactics. Kerr-Orr is not interested in the depth-psychology of Bestre's obsession—the ruling passion is a donnée, its cause buried in the viscera or the subconscious—but he observes Bestre with such precision that his own activity borders on the obsessive. The prose is thick and glutinous—what Hugh Kenner has called "A species of verbal impasto"—full of biological imagery and verbs of startling action. Bestre emerges:
His tongue stuck out, his lips eructated with the incredible indecorum that appears to be the monopoly of liquids, his brown arms were for the moment genitals, snakes in one massive twist beneath his mamillary slabs, gently riding on a pancreatic swell, each hair on his oil-bearing skin contributing its message of porcine affront. . . . On reaching the door into which he had sunk, plump and slick as into a stage trap, there he was inside—this grease-bred old mammifier—his tufted vertex charging about the plank ceiling—generally ricochetting like a dripping sturgeon in a boat's bottom—arms warm brown, ju-jitsu of his guts, tan canvas shoes and trousers rippling in ribbed planes as he darted about—with a filthy snicker for the scuttling female, and a stark cock of the eye for an unknown figure miles to his right: he filled this short tunnel with clever parabolas and vortices, little neat stutterings of triumph, goggle-eyed hypnotisms, in retrospect, for his hearers. (117-118)
Bestre is not exhibited, like the fat lady in the fair-ground booth, to be mocked as a freak. He is, in a sense, the hidden side of Everyman: if humanity, by definition, is all that humanity has produced, then Lewis, in these stories, is holding up the wild bodies as a mirror to the reader. Bestre's routines are as rigid as those of the donkey turning the water wheel, and his inferior religion is typical of the driving forces behind other Wild Body characters: Valmore's idée fixe that he is all-American dominates his life ("A Soldier of Humour"); Ludo, the blind beggar in "The Death of the Ankou," is hounded by a primitive death-god; Françoise has moulded his personality on the "emotions provoked by the bad, late, topical sentimental songs of Republican France" ("Franciscan Adventures"). All are automata: wound up by predilections, they whirr on their giddy way. The right response, according to KerrOrr, is a "bark of delight" at the proximity of such absurdities. Yet even in the recognition and enjoyment of the "stylistic anomalies," Kerr-Orr is himself absurd:
Flinging myself on the bed, my blond poll rolling about in ecstasy upon the pillow, I howled like an exultant wolf. (29)
Observer and observed alike are implicated in the pervasive comic vision. For Lewis, any definition of human life must include this element of the absurd and in his description of "perfect laughter" ("Studies in the Art of Laughter"), he outlines this vision:
Perfect laughter . . . would select as the objects of its mirth as much the antics dependent upon pathologic maladjustments, injury or disease, as the antics of clumsy and imperfectly functioning healthy people. . . . There is no reason at all why we should not burst out laughing at a foetus, for instance. We should after all, only be laughing at ourselves! —at ourselves early in our mortal career. (514)
In Blasting and Bombardiering, Lewis praised T. E. Hulme for "rubbing everybody's nose . . . in the highly disobliging doctrine" of Original Sin. There are many similarities between Hulme's Weltanschauung and Lewis's, and the former's dictum that "Man is in no sense perfect, but a wretched creature who can yet apprehend perfection" (Speculations), could well be taken as a definition of the ethos underlying much of Lewis's work. An aesthetic which sees satire as a universal "let-down" of the species and a technique of "human defamation" is akin, in many ways, to a notion of Original Sin—a secular Original Sin. This moral vision—implicit in The Wild Body and embodied more fully in The Apes of God—is voiced discursively in The Art of Being Ruled:
Prostration is our natural position. A worm-like movement from a spot of sunlight to a spot of shade, and back, is the type of movement that is natural to men. As active, erect, and humane creatures they are in a constantly false position, and behaving in an abnormal way. They have to be pushed up into it, and held there, till it has become a habit only to lie down at night; and at the first real opportunity they collapse and are full length once more. (281)
The vision is as profoundly despairing as that embodied in Swift's Struldbruggs or Beckett's Unnamable and How It Is. In the light of this philosophy, the wild bodies are representative of the yahoo in all humanity—yet something saves them from the total bleakness of, say, Lady Fredigonde in The Apes of God. Lewis, as well as Kerr-Orr, delights in—indeed "celebrates"—their absurdity. The satirical attitude here is ambiguous—as if Swift had, paradoxically, admired the vitality of his yahoos—and it is this very ambiguity which gives rise to the unique tone of The Wild Body. This is the stage prior to The Apes of God-attitude where human life is portrayed as "A very bad business indeed": here, it is very absurd indeed, and the artist revels in this absurdity.
Traces of the wild body ethos are to be found in a good deal of Lewis's writing outside The Wild Body itself. The early story "Unlucky for Pringle" which appeared in Douglas Goldring's magazine The Tramp (February, 1911), is very much part of this universe, but set in London instead of Brittany. James Pringle is a Kerr-Orr figure with a "gusto for the common circumstances of his life" and an aesthetic appreciation of rooms and their inhabitants as microcosms of an infinitely entertaining reality. Pringle's fastidiousness about the adequacy of rooms as studios has become removed from the realm of necessity to that of fascination. He changes rooms promiscuously, and "Rooms to Let" has a strange, sexual significance for him:
On the very frequently recurring occasions on which he set out to look for rooms he would savour the particular domestic taste of each new household he entered in the course of his search with the interest of a gourmet. Smiling strangely, as she thought, at the landlady who answered the door, he would at once go to her parlour—come for a debauch that she would never suspect. . . . He had passed like a ghost, in one sense, through a hundred unruffled households. Scores of peaceful landladies, like beautiful women caressed in their sleep by a spirit, had been enjoyed by him. Their drab apartments had served better than any boudoir. (404, 413)
Pringle rents a room from a French couple, the Chalarans, and installs himself in the midst of their life "like a worm in a wall," gradually usurping the indolent, wild-bodied Chalaran as patriarch. Sensing that he is being "enjoyed" by Pringle, Chalaran—in a series of marvellously indirect acts of cognitive dissonance—manages to oust this connoisseur of the ordinary. Chalaran, as much as Bestre or Brotcotnaz, is a wild body, whose frenetic and tangential outbursts are a locus classicus of deviations of object and aim:
. . . in a burst of energy that lasted two afternoons (Chalaran) built a summer-house at the bottom of the garden. The summer-house, no doubt, saved Pringle. But had Pringle grasped then the at once compact and elemental character of these bursts of activity, and his own position as regards Chalaran, he would have shaken in his shoes. For who could say whether the next time a storm of such violence as to build a summer-house might not seize on some more substantial and apposite object. (413)
Similarly, the protagonist of "Sigismund" (a short story first published in 1920 and appended to The Wild Body collection in 1927) is an idiot son of an idiot tradition who, forever peering into the depths of his aristocratic past with pathological single-mindedness, is a wild body driven by a wild mind. Unlike the corporeal fixation of, say, Brotcotnaz for his wife—which is as physical as pain, hunger or fear—Sigismundos obsession is of the intellect and, in many ways, he is as near to the "Tyro" species as to the wild bodies. His wish to progress backwards is stronger than most people's to progress forwards, and he becomes an embodiment of his pathological studies. In Sigismund's case, and in the Lewisian taxonomy of obsessions generally, the psychological assumptions are closer to those of the seventeenth and eighteenth century than those of early twentieth-century "alienists." Lewis pursues the Bergsonian "Thingness" behind the human façade, and his creatures are reduced to their most dominant characteristics. These caricatures of humanity—as in Ben Jonson's comedy of humours or Pope's presentation of "Ruling Passions"—are personifications. There are many similarities between Lewis's reifications and such simplistic moral psychologies, but his "primitive creatures" and "sun-drunk insects" do not function within a morality framework. Representing nothing beyond themselves, they exist to encourage that human bark called laughter which, wrote Lewis, "is per se a healthy clatter" ("Studies in the Art of Laughter," 515).
Lewis wrote several stories with World War I as either setting or backcloth, and in these he looks at social phenomena more sophisticated than the primitive group psychology of the wild bodies. In "The French Poodle" (The Egoist, March, 1916), war is presented as one of the "Tragic handicaps" of existence which has been exalted into a way of life in modern society. The ever-present threat of death and the first-hand experience of slaughter create "Trench scars" in the mind of Rob Cairn. Suffering from shellshock, Cairn is both physically and emotionally scarred. What man has done to man utterly disgusts him; in place of this inhumanity Cairn postulates "The sanity of direct animal processes." But he has been conditioned to brutality; he kills and is killed; there is no escape from the man-made environment of violence.
In The Wild Body, Lewis had focused upon primitive—if complex—individuals in primitive environments; in the war stories he looks at the effects of complex—if, ultimately, uncivilized—environments upon the individual. "The King of the Trenches" is the only story of Lewis's to deal directly with life at the Front. It appeared in the second edition of Blasting and Bombardiering (1967) and draws on the same experience as is brilliantly recorded in that autobiography. Captain Burney Polderdick is a much-decorated officer in command of a battery of trench mortars, and his exploits are described by Lieutenant Donald Menzies, the Lewis-man of the story. From the outset it is obvious that Polderdick is quite mad—his "eccentricity" having that compulsive power which pushes it beyond acceptable limits. His actions are not always under the control of the rational mind and, in a stressful situation, he becomes a mélange of tin-hat and flying limbs. Unlike Cairn, Burney is not viewed as a tragic figure caught in a web of war. He represents, rather, the wild body at war:
When Polderdick arrived the Line was quiet. A few days afterwards the Trench was constantly shelled. Polderdick was there. They began shelling with shrapnel. At the first patter of the shrapnel Polderdick dived headlong into a dug-out, but his tin-hat crashed with great force against the tin-hat of an infantry captain who was darting out at the moment. They both disappeared, Polderdick's buttocks revolving as he fell inside. (173)
Polderdick's deranged "Ha! Ha!" is yet another category in Lewis's anatomy of laughter: it is the explosion of a mind signalling its unwillingness to adhere to that consensus of opinion called reality. Polderdick's insanity consists of an idiosyncratic restructuring of experience and the creation of a new reality in which he becomes "King of a terrible narrow kingdom."
"I am the King of the Trenches!" he shouted. "Didn't you know who I was? Yes! I am Burney Polderdick, the king of the Trenches!—Ha! Ha!" He flourished his stick, twirled it lightly, lunged forward, and dug the Colonel in the middle of the stomach. (182)
There is a sympathetic attractiveness about Menzies's account of Polderdick, as if he senses that this wild body madness is no more insane, and certainly less dangerous, than the madness of war. Polderdick, however, is transferred to a Training Depot in England, and his demented reign ends in exile.
As Blasting and Bombardiering illustrates only too well, war can have the effect of dehumanizing men until they become mere cogs in the great impersonal war-machine. Yet, in the Bergsonian sense of people behaving like things, this dehumanizing can still be seen as comic. Lewis's description of the West Indian sergeant (in Blasting and Bombardiering) presents him as a lithe man-machine who returns to his post as automatically and exactly as shells find the breech:
At our Nieuport position one dark night the negroes were rolling shells up to the guns—very large ones, since the guns were outsize. This operation had to be effected without so much as a match struck, lest the German air patrols should spot us. A negro sergeant I noticed was not only stationary, and peculiarly idle, but actually obstructing the work of the dusky rollers. I spoke to him. He neither looked at me nor answered. I could scarcely see him—it was very dark, and he was dark. I ordered him to do a little rolling. This was a word of command. It elicited no response from the dark shape. Whereupon I gave him a violent push. This propelled him through space for a short distance, but he immediately returned to where he had stood before. I gave him a second push. As if made of indiarubber, he once more reintegrated the spot he had just left. After this I accepted him as part of the landscape, and the shells had to be rolled round him, since they could not be rolled through him. (152-153)
Soldiers as part of the landscape, the gigantic guns and shells as alive as they—or the soldiers as thing-like as their guns—are features of many of Lewis's war paintings. Caught in mid-action, the soldiers in the background of "A Battery Shelled" (1919) are transfixed in static geometrical positions reminiscent of the figures of Lewis's Vorticist period. These puny metallic shapes, labouring to the massive totemic guns which block out the sky, are sometimes indistinguishable from the ammunition stock-piled beside them. Like the palm of a gigantic hand, the earth is ploughed and furrowed, far more vital than the transmogrified humanity it grasps. The three figures loitering in the foreground of the painting are more realistically portrayed and have an air of authority. Apparently disengaged from the hellish activity continuously grinding on below them, they are more in control, more withdrawn, not so involved in the destructive machine and hence better able to observe its functions. This "outsider" position is everywhere stressed by Lewis, and through his Cantelman persona in Blasting and Bombardiering he sums it up thus:
In the first days (after the declaration of war) he experienced nothing but a penetrating interest in all that was taking place. His detachment was complete and his attention was directed everywhere. (77)
In the original Cantelman story, "Cantelman's Spring-Mate" which first appeared in The Little Review (October 1917), the war is in the background, but casts its shadow over all "ordinary" life. Cantelman is an infantry officer who is on leave, but, about to depart to the Front for the first time, "his thoughts and sensations all had, as a philosophic background, the prospect of death." Played out against this threat of cataclysmic violence, every action has about it a tenseness and a sense of urgency. Like the eponymous hero of Tarr, Cantelman is a Kerr-Orr figure who, while all too aware of the limitations of his fellow men, aspires to übermensch status—and fails. Perceiving that violence is inherent in all life, that both Nature and humanity are red in tooth and claw, Cantelman attempts to defeat life at its own game.
His body feels itself at one with wild Nature and is beguiled by the sensuality of spring; his mind is appalled at the body's grossness and its desire to be part of "The madness of natural things." Cantelman is Cartesian man par excellence: combining the traits of both wild body and laughing observer, he observes his own desires in action. "Dissecting his laugh," he compares it to the pig's grunt; without the intellect the wild body would be free to rut with the abandon of pigs, but man is animal capax rationis and hence aware of his own absurdity. It is upon Stella, his spring mate and Nature's agent, that Cantelman wreaks his revenge. By humiliating her, he believes, he will be undermining a natural and universal order that is both grotesque and brutal. Stella is a young country girl, quite unaware of the complex reactions she has loosed in her lover. She awakes in him "All the sensations he had been divining in the creatures around him, the horse, the bird and the pig." His relationship with her satisfies both the "gnawing yearning in his blood" and, paradoxically, his wish for revenge upon a Nature which makes him feel such desires. Acting towards Stella "with as much falsity as he could master," his calculated seduction of Nature's "Agent" is an attempt to outwit her "hostile power." Remaining "deliberate and aloof," through the medium of Stella, Cantelman feels he is raping Nature:
On the warm earth consent flowed up into her body from all the veins of the landscape. That night he spat out, in gushes of thick delicious rage, all the lust that had gathered in his body. The nightingale sang ceaselessly in the small wood at the top of the field where they lay. He grinned up towards it, and once more turned to the devouring of his mate. He bore down on her as though he wished to mix her body into the soil, and pour his seed into a more methodless matter, the brown phalanges of floury land. As their two bodies shook and melted together, he felt that he was raiding the bowels of Nature. (Reprinted in Calder and Boyars' Blasting and Bombardiering, 310)
The complexity of Cantelman's desire for Stella, his hatred for his own weakness, and the ambiguous attractiveness of his revenge, are all allusively conveyed in the violent imagery of intercourse. In his mood of "impartial malignity," Cantelman feels that he has won the laurels in his vendetta with Nature, but the whole tenor of the writing denies this. Far from disrupting the pattern of Nature, he plays an integral part in every stage of the natural progression of copulation, birth and—when beating out a German's brains—death. Cantelman's callous and vicious treatment of Stella is an attempt to defeat Nature on her own amoral terms and thus, by remaining above the processes, avoid the "souillure." But the story reveals the insufficiency of the Nietzschean concept of "Will" in this struggle: it is impossible to remain "indifferent to Nature's threat," even when the essence of this threat is intellectually recognized. To be in life is to be tainted by life; this is the lesson learned by so many of Lewis's Supermen manqués, and only Pierpoint in The Apes of God, by eremetically withdrawing from life, manages to function successfully as disembodied mind.
Where the early Wild Body stories presented idiosyncratic characters and conflicts illustrative of human psychology, "Cantelman's Spring-Mate" presents conflicts which embody ideas. Published the year after "Cantelman," "The War Baby" ( Art and Letters, Winter 1918), pursues similar concepts against a similar wartime background; but Richard Beresin, the soldier-protagonist, is much more of a buffoon than Cantelman. Beresin's ideals are not the product of strenuous philosophy, but were bred from the "Tenacious middle class snobberies" of public school, nurtured by Paris, Huysmans and Nietzsche, and now—tended by a "soldier-servant"—are in full flower. A puppet driven by subjective dreams, Beresin inhabits an idealistic realm cut off from the real world by snobbish illusions. His grandiose vision invades—indeed submerges—reality with the Nietzschean equivalent of Romanticism. Charlie Peace, The Brides in the Bath, Oscar Wilde, Huysmans, together with Nietzsche, all romp promiscuously in Beresin's idiot pantheon, and are responsible for his delusions of grandeur. In the Prologue to the first edition of Tarr (1918), Lewis diagnoses the Nietzschean cult which has produced "The ungainliest and strangest aristocratic caste any world could hope to see":
In Europe Nietzsche's gospel of desperation, the beyond-the-law-man etc., has deeply influenced the Paris apache, the Italian Futuriste litterateur, the Russian revolutionary. Nietzsche's books are full of seductions and sugar-plums. They have made aristocrats of people who would otherwise have been only mild snobs or meddlesome prigs . . . they have made an Over-man of every vulgarly energetic grocer in Europe, (x)
Like Cantelman, Beresin represents a critique of his philosophy. In different ways, both are attempting to live out their ideologies and impose their own patterns upon existence; but once translated into action, ideas lose their purity and become tainted by the imperfections of humanity. In a similar manner, John Porter Kemp, the central character of Lewis's dialectical drama The Ideal Giant (1917), propounds a philosophy of extreme action which, however coherently expressed, is shown to be, in practice, totally ludicrous. Kemp's conversations represent his groping towards a satisfactory personal philosophy, and he concludes that conventional behaviour, because mechanical, should be shunned. However, what is intellectually valid and clear-cut can, in action, become chaotic and vague. Philosophy has no law beyond itself, whereas life is hedged in with a multitude of contingencies which blur the edges of ideal forms. When Kemp's "philosophy of action" is put into practice the result is a bizarre emblematic comment upon his original ethic.
Kemp tells Rose that "honesty is a rhythm; it must be broken up," and the important thing is to act positively (instead of merely "playing"):
"My point is plain. It is entirely a question of whole hogging, and escaping from the dreariness and self-contempt of play. We play at everything here—at love, art, winning and losing—don't we? . . . Yet action, if you could find the right action, is the 'sovereign cure for our ills'. . . . Any wildly subversive action should be welcomed. We must escape from the machine in ourselves! Smash it up: renew ourselves"
The insistence upon a cataclysmic personal violence beyond the bounds of good and evil is distinctly Nietzschean. Kemp is disgusted with his own puny attempts to break the conventional rhythm of honesty and confound a mundane reality with lies. Similarly, believing that Rose has stolen some spoons as a symbolic act, Kemp tells her that such gesturing is merely playing at desperation:
"I feel that my lies and your spoons were about as playful as some of the absurdities with which we reproach our art friends. Compared to death on a barricade, or the robber Garnier's Swedish exercises while he was in hiding in the suburbs of Paris, they are slight exploits. The blood that spurts from a tapped proboscis is not enough. A spoon will not thrust you into jail for so long that you forget what the Earth looks like. For the hair to turn white, the heart to turn grey, in an hour, you require the real thing, ma mie."
But, unknown to Kemp, Rose has committed herself in the manner set forth by him: she has killed her father. Touched with bloodstained hands, philosophy has become sullied. As a policeman attempts to apprehend Rose, the play ends with a ludicrous scramble of bodies on the floor of the cafe.
In The Ideal Giant Lewis treats important themes through a veil of heavy irony. It is as if he finds, like Kerr-Orr who is "never serious about anything," that even momentous issues are Janus-faced and are forever pushing forward their absurd aspect. Kemp's philosophizing is, on one level, an attempt to hammer out what Lewis in The Art of Being Ruled calls a "working system of thought." Lewis manages to catch that nice balance between recognizing the importance of Kemp's attempt, while, at the same time, satirizing it most savagely. With Rose's arrest Kemp achieves his mock anagnorosis; the folly of his übermensch idealism is revealed. It is doubly ironical that Kemp should have learned, not through the folly of his own Dostoevskyan extravagance, but through the actions of a female doppelgänger. Throughout the play Kemp believes that he is playing Raskolnikov to Rose's Sonia, but finally he discerns that, in fact, the roles have been reversed.
Cantelman, Beresin, Kemp—all are defeated by life. They do assert positives, but the fiction is an embodiment of their inadequacy rather than their validity. Almost as an answer to the mauvaise foi of these characters, the fictional Benjamin Richard Wing lays down his premises for the good life in "The Code of a Herdsman" (The Little Review, July 1917). Just as the first versions of the Wild Body stories showed Lewis exalting argument above design, so "The Code" represents a fictional presentation of ideas without plot or character. In the form of a letter, this epistolary dramatic monologue is a short but comprehensive set of rules for the avoidance of "The obscenities of existence" and the type of social contacts which dogged the other failed "Natures." Wing is quite dogmatic in his assertions: Mankind and the Exceptional Man cannot coexist and so the only answer is a rigidly divisive Olympian life-style for the "Herdsmen" or "Mountain people." The deliberately extravagant irony of the piece does not mask the seriousness of intent: "The Code" contains the seeds of the Manichean vision of The Art of Being Ruled, Pierpoint's Encyclicals in The Apes of God, and Lewis's own "Enemy" persona. The sine qua non of Wing's argument rests upon the assumption that humanity can be divided, on the one hand, into "Herd" and, on the other, into "Mountain people" or "Herdsmen." It is also understood that any trafficking with the "Yahooesque and rotten herd" must be distasteful in the extreme:
Spend some of your spare time every day in hunting your weaknesses, caught from commerce with the herd, as methodically, solemnly and vindictively as a monkey uses with his fleas. You will find yourself swarming with them while you are surrounded by humanity. But you must not bring them up onto the mountain. . . . Do not play with political notions, aristocratisms or the reverse, for that is a compromise with the herd. Do not allow yourself to imagine "A fine herd, though still a herd." There is no fine herd. The cattle that call themselves "gentlemen" you will observe to be a little cleaner. It is merely cunning and produced with a product of combined soda and fats. But you will find no serious difference between them and those vast dismal herds they avoid.
The basis of this elitism is ontological not social and, like Plato's exaltation of the Philosopher-King, proceeds from an unquestioned acceptance of the primacy of the intellect. The arrogant Mosaic tone of the piece is brilliantly sustained throughout, and much of the sardonic humour derives from the straightfaced precision with which the allegory is pursued:
There are very stringent regulations about the herd keeping off the sides of the mountain. In fact your chief function is to prevent this happening. Some in moments of boredom, or vindictiveness, are apt to make rushes for the higher regions. Their instinct always fortunately keeps them in crowds or bands, and their trespassing is soon noticed.
The inhumanity of the attitude lies in the deliberate confusion of image and reality: "herd" gradually loses its metaphorical sense and the "Yahoos of the plain" are spoken of, quite literally, as animals. "The terrible processions beneath," writes Wing from the heights, "Are not of our making, and are without our pity." This superb egotism reduces others to mere functions of the self, and one is reminded of Kerr-Orr's confession in The Wild Body:
I admit that I am disposed to forget that people are real—that they are, that is, not subjective patterns belonging specifically to me, in the course of this jokelife, which indeed has for its very principle a denial of the accepted actual. (4)
Wing looks upon humanity with all the indifference that Joyce characterized as central to the aesthetic attitude. Paring his fingernails, Wing does not "Forget" the reality of others—he denies it. Yet, apart from Pierpoint, Lewis's characters never long endure the rarified air of the Mountain (even Wing has "A pipe below sometimes"), and a recurrent theme throughout the fiction is just this conflict between the concepts of the Mountain and the exigencies of the Plain.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5308
SOURCE: Afterword, to The Complete Wild Body, Black Sparrow Press, 1982, pp. 403-14.
[In the following afterword to a collection of Lewis's stories, Lafourcade, following Lewis's own example, catalogues the six basic "Attributes " of the Wild Body stories, which are "a real presence," "fascination," "comedy, " "tragedy, " "The grotesque, " and "The absurd. "]
To get some idea of the present status and sweeping magnitude of this remarkable collection of stories—Wyndham Lewis's great initial outburst and constant source of reference for what was to prove most actively vital in his vision—imagine a population of Easter Island monoliths lying face down, half buried in the dust. This spectral host must sooner or later be recovered from oblivion as one of the great exhumations of Modernism, and the object of this book is to promote a long overdue recognition by presenting the procession of these stories complete for the first time.
Pondered and elaborated by Lewis over a period of nearly twenty years, the early intuitions of 1909 eventually yielded a collection of stories, The Wild Body of 1927—a landmark in the history of English short fiction as significant as Dubliners, but which, for a variety of reasons, has remained largely ignored. The final product, with the exception of a second meagre impression in 1932, was not reissued during the author's lifetime, though Methuen planned a reprint in the early fifties—and since Lewis's death, only one facsimile reprint has been made available. Moreover none of the constitutive monoliths of The Wild Body was ever included in any of the numerous anthologies of the modern short story—which in the course of half a century is surprising, to say the least, unless it is realized that these objects must have been perceived from the start as disturbingly alien, not to say incomprehensible, thus confirming Hugh Kenner's diagnosis of Lewis as "A one-man alternative avant-garde."1 Surely, as was so often the case with Lewis, and still is, the pundits felt that, rather than grappling with complex nonconformity, it would be simpler to ignore the whole thing altogether. Thus "The alternative" remained in the cupboard.
So, these sketches, essays and stories sank into oblivion outside the narrow circle of Lewis's critics. But even the latter bear some responsibility for this neglect. Though the early reviewers of 1927-1928 had often proved enthusiastic and sometimes highly perceptive, the recent commentators have not approached Lewis's uncouth tribe systematically. Unanimous in asserting the importance of The Wild Body in the shaping of the author's Weltanschauung, but often at variance about the value of the stories, they usually contented themselves with a few random samples before moving on to the study of the more accessible and homogeneous novels, which means that a number of the "bodies" have hardly been anatomized, and some of them not at all. The most obvious idiosyncrasies of these "little dead totems" have been discussed, but the organization of their clan, its genesis and growth, its changing philosophy, its collective unconscious and structural obsessions must still be ascertained. An overall vista is needed—the cliché of Lewis the man springing from nowhere being still too often used as a smoke screen. True enough, there are signs that a more attentive attitude is appearing, but this comprehensive spectrum of the work of Lewis jeune is still likely to come as a revelation to many.
A saga no doubt, but no mere Ur-Lewis for the delight of experts alone. The evolution from the earlier texts to the final Wild Body—or, to cut a long story short, from groping vitalism to rigid formalism—was considerable. But from the start the central Lewisian gap between creator and creation was there. The earlier, almost Lawrentian, observation of reality was already undermined by phantasmic parody. The documentary accidentalness of the travelogue was in fact selective of aspects of reality which were both haunted and haunting. As to the more polished and fictional final products, they were to perpetuate this initial tension by "a verbal impasto" thanks to which, according to Hugh Kenner, Lewis "exalted his vices into a style,"2downgrading reality to present it as an artificial mecha-nism. A diagnosis confirmed by Jean-Jacques Mayoux who, when analysing the rationale behind Lewis's style and vision, remarks that "no sooner has subjectivity been kicked out than it bursts in through the window."3 However brief the expulsion, it leaves its mark, turning interiority into a sort of collage. This may well constitute the essence of the Lewisian "Alternative," and suggests a "post-modernism" before the hour.4
The prolonged distillation of such paradoxes is probably responsible for the most salient feature of The Wild Body.It stands as one of these rare collections of stories which, though elusive, are felt to be intensely controlled by "A logical pattern," "An inherent design," or "A strong sense of form," as John Gawsworth5 recognized fifty years ago. In the final version of "Inferior Religions," Lewis saw his characters as a colony of "Theorems," and one is tempted to evoke here—though they have with them little in common apart from some pivotal concern with the body—such collections as Roussel's or Kafka's "Machines célibataires"6, Joyce's Dubliners, Hemingway's "Nick" sketches and Sartre's Le Mur. There must be a few more, but not many, of these systematic "Diaboliques," and on all counts The Wild Body and its characters belong to that party of sublime extremists.
Such comparisons may at least shed some light on the practice of the Lewisian "Alternative." Lewis's "bodies" are not submitted to a crucial test—epiphany, fracture or execution. Half-document, half-fiction, these "stories" generally present a gang of active paralytics prone to mock aggressions, by means of which they project a primitive tottering shadow for the benefit of an ambiguous observer or agent provocateur. A world of degraded myths inviting the reader to recognize some ancestral grimace filtering through our existential routine. Not characters facing a liberating crisis, but "shells," congealed in rituals, whose very human, though degenerate, gestures told Beckettian "Stories and Texts for Nothing," long before the hour. Lewis did with Descartes, Goethe, Dostoevsky and Bergson what Beckett was to do with Dante, Geulincx, Proust and Joyce.
A late but characteristic postscript to this manipulation of the real is offered in the opening pages of Snooty Baronet (1932), when Kell-Imrie (first named Carr-Orr, which suggests that this novel was initially conceived as a sort of sequel to The Wild Body) defines himself in these terms:
I am not a narrative writer. As to being a "Fiction" writer, I could not bring myself to write down that I am not that. I may never I hope be called upon to repudiate an imputation of that order. But the art of narrative, that is a different matter to "Fiction." To Defoe I take off my hat. Then there was Goldsmith. I should prefer to make it clear at once at all events that I occupy myself only with scientific research. Such claim as I may have to be a man-of-letters reposes only upon the fact that my investigations into the nature of the human being have led me to employ the arts of the myth-maker, in order the better to present (for the purposes of popular study) my human specimens. Henri Fabre dramatized his insects in that way . . .
Lewis's reverence for Defoe is suggestive: the forefather of the English novel only began his literary career (shuffling reporting and forgery) when he found himself hopelessly entangled in the "Fictions" of a treble agent double. Such contamination is typical of The Wild Body. It explains why these stories are only animated by the ghost of an action—the "narrative" vector becoming a "Fictional" vortex, with no compensatory introspection being allowed in. These are severe limitations, and one may wonder what is left to fill up the stories. An answer may be sketched by doing what Lewis did for "Laughter" in "Inferior Religions," when he decided to "catalogue (its) attributes." We can name six basic "Attributes" of The Wild Body: 1) a real presence, 2) fascination, 3) and 4) comedy and tragedy, 5) the grotesque, and 6) the absurd. At least implicitly, all these elements were present from the start, but it is only progressively that they came to be recognized as such—and this in the above order, just as in a monogram the intertwined letters are to be read in a given succession. Elucidating these took Lewis twenty years—a highly significant process paralleled by the similar rewriting or repeating of the rest of his early creative production (the two Tarrs and the two Enemy of the Stars, "The War Baby" duplicating "Cantelman's Spring-Mate").
1) A REAL PRESENCE. The prerequisite for any of these stories is a casual meeting with a "body" or group of "bodies" perceived as foreign, strange, and alien. Such presence is "given"—apparently imposed from the outside on the anonymous witness. It is not invented and organized by an author as will be the case later with sophisticated productions like "Sigismund." Often presented as an illustration of some sociological or cultural observation, the documentary vignettes exploit the picturesque and the picaresque, as if Baedeker and Dickens were joining hands to caricature national types—provocative, yet essentially flat. Some of Ker-Orr's poses smack of a typically English superiority complex towards foreigners. Yet, ascribing strange physical aspects or behaviours to a national mould was not the original object, as Lewis's elimination of capital letters for adjectives of nationality will soon prove. The nation—like games and sports (see "Our Wild Body")—was recognized as one more "opium du peuple"—an inferior religion. In fact the characters of the early stories all tend to overdo their foreignness by their being so marginal, eccentic or primitive—a multistoreyed alienation culminating in Monsieur de Valmore, this French pseudo-American operating in Spain. What it must have meant for young Lewis was that French mechanical Cartesianism, the Slav soul feeding on Dostoevskian contradictions, and the baroque austerity of the Spaniards combined to infect the dreamy imagination of a slowdeveloping Briton. There "The alternative" found its first expression—in a reality, which, being selected by an obscure emotion, could not be properly focused, could not yield a clear message.
2) FASCINATION. A coherence, which is compulsive and disquieting, gives the travelogue another dimension—magnetic, ontological, and problematic—and herein lie the difficulty and significance of The Wild Body. Irreducible yet split, it acquires an existence less touristic than Berkeleyan, being inseparable from that other presence, the beholder's. The only mode of perception allowed by its gesticulating opaqueness is fascination. Bestre, the "eyeman," became Lewis's "enfant chéri," because he was the archfascinator of the tribe; le Père François exists only in so far as his disjointed utterances turn reality into a mesmerizing patchwork full of holes; whereas Ludo shut in an opaque body by his blindness is killed by a reflected otherness he embodies. According to Maurice-Jean Lefevre7, "The awareness of a fissure in reality," making it appear "super-real," constitutes the essence of fascination. This applies very well to what is constantly happening in The Wild Body. An author may handle his material so as to make it appear fascinating, but fascination here is rooted in an uncertainty involving both subject and object. The puzzled observer is as paralyzed as the object of his perception—and perception always seems to imply a dangerous frontier and cruel no-man's-land. This was not obvious at first because the author-narrator remained impersonal, but "A Breton Journal," which embodied the first apprehensions of The Wild Body, was animated by such "Fissures" suggested by static characters exuding a "super-reality" of sorts (a "sub-reality" might be a better word in view of the future "Inferior Religions"). Postures suspend time, and the body becomes "A tableau vivant."
The Wild Body and its "Fissures" offer an approach to an understanding of Lewis's dual genius. In "Beginnings" we learn how, when he started writing in Brittany, Lewis kept drawing and story-telling in tight compartments—the story feeding on what was left over after the drawing had been completed. Yet the literary Lewis remained manifestly visual. A prisoner of his fascination? This suggests an unresolved tension, the enduring effects of which probably determined—to name only two significant developments contemporary with the long story of The Wild Body—the adoption of the Vortex (an archetype of fascination with its centripetal immobility), and the defence of space and fixity as expressed in Time and Western Man. That the prolonged rumination of The Wild Body was not accidentally due to World War I but was more fundamentally personal, solipsistic and Berkeleyan seems confirmed by the way its saga came to its conclusion. Lewis redoubled the duplication by endowing his "eye" with a distinct personality and body—that of a showman with a full name and a family background secretly and ironically modelled on his own (see "A Soldier of Humour"). Ker-Orr, acting as a screen, reduced the effect of fascination and enabled the paralyzed observer to complete his saga and eventually emerge as The Enemy8.
Then, retrospectively, fascination could be seen as corresponding with the repressed recognition of an intimate trauma. But here the Zeitgeist should not be ignored. Lewis belonged to a generation of exiles repelled by the debilitating respectability of the Victorian scene and attracted by the artistic ebullience of the Continent. The two most conspicuous "Anti-Lewises," Joyce and Lawrence, are obvious names here, but also the more transitional Forster with such contemporary novels as Where Angels Fear to Tread. All these writers specialized in "Fascinating fissures" of one sort or another—and all suffered from a parental deficit, on the father's side. Let us concentrate on a so far unexplored comparison with J. M. Synge, whose formative years—not long before Lewis's—greatly resemble those which saw the incubation of The Wild Body.Like Lewis, who, by his own admission, was "congealed in a kind of cryptic immaturity" (see "How One Begins," a diagnosis confirmed by Augustus John in his memoirs), Synge squandered years of his life in that Mecca of the arts, Paris, gripped by an inertia redolent of "Fin de siècle" ennui, before, suddenly, on his homecoming, erupting into creativity with the discovery of a liberating primitivism. Synge's Connemara played a part strikingly similar to Lewis's Brittany and the Playboy is a wild body par excellence. Synge's Parisian exile and subsequent primitivist explosion can be reasonably linked to a parental "Fissure" (his father died when he was very young) which the Oedipal explosions of The Playboy of the Western World can be seen to perpetuate by an extraordinary jargon akin to that of the final "Bestre" for instance—this in an atmosphere of comedy both exacerbating and bridging the abysmal paralyzing absence.
Bridging impossible existential gaps is precisely what—for structural anthropology—seems to be the raison d'être of mythic thought. Lewis's "saurian" immersion in the Breton summer and his somnambulic approach to his "bodies" may well have reflected the circumstances of his early life—his family romance—and an "indigestion of reality" which later Pringle obscurely recognized. Let us recall that Lewis's parents separated when their son was eleven, and that the "Fissure" was spatially intensified by his father being American and his mother British.9 As time passed his mother asserted herself as protectress, confidante and money-lender while the father (who had eloped with the maid) receded into the role of an absentee. Much could be made out of this to explain aspects of Lewis's future behaviour, but such approaches are irritating in that they seem amateurishly to oversimplify things, yet it may also be that such an easy geometry recaptures something of the original fascination—and it must be recognized, at least, that this is the sort of explanation Lewis himself succumbed to later when he wrote:
My mother's and father's principal way of spending their time at the period of my birth was the same as mine now: my mother painting pictures of the farmhouse where we lived, my father writing books inside it . . . For a person like myself to both write and paint is being bi-lingual.10
This is a reconstruction on the author's part, but nonethe-less telling. This idyllic vignette, rather reminiscent of Lewis's Breton scenes, constitutes an attempt at bridging the gap and going back to the Golden Age home—and Lewis's dual genius, as defined here, appears as an indirect effort to reunify the separated (and now dead) parents. That this sketch should not have been included in Rude Assignment is all the more revealing—it was probably thought too intimately limpid.
Seen in this light the basic fictional ingredients of The Wild Body take on "A family likeness" confirming the secret coherence of these stories, and the lasting effects of the fascination.
Settings: foreign inns and hotels, cafés and boarding houses—rooms, opposing their ambiguous privacy to the bleak openness of public places, mostly streets and squares. Clearly a frontier world of doors and windows for this decadent version of the Romantic Wanderer, the then fashionable Tramp (see , and ). One telling exception, the only "private house" is the Ankou's—and it is a cave, a troglodytic tomb to which the narrator is refused admission.
Actions: no plot, but all the grotesqueries of hotel life—the violent enticing of customers, invasion and trespass, parasitism and voyeurism, escape and expulsion.
Characters: vagrants and guardians, all specialists in hospitality or inhospitality—with even the Saltimbanques offering the brief shelter of their tent and benches.
Couples: young lovers are rare and aggressive—"Amours ancillaires" exclusively (again, Charles Lewis had eloped with the maid). Married couples are bitter, destructive and generally childless—the Saltimbanques exhibiting their "gytes" only to make the world more fundamentally gloomy. The only happily united family (that of the painter in "A Spanish Household") is comically mechanical.
Children: unexpectedly, from what has just been said, a very active group, with the true children, such as the laughing apocalyptist of "Les Saltimbanques," the Picasso-esque shadows of "A Breton Journal," and the Soutine-esque dull groom stunned by Roland in "A Breton Innkeeper," but above all the permanently infantile characters who contaminate the adult world, such as the childman persecuted by brats in the final snapshot of "The 'Pole.'" Ultimately all the inmates of The Wild Body will be defined as "wild children" in "Inferior Religions."
Showmanship: the author-narrator may be suspected of being the arch-child of the whole system—and to pass from the impersonal narrator of 1909, through Pringle (the devouring "child" and uncertain lover), to the aggressive showman of 1927, is to pass from the foundling to the bastard of the Freudian family romance,11 an evolution confirmed by that of the rather meek Isoblitsky of "The 'Pole'" into the enigmatic Zoborov who, like a hermit crab, usurps the erotic shell of "Beau Séjour."
Parental figures: if the conquest of a home can be seen as the mainspring of these stories, then the childless fascinating "bodies" animating them should be susceptible to interpretation as father and mother images. Madame Brotcotnaz (curiously associated through heavy drinking with Ker-Orr's absent mother), or Madame Chalaran, or the Cornac's wife seem to present various facets of the mother seen from the son's point of view (a victim of male brutality, a money guardian, a charming companion, etc.). Treated in sympathetic half-tones, they are definitely less prominent than the father images. The isolation of these may stand for the father's absence—and they are brutally dealt with. Wrecks and invalids (Monsieur Jules Montort, Ludo, le Père Françis, Monsieur Chalaran), or else unstable giants (Monsieur Brobdingnag, Monsieur de Valmore), all are manipulated, humiliated or killed by fate, or the "son's" aggressiveness. To this, two exceptions: "Beau Séjour," in which various "sons" compete in the absence of any parent—and Bestre, first taken as a model reconciling life and art, but eventually discarded, though dearly loved (a typical ambivalence), as a degenerate impotent exhibitionist.
The body: why is it a "body" and why is it "wild"? Here is the central question. An answer should now be less tentative. The body prevailed over the person, because full identity had been denied it by the parental split—the home disappearing and leaving it as the only remaining "shell." Its wildness is therefore inseparable from the absence of a hospitable family nucleus. It is condemned to an exile during which layer upon layer of externality is built up to make up for the lost identity and protect the inner void—see the image of the Russian doll in Tarr or Turgenev's "Six Unknown" in "The Code of a Herdsman." This process of aggressive reappropriation is nowhere so obvious as in Ker-Orr's triumphant big gnashing teeth which, in his victory over Monsieur de Valmore, confirm him both as an American and as an Enemy.
Recrossing these tempestuous thresholds after the war, and the death of his parents, Lewis—in all likelihood thanks to his recent acquaintance with Freud12—probably came to an understanding of what had animated the Breton fascination. This did not lead him to exorcism but allowed him to use laughter as a smoke-screen for sex. The Wild Body had acted as a sort of rite of passage for this slow-developer. A rite of passage—is this not a primitive equivalent of the Bildüngsroman?
3) and 4) COMEDY and TRAGEDY. The other basic constituents of The Wild Body are easier to assess because they translate a subliminally perceived existential anguish into clear formal patterns. The obscure fascination exerted by the actors of The Wild Body—which Lewis was unable or reluctant to understand—had to be tamed, given a reassuring vestment making the story communicable and lively while preserving its secret message. Comedy provided this great cloak—all the more easily as its eruptive gaiety harmonized with Lewis's release from his long Continental inertia. Like Synge, Lewis, quite naturally, opted for forms of comedy closely associated with the body—farce, horseplay, practical jokes and the burlesque—wrongly considered as "low" forms, whereas they are in fact more profound than intellectual wit through being—as with Jonson or Swift—near to sheer physical reality, or the unconscious. Just as in The Playboy of the Western World the parricidal mood arouses a collective explosion of joyful physical liberatio, the Lewisian vortex of fascination is strategically counterbalanced by the bumping acceleration of the fete surrounding it.
Alan Munton, who shrewdly investigated this aspect, rightly relates it to the celebrations of Carnival and the commedia dell'arte deriving from it—and surely from Paris to Munich, from balls to travelling circuses, Lewis explored a festive Europe. This leads Munton to draw a convincing contrast between the vitalistic celebrations of the early stories and the sour intellectual satires of Lewis's post-World War I period. It is true that the feast is no longer to be found in "Sigismund" or "You Broke my Dream." But this does not mean that the early Wild Body was just "good fun," and Munton makes it clear that not only comedy but satire originates in the Carnival impulse, which is intensely concerned with the body, its dark contradictory functions and revitalizing dismemberment. As R. C. Elliott's studies of satire and utopia13 confirm, the topsyturvidom of The Feast of Fools allows the mixing of genres so typical of The Wild Body. Degenerate rites, inferior myths, apocalyptism (so very close to utopia), sordidness, decay and death are just as active in these stories as the enjoyment of the ludicrous, or the cultivation of black humour (see Timothy Materer's analysis), or the pursuit of an "idée fixe" (see Robert Chapman's study).14 Laughter has its shadow—and in tragi-comedy even the killing of Death reasserts the "Fissure" over which "it is impossible for logic to throw any bridge."15
Such dualism marks the limits of Lewis's primitivism when compared with D. H. Lawrence's "polarity." Lawrence, when he perceives the "Fissure" (in "Snake" or "Medlars and Sorb-Apples") makes a rush for it to merge the conflicting poles of his fascination down there in the darkness. Lewis, on the contrary, explodes out of it—volcanically. Just compare—for the final confrontation of the body and its impending fate—the Orphic torches of Lawrence's "Bavarian Gentians" with the high voltage bulb Lewis lights in "The Sea Mists of the Winter" as a defence against blindness. Jean-Jacques Mayoux is certainly right when he defines Lawrence as "The last of the great antiabsurdists."16 With Lewis—inseparable from an intense lucidity—the paradox went on asserting itself, as can be seen in the neo-Nietzschean aphoristic definitions of "Inferior Religions" where comedy systematically collides with tragedy, thus belittling the mythopoeic vision. By 1917, sure enough, the Carnival had become "Arctic"—frozen.
5) THE GROTESQUE. The effort to dominate the still obscure fascination by associating its "Fissure" with the clash of comedy and tragedy in the mixing of genres led to the growth of a strained, bombastic, out of the way style. In the early sketches, the behaviour of the characters was definitely grotesque, but not the style and viewpoint communicating them—and their fascination remained encapsulated in the objectiveness of the travelogue. With "Unlucky for Pringle," fiction and reality begin to overlap in exploding combinations—the plea for a healthy physical communication advocated in "Our Wild Body" being systematically flouted. On the one hand Lewis pays lip service to fictional verisimilitude by introducing dialogues and an apparently realistic two-storeyed narration. But the commentary corrupts this to exalt voyeurism and the tortuous paradoxes of body and home, digestion and excretion. We find such sentences as "The unwearied optimism of these inanimate objects, how they occupied stolidly room after room, was appalling," or "Monsieur Chalaran had shown his displeasure and discomfort by eating everything within reach," or towards the end of the story "The house would vomit him; it could not assimilate him." Formal sophistication and stylistic amplification marked the first "Soldier of Humour," and, under the influence of the Vortex and the War, blew up in the exuberant imagery of "Inferior Religions." Thereafter it was caught up in the extreme "impasto" of the 1922 "Bestre" which paved the way for the final systematic exploitation of the grotesque in the general rewriting of 1927. It was then only that Ker-Orr spoke of "stylistic anomaly" and "grotesque realism."
The grotesque shows a remarkable structural similarity to fascination, in that it stylistically expresses an "unresolved clash of incompatibles."17 Here is the "Fissure" again, with this difference perhaps that the grotesque seems to be essentially a gesticulation whereas fascination paralyzes the beholder. Besides, grotesque exaggeration turns reality into a collage, and this is why grotesque characters are necessarily "Flat," to use E. M. Forster's distinction. It is appropriate here to note that this grotesque flatness has been linked with "Oedipal arrest."18 The obsessions of The Wild Body, as well as the cryptic disclosure of Ker-Orr's family backdrop, do not contradict such ascription. The "Fissure" of laughter was superimposed onto that of sex, and the resulting wildness—which may well be a tongue-in-cheek sublimation—nonetheless perpetuates the rich initial incomprehensibility by a perverse gibberish. It is not surprising therefore that such a pioneer in noncommunication and mind-"Massaging" nonsense should have turned out to be one of Marshall McLuhan's mentors.
6) THE ABSURD. The aphorisms of the 1917 "Inferior Religions" made it clear that Lewis was in search of a philosophy to replace the superficial vitalism of "Our Wild Body," and fit his new turbulent style in which each word made grimaces at its neighbours. Philip Thomson comes to the conclusion that the "consistent perception of the grotesque, or the perception of grotesqueness on a grand scale, can lead to the notion of universal absurdity."19 This was the road followed by Lewis, and it led to the apparently illuminating discovery of the concept of the absurd in the final act of The Wild Body—"The Meaning of the Wild Body"—in which the word "Absurd" occurs no less than seven times in seven pages. Lewis seems to have been the first to use this word systematically as a formal critical concept. The Lewisian "Alternative"—this intuition of post-modernism—is closely associated with this exaltation of the absurd, which in many ways prefigured not only existentialism (see Self Condemned and The Writer and the Absolute) but the formalist distortions of The Theatre of the Absurd and the Dark Humourists, as well as the geometric expressionism of the "Nouveau Roman."
The part played by the absurd in The Wild Body has been sufficiently analysed by Robert Chapman and myself to make all but attention to a few essential points unnecessary here. The final exaltation of the absurd does not mean that it was absent from the earliest work (see the antics of the Farceur in "The 'Pole'"), but it is only later that Lewis came to perceive its universality. For surely there is not one literary work which, at one stage or another, does not make use of absurdity, but this universalizing—a complete reduction—is compulsory for a work to be "a work of the absurd." In the case of Lewis, this discovery coincided with the 1914-1918 war, and also probably with the death of his parents—the old personal fascination of the Breton summer was superseded by a general theoretical vision of the absurd, whose structure is in fact similar to that of both fascination and the grotesque ("the chasm lying between being and non-being"). It operates however on the level of logic, for it takes a logical man to perceive the absurd—a situation congenial to the mechanical paradoxes of Lewis's dualism. The elimination of personal involvement and the use of a systematic reduction separate the two post-war stories ("Sigismund" and "You Broke my Dream") from the main stream of The Wild Body; yet they were included in the final Wild Body because reduction and irreducibility are twins after all.
The final organization of The Wild Body, with its core of seven stories, its accompanying essays, and its comet tail—and all its talk about "theorems" and "propositions"—constitutes the stringent demonstration of "A system of feeling." This suggests what is the specific, and indeed unique and paradoxical, nature of the Lewisian absurd—its energy. Vitalism expelled, there remained the sheer energy of the Vortex—the Eye.
The Wild Body has an origin, but no message, outside the turbulence which surrounds its fixity.
1 Preface to the Black Sparrow Press bibliography of Lewis, page 11.
2Wyndham Lewis, page 92.
3 "Wyndham Lewis ou la puissance du sensible," La Quinzaine Littéraire, XVI, no. 347 (1-15 May 1981), page 24.
4 See Fredric Jameson's important study, Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist, 1979.
5Apes, Japes and Hitlerism: A Study and Bibliography of Wyndham Lewis, 1932.
6 To use Michel Carrouges' seminal metaphor. See Les Machines Célibataires, Paris, Arcanes, 1954—and the ensuing recent exhibition of the same title at the Centre Pompidou.
7L 'image fascinante et le surréel, Paris, Plon, 1965, page 267.
8 A liberation comparable, perhaps, to Conrad's who, when "blocked" in the writing of the intensely autobiographical Lord Jim, hit on the idea of Marlow, the mediator.
9 His having been born on a yacht—his father's yacht—may also contribute to explain Lewis's "quartered" vision of space.
10 "The Vita of Wyndham Lewis," an unpublished biographical sketch written in 1949, Cornell University.
11 See Marthe Robert's Roman des Origines, Origines du Roman, Paris, Grasset, 1972.
12 See the introduction of the word "libido" in the 1922 "Bestre," Ker-Orr's family background in the 1927 "Soldier of Humour," the deletion of "succès d'hystérie" in the final "Inferior Religions," Zoborov's "inferiority complex," and what Lewis said on Freud in Time and Western Man. See also my "Off to Budapest with Freud."
13The Power of Satire, Princeton University Press, 1960. The Shape of Utopia, The University of Chicago Press, 1970.
14Wyndham Lewis the Novelist, 1976. Wyndham Lewis: Fictions and Satires, 1973.
15 "The Meaning of the Wild Body."
16D. H. Lawrence. Poèmes, Paris, Aubier, 1977 page 64.
17 Philip Thomson. The Grotesque, 1972, page 27.
18 See Mark Spilka's Dickens and Kafka, 1963.
19The Grotesque, page 32.
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SOURCE: "Getting Even with Uncle Ez: Wyndham Lewis's 'Doppelgänger'," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 235-43.
[In the following excerpt, Anspaugh argues that the protagonist of Lewis's story "The Doppelgänger" can be seen to represent Lewis's friend Ezra Pound, while the "Stranger" who in the tale proves to be the protagonist's alter ego and superior as a poet, scholar, and man, is a symbol for Lewis himself]
The protagonist of "Doppelgänger," Lewis' Gothic récit a clef33 is named Thaddeus Trunk or "Uncle Thad" (thereby conflating Pound's self-given "Uncle Ez" and the name of Pound's grandfather, Thaddeus Coleman Pound, who appears as "T.C.P." in the Cantos)34 Trunk is a poet and scholar, "A snuffly old passéiste, digging about among musty old manuscripts" (p. 25). Here Lewis' text recalls his earlier representation of Pound in Time and Western Man as a "Man in love with the past." Trunk has for health reasons retreated with his wife to a mountain-top cabin in Vermont and is there surrounded by a host of sycophants. "He may be regarded," observes Lewis' narrator, "As a victim of the Public. Those who, like myself, know what he can do away from men, where he can be a great poet, and hold up his head among the Gods, have lamented at what we saw" (p. 27). Again we hear echoes of Lewis' representation of Ezra in Time as "A crowd," as well as of his complaint that Pound has abandoned his true vocation of Poet.
Enter on the scene a mysterious "Stranger," claiming to be a distant relative. Thaddeus invites the Stranger to stay, and the latter proves himself to be—to borrow Lewis' earlier description of Pound—a most gentlemanly, discriminating parasite. In a series of uncanny incidents, the Stranger proves himself Trunk's better as scholar, poet, and man. Trunk's hostility towards this figure builds, and the story climaxes, as most of Lewis' narratives do, in a violent physical confrontation: "But the next minute the Stranger was battering at [Trunk's] face, and then delivering a haymaker, as the youthful audience later described it, in the center of the bulging beard, which sent him reeling down upon the floor, where he lay at full length, completely still" (p. 32). The Stranger departs, taking Trunk's wife with him, and the narrator comments: "To state briefly what has happened, a second Thaddeus, whom Stella recognized as the real Thaddeus had made his appearance, and Stella, very simply, changed Thaddeuses" (pp. 32-3).
In his brief commentary on this story, Timothy Materer claims that Lewis "is so fearful of seeming unfair to his old friend that the begins the story with a fictional preface in which the author of 'Doppelgänger' tells his editor that he does not wish to 'debunk' Pound."35 This preface, in fact, echoes the opening chapter to Blasting & Bombardiering, in which Lewis explains that his intention is to save all his fellow "Men of 1914" (and himself) from biography of the sort perpetrated by Lytton Strachey: "I would rescue a few people I respect, and who are, for their sins, objects like myself, of great popular curiosity and liable to continue so, from the obloquy and misrepresentation which must be their unenviable lot."36 In the "Doppelgänger" preface, Lewis assures his editor (and by extension his reader) that he is debunking not Pound but rather what he calls his "publicity figure": "For a man's publicity is a caricature of himself; it is really how the public sees 'greatness.' Now it was this heroic publicity scarecrow which you had in mind when you spoke of debunking, was it not?" (p. 24). Thus Lewis represents his story as yet another effort on his part to save Pound, both from himself and from malicious others.
Once again, though, it appears that the Enemy may be protesting too much. To begin with, one wonders about Lewis' translation of St. Elizabeth's Hospital into a sort of New England Parnassus—or, at the very least, magic mountain. Given that Lewis may have felt it necessary to disguise the setting in order not to offend the American authorities, such a translation is not likely to win Pound a reader's sympathy (to "soften the heart of the world," as Lewis put it in his letter to Paige). Rather, it works to underscore Pound's egotism and elitism. Lewis' Trunk clearly is a pompous ass and, although highly comic, not especially lovable. He is a type of Miles Gloriosus, and the reader enjoys seeing him flattened. Finally, although Lewis tells us that his Stranger is meant to represent the true Thaddeus (that is, the true Pound), one cannot help but see the doppelgänger as Lewis' double, or rather as Lewis himself projected into his story. Once this identification is made, "Doppelgänger" resolves into a piece of wish fulfillment or fantasy, in which the author invades his rival's space, proves himself il miglior fabbro and walks away with the girl. The Stranger's question to Trunk after having beaten him, "Was I to remain passive, under your filthy abuse?" (p. 32), might well be read as the paranoid Lewis' response to Pound, who once accused him of writing "like . . . a God damn fool."37 In short, "Doppel-gänger" can be seen as a sort of neo-Gothic allegory of revenge, or what Fredric Jameson, in his analysis of Lewis' narrative technique, terms a "Fable of aggression."38
Yet there is one final turn of the screw to be taken into account. "Doppelgänger" concludes with Thaddeus Trunk lorn and lonely on the mountain-top, a mere "shell" of the man he once was (p. 33). Lewis' metaphor recalls the final chapter of his autobiographical novel Self Condemned, published in the same year as his story. In "The Cemetery of Shells," Lewis presents his protagonist Rene Harding—who is indeed self-condemned, having ruined his life through reckless acts of pride—as an Eliotic hollow man, as a "glacial shell of a man."39 That Lewis should employ the same metaphor in the same year for himself and Pound is highly suggestive, for Pound and Lewis were, in a sense, doubles in their shared catastrophe. That Pound may have sensed his own presence in Self Condemned and been greatly moved is suggested by his letter to Lewis of 6 December 1954: "To confirm HIGH opinion of "Self-Cndd" / it and Rot-Hill [Rotting Hill, a collection of stories that Lewis published in 195140] all post 2nd / hell lit / yet discovered among ruins of Albion. Shd / git yu the Nobble [Nobel Prize]."41
Any psychoanalytic reading of the Lewis/Pound relationship would please neither of the principals, for both were openly hostile to Freud and his work.42 My interpretive paradigm, however, is not Freud's—or Harold Bloom's—Oedipal one, with Son rebelling against Father. Rather, when considering the case of Lewis and Pound, one is reminded of Cain and Abel: the eternal story of sibling rivalry. Joyce recognized the appropriateness of this paradigm when he cast both Lewis and Pound as his agonistic brothers—Shauns to his Shem—in Finnegans Wake. Brothers, it seems, will always be loving and hating one another, and Lewis was always loving and hating Pound. The latter, having a kind heart, overlooked the hate. "I am FOR Mr. Lewis, even when he is wrong" Pound once proclaimed, and offered as justification for his position: "I believe that all large mammals shd. be preserved."43 Perhaps contemporary critics should follow Uncle Ez's lead.
33 Wyndham Lewis, "Doppelgänger," Encounter, IV (1954), pp. 23-33; hereafter cited parenthetically within the text.
34 That Lewis was indeed aware of Pound's grandfather and his personal history is suggested by a passage in Blasting & Bombardiering in which Lewis echoes an English anti-Semite's accusation that Pound was of the "diaspora of Wisconsin" (p. 274). T. C. Pound was once lieutenant governor of Wisconsin. Other parallels between Pound and Trunk are pointed out by Timothy Matere in his introduction to Pound/Lewis The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis (New Directions, 1985), pp. xv-xvi.
35Pound/Lewis, p. xv.
36Blasting and Bombardiering (1937; Calder, 1982), p. 13.
37Pound/Lewis, p. 152.
38 Fredric Jameson, Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist (University of California Press, 1979).
39Self Condemned (1954; Black Sparrow, 1983), p. 407.
40Rotting Hill, ed. Paul Edwards (1951; Black Sparrow, 1986). The title is taken from Pound's comic corruption of the name of the London area Notting Hill, where Pound had lived while in England and where Lewis lived during his last days.
41Pound/Lewis, p. 283.
42 Lewis rejects Freud as "A sort of mephistopheltan Dr. Caligari" in Time and Western Man (p. 310) and caricatures him as "Dr. Frumpfsusan" in Part II of The Apes of God (1930; Black Sparrow, 1981). In a letter to Lewis of 11 August 1952, Pound remarks of psychoanalysis: "As for the Viennese sewage/40 years and not produced ONE interesting work. In fact hoax for paralyzing the will . . ." ( Pound/Lewis, p. 269).
43 "On Wyndham Lewis," Shenandoah, IV (1953), p. 17.
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Meyers, Jeffrey. The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980, 391 p.
Major, well-documented biography of Lewis, including extensive coverage of his childhood years.
Wagner, Geoffrey. A Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957, 363 p.
Early biography paying more attention to the details of Lewis's life and work and less on critical assessment; includes an extensive bibliography.
Beatty, Michael. "The Earliest Fiction of Wyndham Lewis and The Wild Body" Theoria 48, No. 1 (1977): 37-45.
Discussion of Lewis's early stories that were later revised and included in The Wild Body.
Duncan, Ian. "Towards a Modernist Poetic: Wyndham Lewis's Early Fiction." In Wyndham Lewis: Letteratura/Pittura, pp. 67-85. Selerio editore, 1982.
Argues that a "redefinition of sensibility" can be detected by examining the differing aesthetic and theoretical concerns in Lewis's early stories and their revised forms in The Wild Body.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Wyndam Lewis: A Reevaluation; New Essays. Montreal: McGill University Press, 1980, 276 p.
Studies of various aspects of Lewis's work.
Munton, Alan. "Wyndham Lewis: The Transformations of Carnival." In Wyndham Lewis: Litteratura/Pittura, a cura di Giovanni Cianci, pp. 141-57. Palermo: Sellerio editore, 1982.
Discussion centrally concerned with The Wild Body.
Soons, Allan. "Sigismundo, Delbora and Wyndham Lewis's 'Sigismund'." Arcadia 19, No. 3 (1984): 170-74.
Examines the Spanish source of Lewis's short story "Sigismund."
Additional coverage of Lewis's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 157; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 9.