Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175

Wyndham Lewis 1882-1957

(Full name Percy Wyndham Lewis) Canadian novelist, painter, philosopher, critic, essayist, dramatist, editor, autobiographer, poet, and short story writer.

Lewis is known as one of the “Men of 1914,” a group including Ezra Pound and James Joyce that is credited with revolutionizing twentieth-century art and literature. Enjoying...

(The entire section contains 151055 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Wyndham Lewis study guide. You'll get access to all of the Wyndham Lewis content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Wyndham Lewis 1882-1957

(Full name Percy Wyndham Lewis) Canadian novelist, painter, philosopher, critic, essayist, dramatist, editor, autobiographer, poet, and short story writer.

Lewis is known as one of the “Men of 1914,” a group including Ezra Pound and James Joyce that is credited with revolutionizing twentieth-century art and literature. Enjoying initial success as a painter and portraitist, Lewis became instrumental in the reaction against Romanticism in the first two decades of the twentieth century with his championing of Vorticist values as a painter and editor of the magazine Blast. After World War I, Lewis established himself as a novelist, philosopher, and critic with a series of works that reflect an affinity with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's belief that artists should exist beyond fear of social reproach and female domination. He embraced and later rejected Fascism and Adolph Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s, resulting in a long period of critical and public disfavor in which charges of anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, and misogyny were leveled against him. He is, however, considered by critics to be among modern literature's most influential writers.

Biographical Information

Lewis was born on his family's yacht off the North American coast and spent his first years in Canada and Maine. His father was a former American soldier who had fought in the United States Civil War. He abandoned Lewis and Lewis's mother after moving them to England, forcing Lewis's mother to work as a washerwoman for the remainder of her life. Lewis received a public school education, including two years at Rugby, and from 1898 until 1901 studied at the Slade School of Art in Paris. A sporadic allowance from his father enabled him to travel extensively in France, Germany, Spain, and Holland before returning to England, where he sought to establish himself as a painter. By 1909 Lewis had exhibited many of his paintings and received commissions for many more. That year Ford Madox Ford published several of his short stories in The English Review. An early adherent to the tenets of Futurism as espoused by the Italian artist Filippo Marinetti, Lewis later founded Vorticism with Ezra Pound, Frederick Etchells, William Roberts, and Edward Wadsworth. Drawing ideas from Cubist painting, Imagist poetry, and Polynesian and African sculpture, Vorticist theories advocated classical detachment and total impersonality through the use of rigid geometric forms to depict modern machinery and urban life. The Vorticist intent to shock Georgian England is conveyed by the name—Blast—of the journal Lewis and Pound launched in 1914. Featuring writing by Pound, Rebecca West, and Ford Madox Ford, Lewis's play Enemy of the Stars (1932), and art by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein, Blast proclaimed Vorticism as a major avant-garde artistic movement. The publication folded after its second issue, however, and Vorticism lost its momentum with the advent of World War I. Lewis enlisted as a gunner in the Royal Artillery and served during the battle of Passchendaele, before joining the Canadian War Artists. Following the war, Lewis completed several major paintings and published his first novel, Tarr (1918), before isolating himself to focus on reading philosophy and political science, which would inform his series of literary, political, and philosophical works of the 1920s, which are collectively known as The Man of the World (1924). Most of these works received an apathetic public response and earned him very little money, increasing Lewis's disgust with English society. Days before England declared war on Germany, Lewis traveled to North America, where he lived in near poverty throughout World War II. He returned to England following the war, and became an influential art critic for The Listener. Lewis lost his sight in the 1950s but continued to write, and he enjoyed a resurgence in popularity when his trilogy The Human Age (1955) was adapted for BBC radio. He died in 1957.

Major Works

Much of Lewis's work between World War I and World War II reflects his belief that artists and intellectuals should not be at the mercy of an apathetic, uncultured, and ignorant public His novel Tarr, for example, depicts the title character as a man indifferent to social customs who rises to artistic and economic success in contrast to his less-talented German counterpart Kreisler, who succumbs to public pressures, adopts middle-class social values, and eventually commits suicide. The experimental prose style of Tarr earned Lewis a critical reputation as a groundbreaking writer ranked with James Joyce. Lewis's next literary endeavor, The Man of the World, was a lengthy examination of social and cultural phenomena that eventually was published in parts under the titles The Art of Being Ruled (1926), The Lion and the Fox (1927), Time and Western Man (1927), The Childermass (1928), Paleface (1929), and The Apes of God (1930). These collections of essays, criticism and satirical fiction reveal Lewis's abandonment of his previous influences and his adoption of “The Enemy” persona. Widely divergent in subject matter and merciless in its assessments of such current writers as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Stephen Spender, The Man of the World series, particularly the satirical novel The Apes of God and the essays collected in Time and Western Man alienated Lewis from many of his former supporters. The Art of Being Ruled attacks contemporary society, human relations, and political systems as forced conformity at odds with individual growth and creative freedom. Time and Western Man begins as study of the linear and cyclical time theories of Henri Bergson, Oswald Spengler, and Albert Einstein, but ultimately develops into an assault on almost all contemporary schools of philosophic, artistic, and literary thought. Central to The Man of the World series is Lewis's insistence that people must make conscious decisions rather than surrender to unconscious desires and the influence of the masses. In The Apes of God, Lewis depicts great artists as gods and savagely lampoons lesser artists, patrons, and an uneducated public as apes.

In 1930, Lewis received a commission from Time and Tide magazine to cover Germany's National Socialist movement, resulting in his fascination with Fascism as the preferred alternative to democracy and communism because it alone, he believed, elevated the social position of artists and intellectuals. These ideas were reported in his book Hitler (1931) and furthered by Lewis's association with such Fascist sympathizers as Sir Oswald Mosley during the 1930s and the works urging England to avoid war with Germany: Left Wings over Europe (1936) and Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! (1937). By 1939, however, Lewis withdrew his support for Hitler in The Hitler Cult (1939) and The Jews, Are They Human? (1939). Lewis also wrote a series of novels in his later years that serve as an apologia for the arrogance and cruelty evidenced in much of his earlier works. Such works as The Revenge for Love (1937), The Vulgar Streak (1941), and Self Condemned (1954) are noted for their humanity and sensitivity. Near the end of his life, Lewis finished the trilogy The Human Age, which included the novels The Childermass, Malign Fiesta (1956), and Monstre Gai (1956). Set in the afterlife, The Human Age is a surrealistic and obscure examination of the sufferings of an artist, who must remain detached from human experience in order to portray it.

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 215

Tarr (novel) 1918; revised 1928

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 (essays) 1927

Time and Western Man (essays) 1927

The Wild Body (short stories) 1927

*The Childermass (novel) 1928

Paleface: The Philosophy of the Melting Pot (essays) 1929

The Apes of God (novel) 1930

Satire and Fiction (criticism) 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

Engine Fight Talk (poetry) 1933; also published as One-Way Song, 1960

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

The Hitler Cult (essay) 1939

The Jews, Are They Human? (essay) 1939

The Vulgar Streak (novel) 1941

Rude Assignment: A Narrative of My Career Up-to-Date (autobiography) 1950

Rotting Hill (short stories) 1951

Self Condemned (novel) 1954

*Malign Fiesta (novel) 1956

*Monstre Gai (novel) 1956

The Letters of Wyndham Lewis (letters) 1963

The Roaring Queen (novel) 1973

Unlucky for Pringle: Unpublished and Other Stories (short stories) 1973

Enemy Salvoes: Selected Literary Criticism (criticism) 1976

Mrs. Dukes' Million (novel) 1977

*These works were published as The Human Age in 1955.

†This work was written in 1936.

‡This work was written in 1908.

John Russell (essay date 1983)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3744

SOURCE: “Proletarian Tragedy: Wyndham Lewis' Revenge for Love,” in Modern Age, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 61-6.

[In the following essay, Russell examines elements of tragedy in Lewis's novel, Revenge for Love.]

One of the easiest things to forget about the two heroes and the heroine of Wyndham Lewis' The Revenge for Love—English characters whose lives come to ruin as they attempt to aid the Spanish communists—is that they are all three proletarians, and in fact the only proletarians shown to us in this 1937 novel (available nowadays from Regnery Gateway). Opening and closing in Spain, on scenes of imprisonment and death, the book is not really about the civil war but about communistic habits of mind and the fact that decency is a quality that makes men entrappable. Such a sense of conflict—between an ideology based on betrayal and its unwitting operatives, the ones “used up” at the extremities of the system—has been perceived as Lewis' subject for exposé, and its tragic implications have been wrestled with by his critics.1 But proletarian sympathy, on Lewis' part, has hardly been one of the focuses of critical investigation, even though in this novel he has been at pains to give working-class credentials (almost like a good party member!) to his three principals. And what is more, he's been careful to withhold such credentials from all the leftwing pullers of strings who participate in the entrapment plot. This evolves over the middle two-thirds of the book, all these chapters being set in England.

It is more important that the protagonists be capable of rising to tragedy than to find them struggling up from the proletariat; but most extraordinary that this “lonely old volcano of the Right” (Auden's phrase for Lewis) should have fitted them with both capabilities. The first of the three encountered, Percy Hardcaster, is the most intellectual—carefully described as he argues with his captors in a Spanish jail: “he was such a figure as might be seen any day in a roadmender's squad in some English city … a British navvy turned Marxist schoolmaster!” Percy is so argumentative, so spick and span a propagandist—“The technique of the general strike, of the coup d'état, he had at his finger-tips”—that it is easy to forget he is a navvy. But contributing to his downfall is this very fact. A woman who adulates him, Gillian Phipps, is shocked to her aristocratic core when she learns the wounded Percy, back in England, wishes to be paid for his exploits. The plot turns, as we shall see, when she perceives he is not the pure “hero of the barricades” she was led to believe he was. “Was there a streak of treachery in this moon-faced child of the people?” she wonders, and then decides, “The proletariat were the weak spot in the communist scheme of things, ultimately.” This very funny sentence—when uttered by a Party advocate—has great trenchancy for Lewis' theme.

The weak spot detected by “Gillian Communist” is that the proletarian of Percy's stripe is not blindly self-sacrificial. Appalled that he should show even a modicum of self-interest, she has this crippled lover of hers beaten up by a rival for her charms: beaten up because she has been infuriated during lovemaking. “I was kissing an idea,” she gasps at Percy. “Not a fat bricklayer fellow.” When he retorts, “Well, take my advice and stop kissing ideas,” he identifies himself as a real person, but also seals his doom. (Where the tragedy will come in is that Percy will yet be shown capable of self-sacrifice, but it will not occur under the prodding of an idea.)

Victor Stamp, an Australian artist, is just as insistingly given a navvy's genealogy by Lewis—Botany Bay even brought in for background. He is not an intellectual communist like Percy; he is all the same intelligent. As to politics, though, he's simply a fatalist. “But Victor shrugged his big workman's shoulders—with the instinctive scepticism of the cannon-fodder, regarding all wars, of Class or Nation.”

As “cannon-fodder” implies, he will be victimized too, and his wife Margot with him, victimized because he's spotted as a convenient man of action by the archmanipulators of the plot, who pack him and Percy off on an arms-smuggling deal to the Franco-Spanish border, Victor to be Percy's “leg-man.”

Almost like a morality play, The Revenge for Love accords its doomed figures mental qualities (Percy), physical ones (Victor), and emotional ones (Margot), all of which are spited by the chimera-like “groupsters”—as we might nowadays call them—who do all the instigating from London. Lewis labels them variously as “inhuman sectaries,” or as figures “wound up with wicked fingers … to spit out a manufactured hatred”; but he takes a philosophical step further when he says they “could not really bear you down. They could only browbeat you like a gramophone, or impose on you like projections on the screen. … Spring up and face them, and they would give way. … Their will to life was extinct. … Why should those two shadow-persons be practising the signature of a real man?”

The person granted these insights earliest is Margot, Victor's not-quite-spouse, whose will to life takes the form of protectiveness for the ne'er-do-well artist. It is she who sees “Victor Stamp” being forged in a room and recognizes the fascimile quality of the very people doing the forging. (She doesn't know why, but the forgery will entrap this expendable man when he is supposed to be “the Australian contrabandista,” later, by the Spanish.) Why Lewis has taken a philosophical step forward is that, through early insights like Margot's, he has made it plain that “real people” must do the overcoming of inertia that will enable the chimera-types to spawn and profit.2 As W. H. Auden would say, in his poem “The Chimeras” of 1950 (written when he had given up his left-wing leanings), they are “ugly customers for someone to encounter,” and yet “It is our fault entirely if we do: / They cannot touch us; it is we who will touch them.” Margot Stamp saw this many years before Auden was able to, and Lewis knew before him “It is our strength with which they gobble us up.”

That is, those who plan and betray are shown not to be powerful but powerless, until their abstract codes become contagious, at which point actual human beings consent to do their bidding. Here we can mark the irony of Lewis' having chosen proletarians for heroes in Revenge: an ideology, expressly purporting to work for their well-being, can only be put into effect (and grind them up in the process) if they consent to provide the horsepower.

That Margot Stamp, the one who sees all this first, is also a proletarian, is a special additive of Lewis', for she need not have been one. She could have patronized her down-and-out artist from a middle-class echelon as easily; but Lewis seems to want to keep the collisions pure in his morality play. Thus Margot struggles, from the original situation of a “have-not,” to make a home for her Victor, and encounters someone who, socially speaking, is deliberately descending as she herself tries to rise. This is again Gillian Phipps, the highest-born person in the book and the purest theoretical communist. But it is slumming that Gillian is doing—the power of pretending to hand yourself down to proletariat status is the perverse drive that pushes her, and during one confrontation between the two women Lewis makes this specific.

[Margot] was conscious that her treatment at Gillian's hands very often slipped down on to the plane of patronage. Because Margot was not a “lady” … [she] understood that no bridge existed across which she could pass to commune as an equal with this Communist “lady”—living in a rat-infested cellar out of swank (as it appeared to her from her painfully constructed pagoda of gentility). Nor did she wish to [commune] very much, because these false politics … made such a lavish use of the poor and the unfortunate, of the “proletariat”—as they called her class—to advertise injustice to the profit of a predatory Party. …

No Radical could be more radical than Wyndham Lewis here, in his indictment of the highborn motivated by swank; and his verb “commune” could hardly be more eloquent. That root for the word “communism” is shunted aside by Margot (of the class for whom the word was practically invented): she sees it as forever inapplicable. She has perceived that the class system, whether in the cells or in the cellars, still decrees that those with the best accents call the shots and preserve all the hierarchical gaps.


“Gillian Communist” is the most demeaning of all Lewis' chapter titles, but Gillian Phipps is not a true catalyst to the action of the story. Rather, she is an icon. What she does cause is the beating given to Percy Hardcaster (in the section of the book going by her name)—but the appetite for giving beatings has long been established in the man, Jack Cruze, who ends by kicking the stump of Percy's amputated leg and inflicting the man with osteomyelitis.

Jack Cruze and another catalyst character, Sean O'Hara, ought to be mentioned for one reason now, which is that both are potential proletarians: low-born. Jack is from a Wiltshire village and Sean a Celt: but both are carefully introduced by Lewis as throwbacks. The very word is used of Jack: “Jack Cruze was a throwback to an older sort of Englishman, a sport as it is called: he was full of an animal life that you get from contact with animals only. Men don't induce it.” And in reprise: “He was a joke cracked by Mother Nature.” And where does Jack find his calling but in the world of business! He is an income-tax consultant (the quirkiest kind of chip off H. & R. Block). Having made an incongruous play for Gillian, he sums himself up as “just a hard-boiled man of business who went out after skirt, after business hours. …” After business hours! What a phrase for the indicting force of Lewis' pen. Radical again, the author has Jack, and afterwards Sean O'Hara, make mincemeat of Percy Hardcaster only because the two of them are a pair of dabblers. They have capitalist minds and need diversion (not unlike the other wire-pullers in the cast). O'Hara may be a Communist card-carrier, but his neatest trick was to have stolen the funds of the party cell in Dublin and set himself up in London. He too is a throwback—a might-have-been proletarian, but conceived as a thievish gnome instead: “dwarfish and dark and of a dusky hairiness suggestive perhaps of something Icelandic and mythological.” The very word “atavism” is used of him, as “throwback” was of Jack, and Lewis doubles on this refrain when he has Sean explain to Jack how capitalists are necessary to the Spanish patriots. “If it's guns or girls you want, you have to go to the capitalists. And what the patriot wants is guns, that is all.” Jack understands in a trice—especially about the girls.

But Wyndham Lewis now makes it plain that this combination of entrepreneurs will cost Percy Hardcaster dearly. Because Jack beats him to a pulp, Percy has an insight into the néant: he recognizes that the politico-sexual rage of Gillian (passed on to Jack) was not abnormal. Perversity underlies everything: that's why love is always “revenged.” As he's been kicked for no inspectable reason, so was he maimed on his first venture to Spain “for nothing,” he comes to believe—“for the nothingness at the heart of the most plausible and pretentious of affirmatives,” Lewis will add.3 Visited by Sean O'Hara at this time, the recuperating Percy is offered the gun-running job at the Spanish border. The key question he asks Sean now secures his involvement in his own tragedy. For O'Hara is revealed now too as a businessman, and Percy accepts the job for no reason (rather than for the liberator's reason): that is, Lewis has Percy say yes because Sean is simply prospecting. Ideology is not involved.

“Is this politics, or business?” [Percy demands of Sean].

“Business!” O'Hara replied at once.

“There is no organization behind you?”


The thematic climax of the novel, a few pages away, is dependent on this clarification. By this point a third catalyst has been introduced by Lewis, a man with no background named Abershaw, who will rope in the other victims for Percy's expedition, Victor and Margot Stamp.4 Abershaw (a deadly “negation of a person,” and the spookiest man in the whole book) has a double grudge against the Stamps: Margot had made him uncomfortable at a party; Victor had walked out on an art-forging scheme of his. The price the couple will have to pay—out of pure whimsy on the schemer's part—will be death.

How classical might all this tragic material seem to be, in the hands of an author much more often known as a satirist? Totally classical, it is possible to say. One needs to point out, as the climax nears, that Lewis has equipped his three main actors with insights into their flawed selves—and has prepared them for the ability to act beautifully on the other side of catastrophe.

Hardcaster knew from the start that his communism was part “bluff”—that the whisper he'd listened to had said in part, “Be on the winning side!” And Victor's estimate of his own talent had carried the same stigma—that he was caught up in the pattern “of how to paint to win.” Margot is the readiest of all to accept her (less obvious) guilt. From the start she had expected a “revenge for love” to be exacted against her for doting on Victor. In Spain the revenge takes form when a dwarf mimics and torments her. This creature is a sort of emissary of stricken nature; a sign of guaranteed natural betrayals (and so the “throwback” theme amounts to this, that an imperfect nature will rear up against the best intentioned of all man's efforts). But Margot is not just traumatized by the dwarf; she is, on reflection, toughened. Enough to put aside her concept of herself—as a kind of “hermit girl” nourished by Ruskin and Virginia Woolf—determined now, on the edge of this Basque wilderness, to interfere for Victor. An argument she has with Percy, carried on in Victor's presence, precipitates the climax of which I just spoke. And this because the two men must not allow themselves to be bested by a woman, either in logic or action.

Again the radical streak in Lewis surfaces. Possibly farther from being a feminist than any other modern writer, he recognizes—because role-playing has taken the men that far—that they must initiate tragedy rather than listen to the reasoning of a woman. A woman who by this time, in the intensity of impending action, sees through all the story's plots and “becomes a philosopher,” as William Pritchard has said.5

When Margot says she will “prevent anything that looks as if it might make a victim of Victor,” Hardcaster looks over at the silent Victor Stamp and receives a look in return. It amounts between them to a tacit babying of Margot—called from now on “Honey-Angel” by Victor (hence Lewis has that little-wifey term sit at the top of his book's late pages, serving as title for his deadly conclusion). The two men will let her babble on, but they will decide what the action will be. Two men in confraternity against a woman: the upshot is inevitable. For the sheer dare of it, now, Victor will trick Margot and slip over the border with contraband, as Percy knows:

… this outburst on the part of Mistress Stamp would double secure [Victor's] collaboration. … It was like daring the Digger to risk his skin—for nothing! It was just that nothing that must do the trick.

There is Shakespearean as well as nihilistic power here, as Margot's very prescience causes the men, in passionate willfulness, to ignore her.

Percy and Victor both experience changes of heart after Margot bolts across the border to intercept Victor in his contraband-loaded car. (He thinks he carries guns; but is simply set up as a decoy, and carries only bricks in the car's false bottom.) Percy, learning the Fascists have been warned, takes the risk of beating Victor to the destination and causes Margot to be in a position to rescue her husband—at the cost of being recaptured himself. Victor's change of heart is just as sound. At the very point when Margot appears on the road to divert him from the trap, his own character is validated: he is ashamed at having tricked her in order, with Percy's connivance, to go on his wild ramble. “Turning his sweetheart into a stranger, to be fooled, by himself and a rotten old Red! … He should never have consented to it. He felt relieved, it was odd to have to say it, to find himself checkmated by his mate.”

Situationally, tragedy will dog them, and Percy will hear of the couple's demise after their car has killed a civil guard (for again, they thought weapons were in it). They fail and die in a desperate attempt at an escape to France through mountain passes. But the stature of the principals has been confirmed once for all. Long before, Victor had understood what Margot's love obligated him to: “Not to let down another creature, who had brought her life over and cast in her lot with yours. … A rugged unrevolutionary principle, founded upon sentiment, not intellect. But Victor Stamp was prone to accept it, because of the simple life that was his natal background.” Victor dies with Margot, having, like her, lived up to that instinct. It is (and was) of course the instinct that makes a compact—and honors it—with another self. The Communist argument against such a concept of the self had been put, most lamely and spuriously, by Gillian Phipps a good while back, when she was fending off Jack Cruze's lovemaking. Altogether too possessive, so Jill found Jack; so she explains why on principle she'd always broached her lover's faults in public and before his face:

No thoughts hidden away from your brother-biped but all laid naked to inspection, share and share alike: so that no one could say that anyone was keeping anything away from anyone else, or claiming they had a self, as she put it. Properly considered, she said, aren't we all just one Big Self? So nothing must be kept back and locked up, like a private possession, which is all that the self is, she said.

Lewis in 1937, with a passage like this, was far in advance of the field in recognizing a mania for what is nowadays called letting-it-all-hang-out. That collectivist formula could only be capable of assisting non-selves, chimeras, to populate the world. And while Lewis' critics are nearly unanimous in granting Margot tragic status, and willing enough now and then to concede it to Victor, they are more often reluctant to say the same of Percy Hardcaster, though he weeps at the book's end. He is touched by the sensation of hearing the dead Margot's reproaches, and this is as it should be. The voice “was singling him out as a man who led people into mortal danger, people who were dear beyond expression. …” Not only that, but his own people, proletarian people. But of course it is their selves, not their origins that make them cherishable. Their decency comes, Lewis knows, not from their being of a social class, but of that remnant of human beings, maybe soon to be worth calling “sports,” who happen to be decent, knowing what pity and betrayal are.

Thus a crux in the study of The Revenge for Love, regarding Percy's weeping in “astonished self-pity,” ought probably to be resolved, and the end not thought ambiguous. Self-pity in other contexts, other books, might well be reprehensible, a bar to tragedy. Here it is the last avenue to it. The ideological Percy has been broken into by the fate of his two comrades (for whom he himself did some sacrificing); the pity he feels is warranted, for it is the final proof that there is a Self to experience it.


  1. Lewis' groundbreaking critics, Geoffrey Wagner and Hugh Kenner, were early in perceiving the threat against the real imposed by the world of Revenge for Love. Said Wagner in his Wyndham Lewis (New Haven, 1957), “In such a world authenticity of any kind must pay a heavy penalty” (p. 261). Three years earlier, in his own Wyndham Lewis (Norfolk, 1954), Kenner had linked Victor and Margot Stamp with Hardcaster as the only people in the novel “possessing any human reality at all” (p. 124).

  2. In one of the newest books to appear on Lewis, Fredric Jameson's Fables of Aggression (Berkeley, 1979), a catalogue rivalling any of Lewis' reiterates this terrible contention: “Such is the burning political message of The Revenge for Love: out of the realm of the shades, out of the paper world of false faces and hollow effigies, walking caricatures, split-men, scarecrows and automata … the fake world of millionaire reds and armchair bolshevik intellectuals, there issues at length a force to kill the living. What does not exist reaches out its shadow arm to strike down real flesh and blood …” (p. 176). Jameson however finds Lewis turning these insights against himself, as a veteran perpetrator of the polemic. A more balanced view would be that of William Pritchard, in his Wyndham Lewis (New York, 1968), where a true novelist is seen at work in “this organic book,” as a result of the author's “willingness to complicate his own rightist politics” (pp. 120-121).

  3. The critic who has examined most thoroughly the theme of the néant in Revenge is Robert T. Chapman, Wyndham Lewis (New York, 1973), pp. 128-131.

  4. “Abershaw bridges the political and artistic spheres of The Revenge for Love,” says Timothy Materer in Wyndham Lewis the Novelist (Detroit, 1976), p. 125. As a formal comment this is very perceptive; and a trio of catalysts are thus counter-pointed to a trio of victims.

  5. Pritchard, p. 128. Timothy Materer had said (p. 118) that we should mark Lewis' “ridiculing Margot's ultra-feminism,” but all such ridicule ceases when she puts off that conceit for good at the end.

Keith Tuma (essay date 1987)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6601

SOURCE: “Wyndham Lewis, Blast, and Popular Culture,” in ELH, Vol. 54, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 403-19.

[In the following essay, Tuma discusses Vorticist tenets as evidenced by the material Lewis wrote or accepted for the journal Blast.]

Several critics and literary historians have noted Wyndham Lewis's fascination with the popular culture of England and France in the years before World War I. For the most part, this scholarship has been concerned with the influence of various forms of popular culture on a developing style—on Lewis's idea of satire, or his creation of a “visual text” in the manifestoes of Blast. We know, for instance, that Lewis's delight at seeing clowns, jugglers, and mountebanks in Brittany informs the early stories eventually collected in The Wild Body, in terms of both subject matter and the idea of the fictional character as a Polichinelle worked by a “showman” author.1 Bernard Lafourcade and Alan Munton have shown that Lewis's earliest literary work has much in common with forms of comedy associated with the body, especially burlesque, and Munton has used Bakhtin's work on Rabelais to locate the early Lewis within a line of writers attuned to the spectacular rituals of carnival.2 Other critics have tried to identify something like a period phenomenon in a collision between modern art and modern advertising; we learn from them that the huge pink cover of Blast, its patterned, bold-faced manifestoes, and even the clipped prose of its cryptic propaganda exploit techniques common in contemporary advertising media such as the sensational poster board.3

Most of this has been useful work, but we still lack an explanation of the important role assigned to popular culture in Lewis's early cultural criticism. Blast marks a moment—important to recover now that the situation has changed so—when it did not occur to avant-gardists to pit their work against popular culture. Admittedly, this early criticism is incomplete, consisting in Blast of fragments of short and wandering satirical polemics directed at various targets. Most of Lewis's discussion of popular culture in Blast is directed at the Royal Academy; it is part of an extensive attack on Academic prescriptions and cant. Without understanding how Lewis's idea of popular culture differed from the official idea sanctioned by the Academy, we cannot understand his larger definition of the artist's function within society.

When writing about Blast later in his career, Lewis often identified the Royal Academy as the magazine's primary target.4 Many of his criticisms are predictable, as old as the institution itself. Complaints about the taint of the schoolroom can be found in Blake's annotations to the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds.5 Since 1886 and the founding of the New English Art Club, the Academy had been increasingly assailed for failing to encourage the work of young artists, for hanging too many portraits, and for not keeping abrest of developments in foreign painting, particularly French Impressionism.

The institution was well aware of these criticisms by 1914, and especially cognizant of the difficulty young painters unable to support themselves except by doing portrait work were encountering. In what is most likely pure coincidence, the year Blast appeared also saw the publication of a defense of the Academy, G. D. Leslie's The Inner Life of the Royal Academy.6 Despite the attacks the institution had been suffering, Leslie seems confident in the cultural authority of the Academy and its officers, himself included. He had some cause for assurance; though the inimitable gravity of the Academy's officers had been lampooned continuously by Roger Fry since 1900, according to David Bomberg their judgment still largely represented the public's conception of “what art should be in England” at least as late as 1911.7 Thereafter, the promotion of Post-Impressionism, Futurism, and, finally, the Vorticism of Blast made the Academy's claim to cultural authority slightly more difficult.8

Leslie's defense of the Royal Academy is incorporated within an anecdotal, gentlemanly history; he discusses topics ranging from the advantages given to “pretty girls” in Academy schools to the “natural enemies” of the institution. His contention that in 1914 the Academy still possessed “the confidence of a vast majority of the artists of the United Kingdom [as is proven] by the ever-increasing number of works that are usually submitted to the judgment of its Councils for exhibitions on its walls” (281) is less important here than his idea of the institution's functions within English society. Leslie thought two were particularly important. First, the Academy maintained and promoted an English art. Not surprisingly, then, he thought the institution's healthiest years were those of the Pre-Raphaelites because that movement “was entirely a national one, a purely native product, without a trace of any foreign element.” When, later, “distinctly foreign ideals” began to influence the work of students (not enough, though, to satisfy the New English Art Club) Leslie felt the result was a “falling off in the quality of the work.” The work of students not only “lost much of its British characteristics,” the Academy schools themselves lost many talented students, particularly male students, to the “ateliers of Paris or Antwerp” (54-55).

One of the Academy's functions, then, was to promote a national art, to maintain a central authority for specifically English taste. The institution also had, Leslie thought, the related responsibility of educating a public that had been corrupted by the productions of the popular culture. The taste of the lower middle classes was very much a pressing moral issue for Leslie. Thus, in trying to convince private collectors of contemporary art to leave their paintings to the nation, Leslie stresses the Academy's edifying influence and contrasts it with the influence of the “free libraries”:

Such a collection, besides affording pleasure to the collector during his lifetime would, if left to the nation, prove of far more service, as a means of the intellectual education of the people in general, than any number of those “free libraries,” which at present do little more than provide an unlimited supply of second-rate works of fiction to the wives and daughters of the lower middle classes. (280)

As a Liberal of the Edwardian twilight, Leslie genuinely believed the open doors of Academy exhibitions provided the lower middle classes with a desired opportunity to improve their tastes. There is, nevertheless, obvious condescension in his tone; he seems worried that these wives and daughters might get out of control. Art is not only capable of “affording pleasure.” If left to the nation, it could be useful; the Academy could counteract vulgar tastes, and train the untutored classes.

Lewis's attack on the Academy exposes the institution's self-appointed guardianship of national art as mere pretension. The real national art, he says, is folk art or contemporary popular art (Lewis uses the terms “folk” and “popular” fairly interchangeably). Folk art and popular art, its urban counterpart, are an integral part of the life of the nation in a way that the “serious” art of the Academy, isolated in schools and museum exhibitions, cannot be. Popular art functions not only as amusement and ornament but also as a running topical commentary on all aspects of life. Leslie, who more than likely never read Blast, would have found Lewis's open celebration of popular culture's role in England quite scandalous:

Folk Art, along with Music Hall Songs, and authors of Pagliaccis, Viennese Waltzes, etc., is very seducing and certainly the next best thing to Bach. (The officially “serious” artists of any time, who practice “le grand art,” come well below “My Home In Dixie.”) Thus “folk-artists” form the section of art that is attached to life, and are of the same order and importance as the decorations on vases and carpets, ornaments and things of use. They are the current commentary on every day life. … This is the only exactly and narrowly national art.9

Popular art is seductive, potentially a political and moral force, because it is integrated with daily life in a way that serious art is not. Lewis seems to think there is nothing new about this fact; his analysis pertains to “any time.” Popular art's creations are part of the rhythm of life; the early essay “Inferior Religions” had argued that secular artifacts were important to modern man's version of “religious” intoxication.10 Popular art is seductive because one does not contemplate it but rather suffers it, nearly unconsciously, in the sense that we mean when we say we are carrying a tune around and cannot get it out of our head.

Lewis's comments are surprising, as many of us, conditioned by critics like Dwight Macdonald and Renato Poggioli, presume that avant-garde art is in part a reaction against popular art.11 To demonstrate how provocative his attitude must have been for contemporary readers, I want to look briefly at an essay written six years after the first appearance of Blast by Douglas Goldring, who worked for a few years with Ford Madox Ford at the English Review and was a friend and sympathetic observer of Lewis and the Vorticists. Goldring was much more the genteel Edwardian Englishman than Lewis, and, though he was a supporter and publisher of some avant-garde artists and writers, his prose, like G. D. Leslie's, always reveals the polite grace he must have considered a requirement in a man of “refined sensibilities.” If Eliot was right when he said that minor writers are more representative of the general cultural level than major writers, then Goldring should count as a relatively reliable observer of what he described in his essay “Low Tastes” as a new way of thinking about taste in England.12

Goldring casts his essay as a confession, though it is a rather slyly polemical confession. He claims that he is embarrassed to have to admit a number of things about himself. For one thing, he says, he is a “cover collector” (207); he often buys books he knows are generally esteemed as the masterpieces of Western Culture, only to leave them dusty and unread on his shelves. Like T. S. Eliot, he receives much pleasure from detective stories he knows are often thought to reflect “low” tastes. (Lewis's first novel, unpublished in his lifetime, was a detective novel.) Like Ezra Pound, he likes the cinema, so long as he does not have to watch adaptations of classics. He likes the songs and comedy of the music-hall, though he thinks that this art form might not need defending, as it is beginning to attract the attention of a fairly broad public appreciative of its merits.13 He even confesses a taste for pornography, so long as the pornography is not merely a sensational lure wrapped around a moral drama instructive of the dangers of syphilis—“a state of things which allows the Paul Pry instincts of the morbid adolescent to be indulged to the full” (201).

Goldring identifies two attitudes toward the issue of public taste. It is significant that he even thinks he can talk about the public's tastes using collective pronouns; that much he shares with Leslie. In distinguishing between attitudes toward taste, he begins by defending the conventional idea of “our tastes,” and then proceeds to identify the view of “these people”—others he will reveal himself to be in accord with only later in the essay. The conventional opinion has it, he says, that the English ought to be embarrassed about low tastes. The culture of the multitude is vulgar, and the community at large “knows” that it benefits from the promotion of art that requires more skill and talent than “pot-boilers” and musical comedy. But such a division of tastes has made for a lot of “frauds,” Goldring says, who hang an “art label” around their necks in order to achieve prestige and status before they have taken “the pains necessary to enable them to learn their business” (204). We can recognize a reference here to the same academic and bohemian frauds targeted by Blast, the dandy and the “sneak and swot of the schoolroom” (1:15).

Goldring then suggests how another attitude towards taste wishes to acknowledge some value in popular culture in order to “undermine the foundations of our national cant”:

There is another school of thought which declines to divide art into high and low, human beings into good and bad, tastes into avowable and shameful. The view of these people is that the really civilized person ought to be sufficiently free from prejudices to be able to appreciate at its proper value everything that is good of its kind from (let us say) The Adventures of Arsene Lupin and the figure of Annette Kellerman, to Rembrandt's etchings and the architecture of Regent Street before the irruption of Picadilly hotel. They maintain that it is in the use of the word “low,” as applies to those tastes which the man of refined sensibilities may share with the multitude, that our national cant displays itself most poisonously. With refreshing paganism they deny that there is anything low in looking at the pretty face and figure of a pretty girl when displayed “on the screen” or on the musical comedy stage. (201-2)

If this is an accurate description of the attitude of Lewis and the Vorticists toward popular culture, several conclusions follow. While Goldring and Lewis wish to preserve some separation between realms of art, between popular art and classic art, they reject the hierarchical arrangement of the two that judges one against the other. Theirs is an objection to the progressive Liberal mentality concerned with making of all art an edifying instrument. In Blast, Lewis singles out pornography as an especially “great enemy of progress” (1:27). Elsewhere in the magazine we find a manifesto which demands that the public shed their “education-skin” (1:8).

The thinking that divides taste in art into highbrow and lowbrow makes taste into a social register by organizing a hierarchy of cultural authority and standards. One of the first and most essential maneuvers of Lewis and fellow Vorticist Ezra Pound was to insist that all authority for aesthetic judgment be located in the individual palette.14 The famous “Blast” and “Bless” columns of the longest Blast manifesto each contain writers, philosophers, and artists from both publics, highbrow and lowbrow. George Grossmith, popular author of the timid Victorian satire Diary of a Nobody and contributor to Punch, is blasted. So are the philosophers Croce and Bergson, and the philosopher-poet Rhabindraneth Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. So is Seymour Hicks, an actor and singer in musical comedy. In the other column, several stand-up comedians are blessed, along with Gertie Millar, a chorus girl at the Gaiety Theatre and a particular favorite of Goldring's, who may have added her name at the meeting where the lists were compiled. Among highbrows, Kate Lechmere, patron of Blast, and James Joyce are blessed.15 The organizing principle of selection here may seem less rigorous than silly, but, unlike similar lists compiled by earlier groups such as the Pre-Raphaelites or contemporaries like Apollinaire, these lists reach into areas of life and genres in art that do not usually concern cultural critics, suggesting a unified sensibility that reacts to whatever it encounters without reference to the orthodoxies of either the social elite or the masses.16

Lewis thinks that ideas of taste like those of G. D. Leslie account for an elastic pluralism which obscures the importance of the few examples of art informed by “an actual and contemporary state of mind or consciousness”:

You see, in a person's flat, the taste of Paris during the First Empire, and in another person's flat next door, a scheme of decoration neo-Pharaohesque; across the street a dwelling is decorated on the lines of an Elizabethan home. … Hardly anywhere is there a sign of an actual and contemporary state of mind or consciousness. There is not even an elementary climate and temperamental rightness in current popular Art. (2:72)

Searching for metaphors to represent his own conception of taste, Lewis emphasizes the point as opposed to the line. This is to reduce taste to the preferences of the focused individual, the independent discriminating intelligence, to paraphrase his words of praise for Ezra Pound (2:82). Taste should be, he says, “deep,” more fundamental and essential than acquired. It is not a matter of sensitivity, of the ability to appreciate, but of emotion:

You should be emotional about everything, rather than sensitive. …

Taste should become deeper and exclusive: definitely a STRONGHOLD—a point and not a line. (2:82)

In part Lewis may have in mind an attack on Christian morality in this redefinition of taste; assumptions about a world divided into good and evil are not too well hidden in Leslie's concern about the effect of sensational novels on the wives and daughters of the lower middle class. Lewis defines taste, understood in this sense, as in “good taste,” as a reinforcement against “barbarism of soul” (2:82). In this light, it is useful to remember Goldring's description of the “refreshing paganism” of the new attitude towards taste. The advertisement for Blast Pound placed in The Egoist concluded with END OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA printed in large block type.17 Lewis, whose early debt to Nietzsche has been documented, may view taste as Nietzsche did in Die Frohliche Wissenschaft; taste, or man left to his own tastes, freed of all the social and religious evaluative rationales, can be a weapon “decisive against Christianity.”18

At another level, Lewis's idea of taste contains an attack on a class system, for that is what is sustained by Leslie's definition of taste. For the category of class, Lewis substitutes that of race; there one finds essential values art should manifest and appeal to. We find in Blast many examples like the following, where he offers definitions of essential racial instincts:

Faeries have disappeared from Ireland (despite foolish attempts to revive them) and the bull-ring languishes in Spain.

But mysticism on the one hand, gladatorial instincts, blood and asceticism on the other, will be always actual, and springs of creation for these two peoples. (1:34-35)

Elsewhere, Lewis defines mysticism as a property of a “Northern people” (1:37-38), so we need not think he is talking about something peculiar to nations here; he is making a basic distinction between Northern and Southern peoples. (His choice of Ireland seems related to a polemic against the artificial archaism of Yeats.) Though we now easily reject such thinking, Lewis's appeal to timeless racial qualities is not exceptional; similar appeals were made by writers throughout the nineteenth century. The French psychologist Le Bon, whose popular book Psychologie des Foules identified a racial unconscious that consisted of hereditary influences he called “the genius of the race,” is one among several probable sources.19 Lewis believed in a psychology of types and races, several of which might be found within the more cosmopolitan nations. It is likely that he also believed, even this early, that strengthening racial feeling was one way to erode class feeling—and prevent social divisiveness and strife. Years later, in The Hitler Cult, he said as much explicitly: “The more racial feeling, the less class feeling.”20

Le Bon had argued that the era of the crowd—sometimes indistinguishable to him from democracy—threatened to usher in a totally new form of civilization. The crowd obliterated the distinctiveness of individuals and allowed the racial unconscious to emerge unprotected by decorum and reason.21 For Lewis, this development would have been attractive only insofar as it permitted a return to “primitive” art stripped bare of edifying influence. Like Goldring, Lewis admired popular art that was high-spirited and vivacious, recommending, for instance, that London's Picadilly Circus be freed of its gloomy Victorian atmosphere and that the sentimental and proper Punch be replaced by a comic paper with less “rustic and laborious mirth” (2:79). For the decorous English humor of George Grossmith, the polite satirist of human foibles, Lewis would have substituted humor conscious of the tragedy of man's fallen state, a fierce Nietzschean laughter “like a bomb” (1:32). One of the qualities he admired in Marinetti was energy, which exploded the somber atmosphere of the academies; he found the merit in Futurist art to be related to that of the best popular art:

We applaud the vivacity and high-spirits of the Italian Futurists.

They have a merit similar to Straus's Waltzes, or Ragtime; the best modern Popular Art, that is. (2:41)

The crowd, Lewis thought, was naturally attracted to unadulterated sensation, to spectacle. He could applaud Marinetti—who drew large crowds in London's music-halls—for his high spirits. He could applaud him, that is, up to the point where Marinetti's knowledge of “crowd mentality” was used to generate a propaganda that sought to direct and manipulate the crowd for political and moral change. The desire to make art an instrument for stirring up the masses against the elite was no less pernicious than Leslie's Liberal desire to use art to grease the machines of upward mobility.

Lewis's chief criticism of Marinetti and the Futurists was that they were “too much theorists and propagandists” (2:41). He was greatly amused by Marinetti and sympathized with some of the Futurist propaganda, such as the attack upon snobbery. Other parts of it, such as the enthusiasm about automobiles, he found both boring and anachronistic in a nation more industrialized than Italy; Oscar Wilde had “gushed twenty years ago about the beauty of machinery” (1:9). More distasteful to Lewis was the Futurist cult of action, distasteful both because Marinetti's highly financed strong-arm tactics subordinated individual artists to the movement and because the idea of the engaged artist did not interest him:

To produce the best pictures or books that can be made, a man requires all the peace and continuity of work that can be obtained in this troubled world, and nothing short of this will serve. So he cannot at the same time be a big game hunter, a social light or political agitator. (2:42)

Marinetti was influenced by Sorel's work, which advocated an intense and resolute class separatism, important to apocalyptic change in society. Sorel influenced both the far left and the far right throughout Europe; his identification with particular parties, never stable, was far less important than his chiding of intellectuals for their impotence in society. Lewis rejected Sorel's cult of action and the engaged intellectual for the disinterested intellectualism of Julien Benda; the intellectual and the artist were obligated only to the traditions they were to preserve and renew.

The whole concept of a movement is problematical for Lewis and the Vorticists in general—the group never amounted to more than four or five painters, one sculptor, and two poets.22 They announced an “art of Individuals,” declared themselves “mercenaries” of art serving “No-Man's cause” (1:30-31). Pound, in his memoir of Vorticist sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, emphasized that the work of the Vorticists had existed before the “general noise” about Vorticism; work had been conducted separately before a decision “to stand together” was made.23 Marinetti, on the other hand, had been directing the manifesto writing of avant-garde artists throughout Europe for several years. Propaganda was his genius; Marjorie Perloff has shown that his poetry, mostly a decadent version of Baudelairian lyric, was no match for it.24

Some of Lewis's most sarcastic remarks in Blast are designed to reduce Marinetti's tactics for forcing group identity upon his recruits to absurdity:

We want to leave Nature and Men alone.
We do not want to make people wear Futurist Patches, or fuss
men to take to pink and sky-blue trousers.
We are not their wives or tailors.


This may seem a relatively innocent criticism of Marinetti's dress code (which Marinetti himself did not adhere to). Certainly one can find other more explicit attacks on the artist as propagandist, such as a short piece on George Bernard Shaw in which Lewis accuses Shaw of exceeding “the bounds of the licence given an IMPARTIAL man in time of war” (2:12). But for Lewis all conformity signaled the presence of the herd within the individual—the very definition of morality according to Nietzsche.25 Lewis's conception of the effect of art is so broad that he never rejects specific moral or political goals so much as the very idea that the artist should want to fashion the conditions of life or behavior (1:33). In Blast 2, Lewis takes great pleasure in suggesting that the war had made Marinetti's role of “platform-boomer” superfluous (26).

Lewis's sarcastic jibe at Marinetti's dress code has much in common with another more discursive effort to reject the “ethical effect” of older Impressionist painting:

Painting, with its persistently representative element, has always had in the modern world more ethical effect. The artist has the same moral influence as the dressmaker. A bird-like hat in process of time produces a bird. Painting today, in renouncing more and more the picturesque and representative element, escapes also the embarrassments of its former influence, and the dangers of more and more plastic compromise. (2:70)

A “bird-like hat” in a painting produces a “bird,” a female who wants to wear a hat resembling the one made fashionable by art. If morality extends into the world of fashion, we cannot help noting that Marinetti's propaganda had at least bypassed the need for the work of art here; his propaganda itself intended to influence fashion, or so Lewis thought.26 Whatever the specific innovations of the Futurist movement were, though, Lewis thought it had not sufficiently renounced representation. Belated impressionists of a sort, they were still interested in man's perception of nature and the world around him. The few paintings of the Futurists that Lewis admired—the work of Balla and Severini—were the ones that were most abstract. Otherwise, the Futurists were nothing more than “a sensational mixture of the aesthete of 1890 and the realist of 1870” (1:8). When he attacks them, he reduces them from Futurists to “Milanese automobilists” (2:72), making their claim to forging an international movement seem the megalomaniacal raving of a few isolated and outdated Italians.

Lewis's manifestoes offer a useful contrast to Marinetti's. They do not seek to be hypnotic, to blur the separation between speaker and audience, artist and spectator. Marinetti casts his manifestoes as narratives, thus diffusing the considerable antagonism of his polemics by submerging them in the story of a group of friends who were already prepared to accept his claims about the exciting new world of violence and speed. His most famous manifesto begins with the story of some friends who stay up all night in exotic interiors and perform “frenzied scribbling” until they speed off in automobiles, racing deliriously through a fiery urban metropolis to wind up “torn, filthy, and stinking” but also clearly happy, crawling out from under a wrecked car, ready to enumerate their principles.27 But Lewis cannot seem excited, as he wishes to project the self-control and confidence of the scornful iconoclast:

In a Vorticist Universe we don't get excited at what we have invented.

If we did it would look as though it had been a fluke.

It is not a fluke. (1:148)

Lewis never casts his manifestoes in narrative form because he wants to maintain a distance from his audience that allows him to attack his audience directly: no subtle gestures to encourage submission, accession or accord are offered. Thus they are, rhetorically, a more conventional polemic. The difference between the two is the difference between a man on stage beating a drum and exhorting the crowd and a heckler in the crowd interrupting all the bluster and noise with pointed insults.28

Lewis identifies Marinetti with “the Romance people” and the “Latins”; the most basic racial stereotypes are used against him. “Latins” were “romantic and sentimental,” and Marinetti's attachment to the sensational modern world was no different than previous sentimental attachments to “wild nature” (1:8). In the most fundamental racial division Lewis makes, Marinetti represents the South; the “Anglo-Saxon genius” of the North was the genius of “a diametrically opposed species” (1:41-42). The genius of the Northern race Lewis thought most adequately represented by Bach, Shakespeare, Turgenev, and Swift. Swift is commended for his “solemn bleak wisdom of laughter” and Shakespeare for his “bitter Northern Rhetoric of humour” (1:26). The Northern race had been too long busy with building the industrial modern world, Lewis thought, expending its energy there and leaving art to the South. The Southern race, unaccustomed to having to struggle with the nasty climate of the North, had developed a kind of passivity; the people of the North were characterized by their “Will” and “Tragic Humour”—a stoic and transcendent laughter useful against the realities of an unhappy environment.

Because they were of the Northern race but as a sea-going nation not always totally isolated from the South, the English, Lewis writes, had sometimes produced “universal” artists—though at the moment they were more insular than ever, thanks largely to the Royal Academy. The “universal” artists form the only sector of art truly above popular art. Bach and Shakespeare and Turgenev are of this “easily numbered race” who are “the first and only certainly future men” (2:70). Universal artists—men of a “Great Race”—are finally not attached to class, nationality, or even race, but to Destiny” (2:72). We might think of them as representatives of permanent and essential values. Their art is abstract, the result of “a welding of elements and a synthesis of Life” (2:72). As men, they are not interested in influencing contemporary life; they live quietly and anonymously, whistling “Music-Hall Airs” as they work (2:72). They write for no one in particular and for everyone, and are able both to assimilate the national spirit reflected in unadulterated popular culture and to transcend it. And none of them are painters—until Lewis.

The Vorticists were, Lewis said, “primitives of a future equilibrium” (2:72). We might think of them as self-conceived immortals, as Mina Loy did in “The Apology of Genius,” a poem with “sacerdotal clowns” obviously indebted to the “heathen clowns” of Lewis's dream-play, The Enemy of the Stars, first published in Blast:

We are the sacerdotal clowns
who feed upon the wind and stars
and pulverous pastures of poverty
Our wills are formed
by curious disciplines
beyond your laws
In the raw caverns of the Increate
we forge the dusk of Chaos
to that imperious jewelry of the Universe
                                        —The Beautiful—
While to your eyes
          A delicate crop
of criminal mystic immortelles
stands to the censor's scythe(29)

Loy's “immortelles” are very much like Lewis's character Argol, the artist figure in The Enemy of the Stars; he “lies like human strata of infernal biologies, walks like wary shifting of bodies in distant equipoise, sits like a god built by an architectural stream, fecunded by mad blasts sunlight” (1:61). Marinetti, Loy, and especially Lewis project such confidence (later Lewis would expect people writing biographies to think him of the family of the phoenix or dragon) that it is hard to realize how much their bravado was a calculated strategy before an unsympathetic public, before “the censor's scythe.”

The Vorticist's decision to write for no particular contemporary audience's expectations should be thought of as partly a defensive gesture. In one sense, these London avant-gardists willingly separated themselves from what the London public recognized as the avant-garde, the artists around Roger Fry and Marinetti. Though all these artists shared a desire to be rid of academies, Lewis and Pound used more direct force in insulting Marinetti and Fry than they did in insulting the Academy, and in doing so effectively wrote off the coterie support that would prove to be very helpful to other avant-garde artists. In one of Pound's Blast poems, we can hear such “INDIVIDUAL” armor creaking, momentarily revealing a human voice, self-conscious and almost embarrassed:

You say that I take a good deal upon myself:
That I strut in the robes of assumption.
In a few years no one will remember the “buffo,”
No one will remember the trivial parts of me,
The comic detail will not be present.


Lewis, on the other hand, never entertains the possibility that he might appear comical or presumptuous. There are very few holes in his ambitious persona. The Enemy of the Stars depicts its own audience as “the cream of posterity, assembled in silent banks.” The play would be “the gnat's song of the Thirtieth century.” The stage description—in the language of advertising—reads “The Box Office Receipts Have Been Enormous” (1:61), though there is no doubt that Lewis never intended the play to be acted. All of this from a writer who had at the time published only a few stories, a painter regarded by several of the few people who knew of him as a second-rate Futurist.30

The principal effort of Lewis's early cultural criticism was to establish a realm of values altogether apart from class or national values:

Blast will be popular, essentially. It will not appeal to any particular class, but to the fundamental and popular instincts in every class and description of people, TO THE INDIVIDUAL. The moment a man feels or realizes himself as an artist, he ceases to belong to any milieu or time. Blast is created for this timeless, fundamental Artist that exists in everybody. (1:7)

Lewis's “INDIVIDUAL” is the detached observer who speaks from within a seamless tradition of art, thus remaining capable of directing assaults on both the snobbery of an elite and the vulgarity of the multitude, talking “with two tongues” to reveal the excesses of each to the other. The critics who have identified a populist ideology here, a “shifting strategy of class alliances,” are correct; but their political interpretations fail to note how much, in his appeal to tradition, Lewis is straining to remain apolitical in a London full of political tension and violence.31 It was not for nothing that Eliot thought of Lewis as one of the premier thinkers of the age, for his own early thinking about tradition is nearly identical to Lewis's.32 Pound, Lewis, and Eliot all thought of themselves as “mercenaries” for Art writ large.

There is one relatively unique passage in Blast, in “The Art of the Great Race,” where Lewis's grandiose ambitions are penetrated by a very real disgust with contemporary conditions:

At present, in our Press-poisoned Imperialistic masses of men, called nations … all art and manners jostle hopelessly, with insane waste of vitality and health and ignoble impossibility of conviction. (2:72)

This is a Lewis we hear from again later in many books, like Rude Assignment (1950), where he said he would never have tried to write the sort of books he did if he had known that it was impossible to do so without a substantial trust fund.33 Eventually, his inability to come to terms with the continued existence of two publics, highbrow and lowbrow, would lead him to write pamphlets for a form of government he thought might abolish them to substitute a single public which valued excellence. That form of government would be, for a few years, fascism:

The only person who objects to uniformity and order—One art, One life—is the man who knows that under these conditions his “individuality” would not survive. Every real individuality and excellence would welcome conditions where there would inevitably be a hierarchy of power and vitality. The Best would then be free. (2:72)

More clearly here than anywhere else in either issue of Blast, Lewis reveals the diastrous direction he would take between the two world wars. The first of them had just started, and the spirited optimism that permeated the magazine was soon to disappear completely.


  1. See Wyndham Lewis, “Inferior Religions,” in The Complete Wild Body, ed. Bernard Lafourcade (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1982), 150.

  2. Bernard Lafourcade, “Afterword,” The Complete Wild Body, 410-12; Alan Munton, “Wyndham Lewis: The Transformations of Carnival,” in Wyndham Lewis Letteratura/Pittura, ed. Giovanni Cianci (Palermo: Sellerio editore, 1982), 141-57.

  3. See William C. Wees, Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1972), 165-66, and Marjorie Perloff, “‘Violence and Precision’: The Manifesto as Art Form,” Chicago Review 34 (Spring 1984): 75-77.

  4. See Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man (London: Chatto and Windus, 1927), 55, and The Diabolical Principle (London: Chatto and Windus, 1931), 24.

  5. William Blake, The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1970), 628.

  6. G. D. Leslie, R. A., The Inner Life of the Royal Academy (London: John Murray, 1914). Further citations will be incorporated parenthetically in the text. For Leslie's awareness of the prevalent criticisms of the Academy, see 278-80.

  7. Quoted in Wees, 10.

  8. By 1931, Lewis could say that the Academic tradition he meant to attack in Blast was thoroughly dead. See The Diabolical Principle, 24-25.

  9. Wyndham Lewis, “The Art of the Great Race,” Blast 2 (July 1915; rpt. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1981): 72. Blast consists of only two numbers. The first appeared in June 1914. Future references are cited parenthetically in the text by number and page.

  10. The Complete Wild Body, 315.

  11. See Dwight Macdonald, “A Theory of Popular Culture,” Politics 1 (1944): 21; and Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968), 23.

  12. The essay appears in Douglas Goldring, “Low Tastes,” in Reputations (London: Chapman & Hall, 1920), 199-209; 201. Further citations will be incorporated parenthetically in the text. Eliot makes the point about minor writers in “What is Minor Poetry?” in On Poetry and Poets (New York: The Noonday Press, 1961), 44-47.

  13. J. B. Priestley discusses the patrons of music-halls in The Edwardians (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 172. Priestley suggests that the numbers of middle and upper middle class patrons increased greatly over the course of the first fifteen years of the century.

  14. See Ezra Pound, “The Renaissance,” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1968), 215: “One can but make one's own spectrum or table.”

  15. See Wees, 217-27, for biographical information on persons named in both lists.

  16. Alan Windsor makes this point in “Wyndham Lewis's ‘Blast and Bless,’” in Wyndham Lewis Letteratura/Pittura, 86-100.

  17. See the reproduction in Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1971), 237.

  18. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 186. Nietzsche writes, “What is now decisive against Christianity is our taste, no longer our reasons.” For an analysis of Nietzsche's influence on Lewis's early criticism, see Paul Edwards, “Wyndham Lewis and Nietzsche: ‘How Much Truth Does a Man Require?’” in Wyndham Lewis Letteratura/Pittura, 203-17.

  19. Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897). Michael Durham and Alan Munton have suggested the influence of Le Bon on Lewis, particularly his painting The Crowd (1915), in “Wyndham Lewis and the Nature of Vorticism,” in Wyndham Lewis Letturatura/Pittura, 114.

  20. Quoted in Geoffrey Wagner, Wyndham Lewis: A Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1957), 80.

  21. Le Bon, 8.

  22. Though Blast included literary work by Ford Madox Ford, T. S. Eliot, and Rebecca West, and reproductions of paintings by Spencer Gore, the Vorticists—by which I mean the people most closely associated personally, stylistically (in the case of the painters), and critically—were Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, Frederick Etchells, William Roberts, Thèophile Gaudier-Brzeska, Jessie Dismorr, and Pound.

  23. Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska (1916; reprint, New York: New Directions, 1974), 93-94.

  24. Perloff, 67.

  25. Nietzche, 175.

  26. Perloff argues that the Futurist manifestoes themselves represent the supreme achievement of Futurist literary art (65-75).

  27. F. T. Marinetti, “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism,” trans. Joshua C. Taylor, in Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, ed. Herschel B. Chipp (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968), 284-89. This manifesto was first published in Le Figaro in 1908 and first translated into English, under Marinetti's direction, for Poesia (April-June 1909).

  28. Lewis makes a telling example of an incident in London in which the Vorticists interrupted Marinetti. See Blasting and Bombardiering, (1937; rev. ed., London: John Calder, 1982), 32-36.

  29. Mina Loy, “Apology of Genius,” in The Last Lunar Baedeker (Highlands: The Jargon Society, 1982), 4-5.

  30. See Wees, 87-88.

  31. See Frederic Jameson, Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979), 15.

  32. T. S. Eliot, “Tarr,” The Egoist (September 1918).

  33. Wyndham Lewis, Rude Assignment (London: Hutchinson & Co.), 135.

Sue Ellen Campbell (essay date 1988)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9123

SOURCE: “The Enemy Versus the Zeitgeist: Cultural Criticism,” in The Enemy Opposite: The Outlaw Criticism of Wyndham Lewis, Ohio University Press, 1988, pp. 165-90.

[In the following essay, Campbell identifies key philosophical influences on Lewis's critical theories, fiction, and nonfiction, including Oswald Spengler, Albert Einstein, and Julien Benda.]


To explain his temerity in dealing with matters outside the arts, Lewis writes: “It has been suggested … that I should be better advised to ignore such things [as mathematical physics], and only attend to what happens in my own field. Now that I should be delighted to do if these different worlds of physics, philosophy, politics and art were (as, according to my view, they should be) rigidly separated” (TWM 9-10). But in the time-cult, of course, these worlds are not distinct; in fact, they are so full of parallels and influences as to seem not just unified but uniform. And so, Lewis finds, his analysis of the state of the arts must expand into an analysis of a culture.

In his concentrated attack on the time-cult in Time and Western Man, Lewis considers the theories of culture presented in three books: Spengler's Decline of the West, Whitehead's Science and the Modern World, and Alexander Moszkowski's Einstein, The Searcher. Spengler, with whom Lewis deals at length, and whom he calls the “philosopher of the Zeitgeist,” sees politics as the basis of culture; Whitehead sees science as the source not only of the modern world but of all cultures; Moszkowski, in his praise of Einstein's genius, indirectly suggests that philosophy (which is itself sometimes political) lies beneath even scientific theories. Each of these men serves Lewis as a spokesman for the primacy of one of the three main aspects of what he calls culture's “theoretic plane”—politics, physics, and philosophy. By examining their views, Lewis suggests and questions several different explanations of the ties among these fields. In each case he finds himself in partial agreement at the same time that he recognizes the inadequacy of any simple solution to a highly complex problem. And in each case, he hints at what his own account would be but backs off from any direct statements.

The discussion of Moszkowski comes first in Time and Western Man, but it is quite possibly the last Lewis wrote. It appears in the “Preface” to counter criticism of Lewis's interdisciplinary approach—as a tentative justification for speaking of a scientist like Einstein as if his ideas were like a philosopher's or an artist's. So in a sense it encloses the critique of the time-cult. Although it is short (much shorter than the chapters on Spengler), and although Lewis does not regard Moszkowski (unlike Whitehead) as of much real importance, this discussion nevertheless introduces in a particularly succinct form all of the major issues Lewis will confront every time he considers the nature of cultures. It also raises many of the questions Lewis will find impossible to answer in his own tentative solutions.

Moszkowski is not himself especially interested in the sources of the Zeitgeist, although he tacitly assumes its existence in his book about Einstein. But he does make a few comments Lewis finds useful in dealing with the relationship between scientific discoveries and contemporary political and philosophical theories. The question is this: Suppose we should find that a scientific theory significantly parallels a philosophical or political system current at the time of the discoveries on which that theory is built. Does such a parallel suggest that the scientist's work has been somehow directed by nonscientific concerns? If so, to what extent does the role of these external influences undermine the validity—the truth—of the discoveries or of the theories? The answer Moszkowski suggests in the case of Einstein seems to Lewis simultaneously compelling and repellent: he finds he must agree with Moszkowski's description of the situation, but he is torn between agreeing and disagreeing with his interpretation.

According to Moszkowski, Lewis tells us, scientific discovery and philosophy “‘are intimately interwoven with one another, and are only different aspects of one and the same process.’” Bergson's philosophy and the discoveries of Planck and Einstein, Moszkowski thinks, are so similar not by coincidence, but because they result from “‘a demand of the time, exacting that the claims of a new principle of thought be recognized.’” Moreover, science parallels politics: “‘[Einstein's] principle of relativity is tantamount to a regulative world-principle that has left a mighty mark on the thought of our times. We have lived to see the death of absolutism: the relativity of the constituents of political power, and their mutability according to view-point and current tendencies, become manifest to us … the world was far enough advanced in its views for a final achievement of thought which could demolish the absolute also from the mathematico-physical aspect’” (TWM 15, 16; Lewis's ellipses).1 To Moszkowski, these similarities apparently mean that a certain kind of scientific idea can best succeed when society is ready for it, or as he says, when “the time is ripe.” He clearly does not think that science is made any less “true” by its affinities with less exact disciplines. On the contrary, he seems to regard the analogues to relativity theory as evidence of Einstein's genius. For Moszkowski, science, philosophy, and politics simply progress together.

Now certainly Lewis agrees that Einsteinian physics parallels contemporary political and philosophical constructs: Time and Western Man and the other Man of the World books are to a large extent based on their similarities. And he agrees that Bergson's philosophy somehow prefigured relativity theory. But if on the whole he accepts Moszkowski's descriptions of the state of affairs, he is much less sanguine about its implications. For Lewis, the general thrust of the analogies Moszkowski sees is to undermine any claims of science to truth. “If Moszkowski's reading of Relativity could be shown by some competent person to be true,” Lewis says, “then immediately we should know that the Relativity physics we had been taught to admire was not an achievement of the first order, and that we had been taken in, however much amused in the process. For such an ad hoc universe as would result from a desire to ‘banish absolutism,’ or equally on the other hand to ‘establish absolutism,’ and impose terrestrial politics upon the stars, would indeed be scientifically a farce, however intelligent a one. But,” he concludes, “so many eminent men of science have accepted Einstein's theory, that Moszkowski, as far as Einstein is concerned, must be wrong” (TWM 17-18). Where Moszkowski is happy to see the similarities between Einstein and Bergson as an illustration of the united front of progress in the modern world, Lewis views them suspiciously as signs of an insidious influence on a field—science—that ought properly to be impervious to outside forces. Moszkowski offers his views as praise of Einstein; Lewis would consider them a kind of insult. And so he concludes his discussion of Moszkowski by rejecting his ideas.

Yet he is far from rejecting these ideas out of hand; in fact, he finds himself in so much agreement with Moszkowski (or with his interpretation of Moszkowski) that this final dismissal comes to seem as much a gesture of faith as an intellectual decision. For one thing, he welcomes Moszkowski's view of the ties between science and philosophy as an endorsement of his own attack on the tyranny of the time-cult over modern thought. Moreover, in light of his thorough dislike of the time-complex, it is not surprising that he takes advantage of this way of questioning Einstein's authority as an independent, objective thinker—and consequently the authority of philosophers and others who have built upon Einstein's theories. In this respect, I think, we can read Lewis's section on Moszkowski as a rhetorical maneuver that allows him to suggest a point of view he does not want to endorse openly himself. With Moszkowski as his foil, Lewis can raise but not answer a question about the credentials of relativity physics, and thus undermine one of the time-cult's foundations—without actually attacking either Einstein or his mathematics. Similarly, he can suggest that the time-cult may be based on a science that in turn may be politically and philosophically motivated—without directly arguing this view, and without implying that all cultures and all sciences must be motivated in the same way. With one hand, he disassociates himself from Moszkowski on the grounds that “many men of science have accepted Einstein's theory”; with the other hand, he allows Moszkowski to argue a point that is much in line with the substance of his own book. Lewis, we could say, uses Moszkowski as the voice of his Domestic Adversary.

But Lewis also has more disinterested reasons for leaning toward Moszkowski's relativistic point of view. He not only agrees with Moszkowski's description of the modern situation; he also agrees that earlier scientific paradigms have resembled the politics and philosophies contemporary with them. Both men use the example of Newton, whose theories are of course far more congenial to Lewis than are Einstein's. Generally speaking, Lewis argues, “It is mere superstition to suppose ‘a mathematician’ to be a sort of divine machine. In any reasonable, and not romantic, account of the matter, we must suppose the mathematical physicist not entirely unaffected by neighbouring metaphysical thought” (TWM 13-14). So, he concludes, “With the Moszkowskis and Spenglers we reach the point at which the system of the mathematical physicist becomes suspect, in exactly the same way as for long now we have been accustomed to regard with suspicion the system of the philosopher” (18). Lewis goes further here than Moszkowski: he points out that Moszkowski's own logic requires that scientific discovery and theory be regarded not as wholly objective or empirical but as partly determined by the scientist's preconceptions and biases. By extending Moszkowski's argument, Lewis makes it seem more extreme than it really is. Although this is not an unusual kind of rhetorical procedure for the Enemy, in this case, I think, he exaggerates not so much to attack his opponent as to try to clarify a possible explanation of cultural resemblances.

Lewis's interpretation of Moszkowski allows him to raise some difficult theoretical questions. Can we cast doubt on a scientific theory by attacking its philosophical premises? Or can we discredit a theory only through empirical testing? On the whole Lewis would answer that indeed a scientist's work can be vitiated by his personal presuppositions. He certainly thinks motives matter in such applied sciences as behavioral psychology, and he is inclined to think they also matter in the purer, more abstract sciences as well. After all, physicists are no less subject to preconceptions than anyone else; and, Lewis points out, in so metaphysical a field as relativity theory or quantum mechanics, the data are likely to be open to multiple interpretations.

In this belief Lewis aligns himself with the “relativist” side of the debate over another question: In what way (if at all) can scientific theories be refuted or proven? This question and its implications have occupied philosophers of science throughout this century; that Lewis was aware of the initial terms of the debate is clear in his scattered references to Pierre Duhem, who with W. V. O. Quine first argued that there can be no crucial experiments—experiments that establish the validity of a theory beyond all doubt. Significantly, Lewis's appeal to Duhem in the discussion about Einstein is encased in a paraphrase of Moszkowski: “Some of the ‘intuitions’ don't come off, owing to the unfortunate prevalence of the negative instance, but some do, like Relativity, though all subject, Moszkowski energetically does not think, to Duhem's law of reversal, whereby any physical system can be knocked over, and can rely on no experiment, however ‘crucial’” (TWM 16-17). Lewis would remind us that like Ptolemy, Copernicus, or Newton, Einstein may himself be improved on or overthrown by someone else's theory.

Now this line of thought is consistent with Lewis's emphasis on personality. The belief that we cannot divorce an idea from its source is a sort of converse of his opinion that people must be held responsible for their ideas. And his corollary argument that an impersonal and wholly objective criticism is impossible would extend logically enough into a similar argument about a wholly objective scientific theory. But at the same time, these views are decidedly at odds with his equally fundamental belief in the essential disinterestedness of the individual mind and its access to some stable truth. (Curiously, this ambivalence in Lewis also parallels one of the major philosophical splits within modern physics itself. One view, that held by Einstein, is that absolute truth exists and is potentially accessible to our knowledge. The second view, that held by Neils Bohr and Max Planck and derived from quantum mechanics, is that the presence of the observer itself alters reality in such a way that our access to knowledge is wholly a question of probabilities. This, I think, is one of the ways in which Lewis's complicated mind mirrors the complications of his time.) With his interpretation of Moszkowski and his appeal to Duhem, Lewis places himself in the awkward position of implying that complete independence and authority are impossible even for a thinker in a field as “pure” as mathematical physics—a position that would contradict Lewis's faith in the purity of the “not-self” and the potential universality of mind. In this position, too, he would seem to agree with the time-cult's belief in the subjectivity of knowledge—the “everything is relative” attitude he condemns as the vulgarized product of Einstein's theories.

And so in a number of direct and indirect ways, Lewis backs off from a position with which he seems substantially to agree. For instance, he encloses his reference to Duhem in a kind of double negative: instead of simply explaining Duhem's ideas, he disagrees (through his sarcasm) with Moszkowski, who would in turn disagree with Duhem. And, I think, he realizes that he is on shaky ground in attacking physics with philosophy—particularly since he is no scientist. Significantly, this is the closest he ever comes to questioning relativity physics itself. In criticizing Moszkowski, a second-rate biographer and popularizer of science, he is on familiar ground; but criticism of Einstein would take him out of his depth.2 Thus he concludes by bowing to the greater authority of other scientists—although even in this concession he avoids saying that Moszkowski's general view of the relationship between science and other disciplines is incorrect. He says simply, “Moszkowski, as far as Einstein is concerned, must be wrong.”

Lewis's own conclusion about the time-cult—or as close as he comes to one—is that it results from Einstein's work. As he explains (borrowing the new terminology), “A great many effects, a whole string of highly characteristic disturbances, come out of einsteinian physics, then. … The cause, if a cause we must have, is einsteinian physics” (TWM 12). He chooses to regard Einstein's work as the basis of his culture, I believe, because if anyone can approach pure disinterested thought, it is more likely to be a mathematician than a politician or a philosopher: of all the people Lewis sees as involved in the time-cult, Einstein would seem to be the least affected by preconceptions or inappropriate motives. Before Lewis brings Moszkowski into the discussion, then, he states his faith that “the physical investigations as to the structure of our universe which culminated in Einstein, were, for all any one need suppose to the contrary, as innocent as that … of any human arrière-pensée. Nor, further, were they necessarily at all metaphysical in origin” (13). Yet even in the attempt to “make his position clear,” he is strangely ambivalent. He brackets his relativistic argument with disclaimers, but these disclaimers carry less conviction than does the argument they would deny.

Lewis does not acknowledge the fundamental self-contradiction in these remarks about Einstein. But he does realize that he has argued two opposing views, and he does what he can to reconcile them. At the end of this introductory foray into the problems of the Zeitgeist, he offers a tentative resolution of the conflict:

It is only by fully accepting the evident fact that many men of science, or philosophers, are politicians, and their supposed ‘pure’ theoretic mind in reality merely a very practical one … that we can show that all theory and all theoretic men are not involved in those proofs and arguments. … There are no doubt good and bad times: in the bad ones these influences may be more powerful. The immense influence exerted on our lives by these ‘discoveries’ cannot leave us indifferent to the character of the instruments that are responsible for them—namely, the minds of the discoverers. But it is only the less fine instruments that can be influenced in that way and lend colour to spenglerism, that is our argument. This essay is among other things the assertion of a belief in the finest type of mind, which lifts the creative impulse into an absolute region free of spenglerian ‘history’ or politics. (17-18)

This is a solution we see over and over in Lewis's speculations about cultural unity. There are good times and bad times; there are first-rate and second-rate minds; and all cultures need not be as uniform as the time-cult. If he is not entirely certain about the quality of Einstein's mind, he has no doubt that the modern world in general is dominated by the second-rate. As I have said, this position is quite clearly a statement of faith—“the assertion of a belief in the finest type of mind”—as much as it is a recognition of the imperfection of reality. But if Lewis chooses a belief he himself recognizes as idealistic, he goes further in this instance and tries to devise an explanation that will accommodate both what he sees as the reality and what he desires as the ideal. If we look carefully beneath the analyses of the time-cult, we will find the Enemy's own model of culture.


In his role as culture critic, Lewis is far from alone. We can see him as part of two different though overlapping contexts: 1) the British tradition including such writers as Burke, Coleridge, Arnold, and Ruskin, and continuing into this century with Shaw, Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and Raymond Williams; and 2) the group of culture critics writing between the two world wars including such figures as Ortega y Gasset, Charles Maurras, Irving Babbitt, Julian Benda, and Oswald Spengler, all of whom follow arguments earlier developed by Burke, Taine, Nietzsche, and other European precursors. Lewis's ideas show the influence of both the British and the European traditions—not least because he had read so widely among these writers.3 Yet his vision of culture is also distinctively his own.

Lewis's most visible culture model is the one he offers in The Art of Being Ruled. This is a simple two-part model, not so much of culture as of social politics: there is a small class of true individuals capable of independent thought, and there are the unthinking masses who wish for nothing better than to be ruled. Lewis has several names for these groups—names that clearly indicate some of his sources: following Nietzsche, they are “masters” and the “herd”; following Bergson, they are “persons” and “things”; following Goethe, they are “Natures” and “puppets.”4 Such a vision is conspicuously authoritarian and has, for a contemporary reader at least, obviously distasteful practical implications; and, of course, it is difficult not to draw connections between this kind of thinking and Lewis's notorious political views. Fredric Jameson does so explicitly. This kind of culture critique, he says, always hides its own class interests behind the pretense of disinterested idealism:

Where [Lewis's] polemics become formally and ideologically revealing are those moments in which the idealist framework of the culture critique is briefly and with fitful, energetic impatience unmasked. At such moments, indeed, the rhetoric of conservative thought, which has ended up believing in its own official solicitude for Culture, gives way to the unpleasant and embarrassing cynicism of protofascism itself, which knows its intellectual practice as something other than the disinterested guardianship of universal values. In these moments, an embattled and Darwinian defense of the subject's own threatened position and individual vested interests breaks through the universalizing pretence of philosophical discourse; and the rights of privilege are openly affirmed against the threat to the self of some genuinely universal vision of human society.

Or as Raymond Williams says, “The concept of a cultivated minority, set over against a ‘decreated’ mass, tends, in its assertions, to a damaging arrogance and scepticism.”5

Because this is the only model Lewis states directly (and because it is so blatantly problematic), it has been the focus of attention for his readers and critics. Nevertheless, it is not the model of culture underlying most of his Enemy criticism. One of the problems in the two-part description—in terms of Lewis's Enemy principles—is that it puts artists and thinkers into the “master” group, where the potential purity of the “not-self” is muddied by issues of worldly power (since the masters are also the rulers). As a response to this unsatisfactory situation, Lewis evolved a second model. Still informed by the same influences, though now drawing more heavily on the British tradition, this more complex version accords more completely with the Enemy stance and the Enemy principles—both in its surface characteristics and in its submerged contradictions.

It is the second model that underlies the Man of the World books following The Art of Being Ruled—the rest of the Enemy criticism. Lewis never clearly explains this model; he never defines “culture” or “cult”; and he never describes his ideas about cultural unity or change. But just as we could discover his space-philosophy through his attack on the time-philosophy, here we can reconstruct this model from indirect evidence: from occasional remarks about the relationship between the time-cult and other cultures, from scattered comments about such things as the cultural role of the artist or the scientist, and most important, from the kinds of questions he asks and criticisms he makes of other writers who more explicitly address theoretical issues.

What we find is a three-part model of culture. At the bottom is the “social plane”; in the middle are the “middlemen,” those who have “second-rate” minds; on the top are the “first-rate” minds in whom the “pure speculative impulse” lives. Given this structure we can understand what distinguishes good cultures from bad ones, the decadence of the time-cult from the ideal Lewis would prefer. What changes is the balance of power.

The social plane consists of common men and women who are generally uninformed about the ideas they receive and use. It is a rather vaguely defined group. At times, it seems to combine the mindless masses, for whom Lewis has only disdain, with the purveyors of what we might call popular culture—artists like Anita Loos, the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (see TWM 75), who in Lewis's eyes simply exploit the work of more serious and innovative creators. But most often, Lewis thinks of this level much more generously, as including his own reading audience of “general educated persons” and almost all artists. This is why in Time and Western Man, for instance, he divides his subject into the “literary, social and artistic plane” and the “philosophic and theoretic.”

When he expresses his wish that different fields should remain rigidly separated, he explains how he sees the role of the artist in the social plane:

To receive blindly, or at the best confusedly, from regions outside his own, all kinds of notions and formulae, is what the ‘creative artist’ generally does. Without knowing it, he receives into the central tissue of his work political or scientific notions which he proceeds to embody, if he is a novelist, in his characters, if he is a painter, or a poet, in his technique or emotional material, without in the least knowing what he is doing or why he is doing it. But my conception of the rôle of the creative artist is not merely to be a medium for ideas supplied him wholesale from elsewhere, which he incarnates automatically in a technique which (alone) it is his business to perfect. It is equally his business to know enough of the sources of his ideas, and ideology, to take steps to keep these ideas out, except such as he may require for his work. When the idea-monger comes to his door he should be able to tell what kind of notion he is buying, and know something of the process and rationale of its manufacture and distribution. (TWM 10)

As this passage indicates, the difference between the good times and the bad on the social level is one of self-awareness. In the good times, artists (and ordinary people) go to the trouble to inform themselves about ideas and ideologies; in the bad times, they simply accept them without question. This is why Lewis has embarked upon his critique of his culture: because “it would not be easy to exagerate the naiveté with which the average artist or writer to-day, deprived of all central authority, body of knowledge, tradition, or commonly accepted system of nature, accepts what he receives in place of those things” (Paleface 104). And this is why he specifically criticizes Pound for being a fashion-follower and Joyce for being more concerned about his craft than his metaphysics.

The second level consists of the “idea-mongers,” those with essentially practical minds who deliberately use ideas for their own purposes—and, in the process, usually distort them. At its most innocent, this group includes those in industry who exploit scientific discoveries in practical ways. But it also—and for Lewis most significantly—includes people motivated by politics and religion, “the influences that are most able to distort and cancel the pure speculative impulse” (TWM 248). Often we hear the Enemy's invective in Lewis's descriptions of this level: “The merely political revolutionary is thus, for the most part, an interpreter only of a creative mind. And he is, of course, very often, a very bad and corrupt interpreter; often he is a startlingly vulgar, peculiarly unscrupulous and self-seeking one.”6 These political middlemen are strong in the bad times and weak in the good. In his own time, Lewis thinks, too much power lies in the wrong hands—neither the thinkers' nor the workers', but the manipulators'. He explains, again:

The finest creations of art or of science, to-day as ever, only more so, reach the general public in a very indirect fashion. If that contact could be more direct it would be much more sanely ‘stimulating’. … It is upon the essentially political middleman, the imitative self-styled ‘revolutionary’, that I direct my main attack. It is he who pollutes on the way the prime issue of our thinking, and converts it into a ‘cultural’ or ‘scientific’ article, which is a masked engine of some form of political fraud, which betrays the thought of its originator. (TWM 150)

In a culture with fewer middlemen, those on the social level will receive ideas more directly, before they have become diluted or polluted; the responsibility of the artist and the general public to know about ideas will be easier to meet, and there will be fewer hidden political motives to entrap them.

Science seems to be especially corruptible. “When we say ‘science,’” he cautions us, “we can either mean any manipulation of the inventive and organizing power of the human intellect: or we can mean such an extremely different thing as the religion of science, the vulgarized derivative from this pure activity manipulated by a sort of priestcraft into a great religious and political weapon”; “So pure science is one thing; its application another; and its vulgarization a third” (ABR 4, 27). Comparing science and magic, Lewis writes, “‘Science gives as much power as was formerly given by magic,’ we started by saying. But it does not give it to the true magician, to the maker of the spells and the engineer of the machinery. Nor, still less, does it give it to the Everyman who handles the machinery and magical properties. There is a third character in the plot: and he alone is invested in all the marvellous power of Science” (TWM 311, my emphasis). Because science confers power, those who want power manipulate scientific discovery for their own ends.

Lewis also includes most of the time-cult's philosophers in this group of middlemen. Philosophic thought is at least as vulnerable to political pressures as scientific thought. Now, he explains, “By ‘politics’ to-day we must understand something very much wider than what was formerly meant” (TWM 163). “Politics and philosophy in Europe are traditionally a little too close together” (TWM 261-62); thus Bergson is “the first servant of the great industrial caste-mind”—or at best, “simply a very common but astute intelligence—naturally, and without other inducement, on the side of such a society, instinctively endorsing its ideals” (TWM 214). Not all modern philosophers seem to Lewis as political as Bergson, but he does think that because they depend so much on science, they are too much infected by its corrupt power.

In his objections to this state of affairs, Lewis is in sharp contrast to Spengler, for instance, who holds that philosophers should be practical people involved in politics and other affairs of the real world; Spengler is also content to observe the involvement of scientists in the world of action. In fact, Spengler's description of cultural ties would tend to put nearly everyone in this middle group—philosophers and scientists, politicians, artists, mathematicians, economists.7 In the case of the time-cult, Lewis is inclined to agree, though what Spengler accepts, Lewis deplores. Certainly he believes the uniformity of modern culture stems from its ties between science and philosophy:

When I speak of an ‘orthodoxy of thought,’ therefore, or a philosophic orthodoxy, I refer to this strict uniformity that ensues from the scrupulous following of the datum provided by the instruments of research, by philosophy and by all speculative thought. And the identity of philosophy or of speculative thought with politics is largely owing to the fact that both depend more and more absolutely upon machines of greater and greater precision, on machines so wonderfully complex and powerful that they usurp to a great extent the functions of independent life. But philosophy and speculative thought is, further, an emotional interpretation, and not entirely a soulless imitation, of technical discovery. (TWM 165)

It is on the level of the practical and often political middleman, Lewis believes, that philosophy and science come together.

It is because the connections among properly separate fields occur on this level that Lewis sometimes (and more often in later years) refers to the members of this group as the “Zeitgeist”—or personifies the “Zeitgeist” as if it were one of these politicizing middlemen. In The Art of Being Ruled he says, “The Zeitgeist has nothing to do with the workshop or laboratory, but is a phenomenon of the social world. … At all times he is a salon-spirit, the spirit of fashion” (431). (In Paleface he explains how “fashion” is “the emanation of some person, or some small inner ring of people” [120].) And in The Doom of Youth, he remarks, “Zeitgeist [is] the term we employ to indicate whoever it may be possessing the political power and wealth necessary to compel us to believe and do what he wants, and so make of our “Time” whatever he desires it to be.”8 These people—the ones with power and wealth, the ones who tie politics to science and philosophy and the arts—are the controlling “they” of Lewis's occasional paranoic sense of a conspiracy: the “third character in the plot.”

The level of pure thought, finally, is made up of the true revolutionaries, those who originate all really new ideas of all kinds. This level has clear analogues in the British and European traditions of culture critiques: it resembles, for instance, Coleridge's clerisy and Arnold's class of scholars and artists; it anticipates Eliot's cultured elite and Leavis's minority culture; and—perhaps most directly—it parallels Benda's clercs, “all those whose activity essentially is not the pursuit of practical aims, all those who seek their joy in the practice of an art or a science or metaphysical speculation, in short in the possession of non-material advantages, and hence in a certain manner say: ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’”9 Or as Lewis says, “Nature does in every generation endow a handful of people with invaluable and mysterious gifts, in the special fields of science, and of art, or in character and general ability, making them fertile and inventive where other people are for the most part receptive only.”10 Like Benda, Lewis includes in this third level, at least ideally, scientists, philosophers, and artists.

Because “revolution is first a technical process” (TWM 138), the group of pure thinkers is most likely to include scientists—mathematicians, chemists, and physicists. (It does not include such “soft” scientists as psychologists or behaviorists.) Lewis explains, “I believe that it requires a really very foul or else very fanatical person to live with ideas, and consistently to betray them: and secondly, the ideas themselves are apt to be refractory, and to have some say in the matter. The material of theoretic thought, at least, is not ‘personal,’ if its manipulator is” (262). Scientists whose work is both technical and theoretical may thus be able to avoid personal distractions. Consequently, Lewis is inclined to place science at the base of culture: “The ideal basis for an epoch would certainly be the instruments of research, invented for the advancement of the common good; and certainly the impulse behind all ‘revolution’—the will, that is, to pass from one epoch to another and better (of course)—is the work of the man of science” (160; my emphasis). Here Lewis is agreeing with Whitehead's argument in Science and the Modern World, though unlike Whitehead he continues with the caution that “unfortunately the best-organized and most powerful minorities will [i.e., want] a different thing to [from] the common good; and the more irresponsible power they obtain, the more their chosen interpreters (who are not, however, the great and inventive minds, but rather the opportunist and interpretative) expound the discoveries of science in a sense vaguely favourable to that power” (160). Ideally, at least, science can be pure.

In an ideal culture, philosophers will also belong to this level. Lewis explains: “In order to be humane and universally utilizable, philosophy must be abstracted from these special modes and private visions. There must be an abstract man, as it were, if there is to be a philosopher” (332). (Here Lewis again disagrees with Spengler, who argues that “higher thought” possesses no “everlasting and unalterable objectiveness.”11) But of course, since philosophy is so much less technical and so much more personal than pure science, philosophers are less likely to attain this degree of abstraction. Here, too, the uniformity of philosophic thought in the time-cult demonstrates its failure. Pure thought is individual, and so ideal philosophers would necessarily resemble each other much less than do those who base their work on relativity physics.

Finally, this third level includes true artists. Art, Lewis explains, “is a constant stronghold … of the purest human consciousness” (TWM 39). “In art, as in everything else, all revolutionary impulse comes in the first place from the exceptional individual” (41); “From this point of view the true man-of-science and the artist are much more in the same boat than is generally understood” (199). Lewis places artists in this group—or the best artists—partly because of the large role technical problems play in the arts (as in the sciences), and partly because he sees artistic creation as occurring in a trance or a dream state. Art, too, is like magic: “The production of a work of art is … strictly the work of a visionary” (198). The artist must take care to maintain his creative isolation: “What it is really essential to press upon the attention of the reader is this: that the least distraction on the part of a great intelligence from his task of supplying pure thought, is fatal; its result is the same as in the case of a plastic or other artist when he allows himself a similar distraction” (309-10). Ideally, an artist can remain free from impure motives and impulses and maintain what Lewis calls a direct access to reality. (Again, this is of course not a new idea with Lewis, but a clear legacy from the romantics.)

In the good times this group of scientists, philosophers, and artists—the level of the “first-rate”—is strong; in the bad times, it is dominated by the impure thought of the middleman. As a critic, then, Lewis seeks “to dissociate from the pure revolutionary impulse of creative thought all those corrupt imitations which confuse so much the issue” (ABR 429). When this group of pure thinkers is strong, culture is diverse since it evolves directly from individuals; when it is weak, culture is uniform since the work of individuals is diverted into narrow practical channels.

This three-level model presents a few immediate problems. The most conspicuous internal problem is that the model contradicts itself on the role of art and artists. Given Lewis's insistence on his own identity as a painter, this is not an insignificant difficulty. Lewis seems to see the artist as both the beginning and the end of a culture—as both the source and the result of the spirit of an age. He explains the difference between politics and art in a way that makes this problem clear:

If you want to know what is actually occurring inside, underneath, at the centre, at any given moment, art is a truer guide than ‘politics,’ more often than not. Its movements represent, in an acuter form, a deeper emotional truth, though not discursively. The Brothers Karamazov, for example, is a more cogent document for the history of its period than any record of actual events. … So if art has a directer access to reality, is truer and less artificial and more like what it naturally grows out of, than are politics, it seems a pity that it should take its cue from them. (TWM 136-37)

But listen to the voice of the Domestic Adversary describing much the same idea:

But is there such a thing as ‘an artist’? Or to what degree is there such a thing? … For artistic creation must express something. … If it is the famous ‘personality of the artist’ to which expression is given, in the art-form, why then that precious ‘personality’ has been built up out of a number of components, has it not: which, closely enough inspected, would be found to betray a political complexion. (MWA 272-73)

“All art must be a political expression to some extent,” he admits; “all creative activity at the best of times must have been influenced, if not controlled, by political necessity” (ABR 420, 430). As the truest historians of their period, artists respond to what is around them; they are susceptible to influences. But then they cannot at the same time be as free from influences and as independent of their Zeitgeist as Lewis wishes them to be.

We can look at this contradiction in two ways. To some extent it is a dilemma that Lewis has inherited with the romantic notion of the artist's special nature and role. Compare this passage from Ruskin, for instance: “The art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues. The art, or general productive and formative energy, of any country, is an exact exponent of its ethical life. You can have noble art only from noble persons, associated under laws fitted to their time and circumstances.” As Raymond Williams points out, “The question of the ‘goodness’ of the artist is, however, at times ambiguous. At times, he must be good in order to reveal essential Beauty; at other times he is good because he reveals essential Beauty—other criteria of goodness are irrelevant.”12 From this perspective the contradiction is not Lewis's own.

But the problem is also typical of Lewis's own thinking: it repeats in a slightly different form his arguments that one can be personal and impersonal at the same time, that individual “eye” can be the same as “common sense,” that the self and the not-self are fundamentally one. But what in those arguments he can present and justify as paradox, here resolves into clear contradiction. Because the artist receives impressions from society and culture, he or she can express the Zeitgeist: the artist is therefore part of the first level. Because the artist is free from the superficial impressions of the Zeitgeist, he or she can express the true nature of reality: the artist is therefore part of the third level. Nor is this a contradiction that can be solved with a distinction between first- and second-rate artists—though such a distinction can mask the contradiction.13

A similar problem underlies the ideal role of the scientist. Although Lewis wishes the scientist to represent pure speculative thought, as we have seen, he has serious doubts that such purity is possible. This scepticism has two different sources. One, he doubts that any real person can maintain the necessary isolation: “You cannot insist enough, it seems to me, on the human factor in the man of science. Scientific discovery or the teaching of science is one thing, and the man of science as private man, reflecting on his functions and applying his discoveries or selling them to other people, is another” (ABR 266). Two, as a Berkeleyan idealist, Lewis believes that we create our world through perception, thought, and memory—not that there is a real world we can hope to experience without these aspects of personality and mind. He asks about the scientific discoverer: “Is he not directed to some extent in that by what he wants to discover? Has he not often a blind eye for what he does not want; and does he not always interpret what has been discovered, by himself or other men, as he wants to understand it, or as somebody else requires him to?” (TWM 161). His own answer to this question, again, is that “It is mere superstition to suppose ‘a mathematician’ to be a sort of divine machine. In any reasonable, and not romantic, account of the matter, we must suppose the mathematical physicist not entirely unaffected by neighbouring metaphysical thought” (13-14). Even in his own terms, the basis for Lewis's ideal culture is “superstitious” and “romantic.” And for this classicist, “the ‘romantic’ is the opposite of the real (22, Lewis's emphasis). Again, this is another manifestation of the fundamental conflict in Lewis's thinking between his insistence that we must always recognize the role of personality in thought and his belief that we can think impersonally.14 And his affirmation of the potential purity of the scientist over his belief that his ideal is superstitious and romantic repeats his philosophic choice of Berkeleyan illusion over realistic nihilism.

The difficulty in Lewis's culture model extends even further than these internal contradictions. It shares with all culture critiques a problem of perspective: from what position does the critic analyze his culture without being shaped by it? As that of an artist belonging to level three, presumably, Lewis's vision of culture would be free of any personal or worldly influences. (Thus this characteristic assertion: “I advance the strange claim … to act and to think non-politically in everything, in complete detachment from all the intolerant watchwords and formulas by which we are beset. I am an artist and my mind, at least, is entirely free.”15) Yet as that of an artist belonging to level one, his vision would be specialized, partisan, and personal—and this is the advertised perspective of the Enemy.

Moreover, of course, Lewis's ideal culture—his Golden Age—is highly unlikely to occur in the real world. And if it did exist, it would hardly be a culture at all in our usual sense of the word. It would be strongly individualistic, and consequently very diverse; there would be almost no influences among its creative members, since each would work independently of everyone else. It would be a culture with little or no unity. Furthermore, it would be ahistorical. Its members would be no more influenced by their predecessors than by their contemporaries. It might change as its individual members changed, but its perspective, ideally, would be that of the static pure present, not an historical perspective.

Lewis's allegiance to the value of personality and his philosophical preference for stasis over time and motion lead him to create a model based on the timelessness of mind and the independence of individual genius; they do not allow him to embrace either cultural unity or unified cultural change as anything other than symptoms of disintegration and decadence. Again, Lewis himself seems to recognize the inflexibility of his scheme. He remarks, at one point, “When you get well into the centre of the consciousness of any time (and we have just illustrated this by the greek consciousness), there is certainly a unity there, for, if for no other reason, it is after all a time” (TWM 256); and he cautions us, “So we must in this investigation remember … that, though a ‘new thing in philosophy,’ nevertheless some and indeed a great deal of merging and interpenetration is to be found everywhere in the world of thought of any time whatever” (257). These statements appear right in the middle of his critique of the unity of the time-philosophy, and we must recognize them as important qualifications of his own judgments of both modern culture and his ideal culture; here once more is the voice of the Domestic Adversary.

As we might expect from all these structural resemblances between Lewis's three-part model and his critical and philosophical principles, this view of culture is also remarkably consistent with his stance as the Enemy. To attack the spirit of one's age as he does in this role, one must argue that any Zeitgeist is secondary to individual achievements. Thus his continual sense of difference leads Lewis to oppose the concept of a Zeitgeist and to insist not only that it is possible to think without being pressured by cultural fashion, but also that independent thought is essential to culture.

Here again we see the negative side of this position: this kind of self-justification suggests Lewis's uncertainty about his authority as an outsider. Raymond Williams's remarks about Orwell's exile status will illuminate Lewis's situation as well: “The exile, because of his own personal position, cannot finally believe in any social guarantee: to him, because this is the pattern of his own living, almost all association is suspect. He fears it because he does not want to be compromised (this is often his virtue, because he is so quick to see the perfidy which certain compromises involve). Yet he fears it also because he can see no way of confirming, socially, his own individuality; this, after all, is the psychological condition of the self-exile.” (And, Williams notes, “The cost, in practice, [of Orwell's adoption of this stance] was a partial abandonment of his own standards: he had often to curse, wildly, to keep others away, to avoid being confused with them.”)16 Lewis's Enemy, too, is forced by the logic of his self-exile to defend himself: his sense of being opposed by his own actual culture compels him to imagine an ideal one where he would feel at home.

Yet we can also see this model as a successful extension and justification of the Enemy stance. On Lewis's analysis the person who acts alone will be the one responsible for real change: “All revolutionary impulse comes in the first place from the exceptional individual” (TWM 41). As Nietzsche says, “The time will come when … we shall no longer look at masses but at individuals who form a sort of bridge over the wan stream of becoming”; “The aim of mankind can lie ultimately only in its highest examples.” But in an age of uniformity like ours, these individuals will look like heretics. “All effectual men are always the enemies of every time,” argues Tarr; “All activity on the part of a good mind has the stimulus of a paradox.”17 “Truth,” Lewis proclaims, “is always ‘heretical’: and it is always the truth of a minority, or of an ‘isolated mind’ … the truth-bearing individual is always ahead of the rest of the world, although no one could claim that they willed him, and strained towards him, in order to reach his higher level. Rather he drags them up by the scruff of the neck” (TWM 466-67). With this, perhaps the ultimate Enemy maneuver, Lewis-the-Enemy becomes Lewis-the-“truth-bearing individual”: his very opposition to the dominant thought of his time proves him not wrong but right.


  1. Alexander Moszkowski, Einstein, The Searcher, trans. Henry L. Brose (New York: Dutton, 1921), 87, 89.

  2. Another of Einstein's biographers, Ronald W. Clark, calls Moszkowski “a Berlin litterateur and critic who moved on the fringes of the Einstein circle”; he also calls Moszkowski's book “a vulgarization of science more unusual then than it would be today” (Einstein: The Life and Times [New York: Avon, 1971], 306).

  3. Comprehensive discussions of the first tradition—the British—can be found in Lesley Johnson's The Culture Critics and Raymond Williams' Culture and Society. Neither of these books, however, mentions Lewis. Michael Levenson's A Genealogy of Modernism also deals with this tradition and implicitly includes Lewis. Jameson (see p. 128) and Wagner have both discussed Lewis's similarities with the second group of writers.

    Lewis had clearly read most, if not all, of the figures I mention. He frequently acknowledges his agreement with Arnold (largely through quotation) and Benda; he mentions Nietzsche frequently, sometimes in agreement, sometimes not; and he devotes considerable direct attention to Spengler.

  4. Raymond Williams, talking about Carlyle, notes “the kind of contempt for the ‘masses’—Swarmery, ‘Sons of the Devil, in overwhelming majority’, ‘blockheadism, gullibility, bribeability, amenability to beer and balderdash’—which has remained a constant element in English thought.” See Culture and Society, 83.

  5. Jameson, 129; Williams, 263.

  6. The Diabolical Principle and the Dithyrambic Spectator, 136.

  7. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, vol. 1, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926), 42, 47, 378.

  8. The Doom of Youth, 135.

  9. Julien Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs), trans. Richard Aldington (William Morrow & Co., 1928; New York: Norton, 1969), 43. Also see p. 191. In Time and Western Man, which preceded this book, Lewis quotes Benda's earlier Belphégor; then, in The Diabolical Principle and the Dithyrambic Spectator, he writes: “The problem of art, or of the intellect, and of its relation to politics, has, since I, as an artist, first propounded it in my Revolutionary Simpleton and in Time and Western Man, become popular. M. Julien Benda in France has taken it up. M. Benda, whom I quoted in my book, is a man of resource. In his latest work (La Trahison des Clercs) he makes an effective use of my writings (by some oversight he has forgotten to mention my name, but that is just as well, for he arrives at conclusions very different from mine or appears to misunderstand what he has read: it is for that reason no doubt that he abstains from any mention of his sources)” (121).

  10. The Diabolical Principle and the Dithyrambic Spectator, 128.

  11. Spengler, 41.

  12. Williams, 136. Williams quotes the Ruskin passage from an appendix to Modern Painters (Library edition), 2:38-39.

  13. In the late The Demon of Progress in the Arts (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1955), Lewis offers several remarks that point to some of the difficulties in his own earlier theory (here we hear the Domestic Adversary over the span of his career). From the perspective of his decades of writing politically and socially engaged books, both fiction and nonfiction, he criticizes the separation of the arts from social responsibility: “The absurd things which are happening in the visual arts at present are what must happen when an art becomes almost totally disconnected from society, when it no longer has any direct function in life, and can only exist as the plaything of the intellect” (46). When he is objecting to Herbert Read's art criticism, he writes, “The ideal autonomy imagined for the painter, the tendency to speak as though what is seen enjoys a privileged position on the earth, is characteristic of a time in which theories are substituted for anything real and solid. What, after all, is the ghastly autonomous privilege, the splendid isolation, about which I have been speaking, except a private latitude to do whatever one likes, provided no one else suffers any inconvenience? … Men who trumpet such theories live in the van of ‘culture’; they belong to the camouflaged section of the public services, where with fanfares and resounding words, the absence of culture is gloriously concealed” (62). And he comments critically that Malraux is “inclined to endow the visual arts with mystical revolutionary attributes” (75). All these remarks are clearly critical of the culture model I examine here.

  14. The ideal role of the philosopher suggests similarcontradictions. Compare Hayden White's summary of Nietzsche's argument in The Genealogy of Morals:

    The philosophical ideal of his own time, Nietzsche said, imagines a ‘pure, will-less, painless, timeless knower’ with the objective of attaining a ‘pure reason, absolute knowledge, absolute intelligence.’ But all these concepts, Nietzsche held, ‘presuppose an eye such as no living being can imagine, an eye required to have no direction, to abrogate its active and interpretative powers—precisely those powers that alone make of seeing, seeing something.’ This ideal obscures the fact that ‘all seeing is essentially perspective, and so is all knowing. The more emotions we allow to speak in a given matter, the more different spectacles we can put on in order to view a given spectacle, the more complete will be our conception of it, the greater our objectivity.’

    In different places Lewis offers both sides of this conceptual opposition. See White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 354.

  15. The Diabolical Principle and the Dithyrambic Spectator, 37.

  16. Williams, 290-91. Lesley Johnson, in a discussion of various sociologists' studies of the role of intellectuals, notes that “‘the traditional position of intellectuals, of being rejected by their society, has resulted in a traditional response of rejecting their society’ … the structures of dissent are the necessary context for the intellectual … the outsider status of the modern intellectual is essential to his universalizing, critical approach.” See The Culture Critics, 7.

  17. Tarr, 215-16 (1928); 245 (1918); the two versions are almost identical. Tarr is answering Anastasya's comment that “‘The most effectual men have always been those whose notions were diametrically opposed to those of their time.’”

Scott Klein (essay date 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6388

SOURCE: “The Experiment of Vorticist Drama: Wyndham Lewis and Enemy of the Stars,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 37, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 225-39.

[In the following excerpt, Klein places Lewis within the early twentieth-century's avant-garde, and declares Lewis's play, The Enemy of the Stars, an important example of Vorticist art.]

Wyndham Lewis was the only writer and painter in England during the early part of the twentieth century who was consistently engaged by the continental avant-garde. His movement, vorticism, spearheaded by the 1914 magazine Blast, brought the radicalism of futurism and cubism into British painting and the theoretical concerns of continental manifestos into English writing, proclaiming both the importance of the individual and the artist's freedom from Romantic and Victorian thought. Blast also contains an attempt at vorticist drama, Enemy of the Stars. This prose experiment, comparable in its extravagant unperformability to works by the Russian futurists and Artaud, occupies a crucial position in Lewis's work. The centerpiece of Blast, it attempts to demonstrate that language can be abstracted from representation as earlier experimentation had done with the visual arts. Yet in contrast to its continental fellows its dramatic form is a matter of Lewis's assertion rather than actable form. Its scenes are entirely composed of narrative prose, which makes liberal use of the block capitals typical of Blast's manifestos; the text is undivided into autonomous speaking parts. Passages of abstract description alternate with more conventional dialogue that is nonetheless presented novelistically, spoken passages placed between quotation marks rather than cued as speeches by particular actors. Enemy of the Stars, in short, is fully presented in readerly form, and is a play only insofar as Lewis declared it to be so.

Attention to Enemy of the Stars has tended to diminish the theoretical problems raised by its overt assumption of a form it only problematically occupies, scanting the issues of its narrative in favor of analyzing the audacity of its style.1 Yet the relationship between the narrative of Enemy of the Stars and its style illuminates a paradigmatic crux in Lewis's work. The concerns of his nascent modernism are theoretically and practically incompatible with its chosen genre, and that incompatibility is a key contradiction of the vorticist aesthetic, particularly in its presentation of the individual artist as self-reliant creator of new forms. Enemy of the Stars narrates the artistic struggle of mind against nature as a parable of the vorticist movement's own contradictory attitude toward tradition and creation. This mode is made clearer when the play is positioned first within vorticism itself and then within the tradition of Romantic “closet” drama, the philosophic form that Enemy of the Stars both repudiates and obliquely follows.

To explore the modernism of the play one must look first at the manifestos of Blast. Vorticism was based upon graphic models and the ascendancy in Europe of artistic abstraction. It also rejected the turn to the past as both political and aesthetic gesture. According to Lewis, England was built upon “Dickens' sentimental ghoul-like gloating over the death of little Nell” (Blast 133). Even more than the historically defined products of the Victorian age Blast objects to Romanticism, which Lewis understands not so much as a period as a philosophical approach that led to, and included, the sentimentality of the Victorians. Although Blast criticizes Keats directly (Blast 133), Lewis, with T. E. Hulme, associated “romantic” art more generally with habits of thought unrelated to particular historical conditions. For Lewis Romanticism meant temporality, and he therefore rejected his contemporary futurism as “romantic” for fetishizing time, while he lauded “classicism,” which emphasized hard-edged form, or space. That English artists should be the “great enemies of Romance” is Blast's rallying cry (Blast 41), for romance is the “fostering of unfactual conditions” (Blast 8) whether that fostering be the excessive valuation of time or the sentimentalizing of mass culture. Lewis indeed conflates the futurist movement with the excesses of Victorian decadence and realism: “Wilde gushed twenty years ago about the beauty of machinery,” Lewis writes, “Gissing, in his romantic delight with modern housing was futurist in this sense” (Blast 8).2

Against this nineteenth-century model of retrogressive excess Lewis proposes the revolutionary classicist, the independent self devoted to the aesthetic exploration of space. This spatiality depended upon the shaping power of the artist, whom Lewis envisioned as a self independent from the world, producing “vortices” of self-enclosed geometries. Art was imperfect when it dealt too much with the unformed materials of nature, and threatened the integrity of the self. The true artist or vorticist, unlike the Romantic, stands aloof from the seductions and divisions of the external. He creates forms that reaffirm, rather than threaten, his individuality and independence. Yet while the artist stands in opposition to the world, he is himself the product of oppositions. In Blast Lewis describes the vorticist's ability to create and hold oppositions within the self, containing and therefore achieving a “harmonious and sane duality,” as a function of a will to artistic power. In the paradoxical language typical of avant-garde movements of the period, he emerges as the generator and container of doubleness:

1. Beyond action and reaction we would establish ourselves.

2. We start from opposite statements of a chosen world. Set up violent structures of adolescent clearness between two extremes.

3. We discharge ourselves on both sides.

4. We fight first for one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side or both sides and ours. (Blast 30)

In this passage the vorticist is above all an omnipotent selfhood. “Beyond Action and Reaction we would establish ourselves” expresses his transcendental goal, which is Nietzsche's good and evil translated into the painter's dialectic of physical law. Similarly Nietzschean are Lewis's implicit claims for the vorticist's ability to control his environment. Although the “would” of “we would establish ourselves” suggests intention rather than ability, Lewis unambiguously grants his artist the power to break free of the boundaries that confine realist painters—the artist starts from a “chosen” world rather than the received phenomena of the external. He erects “violent structures” of signification rather than working within the parameters typically available to the artist.

“We establish ourselves” therefore roots the vorticist in the closed system of self-nomination. The artist is empowered by his own consciousness rather than by the surfaces of the world, by his sheer ability, as Lewis writes, to break free from origin, to “invent [him]self properly.” Lewis's vocabulary further suggests his oppositional independence. “We discharge ourselves on both sides,” adapts the language of both battle and purgation. The vorticist artist is a “Primitive Mercenary,” that is, one who is free of allegiance, and is therefore able to turn against, rather than surrender to, the external world. The sole containing force for his own energies, Lewis's ideal artist is an unpredicated model of the powerful self. Able to hold dualities in balance as part of his overarching coherence, he stands free of the external—both the inanimate world and the world of other people.

This emphasis on the creative individual's singularity and paradoxical doubleness finds its detailed expression in Enemy of the Stars. As independence from the other (which includes the past and mass culture) is Lewis's first requirement of creation, it is suitably, therefore, the concern of the narrative. Arghol, the protagonist, is an intellectual who “has come to fight a ghost, Humanity” (Blast 61). He represents the possibility of the self's independence, a “statue-mirage of Liberty in the great desert” of human affairs (Blast 59). He stands against nature even as he uses it for his obscure and metaphorical purposes. He is the “enemy of the stars” of the title, who stands alone as a “MAGNET OF SUBTLE, VAST, SELFISH THINGS” (Blast 61) and attempts to give some shape to the “archaic blank wilderness of the universe” (Blast 64). Lewis stresses that Arghol is discontinuous with the world around him in his descriptions of the landscape—“The canal ran in one direction, his blood weakly, in the opposite.”3 Arghol rejects the world of desire in order to achieve a transcendent distance from it.

Like the vorticist, he wants to “leave violently slow monotonous life” in order to enter the void that is the merging of paradoxical opposites, to “take header into the boiling starry cold.” He hopes to achieve this transcendence through solitude. If he keeps the “fire of friction unspent in solitariness,” he explains to Hanp, he will “reach the stars” (Blast 67). Hanp, on the other hand, epitomizes the “BLACK BOURGEOIS ASPIRATIONS” that threaten to undermine Arghol's “BLATANT VIRTUOSITY OF SELF” (Blast 59); he is an indistinct form who merges with all around him. Arghol castigates him in the same metaphoric terms with which Lewis dismisses the Romantic artist—“You cling to any object,” he says, “dig your nails in earth, not to drop into it” (Blast 67). Arghol sees in Hanp only a general portrait of homogeneous mankind, an “anonymous form of the vastness of humanity” (Blast 71) that he must counteract with his theories of selfhood. He asserts that the self represents the opposite of Hanp's mass mediocrity. “Between Personality and Mankind it is always a question of dog and cat,” Arghol states, “they are diametrically opposed species” (Blast 66). He therefore rejects all that is not the self as repulsive to the purity of the individual, blaming the other for its gradual destruction—“The process and condition of life, without exception, is a grotesque degradation and ‘soillure’ of the original solitude of the soul. There is no help for it. … Anything but yourself is dirt. Anybody that is” (Blast 70).

In living out this startlingly egoistic and misanthropic philosophy, moreover, Arghol rejects all action, even in self-protection. When Hanp suggests that he avenge himself against the uncle who appears regularly to beat him, for instance, Arghol declines, for any contact with the other, however defensive, can only tarnish the self. Arghol considers himself to be a superior force, “too superb ever to lift a finger when harmed,” he argues, and cannot lower himself by responding to the world (Blast 67). In rejecting the kinetic impulses of life, moreover, he believes he can ultimately transcend mortality. He trusts that the metaphysical weight of his adopted symbols can prevent his dissolution. His intellectual activities are a form of exercise to ward off destruction, the production of an art that can transcend time. “The stone of the stars will do for my seal and emblem,” he says, “I practice with it, monotonously ‘putting,’ that I may hit Death when he comes” (Blast 70).

Yet as the play progresses it becomes clear that Arghol, unlike the ideal artist of Lewis's manifestos, cannot protect himself from the world through his trust in self and symbols. When Hanp attacks Arghol after being contemptuously dismissed as a parasite, Arghol has no choice but to fight back in Hanp's sphere of “life,” “break[ing] vows and spoil[ing] continuity of instinctual behavior” (Blast 74). He becomes an extension of the world rather than its opposite. He becomes a “soft, blunt paw of Nature” (Blast 75) and loses his distinctiveness, falling into Hanp's condition of integration with the surrounding real as “part of the responsive landscape” (Blast 76). This grudging acceptance of nature seals Arghol's downfall. Infuriated by his inconsistency and in “sullen indignation at Arghol ACTING, he who had not the right to act” (Blast 80), Hanp turns against him a second time and murders him as he sleeps.

Arghol's defense against Hanp therefore foreshadows his own destruction. Hanp cannot resolve the contradictions between Arghol's transcendent theories and worldly actions without obliterating their source. Arghol's death is Hanp's dramatic proof that despite his opposition to nature Arghol is still “imprisoned in a messed socket of existence” (Blast 64). Yet although Hanp is the direct agent of his death, Arghol's downfall results logically from his programmatic rejection of the other. This is implicit in the dream that Arghol has before his death. He remembers himself as a student in the city who, furious with the confinement of his room, rejects the book that lies “stalely open” before him, Einege und Sein Eigenkeit by the German philosopher Max Stirner (Blast 76).4 Disgusted with the book as yet another of the tarnishing influences of the external world, Arghol flings it from his window. He calls it “one of the seven arrows in my martyr mind,” and dismisses it both because it is a drain of the authenticity of the self and because its otherness is a perverse call to external experience—“These books are all parasites … eternal prostitute” (Blast 77). A dream figure appears at the door to return the book, however, a “young man he had known in the town” who changes first into Hanp and then into a “self-possessed” and “free” image, “Stirner as he imagined him” (Blast 77). The figure ignores Arghol's repeated attempts to eject him, and, as Stirner, provokes Arghol into a repetition of his recent struggle with Hanp—“A scrap ensued, physical experiences of recent fight recurring” (Blast 77).

Although Arghol succeeds in banishing the dream figure from his room, his rejection of Stirner is puzzling. As Tom Kinnimont has noted, Stirner's ideas are substantially those of Arghol, and, insofar as Arghol is a figure of Lewis, of Lewis himself.5Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum asserts the truth of the self, and attempts to establish its independence from society's falsehoods and the limitations of the real by declaring that the self is all-sufficient, its own master and owner. For Stirner, as for Arghol, the self is an ultimate good that can be achieved only by egoistically conserving one's power. “My own I am at all times and under all circumstances,” he writes, “if I do not throw myself away on others” (Stirner 112). Stirner emphasizes that man needs to cast off the bonds of the external world, rejecting desire and the societal constructs that limit his autonomy. “I am my own only when I am mastered by myself,” he writes, “instead of being mastered by sensuality, or by anything else … what is of use to me … my selfishness pursues” (125). The similarity of Stirner's formulations to those of Arghol is obvious. Yet Der Einzige also provides the actions of “Enemy of the Stars” with their underlying metaphor. Stirner describes man as a slave who must endure the torments of a mastering reality in order to assert his natural power:

The fetters of reality cut the sharpest welts in my flesh every moment. But my own I remain. Given up as a serf to a master, I think only of myself and my own advantage; his blows strike me indeed, I am not free from them; but I endure them only for my benefit, perhaps in order to deceive him and make him secure by the semblance of patience, or, again, not to draw worse upon myself by subordination. But, as I keep my eye on myself and my selfishness, I take by the forelock the first good opportunity to trample the slave holder into the dust. (113)

This is also the response to the self's limitations represented in the play by Arghol's rejection of action and Hanp's revenge. Arghol refuses to fight against his uncle, the “master” of the play (Blast 85) for Stirner's reasons. He will not condescend to act because his uncle is of use to him—“He loads my plate” Arghol explains (Blast 69). Moreover, like Stirner's self, Arghol obscurely intends to use the energy of the attacks to liberate himself from mastery, “as prisoner his bowl or sheet for escape: not as means of idle humiliation” (Blast 68). Yet Arghol is also a master, to Hanp, and he abuses his disciple as severely as he is himself maltreated by his uncle. Hanp's revenge is therefore also a response to the play's avowal of the self's power. He endures Arghol's abuse, like Stirner's selfhood, for his own benefit, eagerly accepting it because it is the only way he can find out about the city, which desire has placed him “under Arghol's touch” (Blast 72). Only when Arghol dismisses him completely does he take the occasion of Arghol's sleep to “trample him into the dust.” Both Arghol and Hanp therefore act according to Stirner's ideas of the self. Arghol explicitly presents the theoretical side of philosophical egoism, while Hanp embodies the destructive action of that theory. “I serve my freedom with regard to the world in the degree that I make the world my own” (120), Stirner concludes; both Arghol, who claims to dominate the stars, and Hanp, who murders his master, are versions of the self that seeks its freedom through the egoistic domination of its environment.

Arghol's rejection of Stirner exposes the defective contradictions in his own thought. If he rejects the other simply because it is not the self, then Arghol blinds himself to the possibility that the object of his scorn, in this case Stirner, may be an equal who shares his ideas and therefore his power. When he rejects Stirner on the automatic grounds of his externality, therefore, Arghol unwittingly rejects his own selfhood. The dream figure, who initially appears as “a young man he had known in the town, but now saw for the first time, seemingly” (Blast 77) can be read as a figure of Arghol's division. As an aspect of the self he “had known in town” the figure offers him the literal opportunity to see himself for the first time. He gives Arghol the chance to reintegrate his personality by reaccepting the book that he has rejected, implicitly offering him the awareness that his self is also, in a sense, other. Their fight demonstrates, however, that Arghol refuses to recognize the contradictions implicit in the cult of selfhood. By throwing Stirner's book from the window he both adheres to his philosophy of selfhood and transgresses it. By refusing to reaccept it he completes his destruction. Arghol emerges from the fight with only a partial understanding of his endangered self. He tears up his books, and in a paradoxical effort to reclaim his identity he wanders through the streets of the city denying himself to those he meets—“I am not Arghol,” he claims, “This man has been masquerading as me” (Blast 78).

Yet although Arghol believes he can control the logic of his self with his paradoxes, his avowals only underscore his actual loss of control. Lewis has described him earlier in the play as “a large open book, full of truth and insults” (Blast 71). When he destroys all of his books the reader understands that he has completed metaphorically the eradication of the self that began with his rejection of Stirner. When he returns to the wheelwright's yard at the play's beginning, then, he has already been defeated. In rejecting the other he has already rejected himself.6

Enemy of the Stars is therefore a narrative about failure. Arghol's theories foreshadow his destruction, for he can no more overcome the material world than he can be consistent with himself. His fall, as Lewis warns the reader in the play's first line, is part of an “IMMENSE COLLAPSE OF CHRONIC PHILOSOPHY,” not simply of temporal philosophy but of continuous and excessive thought (Blast 59). Enemy of the Stars therefore occupies a problematic position within Blast. Where the manifestos insist that the autonomous self is the basis of the artist's power, the play both rejects the efficacy of that philosophy and exposes the vorticist self as a divisive delusion. Arghol's theories serve only to divide him from himself, and he and Hanp can only be united in their mutual obliteration. The play's content is therefore opposed to that of the manifestos.

In the play opposites are irreconcilable, for they result only in destruction. In the manifestos, on the other hand, the balance of oppositions leads to a higher creativity. Enemy of the Stars therefore presents the reader of Blast with a fundamental paradox. If the manifestos' version of opposition is authentic, then the play's apparent contradiction of that truth is not a real contradiction. It can be read as one of the “opposite statements of a chosen world” that the artist erects as part of his power, an extreme whose denial makes the self stronger. Yet the struggle between apparent opposites has quite different results within the play. The intellectual is unable to balance himself against his negation, and the powerlessness of his rhetoric leads to his destruction. Enemy of the Stars therefore threatens to invalidate the very principles upon which the manifestos are erected even while formally fulfilling them.

The paradox is underlined by Lewis's presentation of his failed hero as a quintessential practitioner of the manifestos' doctrines. Like Lewis's ideal artist he tries to use a studied inactivity to escape from the “action and reaction” of common life. His approach to the world is familiarly figurative and double. According to Hanp, Arghol's logic is mysterious, his association of opposites inscrutable—like the vorticist “He gave men one image with one hand, and at the same time a second, its antidote with the other” (Blast 80). Moreover, the play takes place in a “wheelwright's yard” (Blast 62), a setting where whirling products, metaphorical versions of the vortex, are created. Like the vorticist, moreover—or at least the vorticist author of Enemy of the Stars—Arghol is a metaphorical playwright, creating from the materials of nature that he attempts to rule and elude—“The stars are his cast.” Arghol's struggles are therefore implicitly the struggles of his author, an identification made explicit in Lewis's introduction to the play. In the “advertisement” that precedes it Lewis writes that Enemy of the Stars is a version of the conflict between an artist and his audience. He informs the reader that the play is “VERY WELL ACTED BY YOU AND ME” (Blast 55). (One notes already the element of agon with the unsympathetic readership in Blast at large, where Lewis lambastes his own scoffing readers: “CURSE those who will hang over this Manifesto with SILLY CANINES exposed” [Blast 17].) Lewis therefore appears to implicate himself in his own fictional designs. Just as Arghol falls prey to self-contradiction by dismissing the text of himself as his opposite, Lewis seems to negate himself by creating a text whose content suggests his own necessary failure.

The play's narrative of division and failure, however, can be read as a reflection of its problematic position within both Lewis's artistic canon and the tradition of “readerly” drama. Lewis wrote Enemy of the Stars with the goal of inventing a vorticist prose, and it stands out strikingly from the other prose offerings in Blast, stylistically conservative efforts by Ford Madox Ford and Rebecca West. He hoped to create a language that would be analogous to his painterly abstractions, revivifying literature with nonrepresentational techniques borrowed from other forms of modernism. “My literary contemporaries I looked upon as too bookish and not keeping pace with the visual revolution,” he later explained. “A kind of play, The Enemy of the Stars … was my attempt to show them the way” (Lewis, Rude Assignment 129). Yet the relative conservatism of the resulting abstraction of language is striking next to the visual experimentation of the canvases that Lewis reproduced in Blast under the play's rubric.7 Here, for instance, is an example of description from the middle of the play: “Throats iron eternities, drinking heavy radiance, limbs towers of blatant light, the stars poised immensely distant, with their metal sides, pantheistic machines” (Blast 64).

Lewis here distorts expected structure and connotation, much as he rejected expected shapes in his canvases. He places short phrases in apposition without consistent grammatical markers, juxtaposes nouns illogically, and uses verbs to shape disjunct fragments within the sentence rather than to relate them to one another. Yet the sentence's grammar can be easily normalized. If one places the word “are” between “throats” and “iron,” “limbs” and “towers,” “stars” and “poised,” the apparent idiosyncrasy of the sentence's structure is recontained as “proper” English. It depends upon the elision, rather than the subversion, of traditional perceptual markers, and its syntax can still be perceived through its apparent discontinuities. The abstraction of its content is similarly limited. A phrase such as “throats iron eternities” depends entirely upon juxtaposition for its abstract effect. The words invoke three distinct images, whose proximity creates an aggregate nonrepresentational image. Yet even if the phrase as a whole has no direct corollary in the world, and is therefore abstract, its components remain indivisibly referential. The words “throat” “iron” and “eternities” always invoke real objects or concepts separate yet pragmatically connected to the words themselves, even when they are juxtaposed in otherwise extravagant contexts. Lewis himself condemned juxtaposition for artistic effect in his later criticisms of surrealism. Its interest was psychological rather than pictorial, he wrote, for it arranged “the same old units of the same old stock-in-trade” in novel patterns but added nothing to the vocabulary of representation (Lewis, “Super-Nature Versus Super-Real” 333). By Lewis's own stringent criteria, therefore, abstraction and language are intrinsically incompatible. Words, more than visual symbols, are inseparable from their logical systems and fixed referents. Sentences cannot be radically distorted without obliterating their structural sense, while the words themselves can never be separated entirely from the signified.

Lewis would later admit the hopelessness of the experiment. The writing of Tarr, he explains in Rude Assignment, made him see “that words and syntax were not susceptible of transformation into abstract terms” (129). Later in Men Without Art he states the more general disbelief “that anything in the literary field can be done that will correspond with what has been called ‘abstract design’” (11). The form as well as the content of Enemy of the Stars already suggest its contradictions with his ideal art. By designating his prose experiment a “play” Lewis emphasized the work's visual origin; it is intended to be “seen” rather than read, “acted by you and me” rather than confined to the page. By presenting it as drama Lewis draws particular attention to those aspects of Enemy of the Stars that coexist uneasily with vorticist ideals. As narrative it necessarily unfolds over time; its linearity emphasizes and replicates the temporal nature of the signs with which it is constructed. As drama, moreover, it necessarily places action in its foreground. Its visual and narrative interest must be propelled by the same kinetic surrender to desire that the manifestos associate with fragmentation. Arghol is condemned as much by the logic of the dramatic form as his ideas. He cannot avoid nature or mortality, for the language in which he is described cannot transcend a synchrony or the necessary presentation of action. His failure of transcendence within the play mirrors Lewis's self-created failure of form. As author Lewis cannot escape the demands of the word and its related structures of syntax and narrative. His use of narrative language is therefore a capitulation to the temporal desire and explicit representation that vorticism elsewhere rejects. Like Arghol's unwilling acceptance of nature Lewis's use of the signs of language intrinsically contradicts his claims to power.

The very unperformability of Enemy of the Stars is therefore a part of the aesthetic implication of its narrative. In order to reject action and desire one must erect a language that can remain only theoretical. Enemy of the Stars therefore operates within Blast both as a reminder of the paradoxes of the transcendental aspects of the vorticist position, and of its own paradox: as modernist drama, it is rooted in a self-contradictory vision of representation inimical to its own expressed intentions. It can be enacted only as an act of cognition by reader and author, and the tale it tells is of the author's dissolution.

As drama, moreover, it marks a problematic historical return of the nineteenth-century models against which vorticism has implicitly defined itself. Arghol's murder by Hanp is an example of the Gothic archetype of the doppelgänger, in which a divided and unacknowledged part of the self returns to wreak destruction upon the agent of its own repression. This narrative motif of German Romanticism persists in Lewis's work despite the thematic denial of Romanticism as a historical category, a pattern similarly visible in the persistence of E. T. A. Hoffman and Dostoyevski in Tarr. But these terms suggest the more curious generic affiliations of Enemy of the Stars as a programmatically unperformable “play.” For it is surprisingly closer in generic intent to the verse drama of the English Romantics, in which an essentially non-narrative form is pressed into narrative service, than to the theatrical pieces of its contemporary European avant-garde.

This is particularly true of its dramatic motifs. In his study of English poetic drama from Wordsworth to Beddoes, Alan Richardson has abstracted the narrative features that bind together prominent representatives of the genre. The plays deal with the history of an individual protagonist's consciousness; they hinge upon highly rhetorical confrontations between the protagonist and his opposite, who represents an aspect of the divided consciousness of the hero. The hero is seduced into transgression by his daimon and lapses into repetition of that transgression, having become dependent upon his Other, as Hegel's master and slave come to depend dialectically upon one another. Finally, the divisions within the protagonist revealed, he becomes destructive, either toward others (cynically replaying his own seduction into transgression with another) or toward himself.8

The pattern of Manfred and works that resemble it is also that of Enemy of the Stars. Arghol is seduced into action by Hanp in an atmosphere of intense rhetorical opposition (here including the stylistic opposition of non-narrative vorticist prose against the demands of action), which betrays Arghol into his own repetitions. The dream of struggle repeats Hanp's attack, as Hanp's attack is itself a repetition of the attack of Arghol's uncle. Arghol's dependence on his uncle—“he loads my plate”—is itself a Hegelian reduplication of Hanp's dependence upon Arghol, as the importance of Stirner's work here, formatively influenced by Hegel, grudgingly suggests.9 And Arghol recognizes overtly that Hanp is a part of himself—“Why do I speak to you? …,” he says, “It's not to you but myself. … You are an unclean little beast, crept gloomily out of my ego” (Blast 73). The narrative of Hanp's murder of Arghol is therefore, as Richardson notes of Manfred, “less a celebration of isolated subjectivity than a critique of the false assumptions behind psychic autonomy” (5). The unitary protagonist is revealed to be divided, and his transgressions against his self destroy him.

To reclaim Enemy of the Stars as what Byron called “mental theatre” is not simply to note that it fits into a preexistent pattern of motif and form, but to insist upon a family resemblance between nominally diverse works that deal with similar themes of rebellion and individuality, including such works as Arnold's “Empedocles on Etna,” and work through their themes with analogous styles and narratives.10 Like the Romantics, Lewis was attempting to forge a style that was by definition private, to construct a personal language. Yet this essentially lyric impulse (for Lewis the creation of a style rather than a narrative form) is in conflict with the necessity of the artist's public pronouncement of that style. The verse or readerly drama is caught between the realms of the non-narrative and the public realm of narrative, and is produced as the problematic product of that dialectic. The divisions between ideal and actual, private and public, are enacted in Lewis and in the plays that share his representational concerns, by the work's characters, who are themselves rent by self-destructive yet potentially transcendental division. And this may in turn be seen as part of the legacy of the English theater itself, which traces its heritage not from the interplay of individuality and society implied by the structure of chorus and individual performer of the Greeks, but from the dialogic dramas of Seneca. In Seneca, unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, the philosopher/author, like Lewis, divides issues of thought into characters that reify, through the logic of the dramatic form, the spectacle of mutilation rather than cultural affirmation.11

Vorticism and Enemy of the Stars do not merely recapitulate the forms and genres of the Romanticism that Blast claims implicitly to reject, nor the tradition of philosophic drama since Seneca. Yet the avant-garde reappropriation of outmoded forms, the philosopher/poet's divided voice enacted through warring opposites, the tragedy of consciousness and self ending in destruction, all suggest continuity rather than break between the avant-garde practices of the early nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Nor are other precedents absent in the vorticist experiment. From Arnold, indeed, Lewis may have gained the insight, as he expresses elsewhere in the manifestos, that “pessimism [is] the triumphant note in modern art” (Blast 145).

From Shakespeare Lewis learned tragic irony, the sense, as he says in The Lion and the Fox, that Shakespeare's characters are caught in “a real action; whereas they come from, and naturally inhibit, an ideal world” (187). But the shadowing of the genre of the unperformable play suggests most powerfully the persistence of the myth of the Promethean creative impulse within the avant-garde, and reveals, by utilizing a form that contains its own critique, that its author, like its hero, can be led into the tragic transgression enacted by style and form. In Enemy of the Stars Lewis therefore reveals the “fostering of unactual conditions,” his own definition of Romanticism, rife within his own avant-garde. The play, by insisting upon its own programmatic unperformability, exposes the degree to which the stylistic experimentation of vorticism is its own unperformable act, containing within itself the failure of its own transcendence—of language, self, and narrative genre.


  1. See Dasenbrock, ch. 4. Kenner has noted that the narrative of Enemy of the Stars is a determining model for Lewis's later fiction, while Flory has called the play “a serious, eloquent and complex piece of self-analysis” (92). Lewis's most astute recent critic, Fredric Jameson, however, leaves Lewis's vorticist period, including Enemy of the Stars, largely undiscussed. Lewis himself produced a weaker revision in 1932, long after the vorticist period, intended to make the play more “performable.”

  2. The manifestos particularly attack the Victorian age. “BLAST years 1837 to 1900” Blast declares unequivocally (Blast 18) and declares its independence from the “sacripant [sic] past” (Blast 7). This independence is both cultural and aesthetic, embodied in the physicality of England as well as its artistic products. The fog of London is the “VICTORIAN VAMPIRE” (Blast 11), itself a remnant of the “GLOOMY VICTORIAN CIRCUS” (Blast 11) of the city as a whole, which is itself constituted as a “CHAOS OF ENOCH ARDENS” (Blast 19).

  3. Lewis makes this description explicit in the 1932 revision, adding “Nature and he pursue opposite paths, in a hostile polarity.” See Lewis, Collected Poems and Plays 148.

  4. Lewis misquotes the book's correct title, Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum. Alan Munton suggests that Lewis was working from the memory of reading the German original when he was himself a student (Collected Poems and Plays 221).

  5. See Kinnimont 5-6. Kinnimont notes that Stirner embodies “a triumphant egotism with which Lewis, or at least Arghol, must have been in some sympathy.” He concludes that the altercation is an “obscure” example of vorticism's inexplicable contradictions.

  6. Lewis's repetition of this scene late in his career—the rejection of a revelatory text as the symbolic prelude to a protagonist's self-destruction—may be taken as an indication of its centrality to the issues raised by his work. In his last important novel, Self Condemned (1954), Lewis's protagonist René Harding throws a copy of Middlemarch over the side of a ship. Unwilling to recognize that his intellectuality and emotional frigidity will drive his wife to suicide and turn him into a “glacial shell of a man,” Harding refuses to read Eliot because of his own mirroring of the text. He is unwilling to recognize himself in Eliot's Casaubon, much as Arghol is unwilling to recognize himself in Stirner, with results made clear by the novel's title.

  7. See, for example, “Plan of War” and “Slow Attack,” which are reproduced between the title and the text of Enemy of the Stars, between pp. 55 and 57, Blast 1.

  8. See Richardson, introd. Richardson bases his analysis upon close readings of Wordsworth's The Borderers, Byron's Manfred, Cain, and Heaven and Earth, Shelley's The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound, and Beddoes's Death's Jest-Book.

  9. Lewis's use and apparent rejection of Stirner may have another valence as well. The Egoist, Blast's aesthetic “competition,” was named in honor of Stirner's theories. To reject Stirner within Enemy of the Stars is to strike another apparent blow for Blast's literary independence. For more on Stirner's currency among the early moderns, see Levenson 63-68.

  10. Lewis is known to have admired Arnold's work. For Arnold's isolated philosopher hero, like Arghol, “Mind is the spell which governs heaven and earth” (Arnold 2:27). Like Arghol, Empedocles wills his own destruction, through suicide. One notes the influence of Arnold on Lewis's conception also, perhaps, in Empedocles's cry to the heavens “And you, ye stars / … Are you too what I fear to become?” (Arnold 2:276-81), Arnold's fear of endless temporality transposed into Lewis's dialectic of feared influence.

  11. One notes that Lewis was always attracted to the Senecan side of Shakespeare, which emphasizes the fate of the tragic individualist. Blast includes a reproduction within the pages of Enemy of the Stars of a drawing from his 1912 portfolio based on Timon of Athens, while his book on Shakespeare and Machiavelli, The Lion and the Fox, deals largely with Timon and Coriolanus, two “egoists” whose apparent self-sufficiency leads, like Arghol's, to self-destruction.

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “Empedocles on Etna.” Poetry and Criticism. Ed. A. Dwight Culler. Boston: Houghton, 1961.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way. The Literary Vorticism of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1985.

Flory, Wendy Stallard. “Enemy of the Stars.” Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation. Ed. Jeffrey Meyers. London: Athlone Press, 1980. 92-106.

Jameson, Fredric. Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.

Kenner, Hugh. Wyndham Lewis. Norfolk, VA: New Directions, 1954.

Kinnimont, Tom. “Max Stirner and the Enemy of the Stars.Lewisletter # 1 (Dec. 1974), 5-6.

Levenson, Michael H. A Genealogy of Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Lewis, Wyndham. Blast, No. 1, June 1914. Rpr. Black Sparow Press, 1981.

———. Collected Poems and Plays. Ed. Alan Munton. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1979.

———. The Lion and the Fox. London: Grant Richards, 1927.

———. Men without Art. London: Cassell, 1934.

———. Rude Assignment. London: Hutchinson, 1950.

———. “Super-Nature Versus Super-Real.” Wyndham Lewis on Art. Ed. Walter Michel and C. J. Fox. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969. 303-33.

Richardson, Alan. A Mental Theater: Poetic Drama and Consciousness in the Romantic Age. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988.

Stirner, Max. The Ego and His Own. Trans. Steven T. Byington. Ed. John Caroll. London: Cape, 1971.

Daniel Schenker (essay date 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8373

SOURCE: “Wyndham Lewis in the Modernist Canon: Dissent, Division, and Displacement,” in Wyndham Lewis: Religion and Modernism, The University of Alabama Press, 1992, pp. 1-18.

[In the following excerpt, Schenker declares that Lewis's politics and morality prevent him from receiving acknowledgement as a major cultural figure.]

In a few lines of verse from his satiric self-portrait “If So the Man You Are,” Wyndham Lewis described with uncanny accuracy his place in English letters as it stood in 1933 and has continued to the present day:

I am an “outcast” and a man “maudit.”
But how romantic! Don't you envy me?
A sort of Villon, bar the gallows: but
Even there I may be accommodated yet.
Why yet it's very jolly to be picked
As the person not so much as to be kicked,
As the person who de facto is not there,
As the person relegated to the back-stair.

(CPP 51)

Lewis wrote these lines during a two-and-a-half-year period when he published eight books and an art portfolio but received few of the customary rewards of authorship. Despite his reputation as a serious artist and thinker, his advances from publishers were small, usually in the £150 range, and earnings from his book sales almost never recouped these meager sums.1 Even more than poverty, though, he resented his exclusion from the public notoriety that had come to other avant-garde artists of his acquaintance. Around 1920, Ezra Pound had written of Wyndham Lewis and James Joyce that “the English prose fiction of my decade is the work of this pair of authors.”2 In 1931, however, when people violated federal laws to obtain copies of Ulysses, Lewis's novel Tarr, published by Knopf and legally available, sold eleven copies in the United States.3

Still, we can discern through the bitterness of his sarcastic comparison with Villon a defiant spirit that tells us just how much Lewis could enjoy the role of outcast and how, paradoxically, it could assuage, if not quite fulfill, the need for recognition. To be kicked means that one is merely a nuisance; to be condemned to virtual nonbeing implies that one represents a formidable threat to the established order. Lewis wanted us to see him (and wanted to see himself) as a one-man memento mori of contemporary culture: invisible to the eye but lurking just beneath the horizon of consciousness, he promises to come flying up the back stair to speak words we would rather not hear about ourselves. On several occasions, Lewis compared himself with Machiavelli as one who explored the unpleasant realities of human nature. Archetypal predecessors in this enterprise might also include Milton's Satan and Byron's Manfred; it was indeed a romantic persona that Lewis had created for himself.

Lewis's insistence on playing the role of adversary or “Enemy,” as he liked to call himself, brings us to the major stumbling block in beginning a critical study of his life and work. Simply stated, Lewis created a highly polemical art that forces the reader to be either for him or against him: he opposed his vision of an agonistic relationship between man and the world to what he saw as attempts in every area of modern cultural life to obliterate this necessary opposition, which he once described as “the ancient and valuable iranian principle of duality” (ABR 25). He saw himself as a kind of spiritual aristocrat and opposed efforts to resolve conflicts (usually through man's / the self's / the subject's conquest of the world / the other / the object) meant to achieve such utilitarian ends as the greatest good for the greatest number. His uncompromising attitude on this point marks him as a kind of zealot and also connects him with an Old Testament tradition that extends from Amos and Elijah down through such latter-day prophets as William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Lewis's relatively few critics have tried to see his volatility as both the symptom of, and sometimes even cure for, the ills of modern life. Pound established the pattern for this approach in the essay cited above and published not long after the appearance of Lewis's novel Tarr:

The book's interest is not due to the “style” in so far as “style” is generally taken to mean “smoothness of finish,” orderly arrangement of sentences, coherence to the Flaubertian method.

It is due to the fact that we have a highly-energized mind performing a huge act of scavenging; cleaning up a great lot of rubbish, cultural, Bohemian, romantico-Tennysonish, arty, societish, gutterish.4

Three decades later, looking back over Lewis's career in the first comprehensive survey of his work, Hugh Kenner echoed these same sentiments:

Afoot in the void, his savagely energetic intelligence hunting down chimerical images of itself not only enacts in a dream-play the suicide of the West, but demonstrates the ubiquity of the illusions into which more fortunate intelligences have from time to time barely succeeded in not being betrayed. … If Lewis has stood for intelligence rather than intuition, for creation rather than craftsmanship, for Western Man rather than his daemon the Zeitgeist, without ever personifying any of these things quite convincingly, yet even in illustrating the radical incapacity of will alone to do the work of patience, he has discredited the spuriousness we meticulously reward. … He is the necessary antidote to everything, from Freud and Lawrence to the cults which have surrounded Eliot and Joyce.5

While this approach has successfully brought other dissenting artists into the canon (one thinks immediately of Pound), Lewis remains almost as much an outsider as he has ever been. Neither have two waves of republication (Methuen and Regnery in the mid-1950s, and Black Sparrow in the past decade) brought the revival of interest sought by his admirers. Lewis cannot simply be dismissed as an inept writer; testimonials to his accomplishment come from such contemporaries as Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, H. G. Wells, Rebecca West, and Ford Madox Ford. What, then, has been the cause of his continuing status as “the least read and most unfamiliar of all the great modernists of his generation”?6

Most of us can live with an artist's obnoxious politics, clumsy prose, or immoral conduct if we can identify a sense of unity and purpose in his or her career, directed toward the fulfillment of some recognizable (and forgivable) human need. Wyndham Lewis fails to meet this important criterion, exhibiting, on the contrary, a set of internal divisions that have always made it difficult for readers to “place” him. First, he harbored divided cultural loyalties that affected the substance of his art and politics; second, he pursued commitments to the practice of what he saw as two diametrically opposed arts; and finally, though not a conventionally religious man, he understood life as a struggle between the human and the divine and tended to side with God against man. Let us briefly consider each of these divisions and its effect upon Lewis's reputation.

For Lewis more than for any of his contemporaries, the three milieus that contributed to the development of twentieth-century modernism—American, British, and Continental—lay almost equal claim to importance in his own artistic development. Certainly other writers of his generation traveled a good deal and spent years in unlikely places under the constraints of self-imposed exile; but Joyce in Trieste, Pound in Rapallo, and Lawrence in Taos, New Mexico, remained quintessentially the Irishman, American, and Englishman each had been born, respectively. Lewis's origins, however, spanned two continents. He had an American father (with a distinguished Civil War record) and an English mother and was born on his family's yacht in the harbor at Amherst, Nova Scotia, on November 18, 1882.7 (Lewis retained Canadian citizenship for the rest of his life.) In the late 1880s, the family moved to England, but within a few years, his parents separated when his father ran off with one of the maids; Lewis remained in England with his mother. He attended the prestigious Rugby School, but as his abysmal performance there would suggest (he finished twenty-sixth in a class of twenty-six), Lewis seems to have detested English morals and manners from the time he was old enough to have opinions on the subject (perhaps partly on account of his American ancestry). A few years at London's Slade School of Art told him that the English also had little to teach him about aesthetics, and thus he removed himself to Paris and the Continent when barely out of his teens. Here he began to develop his mature style in painting and writing out of French, Italian, and Russian models; he also spent a number of summers in Brittany painting and meditating upon the Celtic inhabitants, whose rather primitive way of life made as deep an impression upon Lewis as the Polynesians had made upon Gauguin. When the allowance from his estranged father ran out and he returned to England in 1912, the English barely recognized him as one of their own; indeed, the early reviewers of Tarr (which began serial publication in The Egoist in 1916) praised the work for qualities uncharacteristic of most English novels. Rebecca West called it “a beautiful and serious work of art that reminds one of Dostoevsky only because it is too inquisitive about the soul”;8 Ezra Pound also drew the comparison with Dostoevsky after remarking dryly that Lewis was “the rarest of phenomena, an Englishman who has achieved the triumph of being also a European.”9

The First World War put an end to this early phase of his career just as he had brought out the first issue of the journal BLAST and more or less established himself as leader of the English avant-garde. When Lewis returned to the public eye at the end of the war, Continental painting—the cubist and futurist art that had gone by the name “postimpressionism” when it first appeared in England around 1910—had started to gain a measure of acceptance in local circles. Ironically, Lewis's experiences at the front had made him uneasy about the dehumanizing effect of the abstract style he had been perfecting in 1914, and his own work now took an insular turn toward more naturalistic representation. Lewis had once again managed to misplace himself: he became the most English sort of artist—a portrait painter—at the precise moment English audiences were becoming more European in their tolerance for abstraction.

Divided loyalties also contributed to his disastrous views on foreign policy during the thirties. As with the practice of his art, Lewis's political behavior seems to have been rooted in a desire to promote cultural diversity within the domain of Western civilization. While the League of Nations was proving itself ineffectual against the rising tide of nationalism in Europe, and while the English were growing increasingly confirmed in their worst fears about the hostile intentions of their neighbors on the Continent, Lewis wrote in 1936 and 1937 two polemical works that argued that England should follow an essentially internationalist policy, at least insofar as this meant keeping an open door to Germany. Lewis's position seems to have been informed as much by self-interest as by fellow-traveling attraction to authoritarian rule: his career had already been derailed once by a European war, and as an artist, he would have much to lose by the renewal of hostilities; avant-garde movements of the sort Lewis deemed essential cannot flourish apart from the free exchange of people and ideas across borders. Lewis was not alone in wanting to maintain peaceful relations with Hitler, of course; it remained the policy of the British government through the better part of the decade. Hitler's aggression after Munich shocked Lewis as much as it did the politicians, and in two books published in 1939, he disavowed his former ingenuousness about German intentions. Unfortunately, Lewis's earlier books remained in print (one came out in a cheap edition at the time of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia), and one of the two later books only appeared three months after the outbreak of war, by which time nobody needed to be told that Hitler was a villain. But the issue of politics in Lewis's career had now become moot for another reason: in September 1939, Lewis commenced an unhappy period of geographical misplacement back in North America, undertaken in the vain belief that he would find greater opportunity to exercise his talents as a portrait painter.

A number of Lewis's contemporaries had found new homes across the Atlantic by the end of the thirties, and one can imagine that Lewis might have followed suit. His former mentor, Ford Madox Ford, had been teaching at a small college in Michigan for several years before his death in June 1939; both W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood had moved to New York in January that year. On several occasions during his six-year residence, Lewis tried to make the arrangement permanent, actively seeking artist-in-residence positions at several American universities (an ambition that he continued to pursue even after his return to England in 1945). But once again his heterogeneous cultural alliances seem to have undermined his chances of finding a comfortable niche in his ancestral homeland. As an Englishman, he found America unbearably commercial; as a European, unbearably provincial (though Canada's French population somewhat alleviated the Anglo-Saxon monotony). Nor did the fact of his having been born in America appreciably help the situation; in some ways, it actually made matters worse. Soon after Lewis arrived in 1939, he went to look up some of his relatives in Buffalo, New York. The results were not encouraging. One cousin thought Lewis “a kind of screwball,” and Lewis later referred to his somewhat snobbish relations as “shits.”10 The net effect of the encounter seems only to have reinforced Lewis's sense of not belonging in America. Lewis managed to recover a semblance of his prewar reputation upon returning to England but continued in the ways of cultural misplacement. At a time when the English were turning inward once again, preoccupying themselves with the dismantling of the empire and the creation of the welfare state, Lewis became an outspoken advocate of maintaining cultural ties with America and the Continent and of the eventual establishment of some kind of world government.

A second internal division involved Lewis's equal commitment to two different arts, which to a degree has earned him the suspicion of full-time practitioners (and critics) of one art or the other. With the exceptions of Blake and possibly Rossetti, no other Englishman so fully devoted himself to painting and writing. Lewis traced his interest in the two arts back to the activities of his parents: “My mother 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 farm house in which we lived, my father writing books inside it.”11 His own career, he tells us, began at the age of eight as a chronicler of the wars between Redskins and Palefaces: “These lines of lifeless foemen converge, where they meet gesticulation is sometimes indicated. There is much action in the text, but practically none in its visual accompaniment” (RA 118). Ironically, when painting became a serious vocation for him as a student at the Slade, he first gained recognition from teachers and upperclassmen as a writer, having composed numerous Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets. “To these elders I was known as a ‘poet,’” Lewis remarks in his autobiography. “The Fine Arts they imagined were already in good hands, namely their own” (RA 123). Lewis's first published works were in prose, however, not poetry. His account of the writing of his first story both illuminates the nature of his creative process and also serves to distinguish him from the few other English artists who worked in both words and paint:

It was the sun, a Breton instead of a British, that brought forth my first short story—“The Ankou” I believe it was: the Death-god of Plouilliou. I was painting a blind Armorican beggar. The “short story” was the crystallization of what I had to keep out of my consciousness while painting. Otherwise the painting would have been a bad painting. That is how I began to write in earnest. A lot of discarded matter collected there, as I was painting or drawing, in the back of my mind—in the back of my consciousness. As I squeezed out everything that smacked of literature from my vision of the beggar, it collected at the back of my mind. It imposed itself upon me as a complementary creation. That is what I meant by saying, to start with, that I was so naturally a painter that the two arts, with me, have co-existed in peculiar harmony. There has been no mixing of the genres. The waste product of every painting, when it is a painter's painting, makes the most highly selective and ideal material for the pure writer. (WB 374)

Curiously, Lewis in this passage asserts the priority of painting over writing in his career, while covertly arguing that only the ideal painter can be an ideal writer; he also tells us that the two arts coexist within him in “peculiar harmony,” at the same time implying a violent struggle between the two modes of understanding (“As I squeezed out everything that smacked of literature”). To some degree, the language in this passage simply reflects Lewis's commitment to the romantic belief that art emerges through conflict: the short story comes into being on account of a struggle between both his cultural alliances (Breton versus British) and his artistic instincts (painting versus writing). Lewis's insistence upon separation can also be seen as part of a larger movement to establish the unique formal properties of the various arts, a movement that gathered strength at about the time when photography began to challenge the mimetic supremacy of traditional painting. The mechanical accuracy of photographs obliged painters to see that their work involved as much mediation as representation and told them that photographs would always surpass paintings when optical fidelity was the goal. But if painting was a medium, so too was photography, one condemned to a certain kind of “vulgar realism,” as its detractors pointed out. Though less visually accurate, painting could see where the photograph could only observe. In the late 1870s, James McNeill Whistler urged artists to paint something beyond what was before their eyes and to begin thinking of the natural world not as a “model” but rather as a “key” to the complex experience of perception and understanding.12 The shift from model to key, readily apparent in the practice of a late-nineteenth-century artist such as Paul Cézanne, anticipates the more radical move toward wholly nonrepresentational art in the early twentieth century. If an artist could not re-create the physical object on canvas, why should he even bother to try? A painting should be nothing more or less than a painting—not a thing or a narrative or a dissertation. As Wassily Kandinsky explained the matter in The Art of Spiritual Harmony, “The impossibility and, in art, the purposelessness of copying an object, the desire to make the object express itself, are the beginning of leading the artist away from ‘literary’ colour to artistic, i.e. pictorial aims.”13 Lewis would have been well acquainted with this way of thinking from his years in Paris and had already executed a number of works in a radically abstract style by the time Kandinsky's influential book appeared in English in 1912.

But while Lewis recognized the opportunities opened up by abstract art, he also must have felt its limitations. In the struggle for possession of the real, art may have gained the high ground from science and technology by shifting from imitation to spiritual harmonies, but at the same time, it lost the texture of the ordinary, which perhaps has only lately been recaptured in the work of the photo-realists. The point of the artistic revolution for Lewis seems to have been less liberation than limits: an awareness that no single style of art14 and no single art among all the arts could encompass the full register of any experience. Thus, the moral of the story about the beggar is that painting and writing have their inherent limitations. Lewis's subject had an imposing physical presence that could be captured only by a visual medium; but the blind Armorican also belonged to a mythological tradition that could not be conveyed except in words. Efforts to overcome this division by mixing the arts would only result in blunting the formal precision of each medium. Synesthetic projects of artists such as Richard Wagner ignored another important insight of the revolution in the arts: that not only could no single style or art encompass an experience, but no single artist could either. The attempt to do so reveals a desire to see the world with the eyes of God, perhaps a respectable position for a romantic but certainly not for a modern.15

Lewis's acute sense of aesthetic boundaries is closely related to his awareness of an estrangement between the human and the divine, which, to the extent that it has influenced his artistic practice, has probably been the most significant factor in his poor critical reputation. T. S. Eliot touched upon this issue in a 1955 review of Lewis's apocalyptic novel Monstre Gai, a sequel to The Childermass (published over a quarter-century earlier), when he remarked that the latter work showed a marked gain in “maturity” over its predecessor:

The difference in maturity between The Childermass and Monstre Gai is not merely that the philosophy is riper or more explicit or more coherent: there is, I believe, also a development in humanity. In the first part of The Childermass one is too often, and too irritatingly reminded that Pulley and Satters belong to Mr. Lewis's puppet gallery. It is not that their creator failed to make them real—it is that he denied them more than a measure of reality. Just as one of them seemed about to behave like a human being, instead of like a caricature (though a caricature which only Lewis could have drawn) the author would give a little twitch of the string (and how often, and how tiresomely, we are reminded that Pulley is a “little” man) to put him in his place: “if you are going to try to behave like human beings I'll slap you back into your puppet box.”16

In short, Lewis refuses to present us with “rounded” characters with whom we can readily identify. Even on those few occasions when Lewis attempted to write popular fiction (because he desperately needed the money), he rejected what Hugh Kenner calls “a cardinal motif of best-sellerdom, empathy: a sequence of small unfakeable indications that a good time is being made available for us all to share, that the writer in some fundamental important way enjoys the world he is presenting.”17 Lewis's unwillingness to play fiction by the rules of the game could have been chiefly a consequence of temperament and disposition. There have always been writers who took a sardonic view of their fellow man and similarly employed an aesthetic of caricature to express their scorn; Lewis himself recognized the affinities between his own art and that of Ben Jonson, whose work he did not otherwise hold in high esteem (MWA 91). Personal considerations aside, however, we should be aware that Lewis's practice does reflect some of the changed thinking about man and his place in the scheme of things current in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What distinguishes Lewis from his contemporaries was his determination to pursue these insights to their unpleasant logical conclusion.

Lewis came to maturity at a time when the ideas of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and, to a lesser extent, Freud had already begun to frame discussions of every subject from politics to paleontology. Underlying this intellectual upheaval at the end of the nineteenth century was the notion that men had not so much discovered the world as they had invented it. Consider, for example, the traditional postulates about something as fundamental as time and space. The Bible authoritatively placed the origins of the universe at a point some six thousand years ago—a long time, certainly, but not much longer than the span of cultural memory. Darwin's expansion of the time scale from six thousand to several millions of years made the biblical account appear as the prejudiced contrivance of a tragically short-lived creature whose history now seemed less a beginning and an end than a mere episode in some larger evolutionary process. Similarly, our conception of space lost its absolute character. Stephen Kern observes that in the early years of this century not only did scientists assert that people of different cultures have different perceptions of space, but that the various species of animals experience distinct spatial realities. Kern continues: “This reminder that there are complete worlds with distinctive spatial orientations scattered all along the phylogenetic scale challenged the egocentrism of man.”18

More radical still than the undermining of time and space was the attack upon the idea of truth itself. Two thousand years ago, Plato asserted against the Sophists that an unchanging reality lay somewhere behind the confusing multiplicity of experience. Philosophers since Plato had argued about our degree of access to this reality (which eventually became identified with God), but not until the nineteenth century did anyone seriously doubt its ultimate existence. Then Friedrich Nietzsche announced, in effect, that the Sophists had been right all along: that the metaphysical system of the West was a linguistic artifact, a peculiarly successful piece of rhetoric that served and reflected a variety of human needs:

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins. … [Mankind] forgets that the original perceptual metaphors are metaphors and takes them to be the things themselves.19

The arts contributed in their various ways to this assault upon absolutes. Arguably the most influential painting of the early twentieth century, Picasso's 1907 work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (allusions to which may appear in Lewis's own painting as early as 190920) leads the viewer to at least two important recognitions: first, that human beings do not stand apart from their environment but are rather continuous with it, arising from and sinking back into its intersecting planes and angles; and second, that the artist can present his subject from only a small fraction of an apparently infinite number of possible perspectives. In fiction and poetry, James Joyce's and T. S. Eliot's use of the “mythical method” (as the latter described it21) instead of a cause-and-effect, temporally sequenced narrative to organize their material implied the reversibility of time and the irrelevance of individual identity: someone wandering the streets of contemporary Dublin or London could be the avatar of a person (or any number of persons) who had participated in the heroic struggles of ancient Greece (or the struggles of some other time and place).

But Lewis came to believe that while this new understanding of the world challenged human egocentrism, it failed to replace it with a modus vivendi appropriate to our changed circumstances. Indeed, one could argue, as the theologian Mark C. Taylor recently has, that since the Renaissance each displacement of man from his once pivotal place in the cosmic order has left him in an increasingly dominant position vis-à-vis his natural, cultural, and spiritual environments: “[The] inversion of heaven and earth effectively shifts value from the divine to the human subject. Far from suffering the disorientation brought by the loss of center, modern humanism is self-confidently anthropocentric. While denying God, the humanist clings to the sovereignty of the self.”22 In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus explains that the “personality of the artist … refines itself out of existence,” not to diminish the artist but, on the contrary, to bring him to a condition “like the God of the creation.”23 A similar paradox obtains in Ulysses, long praised for its celebration of a contingent universe in which character dissolves, narrative voices multiply, and people and things roil around together in an Irish stew of space-time; yet Lewis sensed that these goings on bespoke not the self-consciousness of an ephemeral creature on a speck of interstellar dust but rather an authorial virtuosity, a hubris about one's creative power that surpasses the imaginative daring of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction, just as modern technology surpasses the material power of earlier ages. Lewis almost certainly had Joyce in mind when one of the characters in his satire The Apes of God (1930), attacking what today we would call the survival of the subject, observes the simultaneous appearance of “(1) a school of unabashed personal Fiction, and (2) a universal cult of ‘impersonality’”; he goes on to complain that this appearance of impersonality “is a wonderful patent behind which the individual can indulge in a riot of personal egotism, impossible to earlier writers, not provided with such a disguise” (AG 259, 260). To the extent that a reader identifies with the authorial presence in Ulysses, he or she vicariously participates in this celebration of the human as divine.24

Biographical accounts of Wyndham Lewis portray him as a self-centered man, thoroughly convinced of his own importance in the world (the legacy perhaps of having been the only child of a woman abandoned by her husband) and openly contemptuous of those who failed to acknowledge his genius. Yet for the better part of his career, Lewis practiced an iconoclastic art founded on the assumption that modern science had indeed knocked man off his cosmological high horse and brought the reign of humanism to an end. His visual art first disassembled the human form, then eliminated it altogether, and finally offered it grudging admission to a chilly world of eternal artifices; his fiction, as noted earlier, turned people into puppets and spun out tragical narratives that, unlike Oedipus or King Lear, refuse to end with affirmations of human dignity. In a sense, Lewis carried out the project that his contemporary T. E. Hulme envisioned as “A Critique of Satisfaction.” At about the time Lewis was experimenting with abstraction in painting and prose, Hulme was trying to formulate a systematic philosophy free from anthropomorphism. He believed that he had identified a common mistake in all modern philosophies and wanted to rectify the problem:

The philosophers share a view of what would be a satisfying destiny for man, which they take over from the Renaissance. They are all satisfied with certain conceptions of the relation of man to the world. These conclusions are never questioned in this respect. Their truth may be questioned, but never their satisfactoriness. … These canons of satisfaction, which are the results of an entirely uncritical humanism, should be subject to a critique.25

Had Hulme survived World War I and gone on to elaborate his critique of satisfaction, he might have encountered two of the problems that eventually led Lewis to withdraw from this position of radical antihumanism. First, no matter how one tries to step outside his particular perspective and imagine the world from the world's point of view, one cannot honestly claim to have seen anything except through human eyes. Hulme himself indirectly acknowledged the problem when he recalled hearing a philosopher whose objective vocabulary and scientific method he admired give a lecture on his religious views, and suddenly realizing that “the overwhelming and elaborate method [of his philosophy] only served to express a perfectly simple and fallible human attitude.”26 Much of Lewis's criticism from the late twenties onward has a curiously postmodern feel to it precisely because he devotes himself to showing the abuses of objectivity and thus revealing the ghost in the machine. Lewis also saw a problem that Hulme never seems to have recognized: that any attempt by a man to step outside the circle of his needs and offer a wholly disinterested account of the world must itself be looked upon as an act of hubris. Man would thus claim for himself a power that medieval theologians denied even to God: the right to will Himself out of existence. The impact of these developments in Lewis's thinking marks the turning points in his artistic practice, as we shall see later.

That one cannot not be human, that throughout life one remains a prisoner of nature, culture, and language, for Lewis constituted a tragic awareness. But given the fact that one had to live as a man or woman, what kind of life ought one to pursue? Or to put the question in a more self-interested way, what sort of social and individual behavior would ensure the survival of a world sympathetic to art? Whatever the precise answer, Lewis believed that it would still involve an acute sensitivity to limits. To be human does not require one to abandon the critique of satisfaction and embrace the values of a humanism that sees the world created in our own image. Indeed, Lewis continued to believe that behavior in accord with the humanistic values whose origins Hulme traced back to the close of the Middle Ages was making any kind of life on earth increasingly impossible. Although committed to a rhetoric of artistic progress and development early in his career, Lewis later came to realize that the momentum of modernity toward making the world over in our own image (the goal of Western technology, modernity's most characteristic expression) ultimately destroys the context for meaningful human activity.

Anxiety over the effective use of material and intellectual power will always be the luxury of ostensibly successful communities. Serious misgivings about the imposition of human values upon nature (and indeed, the recognition of “nature” as a separate entity with a life of its own) begin to surface in Europe only with the beginnings of the industrial revolution. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas about man and nature Lewis critiques in Tarr, identified man's fall from grace—his estrangement from himself and others—with the introduction of agriculture and metallurgy,27 arts that allow men to see the earth not as a power and a spirit worthy of respect, but merely as an instrument for the satisfaction of their own desires. The English romantic poets who followed Rousseau in the last years of the eighteenth century were part of the first generation in history to observe catastrophic social and ecological changes within the span of a single lifetime. By his mid-thirties, Wordsworth had witnessed not only the French Revolution but also the numerous effects of what Lewis would bitterly call the discovery “that England was really a coal mine” (RA 121). An excellent summary of the consequences of human success can be found in John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy. Mill, an admirer of the romantics, who took solace in Wordsworth's poems during a period of youthful depression, looks ahead to the time when the human species populates every corner of the globe. But he despairs

in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man's use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose the great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.28

Mill focuses upon the loss of “pleasantness,” a practical tonic (which he also found in Wordsworth) for the nerves of men and women cut off by urban life from regular contact with scenes of natural beauty. Other writers of the period, notably Dickens and Arnold, went beyond the utilitarian question and considered the effects of a technologically sophisticated civilization upon man's sense of himself and his place in the cosmos. These responses, which look more to spiritual than pragmatic concerns, have been summarized by J. Hillis Miller in his study of nineteenth-century English literature, The Disappearance of God:

The industralization and urbanization of man means the progressive transformation of the world. Everything is changed from its natural state into something useful or meaningful to man. Everywhere the world mirrors back to man his own image, and nowhere can he make vivifying contact with what is not human. Even the fog is not a natural fog, rolling in from the sea, but is half soot and smoke. The city is the literal representation of the progressive humanization of the world. And where is there room for God in the city? Though it is impossible to tell whether man has excluded God by building the great cities, or whether the cities have been built because God has disappeared, in any case the two go together. Life in the city is the way in which many men have experienced most directly what it means to live without God in the world.29

As Miller's passage indicates, the apprehension of “what is not human” has traditionally been the province of religion. When Hulme wanted to distinguish his position from that of humanism, he too chose the term “religious,” though with a certain amount of reluctance. He wanted his readers to understand that for him religion had no necessary connection with receiving baptism or going to church on Sunday. Hulme observed:

It would perhaps have been better to have avoided the word religious, as that to the “emancipated” man at once suggests something exotic, or mystical, or some sentimental reaction. I am not, however, concerned so much with religion, as with the attitude, the “way of thinking,” the categories, from which a religion springs, and which often survive it. While this attitude tends to find expression in myth, it is independent of myth.30

A few artists of Lewis's generation, most notably T.S. Eliot, found religious orthodoxy strong enough to shatter the mirror of a humanized nature that condemns man to solipsism. (In After Strange Gods, Eliot forcefully presents the argument against human hegemony and praises the Southern Agrarians in his original University of Virginia audience for opposing unlimited industrial development.31) Most, however, found the established religious myths and symbols inadequate for their purposes; in an age when science has so undermined the stability of religious myth that theologians have seriously debated the merits of emptying religion of its mythical content,32 the artist's adoption of an orthodox religious viewpoint can easily be interpreted as a reactionary gesture, as Hulme himself feared.

Lewis belongs in this latter company, which includes not only Hulme but also Joyce, Pound, and, to a lesser extent, W.B. Yeats. All of them share in varying degrees a commitment to modernity: the idea that the forms of artistic and intellectual life must somehow respond to the changing conditions of material life. Accordingly, Lewis refused to bind himself to a traditional worldview, as, for example, Eliot bound himself to Christianity. On the other hand, Lewis and his modernist contemporaries broke from many of their immediate predecessors in doubting that change could be identified with progress and perfectability. Some years before the shock of World War I made pessimism fashionable for a “Lost Generation,” Hulme had called for the revival of the doctrine of Original Sin and a general acknowledgment of human limits in an infinitely vast and mysterious universe. In his first volume of memoirs, Lewis reflected upon the value of Hulme's contribution to the philosophical debate about the nature of man:

For people who had definitely become queasy, after listening for a good many years to adulation of the mortal state—of man-in-the-raw—this theology acted as a tonic. The atmosphere had become fuggy with all the greasy incense to Mr. Everyman. And here was somebody who had the bright idea of throwing the window open. There were the stars again! And even if the Star of Bethlehem was among them, well what matter! (BB 102)

Hulme, a philosopher, insisted that his commitment to the religious attitude was both absolute and impersonal: “It is not … that I put up with the dogma for the sake of the sentiment, but that I may possibly swallow the sentiment for the sake of the dogma.”33 Lewis, an artist, does allow a measure of sentiment to influence the forms of his religious expression. As we shall see later, while Lewis holds an essentially Catholic/classical view of man's subordinate place in a graduated cosmic hierarchy, he often presents himself as an inspired poet-prophet closer to the Protestant/romantic tradition of individual witness. Moreover, while Hulme claimed that the religious attitude could find expression independent of myth, Lewis never dispensed with myth entirely (even in his iconoclastic vorticist period) and almost seems to have reinvented Christian myth as an appropriate medium for his mature religious vision.

Although Lewis's career does not exhibit as orderly a progression through various phases as Joyce's, his development does follow a path reminiscent of the one that Kierkegaard outlined for the person who struggles with the temptations and disappointments of modernity.34 One begins in an “aesthetic” stage characterized by feelings of resentment at the loss of the sacred to human progress and the turning inward to a cultivation of those rare and evanescent sensations (such as love) that seem emissaries from the divine. When the emptiness of this exercise becomes apparent (as Kierkegaard demonstrated in his various analyses of the Don Juan legend), the individual attempts to locate the focus of ultimate concern in the shared life of the community around him. This “ethical” stage often sees the development of intense social and political commitments. And yet, to the extent that the ethical demands the subordination of the particular to the universal (to obey the law is not always to do what one knows is right), it implies a certain flattening out or even evasion of existence. An individual life possesses a value that exceeds that of any ethical imperative to which it must be sacrificed in whole or in part. At this point one passes into the “religious” stage, which Kierkegaard understood as an unmediated encounter with the conditions of one's own existence.

This movement from self to other, accompanied by a paradoxical increase in self-knowledge, can be traced throughout modern literature. We see its outlines in the idealized progress through lyric, epic, and dramatic genres that Stephen Dedalus describes for the artist in A Portrait, and that Joyce himself seems to have followed (with a number of detours) in his own career from the poems of Chamber Music to the theatrics of Finnegans Wake. Lewis, because of his peculiar love/hate relationship with romanticism, would never enunciate a theory of personal growth and development, but this general scheme nonetheless provides a useful approach to his career. His early works (Mrs. Dukes' Million, The Enemy of the Stars, Tarr) partake of the brooding aestheticism of a young artist in the last years of Victorian England; his works of middle age (The Childermass, The Apes of God, Snooty Baronet, Time and Western Man) consist of harsh social satire and extensive nonfiction analyses of politics and ideology; and in old age, after World War II and the coming of the atomic age, he turns (most notably in The Human Age) to serious theological speculation as a way to transcend the increasingly destructive impulses of humankind.

Part of the excitement in reading Wyndham Lewis is suggested by Fredric Jameson's remark that in him we discover “a modernism which is still extant and breathing, an archaic survival, like the antediluvian creatures of Conan Doyle's Lost World.35 But as this also implies, Lewis's work has about it a monstrous and inhuman quality, which, if it has served to keep him alive, has also excluded him from the mainstream of a literary tradition that, despite occasional bows toward the dissolution of subjects, still values the human image above all else. In a way, Lewis's absence from survey courses and anthologies (not to mention publishers' lists) has been as it should be: his skepticism about the ultimate value of man in the cosmos probably runs deeper than that of any modern writer, and readers can perhaps be forgiven for having shied away from him. In the study that follows, therefore, I do not propose to domesticate Lewis according to the tenets of a humanist tradition he consistently rejected, but rather to place him in the context of a religious outlook we can learn to appreciate, if not always love.


  1. Jeffrey Meyers, The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), 207.

  2. Ezra Pound, “Wyndham Lewis,” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1968), 424.

  3. Meyers, Enemy, 207.

  4. Pound, Essays, 428-29.

  5. Hugh Kenner, Wyndham Lewis (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1954), xiv-xv.

  6. Fredric Jameson, Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 1.

  7. Many of the facts in the following account are drawn from Meyers's biography of Wyndham Lewis cited above. Meyers also observes the disruptive effects of American, English, and European influences upon Lewis's character and career (1).

  8. Cited in Meyers, Enemy, 85.

  9. Pound, Essays, 424.

  10. Meyers, Enemy, 250-51.

  11. Ibid., 4.

  12. Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography (London: Allen Lane, 1968), 194.

  13. Cited in Scharf, 197.

  14. Though Lewis turned away from abstraction and back toward naturalism in the 1920s, he never abandoned his abstract manner altogether, holding it in reserve for subjects that resisted representational treatment.

  15. Lewis reserved some of his harshest words of criticism for English aesthetes and German romantics who sought to demonstrate the underlying unity of the arts and thus to argue for an unalienated relationship between man and the world, a view that Lewis recognized as anthropocentric and potentially self-serving. In this robust passage from Time and Western Man (1927), he attacks Oswald Spengler, behind whom Lewis saw Walter Pater and Richard Wagner:

    Spengler sets “Plastic” and “Music” at each other's throats, in an eliminating contest. It is world power or downfall for Gothic Music as interpreted by this warlike professor; and the arts become weapons in his hands, which he wields with a picturesque barbaric clumsiness, brandishing them hither and thither. There is no room upon the same earth for two such opposite things as Plastic and Music. He insists characteristically on a unity in everything. So Music eats up the Plastic, dissolves it, and it streams out to “infinity.” There is then only Music throughout the triumphantly Gothic World. (285-86)

    Irving Babbitt, T. S. Eliot's teacher at Harvard and an important figure in the effort to define the spirit of the modern age, also argued for the recognition of distinct aesthetic boundaries in his The New Laokoön: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1910). Susanne K. Langer summed up this view of the matter when she remarked that “there are no happy marriages in art—only successful rape” (Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures [New York: Scribner's, 1957], 86).

  16. T. S. Eliot, “A Note on Monstre Gai,Hudson Review 7, no. 4 (Winter 1955): 524.

  17. Hugh Kenner, “Mrs. Dukes' Million: The Stunt of an Illusionist,” in Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation, ed. Jeffrey Meyers (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1980), 87.

  18. Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 137.

  19. Cited in Sanford Schwartz, The Matrix of Modernism: Pound, Eliot, and Early Twentieth-Century Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 77.

  20. Walter Michel, Wyndham Lewis: Paintings and Drawings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 48.

  21. T. S. Eliot, “‘Ulysses,’ Order, and Myth,” in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 178.

  22. Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 33.

  23. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. C. G. Anderson (1916; New York: Viking Press, 1964), 215.

  24. Since Lewis's time, critics have become increasingly attuned to ironies in Joyce's text that warn us against taking his characters' words at face value. For discussions of the personal element in Joyce's “impersonal” narrative voice, see Jeremy Lane, “His Master's Voice? The Questioning of Authority in Literature,” in The Modern English Novel: The Reader, the Writer, and the Work, ed. Gabriel Josipovici (London: Open Books, 1976), 113-29; and John Paul Riquelme, Teller and Tale in Joyce's Fiction: Oscillating Perspectives (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 131-34.

  25. T. E. Hulme, Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, ed. Herbert Read, 2d ed. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1936), 16-17.

  26. Ibid., 19.

  27. The Indispensable Rousseau, ed. John Hope Mason (London: Quartet Books, 1979), 60.

  28. John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, ed. J. M. Robson (1848; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), 756.

  29. J. Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 5.

  30. Hulme, Speculations, 46.

  31. T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1934), 15-18.

  32. Rudolf Bultmann was probably the most important and influential member of this school. See “New Testament and Mythology,” in New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, trans. and ed. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).

  33. Hulme, Speculations, 71.

  34. For a good overview of Kierkegaard's “stages of existence” and their various interpretations, see Mark C. Taylor, Kierkegaard's Pseudonymous Authorship: A Study of Time and the Self (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 62-78. Kierkegaard's most accessible treatment of the movement from the “aesthetic” and the “ethical” can be found in the various essays and fictions of Either/Or, vol. 1, trans. David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), and Either/Or, vol. 2, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959); he analyzes the movement from the “ethical” to the “religious” in a meditation upon the biblical patriarch Abraham's near sacrifice of his son Isaac in Fear and Trembling, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959).

  35. Jameson, 3.

Victor M. Cassidy (essay date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8175

SOURCE: “Who Was Wyndham Lewis?” in The New Criterion, Vol. II, No. 10, June, 1993, pp. 26-38.

[In the following excerpt, Cassidy presents biographical details of Lewis's childhood to explain his later inability to focus his art.]

Everyone seems to have heard of Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), but no one is quite sure who he was. He is known—more or less—as an artist, a novelist, a man of controversy, an associate of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and a fascist. He was all these—and more. Lewis is a puzzle, so much so that many find it more expedient to ignore him than to try to make sense of him.

No one did more to create confusion about himself than Wyndham Lewis. His oeuvre is huge—and impossibly scattered. He published some forty books: visionary novels, satires, naturalistic novels, a body of short fiction, a book-length poem, art criticism, literary criticism, philosophy, social commentary, political polemics, travel writing, and autobiography. He made roughly one thousand paintings and drawings in styles that range from semi-abstraction to straightforward figuration. In addition to all this, he filled his writings with hundreds of contradictory pronouncements about himself, his beliefs, and his intentions.

In his day, Lewis was widely respected. He is one of the “Men of 1914” who fathered modernism in English literature. Pound, Eliot, and James Joyce were the others. Eliot, who knew Lewis for more than forty years, once declared that he “was the only one among my contemporaries to create a new, an original prose style.” Pound, who was Lewis's closest colleague before 1920, wrote that “a man with [Lewis's] kind of intelligence is bound to be always crashing and opposing and breaking. You cannot be intelligent in that way without being prey to the furies.”

All true—Lewis had extraordinary gifts and uncommon creative energy. But for every fresh, exciting page of fiction that he wrote, there are ten others which range from mediocre to execrable. He produced wildly uneven criticism—essays which begin with a flourish, slowly fall to pieces, and end without reaching a conclusion. Formidable when on the attack, he was unable to formulate prescriptive views except in a fitful and fragmentary way.

Lewis never fulfilled his promise because he did not know who he was. He spent his life in flight from identity confusion, trying one role after another without ever finding one that seemed to fit. He never quite believed in himself, and he developed self-destructive habits which vitiated much of what was best in his work and made his existence far more complicated than it had to be. Lewis failed because he lacked the will and the self-control that are requisite to success.

Very early in his career, Lewis created a self-defensive “outsider” persona and hid behind it. During his early years, when he had done no work to speak of, he cultivated an odd appearance and made a great mystery of himself. As he matured and began to produce work, he created a whole succession of selves.

A fresh persona usually emerged when Lewis was seriously challenged to expose his work to disinterested critical judgment or to articulate prescriptive views and be held accountable for them. He would abandon the field, transform himself into a new kind of outsider, and start over. Lewis's many reinventions of himself resulted in an oeuvre of grand beginnings that lead nowhere. His career was peculiarly episodic.

In 1927, Lewis began to call himself “The Enemy.” As he told it, “The Enemy” was a ferociously independent critic who stood ready to strike out at anyone who fell short of his high standards. Forever embattled and on the attack, “The Enemy” loved to explain and justify himself, and to blast away at the foe-of-the-moment.

When he was not at war with the world, “The Enemy” demanded its sympathy. He insisted that he had been persecuted economically and victimized by a press boycott for his vigorous criticism and principled refusal to conform. He declared that he had a special need for financial assistance to get his work done and begged money from anyone who had it. But the record shows that Lewis's books and art received adequate, generally favorable notice. He earned enough from them to live in a modest way, but wasted much through carelessness and bad management.

Since “The Enemy” died a generation ago—and is no longer able to carry out self-serving publicity campaigns—he is largely forgotten today. None of his books is widely read; some have been out of print for decades. No museum outside of Britain has ever held a major exhibition of his art. He has little standing in the academy and is rarely taught.

Some believe that Lewis should not suffer such neglect. Over the past thirty years, many book-length studies and anthologies have appeared. Since 1981, the Black Sparrow Press of Santa Rosa, California, has republished fourteen Lewis books: six novels; two volumes of short fiction; three critical works; a memoir; an essay anthology; and a travel narrative.1BLAST, the art journal that Lewis edited, is available as a photoreplicate with an introduction. Attractively designed and provided with critical commentaries, annotations, tables of variants, and supplementary materials, the Black Sparrow editions superbly present Lewis's texts. In scope and quality, this series amounts to a variorum Lewis.

To know Lewis, we must first understand his origins. Then we can follow him through the major roles that he played and the key works he produced during each period in his life. His American-born father, Charles Edward Lewis (1843-1918), served courageously with the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War and was decorated in 1865 with a Brevet Captaincy. Returning home to Buffalo, New York, he began to read law, but somehow disgraced himself and was sent traveling by his well-to-do family.

This remittance man was living near London in 1876 when he married Annie Stewart Preckett (1860-1920), the pretty sixteen-year-old daughter of a boarding-house keeper. Soon after their wedding, the couple moved to Canada, where Charles became a traveling salesman. Annie, who had expectations of a comfortable, genteel existence, discovered that her husband was a womanizer and a heavy drinker. The Lewis marriage had been in trouble for some time when (Percy) Wyndham, the only child of Charles and Annie, was born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, on November 18, 1882.

In 1888, the Lewises moved to the Isle of Wight, off England's south coast. Charles spent little time with his wife and child, preferring to travel, hunt, sail, and write essays. In 1893, he ran off with the family maid. He asked Annie for a divorce, but she adamantly refused. Soon, she took her boy and moved into her mother's house near London.

From that day forward, Annie Lewis—married, but without a husband—had no social position and no prospects for romance or remarriage. Restless, unhappy, and untrained for any profession, she mismanaged her finances and let a small inheritance slip through her fingers. Charles eventually ceased hoping for a divorce. He bigamously married his woman companion (they had already started a family) and took her to the United States to live. Now and then, in response to determined pressure from Annie, he would send money for his son. As Annie sank into poverty, she began to take in washing. She would be a laundress for the rest of her life.

Wyndham Lewis showed precocious talents for drawing and writing, but little aptitude for study. From 1896 to 1897, he attended Rugby School, where he failed every subject but art. Reaching the obvious conclusion, Annie sent him in 1898 to the Slade School of Art at the University of London. He distinguished himself there by winning a drawing prize and a scholarship. At some point in 1901, however, the Slade expelled him for poor attendance and insubordination. He was only nineteen years old when his formal education ended.

Keeping London as his base, Lewis traveled often on the Continent between 1903 and 1908, and lived for months at a time in Paris. He worked at his art, but nothing jelled until he saw early Cubist paintings in exhibition. Picasso had an immediate and permanent influence on Lewis's graphic style.

Lewis committed himself to London in 1909. The city was an artistic backwater then, dominated by sentimental academic painting and derivative Impressionism. Lewis, who was the first English painter to acknowledge Cubism, began to exhibit his work in group shows during 1911. In time, he found allies among London's younger artists and became a leader of the avant-garde.

Futurism, an arts movement that celebrated speed, action, and modern technology, had a major influence upon Lewis's painting and his public style. F. T. Marinetti, an Italian poet, founded this movement in 1909. For the next five years, Marinetti and several Futurist artists toured the capitals of Europe, visiting London three times. By applying political-propaganda techniques to the arts, Marinetti got a big press for his movement. He issued outrageous manifestos to stir up controversy, held tumultuous press conferences, and gave entertaining “noise-poem” recitals in music halls. Futurist art explored dynamism in modern life—race cars, riots, city streets filled with traffic, and the like.

Lewis met Marinetti, attended some of his soirées, and imitated his publicity techniques (“The Enemy” is a very Marinettian creation). He admired the hardness, energy, and up-to-dateness of Futurist art, but complained that Futurist painters emphasized action at the expense of formal coherence. Also, he saw Marinetti as a threat to his leadership of London's avant-garde.

Late in 1913, Lewis, Ezra Pound, and several young artists began to prepare a review of modern movements in the arts. In the aggressive spirit of Futurism (they were all fellow-travelers), they named this journal BLAST. (“Blast” was a vulgar expletive in those days.) By May 1914, most of BLAST had been set in type. Then, Marinetti brought a big show of Futurist art to London.

At that time, only one English painter, Christopher Nevinson, had unequivocally declared himself to be a Futurist. Hoping to force Lewis and his circle into their camp, Marinetti and Nevinson published a manifesto that implied that the Lewis group was Futurist.

Furious at such presumption—and delighted to quash a noisy foreigner whose publicity successes threatened to swamp them—the Lewis group publicly repudiated Marinetti and heckled him at a lecture. Then, they added new pages to BLAST, which announced the birth of Vorticism, a London-based arts movement that opposed Futurism. Since it was too late to rewrite and reset all of BLAST, the review contains praise for—and violent denunciations of—Futurism.

Vorticist painting sought to marry Cubist formality to Futurist flux. The vortex, which was the symbol of Vorticism (it decorates several pages in BLAST), is a clearly defined form that embodies dynamic movement yet has a still center. “At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated,” Lewis told a friend in 1914. “And there at the point of concentration is the Vorticist.” This was the closest that he ever came to defining Vorticism.

Lewis's Vorticist art includes semi-abstract depictions of modern metropolitan architecture. His forms are still, yet charged with tremendous energy. Where figures appear, they are semi-abstracted to resemble robots. Lewis uses drab colors so as to avoid any suggestion of Romantic prettiness.

BLAST, which is both a literary and an artistic production, may well be the greatest work of Vorticist art. It is one of the best things that Lewis did, a unique creation of this artist-writer. Quarto-sized, it contains manifestos, fiction, poetry, essays, book reviews, a play, and twenty-three art reproductions.

The manifestos are BLAST's most memorable feature. Written by Lewis in a curious, halting style, they are arranged on the page such that words and phrases seem to leap out at the reader. Here is a sample:


DISMAL SYMBOL, SET round our bodies, of effeminate lout within.

VICTORIAN VAMPIRE, the LONDON cloud sucks the TOWN'S heart.

A 1000 MILE LONG, 2 KILOMETER Deep BODY OF WATER even, is pushed against us from the Floridas, TO MAKE US MILD.

Such prose, which is simultaneously static and dynamic, fills many pages of BLAST. In these manifestos and also in essays, Lewis blasts England, France (“SENTIMENTAL GALLIC GUSH / SENSATIONALISM / FUSSINESS”), the British aesthete (“CREAM OF THE SNOBBISH EARTH … SNEAK AND SWOT OF THE SCHOOLROOM”), and much else besides.

He blesses England for “ITS SHIPS which switchback on Blue, Green and Red SEAS all around the PINK EARTH-BALL” and thanks the hairdresser “who trims aimless and retrograde growths into CLEAN, ARCHED SHAPES and ANGULAR PLOTS.” Votes for women win his approval, as does “the separating, ungregarious BRITISH GRIN.”

The blasts and blessings follow a rough overall pattern. Lewis damns Victorian sentimentality, English cultural backwardness, and amateurism in art. He applauds the tough, venturesome sailor, the hairdresser who brings order, and the un-Romantic coolness of Shakespeare and Swift. BLAST contains numerous jokes and provocations too. Lewis blesses the Pope to annoy stuffy Anglicans and commends French pornography to outrage prudes. For fun, he blasts cod-liver oil and blesses castor oil.

BLAST's irresistible exuberance can blind a reader to its serious intentions. Lewis's goal was to wake London up and to introduce the modern habit of mind into a city whose artists and art public lagged a full generation behind the rest of Europe. BLAST introduced a new kind of modern art and a prose that Lewis invented to go with it. For the moment, the editor of BLAST was one of the most creative men in Europe.

BLAST was unfortunately timed. Two weeks after it appeared, war broke out and England lost interest in art. Though the Vorticists exhibited together in June 1915 and published a second and final BLAST a month later, the public scarcely noticed. Soon, the Vorticists were absorbed into the war effort. Lewis became an artillery officer and fought in the Battle of the Somme. Late in 1917, he was commissioned a “war artist” and was released from combat duty to paint military scenes. He spent much of 1918 in his London studio.

For the next four years, Lewis was primarily an artist. Retreating from Vorticism, he developed a figurative, quasi-Cubistic style. He had three solo shows in London, made gallery contacts in Holland and Berlin, and seemed well on his way toward becoming a prominent painter.

Early in 1922, the big chance came. Léonce Rosenberg, owner-director of the Galerie l'Effort Moderne in Paris, offered Lewis a one-man show. (Sidney Schiff, a friend of both parties, had made the initial contact with Rosenberg, showing him Lewis's drawings.) Rosenberg represented several French modernists including Fernand Léger. A solo show with him would have put Lewis at the center of the international art world, giving his work a stature it had never had before.

Instead of seizing the moment, Lewis waffled, reluctantly agreed to the show, and then sat on his hands. He did not exhibit at the Galerie l'Effort Moderne or in any other Continental gallery. In Blasting and Bombardiering (1937), his memoir of those years, he devotes a few lines to Rosenberg, but does not explain why he never showed with him.

Lewis was afraid to have Paris judge his work. In 1922, he was established in London—a big frog in a very little pond. But if he were to show with Rosenberg, Parisian critics would make no allowances for his English reputation. They would evaluate his work according to international standards. He would be completely exposed.

Lewis was a hasty, careless artist. “I never really finished a painting till six months before the War,” he confesses in Blasting and Bombardiering, “and then it was not really more than a sketch.” Elsewhere in the same volume, he admits: “Before [1920], I had accomplished nothing [in art]—all I had done had a promise, or was, at the most, a spirited sketch or plan. …” In 1922, he delivered a commissioned portrait to a buyer in a semifinished state. “The face, for example, is sketched rather than painted,” he stated. “[T]he left hand must in any case at some time be worked on and explained more.”

When an artist behaves like this, it is hard to take him seriously. Lewis's failure with Rosenberg was a watershed event that marked the end, for all intents and purposes, of his art career. Though he painted after 1922 and showed in London, he was an artist with a past rather than a future.

Lewis belongs to art history as a forerunner. Vorticism anticipates much that the Russian avant-garde did in the Twenties. But while Lewis barely got started with Vorticism, the Russians fully developed their visual ideas. It was Henry Moore's generation during the Thirties that brought English modernism to international prominence.

Well-read in literature and art, Lewis spoke French fluently, and knew German and Spanish. At some point after the war ended, he began to read political theory, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. His goal was to learn why wars occur and how they can be prevented.

These studies inspired him to begin writing an ambitious critique of postwar society in Europe, which he called The Man of the World. Over time, his manuscript grew to several hundred pages; he added in passages of satire and experimental fiction. In May 1924, he submitted The Man of the World to a London publisher, who rejected it.

A few months later, Lewis divided The Man of the World into parts, which were published as The Art of Being Ruled (1926: political theory), The Lion and the Fox (1927: a study of Shakespeare and Machiavelli), Time and Western Man (1927: literary criticism and philosophy), The Childermass (1928: a visionary novel), and The Apes of God (1930: a satire). Amounting to almost twenty-two hundred pages of text and incorporating as much serious reading and thinking as many educated people do in a lifetime, these five volumes are a remarkable achievement.

Of the three nonfiction books that came out of The Man of the World, The Art of Being Ruled is considered the most important. So named because the author sees most citizens as “puppets” who are controlled by a tiny minority of self-directed people called “natures,” The Art of Being Ruled is essentially a journal in which Lewis comments upon the books he has read and records his observations of contemporary society.

At some length, he reviews the ideas of five late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century French socialist philosophers: Edouard Berth, François Fourier, Charles Péguy, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Georges Sorel. He traces the influence of scientific and technological thinking upon the public mind and describes the struggle for political power between rich and poor, young and old, and men and women. He reports on society's celebration of the child-mind, traces the changing role of the family, and notes the growing cultural power of homosexuals. Because these issues are very much with us today, The Art of Being Ruled, at its best, remains perceptive, prophetic, and very timely.

That's the good news. The bad news is that The Art of Being Ruled is no better organized than the average diary. It collects between two covers the speculations of a brilliant man, but it argues no case and reaches no conclusion. Any of the thirteen parts into which it is divided could be excised or moved to a different place in the text without compromising continuity.

The Art of Being Ruled wobbles unpredictably between foolishness and acuteness. In the chapter on the “sex war,” for example, Lewis declares that when

feminism first assumed the proportions of a universal movement, it was popularly regarded as … directed to the righting of a little series of political wrongs. Woman had been unjustly treated … A thousand chivalrous gentlemen leapt to arms and rushed to the assistance of this matron in distress. With great gestures of christian magnanimity, they divested themselves of all traditional masculine authority or masculine advantage of any sort. Tearfully they laid them at the feet of the dishonoured matron, who dried her burning tears, and with a dark glance of withering indignation picked them up and hurried away. The general herd of men smiled with indulgent superiority. So it was all settled; it was a bloodless revolution.

Had Lewis forgotten, the reader wonders, how the suffragettes demonstrated for the vote in prewar London, how they fought with the police, and went to jail? He knew this, of course, for he was personally acquainted with many suffragettes and had praised them in BLAST. But in this pointless passage, he simply clowns for the reader.

In the very next paragraph, Lewis declares that feminism “was recognized by the average man as a conflict in which … [there] were spectacular ‘wrongs’ that had, ‘in all decency,’ to be righted. The issue was put to him, of course, in a one-sided way … Ever since it has continued one-sided, in the sense that, although the ‘wrong’ has been ‘righted,’ the man is still in the ashamed position of the brutal usurper or tyrant.” Here he neatly identifies the “victim” mentality, which is so much a part of our present-day political rhetoric.

Lewis attempted too much in The Art of Being Ruled. It is folly to suppose that any man—especially one with no university education—can absorb as much new and challenging material as Lewis did in a few years, think it through, and write an original book about it. Lewis's correspondence suggests that he started out with only the sketchiest sort of plan in mind and proceeded quite haphazardly. He ran out of steam partway through the project and left posterity a first draft instead of a finished book.

Time and Western Man is the companion volume to The Art of Being Ruled. On the final page of this work, Lewis promises soon to publish a book which presents “the particular beliefs that are explicit in my criticism.” But no such prescriptive statement appeared. He wrote no more philosophy. Instead, in 1930, he published The Apes of God. He had metamorphosed into a satirist.

Set in London just before the General Strike of 1926, The Apes of God ridicules wealthy poseurs who associate with artists and seek to place themselves on an equal footing with them by making “a little art themselves” (they ape the god-like artists). Such people wish to be taken seriously, says the author, but all they produce is malicious gossip and bad art.

In this picaresque, Horace Zagreus, a middle-aged man of shallow intellectual pretensions, takes a moronic young protegé (a “genius,” who has written one poem) to visit the Apes of God in their dwellings. The Apes are caricatures of men and women who were active in London literary circles during the early Twenties.

Some of these people (Lytton Strachey, the Sitwells) are still known today. Others (John Rodker, Edgell Rickword) are forgotten writers or (Sidney Schiff) sometime patrons of Lewis. Contemporary readers got some wicked fun from this roman à clef. The Apes of God became a succès de scandale and went into extra printings.

Characters in The Apes of God are described from the outside; that is, in terms of their social surfaces. Lewis was later to write that this “classical” narrative method relies upon “the evidence of the eye rather than the more emotional organs of sense.” Telling from the outside, he would declare, makes good satire. The interior monologue in Ulysses—a telling from the inside—is no way to depict normal adults, he believed. We are all very much alike inside, subject to similar primitive drives. It is only our surfaces that make us different. The Apes of God was Lewis's reply to Ulysses, a rival effort.

So far, so good. Lewis began with enough—a promising theme, a large cast of characters, and an innovative approach to narration—to make a lively 250-page satire. He instead produced a grossly bloated, vindictively personal work that few finished at the time of its publication and virtually no one reads today.

Lewis was so determined to outdo Ulysses that he made The Apes of God 625 pages long. (The first limited edition, a telephone-book-sized tome, weighs five pounds.) To create the requisite bulk, he spun each scene and conversation out to prodigious length, drowning some excellent patches of writing in a torrent of words. He not only lampooned the Apes, but seemed to wish to obliterate them.

So dogmatically does Lewis tell “from the outside” that he never takes the reader past surfaces and never suggests why his characters act as they do. The Apes are the grotesque products of his theory instead of living fictional creations. It is impossible to believe in them, to hate them as much as Lewis does, or to sustain interest in them.

Lewis settles old scores in The Apes of God and often places himself at the center of the narrative in a manner that suggests wish-fulfillment. One example of this is the chapter on Sidney Schiff (1868-1944), who was his patron from about 1920 until 1925. An independently wealthy man with interests in the arts, Schiff pseudonymously published semi-autobiographical novels and translated Proust into English. Some admire Schiff's fiction. Lewis disliked it.

Sidney Schiff and his wife, Violet, appear in The Apes of God as Lionel and Isabel Kein. In a 79-page scene at the Kein home, Horace Zagreus, as Lewis's surrogate, delivers opinions on the nature of satire and condemns Kein's (i.e., Schiff's) behavior toward Lewis. Zagreus characterizes Kein as a “pseudo-Proust,” an “idle … pretentious … old busybody of a succubus” who feeds on the vitality of artists and bullies them with his money.

During a dinner scene involving many people, Zagreus suggests that Eddie Keith (i.e., Edwin Muir, the Scots poet and critic) shamelessly boomed Kein's novels: “Keithie is a journalist, you must know, and develops a great deal of scottish earnestness with traditional facility upon the slightest provocation. He is a ‘critic’ you must know, too. Now the latest book vamped up by the Old Lionel's foetid dotage, is published: it is in due course dispatched … to Keith to review—Li-ing self-portraiture, of course—on this occasion about Li's school-days … ‘Ha!’ says Keith ‘a new writer!’ So (incredible as that may sound) he discovers old Lionel! Ha ha ha! in the innocence of his heart and thanks to the deep critical insight that distinguishes him—he unearths that Old Li!” This baby-talk narrative fills more than four pages.

Later, Zagreus attacks Isabel Kein, declaring that she has had nineteen facelifts and paraffin injections under her skin. He calls her fat and claims that she gives her husband the material for his novels. Isabel loses her temper, the dinner breaks up, and Zagreus is ejected from the Kein household.

In real life, Sidney Schiff was an idle, pretentious bore. He pressed himself socially upon Lewis, writing him endless letters and inviting him to tea and to dinner. He gossiped about Lewis behind his back and even managed to involve a very exasperated Eliot in one of their squabbles.

But if Schiff and the other Apes were so insufferable, why did Lewis spend long hours in their company and attack them with such ferocity five years after that time in his life had ended? He did not have to socialize constantly with these people in order to live. Inheritances from both parents sustained him through the early period of work on The Man of the World. He sold art from his studio and through galleries. Pound and Eliot encouraged him to do journalism. He could have found a job of some sort.

The Apes of God is Lewis's revenge upon his father. Its true subject is money and the power it confers upon those who have it. Lewis loathed his father for abandoning him, hurting his mother, and then dominating their household from a distance with his money. He saw his father when he saw the rich, older, and manipulative Sidney Schiff. But this time he could strike back.

The Apes of God is dedicated to Sir Nicholas and Lady Waterhouse, who became Lewis's patrons during the Twenties and contributed to his support for more than thirty years. Sir Nicholas, a wealthy man with no artistic pretensions, declared that Lewis was a great genius and a fine fellow. Correspondence between the two men suggests that they had a parent-and-child relationship. Lewis was the calculating and exasperating, yet lovable boy, while Sir Nicholas played the long-suffering, affectionate, and ever-forgiving father.

An uproar in literary London followed publication of The Apes of God in June 1930. As Lewis told it, the victims of his satire were enraged. His life, he claimed cheerily, had been threatened by an airman! He reported that a “certain poetess [presumably Edith Sitwell], who supposed herself an ‘ape’, had a seizure as she caught sight of Mr. Lewis's advancing sombrero in a Bayswater street, and had to be led into a chemist's shop—where the old-fashioned remedy of Arquebuscade Water was applied with marked success.”

To defend his book and capitalize upon the controversy he had created, Lewis issued Satire and Fiction, a thirty-two-page “Enemy pamphlet,” in September. Here he published congratulatory letters from friends and extracts from many reviews. He told how a laudatory account of his book was rejected by a London newspaper as “too favorable.” Satire and Fiction concluded with a lively presentation of Lewis's theory of satire—that it must be cool, told from the outside, and free of moralizing (the Apes are not wicked, just dull).

In 1934, Lewis reworked his essay on satire and republished it in Men Without Art, a volume which combines new material with several essays that had previously appeared in print. By 1934, Lewis had ceased producing satire. Literary criticism was a major activity.

Men Without Art, whose title parodies Hemingway's Men Without Women, defends literature against “every sort of antagonist”—the moralist, nationalist, Marxist, and mystic. It inquires into the “ethical or political status” of serious writing and painting, and argues for their importance. These issues are very much alive today.

The best material in Men Without Art appears in the first half of the book. It includes the remarks on satire and destructive attacks on Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot. Acknowledging Hemingway's prodigious gifts, Lewis declares that his protagonists are dull, passive individuals to whom things are done and demonstrates that Hemingway's “undistinguished” prose is stylistically indebted to Gertrude Stein.

Lewis calls Faulkner “The Moralist with the Corn-Cob,” a Calvinist who wallows in rustic sex and sadism. He provides a devastating account of faked-up atmospherics and contrived melodrama in Faulkner's fiction. Reviewing Virginia Woolf's work, he characterizes her as an old-maidish, peeping prude.

T. S. Eliot gets star billing—and rather ambivalent treatment—in Men Without Art. Lewis quotes him throughout the book, appraises his work at length, and argues with him. “The Pseudo-Believer,” an ambitious essay on Eliot's notions of personality and belief, starts out very well, but collapses about halfway through. Lewis lazily tacks his afterthoughts onto the end of this piece instead of integrating them into the text.

There is an unbecoming touch of envy in Lewis's attitude toward Eliot. His criticism often becomes too personal and sounds like a schoolboy hooting at his teacher. Men Without Art was published when Lewis and Eliot had been friends for about twenty years. Starting from far behind in career terms, Eliot had completely surpassed Lewis, acquiring an international reputation and wide influence.

Any who doubt that Lewis suffered from identity confusion and egomania should read Men Without Art. On page 13, he declares “I am a performer;” that is, a creative artist. On page 15, he is the only significant “fictionist deliberately dealing in satire” that he knows of. And on page 179, Lewis is again an “artist.” “[T]wo or three, we are a small band,” he sighs.

Lewis explains on page 191 that he views political institutions “from the standpoint of genius.” On page 216, we learn that “you have in me a person who is as nearly impartial as it is humanly possible to be.” But five pages after that, he prefers Roman Catholic belief to Marxism. And on page 226, he has “a much higher opinion of many of the dogmas of Russian Communism than … of its spokesmen.” Elsewhere he predicts that schoolchildren in a Communist utopia will read passages from his fiction to learn “how repulsive unbridled egotism can be.”

Men Without Art contains some wonderful howlers. “Anybody who has travelled by train from New York to Boston,” Lewis writes on page 123, “or from New York to Washington, will realize … that this part of the United States is a sort of desert. The tundra, or the dune, dotted with the eternal fir tree, comes right up to the back door of the last house in almost any Pennsylvanian or New England townlet.” Later, Lewis supplies another amazing fact about the United States. “America,” he explains on page 211, “is already half-oriental. It is almost as banditridden and corrupt as China. (And now it is going to have the great flocks of beggars apparently, as well, which are such a great feature of the life of the East.)”

Lewis could reason—and express himself—quite cogently when he wanted to. The first half of Men Without Art especially attests to this. But he did not write in the traditional way. As he focused on a subject, ideas came to him and he committed them to paper. His essays—amusing, digressive, and bursting with inventive energy—are essentially talk in print.

Many who knew Lewis in life have said that he was a wonderful conversationalist. One of these was Cecil Gray, a music critic who joined in late-evening sessions of talk chez Lewis during the Thirties. In attendance at various times were Stephen Spender; W. H. Auden; Julian Symons; William Gaunt, the art critic and historian; Constant Lambert, the composer; and others.

Gray writes in Musical Chairs (1948), his autobiography: “I have known many admirable talkers in my time, but I can say without hesitation that Wyndham Lewis was the most brilliant, witty and profound of them all … his power of developing a line of thought and returning to it logically, however far afield he might seem to have strayed, was … the object of my constant admiration and astonishment.” Gray adds that “there was always a complete identity between Lewis the talker and Lewis the writer. In both he was essentially the improvvisatore with all the virtues and faults that go with it: the wealth of invention and imagery, coupled with a complete lack of shape or form.”

It is the voice of “The Enemy” that we hear in Men Without Art. We join this rough-and-ready rebel in his lair, where he expatiates to us about art, literature, and the state of the world. Since “The Enemy” is talking the evening away—and we all have drinks in our hands—it does not really matter that he meanders, thumps his chest, and goes off half-cocked from time to time. Those who fancy Lewis's distinctive brand of intellectual pyrotechnics cum jolly good fellowship—and are willing to live with his faults—should read Men Without Art. Others can find his best work in anthologies.

As the Thirties progressed, Lewis became an increasingly isolated figure. He had made art and written books for almost three decades, but had precious little to show for years of work. His income was small and his influence limited. Portrait commissions, lectures, and anthology opportunities rarely came his way.

Lewis had brought much of this upon his own head. Notoriously unreliable in professional dealings, he had treated editors and dealers cavalierly, burning many bridges behind him. The Apes of God permanently antagonized many acquaintances and put others on their guard.

In addition to this, Lewis was a public supporter of Hitler and Mussolini. He casually endorsed fascism in The Art of Being Ruled and published an admiring account of Hitler in 1931. Until his recantation in 1938, he campaigned in print for the fascist cause, producing some dreadful books and articles. During this period, he visited Sir Oswald Mosley from time to time and associated with William Joyce (“Lord Haw-Haw”), the British Nazi. (Joyce was to make English language propaganda broadcasts from Berlin during the war. Afterward, he was tried for treason, convicted, and hanged.)

In his eagerness to prevent a second world war, Lewis misread fascist intentions. There can be no doubt of this. But he supported Hitler and Mussolini far more enthusiastically and far, far longer than common sense or decency should have allowed. Lewis was not an evil man, but an arrogant naïf who blundered into politics and made a complete fool of himself.

At any rate, Lewis took stock of his life during the late Thirties and, for the first time in his fiction, directly confronted his feelings about the shabby-genteel household in which he was raised, and the way he dealt with other people. He did this in his two most humane novels: The Vulgar Streak (1941) and Self-Condemned (1954).

Though he wrote fiction throughout his career and won a degree of réclame for his vivid style, Lewis was a cold, dry, and rather cruel novelist. In his luridly misanthropic fictional world, everyone is stupid, human relationships are impossible, and women are calculating sex kittens who drag men down.

The Vulgar Streak breaks sharply with the past. For the first time, Lewis integrates stylistics into his overall authorial design. He presents convincing characters and creates moving scenes. His satire rings true. The Vulgar Streak succeeds because it is written from the heart. Lewis was ashamed of the way his mother lived; angry that society so valued “gentlemanly” origins; and bitter because poverty limited him. He came to terms with these feelings by projecting them onto Vincent Penhale, his fictional protagonist.

Penhale, a handsome English actor, has the manners and accent of the upper class, and—it would seem—an independent income. As The Vulgar Streak opens, he is on holiday in Venice during autumn of 1938. He meets and romances April Mallow, a wealthy young woman who is visiting the city with her mother.

As the Mallow affair proceeds, Vincent confesses to his closest male friend that he is not the son of a prosperous solicitor as everyone believes, but the son of a common laborer. He has taught himself how to speak and behave like a gentleman. “In my composition there is a great deal of the actor,” he avows. “I am a sham person from head to foot. I feel empty sometimes, as if there were nothing inside me.”

When April Mallow becomes pregnant, Vincent marries her and they set up housekeeping in London. His class-masquerade is exposed when the police arrest him as a counterfeiter's associate—that's where his money was coming from—and an accessory to murder. Devastated when Vincent tells all, April miscarries, hemorrhages, and dies. Realizing that his lies have destroyed the woman he loves, and that he soon will go to prison, Vincent hangs himself.

Though Vincent Penhale is a completely fictional character, his circumstances and his response to them parallel Lewis's own. At some point in youth, perhaps while he lived at Rugby School with the sons of Empire, Lewis became mortifyingly aware that he had a disgrace for a father and a mother with a low-class occupation. While he was still in his teens, he developed secretive habits and rigidly compartmentalized his life. No London friend or acquaintance ever met his mother or was told anything about her. He presented himself to the world as a flamboyantly theatrical enigma.

According to the painter William Rothenstein, the eighteen-year-old Lewis “liked to shroud himself in mystery” and to fabulize about his travels and amorous adventures. Augustus John, an artist who saw much of Lewis in Paris, remembered him as “heavily self-conscious.” Ford Madox Ford, who published Lewis's first fiction in The English Review during 1909, has recorded that Lewis was totally silent during their first meeting. “[E]xtraordinary in appearance,” Lewis wore “an immense steeple-crowned hat,” a “Russian-looking” coat, and “an ample black cape of the type that villains in transpontine melodrama throw over their shoulders when they say ‘Ha-ha!’”

During the BLAST period, Lewis was briefly a celebrity who dined with countesses in Mayfair. A few miles away, in a far less fashionable quarter of London, his mother cared for two illegitimate children that he had fathered. As he shuttled between his mother's household and the homes of his wealthy friends, Lewis—like Vincent Penhale—felt like a fraud, wondered who he really was, and feared exposure.

Throughout his career, Lewis systematically concealed his exceedingly messy personal life—five illegitimate children, several bouts of venereal disease, numerous law-suits, and other scandalous episodes. Even when he married quite respectably in 1930, he hid his wife from visitors and did not introduce her to his London friends until 1946.

For all its importance to Lewis, The Vulgar Streak is not a great novel. Numerous, extremely convenient encounters among his fictional characters advance the story, but place great strain upon the reader's ability to believe. The romantic relationship of Vincent and April is developed so sketchily that we are never convinced that he truly loves her. Thus it is difficult to accept her death as a motivation for his suicide. Still, The Vulgar Streak is one of Lewis's most truthful, heart-felt works of fiction. He was to do better.

In 1939, Lewis obtained a substantial portrait commission in the United States and sailed there with his wife. He hoped this job would lead to others, and to lectures and articles as well. But little work materialized in the U.S., and when the war broke out, currency restrictions kept him from expatriating funds he had in England. Trapped in North America because he could not pay his return fare, Lewis, who was a British citizen, had to move to Canada when his U.S. visitor's permit expired in November 1940.

For the next two and a half years, Lewis and his wife lived in a dilapidated apartment-hotel in Toronto. Completely cut off from all that was familiar to him, he desperately sought ways to make a living. Finally, in June 1943, he was hired to deliver two lectures a week at Assumption College, a small Roman Catholic institution in Windsor, Ontario, near Detroit. Later, the Lewises spent about a year in Saint Louis, Missouri. But they both missed England acutely and returned home on the first available ship at the end of the war.

The years in Canada were the worst of Lewis's adult life, but they taught him to value people and made him a better human being. His work improved and he enjoyed unprecedented public recognition. The Bbc adapted and broadcast some of his novels and the University of Leeds gave him an honorary doctorate. In 1956, the Tate Gallery mounted a retrospective of his art. Wyndham Lewis died in London on March 3, 1957.

Self-Condemned, the most important book of Lewis's final years, fictionalizes his Canadian experiences. René Harding, the protagonist of this novel, is a prominent British historian and the author of The Secret History of World War II, a scholarly best-seller. Harding believes that the academy is hopelessly corrupt, and that he cannot remain there and teach the truth. So he resigns his university chair and sails for Canada with his wife Hester just days before World War II breaks out. The Hardings bring some borrowed funds. René has no serious prospect of employment in Canada.

In the first portion of Self-Condemned, René and Hester pay parting visits to his three sisters and their husbands. The reader learns that René is a thoroughly disagreeable man who thinks he has no need of other people. He finds something to sneer at in everyone he meets, and repays kindness with ingratitude and insults. He even resents his susceptibility to his wife's sexual attractions. The only person René likes is his favorite sister. During a conversation with her, he weeps on her shoulder and says that he expects to die in Canada.

The Hardings settle in Momaco, a big city. For three years, they vegetate in the wretched Hotel Blundell while René looks for work. Lewis writes: “Their never-ending disappointments, in the battle to get work—wild efforts to liberate themselves, ghastly repulses—had made of this hotel room … a museum of misery. There were drawers packed with letters, each of which once had represented a towering hope of escape. Each effort had resulted in their being thrown back with a bang into this futility.”

Memorably, Lewis describes Momaco, the Hotel Blundell, its drunken, concupiscent residents, and the endless Canadian winter. “Icicles six feet long and as thick as a man's arm, hung from the eaves and gutters,” he writes. “Below zero temperatures started when the cold came down from Hudson's Bay and higher, and the Polar Sea walked right through the walls of the hotel as if it had been a radio wave … At 50 below [the cold] was as impossible to keep … out as radium. … It walked through your heart, it dissolved your kidney, it flashed down your marrow and made an icicle of your coccyx.”

Momaco is a hideously provincial place where life is dominated by dour Scots Methodists. René makes an acquaintance or two and earns small sums, but nothing really happens for him until the Hotel Blundell burns down one winter night. The Hardings, who are lucky to escape alive, suddenly become visible in Momaco.

Social contacts multiply and they are welcomed into the expatriate English community. René is invited to write a newspaper column, the Harding finances improve, and they move into a pleasant apartment. The University of Momaco offers René a chair and he starts on a new book. Hester, who has hated Canada since the very first day and desperately longs for England, senses that René is settling in for good. She throws herself in front of a truck. He collapses when he sees her dead body at the police station.

After several months, René recovers to teach at the University of Momaco. But he is not the man that he was before the war: “The process of radical revaluation … which was responsible for the revolutionary character of his work … turned inwards (upon … the intimate structure of domestic life), this furious analysis began disintegrating many relationships and attitudes which only an exceptionally creative spirit, under very favourable conditions, can afford to dispense with.” But three years of isolation in Canada, the growing conflict between Hester's urgent wish to leave and “the pressure of [René's] own will-to-success, of the most vulgar type,” and the shock of Hester's death together destroy René's personality, leaving him “a half-crazed replica of his former self.”

None of this is apparent to anyone save René and a close friend. After winning academic distinction in Momaco, René is offered a better position in a leading U.S. university. When he arrives there, the faculty have no idea that “it was a glacial shell of a man who had come to live among them, mainly because they [are] themselves unfilled with anything more than a little academic stuffing.”

Lewis undercuts the power of Self-Condemned by padding more than fifty pages of it with sophomoric political harangues and discussions. He apparently believed that professors of history win academic renown for writing books which say that all politicians have criminal minds and that the Tories let England drift into World War II to advance their class interests. Despite such flaws, Self-Condemned is a very good novel that deserves a wider audience.

Wyndham Lewis had uncommon gifts and immense energy, but he attempted too much, constantly lost control, and left us a jumbled, uneven oeuvre. His work cannot possibly justify the extravagant claims that his admirers make for it, but the best that he did has permanent value. By bringing so much Lewis back into print—and doing such an admirable job of it—the Black Sparrow Press has performed a valuable service.


  1. For each book listed below, the first-edition date appears in parentheses, followed by the date of the Black Sparrow edition.

    NOVELS: Tarr (1918), edited by Paul O'Keeffe, 1990; The Apes of God (1930), with an afterword by Paul Edwards, 1981; Snooty Baronet (1932), edited by Bernard Lafourcade, 1984; The Revenge for Love (1936), edited with an afterword and notes by Reed Way Dasenbrock, 1991; The Vulgar Streak (1941), with an afterword and notes by Paul Edwards, 1985; Self-Condemned (1954), with an afterword by Rowland Smith, 1983. SHORT FICTION: The Complete Wild Body (a reprint of The Wild Body, 1927, with supplemental material), edited by Bernard Lafourcade, 1982; Rotting Hill (1951), edited with an afterword and notes by Paul Edwards, 1986. CRITICISM: The Caliph's Design (1919), edited with an afterword and notes by Paul Edwards, 1986; The Art of Being Ruled (1926), edited by Reed Way Dasenbrock, 1989; Men without Art (1934), edited with an afterword and notes by Seamus Cooney, 1987. MEMOIR: Rude Assignment (1950), edited by Toby Foshay, 1984. ANTHOLOGY: Creatures of Habit and Creatures of Change: Essays on Art, Literature & Society 1914-1956, edited by Paul Edwards, 1989. TRAVEL: Journey Into Barbary (a reprint of Filibusters in Barbary, 1932, with supplemental material), edited by C. J. Fox, 1983. PERIODICAL: BLAST 1 & 2 (1914-15; all numbers published), with a foreword by Bradford Morrow, 1981.

Andrew Hewitt (essay date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7332

SOURCE: “Wyndham Lewis: Fascism, Modernism, and the Politics of Homosexuality,” in ELH, Vol. 60, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 527-43.

[In the following excerpt, Hewitt responds to Fredric Jameson's conclusions in Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis as Fascist, and explores Lewis's attitudes toward nazis and homosexuals.]

It is with a certain dismissive embarrassment that Fredric Jameson—in his treatment of Wyndham Lewis, a writer he otherwise admires—finally confronts the writings collected by Lewis under the title Hitler.1 Characterizing this book as a “slapdash series of newspaper articles,” Jameson nevertheless uses this text to construct his theory of protofascism. If the embarrassment seems political—and if it is couched in aesthetic terms—I would nevertheless contend that it is neither aesthetics nor politics which is at issue here.2 What Lewis is at pains to articulate—and what Jameson fails to foreground—is a socio-sexual analysis of fascism as the “inversion” of prevailing political and sexual paradigms. In this paper I wish to examine the way in which one leading modernist figure attempts to chart both his fascination—and subsequent disenchantment—with fascism in terms of a theory of “inversion.” I will argue that Lewis's analysis of modernity—his critique of contemporary politics, and his original enthusiasm for Nazism—is structured taxonomically in terms of an analysis of homosexuality.

We might begin by looking at the interpretive exclusions practiced by Jameson's analysis when confronted with the libidinal structure of Lewis's protofascism. In a division of narrative and ideology quite alien to his usual method of critical reading, Jameson writes:

The political point made here is that Nazi street violence is essentially a reaction to Communist violence and provocation; yet the inevitable narrative point is rather different: ‘But elegant and usually eyeglassed young women will receive [the tourist], with an expensive politeness, and he will buy one of these a drink, and thus become at home … Then these bland Junos-gone-wrong, bare-shouldered and braceleted (as statuesque as feminine show-girl guardees) after a drink or two, will whisper to the outlandish sightseer that they are men …’ (24). With this characteristic and obsessive motif out of the way, we come to the political analysis proper.3

Firstly, a curious division is set up between the two things Jameson is otherwise concerned to link—namely, “the political point” and “the inevitable narrative point.” This latter, moreover, appears as something to be got “out of the way” in order to clear the ground for “the political analysis proper.” Given Jameson's methodological insistence upon a notion of “libidinal apparatus” as the mediation of narrative and political structures, the division drawn at this point is startling, to say the least. The “inevitable narrative point”—the encounter in the ‘Eldoradi’ bar—is evaded rather nicely, and the question of sexual undecidability introduced by the transvestite is rendered decidedly apolitical. In what follows, I seek to mend that division, to recuperate the narrative of these “bland Junos-gone-wrong” as itself something inevitably and crucially political rather than something to be got “out of the way.”

Lewis wishes to present fascism as the essence of the political, as politics unencumbered by the moralizing concerns of liberal western democracies—concerns Lewis has already addressed in The Art Of Being Ruled.4 What are opposed in Hitler are “moralist culs de sac” (H, 22-23), and prohibition is cited as the prime example. Prohibition notwithstanding, however, the direct sexual coding of these culs (de sac) cannot be ignored. In his most lapidary articulation of the relationship of morality to politics, Lewis observes that “the Bank is more important than the Backside” (H, 22). It is “sex-moralism” that Lewis is gunning for: “The sex-moralist is not only a bore,” he asserts, “but should, I think, always be suspect” (H, 21). The sexual politics that concerns Lewis—or, rather, which does not concern him, which he shuns as a diversion—is predominantly a politics of anality. It is a politics which, in The Art of Being Ruled, he has already identified with the “homo,” the “invert,” the “joy-boy,” the “exoletos,” and the “shaman.”

“Inversion”—as both phenomenon and structure—is a continuing obsession in Lewis's work—and it is only in terms of the later Hitler writings that the political machinations of The Art Of Being Ruled can be understood. I will, therefore, begin with a consideration of the construction of homosexuality in Hitler in order to understand how, at one level, this text seems to complicate the one-sided presentation of homosexuality as effeminacy in the earlier work, but how, in fact, it serves to render explicit certain sexual and political tensions already operative in The Art Of Being Ruled. Finally, it will be possible to trace the process of Lewis's disappointment with fascism through his reworking of the homosexual construction in the 1939 recantation test, The Hitler Cult.5

In Hitler, Lewis resigns himself to a curious methodological paradox. Berlin will be presented as “the quartier-général of dogmatic perversity—the Perverts' Paradise, the Mecca of both Lesb. and So.” (H, 21). To realize the incommensurability of morality and politics, the Anglo-saxon reader—the “sightseer”—must nevertheless take a diversion through the gilded halls of the transvestite bar, the ‘Eldorado.’ There, he will encounter that scene which Jameson passed over so quickly:

But elegant and usually eyeglassed young women will receive him, with an expensive politeness, and he will buy one of these a drink, and thus become at home. Still, he will have to be a sightseer of some penetration not to think that his sight-seeing eyes may not this time be destined to gloat, upon what he had promised them they should find there. Then these bland Junos-gone-wrong, bare-shouldered and braceleted (as statuesque as feminine showgirl guardees), after a drink or two, will whisper to the outlandish sightseer that they are men. Oh dear!—so, after all, the sightseeing eyes are going to be satisfied! And they will goggle at the slightly smiling bland Edwardian ‘tart’ at their side—still disposed to regard this as a hoax after all, for it is too like, it is too true to nature by far. (H, 24)

Before asking exactly what this scene is doing here, we should first look closely at its dramatization of deception and revelation with respect to transvestism. The expectation of the “sightseer” is itself disguised—travestied perhaps—by a set of double negatives: “he will have to be a sightseer of some penetration not to think that his sightseeing eyes may not this time be destined to gloat, upon what he had promised them they should find there” (emphasis added). Denuded of its negatives, the sentence indicates that the sightseer has, in fact, come in search not of women, but of the transvestite—and that, “after all, the sightseeing eyes are going to be satisfied.” In other words, the deception of the transvestite does not lie primarily in the convincing representation of a woman, but in the unconvincing representation of a transvestite. Deception and disappointment cannot be disentangled. The “original”—that which is sought—is the transvestite, not the woman. At the moment of revelation, it is no longer a question of the man impersonating the woman, but rather of an imaginary woman impersonating the man who impersonates her. The transvestite who simply looks like a woman is not enough, for what is required is a double deception: firstly, deception—in the sense of disappointment—that this woman is, after all, only a woman, followed the recognition of the deception, of the fact that she is a man.

The paradoxical situation of the transvestite, then, results from the double-bind of all representation. He is “too like, … too true to nature by far.” Strangely, the transvestite is not rejected as something contrary to nature: quite the opposite, s/he is potentially too true—to the extent, even, of a “dull naturalism.” The transvestite must be like enough to convince, but unlike enough for the sightseer to recognize the art of impersonation. As a result:

The ‘feminine’ will never be quite the same for him again. Who can say if this will be for his good or no? The sex-absolute will to some extent have been disintegrated for him by this brief encounter—it will have caused him to regard, with a certain skeptical squint, all specifically feminine personality. This may, after all (it is not too venturesome to believe), be of great use to him, even, in the subsequent conduct of his life. Such radical Enttäuschang might even be of great economic value to the average sightseer, in his struggle with nature and her expensive traps and tricks. (H, 20)

The transvestite lifts femininity out of the realm of biology and into the realm of politics in a way which, according to Lewis, the woman cannot. The feminine—estranged from the body of the woman—reveals itself as a categorial and political construction. The realm of the political becomes synonymous with the realm of signs. The transvestite denatures and politicizes not only the category of the feminine, but the very modality of representation itself. Only where the feminine is reduced to a system of signs opposed to the dictates of biology does it reveal itself as an ideological social construct and material for political reconstruction. The naive faith in appearance and the naive faith in woman are shed at one and the same time.

The questions foregrounded by Lewis here, however, are less questions of gender than of modes of representation—aesthetic questions. “Too true to nature by half” the transvestite enacts “the dull naturalism of the male copycat,” which, Lewis nevertheless asserts, “is not to be despised” (H, 27). Far from offering something “unnatural”—the usual moralistic response to homosexuality—the transvestite offers only a “dull naturalism.” Lewis's position is, after all, aesthetic rather than moral. But what is the aesthetic value of his judgment? He does not despise such naturalism—but why not, if it is so “dull”? The answer would seem to lie in the impossibility of the deception. In order that the transvestite be a transvestite, a certain game must be played with representation. The man apparently disappears into the woman—representation is complete. But in order to be complete as representation, a certain residue—exemplified here by “the male token of the chinstubble” (H, 25)—is necessary to mark the play of signifier and signified. This gendered residue represents that element of the signifier which will not subsume itself in the signified. Thus, transvestism reveals the precise limitations of naturalism, subtly deconstructing its own aesthetic.

At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, we should, perhaps, pause at this encounter with the transvestite—this experience of “Enttäuschung”—and trace its political implications for Lewis's own subsequent disappointment with fascism. For, from the perspective of the encounter in the ‘Eldorado,’ this disappointment—chronicled in 1939 in The Hitler Cult—will prove not to have been a disappointment at all. Lewis—the sightseer” in search of a specifically German phenomenon—will have found it not in fascism, as he had thought, but in the transvestite whom he had sought to depoliticize and marginalize. This realization emerges by 1939, as Lewis reflects that:

Nietzsche, who was a philologist de carrière, believed that the word Deutsche was to be traced to the same root as the verb täuschen (to deceive). The Germans, he said, were the people who deceived: a deceptive people. (HC, 41)

If the transvestite might be said to be an embodiment at all, then she is the embodiment of the Germanic Täuschung. Far from offering a diversion to the journalist in search of the new German essence, the transvestite—whose existence as representation seems so contrary to all essence—is that essence. Like the transvestite—or so, at least, runs the narrative of Lewis's own disappointment—Germany does not offer that essence which was sought. This deception and disappointment, indeed, is Germany's essence. And if the sightseer is obliged to travel to Berlin to grasp the essence of the political, he will be disappointed: that is to say, he will grasp that essence as deception.

If the transvestite shatters all faith in the signified—the feminine—he also shatters all faith in the infallible signifier. S/he cannot be resolved into either gender. And the Germans—the Nazi “ascetics of politics” (H, 28)—are no less irresolute. When you feel that they reveal their essence, they deceive. But this deception is their essence, and is, therefore, no deception at all. This is the “radical Enttäuschung,” the recognition that the deception is not a deception, that we are deceived in thinking it so. Lewis wishes to write the issue off as a simple Enttäuschung in the object—the feminine—but it should be remembered that the sightseer did not come in search of the feminine in the first place. He came in search of deception—or, rather, of Enttäuschung of de-deception—and this is what he finds; the sightseer in the transvestite, Lewis in fascism. In other words, a careful reading of the ‘Eldorado’ episode will reveal as disingenous Lewis's later narrative of his own political disappointment.

As we shall see with reference to The Art Of Being Ruled, Lewis is not guilty of simply conflating the transvestite and the homosexual. In fact, the transvestite both radicalizes and negates Lewis's characterization of the “invert.” Where the invert will use signs—“a red tie, or its equivalent in the approved badges of sexual revolt” (AOBR, 237)—the transvestite is a sign. Above and beyond the figure of the transvestite, there is in Hitler a second paradigm of homosexuality, which occurs in the context of Lewis's critique of “exoticism.” The first indication of this substrain comes in Lewis's enumeration of the sexual diversions offered by the Berlin nightlife—diversions that include the “sad wells of super-masculine loneliness” (H, 13). In contrast to the effeminization both exemplified and deconstructed by the transvestite, these locales offer an exaggeration and perversion of an image of masculinity. If the transvestite paradigm is itself already ambiguous enough, the thematization of homosexuality is now further complicated by this second model of super-masculinity.

Clearly, the superimposition of a masculine-feminine dichotomy onto the question of homosexuality merely serves to reassert a gendered order that homosexuality itself threatens to disrupt within Lewis's argument. Nevertheless, it is important to note the context in which homosexual super-masculinity is elaborated. Seeking an ideological pedigree for the “super-masculine,” Lewis presents it as emerging from a tradition which also spawns the Nazi “Blutsgefühl”:

Nationalsocialism builds upon this blood-feeling! What Walt Whitman termed ‘the talk of the turning eyeballs’—it is that that you are required to understand. But whereas Walt Whitman (with his cosmic enthusiasms, his bursting and blatant romanticism, his lyrical cult of a universal brotherhood) sought to enlist this sort of fleshly second-sight in the service of diffusion, the present-day Blutsgefühl doctrinaires invoke it on behalf of a greater concentration. (H, 106)

Lewis goes on to stress the differences between the two models represented by Whitman and by Nazism respectively. The distinction between fascism and the super-masculine lies in that very asceticism of fascism, in its concentration, as opposed to the diffusion of the invert. However, the similarities (for Lewis) must not be overlooked: the homosexual poet is being used both as an opponent and as a precursor of a certain Nazi racialism.

Whitman—while never acknowledged by Lewis as a homosexual figure—is located within a tradition of “exoticism,” which apparently stretches back even further to Blake. It is in describing Blake that Lewis betrays the terms within which this second homosexual paradigm—the paradigm of super-masculinity—might be thematized. He imagines:

The naked figures of Mr. and Mrs. Blake squatting in their suburban conservatory among the flower-pots playing at being Adam and Eve before the Fall, taken straight out of the puritan Bible. …

He claims that they:

match very well the rhetorical nudity of ‘Walt,’ genitals well to the fore in true patriarchal fashion, in the Atlantic surf upon the distant shores of the New World—the New Anglo-saxony at that time. (H, 107)

Whitman and the Blakes mark the attempt to represent that edenic state prior to representation itself—and it is the phallus of Whitman (“well to the fore”) which grounds that mode of representation. If we have spoken so far of a certain anality in the model of effeminization, it is clear that Whitman's super-masculinity is to be understood both genitally and patriarchally.

While Lewis mocks Whitman as an example of Western exoticism—and therefore as a symptom of the decline he seeks to chart—he nevertheless lets him stand as the emblem of a racial “New Anglo-saxony.” To leap ahead once more—preempting both my own argument and Lewis's political development—the implications of Whitman for Lewis's experience of fascism will also be made explicit in the 1939 book on The Hitler Cult. Here—mocking Hitler's own “exoticism”—Lewis will note that “Adolf Hitler bathes in the music of Wagner much in the same way as Walt Whitman bathed in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean” (HC, 61). It is the similarity between Whitman's and Hitler's Blutsgefühl—rather than any differentiation—which proves more persistent in Lewis's political vision. If we note in passing that by 1939 Lewis is also referring to Hitler as a “dreamy-eyed hairdresser” (HC, 103), taking note of his “beautiful eyes” (HC, vii) and the temperament of “a hysterical prima donna” (HC, 78), it will not be hard to imagine the type of ideological reconciliation which is going to take place in Lewis's characterizations of homosexuality and fascism: fascism itself will eventually be rejected as in some sense “homosexualized.” We should note, however, that this assertion—which will legitimate Lewis's repudiation of National Socialism in 1939—is already quite clearly present in the text of Hitler which is so much more favorable to fascism.

In broadening his model of homosexuality to include the supermasculine, Lewis polarizes not only between the masculine and the feminine, but between the rhetorical and the representational as aesthetic modalities. The transvestite was to be understood with reference to a certain system of representation, which he merely seemed to transgress (as a man representing a woman) but which he in fact exemplified. This representation was figured as a form of clothing—a cross-dressing. What Whitman offers, meanwhile, in the ostentatious self-evidence of his genitals, is a “rhetorical nudity.” From the realm of clothing, the realm of the sign, we seem to have arrived at the possibility of a truth stripped of its dependence upon signification.

In terms of the naivete Lewis is criticizing, one would be tempted to interpret this denuding as an escape from rhetoric, as a stripping away of language in the immanence of ostentation—the presentation of the phallus. But this nudity is itself merely “rhetorical.” Lewis is rejecting the naivete of any pre-linguistic political utopia. What Whitman in fact offers—along with his doubtless most impressive penis—is naked rhetoric, pure presentation. Not, that is, the immanence of the true—but rather the immanence of the medium itself, of rhetoric. In other words, what we have is an asceticism—comparable to the political asceticism of the Nazi, though not necessarily to be conflated, politically, with it. But this homosexualized asceticism is at the same time an aesthetic, a “rhetorical nudity”—naked rhetoric, but a nakedness which is itself merely rhetorical, rather than real. It cannot be decided whether this ascetic aesthetic is “pure” precisely because it can only ever be the presentation of “impure” aesthetic representation in its “pure” ascetic form.

It is obvious, then, that Lewis seeks to ground his political thought within a tropology of homosexuality. The question is: how to theorize this fact? It is tempting—in the light of the obvious misogyny in The Art Of Being Ruled and Lewis's insistent characterization of the “homo” as the child of the suffragette” (AOBR, 244)—to subsume the treatment of homosexuality within the broader framework of a feminist critique of gender binarism. Any such temptation should be resisted for two reasons. Firstly, the presentation of homosexuality—or “inversion” to use Lewis's ideologically loaded term—is by no means restricted to the terms of effeminization. By privileging and foregrounding this model—in the very use, for example, of the term “inversion” to suggest an axiomatic binarism of masculine and feminine—Lewis seeks to manipulate a scandal in order to confirm rather than question the gendered terms of his political critique. In fact, it is the figure of the non-effeminized homosexual that will cause Lewis much greater political embarrassment. Secondly, if the question of “sex-moralism” insists on raising its head in Hitler, it does so through the figure of a transvestite, who is not a necessarily homosexual figure, and who is troubling precisely because s/he resists the consignment of gender to the realm of biology. If politics exist in the public realm as the manipulation of signs of power, so too does transvestism. Moreover, the gender ambivalence of the transvestite provides a momentary and inevitable check to Lewis's critique of effeminization. As we shall see, s/he threatens not simply the straightforward social organization of gender, but also the critical gaze of the Anglo-saxon political sightseer.

Hitler seems to leave us with two crucial images. On the one hand, there is the transvestite, who is at once the apogee and the apocalypse both of effeminization and of a representational model of truth. On the other hand, there are the super-masculine, the homosocial exoticists of patriarchy. At a certain point in both paradigmatic presentations of inversion—both in the transvestite and in the super-masculine—the invert critiques precisely those ideological commonplaces of effeminization and universal brotherhood with which Lewis seeks to identify him. More than this, there are moments—most notably with Whitman's “turning of the eye”—when the invert comes perilously close to embodying precisely those political options which Lewis himself is seeking to put forward. The obsessive repression of sexuality—and the compulsive return of this repressed in the text of Hitler—would suggest that Lewis's “tolerance” of homosexuality (effected by virtue of its exclusion from the political sphere) is homophobic in the most radical sense of the word.6 Not only is the depoliticization of sexuality always and necessarily a political disenfranchisement, but homosexuality itself fundamentally questions the analytic categories around which Lewis orients his political world-view. The question of homosexuality must necessarily occur obsessively in the texts precisely because it is a phenomenon that scrambles the political codes which Lewis has earlier attempted to establish in The Art Of Being Ruled.

Even in The Art Of Being Ruled, however, the gendered binarisms around which Lewis sought to thematize inversion are threatened by an instance of transvestism. In this case, however, Lewis consciously manipulates a narrative of transvestism toward a critique of democracy. He traces the shortcomings of democracy back to an exemplary act of cross-dressing:

It often occurs (and we have to-day a unique picture of this in contemporary western society) that the ruler becomes a confirmed practitioner of one of Haroun al Raschid's most objectionable habits, namely that of spending his time disguised among his subjects as one of them. This tendency in a ruler is very much indeed to be deplored. (AOBR, 96)

It is only when this notion of democracy as a fraternizing disguise is placed alongside Lewis's gendered model of power—in which “the contrast between the one class and the other is more like that between the sexes than anything else. The ruled are the females and the rulers the males” (AOBR, 95-96)—that Haroun al Raschid's disguise reveals itself as drag. Disguised among his subjects, Haroun al Raschid must dress as a woman—for the subject is always a woman, the ruler always a man. Thus, the transvestite is the emblem of modern Western democratism—a ruler disguised as the ruled, a man disguised as a woman.

The reappearance of the transvestite in Hitler, then, is the disguised reappearance of the democratic. In refusing simply to condemn the transvestite, the Nazi refuses a simple inversion or condemnation of liberal democracy. Thus, this “diversion” through the ‘Eldorado’ is not a diversion at all; rather, it is crucial to Lewis's understanding of fascism as something more radical than simple inversion. In The Art Of Being Ruled Lewis has already confessed that

all the phrases of the sex-revolt—from the suffragette to the joy-boy are equally political at the start—as they certainly become at the finish. … Is it not the same old hag that in a ‘morality’ would be labelled Power, and for whom pleasure in the simplest sense, means very little, who has pupped this batch of related passions? (AOBR, 241)

In other words, the “diversion” offered by the Backside might not be altogether incommensurable with an insistence upon the “essence” of politics. In its essence, the political distills itself into a form of sexual politics. The politics of feminism and the politics of homosexuality are both born of Power, and Power—the category central to Lewis's analysis of the political in Hitler—is presented as a character in a ‘morality.’ Morality—or the ‘morality’—provides both stage and scenario for the political.

It is not, then, a question of simply noting the veiled political importance of the invert, but rather of identifying the invert as that instance in which the moral inevitably becomes a political issue. The invert is paradigmatic rather than syntagmatic—and it is for this reason that Lewis must consistently refashion the radical revolutionary possibility of homosexuality into mere “inversion,” into a purely determinate revolt against the intellect in which

Each little sensation has to be decked out as though it were a ‘big idea.’ Again, simple sensation has become ashamed of itself. It is persuaded to complicate itself, to invert itself with a movement of mechanical paradox. So, in reality, sensation pure and simple is disappearing, and a sort of spurious idea is everywhere taking its place. (AOBR, 244)

The strategy of this analysis will have become familiar to us. The revolt of sensuality against the intellect—by presenting itself as “a big idea”—has already undone itself and capitulated before the conceptualism it ostensibly opposes. Inversion is not simply the reversal of a certain value-system, it inverts each term into its other.

But even in this “mechanical”—that is, “spurious, utilitarian” (AOBR, 14)—form of revolution, neither of the original binary terms remains intact. In this presentation, the sensation is “decked out” as a big idea, as if transvestism were once again being taken as the model of inversion. However, the paradoxical reduction of the flesh to a “big idea” more accurately characterizes the ideology of that Whitmanesque, super-masculine homosexual, who—“genitals to the fore in true patriarchal fashion”—makes a “big idea” out of a small bodily organ. What Lewis seems to be suggesting is that a phallocentric patriarchy—as a “big idea”—is itself essentially effeminate. Subtly, the dichotomous model of Hitler—the division into effeminized and “super-masculine” models of inversion—is being undone. The super-masculine is itself being grounded in a notion of travesty, “decked out” as a big idea. What this entails is a reduction of the questions of revolution and homosexuality—the questions of a homosexual politics—to questions of representation and transvestism.

The very terminology of the language of “inversion” already suggests the position ascribed to homosexuality in Lewis's examination of revolution. Nothing could be more simple, more mechanical, or more “spurious,” than this simple inversion of terms. And yet, as we have seen in the case of the transvestite, the trans-coding of gender can never be reduced to a simple inversion of terms. Although Lewis argues in The Art Of Being Ruled that sexual inversion merely revolves around the organizational axes of the given world, his analysis of this particular “vicious circle” nevertheless produces—in the circle—a figure for the permanence of revolution celebrated elsewhere in the text.7

Having located the phenomenon historically, it remains for Lewis to pinpoint the sociological locus of inversion. There are three fundamental factors in Lewis's account. Firstly, as we have seen, he is quite clear, arguing that

The sex-revolution of the invert is a bourgeois revolution, in other words. The vetit bourgeois type predominates: a red tie, or its equivalent in the approved badges of sexual revolt, tells its theatrical tale. The puritan conscience, in anglo-saxon countries, provides the basis of the condiment and gives sex-inversion there its particular material physiognomy of protest and over-importance. (AOBR, 237)

The invert must remain petit bourgeois in his dependence upon the value-system he affronts. However, at the same time as he expresses his distaste for the petit bourgeois invert Lewis goes on to state a preference for the “true-blue invert” for “certainly he gives the impression of being much more male in the traditional and doctrinaire sense than any other male” (AOBR, 238). The “super-masculine” reasserts itself here—subsumed under the general category of inversion—but asserts itself as “true-blue.” In other words, Lewis is envisaging a genuine—perhaps “blue-blooded,” or “aristocratic”?—revolutionary impulse emanating from the phenomenon of inversion. The division derived from Hitler—the dual model of inversion as a caricature of the feminine (transvestism) and as a caricature of the masculine (the super-masculine)—explicates itself in socio-economic terms, by suggesting a division into petty bourgeois and aristocratic models of revolt. The critique of bourgeois inversion is a sustained one. Elsewhere, the world of the petty bourgeoisie is referred to as “an unreal, small middle-world or no-man's land” (AOBR, 108), and it is, perhaps, this formulation which best encapsulates the socio-political and historical significance of the invert for Lewis. The petty-bourgeoisie is itself characterized as a “no-man's” land, and it is precisely the “no-man”—the invert—who has come to occupy it.

The second and third vectors for tracing the emergence of “inversion” as a pressing political question are both related to the war. Lewis argues that

it is in the experiences of wartime that we must seek not only the impulsion, but in some sense the justification of sex-inversion, apart from its role in relation to the disintegration of the family unit (AOBR, 279)

Thus, “inversion”—as well as being a petty bourgeois phenomenon-results from the disintegration of the family unit. This observation, however, merely describes its “impulsion”: it will be in a third strain of analysis that Lewis will characterize its “justification.” Rather than seeing homosexuality as a reaction to the brutal masculinity of war, or as the frightened reaction of men seeking to avoid their role in that war, Lewis sees inversion as war by other means. Since the war to end all wars nevertheless left the violent structures of European expansionism intact, some other form of depopulation of the brutal white European must be found.8 Militarism was to have been its own cure—the militarists were to have killed each other off, but given the failure of the First World War in this respect, Lewis offers homosexuality as an alternative:

Nature—let us give her credit for it—has come to the help of her children … by way of the glands, namely. I believe that (in one form or another) castration may be the solution. And the feminization of the white European and American is already far advanced, coming in the wake of war. (AOBR, 51)

In other words, “inversion” is not so much a reaction to war as a continuation of it, aimed at the depopulation of Europe and North America!

Thus far, then, Lewis has isolated three factors in his genealogy of modern homosexuality: the disintegration of the family, the war-experience, and the emergence of the petty bourgeoisie. This particular configuration of determinant factors should itself raise a few eyebrows. For is it not precisely the same configuration which has long been held to be responsible for the emergence of fascism at a crucial moment of the modernist project?9 Moreover, Lewis's own ambiguity in respect of each of these instances suggests that the invert might—by the very logic of self-inversion—surreptitiously represent the brand of fascism which so interests Lewis himself. Lewis too despises the family: and while despising brutality he nevertheless celebrates war as a decimation of the “brutal white European.” Only in respect of the petty bourgeois origins of the inverts' revolution is he resolutely oppositional—and even here he holds out a possibility of reconciliation in his guarded celebration of the “true-blue invert.”

The possibility arises, then—no more comforting to gay theory than a would be to Lewis—that the traditional political dichotomy of democracy and fascism, far from being supported by a certain caricature of homosexuality, is deconstructed by it. The collapse of the family, the war experience and the emergence of the petty bourgeoisie—the historical preconditions of fascism and, for Lewis, of inversion—already indicate the possibility of this conjuncture. The key figure, it would seem, in the establishment of a continuum from inversion to fascism will be the “true-blue” invert, rather than the petty bourgeois effeminate or transvestite. This true-blue invert, however—“more male in the traditional and doctrinaire sense than any other male”—cannot automatically be identified with our second, Whitmanesque model of the super-masculine. Firstly, Whitman's “exoticism” is intrinsically effeminate for Lewis, and—by making a “big idea” (a phallus) out of the penis—patriarchy itself is by no means exempted from the charge of effeminization. Presenting his genitals to the camera, Whitman seems not simply to be showing them off, but to be offering them for that castration which Lewis thinks might be the solution to European militarism.

Is there, then, a third figure in whom the militarism of the fascist and the revolutionary potential of the invert might transcend the limitations of petty bourgeois effeminacy? To find such a figure is the challenge that Lewis sets to any analysis which would seek out a political conjunction of homosexuality and fascism in his work. In fact, such a figure does exist in Lewis's oeuvre, and he will become all the more important as Lewis revises his analysis of fascism in the thirties. It is “Frederick the Great, living with his heiduques and grooms” (AOBR, 201) who will finally complete the implicit homosexualization of Lewis's own political project. With Frederick, “living on familiar patriarchal terms with [one's] servants” (AOBR, 201) seems to have become an intra-masculine affair, rather than the necessarily transvestite practice exemplified by Haroun al-Raschid.

The ambiguity of Frederick—as a revolutionary and reactionary homosexual figure—lies in his “travesty of revolution” (AOBR, 201), for now the travesty of revolution seems finally to have become travesty as revolution. It is as if Frederick were, so to speak, engaging in travesty not by dressing as a woman, but by refusing to do so. The fixation of transvestism to the feminine object has been completely overcome. The transvestite has dressed himself as a man, and thereby engages in the deception intrinsic to him. Revolution is no longer established within a simple paradigm of transgression—the signifier's masquerading as the signified—but rather in the transgression of that transgression. Revolution, in this instance, really is the “vicious circle” of undecidability: is it a man, a woman as man, a man as woman as man …? Moreover, Frederick marks the point of convergence of the two models of inversion elucidated in Hitler, combining—in his particular form of authoritarian revolution—travesty and masculinity.

What is it then that Frederick—with his grooms and heiduques—tells us about the political configurations developed by Lewis through the twenties, which were subsequently to make fascism so appealing to him? More than anything, Frederick renders impossible any reduction of the homosexual question to a more simplistic opposition coded in terms of gender. To reduce the homosexual to a figure of effeminization is to accept at face value a dichotomy of gender which the homosexual serves to question. The transgression which is effected by super-masculinity is more troubling to Lewis's politics not simply because the invert—who in Hitler questions the primacy of the feminine—now also questions the integrity of masculinity, but because he begins to appear as the double of Lewis's own political project. Sociologically, the collapse of the patriarchal family, the war experience, and the emergence of the petty bourgeoisie are as crucial to Lewis's analysis of inversion as they have been to analysts of fascism. The only constituent of this ideological trinity which Lewis himself—as a political thinker—would look upon with distaste is the centrality of the bourgeoisie. And by recognizing in the fraternal and fraternizing tendencies of Frederick the Great a “true-blue” aristocratic model of inversion, he is, in effect, opening up fascism as a realm of homosexualized politics to which he would be sympathetic.

It would stretch the limits of this paper to describe what that politics would look like. The aristocratic (homosexual) fascism which Lewis advocates should not be mistaken for fascism's empirical historical instantiation. We can only begin to outline the terms of the political sphere occupied by the true-blue invert, for Lewis's disappointment with Nazism forces us to respect a distinction between his intellectual and political project and the empirical, historical phenomenon of the Third Reich. At the same time, however, we have already observed the way in which the “Enttäuschung” of 1939 is itself prefigured in the earlier works and cannot, in fact, be understood as a disappointment in the everyday sense of the world. “Enttäuschung,” in 1939, is the realization rather than the disappointment of the political project which Lewis articulated through the twenties and thirties.

Taking up where Hitler and The Art of Being Ruled left off—with Frederick as a historical and homosexual precedent for Nazism—The Hitler Cult subtly reevaluates some of the topoi of the earlier works. Thus, connections which we have reconstructed from those works (Whitman, for example) are made explicit. Frederick's role, too, is elucidated: “Frederick the Great was a National Socialist, as well as degenerate and what we should call to-day a crook” (HC, 131). Notable in this passage is the way in which a discourse of degeneracy is applied to homosexuality for the first time only when Lewis seeks to reverse the terms of his earlier critique and to present fascism—rather than liberalism—as effeminization. Previously, degeneration was itself implicitly valorized as the post-bellum possibility of depopulating an overly aggressive Europe. Clearly, in order to distance himself from compromising political miscalculations, Lewis is obliged to re-introduce—paradoxically, in an “inverted” form—precisely that moralism which was previously to be excised. Apart from the super-imposition of this arbitrary and extrinsic value-system, however, little has changed in Lewis's structural presentation of the forces of fascism and inversion. As we have seen, fascism and “inversion”—at least as presented by the texts in question here—were never as antipathetic as Lewis would have had us believe.

Having set up Frederick as a degenerate and a National Socialist, Lewis subsequently goes on to distinguish him from Hitler in the following terms:

As to Frederick the Great, another of his models, to whom Hitler is sometimes compared, no two men could be less alike. That arrogant homosexual tyrant had about as much in common with Adolph Hitler as the Duke of Wellington would with Lord Nuffield. (HC, 78-79)

Historically, and retrospectively, Lewis at last admits the embroilment of a certain homosexual strain in Nazism, but argues that:

The Röhm ‘purge’ may almost be regarded as a show-down between the homosexual and the non-homosexual end of the National Socialist movement. (HC, 95)

Lewis settles his accounts with fascism and homosexuality long after Nazism itself has already confronted the question, it would seem. The problem with Hitler—which provides the ostensible grounds for Lewis's rejection of the regime—is, quite precisely, not homosexuality, for:

The present German Chancellor is in the habit of threatening suicide: he weeps with considerable facility, his perorations are shaken with sobs; he storms and rages like a hysterical prima donna; he is very alive to flattery. Yet he is not homosexual, like many Germans. It is that that makes him a puzzle of a man. (HC, 78)

In other words, while using homosexuality as a moral smoke-screen for his political distancing from fascism, Lewis in fact rejects Hitler not because he is homosexual—but because he is not.

The problem with Hitler, it would seem, is something other than his simple heterosexuality (in fact, Lewis comments upon his abstention from women and claims to find this the most unsettling characteristic of all). Does Hitler himself not replicate that “Enttäuschung” central to the political epiphany of the Hitler book? He acts like a homosexual, Lewis implies, but he is not one. In the same way, the transvestite acts like a woman, but is not one. But to restrict ourselves to this parallelism is to fall prey to Lewis's revisionist reconstruction of his own political development. The sightseer of 1931 never came in search of women: he wanted the transvestite and—after a momentary and necessary disappointment—got exactly what he wanted. Likewise, Lewis sought fascism and got what he wanted. The political disappointment is, in fact, a realization—Enttäschung is a liberation from one political Täuschung by means of another.

In other words, in the Hitler book Lewis seeks to hold at bay a certain homosexual taxonomy which implicitly underpins his politics—whereas the 1939 repudiation seeks consciously to invoke that tax-economy to legitimate a retreat from fascism. The mea culpa implicit in this gesture seeks to exonerate the political project by invoking a moral (and homosexual) scapegoat. If Hitler is not homosexual, Lewis is implying, the pretense at being homosexual is itself “homosexual,” typical of the homosexual's aestheticized play with appearance. This, if anything, is the lesson to be learned from the encounter in the Eldorado’ bar—the irreducibility of representation to either term in the dyad of representation. And this is, indeed, the lesson which Lewis has learned, and which allows him—in this entirely disingenuous self-distancing from fascism—to attribute both to inversion and to fascism that aestheticization of politics which so led him astray. Having enjoyed the spectacle of the ‘Eldorado’ for what it was, Lewis would now have us believe that he was, in fact, seduced into fascism by one of those “bland Junos-gone-wrong.” The “political point” and the “inevitable narrative point” which Jameson sought to differentiate prove to have been one and the same all along.


  1. Fredric Jameson, Eables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis. The Modernist as Fascist (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979). Wyndham Lewis, Hitler (London: Chutto and Windus, 1931). Subsequently abbreviated as H.

  2. Jameson (note 1), 179.

  3. Jameson, 180.

  4. Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled (New York: Haskell House, 1972. Reprint of 1926 ed.). Subsequently abbreviated as AOBR.

  5. Wyndham Lewis The Hitler Cult (London: Dent, 1931). Subsequently abbreviated as HC.

  6. Lewis's notion of tolerance is, it should be pointed out, somewhat unusual. For example, he praises the Nazi's refusal to be misled into moralizing, and presents the Nazi's indifference to these matters in the following terms: “And of course all these Bars and Dancings, with their Kaffir bands, are for him the squinting, misbegotten, paradise of the Schiebertum. ‘Juda verrecke!’ he would no doubt mutter, or shout, if he got into one. Sooner or later he would desire to be at the head, or in the midst, of his Sturmabteilung—to roll this nigger-dance luxury-spot up like a verminous carpet, and drop it into the Spree—with a heartfelt Pfui! at its big sodden splash” (H, 28).

  7. Lewis distinguishes in The Art of Being Ruled between fundamental and merely superficial forms of revolution. Claiming that revolution has become a universal ideology and has therefore lost revolutionary potential, he argues that “there is permanent revolution, and there is an impermanent, spurious, utilitarian variety. … There is creative revolution, to parody Bergson's term, and destructive revolution” (AOBR, 14).

  8. Lewis addresses this question in the chapter entitled “Different Solutions to the Problem of the Yahoo” (AOBR, 47-51).

  9. These elements of Lewis's presentation also form the core, for example, of the influential analysis presented in Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism trans. Vincent R. Carfagno, 3rd ed. (New York, 1970).

Vincent Sherry (essay date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24219

SOURCE: “Wyndham Lewis: L'Entre Deux Guerres,” in Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 91-39.

[In the following excerpt, Sherry examines Lewis's visual art as well as his body of written work to support his claim that Lewis failed to present a philosophically cohesive, unified body of work.]

To purge “the bad effects of English education,” Wyndham Lewis set out in 1902, at the age of nineteen, to finish his schooling on continental ground. For six years he followed his instincts along the Franco-German axis we traced in the first chapter. In Munich (1902), he briefly entered a sphere already shaping the debates between the proponents of empathy and abstraction, Theodor Lipps and Wilhelm Worringer most prominently.1 He would return to the city for six months in 1906, two years before the publication of Worringer's Abstraktion und Einfühlung. Yet the richest intellectual environment would prove to be Paris, where he arrived in 1903 and lived for most of the next five years. A singular, fiercely solitary figure, he moved on the distant fringes of Gertrude Stein's circles. He attended the lectures of Henri Bergson at the College de France, including the sequence on comedy. Passing through the meetings of the ultraconservative Action Française, where he met Charles Maurras, he became “familiar,” his biographer Jeffrey Meyers avers, “with the work of contemporary French thinkers: Georges Sorel, Julien Benda, Charles Péguy, and Rémy de Gourmont.”2

The names of Benda, Gourmont, and Sorel enter Lewis's vocabulary at a later, more predictable moment: he begins to cite these thinkers in the years after the Great War, when his prose has taken a turn toward a more discursive, speculative character. No detailed documentation of his intellectual interests survives from his first Parisian period. One may reasonably contend that a young artist like Lewis, driven by youthful curiosity and gifted with sensitive antennae, might follow the available leads to the work of Gourmont and Sorel, authors who had defined the values of the visual sense so provocatively. They had produced most of their major writings by 1908. Yet Lewis's recreation of his Paris years in the novel Tarr (1918) shows his counterpart, the English protagonist Frederick Tarr, moving almost exclusively through a community of expatriates—German, English, Russian, Italian; he makes no significant contact with local French culture, let alone with the signal figures named by Meyers. Of course one need not hinge the claim of Lewis's relationship to the French intellectuals on direct acquaintance. What is certain about his early exposures—Lipps in Germany, Bergson in France—is enough to have focused his mind on one side of the European discourse recounted earlier. Reacting against the idea of musical empathy, he moved intuitively into line with Gourmont and, later, Benda. Already in 1909 and 1910, in his first attempts at short fiction (based on a year of travel through Brittany and Spain in 1908), he expresses an understanding, like Gourmont's, of the susceptibilities of human hearing, and he moves these insights toward antidemocratic conclusions similar to those drawn by Benda a full decade later, in 1918, in Belphégor.

By the time Lewis turns to revise this early fiction for collection in The Wild Body (1927), he will have absorbed not only the writing of Gourmont and Benda, but most of the continental literature that provides the full, expository ground for these French authors, whose political aesthetic he will ratify and extend. This wider, seasoned awareness provides the broad focus of the present chapter. Yet Lewis's mature sensibility returns us to its origins to understand its core, its depth. We may compare two versions of one story—written as “Le Père François” in 1909, revised as “Franciscan Adventures” in 1927—to follow the intellectual biography, as it were, of this radical idéologue, who moves his original, empirical observations of human sensations toward an increasingly abstract formulation of political principle.

Picaresque farceur, the narrative persona of Lewis's early fiction journeys through the backwaters of Brittany and Spain to find comic incidents that also represent elementary laws of behavior. Here the human creature sounds his credulity and stupidity again and again through that circuit of aural and oral compulsion so severely mapped by Gourmont and—later—by Benda. In “Le Père François,” the narrator fiddles thus with his victim's voice:

After having been shown his throat, and having vainly attempted to seize between my thumb and forefinger an imaginary vessel that he insisted, with considerable violence, that I should find, our relations nearly came to an abrupt termination on my failing, and having, indeed, pursued song athwart his anatomy to its darkest and most lugubrious sources, I said irrelevantly that his hair was very long. He slowed down abruptly in his speech, but some sentences still followed. Then, after a silence, taking suddenly the most profoundly serious expression, he said, with a conviction of tone that admitted of no argument and paralysed all doubt, “I will tell you! It's too long! My hair is too long!”3

The mystery organ in the depths of this “florid aperture” is the source and site of the feelings of musical vitalism currently being identified and analyzed by continental thinkers. Having had the vitalist innards of his throat tickled and stimulated, Francis responds to the speech of the narrator in a way that conforms to Gourmont's own analysis of the effects of such vocal energy. In a rote, determinate reaction, the Franciscan merely repeats the (“irrelevant”) phrases imprinted into him.

The paces of aural habit through which this vibrant songbird has been put now lead the narrator to ponder the political implication of this sensory debility. “Music was his theme,” Lewis writes of this caricature-in-voice; “to look at him,” he continues,

one would have said that the only emotion he had ever experienced was that provoked by the topical and sentimental songs of his country. He had become a very disreputable embodiment of them. His was the face of a man who had wedded, and been mastered by, the vague and neurasthenic heroine of the popular lyrical fancy; from constant intercourse with this shade he had grown as nearly as he could make himself her ideal. … [H]e turned in my direction, stretching out the hand with the umbrellas, and began singing a patriotic song in a lusty voice. (WB, 277)

Lewis's political consideration does not emerge in the vocabulary of sociological treatise. He is thinking in terms of the mechanical comedy to which Francis's mouthy élan typically runs—in the language of physiology that is special to the new idéologie. Francis's fanciful marriage with the heroine of the song, following his “constant intercourse with this shade,” consummates the laws of physical sympathy fundamental to acoustic experience. Presenting that response as the femme fatale's “popular” draw, moreover, Lewis shows such empathy through sound as the populist way of feeling. Music binds the members of Demos into an acoustic amalgam and generates collective feeling, like the national hymns heard by Benda, as a function of its own sensory effect. Thus the songster Francis, exuding the same “lusty” mood that compels his imaginative marriage with the ballad bride, rides his “patriotic song” into elementary union with his conationals. Reversing this current of empathic projection but preserving its social meaning, he elsewhere invites the same populist aggregate to abide at his acoustic quick: he has “become a giant. … [N]ow that he is isolated everything has come to inhabit him, and he feels constantly in his spirit the throbbing of multitudes” (WB, 280). The modern political phenomenon of demotic gigantism thus whirls around his empty center. The vacant interior space of the individual craves such bogus relationships and expansions as musical empathy makes all too easy and available.

“Le Père François” forms a nearly complete basis for the political pronouncements Lewis writes into the 1927 revision. His initial observations about the mechanism of sensory life simply shift now into a more overtly discursive rhythm and diction, moving his early notions into a more abstract, taxonomic vocabulary: “What emotions had this automaton experienced before he accepted outcast life? In the rounded personality, known as Father Francis, the answer was neatly engraved. The emotions provoked by the bad, late, topical sentimental songs of Republican France” (WB, 121). Lewis's own emphases on Republican doxology throw the sentence into high allusive relief, reaching into the background sound for words like “fraternité” and “égalité.” Here he links the egalitarian and collectivist values of early Republican France to the group feelings induced by music, a sensory experience already dramatized by Francis in the 1909 manuscript and aligned now with its particular Cause and State. He repeats this point of political definition in the new image of Francis “standing in the middle of the road, the moonlight converting him into a sickly figure of early republican romance,” where “he sang to me as I walked away” (WB, 129; emphases added). Here Lewis adds only the “republican” label to the romance topos of 1909. Where Francis's original wedding with the “popular” bride of lyric fancy consummated the union of musical empathy and conformed to that newly discovered law of demotic solidarity, the same mode of feeling finds its theme song, its political motto and specific creed, in the mass equality of postrevolutionary France. This was of course the political and intellectual culture in which idéologie discovered its first uses, and its ethic and method are followed in the trajectory Lewis describes between 1909 and 1927: the sensory evidence adduced in the first story leads to the abstract idea named in the second. (The peculiar temper that earned Lewis his sobriquet as the Enemy is also manifest in this exercise: his is a reactionary ideology, like Benda's—an empirical analysis designed to expose the bogus character of a political concept based on human infirmity.)

Lewis undertook his 1927 rewriting at a considerable distance from the original story. He had passed through the eye of the Great London Vortex into the surge of the Great War; returned to London and secluded himself in the British Library; researched the philosophical and literary material for his prodigious output of speculative and creative work in the twenties and thirties. To assign his revisions to the circumstances of this later phase, however, is to poke the fire from the top: the developmental continuity should not be missed. It is equally important not to minimize the impact of the Great War. The popular sanction required for mass conflict—one fought, putatively, to make the world safe for democracy—reinforced Lewis's antipopulism, and the second of the two issues of Blast (July 1915, War Number) bristles with the resentment4 no less rebarbatively than his 1927 revision. This historical experience also served to strengthen Lewis's aversion to the acoustic empathy he had already identified as the basis of demotic fellow feeling. In Blast 2, the sound of “the Crowd cheering everywhere” is like the “perpetual voice of a shell. If you put W before it, it always makes War!”5

The impact of war on Lewis's developing ideology of the eye is more abrupt and disturbing. In his 1913 Composition, as already seen, the triumphant struggle for a purely perceptual dominance becomes politically radicalized, by 1915, in The Crowd. Here the artist shifts his vocabulary of optical dominance into an exact version of the medieval scheme of proximate vision, where the eye's own ability to foreground and isolate the object of attention in high focus is complemented by a similar institution of social authority.

These observations point up the political meaning of a similar process, visible in a comparison of designs in Blast 1 (June 1914) and Blast 2 (July 1915). The titles of the two prewar pieces, Plan of War and Slow Attack suggest that the charge of Mars can be bridled—planned or slowed—by the acts of visual severance that segment and organize their dynamic lines. Here the eye exerts the sort of physical superiority we found as the challenge and victory of Composition. For the black-and-white chock-ablock avoids the chromatic progression in the Futurists' dynamic sweeps; its optical disruptions seem to direct the currents of aggression onto the restraining grid of its own designs. Yet Lewis has woven most of these juxtaposed shapes so closely together that they seem to build rather than retard the momentum. Masses of compacted energy, they inscribe lines of staggered force; graphs of exertions more tremendous, finally, than the resistance being applied. Though undeclared, this alliance between dynamist content and visual form will appear unholy once signed into history on 3 August: once national élans batter each other into the quasi-aesthetic shape of the Western Front, that framed space of death. (Like Gertrude Stein, Lewis must also see the design of the European trench system as a gruesome parody of artistic—cubist or Vorticist—form.6) Accordingly, an equally abstract representation of 1915 decidedly reorients the eye's earlier compact with vitalist forces. Design for “Red Duet” loosens the close juxtapositions of black and white in the 1913-14 work, unraveling those graphs of densely compacted energy. Ampler, more frequent, his white spaces now fit like multiple margins of silence, voids against which the vectors of energy arrest or deflect themselves. Similarly, Lewis enhances the control exerted by the rectilinear frame as he repeats that containing shape several times within the design. Thus he already turns optical severance in a Bendan direction, into a pictorial language of severe mastery.

In this way Lewis develops his ideology of ear and eye from 1908 to 1915, thence to 1927. This sensibility provides the structuring, unifying force for his magnum opus of the postwar years. The six volumes he published between 1926 and 19307—two novels (The Childermass, 1928; The Apes of God, 1930) and four discursive tracts (The Art of Being Ruled, 1926; The Lion and the Fox, 1927; Time and Western Man, 1927; Paleface, The Philosophy of the Melting Pot, 1929)—were all conceived and written originally as a single oeuvre, The Man of the World. This witnesses his attempt at the kind of major syntheses promised by the new idéologie. Adducing truths of human physiology as a basis for political concepts in the discursive books, Lewis extends these principles into the alternate world of the fiction—that sphere of virtual (aesthetic) sensations—to seek proof for his elementary axioms about physiology. In the first part of this chapter I will formulate Lewis's ideology of the senses and proceed to read the novels as test—but not testimony—of its success. For this painterly sensibility failed to generate a valid verbal art—an awareness Lewis himself disclosed, but initially only in the provisional framework of the fiction.

Benda condemned his early tendency to prescribe social solutions in aesthetic terms in La Trahison des clercs (1928), but Lewis will react to his own failure to consummate his artistic ideology in the fiction by extending it directly into history. Having failed (by 1930) to impose a pictorial ideal on the lexical experience, he turns to the Third Reich, and in Hitler (1931) he sees the Führer as hero in his own artistic scheme of proximate vision. This will be the second of his disappointments, and the rise and fall of that optical illusion will be traced in the second part of this chapter. How he assimilates this defeat into the fiction written through the mid- and late thirties provides the subject of the third part. Yes, Lewis shares the sensory preferences of Benda, as his frequent references to “the excellent Belphégor8 attest. Yet the English writer's ambition will appear, in the end, equally more hubristic and self-limiting. At once over-reaching and self-chastening (Benda never confesses his own earlier treason), Lewis returns upon himself, generating a thought and art out of his intellectual and aesthetic failures.

There are two Lewises, then, in the years of l'entre deux guerres. If they contend with one another, they will also vie for the attention of his old friend, Ezra Pound, who discovers Lewis anew, we shall see, in the late twenties, and builds his understanding of their affinity through the thirties. That Pound responds to the Enemy mask of defiant hubris rather than the Lewis of individual reticence (who has slipped critical attention as well) is a choice freighted with a significance similar to that which frets his decision, made on the pages of the Egoist of 16 February 1914, to read Epstein's sculpture as a writ of elite authority and not a rite of populist collectivism. Not that Lewis presents the viewer of 1930 with two neatly defined options on the State of his art. His admission of aesthetic failure (and his abrogation of the artist's political project) is made obliquely, at first deflected into a self-parody that seems at times to triumph in the very political aesthetic he enjoys sending up. It is a performance curiously similar to Pound's in Mauberley (the resemblance will make the poet's inattention to the second of the two Lewises all the more telling): an ironic undermining of his aesthetic ideals, which have failed to attain literary success; which have driven him toward social conclusions equally high-minded and terrifying, and ultimately impossible to sustain.

Lewis's process of defining his artistic values, exaggerating their political prepotency, and admitting his fallacy is one that I will follow here without continual reference to Pound's own evolving views (their local contacts and specific similarities will be noted). His later influence on Pound represents a hermeneutic choice on the poet's part, a selection of one ally from the two available Enemies. The import of his decision may be best assessed (in chapter 4) by allowing Lewis's career to generate the full complexity of its double identity—a monument of twisted brilliance; a turning back on his own deluded, fiercely intelligent hubris, which averts its ultimate tragedy by recognizing its mistake: a misguided but compelling extension of the current tradition of European idéologie.


In Time and Western Man, Lewis writes:

It is in a thick, monotonous prose-song that Miss Stein characteristically expresses her fatigue, her energy, and the bitter fatalism of her nature. … [I]t is the tongue—only the poor, worried, hard-worked tongue—inside the reader's head, or his laryngeal apparatus, that responds to the prose-song of Miss Stein. (61)

The points of attack in Lewis's essay repeat the themes of Benda's aural physiology. Physical union with the acoustic stimulus is cartooned in this reader's sensual echoing of Stein's text. Merging with the material body of language, one mouths its sounds with a mindlessness equal to its originator's. The involuntary nature of acoustic sympathy and the listener's reflex imitations also recall the major point of Gourmont's analysis. Such rote repetition is the only response available to a listener who has followed the susceptibilities of the ear and entered into physical union with the sound9—with the “soggy lengths of primitive mass life” that Lewis finds in her fluent chant. To his ear, Stein recites to consumers attuned to the merely aural provocations of mass, vulgar culture: her sausage-links prose song is “undoubtedly intended as an epic contribution to the present mass-democracy” (TWM, 62). She appears in his democratic Dunciad as fellow traveler with Ernest Hemingway (and Aldous Huxley10); they have supplanted the well-born artifice of written prose for the bastard artistry of a plebian vocalese. This fictional language “is not written” at all; “it is lifted out of Nature and very artfully and adroitly tumbled out upon the page: it is the brute material of every-day proletarian speech and feeling” (MWA, 35).

The differences between oral and written models of language provide Lewis with a framework for a broadly based analysis of modern culture. While voice infects the printed literature of a democratic state, an aristocratic society tends to reverse this tendency: to influence and improve the material of speech by imposing a page-based standard of usage upon it. The leverage required for this effect depends on circumstances, he concedes, that have passed into history: on a restriction of the literate public to an upper class capable of supporting good writing. Predictably, Lewis's comments on the topic revert to cultural elegy, expressing a nostalgic wish for “the artless high spirits so important in a patron” willing “to pay a person to speak as Shakespeare did, or Dryden or [incongruously] Nash.” At other times, he directs such reverie into a focused, detailed apologia for those foregone conditions:

While England was a uniquely powerful empire-state, ruled by an aristocratic caste, its influence upon the speech as upon the psychology of the American ex-colonies was overwhelming. But today that ascendancy has almost entirely vanished. … [T]here is no politically-powerful literate class any longer now, in our British “Banker's Olympus,” to confer prestige upon an exact and intelligent selective speech. Americanization—which is also for England, at least, proletarianization—is far too advanced to require underlining.

Arguing that precision of verbal meaning escalates in relation to the level of literacy, Lewis is extending a long tradition of linguistic analysis. Unlike Jacques Derrida, who regards the printed word as locus and invitation for uncontrolled semantic play, an older convention of linguistic commentary, aptly surveyed by Walter Ong, sees selectivity and exactness of reference as priorities in a book-based experience of language: the separation of words into razor-sharp units on the page fosters the need for a correspondingly integral, single significance. (Hugh Kenner has speculated cogently on the relation between writing and the very conception of the word as an atomic unit of meaning.)11 Yet a legacy no less relevant to Lewis's thought appears in the recent commentary of Benda and Gourmont, idéologues who have invested visual severance with a political value identical to the one Lewis invokes here: while the democratic ear merges, the aristocratic eye divides, achieving the separations on which clear conceptual understanding relies and, in their hermeneutic, proving the natural truth of a political elite. While optical separation stands as the emblem of an aristocratic class for the French critics, Lewis gives this political aesthetic a fresh impress on the page—in the lexical experience itself.

Conversely, the separation between word and referential sense appears widest to Lewis in sounds made by and for the Crowd, in the discourse of populist politics. Here the physical thrill of the word may not only substitute for the reality of the referent; it allows the auditor to wish into existence unreal or untenable social concepts. Calling this susceptibility the als ob—“as if”—principle of democratic culture, he asks “If, again, we cannot all be ‘free’ in the Roman sense, or be ‘persons’ as were all Roman Citizens, then should we use their words?” and answers, describing the delusion of that democratic password in terms of its acoustic charge: “The word ‘free’ is merely, as it were, a magical counter with which to enslave us, it is full of an electrical property that has been most maleficent where the European or American is concerned. … It is the ‘democratic’ conceit that is at fault, is it not?”12 How these electric vocables stimulate the political fiction of democracy—universal freedom and equal citizenship are the specific associations—is a question that Gustave LeBon answers at greater length, in a passage that stands as a probable source for Lewis's own:

Words whose sense is the most ill-defined are sometimes those that possess the most influence. Such, for example, are the terms democracy, socialism, equality, liberty etc., whose meaning is so vague that bulky volumes do not fit it precisely. … [A] truly magical power is attached to those short syllables. … They are uttered with solemnity in the presence of crowds, and … all heads are bowed. … [The] very vagueness that wraps them in obscurity augments their mysterious power. … Certain transitory images are attached to certain words: the word is merely as it were the button of an electric bell that calls them up.13

Responding to the same electric signals Lewis hears in these words, the members of LeBon's crowd nod in blind unison to the vocal tokens proclaiming their collective equality. This feeling of empathy with the sound and with other auditors, both writers suggest, provides the true basis of democratic fellow feeling.

Lewis's objections to the acoustic delusion in language belong to the analytical, diagnostic, descriptive rhythm of his idéologie. They form the basis for his prophetic, curative, prescriptive measures. Here he uses the deficiencies of musical democracy to argue for the stark political alternative of fascism:

And yet for anglo-saxon countries as they are constituted to-day some modified form of fascism would probably be best. … In short to get some peace to enable us to work, we should naturally seek the most powerful and stable authority that can be devised. … Complete political standardization, with the suppression of the last vestiges of the party system, will rescue masses of energy otherwise wasted in politics for more productive ends. All the humbug of a democratic suffrage, all the imbecility that is so wastefully manufactured, will henceforth be spared this happy people. There will not be an extremely efficient ruling caste, pretending to possess a “liberal” section, or soft place in its heart for the struggling people, on the traditional english model, but the opposite to that. There will be instead an organization that proclaims its intention to rule without interminable palaver, without a “talking house” to humbug its servants in, sweating them but enabling them to call themselves “free”. … (ABR, 320-22)

As words go over into music in demotic culture, and thus lose meaning, the judgmental, idiomatic sense of “humbug” picks up its original, mimetic idea: nonsense sound. Along the same lines, “palaver” returns its acquired association of vocal drivel to its cognate etymology—para-bolar, “to throw to the side”—in order to depict the essential deflection of meaning in words voiced aloud, in a democratic “talking house” (parliament). Here the acoustic charge of language short-circuits its significance and substitutes its sensory thrill—the melding effect conatural to the experience of sound—for the conceptual validity of collectivist, egalitarian passwords. Such manipulation of audience and electorate belies the high ideal of suffrage and conscious choice and thus, in Lewis's view, describes the supreme delusion of democracy. This system operates with a different but no less coercive authority than fascism itself.

Thus the newest, most startling inference of Lewis's argument is the idea that fascism differs from current democratic method mainly or only on the matter of linguistic directness. Fascists at least say what they do, and that, Lewis claims, is the least we can hope for: “All I wish to emphasize [in fascism] is a new factor, a political openness and directness, the initiative in which democracy cannot claim” (ABR, 75). What decides Lewis's preference for fascism over democracy is not the putative difference between the values of oppression and liberality; it is an aesthetic standard defined primarily in visual terms—for him the clarity and directness available (mainly) to the eye. His choice represents a distinction between better and worse states of perception, not between States founded on creeds either admired or disapproved. It is made by the radical idéologue, not the conventional modern ideologue.

It is in terms of this latter-day identity that Lewis is seen—often astutely—by Fredric Jameson. As a Marxist, however, Jameson reduces Lewis's political options to the binary dialectical model: the specter of communism has generated the single, predictable antithesis of fascism, which the Enemy must seize as the only available alternative.14 Yet Lewis's resistance to such conventional partisan divisions locates the essence of his political identity. Authority is his one value, and if it is properly (optically) established, it matters not one whit to him which partisan stripe it wears. In the passage above, in fact, he is describing the ideal regimen of a fascist or socialist state: “All marxian doctrine, all étatisme or collectivism, conforms very nearly in practice to the fascist ideal” of a “rigidly centralised” hierarchy, “working from top to bottom with the regularity and smoothness of a machine” (ABR, 321-22). And so Lewis taunts ideological faithfuls—in the early thirties—by placing his authoritarian squarely in the no-party's-land of idéologie: “politically I take my stand midway between the Bolshevist and the Fascist—the gentleman on the left I shake with my left hand, the gentleman on the right with my right hand. If there were only one (as I wish there were) I'd shake him with both hands.”15

This indifference to party allegiance helps to explain Lewis's lack of overt commitment to British fascism. In this home-grown species he could see close-up the actual machinations of party politics, even those of the authority he heroicized: its leader relied on a mass-based legitimacy, on demagogic oratory (a recognition he will need a full decade to make in Germany, whose distance from England affords him the vantage on which his ideals rely).16 Here is one soft point in the satirist's armored shell, the extraordinary naiveté of the Man of the World: an aesthetic conception of politics that subjects all parties to the same artistic criticism and that blinds him to the real difference between partisan values.

What joins dictatorial fascism to the right kind of socialism is, for Lewis, a specifically verbal directness: its Word shows what it means. This is his own literary hubris, one that he is asserting on the pages of his contemporary fiction. Overreaching the nonpainterly medium of language, he attempts to substitute (his) optical rules for normal lexical laws. The frustrations attending this project variously challenge and reinforce his desire to find his artistic ideal fulfilled in the political realm. To explore his troubles in the twenties with the theory and practice of visual linguistics is to locate a tension generating his more overt application of aesthetics to politics in the early thirties.


While Lewis sometimes admits the conflict between visual directness and verbal representation, he defies these differences just as often. In “Credentials of the Painter” (1922), to begin, he restricts vivid immediacy to the pictorial image alone, setting it categorically at odds with the elusive music of the verbal counter:

The fundamental claim of the painter or sculptor, his fundamental and trump credential, is evidently this: that he alone gives you the visual fact of our existence. … His art is in a sense the directest and is certainly the most “intellectual,” when it is an art at all. The word-picture of the writer is a hybrid of the ear and eye. He appeals to both senses. In his imagery he leaves you the emotional latitude almost of the musician. He says “the dog bayed,” and as you read it a ghost of a deep sound causes a faint vibration in your throat (you “bay”), and a vague hound appears with bloodshot eyes and distended neck in the murk of your consciousness. The painter paints you a dog baying; it is a new and direct experience. (WLA, 218)

Lewis's faith in the directness of pictorial presentation leads him to claim that a specifically acoustic effect may attain greater accuracy in paint than in language, even when the word is sounded out to mimic the aural referent.

The exaggerations he makes in favoring the painter over the writer only add to the demands on language when, at other moments, he proposes a union between his pictorial vision and his literary efforts:

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. “The architectural simplicity”—whether of a platonic idea or a greek temple—I far prefer to no idea at all, or, no temple at all, or, for instance, to most of the complicated and too tropical structures of India. Nothing could ever convince my EYE—even if my intelligence were otherwise overcome—that anything that did not possess this simplicity, conceptual quality, hard exact outline, grand architectural proportion, was the greatest art. Bergson is indeed the arch enemy of every impulse having its seat in the apparatus of vision, and requiring a concrete world. (ABR, 338)

Here Lewis joins the French faculty of severance to the eye of his English prose: optical separation (“hard exact outline”) combines intellectual definition (“conceptual quality”) with the unfettered directness (“simplicity”) of the integral verbal image. Claiming a directly presentational intelligence in language, this 1926 tract counters the cautionary words of 1922 and as such outlines the ambitious trajectory of this painterly writer. Yet the force of the earlier passage enters as fool to Lewis's Lear, subverting the visual hubris in ways equally subtle and conspicuous. The “tropical” zones and structures he seeks to elude provide a verbal reminder—the word shares its etymon with trope, “turning (away)”—of the essentially metaphorical, secondary character of linguistic figures. Despite the overt protest, Lewis's formulations reveal their deeper allegiance to Dora Marsden and the nominalist arguments of the New Freewoman and the Egoist (which had serialized Tarr). The “structures” of discourse are all too “tropical” and “complicated,” and the strain required to align the deflections of language with the arrow-straight compass of Lewis's idealized eye is evident in the special pleading he reverts to here.

The strain is already evident in 1922, in his “Essay on the Objective of Plastic Art,” where he takes Schopenhauer's dictates on visual severance as an absolute rule of all art:

“[Art] therefore pauses at this particular thing, the course of time stops: the relations vanish for it: only the essential, the idea, is its object.”

That might be a splendid description of what the great work of plastic art achieves. It “pauses at this particular thing,” whether that thing be an olive-tree that Van Gogh saw; a burgher of Rembrandt or Miss Stein. “The course of Time stops.” A sort of immortality descends upon these objects. …

Those words are, however, part of a passage in The World as Will and Idea. …“[A]rt … is everywhere at its goal. For it plucks the object of its contemplation out of the stream of the world's course, and has it isolated before it.”

We might contrast this with a Bergsonian impressionism, which would urge you to leave the object in its vital milieu. … The impressionist doctrine, with its interpenetrations, its tragic literalness, its wavy contours, its fashionable fuss, points always to one end: the state in which life itself supercedes art. … (WLA, 208-9)

While Schopenhauer restates the now familiar connection between visual separation (“it plucks the object of its contemplation out of … the world's course”) and conceptual definition (“only the essential, the idea, is its object”), Lewis goes on to discredit any mode of intellectual, aesthetic, or sensory perception other than this exclusively visual one. Isolation of the individual verbal figure from the lexical continuum must deprive it of the contextual, relational basis of modern linguistic understanding. The necessary play between figure and ground emerges here, in Lewis's judgment, as an operation of vitalist empathy and interpenetration at its Bergsonian worst.

To this protodemocratic milieu Lewis responds, in 1922, with the nascent force of his own developing vision of aesthetics and politics. The separation of figure from ground in the scheme of proximate vision achieves a spatial hierarchy, and this imaginative paradigm of authoritarian politics seeks a local habitation in the art of names as well as in pictorial images—though the strenuousness of its verbal realization will be apparent throughout Lewis's efforts. His attempt to elevate literature to that highly specialized method and standard of painting produces a body of fiction remarkable for the very ambitious terms on which it struggles and, in the end, makes an art of its own failure.


The emblem and instrument of Lewis's struggle as a pictorial stylist is the jagged, highly idiosyncratic character of his prose syntax. Working against the cursiveness of conventional English grammar (meaning is built on word order, not inflection), he seeks to replace its principle of continuity, which relates one word to the next in linear sequence, with a model of correspondence, where the individual word, separated from the normal syntactic flow, may recover an equally integral referent. Consider the contortions required to delineate the images for this cameo in Apes of God—a representative example from that largely plotless gallery of satirical portraits of Bloomsbury:

The impressive displacement (on the pattern of the heavy uprising from the pondfoam of the skull of a seal, with Old-Bill moustache, leaden with water, as exhibited at the Zoo) released the pinch of neck-flesh which had been wedged between the stud and shirt-band. … Head lazily rolled to one side he considered it—with staring swimming eyes and moist pink muzzle, pulpily extended—plum locked in plum. (AG, 59)

Disrupting the drift of the long sentence, Lewis checks the linear movement of subject-verb with a lengthy parenthesis. Thrusting against the momentum that undermines the visual specificity of single words, he fills the breach with a series of closely focused, separate images. The second long sentence proceeds from noun clause to main clause when, like the first, it frustrates its expected progression, refusing to produce the sort of flourish that normally attends the completion of the periodic structure: the movement from minor to major. Unmusical to a fault, the fragmentation of these noun phrases is assisted by the dashes. Syntax and punctuation conspire to produce a page-based illusion of resemblance between discrete verbal units and the images of individual things.

It is an art of more than usual illusion: the very vividness of its images relies on the exaggeration of extreme metaphors. Such similes play a crucial role in Lewis's practical poetics—as in the likenesses aped by the cat in the opening of his 1930 novel: “A cat like a beadle goose-stepped with eerie convulsions out of the night cast by a cluster of statuary, from the recesses of the entrance hall. A maid with matchless decorum left a door silently, she removed a massive copper candlestick. She reintegrated the gloom that the cat had left” (AG, 7). “Nothing is more fantastic, ultimately, than precision,” Robbe-Grillet remarks:17 “A cat like a beadle goose-stepped”—a virtual bestiary of fabulous comparisons. The very quest for vivid particularity in verbal reference has led Lewis to fetch his metaphors from so far away; the less striking the likeness, after all, the dimmer the image in print. Stuck to phantoms, unstuck from things, words seem “matchless” indeed—in the several senses of that aptly charged adjective, including “incomparable,” in a passage that relies on such extravagant comparisons to denote other quiddities. Such figurative, nonessential words are doomed to the duplicity of meanings that this one centers so ostensibly: a matchless candle-bearer, who is beyond compare, or is without lighting devices. Thus “matchless” integrates the true gloom of Lewis's passage—the darkness cast over the phenomenal world by the shape-changing shadows of words like that.

Like Pound's ideogrammic method, Lewis's art of extreme metaphor concedes the referential doubleness of English words, but only in an attempt to surmount it—to enforce the one meaning he projects through his aggressively visual tropes. An art of excess, it runs the risk of committing opposite mistakes. Stretching the credibility of the metaphors too far, he may also compensate by relaxing into the readily acceptable, conventional figure. In either case, the Enemy will have gone over to the side of his linguistic foe. Pushing the vividly imagined terms of his similes to an untenable distance from their originals, he release a flow of sensuous particulars as gratuitous and unattached as the self-propelled current of the Stein-stutter: a blind, mindlessly winding alley of purely verbal sensationalism. Understandably, he may resort to the established trope, and these dim but easily credible figures not only fail his own experiments; they confirm the adequacy of the same conventional usage his literary project exists to discredit. Going too far and not far enough and, on both counts, consorting with his enemies, Lewis's self-betrayal is evident in the technical practices as well as the fictions of these two novels.

The danger of figurative excess escalates when the technique of extreme metaphor repeats in series. The simile of extravagant visual abuse is the basic gesture of Enemy satire, and when Lewis widens its scope, filling out the satirical scene with multiple figures, the quick, sharp, glancing blows of those individual tropes seem to miss their targets. The verbal images often seem to spring less from their victims than from each other—one fantastical figure pulling the next in its wake. Consider the difference between the vividness of a single image and the smear of a serial crowd:

Stationary butterflies, his eyes fluttered bashfully as the three visitors came into the hall. (AG, 310)

Dense centripetal knots or vortices of people collect marginally, beneath the wall or beyond the path, but a march is kept up where the ground is even by an active inquisitive crowd of promenaders passing each other back and forth like the chain of a funicular. The vortices forming beneath the wall are watched from above in the manner of the Eton wall-game by disputatious idlers who interrupt from their vantages with peremptory vetoes, or launch red-herrings into the centre of the scent.18

When Etonian debates are staged as popular entertainment, “red-herrings” may well be thrown, not only (in the idiomatic sense) as rhetorical distractions, but as stinking fish from the stands. Preposterous metaphor, “red herrings” links its literal and figurative terms, achieving the same kind of tensioned correspondence that Lewis's other, equally radical comparisons need to succeed. And while this usage embodies just the sort of verbal brio that Northrop Frye regards as the driving spirit of satire,19 it serves only to highlight the excess of excess, when the vehicle of a metaphor drives away from its tenor into the intense inane. Not only does the overheated verbal imagination blur the visibility of the prospect here; its symptoms are streaked across the grammar as well. The flurry of alternative conjunctions—“Dense centripetal knots or vortices,” “beneath the wall or beyond the path,” “who interrupt … or launch”—reads as the sign of a focus refusing to settle, of an author being carried along by the autonomous force of language itself. Less interesting as referential image than word, “funicular” (rope, cord) shows that whirligig of linguistic energy sweeping the writer into its own eyeless vortex. While the desire to wring visual immediacy from verbal abstraction compels the technique of extreme metaphor, its elaboration manufactures an opacity greater than that which it seeks to overcome.

Lewis compensates with a complementary mistake: a usage excessively safe. In this excerpt from The Childermass (a massacre of the utopian myth of childhood), the radical thinginess of the unusual trope has been supplanted by a language of generic blandness: “Satters lisps, throwing a baby ravishment into his gaze. … Satters stickily lisps. ‘You're a perfect darling Pulley!’ in a florid whisper, on a hot and baby-scented breath. … Satters revives to pour out, in rich whining sibillation, leaning heavily on Pullman's arm … ” (Ch, 46-47). As an adjective, “baby” loses the solidity of the nominative for the vagueness of a general condition. Similarly, stickiness and floridity describe states of feeling, and show no concrete specifics of sensation (thus the need to repeat, for emphasis, “hot”). To turn the adjectival “whining” into a creature is a dog of a task—but its product would at least be visible. Little better his ornithology at the start of this passage from Apes: “Lord Osmund is above six foot and is columbiform. His breast development allies him also to that species of birds whose males are said to share the task of sitting feeding the young with their mates. The poulter-inflation seems also to give him a certain lightness—which suspends him like a balloon, while he sweeps majestically forward. His carefully-contained obesity may be the reason for his martial erectness” (AG, 350). “Columbiform” and “poulter”like offer “species” as the terms of imaginative comparison here. A language of taxonomic, Latinate generality has replaced the observed particular as the substance of Lewis's verbal art, and thus allowed the writing to lapse into a semidiscursive fluency—a manner utterly at odds with the sharp, darting, imagistic jabs of the literary satyr. What rescues this passage is that patch of unexpected visibility near the end: the image of the balloon swept majestically forward is unlikely (in the context of animal comparisons), sudden; like other shocking tropes, it relies for its visibility on an unpredictable rip in the discursive fabric—it comes just after the gratuitously inserted “—” (Lewis's visual imagination tends to penetrate language between dashes). And yet this anomalous, hypersyntactic metaphor depends on the abstract and normalizing language that precedes it, for that commentary provides a class category as frame for the unusual detail and, rhetorically, a kind of logical ballast to drag its airy extravagance to ground. As in farce, the humor turns on the sense of an impossibility becoming strangely reasonable, normal, indeed inevitable. This compromise between the eccentric detail and the normative voice is struck again and again in both novels, but to make it Lewis is going against his own strength as pictorial stylist.

Since the painter betrays his first principle of visual directness in his transactions with language, it is easy to see how Lewis's Enemy persona reflects an internal division. That mask portrays the artist's own split aesthetic identity. Verbal evocation and pictorial immediacy make their rival claims on this writer, but he has projected the personal conflict outward into a fixed, typical, political opposition: the musical indirection of democratic culture, the optical clarity of the fascist ideal. This separation, polemically maintained, suggests a need to hold apart forces that are, in fact, more complicitous—at least in Lewis's own literary practice. These opposites stand together in the locus of origins: in the fiction, most clearly in its dramatic personae, where characters of verbal (and vocal) obliquity merge into those typifying the directness intended by the painter. These personages focus a wide-ranging system of contradictions, which reveal the compromised nature of the linguistic medium in which they appear.

Such contradictions make up the figure and title of “The Split-Man” in Apes of God, Julius Ratner, who subsumes the vocal-musical character of James Joyce within the visual-presentational values of Lewis himself. Shaping Ratner's face to the austere outlines of Egyptian bas-relief—“The Arabs call him Split-Man”—Lewis shows him in angular profile; his highly defined features convey the impression (under the guise of the artistic convention that it is) of crisp, integral image, direct presentation. Yet this sternly abstract visage merely rests as facade over the vitalist innards of Ratner's Joycean voice. When Zagreus observes, “‘Exteriorly I always think of you in profile—like a bas-relief, you know. You always seem to me to be looking at me sideways—like a bird,’” he responds: “‘Really! You read a great deal into me Horace that is not there I fear—I never knew I was so interesting,’ Ratner croaked—his assumed worldliness breaking and cracking, the primitive gutturals [‘a bitter velvety bass’] getting the upper hand” (AG, 331). Jimmy Julius is speaking here to Horace Zagreus, whose two names include an opposition similar to his respondent's. The Roman stylist's terse epigrams provide the written equivalent of the succinct, well-defined outline of the Ratner profile; yet the fertility god Dionysus stirs in his second, Greek name. This antithetical title is an ample thematic resource, generating the extraordinary, indeed visionary, complexity of these sentences, where the first and last names collide as a multiple, ramifying paradox: “The entire Split-person, with a wolfish rush, came together, the dead half and the quick—it shook itself, it burst into action. The repressed instinct to strike, in the snake-like suspense of the faculties, in the rattish winter of his discontent beneath the horatian city, armed Ratner's tongue” (AG, 412). Just as musical élan undermines the nonvital geometry of Ratner's Egyptian profile, the Dionysian quick of his tongue violates the composure of a classical Horatian civitas. This city is the social extension of the visual values configured in the well defined bas-relief: optical discrimination creates an artistic-political elite, who preside over a city founded on the values of pictorial definition. As such, however, it is resented by a musical underclass—aggrieved, yes, but animated by an acoustic vitality like Ratner's, roiling “in the rattish winter of [their] discontent beneath the horatian city.”

While the apocalyptic division between these two camps appears familiar from Lewis's discursive opinions on political aesthetics, their inclusion in a single position—the single figure of Ratner—is not. The rigidity of their opposition in the polemical writing signals an attempt on Lewis's part to standardize and hold apart forces that run more compulsively (“wolfishly”) together in his literary practice, where he is more likely to concede the point: the pictorial directness he seeks in language is deflected into the acoustic density of words. The bitterness of this admission understandably casts the confession on an oblique angle (the focus of contradiction is James Joyce), but the grimness of his conviction lends the imaginative intricacy of these two passages a studied consistency.

Horace Zagreus takes his place in a chain of fictional personages, a sequence of characters who outline the essential direction and difficulty of Lewis's literary mission: the transmission of visual ideals into language. He is the emissary of Pierpoint. Never glimpsed in the novel, this potent but enigmatic figure is most clearly identified with the absent author: Pierpoint recalls, not only Percy Wyndham Lewis, but the name he nicked into his early letters—“Pierce-eye”—as ominous token of his later, aggressively pointed optical philosophy. A “painter turned philosopher” (AG, 129), like Lewis in the twenties, Pierpoint writes an encyclical, which Zagreus bears into the fictional milieu like a sacred scroll, in the ark of Lewis's new aesthetic Covenant: the extract summarizes the major points from the Man of the World's script. Extending the mystical wisdom of that encyclical into literary—and social—practice, however, entails a difficulty equal to the intricate network of its delivery. It moves from Lewis to Pierpoint, from Pierpoint to Horace Zagreus (already compromised by the rival claims of his double name), and thus to Zagreus's literary protégé, Dan Boleyn. Following in the fateful footsteps of Ann Boleyn, Dan is a tool in the dynastic ambitions of Pierpoint's aesthetics. His failure to give birth to the desired product—to pierce the fabric of language with an original visual intensity—will lead him to be discarded as easily as his namesake.

There is many a slip between Pierpoint's cup and Boleyn's lip, and Dan indeed gives some lip to the aesthetic of optical severity that has been passed to him: he allows the hard gaze of the pictorial artist to degenerate into vocal drivel, right from the start. Arriving at the party in the image of a “tall young man” with “great severity” (AG, 202), he scrutinizes the antics with “severe eyes” (204)—his visage the very image of visual severance, featuring high definition, intellectual discrimination, social elitism; he is the type-character of Lewis's visual idéologie. As soon as this optical intelligence enters language, however, it collapses into incantation, the wishful indecision of words in the mouth. The high aim of the eye is failed by language, uttered here both in internal monologue and aloud: “The tall boy swayed giddily, his expression all radiant with new-born hope and the sacred fire of the genius that one living creature at least believed in.—His own father had never said—it has been left to a total stranger to discover! ‘Melanie!’ in ponderous lisping rapture he articulated her name to call her attention. … ‘Can you teach me to paint pictures in oils oh do please say yes!’” (AG, 126).

Free indirect speech suits Lewis's purposes, he maintains in Satire and Fiction, mainly as satiric display.20 Accordingly, Dan's appearance in the novel reverts continually from a record of his severe visual aspect to a chanting in mock unison with his vocalized thoughts. This constant modulation from his idealized visage to the dismal matter-of-spoken-fact thus adds the certitude of burlesque to the failure it repeatedly enacts: the optical linguistic being tested in Dan is going down in a verbal—vocal—farce, in comic rue. Zagreus's letter, dismissing the experimental subject, puts his deficiencies in these terms: “‘You may not be so fitted for these severe exercises of the intellect as I had at first believed. … I have felt myself in the midst of some sentimental ‘bottom-dog’ Revolt, or that I had taken to my bosom a barbarian, instead of one (as I had fondly believed) who had the makings of a disciplined and rational person—destined to be a fine Frontkämpfer of the new idea’” (AG, 608). While Dan's “severe eyes” should have suited him for “these severe exercises of the intellect,” he has belied Benda's (and Gourmont's)21 promise of visual discrimination and conceptual definition. Barbar-ian (a word used ever searchingly by Lewis) lends the sense of its acoustic etymon—a babbler—to its judgmental meaning, and thus characterizes the forces undermining the ocular project: nonsense sound hangs on, even in printed words, as a presence, residual but real as the root meaning of that word. This errant music deflects the high, civilizing aim of optical definition.

Lewis's failure to align his pictorial principles with the lexical medium leads him to the complementary admission: aesthetic ideals neither describe nor prescribe the facts of political life—not even the acts of his preferred parties. The representatives of fascism thus emerge as split men of their own. Divided between aesthetic antitheses as sharply drawn as Ratner's, these figures own no single artistic principle to extend into social formations. In Childermass, the Führer-like Hyperides finds his prime disciple (the chain of command resembles the network emanating from Pierpoint) in Alectryon. He combines the superior powers of the defining eye—visual severance creates his sharply lined visage and vaunts its prestige in his severely elitist mien—with an unregenerate stutter, consonant with the musical indecision of democratic culture and the nonsense sound of its literary spokesperson, Gertrude Stein:

He is the handsomest of all the Hyperideans with a large and languishing russet petasus tied beneath his chin. A black-cloak falls straight to his heels fastened with a Bangkok swastika temple design imposed upon a rough brooch and he carries a black leather portfolio of continental cut. His face has no feminine imperfections but is cast on the severest lines of an eager and wolfish symmetry. … (Ch, 293-94)

“I speak; and if I speak well it is through [Hyperides'] influence, though this task of mine, I humbly conceive, be by no means above my parts, which in their turn derive to me from the hardy conjunction of an armorial duke with a Big-Steel Jewess (albeit such descent in certain quarters smacks of attainder) the last devisee of the historic blood of him who brought back the blocks of the decalogue out of the cloud from which archetypal puppet I inherit the slight stammer you m-m-may have rem-m-marked.”

Bailiff. “No, Did Moses stammer?”

Alectryon. “He, Sir, was named the Stammerer in consequence of his stammer. Aaron did all the s-s-s-s-s-s-speaking.” (Ch, 300)

Likewise, in Apes of God the figure of Blackshirt defiles the ceremonies of visual innocence, the pristine scheme of optical directness, that provides the standard and value of fascist mastery for Lewis. Blackshirt makes vulgar appeals to Demos, showing an unexpected affinity with popular musical culture: “Blackshirt began expounding. It reminded Dan of a ‘broadcast.’ … ‘These Finnian Shaws’ said Blackshirt—and Dan thought he detected a certain vulgarity in the accents of his voice” (AG, 482). “The Blackshirt whistled softly Auld Lang Syne and Dan looked up in some astonishment. This display of musical ability in such an unbending realist was unexpected to say the least” (AG, 502-3).

This deconstruction of the ideal extends to the motives and method of Lewis's distinctive literary style. The gestural directness that he values in the political grammar of fascism and seeks to replicate in his own fictional prose—dislocating normal syntactic progression, forcing the musical flow into abrupt, quasi-pictorial signals, thus showing verbal images as distinct and integral things—goes over to its political and aesthetic enemies in this next passage. Appropriately, the Split Man beholds this duplicity, but Lewis encloses the contradiction in a pattern of verbal echoing too subtle for Ratner, who regards a crowd

strutting in a dance, to a music of drums, with contralto and counter-bass saxophones—period The Present. The studied mass-energy of the music, hurrying over precipices, swooping in switchbacks, rejoicing in gross proletarian nigger-bumps, and swanee-squeals shot through with caustic cat-calls from the instrumentalists, depressed him. It was as if he had written it himself! But still more did the vibrations of the voice of Horace Zagreus depress him—that it would be impossible to attribute to Ratner's handiwork, with the autocratic dominant strut of its sentences, but doubly stupid it was in Ratner's estimate, twice as tiresome as the idiot mass-sound of the marxistic music. (AG, 442-43)

The “autocratic dominant strut” of Horace Zagreus's sentences depicts the boldly gestural motive and effect that Lewis seeks to produce in the visual explicitness of his own prose—and finds in the direct, directing Word of fascist authority. This political aesthetic might earn full endorsement from its speaker's Latin namesake. In line with his identity as Dionysian Greek, however, the anarchic vitalism of the demotic street dance is swayed to the same strut, here called to that tune of the “idiot mass-sound of the marxistic music.” For the Horatian Lewis's elitist precision is all of a piece with the fertile confusion of the common tongue. The usual duplicity of word and referent survives even in his highly refined style, and especially in its extravagant metaphors, where the vivid particularity of the comparison only widens the chasm between word and referent.

Representing his failure to synthesize painting and writing in passages as bleakly remarkable, as bitterly original as these, Lewis might have resolved their ambivalent triumphs into one certain truth: subjecting politics to an aesthetic analysis is to commit the reciprocal fallacy. Lewis concedes this theme, but only—for now—in his fiction, where the elementary conflict between his literary medium and his pictorial goals simply forces him to admit the misalignment. The incompatibilities may indeed appear merely as subjects to be exploited in the novels; to feed the very machine of literature that Lewis's painterly ideal cannot drive.22 Yet the inclusive vision of the political state as a work of art continues to exert its fascination for the Man of the World. In face of his literary failure, indeed, the political possibilities of his aesthetic seem to exert an even greater attraction in the early thirties, when he writes a tract in support of Hitler, a figure whom he conceives and represents in terms of his own artistic schemes. This visual idéologie is rooted in the early days of Lewis's career, and it establishes itself firmly at the beginning of the Man of the World project: its rise (and fall) may be traced from the first postwar years.


The changes wrought by the Great War on Lewis's visual sensibility are summarized in his 1950 memoir Rude Assignment:

The war was a sleep, deep and animal, in which I was visited by images of an order very new to me. Upon waking I found an altered world: and I had changed too, very much. The geometries which had interested me so exclusively before, I now felt were bleak and empty. They wanted filling.

War, and especially those miles of hideous desert known as “the Line” in Flanders and France, presented me with a subject-matter so consonant with the austerity of that “abstract” vision I had developed, that it was an easy transition. … And before I knew what I was doing I was drawing with loving care a signaller corporal to plant upon the lip of the shell-crater.23

This new claim on painterly realism certainly comports with the values of pictorial directness that Lewis sought to instill in literature in the twenties. His need to witness the war experience might have propelled him in this direction, but his shift toward realism, at least in the immediately postwar period, seems to be exaggerated in retrospect—perhaps to assert the truth of the horror that occasioned the change.

His remembrance is qualified by the contemporary record, by Ezra Pound, who, reviewing the same work Lewis is referring to, but in 1920, remarks: “A few devotees will regret that Mr. Lewis shows none of his more abstract compositions, yet his control over the elements of abstraction was hardly ever greater than in some of these present drawings, and his independence of the actual never more complete than in his present subjugation of it to his own inner sense” (EPVA, 134). Pound is describing the aesthetic conscience of Lewis's war painting in line with the values he will extol, nearly twenty years later, as that “Form-sense 1910 to 1914” (GK, 134). Yet he is also correct to see a new kind of realism on these canvases (sampled later), geometric in emphasis. For the new painting retains the primacy of abstract design over naturalistic content—with a struggle that makes all the difference. The agonistic attitude that Pound could see as the generative force of its achievement—that “subjugation” of “the actual” to the “abstract” schemes of his “inner sense”—thus emerges as an active awareness in the painter's own practice, as Lewis's own recollection continues: “I can never feel any respect for a picture that cannot be reduced, at will, to a fine formal abstraction. But I now busied myself for some years acquiring a maximum of skill in work from nature—still of course subject to the disciplines I had acquired and which controlled my approach to everything.”24 The language here is alive to the complexities of the original situation. Far from happy complicity with an easy naturalistic line, the Enemy's attempt to hold “nature … subject to the disciplines” of a “fine formal abstraction” reflects the struggle traced by Pound (whose review is echoed here as the truer record of Lewis's attitudes in the first postwar years).

This tension between formalism and realism plays onto broader political ground. For the architectural element in the war painting showed Pound, in February 1919, a distinctly social motive and goal. “These [“well composed, well constructed”] works are signally free from the violence which characterized Mr. Lewis's prewar productions,” he writes in “Wyndham Lewis at the Goupil”: “The artist is the antidote for the multitude. At least, there is antidotal art, whether one approve of it or no” (EPVA, 100). In other words, the painter could impose the formal order of his art onto the historical reality he enclosed in these designs. This model organization and authority both rearranged and corrected the chaotic actuality of mass society, as evidenced in the mass war that was Lewis's subject. Imposing design on representative content, the artist could be seen maneuvering for political vantage. Mastery is indeed the theme under which the painter's geometric schemes meet the random, variable, matter-of-recent-fact. (His analysis of Lewis's rage for order situates his own quest for poetic authority—particularly in Cantos IV-VII—in its postwar moment.)

Thus the form-making Vorticist acknowledges himself as legislator of the world in The Caliph's Design, a discursive fantasy written shortly after Pound's review. As though acting on that reviewer's “approval,” Lewis demands a social embodiment of his aesthetic vision. Hailing the “revolutionary epoch” that his own painting is part of, he tells artists to abandon their dated doctrine of art for art's sake; to model their work on the social conscience and public scale of the architects (the pamphlet is subtitled “Architects! Where is your Vortex?”); and to fashion this civil art in line with the most strenuous standards—the “hard and smart” lines of ultra-abstract artists. Theirs is a priestly tyranny of aesthetic legislators, a privilege embodied in Lewis's rhetorical persona. This caliph orders not just a city but a whole civil order to be built in accord with “a little vorticist bagatelle that I threw off while I was dressing.”25 More than caprice, his demand extends the privileges accruing rightly, Lewis believes, to an artistic clerisy. Again in 1919, he affirms a small “public d'élite” as a center of correct—and correcting—aesthetic awareness,26 and singles them out most of all for their capacity to see geometrically, abstractly. Hailing the diagrammatic aspect of art in “Prevalent Design” (1919), he suggests forcibly that such designs might prevail by force in the political sphere. His higher caste's “tyrannous talent for design” (WLA, 120) claims the same imperial means for levering aesthetic schemes onto the social realm as the Caliph's own.

The privileges of Lewis's clercs hinge on the form-making powers of their visual intelligence, and he exercises this authority through its signature pattern—proximate vision, as named and described by Ortega. To foreground the focal image is to discriminate; the consequent hierarchy of planes—in the sensory language of the new idéologie—endorses the idea of class echelons in society. Thus Lewis's 1919 painting A Battery Shelled puts his officer class securely in the frontal position. The authority he thereby sanctions is matched by a high aerial vantage of his own: he detaches the eye from the scene with the same kind of insouciant power that he depicts in their relaxed, apparently confident command. The naturalistic lines he weaves into the vestments of preeminence stand in equally sharp relief to the stick-men figures massed in the rear. This contrast may serve the perception that the members of the higher class might alone attain the kind of individuality he has contoured into these living, untypical shapes. But it is also possible to see the disparity as a formal and thematic irony, whereby the authority revered in the very scheme of this painting has reverted to the work of war—an aberration of the civilizing function Lewis accords these privileged individuals and reflects in their own sophisticated mien.

This reading also helps to explain the differences between the war painting and the design of The Pole Jump (1919-1929), where the rightful authority finds no errant preoccupation, where no such complication attends the configuration of power. Dominating its frontal plane, these juridical figures extend their authority over the plebian mass in the background by a rather extraordinary trompe-l'oeil. Inclining their hats in one direction, Lewis describes a single line of force that rises, in dramatic effect, to halt the vaulted body suspended in midair.

The difference between A Battery Shelled and The Pole Jump goes to their controlling perspectives. The lifted vantage and distancing effect in the war painting ensure that one is looking at a representation of authority, and this viewpoint allows for a rueful, distanced, even elegiac consideration of its subject. The angle of sight in The Pole Jump shifts into that of the frontal figures. Looking through the eyes of privilege, the viewer has moved into the dramatic economy of power, and the surging gaze transmits the feel of dominion intensely. While the convention of proximate vision obtains equally in the two paintings, the detached symbolic representation in the first has given way to an actualizing involvement in the second. The difference witnesses a movement from the virtual world of aesthetic shapes to the sphere of real political experience. Not content with using the schemes of proximate vision to depict a hierarchy in society, he seeks indeed to live inside its configuration of absolute power. This desire is so deep it can only be sharpened by deferral. When the pictorial stylist confesses the necessary failure of his scheme in Apes of God, in 1930, he will seek to realize it in Hitler's emergent State.

This development witnesses Lewis's own habitus, the inward bent of his character, and not simply a strategy of compensation. The same movement we see in the two paintings above can be followed again in a set of passages from The Lion and the Fox. In each he deploys the pattern of proximate vision with its familiar political content, contrasting the single figure of the privileged king with the subservient Many, but he shifts its angle of view, subtly, tellingly; a representation of this scheme in the first excerpt yields in the second to a participation in the political dynamic it depicts:

So the King in these early societies played the game of the One and the Many with a small chosen team, in a small chosen world. And the many on their side were not so many, not so many as ever to be “the crowd” or the many-headed multitude: but enough to reproduce the general contrast of numbers to singularity.

The feudal european king was essentially not a patriarch, but a stranger and an enemy. The king and his nobles were usually of another race to the subject, their mastery beginning in physical conquest. …

These russian or anglo-saxon serfs had their individual stranger (a small personal god) quartered on them, giving a personal form to all the anonymous outer power of the universe, against which it was impossible to fight, but against which … he agreed to protect them. He was their enemy, a representative of the outer hostile world, between whom and themselves the terms of propitiation and sacrifice had been systematized.27

The first passage sets out the class hierarchy that is preserved in the pictorial convention of proximate vision, and Lewis uses that design in a reasonably neutral, give-and-take, dialectical consideration of the political reality it reflects. In the sequel, he enters that diagrammatic scheme. Instead of looking at the ruler from the perspective of one gazing at the picture, where the privileged king is wreathed by the plebs, Lewis has taken up the vantage of the subject, through whose eyes “all the anonymous outer power of the universe” can be felt as the lord's resource of authority. And the poetry to which Lewis rises in portraying the dark, anarchic empowerment of antique rule measures the degree to which that aesthetic scheme—convenience for explanation in the first excerpt—is heated here with a lived intensity.

On one hand, he knew better. Already in 1934, in “Power-feeling and Machine-age Art,” he will assert that political force must move at cross-purposes with aesthetic form; the necessary dynamics of the State are at odds with the true order of art.28 By this time he will have started to see (as we will see) how far Nazi society diverges, in actuality, from his own artistic charter. On the other hand, the artificial schemes of painting abide as his primary model for personal and political life, and this pressure—the sedulous pleasure of conceiving and dealing with history in terms of artistic paradigms—will be countered only gradually, momentarily, tentatively, through the later thirties. To live in the aesthetic scheme is Lewis's deepest wish, a hubris whispered to this unpublished fragment (192?) from “Notes Toward [a] Theory of Painting”: “The life I am indicating (and which I regard as the most developed and which interests me most) is the mind that wishes to live wholly in NOTHING: to live eternally in some arbitrary (of man the point of view of experience, UNREAL) state or condition, where everything is represented, and where the opposites merge in an ordered repose.”29 The ordered repose of The Pole Jump, where the power thrust of the privileged gaze meets its object in a lively but contained stasis, follows the aesthetic form under which Lewis will experience Nazi Germany, thus idealizing and resolving its brute mastery.

His vision of ordered repose in the dictator's plans—“the Hitlerist dream is full of an imminent classical serenity”30—testifies already, in 1931, to the delusive powers of this aesthetic view. Now, the imminent Reich had not yet revealed its matter of sordid fact to everyone. But already, in The Art of Being Ruled, Lewis has agreed that postwar circumstances may require a violent, dictatorial oppression. On this political reality Lewis imposes his aesthetic screen, and its effect can be measured by the number of sheerly personal antipathies he had to overcome in order to admire Hitler. “Neither [Hitler's] obscure origins, personal appearance, artistic taste, intellectual attitude, youth cult, emotional rhetoric, racial theories, military spectacles nor rabid nationalism appealed to him,” Jeffrey Meyers cogently remarks, and such traits were clearly evident to Lewis during his two-month visit to Germany in 1930.31 These points of difference add up to measure the strain under which he must labor to sustain the authority of the Führer in the cleaner, nobler lines of the artistic paradigm. Proximate vision indeed exerts a formative force, showing its influence already in the frontispiece to Hitler (1931): a lurid close-up of the leader's face (full page in the first edition) preserves that model design of privileged command.

Lewis describes the attitudes behind this angle of view a decade later, when his analysis of his conceptual mistake—his misguided (German) nationalism—retains the outline of the older, more potent, sensory-aesthetic scheme of proximate vision:

I believed, say, twelve years ago, that the doctrine of national sovereignty was an indispensable guarantee of freedom. At present I believe the opposite. I regard that as archaic thinking. …

Freedom of the kind I formerly advocated is not possible, then, because scientific techniques have so diminished distance, and telescoped time, that the earth, which was once for man an immense, mysterious, and seemingly limitless universe, is no longer that, but a relatively diminutive ball.32

The worldview in which the national sovereign functions depends on an angle of sight exactly congruent to the one Lewis drew in The Lion and the Fox, where he mapped the scheme of proximate vision into the dynamics of total political control—where the equally “archaic” prerogative of absolute royal force was seen to rely on the same dark, anarchic background that Lewis projects as the source of the national dictator's authority here.

Of course this modern tyrant drew his power from his public: the fascist is a dictator with a mass-based legitimacy. Master demagogue in practice, Hitler consolidated his political audience by orchestrating their voices into his own, that medley of dialects equally guttural and sweet. While his national character-in-voice projected a single political will as its effective fiction, the social body he created thereby was magnetized to his own in a supreme, massive example of musical empathy. Indeed, Hitler flourished by the very methods the Enemy had spent two decades analyzing and excoriating. That the social critic deafens himself to the lesson of his own twenty-year jeremiad is an obverse testament to the force of a single aesthetic preconception. (Idéologie creates as effective a screen as ideology.) Viewing the Leader as luminous hero in the scheme of proximate vision, as protagonist in that atavistic drama of total control, he simply refuses to hear, in Hitler's rhetoric of the Reich, the truth of his own sardonic critiques. The sage analyst of musical democracy and the politics of acoustic sympathy has in fact become its unwitting victim, a naive respondent all too ready to endorse its chief effects. Since musical empathy fosters the illusion that the speaker is part of the audience, Lewis welcomes Hitler again and again as a man of the people. No sinister enemy-other, this friendly familiar stands free from the machinations of elitist cabals: “Maurras, a great ‘intellectual,’ aristocratic in temper, is untypical: whereas Hitler is a sort of inspired and eloquent Everyman” (H, 33; emphases added). Later he adds: “Hitler's words in the above passage are worth noting—not in secret conventicles—in the Camorra of a militant minority, in fact—but in open, hundred-thousand-strong, visible masses of the citizenry, are nationalsocialist ends to be achieved” (60-61). Once again Lewis repeats that self-betraying appreciation of Hitler as the vocal hero of Demos: “Hitler is a very new type of Nationalist in Germany. The people who follow him know that the Junker-spirit plays no part in his eloquent workman's evangile” (10).

The aural incredulity that Lewis must give up in order to attend so raptly upon this musical demagoguery is recovered from time to time. It is as though the artist needed to cleanse his aesthetic conscience thereby. Yet he never subjects the Führer to such a critical auditing. He allows other examples of mass acoustic sympathy to operate like lightning rods for his inveterate rebuke: all the more evident, then, his willed inattention to Hitler's political orchestrations. Here the old Enemy launches a characteristic blast, blaming the demagogue for manipulating the emotional excitement generated by songs, but the salvo flies toward a site fetched from afar—the Celtic hinterlands: “[all that] Mr. De Valera has to do is come and strike some sad sobbing notes out of the Irish harp, and to howl in a melodious, carefully-cultivated brogue, about ‘Ould Ireland’—and the trick is done! These blood-brothers are at each other's throats … a few bold, shrewdly-aimed blows upon the Welsh Harp, with a wild wail or two—that would have just the same effect!” (H, 142). The closer Lewis approaches to Germany—to Hitler—the more oblique the critique. The complaint about Goebbels's vocal affect in the following passage is sufficiently strong to make its absence felt in the Führer's case:

In this gigantic assembly of twenty thousand people there was something like the physical pressure of one immense, indignant thought. … Goebbels … was a tiny, nervous figure, whose voice rose constantly to a scream, as he denounced the present misrule—the tribute politics, Erfühlungspolitik—the Terroristic methods—the stream of taxation, the credit monopolies of the Social-democratic, and now the Centre coalition, ruling dictatorially by Presidential decree—of Brüning and of Severing, and their Erfühlungskabinett. (H, 10-11)

Attempting to meld his audience to his coercive call, the minister finds his answer in the mimic rant of Lewis's own text: fusing itself with the orator, it offers both parody and symptom of the togetherness inspired by such vocal performances.

This kind of musical mock-up is spared Hitler on account of the optical ideal under which Lewis perceives the leader. He displays that whole process of wishful seeing and willed nonhearing in this representation of a typical meeting of the Hitlerjugend: “[I]f you want to see ‘Youth’ at work and in its element—with all its characteristic passion and ‘idealism’—you cannot do better than go to the meetings of the Hitlerists. There Youth-at-the-Helm is not a phrase, but a fact, and Youth with its eyes wide open!—But that is not at all what is expected of ‘Youth’ by the golden-tongued, insinuating Youth-fans” (H, 98-99). While the devotees' “wide-open eyes” reflect Lewis's own visual infatuation with Hitler, the political reality of mastery and dependence is being cast into the ideal optical model of proximate vision. The scene recalls the prospect in that seminal passage from The Lion and the Fox where the plebian viewers, like the youth here, are protected from the dark backward and abysm of space by the strong, strongly foregrounded hero in the aesthetic scheme: Hitler steadies the eyes and hands of the youth, ready to steer them out into the void behind him, for Lebensraum. To substantiate his pictorial paradigm in political fact, however, Lewis must rebuke the demagogic music of the actual proceedings. Like the other attacks in this book, it is indirect: he lambastes the “golden-tongued” youth cult—but of his own Anglo-American acquaintance: the baby babble of Gertrude Stein, that anthem to the comfortable nonsense sounds of democratic culture. The Enemy thus seeks to regain the high critical ground he has in fact given up.

What Lewis resists seeing here is the full truth of the recognition he made in the passage cited earlier from The Art of Being Ruled: both fascism and democracy rely on a domination of their publics. Those emphases might now just as easily be reversed. Should he not admit that the authority he seeks in fascism relies on a mass-based approval and, as such, consorts rather than contrasts with the musical follies of democratic—demagogic—politics? To make this recognition is to unmake the political vision of The Man of the World. This awareness develops through the thirties, understandably, in a kind of cryptoglyph, although it already underlines the characterization in Apes of God, written in the late twenties.

By the time Lewis writes The Hitler Cult (1939), he will have opened his ears fully to the musical demagoguery of the Führer. For he spends the latter part of this decade confronting the difference between the practical reality of fascism and the optical aesthetic under which he once apprehended and sanctioned it. The advance of history leaves the schemes of avant-garde art further and further behind. The pamphlets he publishes in 1936 and 1937—Left Wings Over Europe: or, How to Make a War About Nothing and Count Your Dead: They are Alive! or A New War in the Making33—offer more stolidly pragmatic rationales for the political system the artist had regarded earlier as the supreme artifact. Along these lines, his 1937 condemnation of Pound includes a decree of absolute divorce between the perfection the poet desires equally, and wrongly, in politics and aesthetics: “he demands perfection in action, as well as in art. He even appears to expect perfection, or what he understands as such, in the world of politics.”34

Lewis's critique may be true, but it misses the fact that Pound's hubris will have been fueled by the Enemy's own example—at least by his earlier insistence on a State built upon the best aesthetic principles. In 1938, in fact, Pound still praises Lewis for his early “discovery” of Hitler, attributing this insight (like his own find, Mussolini) to the superior powers of the painter's—the Vorticist's—designing eye: “Form-sense 1910 to 1914” (GK, 134). In Italy now for over a decade, Pound is presenting a memory of Lewis, whose true development over this decade witnesses another meaning entirely: a gradual unmaking of the aesthetic premise of politics and a revamping of the political conclusion to which it drew him.

For his juridical statements of 1937 reach further back in the decade for their inner conviction. Historical reality has been growing apart from the aesthete's dream of society at least since 1933. He expresses his artistic disaffection from the new German state in “Berlin Revisited” (1933-34)—an admission too bitter, evidently, to publish. In these scattered manuscripts he notes the heightened level of material prosperity in Nazi Germany, but he is noticeably disappointed by the failure of the revolution to raise literary awareness to a comparable degree: they are reading Galsworthy (not Lewis!). The separation of economic from intellectual well-being gives the lie to the Man of the World's synthetic vision, and (in the dramatic aside of this suppressed text) he concedes his defeat equally in spirit and in detail. Thus the German consciousness, unimproved by the optical intelligence (of writing like his), has reverted to the old musical ways of gentile democracy. Like their English familiars, les hommes moyens sensuels of Hitler's Reich use the pleasant but sedulous acoustics of words for political self-hypnosis. They substantiate the vacuous ideology of middle-class respectability with comfortable sounds, thus wishing that empty ideal into material existence:

We have in England a disease called “refaynement”—something that causes the poor fellow afflicted with it to say “nayce” instead of nice.

But the German can be just as “refayned” if not more so. Do not run away with the idea that any German gives utterance to a trenchant “nein!” when desiring to express negation. No, there are just as many Germans who say “Nayn” or “fayn” for “nein” or “fein” as there are Englishmen who say “nayce” for “nice.” … I must confess to having experienced a certain shock upon realizing the incredible “nayceness” of the modern German mind.35

As a lost possibility, his vanished hope still abides in his rhetoric: that desirably “trenchant ‘nein!’” would enclose in its harsh and abrupted note the exact sense of its French etymon—trencher, “to cut”—and thus shape its speech to the pattern of visual severance and definitional directness that Lewis had nurtured as his inner vision of the Reich. To that painterly plan of the polis the Germans have delivered their long musical “nayn.”

The travel diary foretells the changing model of Lewis's political perceptions in the thirties. With increasing clarity and acuteness, he hears the music of mass empathy shouting down the pristine ideal of a visual elite. He tells this story of personal disillusion in grim detail, most pointedly in his 1939 record of the Nuremberg rallies.

To catch the exact curve of his despair here, one needs to see that political theater through Lewis's eyes: a visible emblem of his former, aesthetic ideal of State. It preserved the contrast pattern central to the design of proximate vision, and it animated that scheme in a dramatic architecture of light and shade. The obscured, moving mass of soldiers set the lifted figure of the Führer into bold relief, while the illumination trained on him offered him as the favored, truly luminous hero of the painterly design. That scheme was enhanced by Albert Speer's additional light effects. On the perimeter of the field 130 upturned searchlights sent powerful and well-defined beams as far as twenty thousand feet into the air, creating the look of a “cathedral of light,” Speer proudly writes, a “vast room, with the beams serving as mighty pillars of infinitely high outer walls”36 as cosmic boundary for the rally. In such surrounds the leader could play his part in that archaic drama of total control that Lewis had scripted in the spatial diagram in The Lion and the Fox: the tyrant both impersonates the terrible background—the Führer shares its spectral glow—and terrifies his people with it.

In Lewis's 1939 account, the terrible beauty of this social sublime looks back to the artistic paradigm that nurtured it, but as a foregone ideal. Lewis longs wanly for “the well-ordered repose” of a political artifact. In the “Goethean calm” of the old aesthetic outline, the true “aristocratic” character, which is “exclusive,” could be sanctioned in the foreground of proximate sight. Now that Hitler's source of power stands revealed (the idealized populism of 1931 no longer operates), Lewis's disillusionment shows itself in the following sequence in The Hitler Cult. He moves in a serial reenactment of his own changing views. An elegiac recollection of true (classical-Nietzschean) aristocracy—equated with an aesthetic state—slides into a cartoon of mass musical empathy and demotic solidarity more lurid than any drawn before:

How Nietzsche, the theoretical “aristocrat,” came to mistrust the Prussian Imperialist technique, is made plain by Nuremberg. … The mass methods of standardized “Germanism,” as Nietzsche saw it, were heading in the opposite direction to the Olympian exclusiveness of Goethean calm. They were headed towards … a really demoniacal Demos. …

A second image suggests … a more intimate and spontaneous exhibition of the same demoniac Demos. … [During] a visit I paid to a night club, … the orchestra—accordions, drums, and saxophones—broke into popular airs; and chains of people, thirty or forty men and women, sitting at one of the massive tables, swung from side to side, their hands joined across their bodies, shouting the refrain of the song. This swaying chain became intoxicated with the beautiful animal sound of peasant jubilation. … One of the schoolroom forms on which they were sitting tipped over, and one end of the human chain crashed to the floor. But they all still went on swaying from side to side, chanting their peasant dirge of joy.37

Just as the Nuremberg report reenacts Lewis's own shifting perspectives on Reich aesthetics, his biographical account of the Führer presents the career of this political artisan in stages that match his own developing view of it. Here Hitler fails his first, higher calling as painter and architect, then lapses into the facile channels of musical politics, in the same way that Lewis had to give up his optical model of ideal authority in order to hear the sounds of that mass-orchestrating demagogue. Hitler

had tried to enter the schools of painting, and the schools of architecture, and engage in that laborious apprenticeship that … leads (sometimes) to fame. Now he found—after thirty years—that all the time the solution lay right inside his mouth. No training, to speak of, was necessary. The jaw-muscles would soon get used to delivering verbal broadside and discharging torrents of pent-up sentiment. It was sufficient to open his mouth and out would pour a whirlwind of platitude which simply swept everybody off their feet. (HC, 88)

Lewis's account of the Führer's betrayal of the painterly ideal tells a tale of personal disillusionment as obliquely and compellingly as the Nuremberg story.

Lewis admits the visual mistake of Hitler frequently in The Hitler Cult, but obliquely, self-defensively. Stabbing jokingly at the Führer's visual aspect, ranging from his eyes to the effect of his image on others, Lewis is in fact lashing out against his own optical infatuation—one recalls the frontispiece to Hitler all too clearly here: “[T]o see Hitler face to face is I suppose a bit of a sensation. (Many people seem to find it so, to judge by the numbers that repaired to Nuremberg every year, in the hope of getting a sort of electric shock from a handshake with a ‘world-conqueror,’ and by gazing into his ‘magnetic’ eyes)” (HC, 4). Elsewhere he notes: “It was not on account of Herr Hitler's beautiful eyes … that I adopted ‘neutrality’” (vii). The very grimace in these grins displays the strenuous effort needed to conceal the memory of Lewis's early visual fascination. His forced humor about the sight of Hitler shows itself as camouflage and distraction as soon as one confronts some discarded, unpublished passages from a draft of Rude Assignment. Here, as he concedes his severe misreading of the Führer's look, he goes on to label his mistake a failure of pictorial perception above all. “Why has nature provided us with no psychical insight so that when we encounter a mass murderer we are apprised of the fact by an instantaneous repulsion?” he asks himself, and confesses: “As a portraitist I feel I should have detected the awful symptoms, even if I was wanting in the visionary power to see this little figure, only a few years later, popping into his gas ovens. …”38

If this admission reads like the final chapter of Lewis's intellectual autobiography in the thirties, it might be said that he wrote what came before in invisible ink. It is perhaps unfair to ask Pound to have seen the reversal of opinion occurring, as it does, just below the surface of the work published before 1939. Of Lewis's books, however, the poet most admired Apes of God (his praise will be detailed later), which fully anticipates the later deconstruction of the political aesthetic. He might have looked as well at the fiction Lewis produced through this decade.


The three novels Lewis wrote in the thirties extend the awarenesses he reached in drafting the two of the twenties. His increasingly self-conscious failure to attain visual directness in words affords him, paradoxically, an ever greater inspiration. With growing ingenuity and humor, he dramatizes his own demise as a painterly hero in words. For he cannot halt the temporal momentum of language; cannot carve his pictorial integer onto the page. The attention he pays to the impossibility of painterly writing complements the concern he shows for its parallel fallacy: the aesthetic perception of politics. The failed state of his art now makes an art of the State impossible. The fallacy he had fallen into formerly will become starkly clear to him by the end of the decade, yet he rejects his inclusive vision in his nonfiction prose only gradually, usually obliquely, or in terms of careers other than his own. Thus the novels of the thirties seem to thrive on the kind of self-knowledge he denies or deflects in his discursive writing. This inconsistency runs true to the pattern established in the twenties: the Man of the World's argumentative tracts espoused the sort of major syntheses that the novelist was busy undoing. Having now abandoned his ambitions for a composite art, the older novelist still uses the incompatibility of paint and words as his imaginative theme, thus generating the literature that the pictorial stylist could not. The sheer need to produce, however, does not limit the quality and significance of these later novels. The painterly writer turns the illustration of his necessary defeat, we shall see at length, into a searching critique of the political conditions and aesthetic conventions of English literary culture in the thirties.

While Childermass and Apes of God froze linear plot in favor of the pictorial moment, all three novels of the thirties show the interest of fast-moving intrigues. They are basically thrillers. Snooty Baronet (1932) tells of a literary agent's attempt to arrange a fake kidnapping as publicity stunt for an author he represents, and Lewis advances the stratagem with an eye to narrative excitement above all.39 Equally well-paced but more richly textured, the plot of The Revenge for Love (1937) weaves romances into a scheme to run guns across the Spanish border; the plot includes an international cast, who lend political interest to the developing intrigue (though the novel was finished before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War).40 Disguise motifs and the threat of detection supply the narrative incentive in The Vulgar Streak (1941): a working-class man poses as an aristocrat, and this counterfeit character makes his living by passing counterfeit money. Here various subplots enrich the main story line through counterpoint. The impostor's developing romance, for example, provides motive for the maintenance of cover. Throughout the novel a kind of future memory operates to give the events the momentum of history that has already happened: a series of allusions to the Czech crisis of 1938 mirrors the protagonist's deception and expands its significance.41 By the end of the decade, the suspense plot essential to all three novels has reached a masterful elaboration. Yet the heightening of the time line and the feeling of momentous sequence here witness the very temporal sensationalism that Lewis will have spent two decades identifying and condemning. Triumph manqué, his great success in these conventional efforts turns on the defeat of his own aesthetic philosophy, and Lewis masters that failure with somber gusto.

The opening moment of a novel (or a chapter) holds the potential of standing as a time out of time—as an instant not yet swept up in the militant continuum of plot. The pictorial stylist struck his static pose most strikingly in the first paragraphs of Childermass and Apes of God. He brings the same ambition to the same place in the later works. Inserting clear reminders of the plastic ideal toward which his writing has aspired, moreover, he engineers the evident irony of its now elaborate travesty at the start of The Vulgar Streak:

At the end of the Venetian street were the waters of the Grand Canal, graved with the denilunar wavelets of Venetian art. They were passing small shop-fronts as they talked. It was the morning and the September sun was hot. The taller of the two men was athletic, handsome and elegant; his companion on the other hand was a tweed-clad Briton with a Peterson pipe—of that “tweed and waterproof class,” as registered by the eye of Concord.

“Venice g-g-grows on me,” said the pipe-sucker, who cultivated a mild stammer. (VS, 9)

Presenting the waterscape of this initial prospect as a radiant engraving, Lewis proceeds to undermine the possibility of a complementary verbal frieze, releasing the fluid content of language in an appalling but now familiar vocal cartoon. Speech displays the temporal dimension of language more dramatically than print—spoken words come and go, unlike those fastened to the page—and Lewis enhances the standing of the enemy Time in the stammerer's character-in-voice. Like Gertrude Stein's, the stutter repeats meaningless serial sounds as a virtual anthem to the temporal sensationalism language may lapse into. This is an antiphon already sounding the loud defiance of words to the verbal artist's attempts at engraved stasis and fixity of significance.

The proof of Lewis's motive in this intricate artistry lies in the recurrence of the pattern, and the opening moment of chapter 6 (part I) both repeats the design and enlarges discursively upon it. Here the painterly vision of the first paragraph stands in manifest defiance of time. Once the account has swung into the second paragraph, and thus clearly initiated the sequence of narrative, Lewis dwells with bitter eloquence on the demise of his ideal of timelessness:

The gondola, that snail-like craft, in defiance of Time only pretended to move. Its glistening trail was only painted no more, upon the dark green waters. To April it seemed that they had been painted too. Vincent and she, as neither moved, their faces going dark like the faces in old pictures. The red mist of the defunct sunset impended above the ivy-green of the red-tipped waves. …

They had spent the latter part of the day upon a dilapidated island. Time had stood still there too. Time, rather, had pretended to stand still. Indeed Time had been stupidly pretending to stand still all day. But how absurd that was of Time, for as anyone could see, Time moved with a violent speed that took one's breath away. It was the modern age of course. It hadn't always. That was why one felt so old, although one was quite young. (VS, 48)

Here the propulsions of Time have moved from his own text to the driven behavior of the modern world, but Lewis does not lose sight of his primary linguistic theme. Language abides in time, and speech beats out a temporal imperative most perversely and urgently. Thus the time-minded paragraph shifts its register into the free, indirect speech of April, whose voice records an obsession with temporal sequence equal to its own immersion in Time. “This was Monday,” her oblique oration begins, “and she had met Vincent for the first time last, last … when was it, Tuesday? And now they called each other by their first names and she felt she had known him the whole of her life. Just now when she had been talking about her childhood in Wiltshire she felt surprised suddenly …” (VS, 48; emphases added).

While Lewis's failure to realize his ideal of plastic composition in words has generated an art of masterful despair, his defeats do not always disport themselves with the capricious ease of The Vulgar Streak. The overture to Revenge for Love expresses the demise of a composite art in a cryptic but bitter fable, featuring romantic betrayal as its chief motif. The scene is a Spanish prison:

“Claro,” said the warder. “Claro, Hombre!” … he repeated, tight-lipped, with the controlled passion of the great logician. “We are never free to chose—because we are only free once in our lives.”

“And when is that?” inquired the prisoner.

“That is when at last we gaze into the bottom of the heart of our beloved and find that it is false—like everything else in the world!” (RL, 13)

In an opening moment like this the word engraver has enjoyed a provisional reprieve from the closing prison house of narrative time. Accordingly, Lewis's spokesman here confines the possibility of liberty to one moment—like the opening instant of a novel, this time out of time. As the theme of freedom winds down into a sardonic joke about deception and unreal ideals, the reader may see an old lesson enacted anew. The progression from first to second and third paragraphs once again typifies the continuity on which narrative relies, and the ideal of an art free from time is broken like a promise across the rueful sequence of that ruse. The rhythm of expectation and reversal carries the rise and fall of Lewis's own geste, cancelling his hope to write the static intaglio and correct the wrongs of linguistic time.

The pictorial writer's struggle against Time is nurtured as well on the romantic myth of passing inspiration. While Lewis usually directs his animus at the temporality of discourse, he also outlines this crisis on the Coleridgean and Shelleyan model of revelation's fading coal. Unique, unduplicatable, the superior vision disappears here into the temporizing hands of its recipient, Victor Stamp, the Australian painter in Revenge for Love, who “had seen, even as a student, well enough what was what—so long as the brushes were not in his hand. Or he had been visited by intelligent vision in a flash, that had faded out the moment he had started. … Even, when he had started, he had known what he had to do. But he had reckoned without his hand. For his hand had proceeded to do something entirely different from what his eye had told it …” (RL, 82). As rare as the single instant of its occurrence, Stamp's vision is lost to processes of craft no less time-driven than language itself. Since the original vision must vanish in the timeful channels of its execution, the one masterpiece Stamp can produce is a masterful imitation—of the cubist painter Georges Braque. The cubist's multiple perspectives may be read as the sequence and signature of the time-mind, and thus celebrate the very temporality that annuls Stamp's attempt at holding his own moment of authentic sight.

In line with Lewis's embittered fiction of his failure as pictorial stylist, and in keeping with his tendency to turn such defeat into thematic material and technical incentives, Revenge for Love culminates in a highly ironic triomphe du temps. An elliptical but insistent narrative has driven the momentum of expectation up to this end point, where Victor Stamp attempts to run his (Margot's) car around a Spanish blockade at the French border. Lewis expands the breakthrough moment as an apotheosis of linear time, characterizing it as such right at the start: “‘Stop!’ as a hollow report her voice summoned Victor. ‘Stop!’ It was her duty, too, to halt him. But it was quite unavailing to shout at events—at events three seconds off. As well talk to Time and tell it where to stand!” (RL, 320). From here a two-page slowdown to a millisecond-by-millisecond presentation of the event provides the verbal equivalent of “A Nude Descending the Staircase.” Like the Futurists, Lewis creates the sensation of dynamic time by crafting a series of discrete instants. The smaller the interval in the sequence of events, the more frequently piqued is the expectation of what comes next. The disequilibrium between a lagging narrative and a quickening anticipation witnesses a shift of attention from time as objective fact to the momentous inner tide of subjective time. The Enemy has spent twenty years analyzing and condemning this fallacy in Gertrude Stein, but he now subjects the reader to the same experience of time as merely serial (and passive) sensation—through the senses (mainly the ears) of Margot:

She saw the two Guards get bigger and get bigger. It was as if in a series of blinks, or similar to the jumps of the hands of a large public clock, where the hands were the size of scythes. … She saw one of [the Guard's] eyes close up, the lid went neatly down over it; and there was the other at the root of the barrel of the carbine. And as they bore down upon this puppet with its painfully deliberate mechanism, the frantic clamour of their klaxon filled her head to bursting point, in spasm after spasm of menacing sound. She closed both her own eyes as she saw the steel-shutter go down over the Guard's: then she released a long chuckling scream, clawing at her mouth to hold in this offensive outburst. (RL, 321)

Lewis's follow-up to the slow-motion episode suggestively links its rampant temporality to the machinations of language itself. Placing a newspaper leader's fragmentary account of the event at the center of the page, he juxtaposes the discontinuous phrases of its headline style to the more fluent verbal interpolations of its reader, Percy Hardcaster:


In the three seconds—no more—he allowed himself, Hardcaster saw that the bodies of one Victor Stamp and of a woman known as Margot had been found. They were at the foot of a precipice. A French postman found them—proceeding to a mountain village. Assumption: the pair had walked over the edge of the precipice. Probably in a storm. There had been a storm. … (RL, 335)

Since Lewis insists that Percy could not absorb the whole story (Percy is wrong, for example, about the pair walking over the precipice), it is clear that the cause-and-effect account is no comprehensive record of the actual event. Percy has shifted the separate and integral facts of the leader onto a temporal axis that anchors itself nowhere. The discrete facts have been swept up into a serial fiction that reflects nothing but the temporal imperative of language; the progression of words determines the continuous story. It takes Percy “three seconds” to do his sight-reading; this was also the time elapsed between Margot's intimation of the event and its completion—“three seconds off”: thus the principle driving that distortion of narrative sequence, the inner tide of subjective time, operates as a function of linguistic apprehension primarily. Percy's narrative moves upon the waters of language. But his words ape a diabolical god's. He is riding the same wave of gratutious, subjective, momentous energy that Lewis released in his narrative of the event and presents, in the end, as a symptom and function of verbal time.

The failure of words to achieve visual definition and exact presentation provides a formative pattern for the novels of the thirties, where the falseness to which language is prone displays familiar political uses as well. Verbal perfidy works most subversively when language is voiced, Lewis has pointed out elsewhere, since the sensuality of the acoustic token easily supplants the reality of its referent. Accordingly, his tales of disguise and deception tend to feature impostors-in-voice, where an assumed accent or artful inflection stands in place of its true character. In Revenge for Love, for example, the Irish agent Sean O'Hara simulates the speaking manner of the English working class and thus insinuates his way into the party of Demos, a political body Lewis usually cartoons as a gullible ear. In line with his inveterate critiques, he steers Vincent Penhale's confession of his bogus tongue into an indictment of acoustic illusion in demagogic politics, where the sounds arbitrarily associated with leadership take the place of the fact: “‘An Englishman just follows you around, if you've got an Oxford Accent. You don't have to do any leading. All you have to do, is to open your mouth, and allow a few words to escape, with that magical inflection, hall-marked Cam or Isis, and it's all right. You are his Leader by virtue of your accent. (Hence the bankruptcy, of leadership)’” (VS, 219).

These narratives of vocal disguise illustrate aesthetic and political themes well known from the polemical tracts of the previous decade, but Lewis now adds a further dimension to the old cultural exposé. His artistry has argued that verbal representation cannot capture the writer's original visual inspiration; thus the whole concept and value of literary originality seems invalid. This bitter admission yields a dividend to the satirist. It affords him a chance to represent, analyze, and parody the political faith that raises nonoriginality into an ethical and aesthetic standard—a simplistic Marxism (a twist unnoted by Frederic Jameson). It is an opportunity grasped by Lewis, grimly and masterfully, in the novel that recreates the artistic culture of the Marxist thirties.

The industry of forging pictures that sustains Victor Stamp and his colleagues in Revenge for Love is the workshop of a Marxist program. Idealizing it as such, the communist Tristy offers a demotically garbled version of the rationale being advanced roughly simultaneously by Walter Benjamin in “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”42 Like Benjamin, Tristy welcomes the flourishing existence of copies—first, to destroy the element of private property in art, in order to make it available to the people; ultimately, to renounce the figure of the privileged subject, the originating artist, who disappears into the serial reproduction. Equating private property and originality, Tristy delights in the particular hypothesis that Vincent van Gogh, like Victor, worked as forger (RL, 235). While Victor Stamp's family name obviously fits his current occupation as copier, his first name shares a Latin root with Vincent van Gogh's, and this correspondence also serves—under the form of an etymological conceit—to annul the idea of unique subjects as originators of art.

The Marxist campaign against the individualist premise in literature finds its chief spokesman in Mr. Mateu, a career communist and sometime man of letters. His literary project takes literacy itself as its target. He “snarled as he thought of the printed word. There had only been fifteen years of communism, but more than twice that number of centuries of fascist authorship. Even when the earth had all turned to Marx, there would still be this ominous shadow of the earth—that is, its time set up against its space—fascist to the marrow, controlled by Athenian and Roman aristocrats. The super-earth, of this dark immortality of books! A book was a blackshirted enemy” (RL, 302). While this tirade follows a party-line ethic, predictably equating individual authorship with a privileged authority over the means of production, it includes an emphasis peculiar to Lewis's own aesthetic. The spatial dimension of books disturbs this Marxist, but his rhetorical negative on this issue simply presents Lewis's own literary value in reverse echo. A page-based language lends itself to the operation of the visual intelligence, thereby providing a field for optical discriminations. In this way Lewis has sought to free words from their common ground in the parole—to sever the flow of the vocalese and shape the pictorial integer out of its fluid material. While this individual reformation of language stands as the boast of the Enemy, it provides the animus of the standardizing Marxist, and the rhetorical fabric of this novel collapses (strategically) under the assault of the populist challenge, thus mocking the old ideals of Lewis's political aesthetic in a bitterly original comedy.

Entering his narrative language as an Everyman-in-voice, Lewis puts on the motley of the anti-individualist word, allowing the highly stylized signature of his own distinctive prose to dissolve into the free, indirect speech of a typical Englishman: Jack Cruze. The Marxist meaning of this literary discourse is spelled out clearly when Jack plays novelist to the character of Gillian Phipps. He echoes this English communist's words in the same way that Lewis submerges Jack's quotations into his own narrative text:

He heard all about the backbite direct as you might call it, or mental communism were Gillian's words. No thoughts hidden away from your brother-biped but all laid naked to inspection, share and share alike: so that no one could say that anyone was keeping anything away from anyone else, or claiming they had a self, as she put it. Properly considered, she said, aren't we all just one Big Self? So nothing must be kept back and locked up, like a private possession which is all that self is, she said. (RL, 179)

Repeating the slogans that Gillian herself has repeated from the orthodox script, Jack parrots her attack on the dangers of the private self and affirms the values of such standardization, rejecting in principle the privilege of singularity in utterance. Lewis repeats this political theme as he allows his own shapely writing style to be swallowed by the fluid ease of Jack's demotic vocalese.

Orchestrating a collective hubbub into Jack's voice, Lewis uses this speaker to represent the clamorous multiplicity of a wide populist average. At the upward end of his vocal reach lie the tones of shabby gentility that Lewis heard in Joyce's lower-middle-class Dublin accent. He scores these notes into Jack's English inflection, which he reproduces through the words of narrator and character: “In Jack's line of business they see all sorts and the great Mr. Tristram Phipps came into his office one day, on the off-chance of finding him in, sent by young Hailes, about his income tax” (RL, 94). “‘Well, Mr. Phipps, sir,’ says Jack, taking him by the hand and shaking it, very cordial indeed to be sure” (RL, 116). Despite this affectation of commercial propriety, the Jackish discourse drags the narrative language into its subsistence idiom—demotic vulgarity—with a force as constant as gravity: “She'd jump out of his arms just as he was getting busy, after a spell of all-in and no-quarter, and left him panting there with his tongue out like a dog in a drought” (RL, 179). Jack's demographic inclusiveness functions dramatically as well as symbolically; he breathes his way into the fictional language with a force equal to his own mass identity. When Gillian sees Jack as a colossal populist figure, and reproduces (in oratio obliqua) Lewis's own antipathies to this figure, her own free indirect speech is invaded by “well!”, a Jackism dubbed in with the very indomitable ease that she presents as the trait of this majority character: “She watched Jack's jaunty back as he breasted the swing door, nodding a cheery good night to the porter. The working-class man again! The dregs—the majority! The backboneless, mindless mob. Well!” (RL, 203).

The Jackish manner exerts its momentous effect on the global scale as well, moving into ever greater possession of the narrative language in part III. At first darting in and out of those gypsy rhythms, Lewis seems to display this clown of the vulgate, not to identify with him. By the end of the third part, the practice of modulation between author and character has given way to long passages of sustained single voice, where Jack appears, not as an intermittent or subtextual sound, but as the steady state of narrative speech. Compare the first paragraph of part III with an extended excerpt from its final vignette:

Jack Cruze was known as “Jack” to everybody, much as Falstaff is in Shakespeare's pages; and “Jack” he was to himself as well. Or it would be better to say that because he had always thought of himself as “Jack,” others did the same. The fact that “the Garbo” is the accepted way of describing the Swedish Queen of Hollywood must just mean that she saw herself as that, rather than as “Greta.” That sort of impersonal style she must have carried about with her—shutting out the familiar, the diminutive, or the fond. But old Jack Cruze was the opposite of that. No one could be above a half-hour with him without dropping the “Mr. Cruze.” He was a natural “Jack”! (RL, 93)

They threw themselves back after this and there was a long silence. I need not say perhaps that Jack was not in too sweet a temper by this time—after having listened to these people discussing his business principles, but agreeing that he was too stupid anyhow to be held responsible for the crimes he committed in the name of business.

For some time Jack'd had an itching in his throat, and he'd wanted to cough like billyoh. But he'd had to stop himself because he wasn't supposed to be there. They both started when he cleared his throat and spoke at last. It was like as if Jack had got into the room on tiptoe and they had not known he was there till he opened his mouth.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” said he with the nastiest grin he could command to put round the words coming out of his mouth, for Jack could be nasty at times, and letting them have it in the voice he uses in his office, when he feels a little under the weather and anyone tries to teach him his business or question his honesty: “Well, ladies and gentlemen. …” (RL, 120-21)

The breath only faintly traceable to Jack at the outset—the demotic fillip of “old Jack Cruze,” the rakish inversion of “‘Jack’ he was to himself as well”—has expanded by the end to lay its stain across the whole verbal fabric.

In a controlled display of uncontrol, Lewis plays at being enslaved by the same linguistic forces that he has in fact mastered as the material of this symptomatic, diagnostic art. The insistent, progressive loss of his authorial autonomy to Jack's populist rabble emerges as his well-commanded strategy in part III, as he suggests forcibly through a single episode in the narrative. Here Percy Hardcaster, nominal double of the writer Percy Wyndham Lewis, is placed on this peculiar set of speaking terms with the Jackish manner: “Percy had a feeling that something was wrong, not for the first time, and looked up quickly. But he could not guess that he was taking part (at times) in a Jackish dialogue! And so he remained with his sensation that all was not quite as he would have expected it to be …” (RL, 187). Percy's unwitting, subvocal dialogue with Jack exactly matches the designed effect of Lewis's rhetorical fiction in part III, where the narrative language is overcome by the pressure of Everyman's voice, effective but only dimly recognized. Representing the technical drama of this section so clearly, Lewis shows how surely he has directed his own demise as individual author and distinctive stylist.

Just as the final episode in Revenge for Love provides a kind of summa temporis, ironically consummating the philosophy of time that drives its suspense stratagem, so too that long, last flourish of the Jackish trumpet sounds its own triumph manqué. The Enemy revels sardonically in the rival aesthetic of vocal populism. No less cynical in motive than sinister in practice, Lewis's left-handed play with language moves to a purpose as rightist and single-minded, moreover, as the political animus that generates the experiment. Injecting the Jackish infection into the narrative, tracing the tumescence of a mass verbal consciousness, and thus demonstrating the ephemeral nature of the author's single identity, Lewis uses his own role as victim of a Marxist campaign against individuality to claim the victory of a cartooning exposé. Yet the wheel of satirical parody goes a turn further: Lewis enlarges the ground of his critique from literary Marxism to the elementary operations of language.

Through the example of Sean O'Hara, Lewis shows the Marxist principle of standardization operating as a rule of verbal imitation in language, where mindless mimicry seems to govern all linguistic apprehension. This Irish member of the Third International infiltrates the party of the English working class by copying its generic accent; he conforms in spirit as well as in vocal letter to its mass standard. And the narrative language around Sean demonstrates a reliance on laws of imitation equally grim, indeed more subtle and insidious. Thus Sean's wife Eileen is said to own Irish ancestry, a notion that influences the style of speech entering slyly, freely but indirectly, into the narrative:

But Eileen, his wife, was Eileen because her good old Surrey and Surbiton father had always had a weakness for the Colleen Bawn, and when he heard The Wearing of the Green played by a good trombone at the street-corner he would hum to himself: “They're shooting lads and lasses for the Wearing of the Green,” and would get quite moist-eyed about these beautiful shootings, or rather about the fact that they should have been so romantically provoked—by the wearing of such a lovely and patriotic color as green. And when he had to christen his offspring he gave her an Irish name and would not have been averse to her being mistaken perhaps one day for a product of the Lakes of Killarney, or (had he known about it) of the Lake of Innisfree; and sure his old mater once said she had had an “Irish ancestor” (so hot-blooded!) which accounted for the violet tint of her eyes. … (RL, 128)

The mere presence of the Irish name sets the narrative language into evident mimicry: the loosely strung whimsy and sentimentality of the Irish parole at its stagiest (“beautiful shootings”; “such a lovely and patriotic color”; “and sure his old mater”). A passage ostensibly concerned with genealogy and parentage thus outlines a bleakly causal and determinist rationale for linguistic usage.

While the Paddy inflection stands as a kind of national lampoon-in-voice, it belongs in dramatic context to Eileen's mostly English father, who may stand thus as a pattern for the book's full, international variorum of dramatic speakers. These characters obtrude their prescribed texts into Lewis's own prose and, from those half-submerged quotations, generate its narrative language. Driven to mimic the mannerisms of the character on whose verbal ground he finds himself, chameleon-like, Lewis's narrator seems little more (or less) than the rainbow of vocal colorings he has put on to correspond with those speaking determinants. Submitting to this apparently random medley of speakers, the narrative blends a splendidly various symphony of echoed talk. The practice resounds not as aesthetic achievement, however, but as evidence for Lewis's most severe gravamens on the mimetic nature of linguistic usage.

This dispiriting precept emerges most acutely in one of its most humorous examples. As the speaking character of Agnes Irons blithely recites her upper-class lexicon of party mots, Lewis interrupts the oblique oration to indict her verbal helplessness and, adroitly, to indicate his own:

There was an interval during which Agnes expatiated upon the topping character of her uncle, whose jolly old Rolls was always looming up at the psychological moment, and rolling the jolly laughing person of his sporting niece away in this direction or that. And then other persons, who were beastly rich, also would keep breaking into the narrative. “Rolls Royces—butlers and footmen—pots of money!” was a wistful incantation never for long off her chuckling lips. The major words were drawled out in a tone of comic commiseration at the absurdity of the “pots of money” these same sahibs had and which, of course, one could not help noticing. … (RL, 219-20)

“Other persons” have indeed “been breaking into” Lewis's “narrative” no less coercively than the manual of high-tone phrases being dictated into Agnes's papery voice here. Accordingly, the narrator submits to the same parole—the archly emphasized “would,” the typically mannered “beastly rich”—that he identifies as the risibly determined content of her talk. A quotation mocking a quotation, Lewis's onionlike verbal comedy unpeels to an empty center somewhat less terrifying for the laughter he generates out of that space.

The aping clown that Julian Benda and Rémy de Gourmont depicted as the character of aural apprehension emerges, then, as the mimic figure of verbal understanding and usage in Revenge for Love. The failure of originality that Lewis enacts so inventively here also admits the painterly writer's failure to realize his initial, visual inspiration in language: the unique, authentic image gives way to class concept, a word that simply reiterates a type; the creative hero of optical perception becomes a duplicating fool in the lexical-vocal medium. Exaggerating the inadequacy of his foe, the Enemy uses satirical parody as a potent strategy, but its humor should not obscure a fact as disquieting as the animus that drives this linguistic farce. As the artist withdraws from the lower verbal dimensions into a higher visual intelligence, he gives language its obstreperous head, releasing and accelerating its momentous energies. “Going over to the opposition” appears as motif in Lewis's later autobiographical novel, Self-Condemned (1954),43 which offers a telling retrospect on the developments we have seen in the work of the thirties.

Like Wyndham Lewis, René Harding has left England in disgrace in early September 1939 and sought a bleak refuge in the “sanctimonious icebox” of Toronto, Canada. In a twelve-by-twenty foot room he finds his version of Lear's heath. Self-recognition relies on the assistance of another: Professor MacKenzie, a character obviously modeled on Marshall McLuhan. In conversation MacKenzie points the historian toward a developing irony in his life, as mirrored in the professor's own account of modern intellectual history.

MacKenzie sees the nineteenth-century philosophy of material progress taking a puritanical, elitist turn in the twentieth. Here supermen of geometric vision in the plastic arts are matched by the priestly tyranny of Bolshevism in the political sphere (SC, 314-21). This vision of cultural history provides the terms of searching introspection on Harding's part—“All his lifework (so long neglected) … had been burst open, as it were, and scrutinized, by a stranger of intelligence. A shaft of hard light had been cast upon [its] intellectual structure” (SC, 324). For MacKenzie's outline explains the dramatic paradox of Lewis's own intellectual, literary, and political careers. A mind that has aggressively resisted the delusions of automatic evolutionary progress has advanced technical programs founded on meliorist, perfectibilist claims of their own: “One might … find in his adoption of the superman position a weakening; the acceptance of a solution which formerly he would have refused.” Like “his life,” moreover, human life, as a function of this progressive vision, “was being mechanized upon a lower level” (SC, 356)—the exact opposite of his original aim. In terms of Lewis's own career, a literary project that sought visual purity and sculptural mastery in words produces novels that mark the triumph of indirect musical discourse, the time mind, and the autonomy of language. The defeat that Lewis redeems in his fiction with the elaborate travesty of his enemies thus appears with an unchecked bitterness in his truer counterpart, René Harding.

The same defeat, suffered nearly thirty-five years earlier by Ezra Pound, was assimilated into the dramatic fiction of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. For Mauberley's aesthetic ambitions—similar to Lewis's earlier high ideals—have led him to the obverse triumph of “Medallion,” his final poem (like the “Envoi” ironically crowning E.P.'s career). The demanding standard of a sculptural prosody here reverts to its opposite. His appeal to an elite readership is undermined with the cryptic and cynical concision of the allusions:

Luini in porcelain!
The grand piano
Utters a profane
Protest with her clear soprano.
The sleek head emerges
From the gold-yellow frock
As Anadyomene in the opening
Pages of Reinach.
(Poems, 69)

The reference to Salomon Reinach's Apollo (1904) directs one to his comments on the work of Bernadino Luini, whose project is described as being “carried out not altogether without vulgarity, for his elegance is superficial, his drawing uncertain, and his power of invention limited. His most characteristic trait is a certain honeyed softness that delights the multitude.”44 How does Mauberley's cultivation of the most exacting aesthetic sense decline into the vulgar indulgence of Luini?

This reversal receives its most accurate and provocative gloss from Lewis, who would live it out in his own (Mauberley-like) career. For this painter realized that the pure form on which his early, ultra-abstract manner relied was indeed the triumph of its enemy: these shapes promoted, not the hyper-cerebral activity of a visionary art, but a vulgar holiday for the eye. Freed from the duty of perceiving realistic content, it creates the “visual music” of mere optical sensationalism.45 Correspondingly, the cut-and-fit measure of Mauberley's own optical prosody serves to detach blocks of language from the meaning supplied by continuous discourse, putatively to build new “concepts” out of those radical particulars, but in fact to produce only the accumulation of sensuous phrase upon sensuous phrase. Thus the “grand piano” that “Utters its profane / Protest” to the sacral sculpture of Mauberley's words introduces no dissonance. The root meaning of “pro-test” is not to object but, through that intensive prefix, “to witness strongly.” The pianola and gramophone lend their low pleasures of acoustic sensation in perfect consonance with Mauberley's art.

The reversal Lewis perceived in his career as an abstractionist had of course been repeated in history. The cerebral elitism of the visual sense: this pictorial dream led Lewis to Hitler, who succeeded indeed as its manifest antithesis—a demagogic giant, a triumph of the mass musical empathy on which totalitarian dictatorships rely. The reversal Pound experienced in 1919 was of course absorbed into a different moment of political and cultural history. His aesthetic ideal, not yet invested in a particular Cause or State, remains innocently at odds with history—not yet betrayed by the developments of l'entre deux guerres. Its social values still stood as immanent possibilities. How Pound negotiates its first failures, ultimately recovering his visual idéologie with the help of Lewis's own work of the twenties, may engage us next.


  1. Wyndham Lewis, Rude Assignment: A narrative of my career up-to-date (1950; rpt. London: Hutchinson, 1951), 113. The trip to Germany and the Munich milieu are described well by Geoffrey Wagner, Wyndham Lewis: A Portrait of the Artist as Enemy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 6-7.

  2. Jeffrey Meyers, The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), 15-16. For Lewis's attendance at Bergson's lectures on comedy, see Wagner, 215; for several details in Lewis's French experience between 1903 and 1908 I am indebted to Victor Cassidy, author of a biography which, though unfinished, has followed the few available leads in recreating Lewis's Parisian years.

  3. Lewis, “Le Père François (A Full-length Portrait of a Tramp),” The Tramp: an Open Air Magazine (September 1910); rpt. in Wyndham Lewis, The Complete Wild Body, ed. Bernard La Fourcade (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1982), 278. This gathering of first versions and the later revisions (in The Wild Body: A Soldier of Humour and other stories [1927; rpt. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928]) will be cited parenthetically as WB.

  4. See Blast, 2, July 1915, War Number, ed. Wyndham Lewis; facsimile rpt. (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1981), for example, “The God of Sport and Blood,” 10: “The directors of the German Empire have shown their vulgarity and democratization as clearly in their propaganda of ferocity, as in their management of medievalism and historic consciousness. … From this supposedly ‘aristocratic’ Junkerish country has come the intensest exhibition of democratic feeling imaginable.” The contrary draw to a traditionally conceived elite is expressed in “A Review of Contemporary Art,” 42: “The leisure of an ancient Prince, the practical dignity required by an aristocratic function … are all things very seldom experienced to-day, but that it might be desirable to revive.” He responds to that possibility: “Should we not revive them at once?”.

  5. Blast, 2, 97.

  6. Gertrude Stein, Picasso (1938), rpt. in Gertrude Stein on Picasso, ed. Edward Burns (New York: Liveright, 1970), 18-19: “Really the composition of this war, 1914-1918, was not the composition of all previous wars, the composition was not a composition in which there was one man in the centre surrounded by a lot of other men but a composition that had neither a beginning nor an end, a composition of which one corner was as important as another corner, in fact the composition of cubism.” Despite her emphasis on lack of central focus, this description might fit the serial arrangement of abstract shapes on many Vorticist canvases.

  7. Lewis alludes to his seclusion through these years in his early autobiography, Blasting & Bombardiering (1937; rpt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 4-5, 231, 339. See also Meyers, The Enemy, 102-5, for an account of this period.

  8. The phrase occurs in Time and Western Man (1927; rpt. Boston: Beacon, 1957), 283; hereafter cited parenthetically as TWM. Lewis focuses on the aesthetic and political—specifically “democratic”—doctrine of empathy (183-84), here invoking Benda as he does so. Elsewhere he concentrates on an equally essential point of Belphégor: “as Benda also immediately noticed,” the contemporary “world of Europe” represents “a musical society” (TWM, 31-32). Thus he invokes Benda again as he sets the culture of musical populism at odds with the aristocratic intellect (TWM, 292). He repeats this praise for Benda's analysis of empathy in The Art of Being Ruled (1926), ed. Reed Way Dasenbrock (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow, 1989), 232; hereafter cited parenthetically as ABR. Rather than organizing this chapter around a documentation of Benda's single influence on Lewis, I wish to show the operation of the more wide-ranging, pan-European colloquy in which the Frenchman figured so prominently. A helpful introductory survey of Lewis's political ideas (qua political ideas) is by D. G. Bridson, The Filibuster: A Study of the Political Ideas of Wyndham Lewis (London: Cassell, 1972). Bridson presents Benda's influence on Lewis, not in terms of the musical politics of democracy, but chiefly as a means of reinforcing Lewis's aversion to Bergson, 62-63. The aesthetic basis of Lewis's antidemocratic stance emerges indirectly in the comments on “group rhythm” by Wagner, A Portrait, 44-59, although the notion of musical empathy acquires no real conceptual focus or analysis here. Wagner does provide a more extensively historicized discussion than Bridson on the French backgrounds to Benda, 8-13; the appeal of authority in contemporary French culture is traced, 12, to the needs of a nation recently defeated in the Franco-Prussian war.

  9. Also in line with Gourmont and Benda is the formulaic distinction Lewis draws between musical empathy and visual separation, as in “The Credentials of the Painter” (1922); rpt. in Wyndham Lewis on Art: Collected Writings, 1913-1956, ed. Walter Michel and C. J. Fox (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969), 219: “No one has ever wept at the sight of a painting in the way they sometimes weep when they listen to music. You could not by showing people a picture of a battle cause their hearts to beat and their limbs to move, eyes to water, as it is fairly easy to do by beating on a drum, and blowing into a fife. … The coldest musician … cannot help interfering with your body and cannot leave you so cold as a great painter can. … [L]ooking at Botticelli's ‘Birth of Venus’ would cause you as little disturbance of that sort as looking at a kettle or the Bank of England.” The writings collected here will be dated and cited under WLA.

  10. In “The Taxi-Cab Driver Test for Fiction,” in Men Without Art (London: Cassell, 1934; hereafter MWA), Lewis uses the obsessive concern with sound in this unidentified passage (from Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point) to make his own point of literary politics:

    “You won't be late?” There was anxiety in Marjorie Carling's voice, there was something like entreaty.

    “No, I won't be late,” said Walter, unhappily and guiltily certain that he would be. Her voice annoyed him. It drawled a little, it was too refined—. …

    [S]he could not prevent herself from speaking; she loved him too much, she was too agonizingly jealous. The words broke out in spite of her principles.

    This single tell-tale page appears to me to be terribly decisive: for no book opening upon this tone of vulgar complicity with the dreariest of suburban library readers could … become anything but a dull and vulgar book.

    ‘You won't be late?’ There was anxiety in Marjorie Carling's voice.” That is surely so much the very accent of the newspaper serial (even down to the cosy sound of the name of the heroine) … this is the very voice of ‘Fiction’. (301-2; emphases added after quotation)

    Huxley's saturation of his passage with acoustic images serves to shift the language from the optical frame of the page to the register of the inner ear, where a “cosy name” like Marjorie Carling's can unfold its delectable sounds. Here parataxis (used three times in this short excerpt) also recovers its original oral force—magnet and channel for easy reading, Lewis might have argued, by a plebian public.

  11. Lewis, The Diabolical Principle and the Dithyrambic Spectator (London: Chatto & Windus, 1931), 6; MWA, 32. Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 42-47; Hugh Kenner, “Reflections on the Gabler Era,” James Joyce Quarterly, 26 (1988), 11-12. See Jacques Derrida, for example, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” in his Writing and Difference, ed. and trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), esp. 196-99; the dichotomy is pressed less strenuously by Derrida than by Derrideans.

  12. Lewis, The Apes of God (1930; rpt. New York: Robert McBride, 1932), 610, hereafter cited parenthetically as AG. Paleface, The Philosophy of the Melting Pot (London: Chatto & Windus, 1929), 72-73.

  13. LeBon, The Crowd, 102-3.

  14. Thus the ideology of the prevailing Eye is discarded in favor of the standard political opposition of fascism and Marxism by Fredric Jameson, Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), esp. 17-18, where Jameson challenges Lewis's “attempts to justify his immense and wide-ranging cultural critiques in terms of the defense of the rights of the visual and the painter's practice. The untenable squaring of the circle allows him to repress the structural center of his work, which lies not in the position of the observing subject, but rather in his implacable lifelong opposition to Marxism itself.” For application of the communism-fascism polarity, see also Jameson's Appendix, “Hitler as Victim,” 179-85, esp. 184, where he aligns the formalized dichotomies of the Cold War with that “structural center” of Lewis's work in the earlier decades. Jameson's view of history as a series of competing ideologies—(proto)fascism and Marxism above all—is set out interestingly, 15-16, and it provides a complex model for narrative time in Lewis's novels, 16ff.

  15. Answer to Questionnaire circulated to writers and printed by New Verse, October 1934, 7-8. See also ABR, 70, “Fascism … is a faction of the extreme and militant Left who have burst round and through to the Right, as it were,” and 71: “Fascismo … is Leninism adapted to an ancient and intelligent population.” Lewis's indifference to the complexities of history—in favor of the cleaner, simpler lines of an aesthetic construction of the State—is attested in a letter excerpted in the Introduction to The Essential Wyndham Lewis, ed. Julian Symons (London: Deutsch, 1989), 2-3: “My mind is ahistoric, I would welcome the clean sweep. … I could build something better, I am sure of that, than has been left by our fathers.”

  16. In The Old Gang and The New Gang (1933; rpt. New York: Haskell, 1972), Lewis opens by discussing the fascist movements in Germany, Italy, and England in terms of the youth cult, 17, which he regards throughout his work as the most typical infatuation and obvious delusion of contemporary mass culture. He soon exempts Italy and Germany from this disreputable connection, 22-23. But not England: “Have we nothing but boy scouts and girl guides? Are we quite out of it? … It's all plain-sailing in Germany—in Russia it's as plain as print. But old England has its ‘New Gang.’ … We are all of us far too ready to assume that, in contrast to those revolutionary states over on the mainland and to the North, we in Old England have no ‘Youth’ politics to speak of. That is a great mistake. In the political field it is not even disguised” (27-28). It is not disguised in England because it does not enjoy the distance on which his idealizing perspective—on Germany, Italy, Russia—relies. The membership of the British Union of Fascists defied his ideals. Largely transient and lower-working-class at the start (1933-35), those filling the ranks fell far short of the regimental paradigm Lewis admired in Germany. See the one demographic study, Stuart Rawnsley's “The Membership of the British Union of Fascists,” in British Fascism: Essays on The Radical Right in Inter-War Britain, ed. Kenneth Lunn and Richard C. Thurlow (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980), 150-65, esp. 154-57. The standard political history is by Colin Cross, The Fascists in Britain (1961; rpt. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1963), which focuses more on Oswald Mosley than on the English social context. For Mosley's reversion to the demagoguery of mass politics, see the discussion in Robert Skidelsky's “Reflections on Mosley and British Fascism,” in British Fascism, ed. Lunn and Thurlow, esp. 95-96.

  17. Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 165.

  18. Lewis, The Childermass (1928; rpt. London: John Calder, 1965), 239; hereafter cited as Ch.

  19. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957; rpt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 236.

  20. Lewis, Satire and Fiction (London: The Arthur Press, 1930), 47.

  21. Lewis accepts the Gourmontian term and value of “le visuel” as the defining strength of his satire in Satire and Fiction, 46.

  22. When Lewis attempts to separate his discursive ideology (variously political and aesthetic) from his literary practice, in fact, he seems only to reveal his underlying attraction to major syntheses. He writes thus to Pound in 1925, detailing the individual works in the emergent Man of the World series and asserting their interrelation, in Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, ed. Timothy Materer (New York: New Directions, 1985), 144-45 (hereafter P/L):

    After one attempt only I saw how difficult it would be to find a publisher who would give me what I wanted for my five hundred thousand word book, The Man of the World—(longer than War & Peace, Ulysses, & so on). Luckily its form enabled me, without very much additional work, to cut it up into a series of volumes. In each part of the original book I had repeated the initial argument, associating it with the new evidence provided by the particular material of each part. … There is a hundred thousand word volume, called The Lion & the Fox about Shakespeare, principally. There is one called Sub Persona Infantis [The Art of Being Ruled] which deals with a particular phase—you know the one—of the contemporary sensibility. The Shaman [part of The Art of Being Ruled] about exoliti & sex-transformation. The Politics of the Personality (100 thousand) [Time and Western Man] principally evidence of philosophy, one (100 thousand) called The Politics of Philistia [in The Art of Being Ruled] & one called The Strategy of Defeat (40 thousand) [in Time and Western Man and The Art of Being Ruled]. Then there are 2 volumes < (not of course part of The Man of the World) = of The Apes of God (fiction) the first of which is nearly done. Joint (sketched & partly done) [a separate narrative in the style of The Childermass] Archie (complete, thirty or forty thousand) [beginning mass. of The Apes of God]—The Great Fish Jesus Christ [not written?] (45 thousand).

    (Materer supplies helpful identifications of these provisional fragments.) The words placed in angle brackets were added to the typescript by Lewis, and the palimpsest tells the story of an aborted fusion. He detaches the novels from the polemical work, but only as a second thought. His initial script reflects his first impulse: to write the fiction as integral part of a single, inclusive oeuvre.

  23. Rude Assignment, 129, 128.

  24. Ibid., 129.

  25. Lewis, The Caliph's Design (1919); rpt. WLA, 129, 130, 145, 133. Since “The life of the crowd, or the Plain Man, is external [and] he can live only through others and outside himself,” he “in a sense is the houses, the railings, the statues, the churches, the roadhouse,” 138; thus Lewis calls on architects “to work for formal beauty, for more intelligent significance in the ordering of our lives,” 136. In this essay the word “Demos” now recurs like a sardonic refrain. It also contains the first reference to Rémy de Gourmont, whose views on contemporary architecture are shared by Lewis, who also wishes for the demise of a naturalistic standard (146-47).

  26. Lewis, “What Art Now” (1919); rpt. WLA, 115: “It is on the possibilities of rendering this smaller public d'élite more supple, more interested, and much more learned in the matter of pictorial art [“the ‘new art,’” 114], that the healthy flourishing of painting in this country for the next twenty years depends.”

  27. Lewis, The Lion and The Fox (London: Grant Richards, 1927), 122, 124-25. In “The Figure of the King” (121-29), Lewis focuses repeatedly on mystique of royal isolation; see also 92. Hereafter cited parenthetically as LF. For the same theme of royal isolation, see ABR, 93.

  28. Lewis, “Power-feeling and Machine-age Art” (October 1934); rpt. in Creatures of Habit and Creatures of Change: Essays on Art, Literature and Society, 1914-1956, ed. Paul Edwards (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow, 1989), 236-40.

  29. Lewis, “Notes Toward [a] Theory of Painting,” Cornell University Library.

  30. Lewis, Hitler (London: Chatto & Windus, 1931), 184. Hereafter cited parenthetically as H.

  31. Meyers, The Enemy, 187; for a good account of Lewis's visit and the Germany he found, see Meyers, 187-89.

  32. Lewis, Rude Assignment, 92.

  33. Lewis, Left Wings over Europe: or, How to Make a War About Nothing (London: Cape, 1936); Count Your Dead: They are Alive! or A New War in the Making (London: Lovat Dickson, 1937).

  34. Lewis, Blasting & Bombardiering, 279.

  35. Lewis, “Berlin Revisited,” Cornell University Library.

  36. Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 59.

  37. Lewis, The Hitler Cult (1939; rpt. New York: Gordon Press, 1972), 226-27. Hereafter cited parenthetically as HC.

  38. Lewis, mss. Rude Assignment, Cornell University Library.

  39. Lewis, Snooty Baronet (London: Cassell, 1932).

  40. Lewis, The Revenge for Love (1937), ed. Reed Way Dasenbrock (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow, 1991). Hereafter cited parenthetically as RL.

  41. Lewis, The Vulgar Streak (1941; rpt. New York: Jubilee, 1973). Hereafter cited parenthetically as VS.

  42. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, 1968), 219-53. The contemporary culture of English literary Marxism emerges lucidly in Valentine Cunningham's British Writers of the Thirties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 296-340; see esp. 316-17, where Cunningham surveys the cultivation of the common tongue in the literature and journalism of the thirties.

  43. Lewis, Self-Condemned (1954; rpt. London: Methuen, 1955). Hereafter cited parenthetically as SC.

  44. Salomon Reinach, Apollo, trans. F. Simmonds (1904; New York: Scribner's, 1924), 191.

  45. See Lewis's rejections of his early abstract manner in “After Abstract Art” (July 1940) and “The 1956 Retrospective at the Tate Gallery” (July-August 1956): Vorticism, its predecessors and descendants, merely “build up a visual language as abstract as music” (WLA, 452); “All that our abstract experiment of twenty years ago did for painting, it seems, was to substitute sensationalism for the cultivation of the senses” (WLA, 359).

Andrea Freud Lowenstein (essay date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30066

SOURCE: “The Molten Column Within: Wyndham Lewis,” in Loathsome Jews and Engulfing Women: Metaphors of Projection in the Works of Wyndham Lewis, Charles Williams, and Graham Greene, New York University Press, 1993, pp. 119-87.

[In the following excerpt, Lowenstein presents a detailed analysis of Lewis's body of work to identify Lewis as a misogynist, nazi, and homophobe.]


One could argue that to begin the main body of this book with an indepth examination of the life and work of self-proclaimed “Enemy” Wyndham Lewis hardly promises a balanced approach. As Fredric Jameson puts it in his Fables of Aggression:

The polemic hostility to feminism, the uglier misogynist fantasies embedded in his narratives, the obsessive phobia against homosexuals, the most extreme restatements of grotesque traditional myths and attitudes—such features, released by Lewis's particular sexual politics … are not likely to endear him to the contemporary reader.1

Were this an attempt at a balanced survey of authorial attitudes during this time period, I would certainly begin with another author. As it is, the extreme nature of Lewis's system makes him an ideal first author for this study. His attitudes, while more intense in their expression, and often closer to the surface, are not, in fact, different in essence from those I will go on to explore much more briefly in the ensuing chapters, when I turn to Charles Williams and Graham Greene.

Wyndham Lewis, as even his most sympathetic critics are forced to admit, was a rigid, narcissistic man whose life and work both exhibit a marked tendency toward paranoia. While his biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, insists that he could not have “led such a carefully organized and intensely productive existence if he were paranoid or suffered from persecution mania,”2 sufferers from a paranoid personality disorder are in fact very often driven and ambitious people who accomplish a great deal in an outward sense, and whose main difficulties occur in their relations with others and their feelings of chronic unhappiness and discontent.3 While Lewis's personality disorder never prevented him from writing and painting, it did stop him from ever concentrating fully on one project at a time and from living in any kind of comfort, ease, or happiness. Of the many people who had known Lewis whom Meyers interviewed while researching his biography, every one except his wife mentioned his “persecution complex.” Julian Symons, a close friend and admirer, is typical in his memory of his friend's “inner rage, at the conditions of life, the nature of society, the dullness of other people.”4 Another friend, John Rothenstein, commented: “As a talker he was largely defensive, expressing his suspicions that this person or that had plotted or was plotting to do him an injury” (Meyers, 201). Wyndham Lewis habitually sat with his back to the wall to watch for enemies. He constructed secret doors and keyholes in his homes, and even when in direst poverty, always maintained several different homes and concealed his various addresses. Lewis fought compulsively with everyone—especially with those who attempted to help him or to become close to him. Like Kernberg's narcissistic borderline patients, Lewis was unable to perceive of others as real. His shadowy world was populated largely by his “own gandiose self, by devaluated shadowy images of self and others, and by potential persecutors representing the non-integrated sadistic superego” (Kernberg, 282).

Lewis's work reveals a similarly narcissistic paranoid system. At its base is a conspiracy spearheaded by women—in league with (depending upon the occasion) feminine homosexual men, Jews, children, nonwhites, members of the working class, communists, and various other groups. The white male, especially the white male artist and genius (of whom Lewis himself may be the only example of his time), is the victim and designated prey of this conspiracy. Unless he keeps up a constant vigilance and maintains a tireless and aggressive self-defense, he will soon find himself turned into a helpless infant at the mercy of a woman who will swallow him up, engulf and obliterate him, or transform him into one of her own kind.

In those of Lewis's books upon which I will concentrate here, written between 1926 and 1939, the alliances involved in the conspiracy constantly shift and regroup, with one group of “Other” taking center stage only to be replaced by another, but the basic plot remains the same. Wyndham Lewis often called himself the “Enemy.” In fact, his stance, reflected both in his life script and in every one of his published works, is that of a victim, desperately defending himself against the enemy world which surrounds and besieges him. When his friends begged him to stop biting the hands that fed him, his inevitable explanation was that he had no choice but to make the first move in order to defend himself against the attack that he knew was coming.

Lewis is a prime example of the male socialization in violence described by Millett and Woolf and discussed in chapter 2. Like one of his temporary mentors, Marinetti, Lewis linked war with art and beauty. Valentine Cunningham describes him as the writer

who did more than any other … to carry over a war-time violence into art and criticism, and to make that toughness fashionable, who thought of his typewriter as a machine-gun, who declared that art was “like” war, who sought by his published preachments to “leave upon your retina a stain of blood[.]” (64)

Lewis's particular process as a writer also makes his work especially accessible for the purposes of this study. The image he uses most often to describe that process is that of a volcano, either immediately before or in the act of eruption. Whether he produced fictional texts or didactic books of criticism or political theory, his writing was an expression of the “molten column within.”5 Though many critics feel that Lewis's real ability was as a painter rather than as a writer, the manic force of his need to name his obsessions could not be harnessed to painting alone, but needed the release of words. Lewis's autobiographical persona, Tarr, the eponymous hero, gives his friend a lecture on the “daily ooze” of sex:

[Y]ou must listen. I cannot let you off before you have heard, and shown that you understand. If you do not sit and listen, I will write it all to you in a letter. YOU WILL BE MADE TO HEAR IT!6

This urgency allowed Lewis little time for deliberation or revision, and material which other authors might have removed in the process of revision, or censored in the first place, is all here, available for our scrutiny.

Lewis was also his own most frantic critic. He regularly organized friends to review his books and often reviewed them himself in other books or in special pamphlets and magazines he printed for that purpose. Each negative review was a personal insult which must be countered in print. When public opinion went against his published views, or when those views began to change, he wrote new books and articles in which he justified and explained himself. In some of these revisionist texts, including The Jews, Are They Human (1939), The Hitler Cult (1939), and Rude Assignment: An Intellectual Biography (1950), Lewis attempts a kind of self-study, reinterpreting his earlier books on the same subject. Neither of the other authors in this study felt the pressure to undertake this kind of revisionist self-analysis. Wyndham Lewis, in many ways a most unappealing author, is thus the perfect subject for this book.


Wyndham Lewis expounded upon his political beliefs very freely, writing books and pamphlets even when he had scanty information on the subject or when he knew that revealing his views would harm him personally. He had a different attitude when it came to revealing details of his personal life, especially those involving his relations with women or anything to do with his childhood and youth. His two openly autobiographical works, Blasting and Bombardiering (1937), an account of his World War I experience, and Rude Assignment (1950), each sheds some significant light on his life and thinking, as do his collected letters, which also reveal significant patterns in his ideas and relationships. But on the whole Lewis carefully avoided what he called “the very dark cavern” of his early life (Rude Assignment, 126). Fortunately, Jeffrey Meyers's well-researched biography, The Enemy (1980), illuminates this darkness.

Meyers regards his subject as “a genius,” “the most important painter of the twentieth century,” and “one of the most lively and stimulating forces in modern English literature.”7 He finds Lewis “more sympathetic than menacing” and identifies with him, finding that “Lewis and I had … a similar physique, quarrelsome temperament, hatred of publishers, capacity for work and commitment to intellectual life.” One of Meyers's acknowledged aims in his biography is to “restore Lewis's reputation.”8

It may be that the development of a certain degree of sympathy and even identification is necessary in order to write an excellent biography. Nevertheless, I found Meyers disturbingly eager to justify Lewis's stances in everything from his support of Hitler to his conviction that “Bloomsbury” was a group of puerile cowards whose main aim was to destroy the career of one Wyndham Lewis. Meyers tends to take Lewis at his own word, justifying his subject's more dubious attitudes by citing Lewis's idealism or his philosophy of artistic creation. One example out of many is his acceptance of Lewis's post facto explanation that his support of Hitler was in fact a pacifist effort which came out of his desire to avoid another war. These rationalizations distort our picture of Lewis and are reminiscent of the earlier critics' efforts to justify Dickens by quoting his own philo-Semitic statements. They also allow Meyers to avoid any psychological interpretation or explanations and to remain for the most part on the surface of his complicated and deeply troubled subject's psyche. Lewis, who advocated a concentration on the surface rather than the “intestines” of his subjects and who wrote “Give me the outside of all things, I am a fanatic for the externality of things,” would doubtless have appreciated his biographer's approach.9 However, it is an approach which I find limiting, and which I have attempted to challenge here.

Despite his own admiration for Lewis, Meyers never hesitates to share other, less glowing opinions held by his contemporaries, and a disturbing portrait of the artist seems at times to emerge in spite of the valiant rescue efforts of his biographer. While my own evaluation of Lewis is obviously quite different from Meyers's, I have great admiration for his research, and I am in debt to him for much of the information (though not its interpretation) in this chapter. Meyers's chronology of Lewis's life, his careful and painstaking footnotes, and his references to other sources such as reviews of Lewis's work were also invaluable to me. My own discussion will, of necessity, be limited to those parts of Lewis's life which seem most relevant to the issues at hand. For a more comprehensive discussion of Lewis's life, including his career as a visual artist, a thorough study of the evolution of all his published work, and an account of his illness and later years, I recommend the reader to Meyers.


Psychoanalytic theory, which purports to explain all of human behavior in terms of childhood experience, has always been (and is still) especially susceptible to projective interpretations. For example, Virginia Woolf, whose girlhood incest experiences had been so traumatic and whose own father so invasive, interpreted psychoanalytic concepts such as infantile fixation and the Oedipal complex to refer to the incestuous desires of “fathers” for their daughters.10 Similarly, psychoanalysis was invariably associated in Wyndham Lewis's mind with the idea of mother-son incest. He applied his own brand of obsessive and angry rumination to this theme, often suggesting, with some confusion, that Freud himself was responsible for unhealthy mother-son relationships. In the light of his childhood experience, it is not surprising that Lewis's concern about “the incest theme” led him to project it onto Freud—as well as onto assorted Others.

Percy Wyndham Lewis was born on a yacht in Canada in 1882, the same year as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, three years before Ezra Pound and six years before T. S. Eliot. Lewis's American father, Charles, married his English mother, Anne, when she was sixteen and he was thirty-three. Charles, who never worked after he left the American army, was an erratic and distant man whose main activity was sailing, perhaps because it took him away from his family for prolonged periods. The marriage was stormy, and Charles's reputation for lechery, which his son would inherit and surpass, was soon established. Charles eloped with a housemaid in 1893, when Percy was eleven and the family was living on the Isle of Wight. For Anne Lewis, this was the last straw. Although Charles soon abandoned his mistress and appealed for a reconciliation, she refused all his attempts. Apparently glad to be rid of her husband, she accepted a small stipend from him and established a home for her adored son with a loyal female relative. The entire household functioned around the needs of young Percy, as he was then called. As his letters to her make clear, Percy and his mother had a strong and exclusive attachment which allowed for no other men in the mother's life, and no women in the son's during his mother's lifetime, except for a series of despised and objectified sexual partners.

Before finding a new family, Charles repeatedly wrote abject letters to both his wife and his son. One such letter to the twelve-year-old Percy begs him to intercede with his mother, blames himself, bemoans his lonely fate, and accuses Anne of cruelty and of excessive attachment to her mother (Meyers, 5). It is normal for any child to blame himself or herself in the event of a parental separation, and an appeal of this kind laid an especially strong burden of responsibility on young Percy, who must have felt that he had quite literally won his mother and destroyed his father. At the same time, he must have experienced his mother, who had demonstrated her power to expel his father and now required her son to take his place with her, as both omnipotent and dangerously engulfing. It is not surprising that Lewis was preoccupied with the theme of incestuous relationships between mother and son, or that he split off or projected the very concept of such relationships onto any “Other” available—Freud himself, “non-curopeans,” or women.

In his right-wing political tract, The Art of Being Ruled (1926), Lewis speaks of the husband and wife as natural enemies and of the son and mother as natural allies and friends. He reasons, “It is perhaps as well to add that all the freudian oeudipus-complex propaganda has greatly assisted this situation.”11 In his defense of the beleaguered white race, Paleface (1929), he again blames Freud for creating the “incest-theme” and goes on to assure us that this theme does not apply to him, as it is “inappropriate to the european communities, on whom no severe religious restrictions of race or of caste have been imposed.”12 Over and over again, Lewis paints a picture of a powerless male child, the victim of the two forces of Jewish Freudianism and feminism, which, in league together, intend to force him to fulfill the Oedipal script:

[T]his same figure—the highly educable sensitive child—has already been stirred up against papa by his feminist mama, and is pondering already, if he is a reader of Freud, if he shall slay and eat him. (Art, 287)

Lewis's close tie with his mother and what he must have experienced as her expulsion of his father made the need to “escape from the power of the mother and the intensity of the first feminine identification” an even more pressing task (Johnson and Stockard, 222). The longing to return to the feminine world in which he had been a pampered and worshiped young prince was also a powerful force and one which would have to be forcibly destroyed if it were not to overwhelm him. Horney describes the longing of the young boy, whose primary identification is with his mother, to be a woman, or as Chodorow puts it, his “underlying sense of femaleness” (9). In the appropriately named Doom of Youth (1932), in The Apes of God (1930), and indeed in all of his other works, Lewis argues that most men, given half a chance, will attempt to return to the womb—that is, to a primitive female (and female-dominated) infancy. In Rude Assignment, Lewis describes this powerful longing, once again projecting it onto Freud: “The great influence of the psychoanalytic doctrines of the Unconscious (the desire to return back into the womb type of suggestion) has had the effect of leading an entire generation back to the frontiers of primitive existence” (194).

For Lewis, both childhood and femininity would become objects of the most rigid splitting off. Dinnerstein mentions men's terror “of sinking back wholly into the helplessness of infancy” (164), and this was a particularly potent fear for Lewis all of his life. Like the Freikorpsmen, who saw the desire for human pleasure as a contagious disease, Lewis needed to “renounce the sensuous emotional world of early childhood” in order to “seal off the layer of personality in which the primitive erotic flow between the self and the surround has its source” (Dinnerstein, 32). Indeed, Lewis, like Shapiro's paranoid patients, aspired to become a machine and proclaimed his goal of writing in a way which transcended all human emotion.

Lewis hardly saw his father after 1900, the year Charles paid his son's fees at Rugby school. In letters to his mother, Lewis refers to him facetiously as the “Parent Over the Water” and “Old Rip” and discusses possible ways the two of them might “extract” money from him.13 After his father's death, Lewis wrote about him more sympathetically and began to identify with him, calling him “that odd-man-out in a society of go-getters.”14

After being educated at home and at a series of prep schools, at none of which he remained more than a few months, the thirteen-year-old Lewis was sent to Rugby. While the story of the many prep schools remains untold, it is probable that neither mother nor son could endure prolonged separations, and that Lewis's mother withdrew him from school when he was unhappy. Lewis has also always kept silent on his Rugby experience, but clues are available. The intelligent boy came at the bottom of his class of twenty-six. His school reports describe him as lazy, lethargic, sluggish, and thoroughly idle (Meyers, 8). Meyers points out that “his lethargic school report was a striking contrast to the demonic energy of his maturity,” but fails to note that the report reads like a description of clinical depression (Meyers, 8). After two years, Lewis was expelled from Rugby for failing to work, a rare occurrence there. In an early draft of a chapter in Rude Assignment, which he later deleted from the final copy, Lewis describes Rugby in terms of beatings: “I … was frequently beaten by my house master, both for idleness and breaches of the rules. He used to rush up and down his dark study, lashing at me with his whistling cane.”15 He concludes, “I left Rugby after about two years of kicking balls and being beaten for lack of work” (Rude, Appendix, 250). Beating takes a prominent role in all his school memories. Much later, Lewis “proudly” told Marshall McLuhan that he was the first Rugby man to receive six beatings in one day (Meyers, 7). Also, in an unpublished “vitae” he wrote when applying to teach in an American university in 1949, he writes: “Scarcely did I learn to spell, certainly. Masters noticing this, and pretending it was my fault, took advantage of the fact to beat me unmercifully. They gave me a note to hand to my Housemaster. When he read it he beat me too. But I understood it was their fun, and being quite healthy, didn't mind” (Meyers, 8).

Behind the casual dismissal, one can perceive the misery of a boy brought up in an adoring, exclusively female household as his mother's beloved companion, thrust into an atmosphere where his homesickness and depression made him seem stupid, and where he was constantly, sometimes ritualistically beaten. While Lewis shies away from direct statement, the implication is that the masters in question got sexual enjoyment—“there fun”—from beating young boys. Aware of the prominence and sexual connotation of beatings in such “homosexual” boarding school novels as Alec Waugh's The Loom of Youth (which he attacked savagely in his own Doom of Youth and elsewhere), Lewis describes his own beatings in a flat, neutral tone, stressing his immunity from such forms of sexuality. Like the abused children Alice Miller describes, whose denial festers and is reborn in their later sadism, Lewis needed to deny his own pain and abuse (and certainly any sexual feelings related to it) at all costs. Yet the boarding school experience undoubtedly left its mark.

Lewis regarded women as a species apart. Heterosexual activity, was a compulsive and addictive need for him and for the male characters in his fiction, and his relationships with his many sexual partners was one “between superior and inferior—the degradation or humiliation of one by another, the imposing of will by one, the surrender of the other” (Shapiro, Autonomy, 102). Homosexuality, on the other hand, was a despised and abhorred taboo for which Lewis felt obsessive rage and horror. At the same time, as we shall see, homosexual fantasies which featured Lewis in a submissive role in relation to a masculine hero played a prominent role in his work.

In the final version of Rude Assignment, Lewis eliminates the beating episode, substituting a sentence more characteristic of his archenemy, George Orwell. Public school, Lewis says, “caused a boy to be content for the rest of his days, to feel that he is ‘playing the game,’ oblivious to what the particular game happens to be” (119).

While early experiences can help explain our adult attitudes, they can not, of course, ultimately determine them. In both Orwell and Lewis, the experience of public school led to a lifelong resolve never to “play the game,” and an obsession with the roles of victim and oppressor, dominant and dominated. However, Orwell's resolution involved a system in which he defended or rescued an identified oppressed Other against the oppressor, while, as we have seen, Lewis's more narcissistic system featured himself as the overt aggressor but actual victim.16

After his expulsion from Rugby, Lewis's mother, who had noticed his talent for drawing, sent him to the Slade School of Art. Here he met Augustus John, one of the first of a series of father figures whom he would worship, then cruelly reject. At the Slade, Lewis's talent was appreciated, but, in a pattern which would be repeated with later authority figures, he had repeated conflicts with the school's administration and left after two years, without completing the course. He then embarked on an extended trip to Europe, where “gradually the devastating effect of English school life wore off.”17 In a rare stab at self-analysis in Rude Assignment, Lewis describes a “psychological factor” which he feels may have contributed to his strong reaction against “civilization.” He mentions that, having left school early, he was younger than his contemporaries. He describes himself as having

remained, beyond the usual period, congealed in a kind of cryptic immaturity. In my social relations the contacts remained for long, primitive. I recognized dimly this obstruction; was conscious of gaucherie, of wooden responses—all fairly common symptoms of course. It resulted in experience with no natural outlet in conversation collecting in a molten column within. This trop-plein would erupt; that was my way of expressing myself. (126)

As we have seen, these “wooden responses” and primitive social relations are typical of men who have never known mutual recognition and who consequently feel “dead and empty, unable to connect to themselves or to others” (Benjamin, 136).

Lewis's letters to his mother from abroad are, as Robert Chapman writes admiringly, “remarkable in their candour.”18 They shed light both on Lewis's relationship with his mother and on what would be an enduring pattern of relationships with women.19 From Holland, along with detailed reports on his bowels and packets of dirty laundry for her to wash, he sends his mother the story of the landlord's daughter, whose bosom he has stroked. Shortly afterward, in a letter with marked paranoid content, he reports that her parents, whom he has heard quarreling, are plotting to marry him to their daughter:

I think that I am often the subject of these disputes—also, which is very unpleasant, the people here talk about me in a disagreeable way in the next room. … I really have a most absurd dread of the very thought of marriage; I feel like packing up and flying to the British Consul for protection. (Letters, 14)

As Chapman acutely notes: “This incident … presents the lodger as victim, an unwitting catalyst in a situation which almost engulfs him” (17).

Lewis's next relationship, with a German woman named Ida, lasted longer but followed the same pattern. In 1905, he writes to his mother of a German lady who

came round to see me one day and to my unquenchable amazement asked me to kiss her, and threw herself into my arms and kissed me with unabated vigour for three hours; well I'm very glad … it saves me a lot of trouble and expense to have a very beautiful and nicely bred mistress. (Letters, 18)

During the course of this relationship, which began with Lewis as the childlike, passive recipient of female passion, he appears to grow smaller and smaller as Ida grows larger. Unable to disentangle himself from this engulfing female, he writes to his mother of his inability to leave or forget Ida, despite “a hopeless feeling” in her presence. Caught, as Horney says, between “the violent force by which the man feels himself drawn to the woman” and “the dread lest through her he might die and be undone” (349), he writes: “I suffer very much about all of this, and spend many hours of great despondence; I don't see any prospect of this feeling passing” (Letters, 27). Months later, he writes: “I don't like her at all and avoid her as much as possible: it naturally is a cause of great annoyance, her presence, but then if I hadn't that I should have another” (Letters, 33). Like the paranoid men described by Salzman and the narcissistic borderline men described by Kernberg, Lewis's awareness of his own dependency on Ida fills him with anger and despair. Nevertheless, he is unable to conceive of life without a woman to provide sustenance.

In a later letter, he identifies with his father as a man persecuted by women: “I think I may go a step farther than my august father, and say there are ‘too many bitches in this world’; I've had a lesson in the matter of women, such as I shan't forget in a hurry” (Letters, 35). Anne Lewis, presumably one of the “bitches” his father had complained about, apparently did not object to her son's statement. In his next letter to her on the subject, Lewis wishes Ida at the bottom of the sea and explains: “[H]appily I have a tender feeling in another direction, which may ripen into covetousness: then farewell … german” (Letters, 36). In the end, Lewis childishly pleaded with his mother to visit Ida and end the affair for him, which she proceeded to do. Meyers writes, rather nonchalantly:

In November 1908 Lewis' mother sent five guineas to Ida, who was expecting Lewis' baby the following month. When the infant was born, Lewis disowned it, left Ida and returned to England, establishing a pattern he would repeat with his later illegitimate children. He once told Kate Lechmere that he had accidentally dropped and killed Ida's baby … though this was probably not true … (Meyers 22)

“I am yours ever,” Lewis signed his letters to his mother during this period, reassuring her of his continuing allegiance.

Meyers quotes Lewis as complaining about “his abnormal addiction to sex” (Meyers, 89). Sexuality for him, as for his fictional heroes, was a compulsive need which had little to do with attraction or choice. Lewis's character Tarr is certainly speaking for his maker when he explains that artists “discharge themselves” by satisfying their bodily appetites and when he calls sex with his German mistress, Bertha, a “milking process” (Tarr, 219). This metaphor, in which Lewis pictures himself as a female domestic animal, dependent on his “milker” to relieve him, appears throughout his work and reveals his self-disgust at his own dependency, as well as the resentment he felt for the women whom he needed.

In his sexual addiction and his close, though ambivalent, relationships with women, Lewis differs from the Freikorpsmen, who found sexual release in killing, not in intercourse, who tended to be celibate, and who found their primary relationships and their proof of masculinity within a male group. For Lewis, who would have found participation in such a group intolerable, unremitting sexual activity served as a continuous proof of his masculinity. He often boasted about his many attacks of gonorrhea, which caused year-long periods of illness and indirectly led to his death, and which, as he was seldom completely free from it, one imagines he may have transmitted to some of his sexual partners. In his letters, he refers to his friends' wives and mistresses as “cunts” and “sickening bitches.” Hugh Porteus noted Lewis's combination of lechery and hostility to Porteus's Jewish girlfriends and affectionately remembers a painting at the doorway of one of Lewis's residences, showing “a shrewish female face, the lips neatly sewn together with jagged stitches of black cobbler's thread. This I learned to read as a reminder that no women were allowed to enter here” (Meyers, 203).

Like his paranoia, Lewis's misogyny was one of the characteristics noted by every contemporary Meyers interviewed, male or female, approving or disapproving—with the one outstanding exception of his wife. Jameson comments on the “obsessive sexism and misogyny which can go unnoticed by no reader of Lewis's work … so extreme as to be virtually beyond sexism,” and this quality was as evident in his life as in his work (Jameson, 30).

If Lewis had ambivalent and contradictory feelings about sex and women, he felt no ambivalence for what he called “breeding” and for children themselves. Like the men in Kernberg's study, Lewis felt disgust at “the primal scene,” which he evoked time and again in his fiction. In a rather strange grouping, Meyers comments on his “almost Swiftian disgust about bodily functions and newborn infants,” a disgust which he explains in terms of Lewis's ideology: “sex and birth emphasized the horrifying dichotomy of mind and body” (Meyers, 89). A more satisfying explanation can be found in Lewis's often reiterated fear of regression into infancy, coupled with his need to be supreme in his mother's and in his other women's affections. In a striking instance of Miller's repetition compulsion, Lewis abandoned his five illegitimate children in a manner even more total than that in which his father had abandoned him, leaving each woman before she gave birth and never seeing or contacting any of them.

In 1908, Lewis returned to England, where he entered into a period of energy and fame and became a star of the avant-garde. He created numerous murals and stage sets, founded a group, which his friend and mentor Ezra Pound named “The Vortex,” that produced two issues of a magazine, Blast (1914 and 1915), and wrote his first novel, Tarr (1918). During this time he fell under the influence of F. T. Marinetti, whom he had first heard lecture in London in 1910 and whose futurist movement, “an extraordinary premonition of the woman-despising necrophilia of fascism” (Oldfield, 12), I discussed briefly in chapter 2. In Blasting and Bombardiering (1937), in an early effort to erase his own fascist connections, Lewis denied any connection with Marinetti, but in fact the futurist movement, with its glorification of violence as necessary “hygiene” and its contempt for femaleness, provided the philosophical underpinnings for Vorticism and for Blast, as well as for Lewis's political writing of the 1920s and 1930s. Lewis's public break with Marinetti in 1914 was similar to his break with other mentors: Augustus John, Walter Sickert, Roger Fry, Sturgis Moore, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot, to name only a few.

The list of mentors whom Lewis managed to attract and then viciously turned on is at least as numerous and as renowned as his list of mistresses. He was particularly vicious to anyone who helped him financially. In the collected letters one sees a pattern of initial warmth and gratitude, followed quickly by feelings of mistrust and suggestions that the friend or benefactor might be about to betray him; and then by a venomous attack, repeated until the friend finally withdraws, at which point Lewis accuses him of betrayal, disloyalty, venality, and other sins, and instructs him to stay away from then on. In a pattern typical of the narcissistic borderline personality as described by Kernberg, over and over again Lewis ejected the father who had abandoned him to the clutches of his mother.20 Only those with the remarkable ability to ignore his insults were able to continue to support his work, although most of these discontinued any personal relationship.21 Lewis longed for a strong and caring father and found plenty of men who were eager to play that role for the tough genius, as he was known. However, he was too terrified of his own homosexual leanings to tolerate such patronage for long, and the idealization of these father figures soon gave way to rage. We have seen how his dependence on women caused him to experience them as threatening and consequently to defend himself against them with great hostility. The same pattern existed with those men who attempted to help him financially or in other ways.

Meyers, eager to prove that Lewis was not in fact paranoid, explains that “the severe and degrading poverty he suffered during his entire adult life accounts in large measure for Lewis' suspicious character and hostile behaviour” (Meyers, 87). He also mentions Lewis's “fierce and ultimately self-destructive need to sacrifice people for ideas” and praises the way he “successfully separated the degrading poverty and squalor of his daily existence from his exalted intellectual and artistic life” (Meyers, 120). Again, he explains that Lewis's bizarre behavior toward the end of his life, including his chronic secretiveness about his address and telephone number, was merely an attempt to avoid creditors (Meyers, 11). While it is true that Lewis experienced chronic poverty, I would suggest that it was not poverty which created his behavior, but rather that his paranoid behavior created and sustained his poverty. While Lewis's books consistently lost money for his publishers and never supported him financially, he was an extraordinary portrait painter who was widely admired and could have made a good living painting portraits of those in the artistic and literary world. Instead, just as he insulted the patrons who attempted to help him financially, he insulted and degraded his subjects during their sittings. As if this were not enough to alienate them, he consistently set one price and afterward demanded more money than had originally been agreed upon.22 The same was true for his literary career, in which he consistently alienated admirers and reviewers. Most of his contemporaries, even those who disliked him, agreed that Lewis was a man of great energy and talent. It took what amounted to a concerted campaign on his part to achieve his state of chronic need.

Typical of this campaign was his battle with “Bloomsbury,” a group whose “members” embodied his obsessions with effeminate men, engulfing women, Jews, and leftists. Engaged as an artist for the Omega workshop, Lewis accused Clive Bell of stealing a commission for the Ideal Home exhibition which Lewis claimed was meant for him. In the round-robin that he circulated after the event, Lewis accuses the workshop members of being feminine and having to call him in “to do the rough and masculine work” (Letters, 49). The Bloomsbury group continued to be a focus for his rage throughout his life. He projected his personal failures onto them, believing that it was their scheming which prevented him from ever attaining critical or financial success in England, and constantly attacking the group's financial privilege, their homosexuality, their feminism, and their pacifism. In Blasting and Bombardiering he speaks venomously of “the Bloomsburies,” who spent the war years

under the wings of powerful pacifist friends … haymaking … in large sunbonnets … disgustingly robust … all … of military age. … Yet they had money and we hadn't; ultimately it was to keep them fat and prosperous—or thin and prosperous, which is even worse—that other people were to risk their skins. (184-84)

Lewis himself joined the army in 1916 and, between repeated bouts in hospital due to his venereal diseases, spent most of the war in the north of England attempting to become an officer. He was sent to France in May of 1917 and stayed on the front until October 1917, when he gained a post as a war artist.

Unlike the Freikorpsmen, whose need for war was so extreme that they created their own war when none was available, Lewis found neither fulfillment nor release in battle. He did not, however, seem to feel the horror and despair some of his contemporaries did. In Blasting and Bombardiering, Lewis confesses that it was hard for him to feel the reality of war. Speaking through his fictional “mask,” Cantleman, he notes: “[T]he news [of war] brought into relief a novel system of things. Everything was going to be delightfully different” (67). Referring to his “disinvoluture” (sic) in both art and war, Lewis explains: “My attitude to the war was unsatisfactory … I experienced none of the conscience-prickings and soul-searchings, none of the subtle anguish, of so many gentlemen whose … books poured out simultaneously upon the market about ten years ago” (Blasting 7).

While much of this is a pose (readers are expected to conclude that Lewis, with his stiff upper lip, actually felt more than the wordy gentlemen), it does speak to the emptiness, numbing, or inner rigidity identified by every one of our theorists: the same “wooden responses” Lewis referred to in Rude Assignment. Lewis explains his own “disinvoluture” or inability to feel the reality of human death in war by confessing that “people seem to me to be rather walking notions than real entities” (Blasting, 8). This inability to conceive of others as real, a mark of the narcissistic personality, is a persistent theme for the male characters in Lewis's novels and other prose, where the idea of human beings as either machines or puppets, incapable of real feeling, occurs again and again. This characteristic metaphor was clearly based on Lewis's own cut-off and mechanized experience of self. All his fictional characters are marked by a strangely wooden, rather surreal quality, a trait which may be less a conscious stylistic choice than an inevitability, given Lewis's manner and limits of perception. As Julian Symons puts it, “He saw men and women as machines walking, their appendages of ears, nose, hands, stuck oddly on, their activities, from speech and eating to excretion and copulation, stutteringly awkward and comic” (2).

If war was not as devastating for Lewis as for others, it was not without its ill effects. The strongest emotion which comes through in his description of his wartime experiences, as in most of his writing, is personal betrayal. For Lewis, the war was the instrument which “robbed me of four years, at the moment when, almost overnight, I had achieved the necessary notoriety to establish myself in London as a painter” (Blasting, 13). In a characteristic metaphor, he describes the war—and life—as a male friend who has mortally betrayed him:

Life was good and easy, and I called Life “friend.” I'd never hidden anything from him, and he'd never hidden anything from me. Or so I thought. I knew everything. He was an awfully intelligent companion, we had the same tastes (apparently) and he was awfully fond of me. And all the time he was plotting up a mass-murder. … It took me some time to realize this fully. But from the very beginning of the War I got wise to it, in fits and starts. (Blasting, 64)

Lewis's father died ten days after the Armistice, leaving him nothing. About this event he writes bitterly: “how he got there [Philadelphia, where he died] is unimportant—except in so far as I was cheated of my patrimony” (Blasting, 211). Lewis did feel cheated of his patrimony, not only financially but in a much larger sense. Meyers suggests that this monetary deprivation was the cause of his subsequent poverty and consequently of his increasingly paranoid behavior after the war (Meyers, 87). But Lewis would probably have squandered any inherited wealth as he did all other possibilities of financial gain. The feeling of having been cheated and betrayed was not only a concrete reality but a life stance. Wyndham Lewis suffered from a far deeper wound than could have been repaired, as Meyers suggests, by the inheritance of a house in America.

Far more devastating was the death of his mother in 1920, the only event of which Lewis speaks with real emotion in his autobiographical books. A few months before his mother's death, Lewis met Gladys Anne Hoskins (always called “Froanna” by Lewis), an eighteen-year-old working-class woman, who modeled for him and became his mistress. Soon after his mother died, he moved in with this second Anne, and she became his life partner, although he always maintained other residences and relationships with other, more powerful and intellectual women. Lewis married Anne Haskins ten years later, to facilitate a passport to Germany for her. She was twenty years younger than he, as Lewis's mother had been twenty years younger than his father, but unlike Lewis's mother, who did not tolerate her husband's promiscuity, “Froanna” accepted his other relationships and even the fact that he continued to father children with other women during their marriage, though he denied children to her and threatened to leave her should she have any. She also accepted Lewis's need to own her as his exclusive property and lived with him in purdah, apparently not allowed to leave the house without him. Lewis never mentions the existence of a wife in his autobiographical writing. In discussing a move they made together, he invariably uses “I” and not “we.” Most of Lewis's close friends and his mistresses, including those who often visited his flat, never knew of his wife's existence. Even some of those who had known him for thirty years were surprised to learn that he had been married when Meyers revealed the fact during his interviews with them. Hugh Porteus, one of Lewis's closest friends, “saw Froanna's disembodied hands appear through the serving hatch for many years before he actually met her” (Meyers, 100). Others heard her “scuttling into the next room of their tiny flat when a visitor approached” (Meyers, 100).

While Hugh Porteus calls Anne Lewis “a masochistic doll,” Meyers praises her as “a placid woman who prided herself on her ability to endure adversity” (Meyers, 100). She certainly needed this ability. In 1939, “Froanna” accompanied Lewis on his self-imposed removal to Canada, where they lived together in grim exile for six years. After his return to England, his blindness forced him to bring her more into the open to assist and nurse him, and many people learned of her existence for the first time. Anne remained devoted to Lewis, was heartbroken when he died, and never complained about him before or after his death. She was the one respondent to deny his misogyny. Meyers reports that she “expressed surprise when someone suggested that Lewis seemed hostile to women and replied: ‘Was Lewis anti-women? Some cheek, a womanizer like that!’” (Meyers, 100).

In his marriage, Lewis was able to replicate his relationship with his mother, with himself as the adored center of a female universe. He was also able to handle his fear of dependency on his wife by maintaining a nonreciprocal, dominating relationship with her—one which few other women would have tolerated. As Meyers claims, Anne Lewis was indeed his ideal companion.

Just as Lewis's misogyny was much more consistent and basic to his work than was his anti-Semitism, so the quality of his real-life relations with Jews was much less definitive than were those he had with women. Some of his friends, several of the women he had affairs with, and many of his patrons were Jews. While he turned on each one of them, accusing them of betrayal and venality, he acted in the same way with all of his friends and patrons, and their Jewishness does not appear to have been a focus of his recriminations.23 Lewis makes occasional derogatory references to Jews in his letters, though these are not much worse than Virginia Woolf's scornful references to her Jewish relations in her letters and do not approach the venom in Evelyn Waugh's.24 From 1926 through 1938, the period in which he expressed the most anti-Semitism in his writing, he retained Jewish friends and correspondents. However, both Lewis's writing during the 1930s, which often amounted to Nazi propaganda, and some of his political activities place him squarely in the virulently fascist and anti-Semitic camp of his friend Ezra Pound.

In 1916 Lewis had volunteered as a gunner in the Royal Artillery in order “to defend civilization against German barbarism,” but his wartime experience taught him that the German soldier, “like myself was an instrument” (Blasting, 187). After the war, he identified with the Germans and increasingly saw Germany as a male “enemy” or “outsider” like himself. In a conciliatory letter of 1925, T. S. Eliot urged him, “[I]t would be in your own interest to concentrate on one book at a time and not plan eight or ten books at once” (Lewis, Letters, 151). But during the ten years which followed, Lewis seemed less able to follow this advice than ever before.

While working on The Art of Being Ruled, he became particularly interested in Adolf Hitler, and in 1930 Time and Tide, a woman-owned and edited feminist weekly, whose editors may not have known what they were getting into, commissioned Lewis to do a series of articles on Hitler and financed the first of many trips he would make to Germany in the next seven years. In Berlin he became enamored of Hitler and the Nazi movement. Hitler, the book which resulted from these articles, was a panegyric to Lewis's new hero, whose Mein Kampf, easily available at that time in English as well as German, Lewis had neglected to read. Hitler was published in England in 1930 and translated and published in Berlin in 1932. It was the book which most damaged Lewis's reputation and the one which has been most responsible for his label as a fascist and an anti-Semite. The anti-Semitism in Hitler did not, however, come out of nowhere. It had appeared in his attacks on Jewish writers like Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust in The Art of Being Ruled (1926) and in his defense of the white race, Paleface (1929). Cunningham points out that even before the publication of Hitler Lewis habitually labeled his enemies “Untermenschen,” and that he admired pilots, a “new race of men” whom he habitually contrasted with those “gutter-people,” the Jews (Cunningham, 88, 190). In a letter he wrote to Time and Tide in 1931, Lewis compares Berlin after dark to Golders Green, a predominantly Jewish area of London, and mocks the Time and Tide correspondent, who had written about Nazi persecution, as a “keen hearer” who selectively hears “the groans of those struck by truncheons and so on … but always a Communist groans, never a Nazi groans” (Letters, 199).

Hitler was not Lewis's first political idol. Like other narcissistic men, he idealized a series of prominent figures, whom he saw as extensions of himself, then devalued. We have noted his embrace of Marinetti and his movement. Visiting Italy in 1922, as the guest of his then lover, Nancy Cunard, he had greatly admired Mussolini's march on Rome, and had followed his progress enthusiastically thereafter. Meyers explains that Lewis was “fascinated by the arm of authority” and that he saw first Mussolini and then Hitler as possible saviors of art and of artists like him, who were at present being trampled by the “masses” (Meyers, 85). Shapiro describes how the longing to “become the instrument of a strong but authoritative figure” is often coupled with phobic hatred of homosexuals in rigid men, and indeed it was during this same period that Lewis's hatred of homosexuals took on a phobic quality.

Lewis's earlier anti-Semitism is matched and even surpassed in the other political books which he wrote between 1930 and 1938: Doom of Youth (1932), Left Wings over Europe (1936), and Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! (1937), as well as in his novel The Apes of God (1930). The same period saw Lewis's close association with Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, an association which would last until 1938. In a German essay of 1937, one of six he wrote for Nazi journals between 1937 and 1939, he praised Mosley's “great political insight and qualities as a leader” (Meyers, 191); and Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! is full of references to England's wrongful persecution of the heroic Mosley and angry mockery of the Public Order Act of 1937, a governmental measure intended to curb BUF violence. Also in 1937, six months after the start of the Spanish Civil War, Lewis's profascist article “‘Left Wings’ and the C3 Mind,” which echoed Ezra Pound's theory of the international Jewish control of banks and finance, appeared, with an article by Pound, in the first issue of Mosley's British Union Quarterly.

Unlike the Freikorpsmen, Lewis was no joiner. He never actually became a member of Mosely's party, and while he was enthralled in turn by Marinetti, Mussolini, Mosley, and Hitler, each of these violent enthusiasms was followed by a later strong rejection. As in the case of his literary patrons, his intense need for a male authority or father figure was countered by an equally intense homophobic reaction and the need to reject and repudiate each one of his idols. In 1937, Lewis and his wife went to Berlin, his seventh trip to Germany, and two years later he somewhat ambivalently recanted his support of Hitler. The publication of the ambiguous The Jews, Are They Human? in March 1939 signaled this change.

Meyers seems unsure whether Lewis's shift was a matter of conviction or convenience. He credits Lewis's visit to Germany with opening his eyes to the reality of Nazism and asserts that Lewis “felt a personal revulsion for the Right-wing people who tried to take him up after the Hitler book, and regretted his hasty conclusions and political errors as much as the harm he had suffered for espousing them” (Meyers, 245). Meyers also acknowledges, however, that “critics and friends who noticed the change in Lewis's political views in 1938-39 inevitably wondered about the sincerity of his clumsily expressed recantation” (Meyers, 245). Perhaps, Meyers admits, there was indeed a “pragmatic side to his recantation, an ineffectual attempt to rehabilitate himself and achieve popularity” (Meyers, 246).

Meyers is only one of many modern critics who suggest that Lewis's “superficial formulations” in Hitler and his other openly fascist books were merely a natural mistake which grew out of his hatred of war, and that he supported fascism out of “ignorance of its true character and true danger.” He points out that Isherwood, Sartre, and Churchill, among countless others, also praised Hitler at one time and argues that the poor judgment and stubborn individuality which caused Lewis to hold on to his beliefs a little longer than they did caused him to be unfairly and permanently “tainted and condemned” (Meyers, 192). In a review in the 1969 issue of Agenda devoted to Lewis, C. H. Sisson claimed that the real fault in Hitler “lay in the stupidity of his readers,” who should have read it “with less hostility and more understanding.”25 In the same issue, Martin Seymour-Smith claims that Lewis saw Hitler as “a comic figure” and that his “unfortunate” book was consistently misunderstood by critics who missed his “supreme subtlety.”26 While Fredric Jameson, unlike Seymour-Smith, disapproves of Lewis's books of the thirties, he feels that Lewis's support of fascism is understandable in that it stems from his primary attitude toward “the more central position of Communism” (184).

I would disagree with both these views. Lewis's fascist opinions, including his anti-Semitism of the 1930s, cannot be explained away as a side effect of a more central hatred of communism or as an unfortunate and foolish mistake that anyone might have made. My own view is closer to that of William Chace, who reasons that Lewis's political attitudes were the natural outcome of his indifference to others: those “messy complexities of human beings (humans who ruinously resolve themselves into entities Lewis found deplorable, such as ‘women,’ ‘negroes,’ ‘jews,’ ‘pacifists,’ ‘feminists,’ and lovers of ‘jazz’).”27 Chace cites Lewis's overwhelming narcissism, reproduced by the character Argo in his play Enemy of the Stars, who declares, “Anything but yourself is dirt. Anybody that is” (Chace, “On Lewis's Politics,” 151). Lewis's extreme attitudes of the 1930s cannot be separated from the rest of his thinking and development. His fear and hatred of women, as well as his sense of himself as a beleaguered and victimized male fighting to defend himself, made Lewis a natural candidate for Marinetti's, Mussolini's, Mosley's, and finally Hitler's woman-hating and life-destroying philosophies. For the Freikorpsmen in Theweleit's study, the fear of engulfing women was inextricably linked to fear of the masses and of socialism. For Wyndham Lewis, who fought with words rather than with guns, the links are equally inextricable. The narcissist Lewis saw his idols as extensions of himself. When British public opinion turned against Hitler, wiser British supporters of Hitler switched their allegiance. Lewis, the victimized male, felt personally attacked. His unpopular defense of Hitler was a movement of self-defense.

Perhaps because the members of the literary establishment, many of whom had shared Lewis's enthusiasm for Hitler a few years earlier, were now eager to disown their own former opinions and to banish those who served as uncomfortable reminders of these mistakes, Lewis's books virtually stopped selling in England after the publication of Hitler. His commissions for portraits also finally petered out. For perhaps the first time, the “enemy” had a reason beyond his own alienating behavior to feel himself persecuted. In 1939 Lewis formally denounced the Nazis in the revisionist The Hitler Cult, but this book, like the revisionist The Jews, Are They Human?, contains so much undermining of its own overt message that one can safely conclude that Lewis's sympathies had not entirely changed. For reasons which were, then, both political and financial, he and his wife left England for Canada, on 2 September 1939, one day before England declared war on Germany. The six years in Canada, described in Self Condemned (1954), were the lowest point in Lewis's life. Although he made the decision to leave, he regarded himself as unfairly and cruelly banished and felt that England had betrayed him.

Lewis never regarded himself as an anti-Semite and resented the implication that he was one. In The Jews, Are They Human? he presents himself as one of the few objective voices on the subject of anti-Semitism and as a longtime friend of the Jews. In contrast, he would never have publicly presented himself as a friend of homosexuals, socialists, children, feminists, or even women. Such a stance would have placed him in closer proximity than he could have tolerated to the rejected and split-off parts of himself. Lewis's hatred of Jews thus never had the phobic, obsessional quality we find in his misogyny or his homophobia. It was only when Jews were identified as a fit object of hatred by his current male authority figure that they took on the prominent position they held in Lewis's obsessional structure during the 1930s. When he rejected Hitler, anti-Semitism was put on a back burner, and unlike the objects of his other obsessions, Jews were not prominent in any of the books he wrote after his return from the United States and Canada in 1945.

Lewis returned to England an ill and broken man, his health destroyed by the brain tumor which pressed on his optic nerve and caused complete blindness by 1956. His illness did not prevent him from continuing to write—during this period he produced seven more books—or from continuing to do battle. He died in 1957, not of the brain tumor but of chronic kidney failure caused by his gonorrhea-related urinary disease (Meyers, 371). He was survived by the faithful Anne Lewis, who nursed him until the end.


The Structure Revealed: The Art of Being Ruled (1926) and Paleface (1929). “YOU WILL BE MADE TO HEAR IT,” Lewis wrote to his friend. Perhaps more than the two other writers in this study, his writing was the result of a conscious need for expression so pressing that he used the metaphor of a volcano threatening to erupt to describe it. Just as volcanic flow respects no boundaries, the force of Lewis's preoccupations flowed over and broke the boundaries between genres. Lewis's “didactic” writing, poorly researched, full of personal and familial scenarios and seemingly unmotivated eruptions of rage, often reads more like fiction; while his modernist, nonrealist “fiction,” with its one-dimensional, surreal characters, its lack of linear plan, and its frequent pauses for didactic explosions of exposition, crosses the border into didactic prose. For this reason, I have chosen to discuss Lewis's nonfiction and fiction texts together in this chapter.

Like many people who see themselves surrounded by conspiratorial forces, Wyndham Lewis felt a pressing need to make others see the connections which were so blindingly clear to him. In Paleface, the book he wrote to protect and rescue the white race, he explains this mission:

The majority of people are deeply unconscious of the affiliations of the various phenomenons of our time, which on the surface look so very autonomous and even hostile, yet … they are often closely and organically related to one another. If you test this you will be surprised to find how many things do belong together … it is our business, especially, it appears, mine, to establish these essential liaisons, and to lay bare the widely flung system of cables connecting up this maze-like and destructive system in the midst of which we live—destructive, that is, of course to something essential that we should clutch and be careful not to lose[.] (142)

The didactic books which Lewis wrote between 1926 and 1937 represent his effort to publicize and expose this web of connections or “liaisons.”

While Jews do not figure explicitly in The Art of Being Ruled (1926) (except, as in the attacks on Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, and Karl Marx, as representatives of the types Lewis hated most), the book contains the first complete version of the system we will trace in all of his books of the 1920s and 1930s. It is accordingly worth considering here at some length. The Art of Being Ruled was published to critical acclaim in 1926. In his discussion of the book, Julian Symons attempts to explain why Lewis was “not merely neglected but positively ostracized … the most hated writer in England” (9): “To place such a low value on human life as such, and to make the assumption that some lives are important, most of no interest or value, outraged the conventional beliefs of Lewis's own time, and even more the pieties of ours” (7).

Although Symons's summary of the beliefs Lewis expounded in The Art of Being Ruled is accurate, his memory of the book's reception seems faulty. The Art of Being Ruled may have been received with private outrage, but publicly Lewis was neither silenced nor condemned. Judging from its highly positive reception, Lewis's book was an accurate production of at least one dominant discourse. W. A. Thorpe, in Criterion (edited by T. S. Eliot), called the book a plea for “the political sovereignty of the intellect,” praised Lewis's “penetration,” and compared him with Aristotle in his belief that “some should rule and others be ruled.”28 In Calendar, Edgell Rickword priases Lewis's goal of “arresting the degradation of the values on which our civilization seems to depend … and of re-asserting the terms on which the life of the intellect may regain its proper ascendancy over emotional and economic existence.”29

In The Art of Being Ruled, Lewis outlines his theory of the rule of the few great men over the mediocre mass. He praises Mussolini's Italy, where, as he supposes, “all the humbug of a democratic suffrage, all the imbecility that is wastefully manufactured, will henceforth be spared these happy people … all the clumsy and gigantic characteristic shams of anglosaxon life will have no parallel in such a regime” (370).

But the political theme which is the overt purpose of this book is surprisingly hard to locate. To read The Art of Being Ruled is a bewildering activity until one gives up on the overt message and concentrates instead on the subtext, which explodes from every chapter in a kind of furious, free-associative process. Thorpe, whose Criterion review demonstrates that Lewis's preoccupations, rather than being a bizarre product of individual pathology, were openly shared by at least one contemporary reviewer, addresses this subtext openly: “Mr. Lewis examines with great skill this fungus of delusion—feminism, inversion, the aping of the child, the masculisation [sic] of women and the effemisation [sic] of men” (63). While Fredric Jameson considers both The Art of Being Ruled and Paleface highly unfortunate and Julian Symons admires them, these two modern critics agree as to the real import of the two books—and agree that it has little do to with either fascism or democracy. Jameson sees them as: “a variety of registers in which a single theme, the loss of reality in modern life, or if you prefer a somewhat franker version, the systematic undermining of the European White Male Will is implacably pursued” (123).

In Julian Symons's view, the books describe the insidious process in which: “the advance of feminism, closely linked with the development of homosexuality, is eroding and will finally destroy the family as a factor of social importance” (7).

Once identified as the book's real theme, this subtext is presented as a sequence or process which is recapitulated again and again in, to use one of Lewis's chapter titles, “a vicious circle,” which begins before the birth of the male child and continues throughout his lifetime. Lewis, like Kate Millett, views the nuclear family as “a circle of self-perpetuation and self-fulfilling prophecy” (Millett, 53), but while Millett sees this circle systematically dominating and crushing the female, Lewis identifies the male as its victim. The parents, who may have begun with an illusion of romantic love, quickly find that they are natural adversaries:

The step from a beneficent activity to a malevolent one is imperceptible. All love … could be said to turn to hate … this romance can become a rage … this romance of destruction can easily pass over into sadism and homicide[.] (Art, 256)

Once the romance is gone, it is a only question of who will engulf or devour whom:

[L]ove can only exist on the surface. An inch beneath, and it is no longer love but the abstract rage of hunger and reproduction, of which the swallowing of the oyster, or the swallowing of the male by the female epira, is an illustration. (260)

Lewis then free-associates for some pages on the repulsiveness of the oyster, which he clearly associates with the female genitalia. He quotes Samuel Butler, “[W]ho would kiss an oyster?” (253), and reflects, “Men dislike the appearance of an oyster, as they dislike the appearance of the underneath of their tongue … but they find it lovely to eat” (254). Men, reasons Lewis, are repulsed by females (and their genitalia) but drawn compulsively to them. Repulsed or not, they must consume the female or be consumed by that larger and more powerful entity:

“I could eat you!” one lover says to another at the paroxysm of their lubricity. And indeed, if one were considerably smaller than the other, as in the case of the male of the epira, that no doubt would happen very often. (254)

In the next chapter, Lewis turns to the masses: that howling foaming mob, which desires the real and living blood of the lone artist. This thought, like most others, brings him back to the oyster and the epira, and that “abstract rage of hunger and reproduction” (260). Without specifying who the pronoun “they” refers to, he quotes Julien Benda's Belgaphor:

Let us learn to recognize also, in their will to install themselves inside things, a kind of thirst to sexually invade everything—to violate any intimacy, and mix themselves in the most intimate recesses of the being of everything met. (260)

What Lewis is telling us urgently and repeatedly in this book, just as he did in his own life script, is that while he depends on women and on sexual union with them for his survival, that connection is also, and literally, life-threatening to him. To feel so dependent on a being determined to engulf or swallow one up is indeed a no-win situation, especially for a narcissist like Lewis, whose greatest fear is dependency (Kernberg, 235). No wonder he concludes this chapter with the statement that religion and science, the ostensible “topics” of the chapter, both prophesy “the suicide of our race” (Art, 261).

After the male child's birth his mother immediately chooses him as “her friend, for whom she keeps her best affection,” and with the aid of “freudian oedipus-complex propaganda” she attempts to turn him against his father (Art, 285). In a passage which strikingly recapitulates his own perceived history, Lewis explains:

The child as a symbol and object of worship, with exclusive claims, is a woman-value, then. That it should at once develop an antagonism for the adult or “the man” is natural enough, seeing that at the time of its birth, the woman was engaged in a “war” of freedom with “the man.” (286)

The male child is now subjected to a barrage of persuasion and propaganda intended to force him to give up his role. Lewis, who, like the Freikorpsmen, repeatedly conflates class and gender in this book, envisioning women and the masses joined together against the lone, intellectual male, tells us of the “insidious and disgraceful proposal made to man when in the war of the sexes, turned into a class war, he has been defeated” (272). He even presents us with the gist of the proposal itself:

I will show you how you can just step aside and avoid all further labour or anxiety. You will neither be rich nor “great” nor beautiful, nor anything troublesome of that sort. Who wants all that? You can, if you want to, be eternally in the position of a little silent, giggling, crafty child; or of an imbecile that no one takes seriously, and of whom nothing is expected, and in whom there is no ambitious vanity that can be wounded, of whom no martial virtue is expected, nor lover's absurd devotion—with the extravagant claims of the over-indulged woman, overestimating her sex-leverage. Nothing of all that! Would you like to be a woman? It sounds a come-down but why? She has the best of it! There is always some fool to look after her. She is outside the life of bustle, boring business, mechanical work done to get money (to keep her)—war, politics and all the rest of the solemn rigmarole—almost as much as the child is. (272)

Lewis is describing the phenomenon which Chodorow identified as “the male longing to return to the original sense of oneness with the mother … an underlying sense of femaleness … that continually … undermines the sense of maleness” (9). For Lewis such undermining is constant and pervasive, and to give in to it is a fate worse than death. A man, Lewis tells us emphatically, “does not want, if he can possibly help it, to be a man, not at least if it is so difficult.” Margaret Mead wrote that the masculine role must “be kept and re-earned every day” (Chodorow, 40). In a similar statement, Lewis asserts that a man: “is made, not born: and he is made, of course, with very great difficulty. From the time he yells and kicks in his cradle, to the time he receives his last kick at school, he is recalcitrant” (280).

Men are a species at risk. Of those who manage to survive the kicks of public school, most are, like the epira Lewis dwells on, “willingly eaten … devoured by its mate in the midst of its tumescence” (282). It is no wonder that they are recalcitrant and long to return to the safety of female-dominated infancy or to choose the easy, passive life of women. But the weak man who gives in to the “insidious proposal,” unlike the victimized but still “erect” hero, will be sorry. Lewis's portrait is devastating:

At thirty-five, forty-five, fifty-five, und so weiter, you find them still luxuriously and rebelliously prostrate; still lisping, and sobbing, spread-eagled on their backs, helpless and inviting caresses, like a bald-stomached dog. (280)

To avoid this fate, a male must assume the paranoid stance described by Shapiro and the other theorists in chapter 2. He must be eternally vigilant, trust no one, constantly fight his longing for softness and tenderness, eradicate vulnerability in himself, and despise it in women and other suspects. In fact he must act just as Lewis himself did all his life.

Foremost of the enemies he must face is, of course, the woman who is so eager to devour him. She lies in wait for her foe:

By turns maudlin and vicious, cruel like a child, inconsiderate, with no disciplined sense of “fairness,” living on her mimetic sense solely … [with her] narrow specialist intelligence, the sterility of her mind, like the potential fecundity of her body. (276-77)

In league with her is the male's other most bitter enemy, “the turncoat, or ‘turn-sex’ male feminizing invert” (275). In the same way as he threatened Shapiro and Salzman's rigid patients, this enemy presents a major threat to Lewis, who devotes more than half his book to maligning him. For Lewis, the connection is obvious. “The homo,” he states, “is the legitimate child of the suffragette” (244). Invert and woman unite in their common goal of destruction of the man.

The male-invert … is hostile to many things to which the average woman is hostile … the stupider, more excitable and aggressive kind of woman will revenge herself on those things towards which she has always been in a position of veiled hostility. It is often said that the male invert shelters himself behind—uses and acts through—women. But it would be equally true to put it the other way around. (245)

Lewis takes care here to except the “male-pole type of invert,” whom he describes sympathetically in what sounds like something of a self-portrait. As opposed to the “feminizing” invert, the “male-pole” type has “pride … often enormous in his maleness. If perhaps over-fine and even mad, he can meet on equal terms the male of any other species” (238). Lewis's hatred is reserved for those members of “the ruling male sex” who, in an “instinctive capitulation of the will,” have renounced their identity (269).

In Lewis's nightmare world, the carefully imposed distinctions between men and women, children and adults, which “substitute for and make unnecessary an objective relationship with the external world,” have disappeared, and emotion, once safely sealed off as female baggage, has infected the whole (Shapiro, Autonomy, 76). Everything exists within a giant, swallowing female mouth:

The “passions,” “intuitions,” all the features of the emotive life—with which women were formerly exclusively accommodated—are enthroned on all hands, in any place reached by social life; which is increasingly (in the decay of visible public life) everywhere. … First the salon … will be pitched next door to the nursery; then gradually the connecting door will become a large folding-door; and then at length all septum of any sort will disappear. The précieuses ridicules, dressed in baby frocks, will be on the floor with their dolls[.] (242-43)

The paranoid framework of The Art of Being Ruled closely recapitulates the themes of Lewis's own early history as he experienced it. His parents were indeed antagonists who seemed to be engaged in a war of power which resulted in the father “spread eagled … inviting caresses”—as much at his mother's mercy as a “bald-stomached dog.” Although Lewis's early role as his mother's partner was deeply threatening to his own sense of autonomy, once at school, where he was beaten and despised, that safe woman-dominated life must have indeed beckoned sweetly, offering an insidious proposal to return to the helpless engulfment of female-dominated childhood. As Shapiro and our other theorists have emphasized, the longing to assume what they envision as the woman's passivity and sexual surrender and the desire to become the instrument of a strong and authoritative figure are among the reasons that heterosexual men with paranoid features are drawn to homosexuality, worry obsessively about their own homosexuality, and often project that worry outward onto a hatred of homosexuals, especially effeminate ones, who most accurately embody their own desire. The Art of Being Ruled is the first book in which Lewis demonstrates his fascination for the object who seems always to be waiting in the wings of his nightmare: the loathsome feminine invert it is his lifework not to become.

It is easy to see how women and children took on their threatening role within Lewis's symbolic framework and how the connection with feminine homosexuals was forged. It is perhaps more difficult to understand the connection between this framework and Lewis's choice of Mussolini and fascism. In this context it is helpful to remember the Freikorpsman with his terror of female engulfment, the “concentration camp of his desires,” and his encoding of the dangerous crowd or mass with equally dangerous women (Theweleit, 2: 6). For Lewis too, women and inverts were in collusion with the “howling foaming mob”—still a vague and nonpolitical entity in The Art of Being Ruled but clearly associated in Lewis's later books with socialists and communists. Faced with such a dangerous array of enemies, the lone man craves a strong father or hero, who, by providing protection, might allow at least a temporary respite from persecution. Unlike most men, whose natural position is prone, there stands “the abnormal or exceptional man, whom we worship as a ‘hero’ and whose unnatural erectness arouses almost more hatred than surprise” (Art, 281). While, as the last part of this sentence reveals, Lewis views himself as such a persecuted hero, he also longs for one to rescue him so that he can “get some sort of peace to enable us to work” (369). Such a hero will create a world safe from the invasive threat of women, in which the amount of fraternization with them is strictly limited to physical necessity, and in which “the nightmare ‘sex’ will not force people into each other's society for life, when half an hour would answer the purpose” (217).

Eventually, I believe, a considerable segregation of women and men must occur, just as segregation of those who decide for the active, the intelligent life, and those who decide … for the lower or animal life, is likely to happen, and is very much to be desired. (199)

Without fascism, “the most powerful and stable authority that can be devised” and the only system which promises such a separation, the result will be “the extermination of the white race” (370, 275).

In Paleface (1929) Lewis expands on this threatened extermination of “the white race”—clearly, a term for white men only. The book contains a lengthy attack on D. H. Lawrence, a writer who shares many of Lewis's obsessions about women but whom Lewis viewed as a race-traitor because of his glorification of sensuality and the emotions and his worship of Mexican Indians. The attack on Lawrence is a revealing projection of Lewis's own sense of “the essential liaisons … connecting up this maze-like … system” (Paleface, 142).

(1) The Unconscious; (2) the Feminine; (3) The Communist; those are the main principles of action in the mind of Mr. Lawrence, linked in a hot and piping trinity of rough-stuff primitivism, and freudian hot-sex stuff. (180)

In Paleface, Lewis identifies the nonwhite's “primitive” universe with its “consciousness in the abdomen” with the similarly mindless, emotional, universe of the woman. As he puts it:

I would rather have the least man that thinks than the average man that squats and drums and drums. … I would rather have an ounce of human “consciousness” than a universe full of “abdominal” afflatus and hot unconscious “soulless,” mystical throbbing. (196)

In a theory which demonstrates the centrality of Lewis's affection for Nazi doctrines, he explains that the dark races, like the invert, share with women the desire to engulf and destroy the white man. Intermarriage, or miscegenation, in which the white man links with a being who encompasses both darkness and femininity, is a particularly lethal danger. In expounding upon this idea, Lewis implies, though he never directly alludes to, the existence of black females. As a rule, blacks, like Jews, seem to exist for Lewis only in the male gender. As an alternative to miscegenation, Lewis urges a purely European melting pot, as “practically all european intermarriage presents no problem at all” (278). Just as, in The Art of Being Ruled, Lewis's nightmare consisted of a terrible merging of men, women, inverts, and children, and his ideal world was one in which women would be segregated from men, here in Paleface he advocates a splitting-off from his new Other, the object of his projective identification: “We should … see less and less of such other kinds of men, between whom and ourselves there is no practical reason for physical merging, nor for spiritual merging, or even many reasons against both” (258).

The alternative is, once more, a terrible collusion—this time between blacks, women, and Russian Communists. In a particularly vivid paranoid image, Lewis repetitively ruminates about “Black and Red Laughter in Russia” and visualizes blacks, Russians, and women meeting to laugh at and plot against white men (286). He warns: “Let the usual Black Laughter, or Red Laughter, directed at us go on: but let it become a thing of the past for us to remain as its amiable, accommodating and self-abasing butts” (271).

Inverts are, of course, in on the plot as well. The man who, like Lawrence, worships the primitive dark races rather than guarding his own white male identity “has grown to desire to be a woman and has taken obvious steps to effect this transformation.” The actual physical transformation into a female is already far gone in Lewis's fantasy world:

[T]he widespread phenomenon of male inversion [is] … an example of the form that this collapse was taking. As the starch went out of them, the males relapsed into what in Sodom are technically called “bitches” in a process of almost physiological transformation. (156)

Paleface presents us with essentially the same obsessional framework we find in The Art of Being Ruled, with the “mazelike network” or paranoid system which in that book included women, children, homosexuals, and the masses, now expanded to include, and indeed focus upon, blacks. The two books illustrate Gilman's model of the “mutable and constantly shifting” stereotypical flux (Difference and Pathology, 23). Read together, they provide a frightening and illuminating illustration of the psychological process through which racial prejudice can be constructed—and reconstructed.

The book's critics, however, were neither frightened nor illuminated. Just as Lewis's later anti- Semitism would be ignored by contemporary and even modern critics, the blatant and virulent racism in Paleface went unmentioned in both positive and negative contemporary reviews of the book. The reviewer from the Times Literary Supplement praised the book, commenting blandly, “It seems to him [Lewis] vital to combat the idea that the white races are done and the coloured in the ascendant.”30 Other reviewers and commentators concentrated on the attack on D. H. Lawrence, approving or not depending on their views of that author.31 Rebecca West, who criticizes the book for its “exaggeration and distortion,” is the only one to hint at its racism, though she claims, “[T]here is no one who can more deeply thrill one by a vivid and novel vision.”32 Once more, Lewis's obsessional system set him at one rather than at odds with the dominant discourse of his society.

Meyers, in one of his more farfetched rescue efforts, describes Paleface in terms of Lewis's opposition to “the spurious and sentimental expropriation of African culture” and his rejection of “the fashionable, arty assumption that the emotional and sensuous life of the black race was superior to the white” (Meyers, 143). He, however, does admit that “Paleface seemed racist” (Meyers, 150; my italics). Paleface, in which Lewis's focus shifted from women and homosexuals to blacks as the feared and hated Other, paved the way for Lewis's next shift—to a racist anti-Semitism in Hitler.

Jews Join the Plot: Hitler (1930), Doom of Youth (1932), Left Wings over Europe (1936), and Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! (1937). To today's reader, Hitler (1931) reads like a piece of Nazi propaganda, loaded with a kind of sneering, particularly offensive anti-Semitism. Upon its publication, however, the Times Literary Supplement not only described the book as brilliant and persuasive, but also praised Lewis's treatment of and attitude toward Jews in it—an attitude that the reviewer clearly shared.

Mr. Lewis gets on to firmer ground … when he expounds upon the real character of Hitlerite anti-Semitism. He reminds the British public that “the vulgar Jew of the British caricaturist is largely a reality in Central Europe … Jews dominate German life … he [Hitler] logically wants to eliminate them.”33

None of the other reviews mentioned his attitude toward Jews. Just as Hitler's own openly proclaimed anti-Semitism had not made him unpopular with the English people in 1930, Lewis's support of that stance was not even considered worth mentioning by his reviewers in that year. Instead, it fit neatly into the prevailing discourse: the “anti-Semitism of tolerance” described in chapter 1, which blamed Jews (in particular foreign or unassimilated Jews) for anti-Semitism while congratulating its adherent on his or her lack of anti-Semitism. However, other aspects of Lewis's support of Hitler were less acceptable to his English reviewers. His perceived lack of patriotism and his support for a leader who was gradually being acknowledged as the enemy earned him the disapprobation which his anti-Semitic stance did not, and several reviewers labeled him gullible and even narcissistic.34 However, the strong disapproval which Lewis eventually earned for Hitler came well after its publication date. It is important to remember that in 1930, when the book was published, it caused no major stir and was considered, on the whole, perfectly acceptable.

While Lewis had referred contemptuously to Jews in Blast, no. 1 (1914) and in the story “Cantleman's Spring Mate” (1917), they had not so far emerged as a major obsession. With the publication of Hitler, the Jews took their place among Lewis's gallery of miscreants. In Hitler, as in the subsequent books in which Jews played a prominent role, Lewis envisions only male Jews. To him a Jew was, by definition, a man who, like the invert, straddled the line between masculinity and femininity. Female Jews, who could not be fit into this formula, did not exist in his assumptive universe.

The first part of Hitler is devoted to a description of the “Jewish city, Berlin,” which is controlled by a cabal of Lewis's favorite people: “tarts,” “niggers,” “inverts,” and “jews.” Berlin is “a really first class mauvais lieu … thrown up by the War out of the earth's bowels, as it were, from sweated cellars, traps, and gutters.”35

Like the Russian communists and the blacks who mocked the white man with their “Red and Black Laughter” in Paleface, this new cabal enjoys playing a particularly vicious trick on the unsuspecting male tourist, one which, like the “insidious proposal” of The Art of Being Ruled, is designed to blur the essential boundaries between male and female and to force the persecuted man to abandon his masculinity and become a child or a homosexual. The female tart whom the trusting tourist picks up in order to assert his masculinity may turn out to be a man! Lewis describes in some detail his own experience of being tricked in this way, concluding that the tourist who has such an experience will profit from it by henceforth remaining on guard against all women:

[T]he feminine will never never be quite the same for him again … it will have caused him to regard with a certain sceptical squint, all specifically feminine personality. This may … be of great use to him … in the subsequent conduct of his life. (Hitler, 25-26)

Lewis gleefully cites one hundred and sixty such establishments, and, with great relish and fascination, describes “every variety of Perversion” which exists within them. In Meyers's view, he is “utterly repelled and absorbed with the grotesque frisson of sexual degeneracy” (Meyers, 187). But, in a pattern which will reoccur in The Apes of God, Lewis becomes threatened by the force of his own attraction. In order to safely split it off from himself, he needs another figure who will authoritatively represent his divorce from the scene. He finds him in the young Nazi, a triumphant representative of the erect white male. The Nazi avoids all such places. They are for him

the squinting misbegotten paradise of the Schiebertum. “Jude verrecke!” he would no doubt mutter or shout, if he got into one. Sooner or later he would desire to … roll this nigger-dance luxury-spot up like a verminous carpet and drop it into the Spree—with a heartfelt Pfui! at its big sodden splash. (Hitler, 27-28)

Meyers writes, with no apparent irony, “The same perverse spectacle that revolted Lewis, who hated homosexuality and praised Hitler for promising to extinguish vice, attracted the Left-wing Auden, Isherwood and Spender to Berlin … in the early 1930s” (Meyers, 187). In fact, the same phenomenon that drew Lewis, Auden, Isherwood, and Spender to Berlin—its open acceptance of homosexuality—also attracted Lewis.

Most of the rest of the book is devoted to a description of Hitler, whom Lewis clearly sees as an extension of himself and whose Nazi ideology he equates with his own position, as a defense against the feminizing aggression of communism.36 While he acknowledges that Berlin is a violent city, he characterizes the violence as a process in which “the Communists help the police to beat and shoot the Nazis,” rather than the reverse (16). Similarly, the Horst Wessel song portrays a typical ambush by “the marxist gangs [which] take their orders from Moscow” (19). The Nazis themselves go unarmed, except in response to “extreme provocation and in face of the certainty of death if they are not in a position to defend themselves” (20).

Lewis does not ignore Nazi anti-Semitism in this book. Calling it “Judenfrage,” he explains it as the German's “deep animal antipathy” against “a glib metropolitan product whose ancient and dissimilar culture seems to threaten the integrity of his own traditional ideals” (34). He goes on to describe it as a “hard-headed” resolve to “‘keep out’ at all costs the ‘alien’ whom the peasant-mind suspects (whether rightly or wrongly, and no doubt sometimes it is one, sometimes the other) of having designs upon its patrimony” (34).

As we have seen, Lewis's accusation that his father had cheated him of his patrimony implied that through his abdication, his father had robbed him of the ability to feel confidence in his masculinity, thus forcing him to maintain a constant vigilance against the alien forces which were in league for that prize. He interprets “the German's” antipathy for the Jew as the same thing: a fierce defense against those aliens who “have designs” on his patrimony or manhood. In line with the discourse of the time, Lewis distinguishes between English Jews, who are “disinfected and anglicised,” and those of Germany and America:

The anti-semitism that does exist [in the United States] is sustained solely by the extremely bad manners and barbaric aggressiveness of the eastern slum-Jew immigrant, dumped into America yearly in such great numbers. That is more even than human beings … the most stoical and patient of all the animal creation—can comfortably bear. (36)

He approvingly quotes Goebbels on the Jewish control of “Jazz, Nigger-dances and similar amusements (which are completely alien to us)” and concludes, “[I]t is only fair to the Nationalsocialist to say that the Jew has often lent colour to those accusations” (80).

Even the sanitized Jew of England is a would-be woman, and a dominating and engulfing one: “the brilliant and bossy Hausfrau of this stolid English hubby” (41). The German Jew too is “Feminine, and in many ways very unpleasant—all people have their bad sides” (41). The coy tone continues, as does the association of Jews and women, in Lewis's recommendation to the English Hitlerite, at least when at home, to express his anti-Semitism in a lowered voice and accompany it with denial:

The Hitlerite must understand that when he is talking to an Englishman or an American about “the Jew” (as he is prone to do) he is apt to be talking about that gentleman's wife! Or anyhow Chacun son Jew! is a good old English saying. So if the Hitlerite desires to win the ear of England he must lower his voice and coo (rather than shout) Jude verrecke! if he must give expression to such a fiery intolerant notion. Therefore—a pinch of malice certainly, but no “antisemitism” for the love of Mike! (42)

Lewis's recommendation here is accurate enough; we have seen this lowered voice and unnamed anti-Semitism in the Foreign and Home Office memos in chapter 1 and in the code of the English public school described in chapter 3. Having solidly cemented the two concepts “Jew” and “Woman,” Lewis then appeals to his fellow Englishmen in a call for male solidarity with their German brothers, against the alien aggressor and Other—the Woman-Jew: “[S]till allow a little Blutsgefühl to have its way … towards this other mind and body like your own—in favour of this brave and very unhappy impoverished kinsman. Do not allow a mere bagatelle of a Judenfrage to stand in the way of that!” (42). The appeal of “Blutsgefühl” is stated even more clearly later:

[T]he doctrine of the Blutsgefühl … desires a closer and closer drawing together of the people of one race and culture, by means of bodily attraction. It must be a true bodily solidarity. Identical rhythms in the arteries and muscles, and in the effective neural instrument—that should provide us with a passionate exclusiveness, within the brotherly bounds of which we could live secure from alien interference, and so proceed with our work and our pleasures, whatever they may be. That is the big idea. (106-7)

The rather passionately homosexual content of this passage by the sworn enemy of the invert is notable here. Just as in The Art of Being Ruled, Lewis recommended the segregation of men and women, except for brief sexual contacts, as the only way to provide men with safety from female engulfment, here the concept of “Blutsgefühl” offers a world of brotherly safety from “alien interference,” a place where Lewis, tormented by his need for and dependency on women and by the paranoid vigilance required by that need, could finally feel one with other “masculine” men, and do his work in peace.

Hitler for the most part recapitulates Lewis's familiar system, with some important differences. While in The Art of Being Ruled Mussolini and fascism offered rather a pale and ineffective counter to the far stronger forces of feminism and homosexuality, in Hitler the alien forces are for the first time opposed by an equally strong masculine counterforce in the form of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. Lewis bewails the Jewish control of the banks and the economy, presided over by “the Jew Karl Marx,” but claims that Hitler's program offers a strong defense of Europe at a time when it is under threat by feminine, communist Jews. In The Art of Being Ruled women and homosexuals bore the projective burden. In Paleface it passed to the “dark” races. In Hitler, though these other targets are not forgotten, Jews and communists together bear the projective weight. In Hitler Lewis finds “a sort of inspired and eloquent Everyman” (Hitler, 33). He concludes the book with an appreciation of his hero:

I myself am content to regard him as the expression of the current German manhood—resolved with that admirable tenacity, hardihood and intellectual acumen of the Teuton … to seize the big bull of Finance by the horns, and take a chance for the sake of freedom. (202)

In 1938 Virginia Woolf would describe Hitler with a very different emotion but in similar terms as “the quintessence of virility, the perfect type” of manhood (Three Guineas, 187).

By 1932, in Doom of Youth, Lewis has shifted his terminology from “the white race” to “the aryan race.” He continues to emphasize the necessity to keep this entity intact, for, just as the epira will swallow its mate, “[i]n intermarriage, with Jew or Indian, it is the other race that absorbs the European, not the reverse. … With his ‘borrowed religion’ and ‘mongrel culture’ the Jew will ‘absorb’ spiritually within half an hour.”37

Doom of Youth contains a horrified and by now familiar account of how modern youths are infantilized and prevented from achieving manhood by women and feminized homosexuals. In it, Lewis also makes a bitter attack on Alec Waugh, whose Loom of Youth (1917), which I examined briefly in chapter 3, he satirizes in his title. Lewis repeatedly attributes his own obsessional structure to Waugh, childishly taunts him by calling him a homosexual and a woman, and even employs one of his own bêtes noires, psychoanalysis, to label him—a “mother.”

The characters Mr. Waugh creates are feminized, as it were, to an obsessional extent … Mr. Waugh must have the soul of a nannie … I should say that all the feminine, maternal attributes were excessively developed in him, and … thwarted … I think it is fair to say that there is something of an obsessional nature at work; I think that psychoanalysis would reveal the fact that motherhood in its most opulent form was what Mr. Waugh had been destined for by nature, and that cruel fate had in some way interfered, and so unhappily he became a man. (114)

In fascist Germany and Italy, unlike in Waugh's England, Lewis asserts, youths are masculine. This leads Lewis to the Jew, who “according to the standards of european masculinity—is feminine—that is clear enough” (117). The Jew is also childish:

Indeed, that very racial longevity could scarcely have been compassed without a cultivation of all that was primitive, immature and emotional in the human being. … Call it a second—or a third—Childhood, if you like: but there it is—it is an essential sly buoyancy, beneath a traditional mask of oppressive gloom. (118-19)

Lewis concludes this chapter with a long quotation about how the Jew, Albert Einstein is “mothered” by his wife who acts as “a doting parent towards a precocious child” (121).

Doom of Youth hardly pretends to coherence. Dismissed by one critic as “a handful of cuttings waved in the face of the public” and by Meyers as “one of his shoddiest efforts,” it was withdrawn by his publishers after legal actions by both Alec Waugh and Godfrey Winn, another of the authors the book attacks (Meyers, 215).

Left Wings over Europe (1936) and Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! (1937) were written and published at a time when such events as the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the annexation of Austria, and the occupation of the Sudetenland had turned English public opinion firmly against the Nazis. Nevertheless, in both books, Lewis continues to praise and exonerate Hitler and to blame the world crisis on “Jewish financiers.”

In Left Wings over Europe, Lewis's concentration is on the conspiracy of Russian Marxists and Jews, and in particular on the destruction of Europe by Jewry: that “bird of prey … of International Finance” (37). As in other popular anti-Semitic texts of the time, he uses the terms “usury,” “international cabal,” and “international finance” interchangeably for “Jews.”38

In an interesting historical foray, he accuses “the ingenious Mr. Disraeli” of liquidating the landed society of England and of pushing the unsuspecting Englishman into “co-citizenship with the Redskin and the Blackamoor, the Jew and the Maorie [sic]” (35, 44). He calls Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia a war of liberation and accuses Britain's “leftist” government of being in league with “an oppressive international cabal, which presumes to condemn all but a very few nations to a status of economic serfdom and inferiority in order to be able to coerce and enslave them” (302). Lewis names members of this cabal: the publishing house of Gollancz, the bishop of Durham, who “seems to be enraged by the elimination of Jews from German public life” but does not care about his own miners, and the Russian ambassador, Mr. Litvinov, whom he accuses of looking like a Jew:

How can anyone in their senses and with a good pair of eyes in their head suppose … once he has had a good look at the photographs of Mr. Litvinov and his associates—that these men … are running the communist international for anybody except their own sweet selves and their masters? (321)

As in Lewis's earlier books, the forces of the oppressors are dauntingly organized and powerful. International Jewry is a “money king” who “goes about with his tail between his legs—furtively, and yet bursting with an enormous sense of power—of necessity concealed and in some measure frustrated power. He lives for power—therefore he is rancorous and jealous” (318).

If Lewis's system no longer belongs to the central or dominant English discourse, it has nonetheless found a friendly home. Rosenberg traces the metaphor of the Jew as cowering dog back to medieval texts, and paragraphs almost identical to the one above can be found in anti-Semitic tracts of the twenties by John Wolf, George Bolitho, Nesta Webster, Hilaire Belloc, and G. K. Chesterton, as well as in the pro-Nazi anti-Semitic press of the 1930s. Moreover, Lewis's note of helpless victimization at the hands of unscrupulous and powerful Zionist forces intent on shamefully embarrassing the British is exactly the note we have heard in chapter 1 in the many minutes and letters exchanged by the officers of the Foreign and Colonial Offices, throughout the war.

Lewis's defense of Hitler in Left Wings over Europe has a similarly wistful, almost plaintive note. He predicts that when every other country has turned its back on England, “the faithful Adolf will still be there—offering her his strong right arm (if she will not accept his heart and hand) for her defense against her enemies” (331). In Rude Assignment (1950) Lewis described the impulse behind his political books of the 1930s: “With candour, and with an almost criminal indifference to my personal interests, I have given myself up to the study of the State” (69).

In 1936 he portrayed Hitler as a similarly martyred victim:

This celibate inhabitant of a modest Alpine chalet—vegetarian, non-smoking and non-drinking, has remained the most unassuming and simple of men. He is a man in mortal danger, every moment of his life, who has sacrificed himself, literally, to a principle, that of national freedom. This man does not conform to the popular conception of a tyrant. … He is more like one of the oppressed! (Left Wings, 280)

In the reviews of Left Wings over Europe in 1937, we see that, for the first time, English reviewers have become attuned, though not necessarily sensitive, to the issue of anti-Semitism. The Times Literary Supplement, which had defended Lewis's Hitler in 1930, now found him guilty of Hitler worship and claimed that “he has learned his doctrines in the Nazi school.” The reviewer still acquits Lewis of anti-Semitism, however: “Perhaps the fact that Mr. Lewis is free from any touch of anti-Jewish feeling has caused him to be unaware how completely he has adopted the Nazi outlook.”39 L. M. Horton of the London Mercury found Lewis's arguments reasonable for the most part, claiming that “now as always he is worth reading,” but rather self-righteously criticized him for overlooking the British incapacity to tolerate anti-Semitism: “There are certain moral scruples particularly affecting Englishmen which exist, whether he approves of them, or not. For instance, it is a fact overlooked by him that Englishmen cannot tolerate German persecution of the Jews and suppression of thought.”40 In a scathing review in the Spectator, the first openly to accuse Lewis of anti-Semitism, E. H. Carr took the occasion to condemn the racist right-wing “Die-Hards” who secretly approve Hitler's anti-Semitism but are too hypocritical to proclaim their own. Carr identifies Lewis as a known racist who supports Germany because of the Nazis' attitude toward

coloured men, even including in that category (the Good British Die-Hard would not have gone so far himself, but it showed the right spirit) the Jews … Germany which had for so long been merely a territory inhabited by Huns, now suddenly became a White-Man's Paradise, a land fit for Die-Hards to live in.41

Lewis, says Carr, has missed the boat. By now even the Die-Hards have “shuffled off after Mr. Churchill,” leaving Mr. Lewis alone “against the Red Menace” (234). He assures the reader that this book should supply him with “plenty of amusement.” Even Meyers does not attempt to rescue Left Wings over Europe; he calls it “anti-democratic, anti-Communist and anti-Semitic” (Meyers, 228).

Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! (1937), which Meyers feels is “superfluous” and Lewis's worst book (229), continues the attack. Even more than in Left Wings over Europe, it is now the Jews who receive the full weight of his paranoia. Perhaps aware of this, Lewis declares his impartiality: “I'm as little pro-German as I am an anti-Semite.”42 He assures us, “I have often felt compassion for the Jew (This was before he became so important and began taking his own part so effectively everywhere)” (41).

In this, probably his most virulently anti-Semitic book, Lewis wishes that England, like Germany, had “been wise [enough] to understand the Jew. Then we should have no Jewish problem.” As it is, “Some offspring of an asiatic bazaar-tout” has become master over those of the blood of Chaucer and Shakespeare (43). He feels that in regard to the Jews, England, “could with advantage take a leaf of the German book” (44). As if this were not explicit enough, he urges: “[G]ive me the hot pogrom every time. These new cold pogroms without a drop of bloodshed get me down” (341).

Hitler is once again again represented as the victim of Britain's “Hitler complex.” Lewis warns us, “I will be thoroughly naughty” (83), and the tone of this book, which takes the form of a dialogue between two equally moronic public school men, is indeed written in the voice of a childish bully. At times the author even takes on the tone of a cranky child who is fully aware that he has gone too far and will be punished, but nevertheless feels a compulsion to continue:

I can understand that Mr. Stalin should dislike Hitler, because the latter is very rude to Communists. I can understand M. Blum disliking Hitler, because the latter is impolite to Jews. But … I cannot see what Mr. Baldwin should feel so incredibly deeply about. (76)

The sarcasm is embarrassingly crude:

I can see we have to kill Hitler. … Look what he's done. (1) He's muzzled the Press. Monstrous! (2) He sentences Bolshies to death. Barbarous! (3) He prevents Jews from making money. Cruel, I call it! (4) He's apt to seize Danzig, an awfully pretty city on the Baltic. Abominable! (339)

The publication of Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! marked the climax of Lewis's anti-Semitic writing. While not completely absent from the book, women and inverts remain in the background, taking second place to “Don Moses Rosenberg,” the sinister Marxist-Jew whose poisonous tentacles reach from New York to Moscow and enfold all of England in their grasp. In Count Your Dead, Jews are inscribed with the engulfing and murderous qualities of women and the threatening ambisexual qualities of feminine inverts. But the switch of symbolic priorities would be only a temporary one.


While Lewis's political books, especially the last two, did damage his reputation (Julian Symons tells of a meeting of the Left Book Club in which a boycott was called of his work), he has always had his defenders. I have already cited some of the defenses modern critics have mounted for Hitler. Right-wing supporters such as Ezra Pound, whose approbation probably did nothing to help his friend's reputation, were always in evidence. T. S. Eliot, a more powerful right-wing ally, also defended Lewis against the charge of fascism and after his death called him “one of the few men of letters in my generation whom I should call without qualification, men of genius.”43 Lately, the Black Sparrow Press has reprinted several of Lewis's books, and new editions of four more of them, including Tarr and The Art of Being Ruled (though not Hitler or Left Wings over Europe), came out from that press in 1990. Never content to leave his defense to others, Lewis attempted to exonerate himself for the opinions expressed in the books we have just examined with two revisionist texts, The Jews, Are They Human? (1939) and The Hitler Cult (1939).

The Jews, Are They Human? (its title is a parody of Gustaf Renier's The British, Are They Human? and hardly a neutral choice) is a fascinating study of the process of splitting. In it Lewis confronts some of his own obsessional structures in an unsuccessful attempt to reason himself out of his anti-Semitism. This book, like Count Your Dead, is written in the form of a conversation, this time between Lewis himself and a character he calls “the antisemite,” who appears, to any reader of the earlier books, to be Lewis's alter ego. Nevertheless, he never acknowledges any past or present relationship to this “zealot.” Instead, he declares himself to be, as “a person who can scarcely be suspected of mercenary intentions, or of courting popularity,” in an ideal position to convey “an attitude of common sense regarding the Jew.”44

Interestingly, one of the foremost characteristics of this “rabbit-toothed weakminded little man,” the “antisemite,” is his paranoid obsessiveness: he “catches sight of his enemy at all hours of the day.” “Of course if you are absorbedly interested in anything,” Lewis reminds us, clearly speaking from experience, “you seek opportunities of being near it; of studying it, or enlarging your knowledge of it” (Jews, 33-34). The “antisemite,” then, is often surrounded by Jews as though by a kind of “animal magnetism.” He is “a gentile of disordered mind who has become what he is by brooding upon a bogey” (35). The “antisemite” also shares with Lewis a curious tendency to confuse Jews and women. “Sex-generalities enter a good deal into his hostile analysis of the Jew. The Jew, it is asserted, is feminine-receptive rather than creative, over-emotional … and he is a parasite too, as the woman is” (61).

Lewis mentions an “antisemite” who married a Jewess: “horror abetting sensuality” (32). He cites Otto Weininger, a “Jewish antisemite,” whose “main contention was that the Jews were the female race. And he was consumed with a ferocious antipathy for all females—as well as being extremely sensual. You may imagine his predicament. Eventually he committed suicide” (55). It is, of course, his own predicament Lewis is unconsciously describing here in his very accurate description of Weininger.

Lewis's main objection to the “antisemite” is his tendency to drive unsuspecting Gentiles to the opposite extreme: “At the end of a grueling couple of hours, of intensive antisemitism, he almost succeeds in turning one into a pro-Jew” (28). Only almost, however. Speaking for himself, not for “the antisemite,” he advises ignoring Jews as a way to make them disappear and comments, four months after Kristallnacht, on the Jew's masochistic tendency to dwell on his own trouble, which “he has quite got used to” and has learned to enjoy, just as many Jews “enjoy Herr Hitler” (21, 55). He dwells on the smell and bad manners of poor Jews, on the intolerable ugliness of the Jew in general and the immediate distaste he provokes:

To lack of grace, it is further felt, this swarthy stranger adds a bumptiousness, a push, a vulgar swagger, which is irresistibly provoking. … A man begins by disliking instinctively a waddling strut. … Next he resents the arrogance so provokingly painted upon the “oily” countenance … (39-40)

And yet, the Jew has his good points. He is bright, has a pathetic desire to be friendly, and a strange way of coming out on top—so “let us assure him that he's all right with us, so long as he observes our laws and respects our funny little ways” (21).

Through the use of an alter ego, “the antisemite,” Lewis approaches in The Jews, Are They Human? real insight into his own paranoid system. It is possibly the proximity of that insight which threatens him so much that it leads him to undermine his own conscious intent in this book: to demonstrate that he is not in fact an anti-Semite. The Jews, Are They Human?, an attempt to dispel his reputation as an anti-Semite, merely cemented it. Only his faithful supporter, the Times Literary Supplement, found The Jews, Are They Human? as instructive as Lewis's previous books. The reviewer commented: “In our usual rounds the Jew, especially if he be orthodox and freshly arrived from some Central European State, strikes us often as a grotesque figure, and Mr. Lewis' book is most valuable in those chapters in which he expounds successfully the attitude in which we should regard and treat these strangers to English ways.”45

In The Hitler Cult (1939), although he appears truly disillusioned with his former hero, Lewis once again undermines his own attempts to defend himself against the charge of anti-Semitism. He explains that in England anti-Semitism has always been “[sic] a pastime—in the nature of a parlour sport” and that his understandable mistake in the former books had been to assume that it was the same in Germany.46 Furthermore, who could blame him for failing to feel sympathy for a people who enjoy their own persecution? Lewis explains that his senses

were not exactly afflicted by what happened to this not very tactful member of society (as is the average Jewish bagman) in the way of insulting badinage … and anyway the latter seemed rather to enter into the spirit of it. (17)

Again, the Jews are “a people … who have an exasperating idea that they have been especially picked out by the father” (19).

Just as Lewis had not bothered to read Mein Kampf before writing Hitler, he wrote his recantation of that book without bothering to inform himself of the fate of European Jewry. The Hitler Cult appeared in December 1939, after Lewis had left for Canada and three months after war had been declared. Both the events of the Kristallnacht pogrom and the plight of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto had been well publicized in the British press at that time. In one of many such reports from Germany, a Times correspondent wrote, “[T]he condition of most Jews here is one of misery, terror and despair.” Ignoring this, Lewis speaks of “insulting badinage” and “cold pogroms” and in general reveals a complete ignorance of current events. While, as we have seen, such determined ignorance was not unusual among the British people at that time, it does stand out in a book whose formal purpose was to recant its author's former support of Nazism.

In Rude Assignment of 1950, Lewis made one last attempt to simultaneously disown and reclaim his earlier books and to counter the various charges (of racism, fascist sympathizing, and anti-Semitism) which had arisen against them by that time. He explained that Paleface contained “nothing antipathetic to the Red and the Black” but was merely an effort “to attack the Paleface sentimentalizing about the dark skin.” That book was attacked by intellectuals, he explains, not for its racism, but because Lewis was not “in the pro-Black racket” (Rude, 219-21).

Lewis exhibits particular ambivalence about Hitler, the book which he felt to be the cause of his ostracism. In a chapter of Rude Assignment, which was suppressed when the book appeared in 1950, but was included in the 1984 reprint, he calls his former theory of Hitler as a man of peace “painfully absurd” and “an inexcusable blunder.”47 In the same unpublished chapter, however, he quotes and then justifies several of his more offensive passages, including the one in which he first calls the Jew “the brilliant and bossy Hausfrau of the stolid english hubby,” then asserts that “the Jew has often lent colour to the Nazi accusations” (256-57). This passage, he claims in 1950, “shows, with I think judicious insight, the exact relation of these two races, most unfortunately thrown together at this juncture” (257). In the final version of the book, Lewis leaves out this chapter. Hitler's anti-Semitism is completely ignored, and instead of regret for his blunder, Lewis defends a book, which, he explains in his most grandiose manner, was intended to “break the European ostracism of Germany, call in question the wisdom of the Versailles Treaty and get it revised … attempt to establish healthy relationships in Western Europe” (224).

Similarly, Lewis defends Count Your Dead as “a first rate peace pamphlet” and claims that Left Wings over Europe, while mistaken in many ways, was “a violent reaction against Left-wing incitement to war” (226). Far from being anti-Semitic, all three books were efforts to subvert the very spirit which led “to the Gas-ovens at Belsen” (73). This, one of Lewis's few references in all his work to the fate of the Jews, is preceded by another, more personal reference to a private version of the concentration camps: “Any member of this ‘intelligentsia’ who challenges the system, is relegated to what is little better than a concentration camp and condemned to impotence in this way” (23). Lewis's role of beleaguered male victim whose very manhood is under attack is an important foundation of his own system, and he is reluctant to assign it to anyone else. As he asserts over and over again, “The personal loss entailed … by my stand against war was incalculable” (225).

Unlike his friend Ezra Pound, who before his death acknowledged and apologized for his anti-Semitism, Lewis continued to deny his own, admittedly less virulent attitude. In any event, by 1950 Jews had lost their central position in his system. Instead, he warns of “the conjunction of the woman and one of these ubiquitous perverts [which] boded no good for the normal male” (Rude, 191) and the “epidemic of homosexuality in England since World War II … the feminisation, or neutralisation of the White European … [and] the feminist [who] had been followed by the feminising male” (182, 188). We learn once more how the normal male, who must “live cooped up with a snarling woman, or a slatternly lazy one … who adds child after child to the household … half of them adopting the habits of scavenger dogs,” would be far happier “in a men's communal dwelling … liberated from the crushing responsibility of sex, of fatherhood and the upkeep of a dirty little ‘castle’” (190).

After Lewis repudiated Hitler, as he had repudiated his other male heroes, Jews quickly lost their focal place in his authorial structure. They were relegated, with blacks, to a category of inferior but unimportant aliens. Women and homosexuals had now returned to their proper symbolic places—as the key objects in his paranoid obsessional system.


Even before The Art of Being Ruled of 1926, the first didactic book in which Lewis displayed his system; a look at his early fiction reveals it already fully formed. This early fiction, like The Art of Being Ruled, contains no major Jewish characters, but presents the script in which Jews would take a leading role in the openly anti-Semitic didactic books of the late 1920s and 1930s and in Lewis's longest fictional production, The Apes of God of 1930. A brief look at two earlier works, the short story, “Cantleman's Spring Mate” (1917) and the novel, Tarr (1918), will reveal this pattern.

“Cantleman's Spring Mate,” intended for publication in Margaret Anderson's Little Review of 1917, was found obscene, and the entire issue was suppressed.48 The censors' objection was, of course, not to the brutality of the sexuality in the story, but rather to its explicitness. The story takes place in England during the First World War, and its hero, like Lewis at that time, is in army training camp in the Northern countryside. (Lewis often used the name “Cantleman” when writing about himself at this time; it seemed to represent a fictional alter ego.) The brilliant young man, walking alone in the spring fields, notices the animal kingdom's “sex-hunger” as well as “the fact that many of its members showed their fondness for their neighbours in an embarrassing way: that is they killed and ate them. But the weaker were so used to dying violent deaths and being eaten that they worried very little about it” (304-5).

Here, nine years earlier than its appearance in The Art of Being Ruled of 1926, is the epira whose habits Lewis explored so exhaustively in that book.49 Sex is a hunger which must be satisfied—but in experiencing that satisfaction one risks being devoured. Perpetual vigilance is required in order not to give in to the longing for aggression which can result in offering oneself as a meal.

The young man rails against his country, which is preparing to send to war a person who is as close as might be found to “the human entirely” and who is endowed with “more human, as well as a little more divine understanding than those usually on his left and right” (306). “Should such allow himself to be disturbed by the quarrels of Jews …?” asks this grandiose embodiment of his author, echoing the “Jews' War” theme (306). He passes a girl and dismisses her as “a crude marsh-plant,” but “he had his programme … he would live up to his part” (309).

Cantleman hates and despises not only women but his fellow officers. The spring season produces “nothing but ideas of defiance” in his mind, and he understands that “the hypocrisy of Nature and the hypocrisy of War were the same” (309-10). He is determined not to enter into any understanding with life, but instead to be killed or to “remain in it unreconciled.” But his hard, rigid surface is threatened by the appearance of the girl, Stella: “With a treachery worthy of a Hun, Nature tempted him towards her” (310). Although he cannot be deeply attracted to as lowly a creature as she is, he finds his need for her deeply humiliating and fantasizes revenge:

He could 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. … As for Stella … all women were contaminated with Nature's hostile power and might be treated as spies or enemies. The only time they could be trusted … was as mothers. So he approached Stella with as much falsity as he could muster. (310)

In this one passage, Lewis's system is faithfully recapitulated. The hero's rigid and carefully maintained boundaries are threatened by his sexual need as well as by his humiliating emotional yearning. Equally strong is the need to “live up to his part” or prove his masculinity. Enraged by this need, a “humiliating gnawing and yearning in his blood,” he envisions changing the female who has provoked it into a bomb and hurling her as a mass of exploding fragments; an image of extreme phallic violence much like those which Theweleit found over and over again in the writing (and actions) of the Freikorpsmen. As Lewis emphasizes in his next paragraph, such annihilating hostility is a defensive measure against the enemies all women, with the possible exception of a mother in regard to her son, are to men. The falsity Cantleman musters up is the necessary defense to use against such an enemy or spy, who cannot be simply avoided, because she is needed to provide sexual release. That release, when it comes, is a process of discharging rage:

That night he spat out, in gushes of delicious rage, all the lust that had gathered in his body. … He … 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 … the brown phalanges of floury land. As their two bodies shook and melted together, he felt that he was raiding the bowels of Nature: he was proud that he could remain deliberately aloof, and gaze bravely … up at the immense and melancholy night. … (310)

Once again, one short paragraph recapitulates Lewis's system. Like the Freikorpsmen, who described the sexual act as “a trancelike act of violence” and who “had little to do with a sexuality understood as the desire for physical love with another person” (Theweleit, 2: 61), Lewis describes sexual intercourse with a woman in “Cantleman's Spring Mate” as a process of release, not of desire, but of rage. It is also a devouring—the male in this case having triumphed over the engulfing female. He bears down on her in a murderous way, as though he wishes to mix her body into the soil. The brown phalanges suggest a formation of infantry, ground in death into the soil, and the color brown followed by the “bowels of Nature” suggest fecal matter: he is not only devouring her and killing her in an act of war but also turning her body into excrement. In the end Cantleman feels pride; this act has allowed him to retain his own boundaries, to “remain deliberately aloof.” An intact man, he is now able to gaze bravely into the “immense and melancholy” female night without being engulfed by it.

In the last paragraph of the story, Cantleman, on the battlefield, receives a letter from Stella telling him that she is pregnant. Instead of answering it, he “beats a German's brains out … with the same impartial malignity that he had displayed in the English night with his Spring mate” (311).

If “Cantleman's Spring Mate” is a metaphorical account of Lewis's own experience in army training camp, his first full-length novel, Tarr (1918), is clearly derived from his early years as an artist in Paris and his relationship with the German woman Ida, about whom he wrote so voluminously to his mother. In contrast to the suppression of “Cantleman,” Tarr was published, at Ezra Pound's urging, by Harriet Weaver's Egoist Press, and it received the more favorable notice than any of Lewis's subsequent work. T. S. Eliot gave it a glowing review in the Nation, calling Lewis “[t]he most fascinating personality of our time,” a writer whose work revealed “the thought of the modern and the energy of the cave man.”50 In the Little Review, Pound called Tarr “the most vigorous and volcanic English novel of our time” and compared Lewis to Dostoevsky.51 Rebecca West also made the comparison to Dostoevsky. She found the character of Kreisler a “figure of great moral significance” and found Tarr “a beautiful and serious work of art … with permanent value.”52 Despite these rave reviews by his famous friends, Tarr only sold six hundred copies, perhaps because, as a work of fiction, it is decidedly unreadable. The characters in the book are as lifeless and unlikable as those in all of Lewis's fiction, and the plot is overshadowed by Lewis's sexist and violent philosophizing.

Tarr is about two young and struggling artists in Paris, one German and one English. The young Englishman, Tarr, like Cantleman, is special. He is “one of the only people who see,” has “great capacity written all over him,” and is, like Lewis, “the only child of a selfish vigorous little mother” (19, 22). Like Cantleman, Tarr is able to take what he needs from women, while maintaining a rigid boundary between himself and them. “In this compartment of my life,” he boasts to his friend Butcher, “I have not a vestige of passion” (14). Tarr, like Cantleman, loathes women, who, he complains, instead of staying in their places and providing safe receptacles for “the passions, intuitions, all the features of the emotive life” (Art, 246), are pressing and penetrating “everywhere—confusing, blurring, libelling, with their half-baked gushing tawdry presence. It is like a slop and spawn of children and the bawling machinery of the inside of life, always and all over our palaces” (14-15). Tarr, whose own softness and vulnerability are rigidly sealed off, is sickened by “women's psychic discharges which affected him invariably like the sight of a person being seasick” (52). He is especially threatened by the large, beautiful Russian, Anastasia, who “always appeared on the verge of a dark spasm of unconsciousness … to have on your hands a blind force of those dimensions! He shuddered …” (221). His only warm and uncomplicated relationships are with other men, like his friend Butcher, “the sweetest old kitten” (20), who “was always surly about women, or rather men's tenderness for them: he was a vindictive enemy of the sex” (27). Butcher, who refers to Tarr as “the young master,” adores his friend, and is ready to do his bidding, is not, of course, a proper sex object. Tarr needs a female mistress, but as he tells his friend, he only allows himself “to philander with little things” (25). Accordingly, he has chosen Bertha, a woman below him in class and education: “a high grade aryan bitch, in good condition, superbly made … a succulent, obedient, clear peasant type … with a nice healthy bent for self-immolation” (24-25). As an extra precaution, he resolves to “gaze on Bertha inhumanly” (29) as a “machine … to take … to pieces, bit by bit” (221). In a passage strikingly similar to the Freikorpsmen's fragmented objectification of the female body, Tarr takes care not to see her as a whole person, but rather to look only at the separate “bits” of her, as when “the dressing gown was half open and one large thigh, with ugly whiteness, slid half out of it. It looked dead, and connected with her like a ventriloquist's dummy with its master” (43). Tarr finds Anastasia more interesting than Bertha, but knows she would disturb the rigid boundaries of his world. In a striking restatement of Horney's and Chodorow's theories that both men and women perceive the female as the first, or “generically human,” gender (Chodorow, 11), he reasons:

God was man, the female was a lower form of life. Everything started female and most so continued: a jellyish diffuseness spread itself and gaped. … Above a certain level sex disappeared … everything below that line was female … he enumerated acquaintances palpably below that absolute line: a lack of energy, permanently mesmeric state, almost purely emotional, they all displayed it, they were true “women.” (345)

As in The Art of Being Ruled, masculinity is not a given. Men are made, not born, and are constantly at risk of becoming permeated with that primordial “jellyish diffuseness” and slipping back into womanhood. Association with Anastasia, who is “in every way too big” (344) and who fits neither the role of “housewife” nor that of the “mother of men,” is far too dangerous.

I do not understand attraction for such beings … not being as fine as men … not being as fine as housewives or classical Mothers of Men … they appear to me to occupy an unfortunate position on this earth. No properly demarcated person as I am, is going to have much to do with them[.] (26)

Like Karen Horney's analysands, who were unable to desire women whom they perceived as equals, Tarr knows he cannot risk a relationship with a woman as powerful as himself, who might threaten the precious “proper demarcation” which keeps him intact (Horney, 359). The phrase “jellyish diffuseness” is the same one Orwell used to refer to the state of young boys sent to school for the first time. For both men, it inscribes the terror of dissolving boundaries.

If Tarr represents the safely sealed-off part of Lewis, Kreisler, the German, is his alter ego, the rageful, psychotic self that Tarr's vigilance keeps at bay, and which Lewis himself hovered perilously near in his own life. Paranoid, permanently enraged, and always penniless, Kreisler frantically begs from the acquaintances he despises. Like Tarr, he regards women as “a natural resource … an asset to be harvested and mined” (Dinnerstein, 36-37), but he makes the mistake of turning to them in his need, and entrusting them with his emotions:

[T]here they were all the time—vast dumping grounds for sorrow and affliction—a world-dimensioned Pawn-shop, in which you could deposit not your dress suit or garments, but yourself. … Their hope consisted, no doubt, in the reasonable uncertainty as to whether you would ever be able to take yourself out again. (99)

Kreisler fails in vigilance. He believes “in the efficacity of women” (100) and “falls in love” with Anastasia. As Tarr could have told him, “surrender to a woman was a sort of suicide for an artist” (221). When Anastasia rejects him, he can never “take himself out” again. Without the needed relief, the volcano self-destructively implodes. Kreisler becomes more and more bizarre and enraged, physically attacking women at parties and calling them sows. He rapes the gentle Bertha and, in an increasingly psychotic state, challenges Soltyk, a supposed rival for Anastasia's affections, to a duel. He arrives on the scene too disorganized to fight it, in a state of paranoid homosexual panic:

He loved that man! Na ja! It was certainly a sort of passion he had for him! But mystery of mysteries!—because he loved him he wished to plunge a sword into him, to plunge it in and out and up and down! Oh why had pistols been chosen? (290)

Kreisler, who seems to have taken off in a mad flight from Lewis's unconscious, asks the horrified Soltyk for a kiss and then “thrust his mouth forth amorously … as though Soltyk had been a woman” (292). While on the conscious level Lewis probably intends this act as simply an ironic attack (to approach another man as a woman is to deliver the worst possible insult to him, the equivalent in action of Lewis's textually labeling Alec Waugh a “mother”), the unconscious homosexual activity here, from the plunging and thrusting of the sword to the kiss, is evident. Kreisler proceeds to kill Soltyk, and in a state of numbness in which he wonders “if it were not he that had died,” wanders to the German border, where he is captured and humiliated by the police (300). In the cell, he hangs himself and is finally “thrust savagely into the earth” (309).

After splitting off, killing, and finally thrusting his troublesome and terrifyingly unpredictable alter ego deeply into the earth, Lewis offers Tarr, the safely protected self, Kreisler's spoils. Tarr inherits Anastasia, whom he quickly cuts down to size by insult and humiliation, first leading her on, then abruptly refusing her sexual advances, calling her a cheap whore and offering her twenty-five francs. Charmed by this treatment, she shrinks into the proper womanly shape and will from now on follow him docilely. Kreisler has also left Bertha pregnant, and Tarr secretly marries her and from then on “takes” her “in carefully prepared doses of about an hour a day: from say half past four to quarter to six” (315). He maintains separate establishments and treats both women with careful falseness. Unlike Kreisler, who has allowed a woman to destroy him, Tarr prospers. In proof of this, the book ends with the names of three more of his conquests.

Tarr's marriage with Bertha is much like the one Lewis himself would achieve with his “Froanna,” whom he met in the year of the book's publication, kept in a separate establishment, and married twelve years later. In fact, we can view Tarr, with its split protagonists, as a morality tale in which Lewis warns himself of the dire consequences of relaxing his vigilance. Just as in The Jews, Are They Human?, Lewis used an alter ego, “the antisemite,” to explore his own more violent and uncontrolled feelings, so Kreisler fulfills this function in this early novel.


Lewis spent seven years on the mammoth The Apes of God, which he published himself in 1930 in a 625-page first edition, weighing in at five pounds. Apes, which appeared in the same year as Hitler, is a conducted tour of the literary world of London given by the artist and connoisseur of young men Horace Zagreus to his besotted and moronic Irish protégé, Dan Boleyn. It contains vicious satires of most of Lewis's benefactors and of many members of the Bloomsbury group, and it gained him countless enemies. T. S. Eliot had told Lewis, after reading early chapters, “[Y]ou have surpassed yourself and everything. It is worthwhile running the Criterion just to publish these” (Lewis, Letters, 140n. 1). Even he, however, when faced with the final product, felt that Lewis had been “breaking butterflies upon a wheel.”53 Lewis was, as usual, dissatisfied with the amount of publicity received by his huge book, which he compared to Joyce's Ulysses, and he was especially furious at the rejection by the New Statesman of a review of The Apes of God by his friend and admirer Hugh Porteus. Convinced that “Bloomsbury” had suppressed this and other reviews in an organized press boycott, he characteristically published his own pamphlet, Satire and Fiction (1930), which he describes on the title page as “The Scandal of an Attempt to Sabotage a Great Work of Art!”54Satire and Fiction is a compilation of (positive) contemporary reviews of The Apes of God, including Porteus's review and others, as well as letters in praise of the novel. Lewis supplemented these with an explanatory essay on the meaning of art. The selected reviews are interesting not only in themselves but because they give a good indication of the image Lewis wished to project in the world.

The contested review by Porteus describes Lewis as a “masculine intelligence … which can survey our generation from outside its two main cults of childishness and femininity” (Satire, 16). A letter from Meyrick Booth applauds his attack on “the barbaric cults which now increasingly dominate our social life: back to childhood, back to matriarchy, back to emotion and the unconscious, back, in short, to almost anything that is sufficiently barbaric and irresponsible” (26). More negative reviews which complement the self-image to which Lewis aspires, that of a cruel, unfeeling, and powerful masculine intelligence, are also included. Richard Aldington, for example, calls Apes “an amazing example of the power and limitation of pure intelligence” and comments, “You have the feeling that Mr. Lewis would like to kill anybody … who enjoyed anything so glandular as a mere kiss” (32). Lewis also includes a review by his friend Naomi Mitchison in Time and Tide, in which she calls the book an “exceedingly well written, sometimes brilliantly funny cold bath,” and adds:

[H]e hates more thoroughly and efficiently than any writer living … at the moment he specially dislikes homosexuals of both kinds, the war generation still pretending to be young, messy-minded people such as Jews and Irish[.] (33)

The Jewish Mitchison, whose tone wavers between sarcasm and admiration, may have felt some discomfort at her friend's anti-Semitism but declares herself pleased with his homophobia: “As for homosexuals, there are too many of them—and too well pleased with themselves for any stable society” (33).

While many modern critics have found The Apes of God “virtually unreadable” (Jameson, 5), others agree with Meyers's evaluation of the book as “a modern Dunciad, a massive but sharp-edged catalogue of literary evils that arrives from contemporary urban chaos” (Meyers, 160). Both Meyers and Paul Edwards, in his afterword to the Black Sparrow edition, offer “definitive” charts that explain which contemporary figure Lewis intended to parody with each portrait, but the two have some significant disagreements. For the purposes of this study, identifying the originals, while of some interest, is less important than what the text reveals about Lewis's paranoid structure as it involves the representation of Jews and women.

In The Apes of God Lewis is finally inside the all-male society he so wistfully envisioned in his polemical books. Though the book opens and closes with a Pope-like scene of an old and ugly woman making her artificial toilette, and there are several other minor (equally repulsive) female characters, most of the book takes place in a homosexual world. Just as in Hitler, Lewis was drawn to the homosexual scene in Berlin, and led by the force of his own attraction violently to abuse that scene; here effeminate men are the main subjects as well as the main targets of his system.55 Perhaps because of the relative absence of women in the book, and because it was written during a time when Lewis was increasingly under the influence of Nazism, Jews provide the other main focus. The book's anti-Semitism, while spread throughout, is most concentrated in the sections on Archie Margolin, James Julius Ratner, and Lionel and Isabel Kein. I will accordingly focus on these chapters in the ensuing discussion.

Archie Margolin, one of the first characters on the scene and one who makes appearances throughout the book, is a “jew-boy from the slum” who is waiting in the ancestral hall to “service” the aristocrat Dick Whittingdon.56 Standing in a wing of Dick's family castle (the rest has been “rented to rich Jews”), Archie listens to “sewer people” singing jazz—“account[s] of nigger heavens—the lives of other idiot slaves, in cotton fields” (44, 43). In Paleface, the book in which blacks were the target of his projective energy, Lewis reviled jazz as primitive “Hottentot” music. In The Apes of God, jazz serves as the musical backdrop to the book, in which “niggers” appear as primitive and childlike emblems, imbued with stereotypical masculine virility. Equally despicable but far more dangerous is the feminized male Jew, with his links with communism and high finance and his secret control of the world. In The Apes of God, as so often in Lewis's work, historical and mythic stereotypes are tailored to fit his particular needs. In the character of Archie, he combines various stereotypical attributes of the Jew, making him a figure both despicable and powerful. The impoverished slum dweller is also a “sham-yid,” who cleverly and shamelessly uses the familiar stereotypes established by Dickens and Shakespeare to ingratiate himself with his keeper:

[H]e made his eyes shine obligingly, as he gazed into the foolface, with the pleased glitter expected, at the thought of gain. … —After considering for a moment, Arch looked archly up … and in the most sinister growling guttural he yet employed he repudiated his blood relation absolutely …“… he's what you'd call awful, Dick, is my brother Isadore, he's a proper old shark. … He sells tin watches to poor kids like Ethel, the old Skylark—I mean Shylock—. …” (46-47)

Sander Gilman notes that stereotypical signifiers may be incorporated within a work of art in a way which is either naive or quite conscious (Gilman, Difference and Pathology, 26). In this case, Lewis is not only conscious of the historical power of his stereotypes: he attributes this consciousness to his character as well. Part of this Jew's power lies in his very modernist awareness. In Lewis's construct, instead of being the victim of literary stereotypes, Archie is the conscious and malicious manipulator of them. In his self-naming, Lewis deconstructs the word “Enemy,” his self-endowed title reversing the word's usual meaning and changing it to mean “persecuted victim.” Similarly, here he deconstructs the construct of Jew as victim. Self-parodying, self conscious, and manipulative, Archie is far from powerless.

Like the female, whose softness masks her lethal powers, Archie is effeminate. His croaking voice “is ill assorted with the feminine gold of the crimped head and the insignificance of the body” (45). Just as the behavior of similarly abject women in other Lewis texts masks their intentions, Archie's groveling, sycophantic behavior has a dangerous ulterior purpose: to use and destroy “the happy British male dupe,” Dick. He surveys the ancestral castle, plotting its destruction and, symbolically, the destruction of British (white male) civilization: “This culture was dead as mutton but its great carcass offended him—it would take a hundred years to melt. He grinned and yawned” (43). Archie is not only the feminized invert and the Jew but also the despised and feared child: “His slightness was delicious—he rejoiced in his neat pygmy stature. It was the child height!” (42).

Archie Margolin appears again later in the book, dancing monkeylike on the table to please his new mentor, Horace Zagreus. With Zagreus too, he plays the fool, reassuring him of his class privilege and safety while all the time stealthily plotting his extinction.

Even more than Bertha in Tarr, with her “healthy bent for self-immolation” (24), Archie's masochism is at heart a trick to foster dependence in his lover and thus to gain his own ends. “Do you like a servant Horace?” he asks suggestively. “Servants ought to be kept down!” (429). As we saw in chapter 1, the theory of Jewish masochism was popular with British anti-Semites of the period, who reasoned that inherently masochistic Jews virtually compelled helpless Gentiles to mete out the punishment they required. Through his espousal of the theory, Lewis manages to retain the Jew, like the woman, as an emblem of despised weakness and of frightening strength. This textual doubleness allows Lewis himself, the real central figure of the book, to continue to retain his own double role as strong, masculine aggressor and conspired-against victim. This strategy fits neatly with that of the Home Office administrators who felt that the Nazi persecution was a plot by “whining Jews” to earn public sympathy and make them (the administrators) look bad.

Like Ratner, the other Jewish homosexual in the book, Archie is rotten through and through, in a decidedly female way. He embodies the most loathsome aspects of the female body. Gilman notes that in Renaissance Europe, male Jews were believed to menstruate “and thus shared with women the ability to contaminate through the menses.”57 Archie, too, seems to have menstrual periods: “Margolin stretched himself and yawned out of his pink-and-white doll-lungs of saw-dust … (stretching his mouth-muscles, displaying his midget boxer's reach with curled-up fists) in order to expel the period-heat that was drugging his tissues” (429).

In my earlier discussion, I mentioned Lewis's simultaneous aversion to and belief in the powers of psychoanalysis, which he associated with mother-son incest and endowed with frightening, almost supernatural powers. He pictured psychoanalysis as a Jewish spy network with uncanny means of gaining knowledge, which could and would reveal secret unpleasant truths about people. He often recommended it to his enemies for that purpose, as when he suggested that psychoanalysis would reveal Alec Waugh's effeminacy and his true vocation as a mother. In The Apes of God, the Jewish analyst Dr. Frumpfsusan is seen in league with his homosexual patient, Matthew Plunkett, a character both Meyers and Edwards agree is based on Lytton Strachey, whom Lewis often identified as a prime example of the feminine invert and to whom, in 1926, he wrote a strangely seductive letter, suggesting an incognito meeting “in an unfrequented part of town” (Meyers, 109).

The “jewish witch doctor's” advice to the homosexual Plunkett, who has come to him for “extroverting,” is to try “overmatching”—that is, to take on a mentally and physically diminutive woman. This advice is identical to Tarr's decision to confine himself to philandering with “little things” (Tarr, 125) and also fits Lewis's choice to marry the small, uneducated, and submissive Froanna rather than Nancy Cunard, Iris Barry, or any of the more powerful and intellectual women with whom he had affairs.58 Frumpfsusan advises his patient:

In choosing a friend, ascend a step. In choosing a wife, descend a step. When Froggie-would-a-wooing-go, when Froggie is you, my dear boy, he must step down, as many steps as there are beneath him—even unto the last! To be frank with yourself, Matthew … an animated doll is all … you can really hope to take on. (83)

Frumpfsusan further urges his protégé to “learn how to bully! … be rough!” (87). He then offers another comforting piece of information particularly relevant to Lewis, who, like Salzman's rigid male clients, Kernberg's borderline patients, or Lewis's dark alter ego, Kreisler, in Tarr; alternated periods of grandiosity in which he proclaimed himself a genius with nagging periods of self-doubt and inferiority: “Inferiority-feeling may result from an actual superiority. The handicap of genius, isn't it?” (85).

As in The Jews, Are They Human? Lewis dispels his own approaching insight with invective. When Matthew Plunkett asks the doctor if he is himself an invert, Frumpfsusan responds by linking “inversion” to Jewish masochism:

I am a Jew. … When I possess such a first-class source of “inferiority” as that, in the eyes of my fellow-men, what need have I of any other? Does it not put all and any in the shade at once? … I am a Jew. I am immune[.] (86)

Impressed and envious, Plunkett asks, “You cannot supply me homeopathically with such a counter-complex as that, to eclipse all complexes?” (86). We have seen how Lewis projected his own masochism onto the Jew. Here Plunkett attempts to do the same thing.

It is interesting to note at this juncture how much Lewis's male Jew differs from the powerfully sexual, castrating Jew in the phallocentric Freudian myth which Fiedler evokes in “What Shall We Do About Fagin?” The danger in Lewis's personal myth is not from a virile, heterosexual father who may castrate the son and steal the coveted female prize, but rather from the female herself, who like the Jewish psychoanalyst, has the almost magic power to penetrate everywhere in her many guises. Here we find her in the effeminate male Jew/invert, whose purpose is to swallow the male, or to render him helpless and begging, a fawning, stomach-up dog.

A later section of the book, “Chez Lionel Kein Esq.,” is based on Lewis's patrons, Violet and Sydney Schiff, who bought Lewis's work and consistently supported him financially. In this section, Zagreus takes Dan to visit Isabel and Lionel Kein and makes numerous mocking references to their Jewishness. After calling his host “an impudent old Whore” and referring to his hostess's nineteen face-lifts, her paraffin injections, and her obesity, Zagreus tells Dan that Isabel Kein comes from “the famous Covent Garden misfit shop, Lazarus … the mendicant leper” (306). His main attack, however, is on the Keins as patrons of the arts. Sydney Schiff was an admirer of Proust and a translator of his work, and after much ugly banter about Proust's Jewishness and homosexuality, Zagreus resorts to the old image of the engulfing female epira which swallows its mate: “But what generally is that interest, about which we hear so much? An ‘appetite for people’ would describe it? Your ‘self-feeling’ grows fat upon the people you can intellectually devour or dominate” (254). Lewis experienced “self-feeling” in anyone but himself as a powerful threat of domination and engulfment. The theme of devouring cannibalism is seconded by a French writer, Vernede, another ungrateful protégé and guest of Kein's.

“Always I find myself afraid—I am afraid that he will swallow zem up! … When I see some new person at his house, I am frright-tent at zee way Li opens his eyes! And—his mowss!” He made saucers of his eyes and mouth, like a nurse engaged in an an account of the story of Red-Riding-hood …“[H]e devours zem, he sucks sem in—he inhales zem! (314-15)

In “Little Red Riding Hood,” a classic story about the childhood fear of engulfment, the child enters the room unsuspectingly to find the big bad wolf and the benevolent grandmother merged for an awful moment in a combined and disguised wolf-grandmother figure with enormous features, especially the mouth: “The better to eat you with!” Wyndham Lewis, for whom the big bad wolf was indeed female, could not have come up with a better myth with which to embody his adult terror.

Zagreus agrees with Vernede about their common benefactor and adds to the picture by likening him to a louse, or “bloodsucker,” a familiar literary metaphor for the Jew. “I always feel more anxiety for the objects of Kein's parasitic interest when the stage of the first breathless inhalation is over. When he has thoroughly warmed himself under the skin and begins to make himself at home” (315).

In creating Shylock and his bloody demand, Shakespeare referred to the myth, embodied in the culture by medieval drama and ballads, in which the Jew kidnaps (and sometimes castrates) small boys and uses their blood in his rites. Lewis's image, based on the same castration fear and the same cultural reference, is tailored to fit his own paranoid system with its ever-present yawning female mouth. The Schiffs refused to be offended and continued to help Lewis financially well after the publication of The Apes of God, supporting him through an especially long and debilitating bout of gonorrhea. Perhaps they had after all some touch of the masochism Lewis projects onto all Jews.

The Jewish character who takes up the most space in the The Apes of God (indeed he takes up over three hundred pages, and I will be able to mention only a small fraction of his appearances here) is Julius Ratner, the Jewish homosexual writer. In the Afterword, Paul Edwards identifies him as John Rodker,59 but Meyers identifies him as James Joyce, a match which I find more convincing. Lewis was exactly Joyce's age, and Lewis's initial friendship and intense admiration for the relatively unknown author was soon replaced by a bitter envy of his success. He mocked Joyce's class background, repeatedly called Ulysses “mechanical” and “dead,” and even accused Joyce of anti-Semitism, claiming that he had “certainly contributed nothing to the literature of the Jew, for which task he is in any case quite unsuited” (Meyers, 140). Lewis was not alone in associating Joyce with Jews: in 1940 the Swiss Alien Police refused the Joyces permission to enter the country on the grounds that they were Jewish, a claim which James Joyce refuted.60 Finally, though this identification was certainly unconscious, Ratner, with his grandiosity, his homosexuality, his profession as a second-rate, derivative writer, and his virulent self-hatred masked by conceit and self-aggrandizement, also evokes Lewis himself—or at least that hidden and despised side of himself which he spent so much frantic time and energy keeping under wraps.

Whomever Lewis had in mind, he seems to have consulted the catalogue of anti-Semitic types in his creation of this character. Ratner is a homosexual, a coward, a pervert, a scavenger, a plagiarist, a cheat, and an arriviste. His “history” links psychoanalysis, homosexuality, and stereotypical Jewish traits:

R's career opened not long before the War when he emerged from the East End, with Freud for his talmud and … manoeuvered sexually up and down. During the War he went away. That over, he marched out upon what was left of life … a promised land (purified by bloodshed and war-debts) lay stretching to the horizon. (137)

In his use of the Jew-as-animal metaphor, Lewis adds several new entries to Rosenberg's impressive inventory.61 Ratner has the teeth of a wolf and the gums of a rabbit. He is a one-eyed cyclops, a boar with a single yellow fang, a dung beetle, a rat, a lizard, a fish, and an octopus. Even the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion come into play with heavy-handed references to “a Lost Tribe” and to “the elder [of] the Mediaeval Zion” (165). Ratner is also the Jew as moneylender, pornographer, pervert, masochist, communist, filthy disease-carrier, and child-killer. He gloats at the memory of the pornography he has sold at great profit. His feet are planted “to place the holy city at Moscow instead of Mecca” (153).

In one of the most bizarre passages in the book, more reminiscent of Charles Williams, the next author I shall discuss, Zagreus excites Ratner by invoking a kind of Yiddish-tinged black magic and claiming that among other repulsive objects, he owns a box containing a phallus, taken from a child killed on “the Moor.” At the mention of this, “Ratner's countenance was lighted with the sultry covetousness of the dung fly” (340). In fact, Zagreus has been leading him on and now mocks him: “Poor Julius! Nothing doing!—I'll make up for it one of these days. … I'll have a Sex-morsel there, yum-yum—certainly I have! I've been keeping it especially for you: if you will stand up on your hind legs and beg nicely” (341).

Like Stella, whom Cantleman grinds into the ground like fecal matter, the Jew Ratner is continually associated with excrement. Zagreus instructs Dan: “Do not omit to feel some compassion—such as you would experience, it may be, if you met a dung-beetle and it had just had what it believed to be the last ball of excrement taken away from it” (138). When naive Dan meets Ratner, “he believed that he smelt—there was a smell” (169). Then he realizes where the smell comes from: “He had never seen a Jew before—and, he hoped from the bottom of his great Irish heart that he might never see one again!” (171).

Our first view of Ratner, which involves a great deal of excretory and other loathsome detail, catches him waking up in bed, body rotting, eyes caked and filthy, rattling and “moving his neck a little, circumspectly, like a snake” (145). Lewis's own particular preoccupations soon emerge. Ratner keeps a captive charwoman, Mrs. Lecher, and pays her to play a revolting and incestuous game of infant and mother. “It is love, it is the woman loving, always loving the lucky and so lovable ‘great baby’ that all Ratners lovingly are” (148). Lewis pursues this theme doggedly for pages:

No I shaaant Mrs. Lochore! Joo wailed in teasing gritty growl, very pleased—very very Spoiltboy at this, very Naughty-man. … Beneath the crafty swollen eyes of the salaried british bonds-woman foster-mother, he cuddled his pillow openly. For two pins he would pluck a pis-en-lit in his bed, under the old grog-blossom nose of her he would. Becoming very siamese-kittenish Joo cooed, with the runculation of the matutinal catarrh. (146-47)

Once out of bed, “Joo” boasts of venereal disease, which unlike his creator, he is not virile enough to possess. He feels that “the Old Muse wanted to excrete a little” and types a few pages of puerile borrowed prose, “this obscene diarrhoea of ill-assorted vocables,” then turns on himself with “that bitter Conscience … of the last of the pure pre-War Jews” and recognizes his writing as the secondhand fecal matter that it is (159-62). Later, he brings a pimply woman to his flat where his need to prove his masculinity forces him, against his inclination, to “clip and peck and glue the lip” (164). Ratner's filth goes hand in hand with his masochism and cowardice. Before setting off for Lord Osmund's party, Zagreus spits three times in his face, “for luck,” and Ratner accepts it without a murmur. Spittle, like excretion, plays an important role here. Ratner himself spits “with the stealth of a cat” and feels that “everyone was repelled by and had a down on his spittle” (446).

At the “Great Lenten Freak Party” at Lord Osmund's house, attended by all Bloomsbury, Ratner's disguise is the “Split Man.” This image, signaling an awareness of inner doubleness, was an important one for Lewis's rival, Joyce, as well as for another of Lewis's particular targets, Gide. Such doubleness, which would later become a signature of the modern male antihero and a sign of his intelligence and awareness in the face of an absurd world, has a deeply negative connotation for Lewis, who was unable to integrate his own “good and bad introjections and identifications” (Kernberg, 34). The “split-man” disguise represents Ratner's impotence and his ability to “only half-live—the eternal imitation person.” It is also indicative of his half- manhood as a homosexual and his half-humanity as a Jew.

After an attack of indigestion “which would have to be blasted out the morning-after with charges of pink female pills, nothing less,” Ratner retreats to the kitchen, a setting which combines a medieval vision of Jew as devil with Lewis's loathing of the female reproductive system and of women:

The heat of this nether cook-house found favor with his chilly bones, his body took like a duck to water to the hell-heat. He drew near to the distant fireplace, between the pillars, a whipped under-devil or sub-demon scheduled to play a domestic animal part, of an unwanted doctored cat, spinally sectioned black-sided and white sided. … It was the cheer of the period-fire, in the period-kitchen. (422)

Near the end of the book, Ratner is threatened by Starr-Smith, a fascist Blackshirt who has stormed the party to save the day. Although the sorely tempted Blackshirt does his best to restrain himself, Ratner masochistically teases and coaxes him into violence. In one of the uglier passages of anti-Semitism that I have encountered, Lewis tells us clearly that the Jews invited and enjoyed pogroms:

[T]he pogromed animal of another day came out, and the grinning face was frankly used as a bait … to draw blood—an auto-bloodletting—he ogled the other inviting a good stiff blow and the Blackshirt felt it being drawn out of him by that hypnotic fish-eye … he started back as he felt that infernal attraction … [S]everal full seconds he held back but Ratner's eye had the better of the argument. Steadily it milked away at him in puissant glances of seductive insult—drawing the famous violence out of him. (596)

Needless to say, Ratner is beaten up and enjoys it.

Zagreus is eventually unmasked as himself an “ape,” thus allowing defenders of Lewis such as Paul Edwards to argue that, because of this “disclaimer” we as readers are to understand that Lewis stands behind none of Zagreus's statements. In fact, the narrative style of The Apes of God does not depend in the least on anything so subtle as the established fictional device of a shifting narrative viewpoint. As another look at the quotations above should make amply clear, the reader is never urged to filter statements through the questionable mind or consciousness of an unreliable narrator and to emerge with his or her own conclusion. Instead, in a departure more typical of a polemical essay, all the narrative stems from one erupting consciousness—that of Lewis himself, who shouts at his reader: YOU WILL BE MADE TO HEAR IT! (Tarr, 9). The frenzies of anti-Semitism in the book are not so easily rationalized.

As if Lewis's authorial omnipresence were not enough, he several times refers to himself by name within the text, calling himself the “solitary high-brow pur-sang Lewis” (401) and referring to his own “war-jargon of german peace-politics” (402). He is also quite consciously self-referential in the character of Pierpoint, an off-stage “genius” whom Zagreus worships and constantly quotes, and whose philosophy is presented in an “Encyclical” and a series of long “broadcasts” which in many places closely echo The Art of Being Ruled. On one occasion only, the remote Pierpoint becomes strangely human, as Lionel Kein discusses him:

Isabel and I will never change in our regard for him—our deep regard! But there are things about Pierpoint which even his most devoted friend would find it difficult to defend. … Poor Pierpoint! I wish I could have helped him to—to, not to lay himself open to so much hostile criticism. What he will do now I really wonder. … He has no money. What I'm terribly afraid of is that he may—well really go under—a man like that depends so much upon the support of a few friends—good friends! (299)

It is as if Lewis has slipped for a moment and introduced a realistic portion of his friends' talk about him into his idealized portrait of a masculine and uncaring genius, too remote and noble to even make an appearance in the book.

If Pierpoint, except for the passage above, is a careful and consciously idealized self-portrait, Dan Boleyn, who was probably intended as a parody of Stephen Spender, embodies Lewis's unconscious self-loathing and his fear of infantilization and engulfment by the female. Dan's tour ends in the company of heroic fascists who beat up Jews, but it begins, as does Lewis's paranoid system, in the nursery. Early in the book a weeping Dan, having been rejected by Zagreus, retires to the home of his motherly friend, Melanie, who, in typical female fashion, takes advantage of his weakness, abusing him with her “army of maternal fingers.”

You're only a child Dandarling aren't you now but a big baby, I'll be your nursemaid this time honey and put you to Bye-Bye, I know how to do that—no let Melanie do this for you … let me pull off this jacket, and the little waisty. (107)

Melanie forces Dan, who has now metamorphosed into an infant with lolling head, to lie down with her, and pursues him with her voracious female mouth. “Side by side like mother and new-born infant … she held him. … His head rolled away, to escape these attentions. The other mouth came after him as if it had been hungry” (107). Advancing on her “virgin victim,” Melanie is “as strong as a boa constrictor” (108). She brings him to a reluctant climax in a passage which captures the full extent of Lewis's horror and terror of female sexuality:

Almost he shot his bolt of terror in one agony after another. … Off with your lips the harlot-woman! Off with the sticky and shameless mouth of you! His disgust knew no bounds, he spat on the pillow … he … desired to vomit upon the whole machine, so fell and rhythmic and untiring. He was about to cat—in a moment he would be retching. And then his entire body fell down and gaped, it was sunk in a hot wallow of new shame … had he been sick or what, that there was this pulsing agony? (109)

It is perhaps no wonder, after this rape (for there is no other name for it) by the devouring woman, who first turns him into an infant and then violates him, that Dan Boleyn (and Lewis) feels a need to withdraw for the rest of the book to a world of homosexual men.

Such a withdrawal, has, of course, its own dangers. At Lord Osmund's party, a fire lashes at Dan's loins, almost castrating him and destroying his male costume (425). Zagreus, in another version of the “insidious proposal” in The Art of Being Ruled, tells him, “For the rest of the evening you'll have to be a girl Dan” (425). In The Art of Being Ruled, Lewis reasoned that a man “does not want, if he can possibly help it, to be a man, not at least if it is so difficult” (280). Lewis's assumption, which, like all his assumptions, is based on his own experience of reality, is that each man has a secret homosexual longing; that is, a deep desire to give up the battle and passively allow himself to be engulfed by/eaten by/turned into a female. Here the passive and obedient masochist, Dan, feels terror and aversion at the proposed transformation, but he has no choice. He must (deliciously) give in:

All must go by the board (sex he would not consent to think of directly but it was sex must be sacrificed his sex whispered and he could not stop it) in such an emergency all had to go … yet he would not, it stood to reason, choose to take a female part. What man would wish to be got up as a girl? No man would. It was the last thing of course … (425)

Dan is transformed into a woman in an appropriate place for such a dire operation, “Mrs. Bosun's Closet.” Another one of Lewis's horrible charladies, Mrs. Bosun, the “period nurse of gigantic tots,” rules Lord Osmund's household from a suitably filthy boudoir, surrounded by such female trappings as “bloodbaked sheaths” (178, 179). Mrs. Bosun strips Dan, who is once again trapped in the nursery, and he feels the full misery of his victimized masculinity:

[G]irls lucky devils were protected … at least had he been a girl there would have been no question of his being manhandled … or washed down like a public stallion with no mind of its own. Sometimes to be a man was awful nothing short! … He was fully alive to all the danger that he ran in the room of this terrible old lady. (438)

Despite his feeble effort to escape, “the hearty old hen would have her way” (181), and Dan is once again raped (this time symbolically) by a woman. Not surprisingly, this idyll is interrupted by several chapters of abuse of Ratner.

Dan is finally rescued, not once but three times by the Blackshirt, “the protector of his youth.” If Mrs. Bosun's Closet represents Lewis's sexual nightmare and the punishment he constantly holds over his own head as the price of indulging his “homosexual” desire, then Dan's rescue represents his dream come true.

Dan felt the officious finger relax, the pressure of the arms grow less oppressive. Through his tear-dimmed eyes Dan was just able to perceive a new figure … who had thrust himself suddenly into the picture. He heard himself asked in a voice of the coldest command, in accents that immediately dispelled the treacherous mists of period-illusion. … Are you Dan Boleyn? (468)

“This is a man!” the Blackshirt proclaims, restoring Dan to his proper status while simultaneously commanding him to retain his passive role. “For the remainder of the evening you are to regard yourself as under my charge” (473). Starr-Smith, or Blackshirt, “masculine to a fault” (563) and “occupied with his private thoughts as a young man should be” (470), now tells Dan, “I have been looking for you the entire evening” (472). Enthralled, Dan admires his black moustache and “found he wanted off and on to put out his hand and pull it” (471). The two young men drink champagne, and Dan becomes drunk and must be held in Blackshirt's strong and masculine arms. He falls asleep and is awakened by two other Blackshirts who seize him brutally, but he is safe: “his head rolling upon the bosom of his own particular Blackshirt … ever so comfortable, he smiled. If they only knew!” (583). In gaining his position on the loving male “bosom” of the Blackshirt, Dan has countered the loss he suffered at the hands of the false female “Bosun.” Unlike the destructive and engulfing female bosun, this male rescuer provides the only moments of peace and pleasure in the 625 pages. The Blackshirt, “masculine to a fault,” offers female tenderness without its risks and homosexual adventure without its stigma. If they only knew indeed!

Dan is captured by Ratner and Zagreus once more, and rescued once again by Blackshirt, who beats up Ratner, defeating the forces of combined Jewry and femininity. In fact the book continues for fifty more redundant pages, but the climax has been reached. The prince has come to the rescue, the forces of Jewry and femaleness have been vanquished, and Dan rests safely on the “bosom” of his heroic friend, a man in a man's world. A close reading of The Apes of God helps us understand why Lewis was so entranced by Mosley and his glamorous Blackshirts, by the Hitler Youth movement, and finally by Hitler himself, and why he continued to sing his hero's praises after Hitler had ceased to be popular in England, even when such a stance must mean his own ruin.


If my discussion of The Apes of God does not rely on a linear movement of plot or action, it is because the book itself is similarly nonlinear. Much more than Ulysses, the modernist text with which Lewis repeatedly attempted to class his own book, The Apes of God subverts the established fictional conventions. With no movement of plot, exclusively one-dimensional parodied characters, who are unreal and unlikable and who certainly never change or grow, its shape may be found only in the system which we identified first in The Art of Being Ruled and which preoccupied Lewis all his life. A circular plot has no real beginning or ending, but we can join this one in the nightmare nursery, where a young boy is swallowed up by a large and powerful woman whom he needs to escape from but depends on for his survival. We watch him search, usually in vain for the father-rescuer, who comes only in rare fantasy, or in the guise of homosexuals who, like the woman, are out to capture his precious manhood. We watch him toughen himself, learning to reject the female comfort and softness he longs for, attacking it wherever he finds it, in men, in women, or in his own despised self. We watch him search for a woman he can dominate enough to feel safe with, and observe him in his difficult journey as The Enemy, battling friends who betray, men who turn into women, and women who unite with homosexuals, blacks, and Jews, in a plot to swallow him, infantilize him, and feminize him. We see, too, how this system, which evolved as a survival mechanism and a means of self-defense, at times diverges and at times merges with the dominant cultural and political discourse, leaving the “Enemy” at first inside the mainstream, later outside it, banging and shouting at the exclusion he knew all the time was coming.

In tracing Wyndham Lewis's system through twelve texts in which he tirelessly recapitulates and reinterprets it, we begin to understand how, in this author, as in the Nazis and their predecessors, the Freikorpsmen, the fear and hatred of women and of Jews was part of a deeply embedded psychic structure which, as Kate Millett writes, was “a way of life with influence over every other psychological and emotional facet of existence” (229).

In citing works by Lewis in the notes, short titles have been used. After their initial citation, works frequently cited have been identified by the following abbreviations:

Left Wings Over Europe Left
Doom of Youth Youth
Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! Count
Hitler Hitler
The Hitler Cult Cult
The Jews, Are They Human? Jews
Cantleman's Spring Mate Cantleman
Tarr Tarr
Apes of God Apes
Blasting and Bombardiering Blasting
Self Condemned Self
Rude Assignment Rude
The Letters of Wyndham Lewis Letters

The citation “Meyers” refers to Jeffrey Meyers, The Enemy (London: Routledge, 1980). Other works by Meyers are clearly identified by title.


  1. Fredric Jameson, Fables of Aggression (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 4. Jameson states that these attitudes on the part of Lewis will be “abundantly documented” in his book; unfortunately, Jameson's rather impenetrable and dense approach, which he calls the “libidinal apparatus model,” makes a great part of his own book inaccessible to all but the most determined contemporary readers.

  2. Jeffrey Meyers, The Enemy (London: Routledge, 1980), 110.

  3. DSM-III (Washington: American Psychiatric Association, 1987), 35. While the DSM-III, a reference book used for diagnosis, expresses it most succinctly, this same “diagnosis” of Lewis is confirmed by reference to all of the other clinicians I cite in the previous chapter, in particular David Shapiro.

  4. Julian Symons, ed., The Essential Wyndham Lewis: An Introduction to His Work (London: Deutsch, 1989), 2.

  5. Wyndham Lewis, Rude Assignment: An Intellectual Biography (1950; Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1984), 126. In this and subsequent citations of Lewis's work, I have of course reproduced his rather idiosyncratic system of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and italics: all irregularities reflect the original text.

  6. Wyndham Lewis, Tarr (1918; London: Methuen, 1951), 9.

  7. Jeffrey Meyers, “The Quest for Wyndham Lewis,” Biography 4.1 (Winter 1981): 71-81 and 89-91.

  8. Jeffrey Meyers, “Quest for Wyndham Lewis,” 70-71. Meyers's account of the plot to prevent publication of his books (“All my books seem cursed”) has a decidedly Lewis-like tone!

  9. Wyndham Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering (1937; Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), 9.

  10. In fact, Woolf's “misunderstanding” presaged Jeffrey Masson and others who have denounced Freud's assumption that female reports of molestation by the father or other older men were based on the female version of the Oedipus complex; that is, that the girl's desire to make love to her father led to “wish-fulfilling” fantasies of being sexually approached. As later evidence has shown, these women were reporting not fantasy but devastating experience.

  11. Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled (1926; New York: Haskell, 1972), 286.

  12. Wyndham Lewis, Paleface (New York: Haskell, 1929), 208.

  13. W. K. Rose, ed., The Letters of Wyndham Lewis (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1963), 14.

  14. Wyndham Lewis, “The Do-Nothing Mode,” Agenda 7-8 (Autumn-Winter 1969-70): 217.

  15. Rude, 249; from an early, previously unpublished draft of chapter 21, “How One Begins,” which is included in the Appendix to the Black Sparrow edition.

  16. As Daphne Patai has demonstrated, Orwell's stance as rescuer of the oppressed did not apply to his dominating and exploitative relationships with women. In his texts, as in Lewis's, women and despised effeminate men receive the full force of his fear and loathing.

  17. Rude, Appendix, 250. This note on the effects of public school was again expurgated from the final version.

  18. Robert Chapman, “Letters and Autobiographies,” in Jeffrey Meyers, ed., Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation. New Essays (London: Athlone, 1980).

  19. For this pattern, see Valerie Parker, “Lewis, Art, and Women,” 211-25, in Meyers, ed., Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation. This interesting article is marred by its lack of any kind of notes or documentation.

  20. See Timothy Materer, “Lewis and the Patriarchs: Augustus John, W. B. Yeats, T. Strurge Moore,” in Meyers, ed., Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation, 47-63. Materer suggests that “Lewis, a virtually fatherless child, searched all his life for a father figure,” and then rejects this theory as “too Freudinfected” and something Lewis would not have approved of. Materer's article itself nevertheless effectively supports this thesis.

  21. T. S. Eliot had been especially supportive of Lewis's work, and, knowing his financial need, had guaranteed him a lead article in every issue of the Criterion when Eliot edited that magazine. When Eliot told Lewis that a certain piece was too long for the Criterion, Lewis responded with a series of typical letters suggesting that “either you or some person or persons who are able to influence you … appear for some time before Christmas to have decided to treat me in such a way as to make my estrangement a foregone conclusion” and threatening, “If … you do not reply to this letter in a reasonable time, or arrange a meeting with me, then I shall conclude that the devil has you by the heel, and there will be no necessity for me to tell you where to go for you will be there already” (Lewis, Letters, 152, 154). Eliot's reply, included in Lewis's collected letters, demonstrates his perception of Lewis's paranoia: “I cannot work with you as long as you consider me either the tool or the operator of machinations against you” (Lewis, Letters, 120). Lewis treated Ezra Pound, his friend, staunch supporter, and collaborator on “Blast,” in the same way, calling him an “intellectual eunuch” in Time and Western Man of 1927.

  22. In Blasting and Bombardiering, Lewis gives his own explanation of why his sitters did not pay up: “Sitters are apt to be very nice up to the final sitting. They are hoping that at the last minute something will happen to the picture which will transform an extremely interesting- looking young woman into a raving society beauty. … When this doesn't happen, the storm breaks. The cheque that is to pay your studio-rent (which is already overdue) is not forthcoming” (Blasting, 216).

  23. It is difficult to judge whether he used his friends' Jewishness in his accusatory letters to them, as many letters to correspondents who were living in 1963, at the time the letters were published, were left out of this collection.

  24. For example, he calls Marx “a german-jewish economist,” as part of a larger attack on him, and talks about Marx's Jewishness and his “cash” in a letter to Herbert Read in 1934 (Letters, 227). In a letter to David Kahma in 1948, he calls Kenneth Burke “little, pinched, partly Jewish” and declares, “I should never be interested in anything Burke wrote” (440).

  25. C. H. Sisson, “The Politics of Wyndham Lewis,” Agenda 7.3, 8.1 (Autumn and Winter 1969-70, Wyndham Lewis Special Issue): 115.

  26. Martin Seymour-Smith in Agenda 7.3, 8.1 (Autumn and Winter, 1969-1970), 10.

  27. William Chace, “On Lewis's Politics: The Polemics Polemically Answered,” in Meyers, ed., Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation, 150.

  28. W. A. Thorpe, “On The Art of Being Ruled,” Criterion 5 (1926): 758.

  29. Edgell Rickword, “The Art of Being Ruled,” Calendar 3 (1926-27): 247.

  30. “On Paleface: The Philosophy of the Melting Pot,” Times Literary Supplement, 30 May 1929, 432.

  31. In his 1931 poem “The Georgiad,” Lewis's friend Roy Campbell praised his “toreadoring skill” in attacking D. H. Lawrence. Ernest Hemingway wrote to Lewis praising “the purgative effect” of Paleface and saying, “I … thought you destroyed the Red and Black enthusiasm very finely in Paleface” (Meyers, 143-45).

  32. Rebecca West, “On Making Due Allowances for Distortion,” Time and Tide 24 May 1929: 624; also quoted in Rude, 217.

  33. “Hitler and his Movement,” Times Literary Supplement 16 April 1931, 296.

  34. The Spectator reviewer objected to Lewis's gullibility and narcissism: “Lewis has evidently believed almost everything which his Hitlerite informant told him” (“Mr. Lewis among the Nazis,” Spectator, 18 April 1931, 296). Clennell Wilkinson criticized Lewis's vague and unsubstantiated acceptance of the Nazi case (“Wyndham Lewis on Hitler,” Everyman, 2 April 1931, 303). Reginald Berkeley complained that Lewis was, as usual, tangential and wrote more about himself than his topic (“The Dictators,” Saturday Review, 11 April 1931, 535).

  35. Wyndham Lewis, Hitler (London: Chatto, 1930), 14.

  36. See chapter 3 for similar examples of this reasoning on the part of the Freikorpsmen, as demonstrated by Theweleit.

  37. Wyndham Lewis, Doom of Youth (1932; New York: Haskell, 1973), 62.

  38. Wyndham Lewis, Left Wings over Europe (London: Cape, 1936), 37.

  39. “Left Wings over Europe,” Times Literary Supplement, 20 June 1936, 508.

  40. L. M. Horton, “The Flights of Wyndham Lewis,” London Mercury 37 (1936): 277.

  41. E. H. Carr, review of Left Wings over Europe, in Charles Moore and Christopher Hawtree, eds., 1936 as Recorded by the Spectator (London: Michael Joseph, 1986), 233-34.

  42. Wyndham Lewis, Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! or, A New War in the Making (London: Lovat Dickson, 1937), 98.

  43. T. S. Eliot, in Meyers, 120 and 354n. 30.

  44. Wyndham Lewis, The Jews, Are They Human? (1939; New York: Gordon, 1972), 30.

  45. The Jews, Are They Human? by Wyndham Lewis,” Times Literary Supplement, 25 March 1939.

  46. Wyndham Lewis, The Hitler Cult (London: Dent, 1939), 15.

  47. Wyndham Lewis, Rude Assignment, appendix 2, “Two Fragmentary Drafts of Chapters on the Hitler Writing of the Thirties,” 255.

  48. The story of the repression of “Cantleman” is from Meyers, 85. “Cantleman's Spring Mate” was later published in 1937 by Eyre and Spottiswood and is now available as part of Blasting and Bombardiering.

  49. Repeated efforts to identify the word “epira” have yielded nothing. Lewis may have been referring to the female praying mantis, which devours the male after the act of mating.

  50. T. S. Eliot, “Tarr,” Egoist 5 (September 1918): 106.

  51. Ezra Pound, “Wyndham Lewis” (1920), in Literary Essays (London, 1954), 424, 429.

  52. Rebecca West, “Tarr,” Nation, 17 August 1918, 176.

  53. Meyers, 182, quoting T. S. Eliot, “Charles Whibley” (1931), in Selected Essays (New York, 1932), 409.

  54. Wyndham Lewis, Satire and Fiction (London: Arthur, 1930). Lewis on the whole does not cite the publications in which specific reviews appeared, giving only the authors' names.

  55. Here and elsewhere in this book, I have used the term “homosexual” as opposed to the more respectful and contemporary word “gay” when referring to Lewis's perspective and that of the other authors in this study. When referring to Lewis, I have sometimes also used his word “invert.”

  56. Wyndham Lewis, The Apes of God (1930; Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1981), 44.

  57. Leon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vanguard, 1965), 1: 143; quoted in Gilman, Difference and Pathology, 151.

  58. These women, though they may have enjoyed Lewis on a short-term basis, would probably have known better than to get saddled with him!

  59. Paul Edwards, Afterword, The Apes of God, 635. Edwards identifies Rodker as “a poet, novelist, and publisher, the author of Adolphe, which Lewis parodies in Part V.”

  60. Ira B. Nadell, Joyce and the Jews (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989), 180.

  61. “He himself sat, spider-like, in the center of an impressive commercial network. Other animal metaphors which described him were the hog, the dog, the rat, the vulture, the weasel, the fox, the toad, the serpent, and the wasp” (Edgar Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali, 35).

Kelly Anspaugh (essay date 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6034

SOURCE: “Blasting the Bombardier: Another Look at Lewis, Joyce, and Woolf,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 365-78.

[In the following excerpt, Anspaugh examines Lewis's critical reaction to the writings of Virgina Woolf and James Joyce.]

It has been with considerable shaking in my shoes … that I have taken the cow by the horns in this chapter.

(Wyndham Lewis, Men Without Art 140)

In her essay “Jellyfish and Treacle: Lewis, Joyce, Gender and Modernism,” Bonnie Kime Scott—leader of what she herself terms “the current wave of Joyce feminist criticism” (169)—offers an analysis of two modernisms: a “male modernism,” as she puts it, embodied in the person and works of Wyndham Lewis, and a female modernism, best represented by Virginia Woolf. “I hope to demonstrate,” Scott says,

how Joyce coincides with some of Lewis's definitions early in his career, and how he and Lewis parted company in the 1920s, partially over the issue of the feminine. It is a debate that previously came to us under the masculine designation of Joyce as “the time man.” As we play with new definitions involving gender and modernism, we discover that “the time man,” one of “the men of 1914” [Lewis's term] was at least part woman. (169)

Scott's objective is to set up two poles, the masculine (Lewis) and the feminine (Woolf), and to show how Joyce and his work are closer to the feminine pole than heretofore supposed. In the course of doing so, however, Scott presents a seriously distorted view of the writers involved, their interrelation, and the attitude toward gender offered in their texts. In this essay I will attempt to correct this view, or at the very least offer a counter-view.

If Virginia Woolf is the modernist critics love to love—at least contemporary critics—then Wyndham Lewis is the modernist critics love to hate.1 Scott clearly participates in this group antipathy. She tells us near the beginning of her essay that she wants to “compare aspects of gender and modernism” in Joyce's Portrait and Lewis's Tarr, both of which were first published in Harriet Shaw Weaver's magazine The Egoist in 1918. Scott prefaces her analysis with the comment “I think it interesting that Miss Weaver could identify with Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's novel, but never took to Tarr in the same way,” and goes on to observe that “it seems typical of Lewis's incapacity for friendship, or his capacity for envy that he tipped off Miss Weaver to Joyce's considerable drinking” (169). Although Scott ostensibly wants to show that Joyce's apologetic letter to Miss Weaver about his drinking serves as “a critique of male camaraderie” (169), it seems to me all too typical of commentary on Lewis that the critic begins with an ad hominem bash, letting the reader know that Lewis was a thoroughly unpleasant person, a classic paranoid, and that we should be on our guard against both him and his works. In short, Scott begins her analysis by blasting the ex-bombardier, by reinforcing the already established view of Lewis as the modernist bogeyman.

As she begins her comparative textual analysis, Scott observes that whereas Joyce's Portrait offers a representation of childhood, Lewis's Tarr “takes up where Joyce's leaves off. Lewis offers no sympathetic evocation of childhood; he had little sympathy for children” (170). A bad sort was Lewis, leaving a number of illegitimate children in his Enemy wake—as Scott is clearly aware.2 What is more, although “Lewis was strongly attached to his own mother, and vice versa”—that is, although Lewis was a spoiled mama's boy—“he refuses to grant the mother an important place in his writings” (170). The fact that Joyce could be similarly ungrateful Scott concedes in a quick parenthesis: “(It has been argued by Colin MacCabe that Joyce did the same through much of Dubliners)” (170). So we see that the critic, even after her textual analysis begins, persists in her ad hominem argument—even when it imperils her thesis that Lewis and Joyce were different.

Scott observes that both Tarr and Stephen “conceive of God and power as male, and like Aristotle and Nietzsche, place the female at the bottom of their conceptual hierarchies, with the mud, the vegetables, and the jellyfish” (170). In the course of her analysis of the sexual relationships in Lewis's novel she remarks that

there is some validity to Fredric Jameson's claim that Lewis is more richly dialogic than Joyce … though I would restrict this observation to their early stage of writing or to the strictest sense of dialog. Lewis's is a very restrained and protected dialog, compared with the exchanges eventually performed in Finnegans Wake. Though Tarr has a network of relationships, there is no depth or substance in any of them. (171)

Although granting Jameson's analysis “some validity,” Scott misses Jameson's point: that Lewis's novel is a satire of surfaces, written precisely against the metaphors of “depth” and “substance” that she apparently values.3 Bertha, the first woman with whom Tarr becomes entangled, Scott describes with disapproval as “bourgeois, sentimental, vegetative” (171), a description reminiscent of Joyce's view of Molly Bloom as a “perfectly sane full amoral fertilizable … Weib” (Ellmann 517). Scott, however, never mentions Molly Bloom,4 and moves on to the second of Lewis's women: “Tarr encounters an alternate, more masculine woman in Anastasya, a figure Rebecca West described in her review of Tarr as ‘the kitch Cleopatra from Dresden,’ though, in a more serious vein, she also praised Lewis's Russian sensibilities” (172). Again Scott's rhetoric is slippery: she quotes West's passing negative comment on one Lewis character while she notes in passing West's “praise” for Lewis's sensibilities. She might have quoted instead the following from West's review of Tarr: “a beautiful and serious work of art that reminds one of Dostoevsky only because it is too inquisitive about the soul, and because it contains one figure of vast moral significance which is worthy to stand beside Stavrogin. The great achievement of the book, which gives it its momentary and permanent value, is Kreisler, the German artist” (176). The character West so much admired appears in Scott's analysis only as the “fascist” rapist of Bertha (174)—although Scott admits that in his presentation of the rape “Lewis has made a powerful connection, and a statement on the victimization of women as art object” (15).5

In regard to the relationship between Tarr and Anastasya, Scott observes that “unlike Stephen, who after Stephen Hero has no serious discussion on gender or art with women, Tarr has substantial dialogs with Anastasya” (172). Scott must concede that in Anastasya Lewis presents us with an intelligent and formidable character, one “‘above the line’ of messy femininity” (173)—a line above which Joyce (at least the early Joyce) does not rise. And yet the critic remains dissatisfied: “Lewis fails to give her a creative role, beyond her efforts to educate Tarr. We find Tarr mentally working her into the cubist-vorticist, machinelike shapes of Lewis's own portraits, the hard factuality of things admired and promoted by Pound in Joyce as well as Lewis” (173). Despite this objection—an objection, it seems to me, more of taste than anything (the critic does not like Lewis's vorticist style6)—the effect of Scott's analysis to this point is to convince the reader that the early Lewis is more feminist than the early Joyce (insofar as by “feminist” we understand an attitude of respect toward women as thinking human beings). She attempts to disrupt this effect by offering a short analysis of Stephen Dedalus's view of women. Whereas in Tarr the feminine is depicted as simply the messy “foundation” from which art arises, in Portrait “Stephen discovers a feminine language of mystery and silence that has its own power” (174). According to Scott, Stephen's “bird girl” has “her own liquid language,”

expressed in her action after “suffrance” of his “gaze” for some time, as she bent her eyes “towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep …” …. Stephen's response is orgasmic and ecstatic. He founds his artistic vocation on her appeal, and upon the murky realms Tarr seeks to avoid. “His soul was swooning into some new world, fantastic, dim, uncertain as under sea.” He is in the jellyfish realm. (174)

Although one can agree that Joyce's epiphany is very beautiful and seductive, it does not follow from this that it is admirable from a feminist point of view. One could as easily argue that what is communicated in this passage is not the bird girl's “own liquid language,” but rather a conventional, romantic, male-centered view of the feminine. In other words, rather than seeing Stephen as transported into “the jellyfish realm,” one could see the bird girl as a “sweet young thing,” a forerunner of Gerty MacDowell, the romantic “seaside” girl who brings Leopold Bloom to masturbatory orgasm in the “Nausicaa” chapter of Ulysses.

Scott then turns to Lewis's analysis of Virginia Woolf in Men Without Art (1934), his chapter entitled “Virginia Woolf: ‘Mind’ and ‘Matter’ on the Plane of a Literary Controversy” (131-40). At the end of that chapter Lewis tells his reader that he has just taken the feminist “cow by the horns,” and Scott notes that Lewis is “only too willing to dismiss most of his English colleagues of both sexes to the cultural realm of feminine mediocrity” (175). She goes on to remark that “Lewis resents Woolf's use of Joyce's Ulysses to derive what he considers a ‘feminine’ description of modernism” (176), and then turns to “Satire and Fiction,” where “Lewis attacks Joyce's ‘internal method’ regretting that it has ‘robbed Joyce's work as a whole of linear properties—contour and definition in fact:’”

In contrast to the jelly-fish that floats in the center of the subterranean stream of the “dark” Unconscious, I much prefer, for my part, the shield of the tortoise, or the rigid stylistic articulations of the grasshopper. (Men 99, qtd. in Scott 176)7

So Lewis places Joyce in the realm of the jellyfish, which is also, Scott argues, Woolf's realm: “It was the transparent envelope of the jellyfish, the darker, psychological Joyce that had won the admiration of that female definer of modernism, Virginia Woolf” (Scott 176). Thus the critic skillfully matches Joyce with Woolf, depicting both as feminist modernists, co-champions of the jellyfish, in opposition to the misogynistic, tortoise-loving Lewis.

One must pause, however, over Scott's claim that Joyce the stylist had “won the admiration” of Virginia Woolf. In reading Woolf's response to Joyce in essays, letters, and diary entries, one discovers that her admiration for Joyce's style lasted all of a paragraph. That paragraph is in her 1919 essay “Modern Novels,” which was revised and reprinted as “Modern Fiction” in the first Common Reader (1925). There Woolf writes of the “Hades” chapter of Ulysses (which had appeared in the Little Review), “The scene in the cemetery … it is difficult not to acclaim a masterpiece. If we want life itself here, surely, we have it” (155). Woolf proceeds, however, to discuss the ways in which Joyce's text fails:

It fails because of the comparative poverty of the writer's mind, we might say simply and have done with it. But it is possible to press a little further and wonder whether we may not refer to our sense of being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and shut in, rather than enlarged and set free, to some limitation imposed by the method as well as by the mind. Is it the method that inhibits the creative power? Is it due to the method that we feel neither jovial nor magnanimous, but centred in a self which, in spite of its tremor of susceptibility, never embraces or creates what is outside of itself and beyond? (156)

Woolf then retrieves what she had but a moment before bestowed: “This method has the merit of bringing us closer to what we were prepared to call life itself; did not the reading of Ulysses suggest how much of life is excluded or ignored” (156; my emphasis).8 Woolf is even more explicit in her complaints about Joyce's style in a letter of 23 April 1918 to Lytton Strachey: “We've been asked to print Mr. Joyce's new novel [“We” being Virginia and Leonard Woolf, managers of Hogarth Press], every printer in London and most in the provinces having refused. First there's a dog that p's—then there's a man that forths, and one can be monotonous even on that subject—moreover, I don't believe that his method, which is highly developed, means much more than cutting out the explanations and putting in the thoughts between dashes. So I don't think we shall do it” (Letters II 234). The Woolfs did not do it, and when the book came out in 1922, Woolf did not change her mind about Joyce's method. On 6 September of that year she writes in her diary: “I finished Ulysses & think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think, but of inferior water. The book is diffuse … it is underbred. … A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky, startling; doing stunts” (Diary II 199). Finally, in another letter to Strachey, Woolf writes that she will contribute five and sixpence to a fund for T. S. Eliot's upkeep “on the condition he puts publicly to their proper use the first 200 pages of Ulysses. Never did I read such tosh” (Letters II 551). Begging critic Scott's pardon, this does not strike me as admiration.

In blasting Joyce's method, however, Woolf may be protesting too much: the violence of Woolf's rejection may be interpreted as a sign of her anxiety over being influenced by Joyce. This anxiety is most clearly expressed in a diary entry of 26 September 1920:

Somehow Jacob's Room has come to a stop, in the middle of that party too, which I enjoyed so much. [T. S.] Eliot coming on the heel of a long stretch of writing fiction … made me listless; cast shade upon me; & the mind when engaged upon fiction wants all its boldness & self-confidence. He said nothing—but I reflected how what I'm doing is probably being done better by Mr. Joyce. Then I began to wonder what it is that I am doing. … An odd thing, the human mind! so capricious, faithless, infinitely shying at shadows. (Diary II 68-69)

Woolf's metaphor of “casting shade” foreshadows Harold Bloom's metaphor of the anxiety-provoking precursor, who as “Covering Cherub” casts a shadow of influence over the later, belated poet.9 With the above entry in mind, we return to Scott's comment that Lewis “resents Woolf's use of Joyce's Ulysses.” Clearly it is Woolf who resents Joyce, fears that he may have both anticipated and bettered her.10 Scott goes on:

To Lewis, Ulysses is “robustly complete. … It is not the half-work in short ‘pale’ and ‘dishevelled’ of a crippled interregnum.” … He explains, “Mrs. Woolf is merely confusing the becoming pallor and uncertain untidiness of some of her own salon pieces with that of Joyce's masterpiece.” (176)

Scott here ends her paragraph and proceeds to Lewis's attack on Joyce in “Satire and Fiction.” What the critic has done is neatly gloss over the fact that in Men Without Art Lewis, rather than “resenting” Woolf's “use” of Ulysses (as Scott puts it), actually accuses Woolf of plagiarizing from Ulysses in the writing of Mrs. Dalloway. In attacking what he terms the “Bloomsbury technique,” Lewis writes:

In the local exponents of this method there is none of the realistic vigour of Mr. Joyce, though often the incidents in the local “masterpieces” are exact and puerile copies of the scenes in his Dublin drama (cf. The Viceroy's progress through Dublin in Ulysses with the Queen's progress through London in Mrs. Dalloway—the latter is a sort of undergraduate imitation of the former, winding up with a smoke-writing in the sky, a pathetic “crib” of the firework display and the rocket that is the culmination of Mr. Bloom's beach-ecstasy). (139)11

Lewis's main textual target in this chapter is “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1923-1924), where Woolf repeated her earlier complaints about Joyce's method and lumped him in with the other “failures” of her generation: “Ulysses, Queen Victoria, Mr. Prufrock—to give Mrs. Brown some of the names she had made famous lately—is a little pale and dishevelled by the time her rescuers reach her” (211). Lewis perceives this comment as symptomatic of Woolf's (and by extension Bloombury's) dilettante defeatism, to which he reacts with some violence:

There you have a typical contemporary statement of the position of letters today. Its artificiality is self-evident, if you do no more than consider the words: for Ulysses however else it may have arrived at its destination, was at least not pale. But here, doubtless, Mrs. Woolf is merely confusing the becoming pallor, and certain untidiness of some of her own pretty salon pieces with that of Joyce's masterpiece (indeed that masterpiece is implicated and confused with her own pieces in more ways than one, and more palpably than this, but into that it is not necessary to enter here). (Men 137)

But, as we have seen above, the Enemy does enter into it, does make his charge of plagiarism—which charge critic Scott chooses not to enter into. What Lewis is doing in Men Without Art, then (or at least thinks he is doing), is defending Joyce against what he sees as denigration by Woolf in “Bennett and Brown” and plagiarism by Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway. Scott's analysis not only fails to communicate this, but leaves the reader with the impression that it is Woolf and Joyce who are comrades-in-arms, and Lewis their mutual Enemy.12 While it is true that Lewis attacked Joyce in Time and Western Man (as Lewis attacked all his fellow “men of 1914,” including Pound and Eliot), he also wrote at the beginning of his attack that Ulysses places Joyce “very high in contemporary letters” (75), and would write to The Listener in 1935, “Mr. Wyndham Lewis, speaking in person, desires to say that he regards James Joyce as a great literary artist” (cited in Edwards 128).13 This expression of admiration (to again use Scott's term) is far stronger than any Woolf ever offered to Joyce, either in public or private. Woolf's final public response to Joyce, in fact, may have been to create the “Milton bogey” for A Room of One's Own (1929), which bogey Woolfian Carolyn Heilbrun has identified as Joyce: “For Woolf, Milton was the bogey, past which women must look. ‘He was the first of the masculinists,’ she had written in 1918. … If Milton was the first of the masculinists, Joyce in 1922 must have seemed the latest” (62). Unlike Scott, Heilbrun sees Joyce as fellow to Lewis, not Woolf. Whereas Scott, the feminist Joycean, sees Joyce as “part woman,” Heilbrun, the feminist Woolfian, sees him as all bogeyman.14

Again it is the late Joyce, the author of Finnegans Wake, whom Scott thinks the new womanly man; she turns at the end of her analysis, therefore, to that text:

Joyce provided deliberate responses to Lewis's brand of male modernism in Finnegans Wake, as its annotators have consistently recognized. Joyce's critique of gender in Lewis can perhaps be best viewed at the end of the fable of “The Mookse and the Gripes,” which rewrites Lewis's Time and Western Man as “Spice and Westend Woman” (FW 292.6). While it still suggests that little girls are made of sugar and spice, and reminds us of the position of a London West End prostitute, this title is also subversive of Lewis's sexism, and makes his sort of blasting appear pseudo-revolutionary. Woman provided an end to the Western patriarchal values which have produced a literature of wasteland and fascism. (177)

Scott's reading of Joyce's punning on Lewis's title is ingenious, but perhaps overly so. She recognizes the prostitute in Joyce's joke, and this is probably its main point, for Lewis had a taste for streetwalkers (for which taste his health often suffered). Ellmann records the following related anecdote: “As they [Lewis and Joyce] sat at the café, Lewis invariably invited the same two local prostitutes to sit with them. The women were given plenty to drink, but otherwise received little attention. Once, when Lewis broke precedent by a lapse of decorum with one of them, Joyce solemnly called him to order, ‘Remember you are the author of The Ideal Giant’” (530). Joyce's distortion of Lewis's title, then, is probably meant simply to reflect his history of such lapses.15 In a similar fashion Joyce rewrote the title of Lewis's violently erotic story “Cantleman's Spring Mate” as both “cattlemen's spring meat” (FW 172.6-7) and “gentlemen's spring modes” (165.24-25). Scott, I think, makes a great deal out of what appears to be a pair of good old boys teasing one another.16

“The Mookse and the Gripes,” Scott continues,

seems to end indecisively, with the advocates of space and time (Lewis's space man, the Mookse; Joyce's time man, the Gripes) receding. … They are watched by “Nuvoletta,” but her coy flirtation … fails to distract them from their argumentative sports. “She sighed. There are menner” (FW 157.8-158.5) seems an admission of the hopelessness in gender. The scene continues, however, shifting to the omnipresent, feminine river, embodiment of the natural flow of time—if not the female modernist treacle—that Lewis scorned. (177)

Scott argues that this shift, which introduces Joyce's two washerwomen, “challenges Lewis's position that God is male [N.B.: earlier this was also Joyce's position], since they suggest the cyclical role of the great goddess. It seems particularly damning that the woman who carries off the Mookse, the Lewis character, is described as a powerful black woman, a political entity that counters Lewis's classicism, sexism and racism” (177). What Scott surprisingly does not appear to recognize is that Joyce's “Nuvoletta” is not simply another embodiment of Issy, the sister/daughter figure, but also a caricature of Rebecca West, who, presumably after reading Lewis's attack on Joyce in Time and Western Man, entered the fray by publishing her own attack on Joyce, “The Strange Necessity” (1928), where she observes that “Mr. James Joyce is a great man who is entirely without taste” (3).17 Thus Nuvoletta's pettish “There are menner” may be read as Joyce's representation of West's disappointment at not being taken seriously by these men of ’14.18 This agonistic scenario comes back later in the “Lessons” chapter, where Lewis (now Kev) has just bashed Joyce (now Dolph) for drawing a picture of their mother's genitalia; Dolph responds, “Thanks eversore-much, Pointcarried! … I'm seeing rayingbogeys rings round me” (FW 304.5-9), and then turns to their sister (now Nubilina):

Tiny Mite, she studiert whas? With her listeningin coiffure, her dream of Endland's daylast and the glorifires of being presainted maid to majesty. And less is the pit for she isn't the lollypops she might easily be if she had for a sample Virginia's air of achievement. That might keep her from throwing delph. (FW 304.19-26).

Here Joyce is making fun of Rebecca West's snobbery (West, although her father was Irish, bore a son to H. G. Wells in 1914, married the English banker Henry Maxwell Andrews in 1930, and became Dame Rebecca in 1959).19 Especially relevant to my argument is the reference to “Virginia's air of achievement.” In “The Strange Necessity” West hesitates for a moment in her bashing of Joyce to compliment Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf, both “authors … about whom one knows that they know all sorts of things one would like to know” (124). “If only Rebecca West had Virginia Woolf's appearance of genius,” Joyce seems to be mocking, “then perhaps she would not attack me” (“throw delph”—both delftware and Dolph). As for the phrase “air of achievement,” this is probably an echo not of West but of Woolf, who at the beginning of “Modern Fiction” (where, once again, she first praises then bashes Joyce) expresses her envy for those “happier warriors,” the novelists of the past, “whose battle is won and whose achievements wear so serene an air of accomplishment that we can scarcely refrain from whispering that the fight was not so fierce for them as for us” (Common 151; my emphasis). One could not expect Joyce, who set out in Ulysses to parodically destroy all previous literatures (vide the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter), to commiserate with Woolf in her vision of belatedness. In mocking Woolf's “air of achievement,” then, Joyce is one with Lewis, who in Men Without Art agrees with “certain critics” that Woolf is “insignificant” as a novelist (132). Given that Joyce ridicules both West and Woolf in the Wake, I find it difficult to accept Scott's conclusion that “the mature Joyce was willing to yield control to the feminine in writing and in time. One of the ‘men of 1914’ had failed Lewis as a male modernist and challenged him in ‘femaline’ language” (178).

To conclude, I would have no argument with Scott if she were to claim that there are certain affinities between the styles of Woolf and Joyce (as many critics have), or even if she were to claim that Joyce, in the final analysis, manifests more sympathy and understanding for women than does Lewis. Scott's aim in this essay, however, is to “save” Joyce for feminism by destroying Lewis. In the course of her rescue/attack operation, Scott clearly plays fast and loose with the facts, representing Lewis, Joyce, and Woolf as other than they were. This is not critical cricket. The most one can do, I think, is attempt to save Joyce, not for feminism, but from feminism—or, more precisely, from biographically phallacious [sic] feminist readings. Joyce, after all, was a man who approved the definition of woman as “an animal that micturates once a day, defecates once a week, menstruates once a month and parturates once a year” (Ellmann 162). Joyce, after all, was a man who said he did not like intellectual women (Ellmann 647), and who once offered a friend the following test for telling whether a woman is “any good”: “Well, take her to a picture gallery, and explain the pictures to her. If she breaks wind, she's all right” (Ellmann 443). Allowing that Joyce was something of a coprophiliac—enjoyed playing fartsy with his wife20—I think it safe to say that such a statement is not likely to win the sympathy of most feminists.21 While it may be a mistake to make Joyce out as the “bogeyman” (what Scott is quite understandably concerned to deny), it is just as much a mistake, I think, to make him out as the “new womanly man.” Joyce, in the final analysis, is merely a man. Ecce homo.


  1. For the whys and wherefores of Lewis's persona non grata status, see Jeffrey Meyers's biography The Enemy; on the advantages that may attach to such status, see “On Not Reading Wyndham Lewis,” prologue to Fredric Jameson's Fables (1-23).

  2. Scott cites Meyers's biography, which exposes Lewis's irresponsibility in sexual matters.

  3. Jameson comments that “far from dissolving the personality into its external determinations, as Lewis's transformations do, the Joycean phantasmagoria serves to reconfirm the unity of the psyche, and to reinvent that depth-psychological perspective from which … private fantasies spring. … [In Lewis] it is not the unification but rather the dispersal of subjectivity which is aimed at” (57-58).

  4. Scott does however devote a chapter to Molly in her 1984 book Joyce and Feminism (156-83).

  5. That Scott is primarily interested in West as a feminist is clear from the title of her recent essay “Refiguring the Binary, Breaking the Cycle: Rebecca West as Feminist Modernist.”

  6. Frederic Jameson has different tastes:

    To face the sentences of Wyndham Lewis is to find oneself confronted with a principle of immense mechanical energy. Flaubert, Ulysses, are composed; the voices of a James or of a Faulkner develop their resources through some patient blind groping exploration of their personal idiosyncrasies from work to work. The style of Lewis, however, equally unmistakable, blasts through the tissues of his novels like a steam whistle, breaking them to its will. (25)

    Jameson later returns to the Joyce/Lewis opposition: “The sentences of Joyce are composed according to a principle of immanence, God withdrawing from view behind his creation: in Lewis, however, sheer proliferation stands as the sign and ratification of his mechanistic enterprise” (32).

  7. Lewis incorporated “Satire and Fiction” into Men Without Art, the passage Scott quotes appearing on pages 98-99. Scott does not note this.

  8. Patrick Parrinder also notes this quick shift from praise to blame in Woolf's essay: “As soon as her essay asks this question [about whether Joyce was “spiritual” enough], Woolf's reservations about Joyce's achievement start to appear” (161).

  9. That Woolf may indeed play theoretical precursor to Bloom's ephebe—that is, that Bloom may derive much of his theory of anxiety from Woolf—is a possibility that has yet to be given adequate attention by critics. For a reading of Woolf's response to Ulysses in the text of Jacob's Room, see Garvey.

  10. Carolyn Heilbrun quotes Woolf's comment “what I'm doing is probably being better done by Mr. Joyce” and observes, “this was not true, but reflects that female diffidence, that lack of confidence which male writers do not experience that has led her critics, and Joyce's admirers, to take her at her word” (60). Regardless of whether or not what Woolf feared was true was in fact true, my point is simply that she feared, and that this fear may have caused her to react with hostility.

  11. Lewis would return to this charge in his long-suppressed satire on the London book world. The Roaring Queen (1936; 1973), where he caricatures Woolf as “Rhoda Hyman,” the “Highbrow Queen of Literary London,” who awards herself the prize for “the Year's Cleverest Literary Larceny” (96). The charge has been raised at least twice since. In 1947, William York Tindall wrote that Woolf's “Mrs. Dalloway, her first important work, is indebted primarily to Joyce. His three complementary characters, Bloom, Mrs. Bloom, and Stephen, are matched by her Septimus and Mrs. Dalloway” (304). More recently William D. Jenkins has pointed to even more parallels between Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, and concludes that Woolf's novel “suggests, at least to this common reader, a Ulysses in little: a very well-bred, perhaps overbred, miniature, not tricky, startling, or obscure” (515). Carolyn Heilbrun dismisses Tindall's observations as “nonsense” (63), and her fellow Woolfian Jean Guiguet does not stoop to mention—neither in his essay on Woolf and Lewis, nor in his essay on Woolf and Joyce—Lewis's charge.

  12. Scott also writes “In Time and Western Man (1927) Lewis has begun to challenge Joyce's feminine side. As a ‘time man’ Joyce was falling into the same pigeonhole as Woolf (86-88)” (“Jellyfish” 176). Scott's page reference gives the impression that in Time Lewis associates Joyce with Woolf. In fact Lewis never does this, although he does in places pair Joyce with Gertrude Stein.

  13. Lewis writes his early autobiography Blasting and Bombardiering (1937), he tells his readers, in order to defend himself and his fellow “men of 1914” from the debunking kind of biography perpetrated by fiends like Lytton Strachey:

    It is certain as I am lying here in this hammock that no one will take the trouble to go into the private affairs of these contemporaries of mine—examine their old laundry bills, read their boring business letters, and so on—except in order to betray them, and make them look even bigger fools than in fact they are. … Something has to be done about this. So here goes! (14)

  14. In her afterword to the 1982 anthology Women in Joyce Heilbrun suggests that perhaps Joyce should be termed “a misogynist, a man who hates women for becoming what he has determined they should be” (cited in Scott Joyce 125-26).

  15. Prostitutes also come up in Lewis's recollection of making the acquaintance of Ezra Pound:

    On the first two occasions on which we met I did not speak to him: on the second occasion he addressed a few remarks to me, but I did not reply. I did not consider it necessary to do so, he seemed in fact to be addressing somebody else. I mean that what he said did not appear to be appropriate, or to have any relevance—as a remark addressed to me.

    “This young man could probably tell you!” was I think what he said, with great archness, narrowing his eyes and regarding me with mischievous goodwill.

    There had been some question of the whereabouts of a kidnapped or absconded prostitute. Ezra was already attributing to those he liked proclivities which he was persuaded must accompany the revolutionary intellect. (Blasting 271)

  16. Joyce would also retitle Lewis's The Art of Being Ruled as the “art of being rude” (FW 167.3]—which bash Lewis would register in the title of his late autobiography Rude Assignment.

  17. I say “surprisingly” because in Joyce and Feminism Scott discusses both West's critique of Joyce and Joyce's response to West in the Wake (121-24).

  18. For an analysis of Joyce's response to West elsewhere in the Wake, see Halper.

  19. Joyce's “rayingbogeys” recalls his comments, in a letter of 20 September 1928 to Harriet Shaw Weaver, about West's analysis: “About fifty pages of Rebecca West's book were read to me yesterday but I cannot judge until I hear the whole essay. I think that P.P. [Pomes Penyeach] had in her case the intended effect of blowing up some bogey bogus personality and that she is quite delighted with the explosion” (Selected 337; my emphasis).

  20. In one of a series of scandalous letters to Nora, Joyce reminisces about a night of love: “You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole” (Selected 185).

  21. In Joyce and Feminism Scott acknowledges that Joyce made “extremely misogynistic statements,” and remarks, “If a critic has a mind to s/he may collect these aspects of Joyce and present a very dark interpretation indeed” (206).

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973.

Edwards, Paul. “‘Clodoveo’ and ‘Belcanto’: Wyndham Lewis and James Joyce.” Blast 3. Ed. Seamus Cooney. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1984. 126-33.

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. New York: Oxford UP, 1959.

Garvey, Johanna X.K. “Woolf and Joyce: reading and re/vision.” Joyce in Context. Ed. Vincent J. Cheng and Timothy Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 40-54.

Guiguet, Jean. “Jeu de miroirs: Jeu de Massacre (Virginia Woolf et James Joyce).” Blast 3. Ed. Seamus Cooney. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1984. 135-40.

———. “Virginia Woolf et James Joyce: Un Problème de Dates et de Temperaments.” Ulysses: Cinquante Ans Après. Ed. Louis Bonnerot. Paris: Didier, 1974. 23-31.

Halper, Nathan. “James Joyce and Rebecca West.” Studies in Joyce. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1983. 50-53.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. “Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.” Hamlet's Mother and Other Women. New York: Columbia UP, 1990. 58-77.

Jameson, Fredric. Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.

Jenkins, William D. “Virginia Woolf and the Belittling of ‘Ulysses.’” James Joyce Quarterly 25.4 (198): 513-19.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. New York: Viking, 1939. (FW).

———. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Viking, 1964.

———. Selected Letters. Ed. Richard Ellmann. New York: Viking, 1975.

———. Ulysses. New York: Random, 1961.

Lewis, Wyndham. Blasting and Bombardiering. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967.

———. Men Without Art. Ed. Seamus Cooney. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow, 1987.

———. The Roaring Queen. New York: Liveright, 1973.

———. Rude Assignment. London: Hutchinson, 1950.

———. Time and Western Man. Boston: Beacon, 1957.

———. Tarr. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Meyers, Jeffrey. The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis. Boston: Routledge, 1980.

Parrinder, Patrick. “The Strange Necessity: James Joyce's Rejection in England (1914-30).” James Joyce: New Perspectives. Ed. Colin MacCabe. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982. 151-67.

Scott, Bonnie Kime. “Jellyfish and Treacle: Lewis, Joyce, Gender and Modernism.” Coping with Joyce: Essays from the Copenhagen Symposium. Ed. Morris Beja and Shari Benstock. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1989. 168-79.

———. Joyce and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

———. “Refiguring the Binary, Breaking the Cycle: Rebecca West as Feminist Modernist.” Twentieth Century Literature 37.2 (1991): 169-91.

Tindall, William York. Forces in Modern British Literature, 1885-1946. New York: Knopf, 1947.

West, Rebecca. Rev. of Tarr, by Wyndham Lewis. Nation 17 August 1918: 175-76.

———. “The Strange Necessity.” The Strange Necessity. New York: Doubleday, 1928.

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, 1925.

———. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. 5 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1976-1984.

———. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautman. 6 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1975-1980.

———. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” The Virginia Woolf Reader. Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska. New York: Harcourt, 1985. 192-212.

Paul Peppis (essay date 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11880

SOURCE: “Anti-Individualism and the Fictions of National Character in Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 226-55.

[In the following excerpt, Peppis identifies themes and motifs in Lewis's novel Tarr.]

No reader of Tarr, Wyndham Lewis's first-published, most-studied, and arguably best novel, can ignore the central role that nationality plays in the text. As Lewis's international characters interact chaotically on the streets and in the cafés of pre-war Paris, they spend endless time contemplating their “national” characteristics and justifying their actions in terms of “national character.” They make so much of these topics, in fact, that ever since Tarr's first publication critics have periodically taken them as pivotal to the novel's meaning. Most such analyses have focused on the psychological drama of the two German characters: Bertha Lunken, the over-sentimental lover of the English painter Frederick Tarr, and Otto Kreisler, the failed artist and financial parasite, whose obsession with the unattainable Russian-German beauty Anastasya Vasek drives him to rape Bertha, to kill accidentally Soltyk (the Russian-Pole he means to kill on purpose), and finally to hang himself. Critics analyzing the novel during times of anti-German sentiment in England and America—after the First and Second World Wars—interpreted Tarr as an anti-German tract, reading Lewis's overly romantic and brutal Germans as literary instruments in a “racial critique,” allegorical representations of their destructive fatherland. Rebecca West, in one of the earliest and most frequently cited commentaries on Tarr, called it “a work of art of power and distinction” (69) and Kreisler a “figure of vast moral significance” (67). Nonetheless, she took the actions of Lewis's German characters as manifestations of national “ugliness”:

In watching Bertha Lunken, the acquiescent sentimentalist, and Kreisler, the murderous clown, whom she evokes by her spurious passions and inspires by her inertia to his most violent atrocity, we have the same baffled feeling with which Europe has watched Germany for the last four years: here are people the whole of whose beings are oriented towards ugliness. (68)

Writing after the Second World War, Geoffrey Wagner echoed West:

Bertha and Kreisler … personify together the German romantic nihilism that is the racial criticism of the work. … They are tellingly brought together in a brutal erotic clash, symbolic of the social rape Lewis thinks the Germans would like to effect on the society of nations. (237)

By attributing a fixed repertoire of “German” traits to Bertha and Kreisler, however, West and Wagner oversimplified Lewis's characters, misconstrued his analysis of nationality's role in personal identity, and thereby reduced the complexity of his novel.

Recognizing such limitations, Fredric Jameson, in his celebrated 1979 study of Lewis's novels, offered a provocative revisionist approach to Tarr's treatment of nationality. While Jameson's is the most sophisticated and interesting analysis of Lewis's handling of nationality in the novel, it is keyed more to his own theoretical preoccupations than to Lewis's aims. Like West and Wagner, Jameson interprets Tarr as a “national allegory” in which “the individual characters figure … more abstract national characteristics which are read as their inner essence.” But he criticizes partisan interpretations like those of West and Wagner that focus on “a single foreign national essence alone” because such readings use “allegory … as the instrument of cultural critique.” In contrast, he contends that Lewis's treatment of national allegory is more complicated: “A more complex network of interrelations and collisions emerges … narrative meaning becomes relational, as momentary alliances develop and disintegrate” (90). Yet Jameson introduces this complex conception of allegory to support his argument that Tarr enacts a transition from “national allegory to libidinal apparatus,” an argument finally intended, he explains, to advance his larger theoretical project of studying the “political unconscious” (6).

In contrast, this essay will historicize Tarr more carefully, working to recover Lewis's critical aims and situate his fictional treatment of nationality within the intellectual debates and literary practices of his closest contemporaries during the opening months of the second year of the Great War, when he was completing the novel. Its reading draws on and is meant to complement Michael Levenson's recent analysis, which begins the project of historicizing Tarr by analyzing it in the context of other modernist novels. Levenson persuasively describes Lewis's fictional attack on nineteenth-century notions of personal identity. He locates Lewis with other practitioners of the modern British novel—James, Forster, Lawrence, Woolf—whose works “engage in a self-conscious assault on a notion of character persistently associated with the nineteenth century” Nevertheless Levenson differentiates Lewis's novel from those of his contemporaries because they still “sustain nostalgic longing for a whole self,” while Tarr refuses such nostalgia. He maintains that Tarr attacks the nineteenth century ideal of “the autonomous ego, free and integral,” as restlessly as Lewis and his contemporaries attacked nineteenth century conventions of narrative form (xiii). Levenson is correct in contending that Lewis's rendering of personal identity and social interaction assails nineteenth century novelistic orthodoxies, but as we'll see, Lewis aimed his fictional assault even more precisely than Levenson acknowledges.

Previous accounts of Tarr have neglected the significance of its original appearance in Dora Marsden and Harriet Shaw Weaver's “Individualist Review,” the Egoist. Though it has often been noted that Tarr first appeared in serial form in the Egoist, little effort has been made to relate Lewis's formal strategies and thematic concerns to the works that were appearing in that journal. Once Lewis's novel is viewed in its original context, however, many of the qualities that have often troubled critics and readers of the text—its two heroes, double plot, and apparently anti-German politics—become comprehensible as strategies in a corrosive critique of the “Individualist” literary, philosophical, and political positions that were being articulated in the Egoist by some of Lewis's closest allies and contemporaries, including Marsden, Pound, and Joyce.

Lewis implemented his critical assault on English Individualism by writing Tarr as a harsh satire of a contemporary novel sub-genre that would later be canonized as one of his generation's central contributions to modern British letters, a sub-genre that articulated and idealized the Individualist world view. Not surprisingly, the best and most celebrated example of that genre, which can usefully be termed the Individualist bildungsroman, originally appeared in the Egoist. Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was serialized there between February 1914 and September 1915. Joyce did not term himself an Individualist, and his novel ultimately questions a number of the movement's tenets, but in the context of the Egoist, Lewis easily read Portrait as a translation of Individualist ideals into the form of a modern novel: a bildungsroman that portrays Stephen Dedalus's maturation into a creative and fiercely independent artist—an ideal Individualist hero. About six months after Joyce's novel began to appear in the Egoist, Lewis returned to the unfinished novel he had started writing seven years earlier. He completed Tarr in November 1915; it appeared serially in the Egoist between April 1916 and November 1917.1 To attack Individualism, Lewis made Tarr a literary corrosive to the ideology he saw embodied in Portrait: it rejects the Egoists' view of persons as self-defining beings capable of personal liberation, their narrative of persons who transcend the constricting influences of personal history to achieve independence, and their model of the novel as a bildungsroman that represents the progressive education of a single subjectivity.

Once the historical specificity of Lewis's novelistic assault on English Individualism is recovered, it becomes clear that his rendering of nationality's influence in personal identity does not serve the reductive and partisan goals of racial critique. Instead, Lewis's novel deploys, scrutinizes, and ultimately discredits the two competing conceptions of national character that were being defended in intellectual and popular debates at the start of the War: on one hand, the racialist view of nationality as an internal and essential category, the result of a “heredity” that fundamentally defines the character of individuals of a particular “race” or nation, and on the other, the Individualist view of nationality as an external, non-essential category, the result of a restrictive regime of cultural training that persons of sufficient energy, insight, and will can and should overcome.2Tarr exposes both of these accounts as reductive, simplifying, and inadequate to explain the chaotic facts of human identity and activity. The familiar critical picture of Lewis as a racial essentialist, on which even Jameson's useful and complicating analysis relies, fails to describe the dissident modernist's views as articulated in his first published novel. After the initial year of the War, at least, Lewis was an iconoclastic critic of the deterministic accounts of nationality that were rapidly reconquering popular and intellectual discourse throughout Europe.

To show that Lewis intended Tarr as a fictional attack on the ideals of the English Individualist movement, it is necessary to recover the philosophical, political, and literary policies of the “Individualist Review” where those ideals were articulated and Lewis's novel first appeared. According to the essays of its editor Dora Marsden, the Egoist was a libertarian and anti-socialist journal that promoted the radical individualist philosophy of the German nominalist Max Stirner (1806-1856). Stirnerian individualism had been popular with Anglo-American libertarians and anarchists since Stirner's anti-liberal tract, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1845), was first translated into English as The Ego and His Own in 1907.3 In his polemic Stirner assailed all “fixed ideas” like “God, immortality, freedom, humanity etc. [that] are drilled into us from childhood” as alien constraints on individual freedom: “A ‘fixed idea’ [is] an idea that has subjected … man to itself” (83, 55). He sought to discredit and overthrow all such false and restricting ideals by “putting to th[em] … the searching knife of criticism” (56). The aim of that critical attack was to release the individual ego from all social and conceptual shackles: “[When] I no longer serve any idea, any ‘higher essence,’ I no longer serve any man either, but—under all circumstances—myself” (482). Stirner's emancipated ego thus became the sole locus of value in the modern world: “I am owner of my might, and I am so when I know myself as unique” (490). Inspired by Stirner, Marsden embraced his iconoclastic analytical methods in order to expose false ideas, escape repressive institutions, and empower the unique individual:

The irony of “standing for” a thing lies in the fact that the first return the thing stood for makes is to bring its advocates kneeling before it. A man will lie down prone before the thing he “stands for” and serve it, and the one assertion of egoism is … that a man shall make it his concern with things to force them to minister to him. … The egoist stands for nothing: his affair is to see to it that he shall not be compelled to kneel. (“Views” 244)4

The Egoists' idealization of the individual and attendant distrust of external constraints led them to advocate a radical form of “Anarchistic” politics that opposed all conventionalizing collectives—especially the liberal state and its various institutions—in favor of a utopian social organization based on the independent coexistence of egoistic individuals. Accordingly, in her editorials, Marsden relentlessly criticized the British state for inhibiting individuality. The Egoists, she asserted, “strive after the abolition of ‘The State’ … [and] the subtler and far more perniciously repressive agency of Conscience with its windy words and ideals” (84-85). Huntly Carter, a regular contributor on art and literature, articulated the ultimate social goal of those politics: “If human beings are to move significantly in any direction they must not be tied up in inseparable bundles, called groups, guilds, and communities. Each must belong wholly to himself or herself. Each must be free to feel, act and choose a path of his or her own” (60).

Their distrust of the state and faith in the individual led the Egoists to interpret “national character” as another of the many repressive and conventionalizing external forces that persons should overcome in the struggle for egoistic liberation. This view opposed the determinist conception that had dominated intellectual and popular discussions of nationality during the late nineteenth century, which took nationality as a hereditary category that essentially defined the character of individuals from a particular nation. That account had been encapsulated, for example, in an 1865 article entitled “Hereditary Talent and Character” by Sir Francis Galton, the father of the Eugenics movement so popular among British scientists and intellectuals in the decade before the Great War (Rose 136-37). “The Hindu, the Arab, the Mongol, the Teuton, and very many more,” Galton wrote, “have each of them their peculiar characters … [which] are transmitted, generation after generation, as truly as their physical forms” (61). In contrast, the Egoists interpreted nationality as a culturally constructed category, the result of the institutional training that persons receive in particular national contexts. Such training was inherently anti-individual, in their view, because it aimed to conventionalize persons, to replace unique characteristics with “national” traits validated by the state. As Stirner had rejected obedience to “the fatherland” on the grounds that it was yet another “‘fixed idea’ … that has subjected … man to itself” (37, 55), Marsden, in an editorial at the start of the War, attacked the “State's men” for exploiting patriotism in order to discourage individuality and preserve the “status quo”:

A steady pressure … latterly has been put upon the young (the old matter less) to substitute without questioning l'esprit de corps for the egoistic spirit. … Th[e] constructive sense which the cult of esprit de corps utilises with such wide-spreading effects … provides the underlying design of “Order,” of which laws, regulations, the entire maintenance of the status quo, are but the subsequent steps taken to keep such orders permanent. (“Quid” 302)

According to the Egoist, artists were especially inclined toward individualism and resistant to restrictions on creativity and action. Leigh Henry, the journal's music critic, described artistic creation as an essentially individualistic process: “The works of a creative artist are necessarily the statement of his personal desires and the record of his personal experience and achievement, and their value is proportionate to the development of his individuality.” Since creativity is “proportionate” to individuality, “it is absurd to attempt to limit creative activity by existing standards, as such limitation can result only in an inadequate mode of expression” (147). Thus the task of the modern artist must be to realize the Individualist ideal of personal liberation, to resist and overcome all external and conventionalizing influences. Occasional contributor and Imagist poet John Cournos, in an article celebrating the Vorticist sculptor and war casualty Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, cast the late sculptor's life as just such a struggle for creative independence against external constraints: “Gaudier-Brzeska's career … illustrates the difficulties which beset the path of the modern artist, groping to extricate his personality from the existing confusion of influences and movements” (137). Reflecting that vision, the Egoist promoted artistic and literary movements that demonstrated creative independence and antagonism to established aesthetic conventions and cultural institutions, especially Imagism and Vorticism.5

Given the Egoist's individualistic philosophical, political, and artistic agenda, it is little wonder that Marsden and Weaver agreed to serialize A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. They would have read Portrait as a translation of the Individualist movement's ideals into the form of a modern novel, the Individualist “education story” of Joyce's young provincial protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. In Joyce's bildungsroman the Egoists discovered a formal correlate to their narrative of the autonomous, individuating ego: Portrait follows Stephen from his childhood to young adulthood, tracing his development from the son of a conventional middle-class Irish Catholic family into a creative, unique, and fiercely independent young artist. In his search for a “mode of life or of art whereby [his] spirit c[an] express itself in unfettered freedom,” Stephen embraces Satan's almost Stirnerian motto, “Non serviam” (246, 117). Pursuing these individualistic ambitions, he successively “frees” himself from the constraining “nets” of family and religion. And in the novel's concluding pages, as Stephen prepares to begin a last liberating flight from the constraints of fatherland, he explains his distrust of the Irish nationalist cause to his patriotic friend, Davin, in terms consistent with the Egoist critique of national training: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight … nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets” (203). Stephen believes that exile will finally allow him to fulfill his personal and artistic destiny. Reflecting its protagonist's optimistic spirit, Portrait concludes with an ending that is a beginning, in which time opens outward onto a vital future, full of hope and the promise of individual and creative potential:

26 April: Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

27 April: Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead. (252-53)6

As has been noted often, Joyce treats these final words with skepticism, encouraging readers to question Stephen's ability to realize his ideals. But because Portrait appeared in the pages of the Egoist, Stephen's theory of artistic liberation and the novel that portrays his personal journey were given the Individualist movement's official sanction and publicly affiliated with their doctrine. By imitating and assailing Joyce's treatment of the bildungsroman, therefore, Lewis could strike at the heart of Egoist ideology.

Lewis repeatedly associated himself with the ideals of his Individualist compatriots in the first issue of the Vorticist periodical BLAST (July 1914). As he proclaimed in BLAST's opening manifesto, the journal would appeal “to the individual” and “make individuals” by presenting “an art of individuals” (7-8). Lewis then proceeded, in a fashion more dramatic but no less iconoclastic than Marsden's, to “blast” a slew of hallowed English ideals and institutions that, in his view, obstructed individual vitality and creativity. He patriotically exhorted his contemporaries to overthrow the conventionalizing influence of England's class system, education establishment, and provincial cultural heritage in order to revitalize English art and society, and thereby create a nation of hard-boiled and independent individuals (11-20).

During the first year of the Great War, however, a battery of new facts assailed Lewis's hopes for Vorticism and his faith in artistic and political Individualism. By the summer of 1915, as the second number of BLAST appeared, his Vorticist ideals were under siege. He confronted the decline of the avant-garde scene as artists and intellectuals went to the front, and in some cases, Gaudier-Brzeska's for instance, died there. He observed the art public and press increasingly turning away from the activities of artists toward the more pressing concerns of wartime life. He witnessed the spread of a popular and simplifying nationalism quite different from the individualistic nationalism championed in the first issue of BLAST. Before the War, Lewis had exhorted the English to become self-determined “individuals.” But in the first months of the conflict, Britain's government, literary establishment, and popular press began promoting a nationalist fervor among the populace that discouraged independent action and encouraged unified support for the war effort against the Triple Alliance (Hynes War 78-87). Confronted with these wartime facts, Lewis began to question not only the potential of the English to overcome their stultifying national training and cultural traditions, but even the validity of Vorticism's individualistic ideals.

In that tumultuous and disillusioning year of war, in fact, Lewis's attitudes regarding Individualism shifted radically. He became a stern and clever critic of the movement. Returning to the unfinished novel he had begun seven years earlier, he revised and expanded it to reflect his philosophical realignment. Because the Egoists had sanctioned the genre of the novel as an appropriate literary form to articulate and celebrate their ideals,7 it became for Lewis an irresistible instrument with which to attack Individualism. And since the form had traditionally been used to render the inner lives of characters inhabiting dense social environments, he could use his novel to assail at once Individualist approaches to psychology, social interaction, politics, and aesthetics.

By the time Lewis completed Tarr in November, 1915, he had made it a comprehensive fictional critique of the Individualist world view, a keen satire of the Individualist bildungsroman as epitomized in the Egoist by Joyce's Portrait. To the Individualist view that persons are autonomous beings capable of independent action and personal liberation, Lewis opposed a picture of persons as overdetermined beings incapable of controlling the maelstrom of competing forces that constitute human identity. To the Individualist narrative of persons transcending the restrictions of personal history and national training to become creative and independent individuals, he opposed a narrative of persons struggling unsuccessfully to stabilize their disorderly lives in an equally chaotic social world. To the Individualist vision of the modern novel as an optimistic bildungsroman that represents the continuously developing subjectivity of a single protagonist, he opposed a disjunctive formal hybrid which yokes together two contrary novel sub-genres—the education story of psychological development and the Sturm und Drang novel of psychological disintegration—and thereby assailed the formal conventions of narrative and psychological continuity that had dominated the genre since the early eighteenth century.

Lewis initiated his fictive assault by continuing the Individualist bildungsroman beyond its open-ended conclusion to show his protagonist failing to fulfill the Egoists' ideal of personal and artistic liberation. He thereby challenged the concept of the autonomous ego at the heart of Individualist doctrine. Tarr begins where Portrait ends; its “Overture” is an epilogue to the Individualist novel. Whereas Portrait concludes with Stephen Dedalus poised to begin a new life on the Continent as an autonomous artist, Tarr takes up the story of its intellectually precocious young artist-protagonist, Frederick Tarr, after he has been living on the Continent for some time. The “Overture” puts Tarr in an exemplary Individualist predicament: he is embroiled in a stifling romantic relationship with an overly dependent young German woman, the “bourgeois-bohemian” art student Bertha Lunken. According to Individualist doctrine, in order to achieve personal and artistic freedom, the young artist must eliminate all restrictive attachments. Yet despite Tarr's rhetoric of artistic independence and his proclaimed antagonism to the conventions of bourgeois life, he fails to conform to that doctrine. Lewis exposes his protagonist as an insecure and conflicted young man, unsure of his desires, attracted to the allure of bourgeois-bohemianism, incapable of separating himself from Bertha.

On a Paris street, Tarr unexpectedly encounters Alan Hobson, a Cambridge-educated bohemian compatriot. During their discussion Tarr repeatedly positions himself as an Individualist artist, immune to the appeals of conventional bourgeois life, while Hobson successively assails those claims, attempting to expose Tarr as a self-aggrandizing hypocrite. Tarr responds so angrily to Hobson's accusations and so many of his explanations sound defensive that by the end of the conversation he seems more a person playing at Individualism than a true Individualist. At first he assumes a posture of imperious superiority. He blasts Hobson's bohemian accoutrements: his shabby tweeds, German acquaintances, and long hair. “Why so much hair?” Tarr prods. “I don't wear my hair long. If you had as many reasons for wearing it long as I have, we'd see it flowing round your ankles” (23). Hobson counters this pose of detached superiority by introducing evidence of Tarr's own bohemian entanglements:

“Tut! Do you still see Fräulein Lunken—is it?—as much as ever?”

“Oh, you know her? = Yes, I forgot that. = Yes, I still see her.”

“It seems to me you know more Germans than I do. = But you're ashamed of it. You do everything you can to hide it. … I met a Fräulein Brandenbourg the other day, a German, who claimed to know you. I am always meeting Germans who know you. She also referred to you as the ‘official fiancé of Fräulein Lunken.’ = Are you an ‘official fiancé’? And if so, what is that, may I ask?”

Tarr was taken aback, it was evident.

Hobson laughed stridently. (24)

Hobson's exposure of the engagement provokes from Tarr a rapid-fire series of theories intended to explain his “association” with Bertha while reaffirming his status as an independent artist. Despite his best efforts, however, Tarr's defensive theorizing exposes a model of personal identity far more encumbered than the Individualists' autonomous ego. His first account echoes the Egoist conception that artists are especially individualistic beings, more resistant to constraints than others. “I am an artist,” he asserts, expressing the conviction that persons can define their own identities. He next distinguishes artists as vital and self-creating beings, immune even to the physical claims of sexuality: “With most people, not describable as artists, all the finer part of their vitality goes into sex. … The artist is he in whom this emotionality normally absorbed by sex is so strong that it claims a newer and more exclusive field of deployment. = Its first creation is the Artist himself, a new sort of person; the creative man” (29). But this account threatens Tarr's proclaimed identity as a “creative man” by contradicting the fact that he is “associated sexually” with Bertha (29). How can this sexually engaged young man be an artist, if artists' vitality expresses itself in art rather than sex? To resolve that inconsistency, Tarr proposes a more complex theory of artists' sexuality that inversely correlates visual style with sexual behavior. Artists “whose work is very sensuous or human,” he explains, have a “more discriminating … sex instinct,” while those whose work is “ascetic rather than sensuous” are less discriminating sexually. Under this account Tarr cites the “invariable severity” of his painting to justify his “coarse … foolish, slovenly taste … in women” (30). This rationale fails to alleviate his worries about artistic integrity, however. Within moments of proposing a theory to reinforce his status as “a creative man,” Tarr acknowledges the “secret” that his identity is in fact incoherent:

“You have understood the nature of my secret? = Half of myself I have to hide. I am bitterly ashamed of a slovenly, common portion of my life that has been isolated and repudiated by the energies I am so proud of. ‘I am ashamed of the number of Germans I know,’ as you put it. = I have in that role to cower and slink away even from an old fruit-tin like you.” (31)

Tarr's description of his identity as split, a divided entity in which one “portion” struggles to “hide,” “isolate … and repudiate” another, contradicts the Individualist conception of the autonomous ego as an integral and coherent entity that must resist not internal selves but external constraints.

In a subsequent discussion with his friend Butcher, Tarr embraces an exemplary Individualist strategy to reaffirm his autonomy and salvage his battered persona as “creative man”: he resolves to “dis-engage” himself from Bertha. But Butcher's cautionary response to the plan raises questions as to whether Tarr will realize it. Butcher recognizes that the disorderly facts of human life tend to confound such simplifying strategies:

Butcher filled his pipe, then he began laughing. He laughed theatrically until Tarr stopped him.

“What are you laughing at?” …

“I was laughing at you. You repent of your thoughtlessness and all that. Your next step is to put it right. I was laughing at the way you go about it. You now proceed kindly but firmly to break off your engagement and discard the girl. That is very neat.”

“Do you think so? Well, perhaps it is a trifle overtidy.” (43)

The specter of complexity that Butcher raises comes to haunt Tarr when he attempts to execute his “overtidy” scheme. His tumultuous meeting with Bertha Lunken demolishes his disengagement plans, plunging him into a chaos of human intimacy.

Positioned as the climactic scene of the “Overture,” Tarr's encounter with Bertha sabotages the Individualist ideal of self-liberation. Were Tarr an Individualist bildungsroman, this final scene between lovers would have come at or near the end of the narrative and climaxed with the protagonist's successful separation from the unwanted woman, a symbolic assumption of emotional, sexual, and artistic independence. Another celebrated bildungsroman of the avant-guerre, Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913), defines the pattern. In the novel's final pages, Lawrence's artist-hero, Paul Morel, successfully terminates his dependent relationship with the intense, devoted Miriam despite her love for him and his lingering desires for her. Though Morel recognizes that by leaving Miriam “he was defrauding her life,” he also knows that staying would “stifl[e] the inner … man,” even “deny … his own life.” Refusing “to give life to her by denying his own,” Morel separates from Miriam, thereby realizing the Individualist ideal of personal liberation (418). Tarr fails to follow Morel's example. He repeatedly attempts to terminate the stifling relationship with Bertha, but his efforts are subverted by his own internal confusion and her perplexing responses. Lewis counters Lawrence's picture of a dependent young woman who obediently submits to the superior will of an independent young man with a bleak emotional stalemate in which neither woman nor man can triumph over interdependency:

They progressed from stage to stage of this weary farce. Confusion increased. It resembled a combat between two wrestlers of mathematically equal strength. Neither could win. One or other of them was usually wallowing warily or lifelessly on his stomach, the other tugging at him or examining and prodding his carcase. (60)

In Tarr's debate with Hobson, Lewis assails the Individualist ego from within by exposing the self as a fractured entity; in Tarr's exchange with Bertha, he attacks that ego from without by rendering human intimacy an infectious contagion that can penetrate and distort the self: “Everybody … all personality, was catching. We are all sicknesses for each other. Such contact as he had with Bertha was particularly risky” (72).

Thwarted by uncooperative inner selves and contaminating others, the would-be Individualist cannot establish independence. Indeed, Tarr's divided, porous, and shifting subjectivity radically limits his ability to take any definitive action. Lewis thereby dismisses the Individualist model of the advancing ego. Like Joyce and Lawrence, he portrays human subjectivity as dynamic, but renders the form of that dynamism as a repetitive, tortuous vortex of conflicting forces that spins violently and gets nowhere. The meeting between Bertha and Tarr can only conclude inconclusively. He leaves Bertha's flat without leaving her, still attracted to the bourgeois-bohemian conventions he reviles, hounded by doubts and recriminations, “something follow[ing] him like a restless dog” (74).

With the start of Tarr's second section, “Doomed, Evidently—the Frac,” Lewis initiates his attack on the form of the Individualist novel. He assails the model of the modern novel as a bildungsroman that records the developing subjectivity of a single protagonist by displacing his narrative of a would-be Individualist with a narrative type alien and antagonistic to the education story: a pessimistic German Romantic tale of Sturm und Drang. Once called a novel of zerrissenheit or disintegration, this sub-genre typically records the trials of a sensitive young artist, full of storm and stress, who is slowly torn apart by the conflicting claims of the social world he inhabits and his tumultuous inner life. The artist-protagonist's disintegration is provoked by his inability either to win the ideal woman with whom he is romantically obsessed, as in Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, or to reconcile his dream of creating a transcendental art with the philistine realities of bourgeois life and taste, as in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann, especially those focused on the eccentric musician-composer Johannes Kreisler—the Kreisleriana and Murr.8 Accordingly, Lewis's tale of zerrissenheit features a disintegrating German artist who shares the surname of Hoffmann's romantic composer and the suicidal fate of Goethe's romantic lover: the expatriate Otto Kreisler, whose unrequited obsession with Anastasya Vasek ultimately drives him to take his own life.9 Indeed, Hoffmann's influence pervades Lewis's narrative of disintegration; Otto Kreisler's story shares with the tales of Johannes Kreisler a number of themes and formal strategies: the chaos of mental life, the mechanization of human behavior in passion, and the theatricality of conflict.10

By yoking together these two opposing models of the modern novel, Lewis not only expressed on a formal level his aggressive antagonism to the idealistic orthodoxies of the Individualist bildungsroman, but questioned the broader novelistic conventions of narrative and psychological continuity that underlay the bildungsroman and the tale of zerrissenheit. In Lewis's view, both narratives simplify and stabilize human identity and interaction. Though the two sub-genres represent the self in opposing trajectories of action—one rendering the ego in ascent, the other the ego in decline—both assume an integral and dynamic self. In contrast, Tarr renders identity unstable and disjunctive through an unstable and disjunctive narrative.

Lewis uses Otto Kreisler to extend his critique of Individualism, intertwining his analysis of individual psychology and social interaction. In the argument with Hobson, Tarr describes his identity as split between two opposing selves, one artistic, the other sexual. During the struggle with Bertha, Tarr's identity is further fractured as intimacy with his lover subdivides his split ego between self-involvement and dependence on another. But with the arrival of Kreisler, personal identity and social life sink into a maelstrom of transitory and disjunctive “selves” colliding within individual minds and upon the social stage of bourgeois-bohemian Paris.

“Doomed, Evidently—the Frac” plunges the reader into Kreisler's tumultuous life. The failed artist wants desperately to get his evening coat out of hock. He needs the “frac” to attend a dance where he hopes to encounter a woman he has recently met and for whom he has developed a romantic obsession, the Russian-German beauty Anastasya Vasek. Kreisler imagines himself and Anastasya as the two principles in a tale of zerrissenheit: he the oversensitive artist overwhelmed by hopeless love, she the ideal and unattainable woman. Yet his efforts to see Anastasya again and fulfill the role of romantic lover are foiled by his internal compulsions and unexpected external events. First, he has no money to recover the frac. Having abused the generosity of his wealthy friend Volker and hocked nearly all his possessions, Kreisler must await a check from his father in Germany. This helpless waiting fills him with anger. He resents his father not simply because of this financial dependence, but because his father has recently married Kreisler's own former fiancée. The check does not come in time, leading an increasingly incensed Kreisler to attempt other means of acquiring funds. He tries to hock a suitcase, but can't get enough money for it. He runs into an English acquaintance and contemplates asking him for the money. They converse, but Kreisler assumes that his request will be rejected and drops the idea, filled with unfounded anger for the oblivious Englishman.

Just as the German reaches a state of raging distraction, overwhelmed by feelings of persecution and resentment, he unexpectedly encounters Anastasya. She is accompanied by the suave Russian-Polish art-dealer Soltyk, who has superseded Kreisler as the principal recipient of Volker's money. This fact, for Kreisler, is a last straw. Though he has spoken with Anastasya only very briefly once before and knows nothing about her relations with Soltyk, he not only jumps to the conclusion that she and the Russian-Pole are romantically involved, but takes the encounter as ocular proof that Anastasya—a woman he barely knows—has betrayed his affections. Outraged and humiliated, Kreisler modifies his plans. Still intent on attending the dance, he now determines to subject Anastasya and Soltyk to some sort of retribution. In this hostile mood, the inability to get his frock out of hock becomes an advantage. His inappropriate appearance will only intensify the “indignity” he intends for Anastasya and Soltyk (133). Kreisler rubs against a newly painted wall on his way to the dance in order to enhance the effect of his oncoming “misconduct” (125).

The Bonnington Club dance is the textual event where Lewis brings his critique of Individualism to its fullest and most comic articulation: the scene intertwines his assault on Individualist notions of personal identity, social interaction, and anarchist politics. During the dance the belligerent Kreisler spreads disorder, venting his unjustified anger at Anastasya and Soltyk on almost everyone at the dance. He gratuitously abuses a number of dance partners: “Several young women … he lured to the conservatory. = They all came out with scarlet faces” (151). Twice he goes so far as to make himself and his partner into a “disturbing meteor” (148), propelling them violently into groups of unsuspecting guests. These abuses and collisions transform the well-planned social event, in which multinational bourgeois-bohemians are meant to interact in an orderly and respectful fashion according to codes of cosmopolitan etiquette, into a comic and turbulent chaos. Metaphorically, the “maelstrom” that the colliding Kreisler “produc[es] and conduct[s]” (154) clashes with the Egoists' anarcho-libertarian political ideals. In Lewis's dissident view anarchy is not, as the Egoists contended, a utopian form of social order that maximizes individual liberty, but the defining condition of human identity, a state of turbulent and destructive disorder. Because persons can therefore produce only psychological bedlam and social commotion, according to Lewis, the anarchist goal of a stateless society filled with independent egoists is nothing but an illusion.

By displacing the Individualists' ideal of political anarchism with this picture of psychological anarchism, Lewis also displaces the Individualist concept of the authentic self with that of the theatrical self. In Individualist fiction, the protagonist's ultimate task is to discover his true identity, to achieve authenticity. But in Tarr, because identity is a transitory concatenation of contradictory desires and compulsions, the task of personality becomes an ongoing but ultimately futile series of efforts to find such an authentic self. Unable to locate that self within, persons strive to adopt an identity they wish were authentic in hopes that by performing that pseudo-self it might somehow become real. So Tarr, who is not authentically an Individualist artist, attempts unsuccessfully to act as if he is, and Kreisler, who is not authentically a self-sacrificing Romantic hero, nevertheless strives to fulfill that role.

These hopeless efforts to adopt an authentic identity turn social life itself into a theater of anarchy, a chaotic spectacle of missteps and misperformances. So as Lewis's characters try to play “roles” appropriate to the social “scenes” they encounter, internal and external disturbances always render their roles obsolete, insuring that all their performances eventually flop. Sometimes a disturbance comes from outside: other people, involved in their own private dramas, may subvert a character's performance. As Kreisler searches the dance floor to punish the treacherous Soltyk,

He caught sight of Anastasya dancing with (he supposed) some Englishman.

He stopped, paralyzed by her appearance. = This reality intercepted the course of his imaginary life (of which his pursuit of Soltyk was a portion). He stood like somebody surprised in a questionable act. (153)

Such embarrassing disturbances can also originate within: a person's determination to maintain a chosen role may be overwhelmed by the multitude of conflicting bodily and emotional drives that infest identity. On discovering Anastasya in the arms of yet another man, Kreisler is overwhelmed by a fury so potent that it literally takes control of him:

He had not reckoned on being met by her before his present errand was finished. = The next moment he was furious at this interference; at her having the power to draw him up. … Hell and Heavens! he was not going to stop there looking at her. … He took her partner roughly by the arm, pushing him against her, hustling him, fixing him with his eye. … His blood was flooding him. … He wasas surprised at his actionas she was. (153; emphasis added)

Because persons cannot control their own desires or the actions of others, social activity becomes as collisionary as Kreisler's fanatic dances. Every scene, every interpretation, every play of action invariably goes horribly wrong.

Thus while Kreisler arrives at the dance intending to inflict “some indignity or other” on Anastasya and Soltyk, he fails to do so. Despite all his aggressive and abusive behavior, he manages to vent his contorted feelings on everyone except the pair he means to abuse. Soltyk pays no attention and Anastasya finds Kreisler's antics curious and finally comic:

She would have liked him to stop. He had done something strange and was suddenly going away. That was unsatisfactory. = They looked at each other blankly. He showed no sign of stopping: she just stared. = Suddenly it was comic. She burst out laughing. (153)

An evening he had hoped would end in “a climax, of blows, words, definite things” (159), concludes instead with a typical Lewisian anti-climax that leaves Kreisler the sole victim of his own humiliating shenanigans. Echoing Tarr's slinking departure from Bertha's flat in the “Overture,” Kreisler too beats a hasty retreat: “The turmoil of the evening remained his, the solid part of it, unshared by anybody else. … All he wanted now was to get away from the English Club as soon as possible” (159).

In Tarr's closing paragraphs Lewis brings his satiric project to its culmination in a vision of dehumanization and temporal compression that mocks the open-ended conclusion of the Individualist bildungsroman. Stephen Dedalus emerges at the end of Portrait believing himself a creative and independent individual on the threshold of a promising new life. Joyce's novel concludes with the story of its protagonist's future still to be told, this narrative suspension enacting formally Stephen's optimistic hopes for the life to come. Lewis counters that sort of open-ended finish with a pinched conclusion that squeezes years of Tarr's future into six abrupt sentences:

Tarr and Anastasya did not marry. = They had no children.

Tarr, however, had three children by a lady of the name of Rose Fawcett, who consoled him eventually for the splendors of his ‘perfect woman.’ = But yet beyond the dim though solid figure of Rose Fawcett, another rises. This one represents the swing back of the pendulum once more to the swagger side. The cheerless and stodgy absurdity of Rose Fawcett required the painted, fine and inquiring face of Prism Dirkes. (320)

This contracted finale not only describes Tarr's future as one of degradation and dependence, but contorts the novel's characters into anonymous and attenuated figures in a mechanical process of sexual abuse and narrative repetition. As Lewis's would-be Individualist becomes a mindless instrument of his own schizophrenic sexual desires, caught swinging between dehumanizing “relationships,” Bertha and Anastasya are reduced to sexual objects, nothing more than clever names in a bleak scheme of sexual abuse, destined for replacement by an endlessly alternating series of “bourgeois-bohemians” like Rose Fawcett and “swagger-sexes” like Prism Dirkes.11 Lewis's characters end up fictional grotesques trapped in a disjunctive and distorting narrative that has demolished Individualism and its myths of psychological, social, and temporal continuity and progress.

In Tarr, Lewis treats literary form and conceptions of nationality homologously. As he conjoins two contradictory models of the modern novel in order to challenge the underlying assumptions of both, he brings together in a corrosive clash the contradictory conceptions of national identity that were competing for authority on the eve of the Great War. His hybrid novel discredits Individualist and Determinist views of nationality's influence in personal identity, exposing both as inadequate to explain the facts of human life. Lewis uses Tarr to discredit the Individualist account that self-realized persons can escape nationality; he uses Kreisler and Bertha to discredit the Determinist account that persons are defined by nationality. So Tarr fails to overcome “Englishness” while Kreisler and Bertha fail to conform to “Germanness.” They succumb, in their own ways, to Lewis's maelstrom of individual identity, that dynamic and distorting “condition” in which the vagaries of individual psychology, social intercourse, and national training merge, transforming persons into human grotesques.

During his debate with Hobson, Tarr plays the Individualist part by assailing the conventionality of English national character. But his attack masks an envy for Hobson that springs from a fascination with the bourgeois-bohemian life he supposedly reviles. Animated in part by an Individualist contempt for what he calls “the whole of English training” (42), Tarr lambastes Hobson for submitting to England's standardizing systems of education and class in terms that clearly echo Marsden:

“You have bought for eight hundred pounds at an aristocratic Educational establishment a complete mental outfit, a programme of manners. For four years you trained with other recruits. You are now a perfectly disciplined social unit, with a profound esprit de corps.” (34)

Yet Tarr's personal history as a young man who lacks Hobson's financial support and educational pedigree (he resembles the young Lewis in this), complicates his efforts to avoid the influence of English training. He has the ambivalences of the outsider. He resents Hobson's bourgeois accoutrements because he lacks them, but at the same time he remains enthralled by those institutionally inculcated national traits because he has not been fully trained as an “Englishman.”

Tarr's attraction to Bertha exposes these ambivalences. Attempting to explain his involvement with her to Butcher, he articulates the dilemma. He is embroiled with the German bourgeoise, he tells his friend, because she displays at once the exoticism of a foreigner and the banality of the Englishwoman:

That bourgeois, spoiled, ridiculous element was the trap. I was innocently depraved enough to find it irresistible. It had the charm of a vulgar wall paper, a gimcrack ornament. A cosy banality set in the midst of a rough life. Youthful exoticism has done it, the something different to oneself. (39)

For Stephen Dedalus defining personal liberation is a comparatively uncomplicated task; it consists in rejecting the oppressive sources of Irish training, namely family, religion, and fatherland. For Tarr, whose national training is incomplete, however, the desire to “fly by those nets” is always tainted by attraction for them. His individualistic efforts at self-liberation, including the aim of transcending nationality, are always thwarted by a desire for the “cosy banality” of bourgeois life, epitomized above all for him by England and Englishness.

Disgusted by his own attraction for all persons and things English and bourgeois, Tarr is drawn to the exotic Anastasya. She becomes the locus of his desire to escape Englishness precisely because she is not English. Her “racial” differences are for him a source of erotic attraction:

He felt immensely pleased with himself as he walked down the Boulevard Clichy with this perfect article rolling and sweeping beside him. No bourgeoise this time! = He could be proud of this anywhere! Absolute perfection! Highest quality obtainable.“—The face that launched a thousand ships.” A thousand ships crowded in her gait. There was nothing high-falutin about her, Burne-Jonesesque, Grail-lady or Irish-romantic. Perfect meat, perfect sense, accent of Minnesota, music of the Steppes! And all that was included under the one inadequate but pleasantly familiar heading, German. He became more and more impressed with what was German about her. (297)

The humor of this analysis derives from the disjunction between Tarr's increasing impression of Anastaysa's “Germanness” and the fact, which even he glimpses, that none of her enthralling characteristics appear even remotely to result from her birth in Berlin (213). By subsuming all that she represents for him—an alternative to the bloodless, pre-Raphaelite image of the ideal English woman—under the inadequate rubric “German,” Tarr confirms that he desires Anastasya not because she is German but because she is not English. He hopes that through intimacy with this cosmopolitan woman (“No bourgeoise this time!), he will achieve finally the elusive goal of individual liberation.

Not surprisingly, then, Lewis's would-be individualist at times perceives Anastasya as a person who has transcended national training. On first meeting her at a German salon, he assumes her nationality, asking “from what part of Germany she came.” Anastasya's response not only catalogues the competing ways in which nationality was being popularly defined before the Great War, but concludes by rejecting those explanations and identifying herself as the ultimate source of her “national” identity: “My parents are Russian. = I was born in Berlin and brought up in America.” She initially offers the theory that nationality is determined by parental lineage, but complicates that explanation immediately, suggesting two other possible nationalities, the first based on birthplace, the second on place of habitation. Is nationality the result of blood, birth, or culture? Is Anastasya a Russian, a German, an American, or some cosmopolitan hybrid of the three? Tarr is predictably confused. But with an individualist sense of self-determination, he asks her to define her own nationality: “‘Do you regard yourself as a Russian = or a German?’” (213). From an Individualist point of view, Lewis's double hyphen here becomes an equals sign that opposes the differentiating “or” by equating “Russian” and “German.” For Individualists, different nationalities are equal to the extent that they result from national training and can therefore be overcome by persons of sufficient intellect and will.

But of course, Tarr never realizes his dream of individual liberation through intimacy with Anastasya. Their relationship does not facilitate his transcendence of emotional dependence, sexual obsession, or nationality; it culminates by exposing him as a mindless sex machine, swinging schizophrenically between relationships with swagger sex and bourgeois-bohemian women. That Tarr's sexual life has this contradictory structure confirms his ultimate failure as an Individualist. The ambivalences exposed during his initial debate with Hobson define Tarr's sexual life at the novel's conclusion. On one hand, he wants to become an independent artist and so despises everyone and everything English and bourgeois-bohemian; on the other, he is compulsively attracted to bourgeois-bohemia because he lacks the proper educational, class, and financial pedigree. Thus he alternately desires women like Anastasya, who have nothing English or bourgeois about them, and women like Bertha, who display the “cheerless and stodgy absurdity” so common to his compatriots. It is no coincidence that Anastasya is succeeded in Tarr's personal history by Rose Fawcett, a bourgeois woman with a very English-sounding name.

While Lewis uses Tarr to discredit the Individualist account of nationality, he uses Kreisler and Bertha to attack the determinist view that nationality fundamentally defines identity. Much of the reductive and propagandistic English literature critical of Germany and Prussian militarism popular during the avant-guerre depended on the determinist account (Hynes Edwardian 34-5312). But Lewis assails that account first by showing that conventional national types, which offer especially desirable “roles” through which to constitute a stable identity, are often, like the humans who construct them, incoherent and divisive. Kreisler's efforts to fix his identity by playing the role of the ideal German fail in part because a single monolithic conception of German national character did not in fact exist. Two contradictory models of Germanness had been competing in the English imagination for historical authority since the wars of unification: Germans as sensitive romantics; Germans as patriotic militants. As we have seen, the first conception was older and based on the Romantic cultural tradition, in which writers like Hoffmann portrayed Germans as sentimental idealists, full of storm and stress, being slowly torn apart by the conflicts between their minds and environments. The authoritarian conception of Germanness, on the other hand, was less literary or cultural in origin than ideological and institutional: it was based on Bismarck's code of “blood and iron” and the ideals of the educational establishment that Germany's Prussian rulers consolidated after unification. Under that account Germans were a “race” of disciplined, obedient soldiers, committed to making Germany the world's greatest military and imperial power, and thereby securing for their fatherland, in Kaiser Wilhelm's famous words, “a place in the sun.”13

Even Tarr's anti-German readers have been tempted, we have seen, to stabilize Lewis's complex Germans by reading them as national stereotypes. But Kreisler and Bertha staunchly resist such efforts at containment: their traits and behaviors are reducible neither to the passive and self-destructive sentimentality of the Romantic model of German character nor to the aggressive militarism of the Prussian model. While Kreisler and Bertha occasionally strive to conform to those stereotypes, displaying certain conventional “national” characteristics, their lives are far less stable, far more complex than either stereotype permits. They suffer their respective fates not because of their nationality, as a reading of Tarr as an anti-German tract requires, but because they are individuals whose particular personal histories, psychological compulsions, and social experiences lead them to try to fix the flux of identity on the ground of national training, an effort that in Lewis's anarchical world is doomed to failure.

Kreisler has a psychological complexity that foils any account of him as an allegorical manifestation of either German romanticism or Prussian militarism. Tarr locates the origin of Kreisler's brutality more in personal history than in nationality. His troubled relationship with his father accounts not only for his acts of spiteful aggression but for other character traits that do not fit the stereotype: his peculiar obsession with money, his special antagonism toward Soltyk, and his compulsive attraction for Anastasya. As Paul O'Keeffe has argued, Kreisler's behavior springs from the conflicted emotions he feels toward the father who has usurped his financée and withholds needed money and toward the former financée who has married his father. O'Keeffe explains that this “Oedipal nightmare” drives Kreisler to channel his compulsive feelings of hatred, envy, and desire toward surrogate fathers and surrogate financées. His emotions regarding his father are displaced onto his wealthy compatriot, Volker, for withholding money and onto Soltyk for usurping Anastasya, while those regarding his ex-fiancée are displaced onto Soltyk for usurping the role as recipient of Volker's money and onto Anastasya for “preferring” Soltyk. (Tarr “Afterword” 377).

Lewis renders Kreisler as so confused and compulsive to show that while humans may attempt to fix the chaotic flux of identity by conforming to national stereotypes, they will always finally perplex and explode those conventionalizing forms. In the frantic struggle to secure their identities, persons will try to surrender their agency to any role that promises a sense of substantiality. Though a dizzying array of candidate roles present themselves, the stereotypes of nationality exert a particular allure owing to their institutional construction, cultural authority, and popular appeal. But when Lewis's characters attempt to conform to national stereotypes, they find themselves enmeshed in the terrible process of deformation that his conception of identity entails: their efforts to conform are thwarted by their unique psychological compulsions, transforming them into national caricatures, grotesque distortions of national types. Thus despite his best efforts to fulfill a monolithic national ideal, Lewis's unstable German appears by turns a militaristic Prussian officer devoted to a heartless honor cult, a hopeless Goethian suicide self-destructively obsessed with an unattainable woman, and a Freudian case study, tormented by an Oedipal nightmare that leads him compulsively to envy and despise men, to worship and abuse women.

Kreisler's efforts to stabilize himself through the conventions of German nationality, whether the passive Romantic or the active Prussian model, are repeatedly thwarted by the action of his “very complicated and turbulent existence” (251). So during his frantic ratiocinations on the pending duel with Soltyk, he invokes his German training and pedigree, “reviv[ing] the title of Freiherr that, it was rumoured in his family, his ancestors had borne” (263), to justify his jealous and destructive rage against the Russian-Pole. But as “Freiherr” Kreisler plays the role of honorable Prussian nobleman, his compulsive hatred for Soltyk twists his desire to act with honor into a chaotic practice of senseless brutality. His pursuit of Soltyk does not climax in the exemplary chivalric duel, with two men meeting at an appointed time, choosing their weapons, marching twenty paces in opposite directions, and firing. Instead, the “duel” degenerates into a farcical parody of its chivalric model, contorted by Kreisler's fickle mind. Once the German finds himself at the appointed time and place, facing his adversary, he loses interest: “‘I am willing to forego the duel at once on one condition. If Herr Soltyk will give me a kiss, I will forego the duel!’” (272). This bizarre offer, which both insults Soltyk's “manhood” and exposes the conflicted nature of Kreisler's feelings for his opponent, provokes the Pole to fury. He lunges at Kreisler. They scuffle briefly, but are soon separated. Soltyk and his friends begin to withdraw. Kreisler, his mind changing again, decides to stop them and resume the duel. He levels a gun at Soltyk, ordering him to take up a weapon. Soltyk's second, Saretsky, rejects the offer. As Kreisler bends to pick up a gun and give it to his opponent,

Saretsky aimed a blow at his head. It caught him just in front of the ear, on the right cheek bone. He staggered sideways, tripped and fell. The moment he felt the blow he pulled the trigger of the Browning, which still pointed towards his principal adversary. Soltyk threw his arms up, Kreisler was struggling toward his feet. He fell face forwards on top of him. (275)

This “climax” would be wildly funny if it were not so grotesque: the “honorable” Prussian nobleman struggles in the dirt with the dead body of an innocent man he had steamrolled into a meaningless “duel” and shot by mistake.

This bleak dynamic, whereby circumstance, psychology, and national training converge, disfiguring personality and behavior, achieves its most disturbing manifestation in Kreisler's rape of Bertha. The rape marks the culmination of the trajectory begun on their walk to the Bonnington Club dance. During that fateful trip Bertha, inspired by the atmosphere of the dark Parisian night, had embraced the role of a self-sacrificing German romantic:

Her strange companions's dreamy roughness, this romantic enigma of the evening, suddenly captured her fancy. … She took his hand. = Rapid, soft and humble she struck the deep German chord, vibrating rudimentarily in the midst of his cynicism.

“You are suffering! I know you are suffering. I wish I could do something for you. = Can not I?” (141)

The text identifies Bertha's embrace of sentimentality as a submission to national training by identifying her act with “the deep German chord.” This sentimental young woman who aims to sacrifice herself in order to save her “suffering” companion does not end up the heroic martyr for love that the Romantic stereotype dictates, however. Even though she distrusts Kreisler, Bertha pursues the sacrificial role by agreeing to pose for him. But in Kreisler's flat the illusion is shattered: unprovoked, he savagely assaults her. And by a similarly twisted logic Kreisler is driven to rape Bertha, a woman he has no real feelings for, by his schizophrenic desire to love and destroy an entirely different woman. As Kreisler seizes her, Bertha glimpses the distorting dynamics of human agency in Tarr: “Her tardy words, furious struggling and all her contradictory emotions disappeared in the whirlpool towards which they had, with a strange deliberateness and yet aimlessness, been steering” (193-94). Bertha and Kreisler are not stereotypical Germans. Caught between personal compulsions and national conventions, between individualist activity and determinist passivity, they become human grotesques, farcical caricatures of the national types of the self-sacrificing romantic and the disciplined militarist. No “racial critique,” then, Tarr trounces its moment's accounts of nationality as the comforting fictions of a race of beings too chaotic to realize their desperate dreams of stability.

Ever since the appearance of Hugh Kenner's groundbreaking 1954 study of Lewis's works, an increasing number of critics, most notably Jameson, Levenson, and Peter Bürger, have argued for the significance of Tarr and for Lewis's crucial role in the history of British modernism. Despite such efforts, however, the novel, though generally viewed as one of Lewis's best, has still, as Bürger states, “not been admitted to the canon of modernist literature by writers concerned with the subject” (127). Lewis's achievement in Tarr has been underestimated in part because critics have not historicized the work adequately, failing to acknowledge the novel's active engagement with specific debates among leaders of the English avant-garde concerning issues of personal identity, political action, literary asthetics, and national character.

Retrieving Tarr's assault on the English Individualist movement has allowed us to recognize Lewis as an antagonist within the Egoist circle, a kind of Kreisler figure disturbing their ideological consensus, willing to pursue his critical vision despite their contrary views. He responded more quickly and profoundly to the Great War, discovering in the period's turbulent events truths about persons, society, and politics that undermined the Individualist world view. As Marsden and her comrades strove to preserve the prerogatives of the free and autonomous individual, to defend an anarcho-libertarian politics, and to articulate an Individualist aesthetics, Lewis offered in Tarr a pessimistic alternative to their vision, insisting on the chaos and complexity of personal identity, social life, and modern literature. Engaged in this iconoclastic assault on Individualist doctrine. Tarr was a powerfully oppositional work, en avant even of the avant-garde. In this, our account revises the prevailing critical consensus that Lewis became the “enemy” of literary modernism only in the late 1920s.14 As we have seen, he began attacking the opinions and literary practice of his modernist contemporaries before the end of the Great War, before the orthodoxies of modernism had even solidified.

And by recovering in particular Lewis's literary attack on the Individualist bildungsroman, as epitomized in the Egoist by Joyce's Portrait, we have been able to better assess Tarr's formal achievement. This disjunctive, hybrid novel should be seen as a major modern text not only because it questions the conventions of narrative and psychological continuity that had prevailed in novels since the early eighteenth century, but also because it was among the earliest Anglo-American literary works to apply to literature the formal techniques of fragmentation and assemblage that visual artists had been deploying for nearly a decade before the Great War. Years before Joyce, Eliot, and Pound wrote their major works, Lewis, by combining two different narrative forms in a single novel, had created a text characterized, as Bürger puts it, by “radical discontinuities” of the sort that would eventually distinguish the canonical works of literary modernism (127-28).15

Lewis's achievement in Tarr has also been misunderstood because analysts have failed to accompany him to the conclusion of his critical journey. That failure has usually taken two forms. Most often, critics—including such insightful readers as Jameson and Bürger—have taken the novel's English protagonist not as Lewis portrayed him but as Tarr wants to be read, namely as a successful Individualist artist.16 By exempting Tarr from Lewis's corrosive attack, however, such readers have been able to interpret the novel as a more straightforward and positive work than the text itself indicates. As we have seen, no character escapes the consequences of Tarr's anti-individualist vision.17 Other analysts, like West and Wagner, have restricted the scope of Lewis's critical assault to characters of only one nationality, interpreting the novel as a racial critique of Germans. Their readings neglect the ways in which Tarr's German characters fail to conform to national stereotypes, ignore the novel's criticisms of its English characters, and therefore misconstrue Lewis's complex analysis of nationality's role in personal identity.

Readings of Tarr as a racial critique portray Lewis at best as a jingoistic advocate of anti-German stereotypes and at worst as an unreflective dupe of “racial” determinism. Our reading of the novel shows him to have been neither: in context, Lewis's literary treatment of nationality was as independent and iconoclastic as his attack on Individualism. Tarr assailed both the Individualist and determinist analyses that defined the range of orthodox views of nationality during the avant-guerre. At its most successful, in fact, Lewis's literary investigation of national character anticipated much later “deconstructions” of the category of nationality and its reductive stereotypes by uncovering their implication in established regimes of power, by exposing their inadequacy to account for and determine human activity, and by explaining their persistent appeal.

Indeed, as we have seen, Tarr diagnosed the allure of national determinism and English Individualism. People embrace and attempt to conform to such totalizing accounts of human identity and activity, according to Lewis, because they promise coherence and order. But since human life is irreducibly chaotic, implacably antagonistic to all such efforts of explanation and containment, those accounts are doomed to failure. That Lewis in Tarr so resolutely disputed the nineteenth-century groundwork of Individualism, the emerging aesthetic and political consensus of British modernism, and the avant-guerre's orthodox analyses of nationality, ought once and for all to establish Tarr as a major modern novel and Lewis as a major modern author.


  1. Paul O'Keeffe's “Afterword” (to the 1990 reprint of Tarr (361-85) provides a comprehensive account of the novel's complex composition and publication history.

  2. Reed Way Dasenbrock correctly recognizes these competing conceptions of nationality in Tarr. I disagree, however, with Dasenbrock's view that those competing conceptions result from Tarr's palimpsestic composition and its attendant status as a work “at war with itself.” In my view, as will become evident, Lewis intentionally played these competing accounts of nationality against each other in order to discredit both. O'Keeffe's “Afterword” to the 1990 reprint of Tarr makes the strongest case that Lewis's novel is not a unified work but an incoherent literary palimpsest.

  3. Levenson was the first critic to recover the influence of Stirner among English modernists before the war. In Genealogy he argues that the popularity of Stirnerian Egoism should be seen as another manifestation of the “ideology of subjectivity” that he traces “from Arnold, Mill and Pater to Hulme and Ford” (63-68). In contrast, Robert von Hallberg emphasizes Stirner's political influence on the Egoists and on Imagism, arguing that Marsden and Pound were drawn to Stirner because they concurred not only with his individualist ethics but with his libertarian, anti-liberal, and anti-statist politics, a politics that they believed found a literary correlate in Imagist aesthetics. See also Bruce Clark 129-43.

  4. Marsden's New Freewoman, originally a dissenting feminist journal, was renamed the Egoist at the start of 1914 to reflect the increasingly Stirnerian concerns of its editor and contributors.

  5. In 1914, its first year of publication, the Egoist printed poetry by the Imagist poets F. S. Flint, Richard Aldington, H. D., John Gould Fletcher, Amy Lowell, and John Rodker; reviewed and reproduced photographs of art works by the Vorticist sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska; and included favorable articles on the Vorticist painters Lewis and Edward Wadsworth.

  6. Compare the ending of another individualistic bildungsroman of the avant-guerre, Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. In the novel's last moments, Lawrence's artist-hero, Paul Morel, overcomes his dependent attachment to his deceased mother and determinedly embraces his future:

    She was the only thing that held him up. … He wanted her to touch him, have him alongside with her.

    But no, he would not give in. Turning sharply, he walked towards the city's gold phosphorescence. His fists were shut, his mouth set fast. He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her. He walked quickly towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly. (420)

  7. Von Hallberg convincingly argues that Imagism was another literary form in which individualist ideals were being articulated.

  8. The Kreisleriana are a sequence of short works focused on the fictional musician-composer, first published in small German literary and music journals between 1810 and 1814 and collected in Hoffmann's two-volume Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier (1814-1815); most of these tales have not yet been translated into English. The first two volumes of Hoffmann's great unfinished novel, Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern, were published in 1820 and 1821, respectively; the first volume was never completed. This novel is available in English as The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr, with the fragmentary biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on random sheets of scrap paper, in Hoffman Selected Writings, Vol. 2.

  9. Lewis, alluding to The Sorrows of Young Werther in BLAST 2, argues that “Goethe, with a book, set free the weltschmerzen of the suicidal Teuton. The razors flashed all over the Teuton world. The pistol smoke went up from every village” (70).

  10. Robert Currie (117-18) establishes the crucial influence of Hoffmann's Murr on Lewis's Tarr. My understanding of the relations between Hoffmann and Lewis has also benefited from the comments of Loren Kruger.

  11. Toby Avard Foshay provides an interesting analysis of Lewis's complex satiric stance in Tarr and concurs that the “ending of Tarr … is clearly satirical, with Tarr pretending to an attainment and a liberation which he very clearly has not achieved” (64).

  12. See also Hynes War 52-56, 67-78.

  13. My account of these competing conceptions of German character is informed by Modris Eksteins 55-94.

  14. Most recently, Bürger has defended this conventional chronology of Lewis's turn against modernism. In his attempt to account for Tarr's persistent exclusion from the canon, Bürger explains that “Lewis's later leanings towards fascism have probably been less decisive in this connection (for as we know similar attitudes have not prevented the canonization of Pound's work) than the fact that with his essay collection Time and Western Man [1927] he appeared on the scene as an engaged, not to say enraged, critic of literary modernism” (127). Levenson is the only other analyst I have found who opposes this prevailing view.

  15. Obviously I reject O'Keeffe's claim that Lewis achieved the “fragmentation of meaning that occurs in such key Modernist texts as The Waste Land and The Cantos … by default … as a result of the novel's compositional timespan” (382).

  16. Jameson calls Tarr “the first and last fully positive figure in Lewis's work” (98), while Bürger explains that Lewis's novel, “in so far as [it] is concerned with Tarr … narrates the production of the artist himself,” a project he believes Tarr eventually “accomplishe[s]” (128-29).

  17. Only Levenson has recognized the breadth of Lewis's critical attack (in Modernism).

Works Cited

Bürger, Peter. “Dissolution of the Subject and the Hardened Self …” The Decline of Modernism. Trans. Nicholas Walker. Cambridge: Polity, 1992.

Carter, Huntly. “The Curve of Individualism.” Egoist 1 (2 Mar. 1914).

Clark, Bruce. “Dora Marsden and The Freewoman …” Works and Days 10 (Spring 1992).

Cournos, John. “Gaudier-Brzeska's Art.” Egoist 2 (1 Sept. 1915).

Currie, Robert. Genius: An Ideology of Literature. New York: Shocken, 1974.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way. “Anatomies of Internationalism in Tarr and Howards End.” Unpublished paper presented at the 108th MLA convention (28 Dec. 1992).

Eksteins, Morris. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. New York: Anchor, 1989.

Foshay, Toby Avard. Wyndham Lewis and the Avant-Garde: The Politics of the Intellect. Montreal: McGill Queen's, 1992.

Galton, Sir Francis. “Hereditary Talent and Character.” MacMillan's Magazine 12 (London, 1865). Rpt. Images of Race. ed. Michael D. Biddiss. New York: Holmes, 1979.

Henry, Leigh. “Liberations: Studies of Individuality in Contemporary Music …” Egoist 1 (15 Apr. 1915).

Hoffmann, E.T.A. Selected Writings. Vol. 2. Ed. and trans. Leonard J. Kent and Elizabeth C. Knight. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1969.

Hynes, Samuel. The Edwardian Turn of Mind. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.

———. A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. New York: Collier, 1990.

Jameson, Fredric. Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. New York: Penguin. 1976.

Kenner, Hugh. Wyndham Lewis. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions. 1954.

Lawrence, D. H. Sons and Lovers. 1913. Ed. Julian Moynihan. New York: Penguin 1968.

Levenson, Michael. A Genealogy of Modernism … New York: Cambridge UP, 1984.

———. Modernism and the Fate of Individuality … New York: Cambridge, UP, 1991. 121-44.

Lewis, Wyndham. BLAST 1: Review of the Great English Vortex. July 1914. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1981.

———. BLAST 2: War Number. July 1915. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1981.

———. Tarr: The 1918 Version. Ed. and “Afterword” Paul O'Keeffe. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1990.

Marsden, Dora. “Views and Comments.” New Freewoman 1 (15 Dec. 1913).

———. “Quid Pro Quo.” Egoist 1 (15 Aug. 1914).

Rose, Jonathan. The Edwardian Temperament 1885-1919. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1986.

Stirner, Max. The Ego and His Own. Trans. Steven T. Byington. 1845. New York: Tucker, 1907.

Von Hallberg, Robert. “Notes on Imagism and Politics.” Unpublished paper presented at the 106th MLA convention (28 Dec. 1990).

Wagner, Geoffrey. Wyndham Lewis: A Portrait of the Artist as Enemy. New Haven: Yale UP, 237.

West, Rebecca. “Tarr.” Nation 23 (10 Aug. 1918). Rpt. Agenda 7/8 (Autumn-Winter 1969). 67-69.

Sharon Stockton (essay date 1996)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9261

SOURCE: “Aesthetics, Politics, and the Staging of the World: Wyndham Lewis and the Renaissance,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 42, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 494-515.

[In the following excerpt, Stockton traces Lewis's political and philosophical development.]

Wyndham Lewis is best known for what he termed his “enemy” rhetoric—a discourse that posits Lewis himself as a marginalized and persecuted member of a small group desperately clinging to “traditional value” in the face of what he defines as the encroaching flood of modernist corruption. Lewis assumes this embattled stance in Blast, the vorticist manifesto of 1914 and 1915, directing shrilly righteous anger against a variety of species of decay—materialism, philistinism, chaos, and especially democracy—which he perceives to threaten all that is or could be “worth while” in Western culture. Although all of these “corruptions” embody his growing fear of the increased social leveling and democratization that followed World War I, early “enemy” rhetoric is generally used in defense of certain aesthetic practices alone. By the early 1930s, “enemy” rhetoric has become overt political propaganda for German fascism. Significantly, then, Nazi ideology moves easily in the vorticism Lewis developed prior to his direct involvement in politics, and his “enemy” rhetoric is easily applied to a defense of Hitler.

As I trace the development of Lewis's politics, I am interested in showing that the aestheticization of politics common to modernist rhetoric in general appears in his work as a shift from one pole to the other—from avowed concerns with art alone to a clear primary interest in politics—and my project locates the rhetorical fulcrum of that shift. This rhetorical point, at which Lewis conflates the discourses of aesthetics and politics, is located in the seemingly obscure critical work Lewis conducted on the English Renaissance. The mystified political agenda of Lewis's aesthetic rhetoric in general is openly played out in his reconstructions of the political and cultural climate of this safely distanced period. In his criticism of Shakespeare specifically, Lewis develops the discourse that legitimates the stance he later takes toward Hitler. Lewis constructs in his recasting of Shakespeare a means to validate those explicitly ideological discourses that further the cause of totalitarian rule: a binary model of oppression and opposition that extends other modernist binary models to their full political potential.

Unlike most of the other modernists, Lewis remained completely blind to the terrible danger inherent in such a conflation of aesthetics and politics until as late as 1950, at which time he recanted, condemning his own short-sighted aestheticization of the atrocities of fascism in general and Hitler in particular: “I should have detected the awful symptoms, even if I was wanting in the visionary power to see this little figure, only a few years later, popping into his gas ovens …” (qtd. in Sherry 126). Ironically, it was only at this late point in his life—when he was sinking into actual physical blindness (he was completely blind by 1951)—that Lewis seemed to see past his “enemy” rhetoric to what should have been clear much earlier. Even T. S. Eliot, whose aesthetic remained wedded to multiple ideological forms that were highly compatible with fascism (such as the desire for externally imposed order and the validation of transcendent force), was quite coherent from very early on about the distinctions that must be maintained between art, religion, and politics. In “The Literature of Fascism,” for example, published in The Criterion in 1928, Eliot warns against the “danger” of fascism taking the place of religious creed; such a political movement, he argues, must not be allowed to “appropriate … a form of faith which is solely appropriate to a religion” (282). Eliot claims in this essay to be “suspicious of fascism as a panacea” because its rhetoric is stolen, based on the usurpation of certain religious and aesthetic forms—which in and of themselves are good forms—as well as on the vague and abstract desire of the public to be “benevolently ordered about” (288). This confusion of rhetorics, according to Eliot, is symptomatic of a “general sickness of politics.” For Lewis, the conflation of different types of rhetoric into a single binary opposition is never presented as problematic; on the contrary, this coherence is consummately desirable and everywhere in evidence in his writing. His compulsion for binary order obscures any clear vision of historical reality—whatever that may be said to be.

In Wyndham Lewis's introduction to the first number of The Enemy, his short-running magazine, published in three issues between 1927 and 1929, he defines himself as an “outlaw” who has moved “outside” in order to provide and provoke society with “hostile criticism” (Enemy Salvoes 23). His opponents are many and diverse, and as Campbell points out, “everywhere, and on every level, he thinks in structures of opposition” (xiii). Among the binary oppositions Lewis uses to polarize his relationship to society are space and time, stability and flux, mind and matter, intelligence and stunned paralysis, and the individual and the herd. Lewis is always on the side of stability and individuality, and the first task of his project is to explore how these two concepts are mutually reinforcing. The greatest threat to the individual, for Lewis, is what he perceives as the time-based reality of Henri Bergson, the nature of which is constant flux, and the effect of which is a time “filled with disorder and stupid violence” (Rude Assignment 13). Time and Western Man most directly critiques the “time-mind,” the “time-philosophy,” and the “time fanaticism” of modern thought. The time-philosophers, Lewis claims, are the cause of the sense of chaotic fragmentation in the modern world because they deny the solidity of the object and the stability of the subject.1 If the rush of time is the measure of reality, then the object of perception dissolves into the flicker of the cinema; it is defined not by what it is but by where in time it falls and dissolves. Reality or “common sense” is thus excluded for Lewis:

The disintegration of the world-picture of “common sense” [is] effected by the introduction of private and subjective time-systems, by the breaking up of the composite space of the assembled senses into an independent space of touch, a space of sight, a visceral space, and so forth: [this is] the conversion of “the thing” into a series of discrete apparitions. … (Time and Western Man 426)

The object becomes a brief “sensory” experience isolated from the more unified quality of “perception,” and the sense that the time-philosophy does allow one to experience are “evanescent, flashing and momentary; not even existing outside of their proper time” (414). Cut out of this picture is the “old stable ego,” which Lewis felt it was the unhappy project of the modernists to eliminate, the perceiving subject whose vision registers/creates timeless order. The philosopher-navigators of the “River Flux”—Whitehead, Russell, and Bergson—reduce the subject to the notion of the tabula rasa: “each impression, or visual sensum, fragment as it is, [is] unassisted by thought” or memory, and the mind becomes a screen across which unconnected sensory stimuli flash (414, 410). The desperate attempts to reassert the possibility of the autonomous subject that fill Lewis's works articulate the sense that the permanent and “common sensical” power of the knowing subject is endangered by material flux.

In order to envision a place for the subject, Lewis replaces time-philosophy with a philosophy of space and vision. Common sense tells us, Lewis claims, that we do not perceive the world as a flashing series of disconnected and meaningless fragments; we see pictures—full, enduring, and complete:

The traditional belief of common-sense, embodied in the “naif” view of the physical world, is really a picture. We believe that we see a certain objective reality. This contains stable and substantial objects. When we look at these objects we believe that what we are perceiving is what we are seeing. In reality, of course, we are conscious of much more than we immediately see. … In short, every time we open our eyes we envelop the world before us, and give it body, or its quality of consisting of objects, with our memory. It is memory that gives that depth and fullness to our present, and makes our abstract, ideal world of objects for us. (Time and Western Man 408)

Vision, will, and memory are thus linked in a sequence that grants ontological priority to the visual spectacle and the seer, and sets such derivations as “theory,” “ideas,” and “time” down as secondary and parasitic. The authority and presence of vision thus grant equivalent status to the objects seen, and Lewis constitutes a “common sense” world, utterly solid, out of the claim that nothing exists outside of the perceptions of the stable ego: “‘a man need only open his eyes to see’ that there is nothing there except what he puts there” (474). Matter is “dead” or “unreal”: “It would not be ‘purposeful,’ except for our purposefulness, for it would have no impulse of its own, it would depend upon us entirely, itself in reality non-existent” (479). In effect, reality and meaning are provided by the perceiving individual, and this perception implies more than sensation: it offers the stability and order lacking in the dead and unreal world of stimuli. The realistic “picture” of common-sensical observation differs from the flux of passing sensation in that it organizes materiality in a meaningful and timeless pattern; the still point of this modernist world, Dasenbrock points out, is thus established as the vorticist himself, who “looks out with detachment … at the flux surrounding him” (48). To be a part of that flux is to degrade the observing self; as Lewis himself puts it in the first Blast, “The process and condition of life, without exception, is a grotesque degradation and ‘soillure’ of the original solitude of the soul. There is no help for it. … Anything but yourself is dirt. Anybody that is” (70).

As the guarantor of reality, the individual is an oddly transcendent and contradictory figure in Lewis's work. Lewis's solipsistic idealism contradicts his insistence on the responsibility of “truth telling” in an objective world of “common sense.” Idealism posits that reality exists only in the mind, but the notion of reality, for Lewis, implies an objective and authoritative perception—as well as the ability to translate an exterior world. Lewis makes almost no attempt to resolve this contradiction. Instead he celebrates the almost godlike power of the truly perceptive individual/artist who is “empowered by his own consciousness rather than by the surfaces of the world” (Klein 227). This powerful individual, further, is ranked as the “we” of Lewis's own group of conservative intellectuals:

We have overridden time to the extent of bestowing upon objects a certain timelessness. We and they have existed in a, to some extent, timeless world, in which we possessed these objects, in our fastness of memory, like gods … our perceptual self [was] to some extent … a timeless self. It is by way of the mystery of memory, of course, that we reached this timelessness. (Time and Western Man 42)

The individuality of the intellectual subjectivity is the key to this objectivist-idealist power. The great artist or scientist, then, cannot, or must not, be objective in the mechanistic sense but must necessarily retain the biases of a unique—that is, singularly privileged—subject: Lewis praises his own title (“The Enemy”) for “publicly repudiat[ing] any of those treacherous or unreal claims to ‘impartiality,’ the scientific-impersonal, or all that suggestion of detached omniscience, absence of parti-pris, which is such a feature of our time.” (Enemy Salvoes 24). Democracy is thus defined—and condemned—as “merging,” as “cowardice or muddleheadedness” (qtd. in Rae 710); the truth-seeing individual must remain differentiated and differentiating—separate from “the herd” and defined by the ability to separate material flux into meaningful units. In his study of empathy and abstraction in the work of Lewis (and Pound), Vincent Sherry shows how much authority accrues in this double gesture of “aesthetic” separation, pointing out that “whereas the democratic ear merges, the aristocratic eye divides” (5). It is Eliot's attention to the merging of voices rather than to their division that gives Lewis leave to accuse him of being too democratic in his failure to exert his own (superior) individuality, in his attempt to “depersonalize” his art. Lewis argues that the artist must rather exaggerate his beliefs (this in spite of his condemnation of the Impressionists for being too personal, by which he means in this case too interested in the passing and impermanent impression).

Lewis constructs his perceptive individual as being in imminent danger. Everywhere he sees privileged and unique individuality as the validation and guarantor of reality being engulfed by a homogeneous mass of sameness; humanity has been slowly paralyzed since the sixteenth century and now languishes in the “sleep of the machine” (Enemy Salvoes 26). The masses of “philistines,” frozen into mindless, mechanized postures, are the result, according to Lewis, of the growth of industry and the abstract time-sciences, the inhuman forces that have swept through the last three centuries, leveling all humanity to “one stale, violent pattern” (26). Even poetry has become “mechanical” or “technical” and has thus, despite itself, become democratic: for this development Lewis blames Stein, Eliot, Pound, Hemingway, and Joyce (186). Capitalist monopolies and their attendant media aggravate and transmit the lethal infection of frozen sameness, the former by obstructing the free circulation of goods (movement in space), the latter by reinforcing the time-philosophers' conception of the object as an arbitrary presence in the flux of time, thus participating in the disintegration of the subject. Capitalist monopoly and the movie industry preside over the final inward collapse of society, sinking “Philistia” into “the working mass underneath it” (Rude Assignment 16). The result of such social leveling is, for Lewis, the end of the world as we know it: “The unity thus obtained would be a cultural zero as injurious to the social body as any other organic atrophy” (16).

In his well-known study of Lewis, Fables of Aggression, Fredric Jameson points out that the protofascist sentiments circulating in pre-World War II thought were founded on the middle-class “terror of declassement and of proletarianization, of slipping back down the social ladder” (113). This nightmare gained its force from material changes in society and the growing sense that there was no stable point from which one could speak with authority:2

The secure vantage point of naturalism has disappeared under the impact of inflation, the War Debt, and economic crisis, and the new urban technology which seems to efface the safe frontier between the life of the masses and the life of the petty bourgeoisie. Indeed, in proportion to the leveling of such material articulation of class difference, the bourgeois subject experiences itself as an increasingly isolated monad confronted with an anonymous and faceless multitude. (113-14)

Political and aesthetic elitism and harsh diatribes against egalitarian political reform and “time-philosophies” constitute Lewis's responses to democratization. He desires a static hierarchical order that will articulate the force of an unseen absolute. This end is achieved through the rhetorical construction of the “Archimedean point of the pure eye” (Jameson 17). My argument is that the physical and coherent shape of such a hero—one in possession of a “pure eye”—is gradually developed as Lewis moves out from philosophy through literary and historical criticism to explicit political propagandizing. Lewis achieves his first material vision of such a figure when he looks back to a time previous to “the sleep of the machine” and the rise of democracy—to a stage he himself considers to be Shakespeare's England. This is the odd and unfortunate parallel that leads Lewis to an outright celebration of Hitler's anti-Semitism.

The Lion and the Fox, written in the same year as Time and Western Man, makes explicit the politics involved in Lewis's antipathy for the “time-philosophy” by formulating a “leader” in Shakespeare and an ideal society in the English Renaissance. Lewis thus displaces his own ideology and desire onto a safely distanced “past” which, located at the point where modern capitalism and its attendant discursive and political institutions first appeared, serves, for Lewis, to show where Western culture was before it took the wrong path toward social anarchy. Lewis praises the period in general and several writers, including Chapman, in particular, but his main purpose in devoting so much time and effort to the Renaissance is to define the function of the powerful individual. To this end, The Lion and the Fox both celebrates the Renaissance and validates Shakespeare's role in articulating not only the culture of his own era but a lost ideology that the twentieth century must reinstate if it is to avoid destruction. For Lewis, Shakespeare is the ultimate subject of a unique period of “individualist” (as opposed to democratic) freedom:

In Shakespeare's time every influence of the old and new world met and parleyed; and if we were making Shakespeare the most acute and typical child of his time we should have no difficulty in showing that his universality was inevitable—that the complete eclecticism and confusion of his time gave him that universality in the ordinary course of things. (The Lion and the Fox 21)

Lewis resists, however, this “ordinary course of things” in granting Shakespeare trans-historical authority; a materialist, casual explanation does not offer Lewis the means to celebrate the hero's “will to order.” It is “legitimate,” Lewis claims, “to feel that it is [Shakespeare] and not the time that is a reality; or that he is a reality independent of his time” (21). Lewis attempts to bypass both the chaos and meaninglessness of materiality as well as the flux and instability of time in order to establish Shakespeare as an autonomous authority in a period that (for lack of guidance?) fostered individuality. Thus, although at least 200 pages of The Lion and the Fox are given to a study of the politics of the late sixteenth century and their effect on Shakespeare's work, Lewis's veiled ideological interest in the power of the timeless visionary individual underwrites his entire “historical” study. In this way, Shakespeare gradually comes to stand in for Lewis's ideal leader: Adolph Hitler. Hitler's politics, by analogy, will eventually be given their aesthetic flavor in Lewis's work through this extended piece of “literary criticism.”

In The Lion and the Fox, Lewis defends Shakespeare's individuality against critical arguments that emphasize his “impersonality” (e.g. T. S. Eliot's). Lewis bases his argument, in part, on his construction of the Renaissance as the last age of “Celtism” before the “Anglo-Saxon” and his “roman mind” gained ascendancy.3 Shakespeare's time, according to Lewis, was still alive with “celtic chivalry” and “feudal nobility,” institutions that depended not on groups but on the distinction, and rule, of upper-class, privileged individuals who were thus set in distinct contrast to the “subservient Many” (Sherry 118). Lewis thus unites, in the golden age of predemocratic, precapitalist England, a rigidly hierarchical social structure, the authority of “individuality,” and the climate for great, “magical” art: “That was the age of romance, of exaltation of the sexual passion, of aristocratic love and its accompanying poetry” (The Lion and the Fox 52). “Art” and sexual passion are therefore constructed by Lewis as legitimate only when they are functions of an “individualist” social hierarchy in which the validation of static structures of power lies in the “common sense” belief in the essential nature of personality. Lewis also sees individuality as central to feudal and Elizabethan society because the “decentralized governments” of the time allowed for “unlimited and … unparalleled development of personal initiative” (30). These were times, Lewis claims, when lawless “defense passed into the hands of private persons [a.k.a. male aristocrats]” who in this admirable “usurpation of authority” supported the English economy through “private war” (30, 31). The defeat of the Spanish Armada was, for Lewis, the culmination of a spirit of individualistic initiative soon to be crushed by the rise of abstract science and bourgeois centralized government. Implicit here is a desire for a modern hero to “usurp authority” again, defeating democratic rule in favor of “private war.”

Shakespeare is the expression of this earlier time of expansive “private war.” His is a drama, according to Lewis, of externality, space, and ungoverned individuality—as well as the violent conflicts that characterize these three qualities. Shakespeare achieves “truth” by portraying colossal individuals whose violently distinct personalities are capable of moving through time while maintaining their stable integrity. Shakespeare's disregard for the unity of time is for Lewis central to the solidity and violent power of his characters: by “skipping lightheartedly over months and years, he produces a theatre that is essentially one of action,” of “violent bustle and adventure” (36). Hamlet's psychology is, by extension, easily explained as an instance of “time-phenomenon” finding itself with surprise on the “bustling, elizabethan stage”; Hamlet is paralyzed “by maladjustment to the altered time-sense, or rather absence of time-sense, he finds” (36). Hamlet is an example, then, of the new (middle-class?) man, without the personality to withstand temporal flux. He is not rated as one of the colossi whose “external” existence and personal initiative push past the slow linear movement of time. Othello is Lewis's most admired hero, exhibiting how Shakespeare “makes a divinity of natural physical action.” Because Lewis sees Shakespeare's drama, like the Elizabethan age, as the embodiment of a social structure defined by “private war,” Othello serves as the ultimate colossus because his physical violence is ungovernable, yet at the same time he is guided by personal senses of responsibility and morality. Hamlet's unstable personality is shifted by externals; Othello constructs the material reality of all those around him through the violent assertion of his individual will.

At the same time, however, it is clear that Lewis's Shakespeare is not a child of the Renaissance. According to Lewis, the social structures that fostered the “private war” and the tone of Elizabethan drama are already toppling during the time in question, and Shakespeare runs against the current of the age. The Reformation and the rise of democracy, Lewis claims, have already begun to submerge the distinct “personality” in the tide of mediocrity. “Large disciplined armies of centralized governments” overcome the isolated hero who defines the early Renaissance (53), and all sense of personal responsibility is lost: “The more names and personalities there are associated with an act of government the less personal responsibility of course is established in it; and liberty is personal irresponsibility” (129). Lewis defines “liberty” as mindlessly democratic and opposes it to the “anarchy” of the aristocratic “private war.” With the demise of the private hero, for Lewis, everything good is lost. Just as social vitality decays into the “sleep of the machine,” so is individual initiative disempowered by a crushing Newtonian network of abstractions and maps that freezes the “violence and bustle” of individualist achievement into one stale and repetitive pattern:

Space with [Sir Isaac Newton] became a plan of massive highways: the celestial bodies circulated as safely as possible in the henceforth well-disciplined and blandly illuminated universe. … A roman peace reigned in physical science for two hundred years after this great series of calm imperial fiats had regulated the visible universe. (48)4

Lewis's reformulation of legitimate power rejects as coercive any form of external discipline, regulation, or centralization—all of which for Lewis mark the collective control of the democratized masses. Legitimate power derives from the anarchy of the responsible individual—the king and the savior, by connotation—and this power is not necessarily connected to a specific time frame (since Lewis, like Eliot, always finds traces of the modern disease no matter how far back in history he looks).

As Lewis moves from his philosophical discussions of aesthetic power to his ultimately chilling discussions of political power, it is important to note that his rhetoric is overcome by a turn in definition: the powerful individual is defined as something other than the vorticist hero. Lewis defends the spectacular authority and visible force of the colossus on aesthetic grounds; when he begins structuring a more overtly political rhetoric, he mystifies violence in a living human by effacing rather than by emphasizing authority and power. It is for this reason that Shakespeare, who implicitly possesses as much, if not more, power than Othello to create the reality of those around him, is constructed not as a visible and defiant force but rather as a humble and sacrificed god with only hidden signs—like the birthmark motif of Renaissance drama—to prove his essential worth. Understanding how the power of Shakespeare differs from that of Othello—the difference between the one who structures spectacle and the one who is spectacle—is crucial to seeing the bridge that unites Lewis's philosophy with what will become his apologia for Nazism. One thing that becomes clear in the contrast between Shakespeare and Othello is Lewis's concern with race. We learn that Shakespeare's association with chivalric code and Arthurian romance derives not only from his historical location but from his bloodlines. The “true child of the Renaissance” was not born of social structure and ideology but rather of an essential ethnicity; Shakespeare shows us that the “most powerful impulses [of the Renaissance were] derived … from the small ‘celtic’ countries—Wales, Brittany, and Ireland” (The Lion and the Fox 52). As the inheritor of “celtic” heritage, Shakespeare is necessarily different from those around him; he is, like Othello, exoticized by ethnic separateness. Unlike Othello, however, whose race is a part of his spectacular presence on the English stage, Shakespeare's ethnicity is unidentifiable to the common observer—not normative, but disguised, unspectacular. Shakespeare sees; Othello is seen. Constructing this privileged position for Shakespeare—we shall see how—is the impetus behind Lewis's use of the term celtic in place of chivalric or feudal, words that would make more sense, throughout most of The Lion and the Fox.

Interestingly, in an appendix to The Lion and the Fox titled “Shakespeare and Race,” Lewis recants, denying that there is any such thing as a “celt” and ridiculing any general claim that Shakespeare's genius sprang from such an illusory source. Lewis thus delegitimates his own stance, and in so doing, I argue, he quietly articulates the mystification by which authority is established in his version of fascist politics. The function of the appendix is not, as Bridson claims, merely to make “good fun” of the notion of Celtism and table “a brusque denial that Shakespeare had any trace of it” (4). Instead the appendix mirrors Lewis's general mechanism for establishing power by synthesizing a binary struggle. At stake in “Shakespeare and Race” is the necessity of keeping genuine Celtism hidden and unarticulated by establishing a “false” Celtism and setting it in opposition to Anglo-Saxonism. The “true” Celts, whom Lewis has earlier defined as the small, dark, mystical people who inhabited England before the Romans, are mentioned only in passing in the appendix. The bulk of the recantation focuses on the Normans, an “assimilative” people who adopt in general any culture with which they come into contact, and who thus, during early invasions of the British coast, were transformed into “perfect ‘celt[s]’” (324). The “small dark people” are representationally and syntactically excluded from this narrative, and the word Celt only appears in this appendix with real or implicit quotation marks, referring to the “celts” who are actually masquerading Normans.

Lewis is thus situated in such a way that he can stage the opposition between “Celts” (Normans) and Anglo-Saxons while evading entirely the supposed subject of his appendix. The opposition, according to Lewis, is based on images and myth, not on any substantial difference in genetics or culture.5 The battle between the Normans and Anglo-Saxons is presented as a meaningless one, but it serves to remove from the scene of struggle—as well as to mystify further—the genuine article, the Celt, which privileged stance Lewis reserves for himself and for Shakespeare throughout The Lion and the Fox. This mystified “genuine article,” set apart by race and by manipulative power, will appear again in Lewis's representations of Hitler.

Hugh Kenner argues that Lewis arranges the structural units within such fiction as Mrs. Duke's Million, The Apes of God, and The Human Age in such a way as to resemble a “familiar neo-Platonic hierarchy” in which power is always escaping the furthest reaches of vision, only reflected in shadows: “the real origin of power [is] always one level beyond the level we can see at the moment, which we must in consequence understand to be diluted by the unreal” (qtd. in Meyers 88). In the same way, the true Celt, its visible image stolen by masquerading Normans, resides behind Lewis's text, invisibly controlling the struggle of synthetic oppositions. This is the Celt who, like “race” itself, is “deeper and further back” than the visible, “impossible to chart” (The Lion and the Fox 295). The Celts were a race that “always fell” in battle (304) and that therefore left neither record nor clear genealogy; they escape representation, surviving in invisibility and facelessness, existing in language and in visible form only in the Normans. The Celts are only the vague “other-worldly potion (from the same factory as the witcheries that unknit lives in the story of Tristan and Yseult), which makes everything ineffectual that it touches.” They are swallowed into the Norman/Saxon struggle just as they are swallowed into Lewis's text, and yet they remain, both in the text and in history, the hidden poison or remedy, the impetus for the conflict between the Normans and Saxons, and their existence or nonexistence constitutes the stake for which the struggle takes place.

Shakespeare is a genuine Celt—of a race so purely idealized that it approaches transcendent racelessness; he is a colorless and odorless potion that stages the central oppositions that unknit society. His power is not that of the private war, the colorful raging on the heath, but is rather that “of art's self-effacing aloofness” (13). It is important to Lewis that the manipulator of the word as a distinct personality and even as a member of a distinct—if metaphysical—race remain unseen; this authority, as opposed to the authority of the feudal lord (whose power we now see is confusedly imaginary, dependent on Norman/Saxon false differences) is guaranteed only to the extent that it is mystified. “A particularly glorious parasite on everything” (152), Shakespeare consumes the “life, art, and ideas around him,” and organizes “his bloody supper” into cathartic structure, behind the mask of “sweet Will.” Shakespeare's bland and apparently raceless features, in fact, mark him for Lewis as the type of human who surpasses his humanity in his superiority to the physical compulsion of biology and of belief. Shakespeare—or any “individual”—distances himself from the necessity of genetics and from the “herd,” which cannot effect a similar separation:

very strong race-characteristics in an individual, in their face, gait, or mental disposition, probably means, at all events to-day, that they are not the highest example of their kind; that had they been more creative and mentally active they would not have been content to repeat—even physiologically: nor would they have followed mechanically the rules laid down by nature and humdrum tradition. (298)

The average human is caught in the time of genetics—compelled to linearity. The great man rises above the compulsion to repeat. He stops (or resists) time through force of mental will; the responsibility for control is therefore given over to this one superior and faceless individual. The power such an individual must hold is ominous—mainly by virtue of the fact that the source of this power is established in an operation that is invisible to the public.

It falls to Shakespeare, then, “Puck-like and anarchic” (14), to assemble the world of his readers into the “beautiful matching of opposed forces” (24). He becomes what Scott Klein argues is the role of the vorticist writer (as opposed to the vorticist hero):

he emerges as the generator and container of doubleness. … Able to hold dualities in balance as part of his overarching coherence, he stands free of the external—both the inanimate world and the world of other people (227, 228)

In order to bring about this presentation of duality, the chaos of the age must be violently disparaged and set in the stable control of binarism; so although at work in Shakespeare's drama are “forces of disintegration,” “negation and chaos” (23, 24), the end result, the illusion of the drama, is clearly the result of a “highly organized mind” (16): the “services that such a writer as Shakespeare renders a community in stabilizing its consciousness, and giving it that rallying-ground of thought and illusion which it requires in order to survive, are immense” (16). Shakespeare is not the fighter of “the private war”; on the contrary, he is the invisible puppet master, the stager of the seemingly anarchic battle. His translucence is not bland racelessness but rather the quintessence of silent and horrible force: “his impassibility,” Lewis claims, “was the mask of the hangman” (145), and his effacement is part of the illusion of the agentless “mirror held up to life.” It is not Othello who holds power, nor is it the feudal nobleman who conquers; the true power is behind the scenes, subverting time to create spectacle. Shakespeare's genuine “celtism” lies in his invisible role as killer, consumer, and organizer of life. Lewis thus rewrites the historical role of the famous Renaissance poet in order to make him, in actuality, a political monster whose service to the state was as immeasurable as it was invisible. Never once does this odd turn of rhetoric give Lewis pause.

In fact, Lewis becomes increasingly celebratory as he describes Shakespeare's contribution to the state. Shakespeare, Lewis claims, offers visually the “truth” of oppositional order to a crowd so dull, so caught in the rush of time, as to be unable to perceive it by itself. He is the central organizer in a Renaissance celebrated by Lewis for lacking centralized organization. Social climate, then, I would argue, is ultimately just another front for the truly horrible source of power Lewis is intent on mythologizing. Shakespeare's warring Machiavel and colossus are transhistorical, as is “celtism.” The colossi of Shakespeare's drama—Othello, Lear, Timon, and Coriolanus—stage the timeless battle between the individual and the “dark equivocal crowd saturated with falsity” (qtd. in Kenner 25). They represent, for Lewis, a development of the Arghol figure of The Enemy of the Stars, the “gladiator who has come to fight a ghost, Humanity,” the “Personality” whose “self is the race that lost” in the battle against time-flux and democracy (Kenner 24). In the moment of violent death, however, the colossus freezes the movement of time into the true spatial stability of hierarchical opposition, and the losing underdog thus legitimates the binary system itself as well as its invisible representor—”the aristocratic eye that divides” (Sherry 100).

The antagonists of Shakespeare's drama—and of Shakespeare himself as the plays' hidden protagonist—represent “the man of the world,” the member of the herd created by the rise of democracy and sustained by the growing faith in “time-philosophy.” Iago, for example, as Machiavellian and theorist of action represents “the savage rabble of the Elizabethan pit” who crush, in Lewis's view, art and the ideal (The Lion and the Fox 165); this premise guarantees the hysteria necessary for the legitimation of centralized control. Iago is a man of action, a representative of the “agent-principle” (160) whom Lewis condemns as being removed from the ethical and aesthetic. “The man of action” denotes not the frozen emblem or reflective mind which “motionless and deep … reflect[s] to the fullest advantage the conflict occurring in its world” (186) but rather the mechanical strategy of the inherently weak, whose arbitrary reactions and sensations are always arranged along the continuum of time, reflecting not a “self” but a mindless and ultimately democratic organism. Iago is merely a “trivial opponent who substitutes a poor and vulgar thing for the great and whole thing that [he has] destroyed” (188). Lewis takes pains to make clear that the Machiavel is not the exception but the rule, merely a distilled representative of the democratic collective:

He is a quite normal and commonplace worldly person complicated by an honesty a la Machiavel. He is not the unusual villain that he is often made out to be. With a little more intensity and resolution, most of the individuals composing any contemporary european “educated” society would be very much like Iago. … The making of this villain Everyman is a supreme invention of genius. He is just the ordinary bluff, “honest” man in the street, proud of his strategy, and the power it gives him. (188)

What Shakespeare thus stages is the timeless and universal truth of democratized villainy.

Shakespeare's protagonists then represent the timeless idealistic war against democratic bustling and power. They exist in a state of such dialectical purity against the “men-of-the-world” that they are doomed to die, unable to compromise the integrity of their idealism. Their role is only to stand frozen for a glorious moment in a representation of pure power and then to die in a violent manner that befits them and their status. Kenner claims that this dialectical purity of character is also common to vorticist work, and that it implies generally “a metaphysic of violence; ordinary actions are but as pulse beats and breathings; only the cataclysmic events can be said to happen … nothing can happen but the initial and ultimate acts of violence” (Kenner 24). The necessary engagement of the “hero” and democracy—the constitutive elements of the universal binary—result inevitably in violence, “slaughter,” or oppression. It is for this reason, according to Lewis, that Shakespeare's colossi are manufactured with the potential only for force or death; they are built on “the grand scale; and desire, passion, or will attains in them a terrible force” (The Lion and the Fox 119).

The colossi, however, do not answer to the source of power that Kenner argues is always receding, invisible, in Lewis's work. It is in part because the colossus is not detached from life—the vorticist ideal—and because he is fully visible that his power is circumscribed. The tragic hero is a spectacle who is blinded by his passionate involvement in life; he is seen rather than seeing. Because of this, like Arghol in Enemy of the Stars, he articulates the “grotesque degradation and ‘souillure’ of the original solitude of the soul” (qtd. in Kenner 24). At the moment when the truth of the action is revealed to him, the colossus recedes into death, joins with the Celtic author in his removal from the scene of material opposition. It is because of this necessary death and distancing of the tragic hero that Lewis, like Eliot, finds in the image of the fisher-king a “reasonable” myth. In his most exacerbated tone of disgust and hysterical attack Lewis describes the apparently necessary sacrifice of such a king/individual to the herd's “instinct for the divine—that is, of course, the instinct to destroy it, isolate it, or corrupt it to their own uses” (The Lion and the Fox 136). The powerful individual not only chooses but is forced by the mob to some other place of divine presence; after his “death” the tragic hero's power becomes even stronger by virtue of mythic accrual, and yet this power is thrust upon him by the masses.

Lewis thus deflects the responsibility for the active establishment of opposition between the elite and the public away from the ruler and onto the ruled, which of course demands, in turn, not only more oppression but more hidden and subtle ways of oppressing. These tactics are realized in the genuine Celt, in Shakespeare himself. The “fisher-king” section of The Lion and the Fox culminates in explicit praise for Shakespeare's “ancient animal cunning” in invisibly staging the execution of the high, thus channeling social violence into the controlled model of binarism—the struggle of the “individual” against generalized decay—with its attendant emptying out through catharsis of any further desire to act. Shakespeare's masked and public “execution” of his noble colossi dispenses with “the gushing blood, the vinegar and the fainting god, every murderous instinct translated into, and compressed in, civilized reserve” (145). The king is sacrificed, executed, to preserve the (invisible and removed) aristocratic role, but it is important for Lewis to note that Shakespeare's “true” feelings—behind the bland features and the mask that hide his racial superiority—could, if revealed, be read on his face, which was, Lewis claims, “incessantly convulsed with the most painful unprofessional emotions; and it was apt to be tear-stained and fixed in a bitter grimace as he left the scaffold” (145). The parasite organizes and controls through public execution, through staging a Golgotha, Tyburn, or bear-pit that does not unleash the violence of the mob but rather subdues action in the tears and pity demanded by the frozen greatness of the unjustly slaughtered giant. Shakespeare, for Lewis, is the perfect executioner in that his invisibility and parasitism guarantee an effective mode of social control.6

This politicization of aesthetics leads to Lewis's later aestheticization of politics, and Shakespeare as executioner is crucial to Lewis's ideological development. This image of power and “slaughter” connects the aesthetic discontent and pacifism of Time and Western Man (published in 1927 with The Lion and the Fox) to the overt support of Nazi fascism in Hitler (1931). Time and Western Man, as I have shown, promotes the seclusion of an artistic elite from the growing force of democratization and social leveling; its heroic individuals, however, even though “like gods,” have only a dubiously solipsistic power of vision. In The Lion and the Fox, Lewis extends the power of the artist into the sphere of public action and control through the presentation of spectacle. Lewis legitimates centralized (and centralizing) political power by presenting Shakespeare's role as a public image-maker and propagandist. The rhetorical/dramatic forms of legitimate aesthetic authority can become those of legitimate political action: the great leader, like Shakespeare, controls the masses by staging a dramatic spectacle that pits the hero against the Machiavel in a particular representation of the universal and timeless opposition between mob and individual. In this drama, the mob is always represented as having the upper hand, and thus the individualist is ultimately justified in using more force (which will also, it is implied, necessarily be defeated—the herd is never in any real danger). Lewis's reconstructions of the Renaissance and of Shakespeare in particular thus open directly onto the means by which Lewis feels justified in celebrating in 1931 Adolph Hitler's rise to power.7 For Lewis, the conflation of one type of rhetoric with another allows him to think that genocide, in effect, is on the same ontological plane with dramatic tragedy.

All Germany is a stage for Lewis—a great spectacle presenting for the world the timeless drama of the individualist underdog (the Nazis) sacrificed to and oppressed by various mindless Others. Germany is now in the hands of a violent mob: “disorder is rampant” in Berlin, “and is checked with firearms and gummiknuppeln in the streets” (Hitler 16). Both the public and the police, in other words, have sunk to a kind of “street-violence” that serves the more democratic of the political parties; riot, for Lewis, not only epitomizes but “suits the book of the republican caucus” (16). At the forefront of this violent mob is the communist, spouting the ideology of class-leveling, and Lewis brands this figure as the central instigator of the social and economic collapse of Germany. In opposition to this chaos and violence are the Nazis, or National Socialists. Lewis evidences his political blindness from the beginning in that he conceives the Nazis as an elite group that argues for peace and order; the Nazis, Lewis thinks, like the Shakespearean colossus, are “incessantly denounced, harassed, and disarmed” (19). “Literally thousands of Nationalsocialists,” Lewis claims, “have been killed and wounded” in recent slaughters, and this is largely as a result of the “Communist” who “helps the police to beat and shoot Nazi's [sic]” (16).

Hitler's relationship to the Nazis and to Germany is significantly complicated. On one hand, he is himself “the German Man” and “the Man of Peace” who reflects and in fact embodies the unjustly persecuted stance (44). In this he is absurdly presented as Timon of Athens; the Nazi party is an expression of his will, and that will expresses in turn the absolute values of peace, stability, and the inherent value of “originality” (49). Because of the force of this incredible personality, the German nation will live up to its potential “vastness” and “power”; it will be “infinitely more formidable” than other European nations because it will act under Hitler “as one man” (33). As with Shakespeare's colossi, Hitler's force and point achieve transcendent meaning in that he is frozen in timeless combat with some ultimately “trivial” opponent who in spite of his “triviality” nonetheless threatens the life of his superior enemy. Tragically, Lewis thus conceives the opponent as not a body or group of bodies but rather as an abstract role.

At another level, however, Hitler's position is more like that of Shakespeare himself than that of Timon—he is more invisible director than spectacular vision. Lewis is very interested in Hitler's self-representations and representations of the Nazi cause. He urges his readers not to be overburdened with “a mere bagatelle” of race hatred, for example, but to overlook the anti-Semitism evident in Hitler's politics from the beginning. The reason we should overlook Hitler's evident anti-Semitism is that it is merely a dramatic trope; Hitler is staging the ultimate representation of the universal struggle between the individual and the herd, the timeless and the chaotic. The reader is also expected to buy one final extension of this oppressive logic: The Jew is merely a symbol. The self that Hitler both is and represents must be established, as is Shakespeare's colossus, through what Chase terms “the rituals of blood” and the “sacred act of violence” (qtd. in Meyers 157). This is an aesthetic issue; Lewis has moved easily from literary criticism to the persecution of a people, making of anti-Semitism the “sacred act” of representing the absolute. The English and the Americans must overlook the choice of signifier and look at the signified instead; “Blutsgefuhl” is a “racial red-herring” unreasonably fetishized by the uninformed (Hitler 43). In his modernist zeal to aestheticize the world, Lewis fails to see his own fetishization.

Lewis goes so far as to claim that anti-Semitism is proof of Hitler's artistic shrewdness; Nazi persecution of the Jews—or more accurately, castigation of the Jews as the source of Germany's severe economic depression—creates an oppositional, embattled stance for Hitler that legitimates his rise to power. The anti-Semitism sweeping through Germany is also evidence of Hitler's artistic effectiveness. Lewis is impressed with the particular villain thus chosen: in his view, the Jewish people make singularly effective scapegoats in the drama of Germany because their alien status is a function of race, not of class. At the beginning of Hitler Lewis sets the Nazis in opposition to social chaos in general, democracy and communism in particular; after establishing the Nazis' general underdog status, he makes no more direct attacks on either communism or rampant social leveling and turns his attention to Hitler's representations and thus to the “Jewish question.” The “Jewish question” is an issue that, instead of addressing the (for Lewis) distressing declassement of the German middle and upper classes, freezes the traditional German social hierarchy into a unit that must fight a single “other” foe. Friction between classes is thus side-stepped. Lewis explicitly points out in Hitler the political advantage of anti-Semitism and “Race-doctrine” in general: they de-emphasize the increasing trend toward social leveling. Like the “time-philosophies,” the “Class-doctrine [embedded in Marxist theory, for example] demands a clean slate. Everything must be wiped off slick” (84). “Race-doctrine,” on the other hand, solidifies society on the basis of an invisible but inherent quality that silently insists on the retention of hierarchy and exclusion. Race-doctrine thus allows for the unity that makes of a nation “one man” through association and ranking of those of the same race. Lewis provides the parallel example of gender relations under class- and race-doctrine to make his point. “Feminism” is, for Lewis, a class-doctrine that splinters society (race) through its obsession with “irrelevant” differences; “under a regime ideologically based on Race,” on the other hand, the attraction of racial sameness would bond husband and wife into hierarchical solidarity. This static hierarchy would ultimately “secure greater social efficiency” (85)—less mobility, less rebellion, less human surplus and difference to get in the way of “efficient” production (or reproduction in this case).

The anti-Semitism manufactured by Hitler, then, makes of Germany a model of naturalized oppositional spectacle that “secures social efficiency.” In this respect, Hitler is established in less than 200 pages of large type as the latter-day Shakespeare: this is the most horrible extreme to which the modernist fervor for aestheticization could lead. For Lewis, it is the construction and imposition of an “efficient” ideology that makes either a great artist or a great leader; the spectacle of control becomes the end of all heroic human endeavor. Hitler, effaced hero and underdog, stages the battle between the colossus and the meanly trivial; he organizes the social and the political as Shakespeare organizes the aesthetic. The universality of binarism that Lewis has established in The Lion and the Fox rhetorically legitimates this maneuver. The Jews become a synthetic construct for purposes of argument, stripped of their humanity within that argument in order to play the villain who furthers the unity of the German state and creates the power vacuum into which a “great individual” like Hitler can step. Unlike Pound, Lewis does not take pains to accuse the Jewish people of being villainous. It is only the villainous role that is necessary for the obliteration of class concerns and the unification of a nation into a static social hierarchy. Lewis never confronts the reality of human oppression. Andrew Hewitt argues that Lewis came to Hitler “in search of deception”—that the “essence” of Nazi Germany consisted precisely in the fact that it did “not offer that essence which was sought” (531). Social control is achieved at the level of artistic deception, and thus Hitler is to be celebrated as the ultimate “crowd Master” (Dasenbrock 174).8

By 1934, as Sherry points out, some doubt begins to slip into Lewis's rhetoric; some political/historical reality begins to confront his desire for an aestheticized world: he suspects that “political force must move at cross-purposes with aesthetic form: the necessary dynamics of the State are at odds with the true order of art” (118). By the time he is writing Rude Assignment (published in 1950), Lewis has thoroughly recanted, in language that expresses not only horror but self-condemnation:

Why has nature provided us with no psychical insight so that when we encounter a mass murderer we are apprised of the fact by an instantaneous repulsion? … As a portraitist I feel I should have detected the awful symptoms, even if I was wanting in the visionary power to see this little figure, only a few years later, popping into his gas ovens … (qtd. in Sherry 126)

Ironically, Lewis castigates himself for not seeing Hitler truly; it is precisely because he feels that Hitler lives behind the scenes that Lewis celebrates him in the first place. Lewis's mistake was his conflation of artist and political ruler, the artistic creation and the political creation. Like many of the modernists, Lewis came to believe that a revamping of aesthetics could replace what was perceived generally as a loss of organizing cultural principles. Only with the destruction of World War II was it made clear how deeply problematic—and dangerous—is the aestheticization of politics.


  1. Reed Way Dasenbrock's Literary Vorticism examines in fascinating detail Lewis's hostility to “time-philosophy.” Dasenbrock shows, among other things, that vorticist art was in large part established in resistance to Futurist art and the latter's emphasis on blurred movement and flux.

    Patricia Rae also studies Lewis's objections to Futurist (and Impressionist) art. She argues that painters of both groups, for Lewis, “forfeit the possibility of discerning and articulating any meaning in the phenomenal chaos, and remain completely ‘subjugated’ to Nature.”

  2. This sense was heightened by such forces as technology (the cinema, the photograph) and physics (Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle).

  3. Lewis's odd use of capitalization is worth noting. “Racial” terms are generally capitalized when used to denote some ethereal, larger-than-life characteristic; when they denote a quality more akin to the biological, the terms are usually lowercase.

  4. In this interpretation Lewis adopts a prevalent—though now seen as erroneous—view of Newton, thereby ironically showing how his “individual” reading of the transformation from the Renaissance to the “modern” period is itself ideologically bound and limited by the thought of the group. See Robert Markley's “Representing Order.”

  5. The English-Irish problem, then, is revealed by Lewis to have no substantial basis:

    [The Norman is] so disguised [as a Celt] (even from himself!—for he too has been taken-in long ago) he has had no difficulty in imposing on his simple saxon kinsman, who regards him with the greater awe, as a “foreigner” of the deepest dye, and most alien blood; according him alternately his dog-like admiration and wolf-like hatred, the latter of which is naturally reciprocated; for it serves, on the side of the Irishman, to keep up the illusion of a difference which exists only in the imagination of these two over-romantic relatives. (324)

    Lewis thus dismisses as a “little temperamental affair,” based only in rhetorical differences, the English domination of Ireland and Ireland's resentment and resistance.

  6. This might be contrasted to Lewis's own brand of attack, which left him exposed to criticisms for his extreme conservativism.

  7. Vincent Sherry makes a similar argument. In discussing Lewis's attitude toward Hitler in Hitler, Sherry writes:

    The worldview in which the national sovereign functions depends on an angle of sight exactly congruent to the one Lewis drew in The Lion and the Fox, where he mapped the scheme of proximate vision into the dynamics of total political control—where the equally “archaic” prerogative of absolute royal force was seen to rely on the same dark, anarchic background that Lewis projects as the source of the national dictator's authority here. (120)

  8. Hewitt's fascinating argument explores Hitler's role as transvestite in Lewis's work and shows how that role reinforces the political/artistic deceptions.

Works Cited

Bridson, D. G. The Filibuster: A Study of the Political Ideas of Wyndham Lewis. London: Cassell, 1972.

Campbell, SueEllen. The Enemy Opposite: The Outlaw Criticism of Wyndham Lewis. Athens: Ohio UP, 1988.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way. The Literary Vorticism of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.

Eliot, T. S. “The Literature of Fascism.” The Criterion. Ed. T. S. Eliot. Vol. 8 (1928). London: Faber, 1967. 280-90. 18 vols.

Hewitt, Andrew. “Wyndham Lewis: Fascism, Modernism, and the Politics of Homosexuality.” ELH 60 (1993): 527-44.

Jameson, Fredric. Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.

Kenner, Hugh. Wyndham Lewis. Norfolk: New Directions, 1954.

Klein, Scott. “The Experiment of Vorticist Drama: Wyndham Lewis and ‘Enemy of the Stars.’” Twentieth Century Literature 37 (1991): 225-39.

Lewis, Wyndham. Enemy Salvoes. Ed. C. J. Fox. New York: Harper, 1976.

———. Hitler. New York: Gordon, 1972.

———. The Lion and the Fox. Totowa: Barnes, 1966.

———. Rude Assignment: An Intellectual Autobiography. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1984.

———. Time and Western Man. Boston: Beacon, 1957.

Lewis, Wyndham, et al. Blast 1. 1914. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1981.

Markley, Robert. “Representing Order: Natural Philosophy, Mathematics, and Theology in the Newtonian Revolution.” Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. Ed. Katherine N. Hayles. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991, 125-48.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation. London: Athlone, 1980.

Rae, Patricia. “From Mystical Gaze to Pragmatic Game: Representations of Truth in Vorticist Art.” ELH 56 (1989): 689-720.

Sherry, Vincent. Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Paul Edwards (essay date 1997)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8785

SOURCE: “Wyndham Lewis's Narrative of Origins: ‘The Death of the Ankou,’” in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 92, January, 1997, pp. 22-35.

[In the following excerpt, Edwards declares Lewis more successful as a visual artist, and explores Lewis's short story “The Death of the Ankou.”]

The least manageable of modernist writers, aggressive, almost baroque in the intricacy of his mannered but slapdash prose, and apparently an enemy not just of sentimentality but of humanity itself, Wyndham Lewis made himself more unmanageable yet by his parallel role as an innovator in the visual arts. As a painter, Lewis is no more heartwarming than as a writer, but his standing is higher. One reason is simply that (as Lewis himself pointed out) a painting can be seen all at once, while a book takes time to read. A satirical painting of a pair of simpletons in blue suits, topped with brick-red faces grinning over some choice passage they have found in a book (A Reading of Ovid),1 is always going to be easier to digest than 625 pages of such writing as this:

Mrs. Bosun sat in her closet (she did not rise when the two came in from her windsor chair) which she presided over: a dignified red-white-and-blue domestic personage bluff and stout with blue and steadfast eye, of best ocean-blue (as the waves used to be before Trafalgar but especially prior to the Mutiny of the Nore), with a discreet foam of decent frilling bursting from under her buttoned-up period-bodice-case (bust-glove or rib-trunk)—rigid with stay-busks—and also a trickle out of the mouths of her massive serge sleeves of spotless undiewhite: as she moved there was a period-petticoat-rustle with it of silk and black callamanca combined, under the barme-cloth or the callous apron as white as the morning-milk—flannel and swanskin certainly in comfortable bloodbaked sheathes clung upon the buxom body, of beef-bred british limb and torse, of this model matron.2

This, from Lewis's 1930 satire, The Apes of God, is characteristic: misleading syntax (‘the two came in from her windsor chair’), metaphors apparently governed by the irrelevant associations of Mrs Bosun's nautical name, pointless figurative animation of incongruous detail (‘a trickle out of the mouths of her massive serge sleeves’) coupled with an excess of redundant variations (‘bodice-case (bust-glove or rib-trunk)’); whatever person is supposed to be imagined as referred to by this description has disappeared. Instead we have a grotesque totem with no inner life, a bizarre mock-patriotic fetish constructed out of the details of nautical myth, anatomical fragments, and the stock of a Victorian draper. And if, as a painter, Lewis is less trying, he still transforms the living person into a totem. Andrew Causey has pointed out that the figures in A Reading of Ovid ‘relate to Hawaian war gods with red feathered faces and sharks' teeth that Lewis would have seen in the British Museum’.3 The aesthetic behind these representations is an extreme one. It is based on a detachment that denies inner life to its objects, as Lewis's surrogate, Tarr, explains: ‘Deadness is the first condition for art: the second is absence of soul, in the human and sentimental sense. With the statue its lines and masses are its soul, no restless inflammable ego is imagined for its interior.’4 Lewis's was an aesthetic of the eye, and this standpoint was of such importance to him that he devoted a whole treatise to it, encompassing metaphysics, theology, and scathing cultural criticism.5 When the aesthetic issues in satire, as in The Apes of God, the presiding genius is (as for Dryden in his ‘Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire’) an executioner, ‘Pierpoint’, named for the famous British hangman.6

In this essay I trace this aesthetic back to its origins, or at least back to what Wyndham Lewis himself believed to be its origins. I do so through a reading of a story by Lewis about a death-god, which Lewis identified as the first short story by ‘the author of The Apes of God’. By tracing these origins I hope to explain some of the motives behind Lewis's stylistic extremism in the first half of his career and thereby show the nature of his version of modernism. In the process, light should be thrown on Lewis's quarrel with other versions of literary and philosophical modernism.

In 1935, Lewis wrote an autobiographical essay for a collection of writers' accounts of their early careers, Beginnings.7 His first short story, ‘The Death of the Ankou’, he claims, was written in Brittany as a by-product of his primary artistic activity, painting:

I was painting a blind Armorican beggar. The ‘short story’ was the crystallization of what I had to keep out of my consciousness while painting. Otherwise the painting would have been a bad painting. […] A lot of discarded matter collected there, as I was painting or drawing, in the back of my mind—in the back of my consciousness. As I squeezed out everything that smacked of literature from my vision of the beggar, it collected at the back of my mind. It imposed itself upon me as a complementary creation. (p. 266)

‘The Death of the Ankou’ was first published in 1927, in The Wild Body, a collection that mainly comprises revised versions of sketches and stories originating in Lewis's student travels and published in The English Review and The Tramp before the First World War. Unlike the other stories in the volume, it had not been published in an earlier version, and there is good reason to believe it was actually the last, not the first, of the collection to be written.8 But Lewis, like other autobiographers, had more important objectives than the recording of facts; or, as a novelist, he knew more than one way of telling the truth, and if there was truth to tell, he would tell it slant. What truth he was directing his readers to in 1935 had two aspects. First, that ‘The Death of the Ankou’ embodies an originating myth through which his artistic practice can be understood. Secondly, that the story itself originated from an encounter with a Breton beggar whom he painted and wrote about in 1908. It has always been assumed that Lewis's original story has been lost. But there was no story, simply a short factual account that Lewis preserved all his life. It is now in the Wyndham Lewis Collection in the Carl A. Kroch Library of Cornell University, filed with the important 1908 ‘Breton Journal’, and is published here for the first time by permission of Cornell University Department of Rare Books and the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust:

In passing through Gestel the other day with a comrade, sitting on a bench near the church we found two remarkable figures, a young man raggédly clothed, with a strange reckless face, and an old man bent over and leaning on a heavy stick.

The latter was largely built, his legs half naked, and of a dark metalic, salmon colour; and his feet thrust into the straw of his enormous sabots one ankle swollen and wounded,—it was this infirmity that prevented him from working—he sat motionless beside his insouciant and listless companion. With a heavy grey mat of hair, he was dark-skin'd and look'd like some9 bedouin; the flesh was pucker'd round his eyes into innumerable deep wrinkles, as though some torrid sun were constantly in his eyes: and gazing into Space, he seem'd to find in the nothingness always before him and blank of his reverie, the same occupation as those old sailors find, sitting for hours on the benches of the quays, and gazing at the empty sea. He look'd at us steadily when we spoke to him, and answer'd our questions slowly. My companion ask'd him if he would be painted; he made no difficulty. When ask'd where was his home, where he was habitually to be found, he replied simply, with that deep and tragic voice—that had this accent naturally, as a voice heard in a ruin'd and deserted dwelling, because of the solitude and bareness of his life,—‘On the stones’ (‘sur les pierres’,): it was there that he sat the greater part of the day, on the cobbles, to receive alms.10

No one has previously identified the passage as the primordial ‘sketch’ from which ‘The Death of the Ankou’ developed. Indeed, the passage is so far removed from the later story in style and content that but for the 1935 autobiographical essay there would be no reason to connect them at all. If we are to understand the significance of the differences, and of Lewis's devious autobiographical distortions, we need to see what the story itself can tell us about Lewis's aesthetic and its origins.

Fortunately, ‘The Death of the Ankou’ is one of Lewis's most accessible stories, short, and with a fairly clear structure. The first-person narrator is Ker-Orr, the ‘fanciful wandering showman’ Lewis uses as his narrator throughout the main section of The Wild Body.11 We know this from the story's context in the volume, however, since the narrator is unnamed in the story itself. Ker-Orr sits at an inn table during a fête, reading in a guide-book about a Breton death-god, the Ankou, and about the removal of the last statue of it from a church. Disoriented by his reading, when Ker-Orr looks up he sees a blind figure pushing through the other customers with his stick in order to reach the door. For Ker-Orr, this is momentarily the Ankou himself, and seeing him produces a frisson that he savours; for if you meet the Ankou, you die. He meets the man (in fact a blind beggar) twice again. Later the same day he is at the fair among the groups of people that the beggar is aggressively working, and discovers his name (Ludo) and dwelling-place (a cave at a nearby village). Ker-Orr walks there two days later, and seeks Ludo out at his cave, finding him at lunchtime, apparently unwell. After a little conversation, during which he speculates inwardly on the nature of blindness for its victim, Ker-Orr ‘thoughtlessly’ suggests that Ludo has met the Ankou. Ludo becomes less friendly, retreats to his cave, and Ker-Orr leaves, wondering whether he himself has represented the Ankou for Ludo. Later in the summer he hears that Ludo is dead.

The story is partly about superstition, and on the surface fits a rough polarity set up throughout the series of Wild Body stories: sophisticated Englishman as against primitive peasants.12 So we have the tourist, interested in the idea of the death-god, prepared to entertain himself with imagining it might be real, but not feeling genuinely threatened. At the other pole we have a peasant apparently so superstitious that the Ankou's curse can be passed on to him simply by being mentioned. This polarity is insisted on fairly dogmatically by the narrator of the stories, but it would be an unsophisticated reader indeed who did not note its occasional collapse. It breaks down in this story, but not before Lewis has established it by contrasting attitudes to superstition. Superstitions convert nature and its events into systems of signs (black cat means bad luck, for instance). Ker-Orr's guide-book gives details of such a conversion in the case of the superstitions surrounding the Ankou:

In the accounts in the guide-book, it was the dating, however, connected with the tapping of owls, the crowing of hens, the significant evolutions of magpies, and especially the subsequent time-table involved in the lonely meetings with the plague-ridden death-cart, that seemed to me most effective. If the peasant were overtaken by the cart on the night-road towards the morning, he must die within the month. If the encounter is in the young night, he may have anything up to two years still to live. (p. 109)

Elsewhere, the narrator ascribes to the ‘primitives’ and peasants he observes a fatalistic subservience to sign systems. In a passage expanded in the 1927 revision of ‘Les Saltimbanques’ as ‘The Cornac and his Wife’, he distinguishes this fatalism from the attitude of the ‘educated man’, who, ‘like the true social revolutionary, does not accept life in this way. He is in revolt, and it is the laws of Fate that he sets out to break’. The ultimate subservience to Fate would be that of the peasant who, having read the signs of the Ankou in nature, crawls into bed to await death. But, Lewis maintains through his narrator, such subservience to signification characterizes a peasant's whole relationship with the external world:

He can never conceive of anybody being anything else but just what he is, or having any other name than that he is known by. John the carpenter, or Old John (or Young John) the carpenter, is not a person, but, as it were, a fixed and rigid communistic convention. One of our greatest superstitions is that the plain man, being so ‘near to life,’ is a great ‘realist.’ In fact, he seldom gets close to reality at all, in the way, for instance, that a philosophic intelligence, or an imaginative artist, does. He looks at everything from the outside, reads the labels, and what he sees is what he has been told to see, that is to say, what he expects. (p. 102)

This critique of the peasant habit of mind echoes Henri Bergson's critique of language in Time and Free Will.13 Though Lewis later rejected him, Bergson was (along with Nietzsche) the philosopher who most influenced the young Wyndham Lewis. For Bergson, language fixes and objectifies what is in reality fluid, unique, and indeterminate. Language submits us to determinism. We know this theory better from recent feminist formulations; Bergson is referring to submission to the ‘symbolic order’. The ultimate determinism is death, and Bergson's philosophy advertises itself as a possible means of overcoming that fate. His philosophy ‘does not only facilitate speculation; it gives us also more power to act and to live’, and helps us realize our place in a unified life-effort that is ‘an overwhelming charge able to beat down every resistance and clear the most formidable obstacles, perhaps even death’.14 Lewis did not accept these positive claims, but he is certainly saying that the peasant is peculiarly entrapped within a deterministic symbolic order. He is, from his 1927 standpoint, also making an unexpected political point by contrasting the peasant with the educated or philosophical mind as a ‘rigid communistic convention’ versus a ‘true social revolutionary’. Just or not, this is an unexpected application of political categories to this not immediately political topic. This extension into a different category enlarges the mind's hold on the issue. But emancipation from limited categories of signification is the objective of the writing in the first place. One of the most customary of collocations is ‘plain man’ with ‘realist’, the passage says, and then proceeds to undermine it. A collocation that imposes fixed significations (‘plain man’ equals ‘realist’) is itself here explicitly called a superstition, and the narrator is shown to be free of it.

The fixing of a system of signification to the external world effectively collapses the distinction between the mental and physical, and reduces the world to one dimension. In ‘The Death of Ankou’, Ludo is apparently locked into the one-dimensional superstition that kills him. But the story is most vividly concerned with the one-dimensionality that is caused by his blindness.

What is his face to a blind man? Probably nothing more than an organ, an exposed part of the stomach, that is a mouth.

Ludo's face, in any case, was blind; it looked the blindest part of his body, and perhaps the deadest, from which all the functions of a living face had gone. As a result of its irrelevant external situation, it carried on its own life with the outer world, and behaved with all the disinvolture of an internal organ, no longer serving to secrete thought any more than the foot. For after all to be lost outside is much the same as to be hidden in the dark within. (p. 113)

The striking word here is ‘disinvolture’. It is not in the OED, but disinvoltura (a non-naturalized Italian import) is. It simply means lack of embarrassment, or more appropriately here, lack of self-consciousness. The foreign word (the French désinvolture rather than the Italian) may have appealed to Lewis because of the suggestions implied by its etymology, most accessible to the English speaker through the associated word involution, a turning in of something upon itself.15 Ludo is a sort of walking Klein bottle, with a continuous surface that is both outside and inside, or, rather, that negates the distinction. The implications of another phrase in the passage, ‘the dark within’, become clearer if we turn to Lewis's non-fictional writings. The phrase evokes D. H. Lawrence, and in the summer of 1927, not long before he composed ‘The Death of the Ankou’, Lewis criticized Lawrence's ‘primitivism’ in the first draft of ‘Paleface’, which he published in The Enemy in September. He quotes from Mornings in Mexico Lawrence's description of an Indian singing: ‘Face lifted and sightless, eyes half closed and visionless, mouth open and speechless, the sounds arise in his chest, from the consciousness in the abdomen.16 The lack of vision and the open mouth as an outlet for the abdomen recall the description of the consequences of Ludo's blindness. And just as Lewis had taken the superstitious peasant's relationship with language and the world as an instance of ‘communistic convention’, so in ‘Paleface’ he classifies Lawrence's admiration of ‘primitive’ consciousness as the point of view of a ‘natural communist’ (rather than, that is, an ‘indoctrinated, or theoretic, one’ (p. 51)). What Lawrence exalts, Lewis, of course, decries. He believes that to live in the one-dimensional, unselfconscious inner world that precedes the symbolic order is not to unite oneself with a fount of creative vitality but to submit to servitude (to ‘superstition’, to natural process or, in the modern world, to ideology). This is the substance of his critique of Bergson (with whose philosophy he associates the aspect of Lawrence's primitivism that he discusses). In his fullest critique of the claims of Bergson's philosophy, he concludes that far from being a means to conquer death, ‘it is really a dance of death that his ballet of “Creative Evolution” performs’.17 Ludo, therefore, anchored to a fixed sign-system, and locked into a one-dimensional ‘dark within’, is an appropriate death-god, a ‘king amongst afflictions’ (p. 110). This looks like a contradiction, however: is Ludo locked (‘superstitiously’) into the symbolic order, or is he locked into a ‘dark unconscious’ that precedes the symbolic order? The distinction is effectively unimportant, for the story shows that for Lewis the alternatives are simply two ways of describing a world reduced to a single fatalistic dimension. Only with duality is freedom possible.

Despite these connections with Lewis's other writings, we must beware of taking the description of Ludo as having a polemical intention. Lewis is not attacking the blind (as he attacked Lawrence) for having adopted a poor philosophy. What is happening, rather, is that the writing of the story evidently opens into an exploration of Lewis's whole problematic. Given that, in his metaphysics, he placed a special value on sight, a consideration of blindness, however disinterested in itself, was bound to lead Lewis into these areas.

Lewis fiercely criticized Bergson in Time and Western Man. But he deployed his favourite strategy of parodic travesty, so a patient expositor of Bergson's declared views would find his summaries simply inaccurate: one of the reasons why Lewis's philosophical competence is sometimes scorned. In fact, he was very well acquainted with Bergson's work, and probably took much of his philosophical orientation from the lectures of Bergson's that he attended in Paris before the First World War. In particular, he accepted the dualism that is at the root of every part of Bergson's philosophy. What he did not accept was Bergson's claim that its dualities were sublated in his positive doctrine. He always rejected the claims of any synthetic philosophy to preserve the characters of the antithetical components that it simultaneously pretended to transcend. Lewis was consistent in this, as his attitude to Nietzsche confirms. Bergson's philosophy claimed not to denigrate intellect, but to preserve its powers in synthesis with the infallible automatism of instinct (seen at its most effective in insects). Lewis believed this ‘synthesis’ was a delusion; Bergson's ‘intuition’ actually eliminated intellect and consigned us to an insect-like servitude to natural process: that is, to entropy or a ‘dance of death’, as he calls it. In the same way, he would most probably have denied the capacity of a ‘semiotic’ order (prior to the symbolic order) to deliver us from the tyranny of signs to a creative realm of non-determinist signification, as claimed in later French philosophies that are framed in the vocabulary of Lacan but ultimately derive from Bergson: wishful thinking so obviously delusory that Lewis could scarcely believe it was not calculated intellectual fraud. In so far as the presentation of Ludo implies a criticism of Bergson and Lawrence, it is their monism that is undermined. But although Lewis rejected Bergson's monism, I shall argue that one of Bergson's dualistic theories, that of language, provides the best conceptual framework for analysing the difference between Ker-Orr and Ludo.

The story establishes the difference between the characters (as Dominic Head has noted) by presenting Ker-Orr at a moment when he has himself apparently become indistinguishable from Ludo in his one-dimensionality. Reading in the dining-room of the inn, he becomes so taken over by the sign-system in which he has immersed himself that he merges inside and out into a one-dimensional dream-state. When he at first sees Ludo, it is as part of this daydream:

The blinded figure had burst into my daydream so unexpectedly and so pat, that I was taken aback by this sudden close-up of so trite a tragedy. Where he had come was compact with an emotional medium emitted by me. In reality it was a private scene, so that this overweening intruder might have been marching through my mind with his taut convulsive step. […] Certainly at that moment my mind was lying open so much, or was so much exteriorized, that almost literally, as far as I was concerned, it was inside, not out, that this image forced its way. Hence, perhaps, the strange effect. (p. 110)

But Ker-Orr's apparent subservience to sign-systems, his relapse into ‘disinvolture’ and superstition, is hardly that of the genuine ‘primitive’. Ker-Orr is a tourist, and his access to this world of superstition is through a guide-book: his relationship with the peasants' world-view is actually one of detachment, and at most his mind is prepared to entertain their superstitions, not to submit to them. He may feel momentarily that he has met the death-god, but his reaction is far from that of the peasant his reading has prompted him to imagine screaming and crawling into bed, the ‘death damp’ hanging about him until his time expires. Ker-Orr, the typical tourist, wants (and gets) the experience without the cost. He meets Ludo in the day (while the Ankou patrolled at night), but is eager to enjoy the full horror of the make-believe encounter:

I said to myself that, as it was noon, that should give me twelve months more to live. I brushed aside the suggestion that day was not night, that I was not a breton peasant, and that the beggar was probably not Death. I tried to shudder. I had not shuddered. His attendant, a sad-faced child, rattled a lead mug under my nose. I put two sous in it. I had no doubt averted the omen. (p. 110)

Similarly, when he speaks of the ‘strange effect’ of seeing Ludo, and of his finding the accounts of the tapping of owls, crowing of hens, and other details of Death's timetable as being ‘most effective’, this is the language of the connoisseur, not the language of belief. The ‘effects’ are aesthetic, primarily.18 This does not mean, of course, that the experience has no force for him, but its force is mainly that of the imagination, and he can detach himself from it. He is able to because he is a master of sign systems, whereas the ‘primitive’ peasant is their slave. The narrator has ascribed to peasants in ‘The Cornac and his Wife’ a fatalism about the relationship between sign and referent. The ‘educated man’ is able to unfix this relationship, so that reality can be brought under quite different categories or sign-systems (a blind beggar need not signify death). Ker-Orr is particularly adept at this. He is no respecter of the signs by which anyone or anything claims to fix its identity. As he says in the first story in the collection, ‘I am never serious about anything. I simply cannot help converting everything into burlesque patterns’. His mastery over signs is also reflected in his boast that he has ‘known french very well since boyhood. Most other Western languages I am fairly familiar with’.19

Right from the start of ‘The Death of the Ankou’, Ker-Orr is busy converting or translating from one system to a related, sometimes ‘burlesque’, one. Evidently reading a guide-book wri