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WYNDHAM LEWIS—THE INTELLECTUAL AS ARTIST

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By David Richard Beasley

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The Montréal Review, September 2021

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Portrait of Wyndham Lewis (Oil paint on canvas) by Michael Ayrton (1921–1975). Tate Modern, London

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For some decades the Wyndham Lewis Society has issued annuals of essays on Lewis’s philosophical and political views. A slew of books interpret his writings. Several biographies add to his two autobiographies. The profundity and variety of interpretations make any attempt to give a comprehensive picture of Lewis in a brief essay a herculean challenge. Some attempts have been made to relate his paintings to his novels, but it is as an author that his reputation is recognized today,— that is, among the more serious class of reader.

So extensive, so varied in interpretation are the commentaries on Lewis’s writings that these views should be included in an assessment of his work. Hence, I have quoted, sometimes at length to catch the full meaning, a cross-section of critics to give the reader a sense of Lewis’s impact on the intellectual community and the recognition of the prescience of his thought for today. I also quote from Lewis’s writings where the reader will note he uses small case letters for nationalities and related identities such as “european”.

I learned of Percy Wyndham Lewis when attending a series of lectures on British authors at Oxford University in the New Year of 1955. When the lecturer read a passage from one of Lewis’s books I was attracted by the immediacy of its imagery. I expressed my admiration to the lecturer and he, learning that I was Canadian, told me that Lewis carried a Canadian passport. He lent me a book on Lewis for a couple of hours. From it I discovered that Lewis not only authored novels, political, social and art criticisms but was a painter of note. He had formed the second art movement in British painting, Vorticism, in 1913 to 1914, months before the first World War.

The lecturer’s informing me that Lewis had a Canadian passport rather than identifying him as Canadian puzzled me.

Lewis was born in Amherst, Nova Scotia in 1882 and lived his first six years there with an English mother who painted landscapes whilst his American father wrote stories of his experiences as an officer in the Union Army in the US Civil War. The early years of a person’s life leaves a defining impression. When his parents moved to England, to live on the Isle of Wight, Wyndham Lewis must have felt the strangeness of a very different culture, which became a challenge when his father eloped with the housemaid to the states, His mother moved with him to London and enrolled him as a boarder at Dr. Arnold’s Rugby School with its relentless punishments, sporting life, and fagging system. Lewis, by his own account, was hopeless at sports and the dunce of his class, coming last in the years he was there. One of his masters caught him painting with easel and palette in his room and recognizing his talent helped him escape on a scholarship to the Slade School of Art in London. After two years there, owing to his indifference to the rules, he was expelled.

Was his behaviour owing to his estrangement from the society in which he found himself when transported from Canada as a boy? Canadian passports identified the owner as British until the 1970s and thus Canadians in Britain required no work permit, although the English regarded them as not-English. His English friends thought of him as European. Once on returning from Spain to England on an English cargo ship, the crew would not believe that he was English. The more distinguished of his forebears were French-Canadian mixed with Huron Indian, described in The Talented Intruder, a Canadian-issued, illustrated and comprehensive book giving details of his activities, paintings, drawings and many writings and broadcasts when living in Canada during the second World War.1

From Toronto in 1941 he wrote to his publisher in London: “I am glad to be out of the States. Who was it, by the way, who told you I was an American? That is so little true that in order to get a two months extension of my visitors permit I had to be fingerprinted and had such a dose of American officialdom that—although we have to be polite to the States in the hope that at long last they may agree to come in and help us—I am thoroughly sick of the Stars and Stripes and all they stand for. Needless to say, this is not for publication. In New York I ran into a great deal of anti-English sentiment —a hangover from Fenian days: but the mentality of the sturdily-rebellious colony, the inferiority-complex of a "new" society, is everywhere present, even at this late date. — I think they have a better president than they deserve in Mr. Roosevelt, who will help England in every way, if they will let him.”2

With improved artistry and friendship with the eccentric artist Augustus John and the writer Sturge Moore established, he went at eighteen to Paris and having avoided the conformism of formal education began the long intellectual journey to recognition as a genius. He attended Henri Bergson’s courses on the flux of time, the past as part of the present, then studied art in Hamburg, lived in Madrid and spent time in Brittany where he drew the Breton fishermen and began writing stories of their primitive lives. These stories he presented to Ford Madox Ford for a literary magazine open to works with realist content. Their publication brought Lewis the friendships of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, two ex-patriot American poets, whose work Ford promoted. They were seen as leaders in league of the avant-garde. James Joyce became one of them later.

Whether being different in dress and behaviour derived from a Canadian temperament of individualism or the nonconformism of the artist, Lewis became a strange figure whose appearances were sudden and whose background and abode remained mysterious. (He encouraged the myth that he was born on his father’s yacht in the Bay of Fundy). His bouts of paranoia when he dressed in a black cape and sat in restaurants with his back to the wall and labelled himself the Enemy, his fierce satirical written attacks on the class system, the Bloomsbury group and authors who catered to the degraded public taste for sentiment, romance and violence in return for money, his iconoclastic attitude toward art aestheticism were honest expressions cloaked in a wildness that Lewis said “disinfected him of his early respectability.” His admiration for the intellectual as against the masses. which he had discovered in his reading in philosophy and literature led him to fashion his position as the outsider, the opponent, and the innovator. During his student years, his mother supported him and intermittent financial support came from his father. When this support stopped, his life became a scramble for a livelihood to maintain his independence of thought and freedom from obligation, always in pursuit of the arts and never as an employe.

It was as an artist that he became notorious in London. Vorticism was action with stark realism in the classical sense as opposed to the cubism of Braque and Picasso which Lewis saw as static and romantic sentimentalism. At first influenced by Italian futurism which Marinetti brought to England, Lewis and his fellow artists soon found it frenetic, purposeless and leading to an idolizing of machinery, mainly the motorcar, as symbol of the state and fascism. By contrast the vortex, which is in constant motion, has a stable form and still centre. The artist, occupying the still centre, sees with detachment that the chaos whirling around him is formed  by and around his stillness.  Thus  he depicts the human figure as a machine in a pattern of rhythmic form to emphasize its dehumanization in the modern world. “The basic difference,” wrote a critic, “is that Futurism follows the sensibility of the impressionists and their subjective tradition. Vorticism, on the contrary, shares the Cubist faith in a modern sensibility and objectivity both as a corrective to the spirit of the nineteenth century and as the consequences of the scientific enunciations of Einstein, Planck, Minkowski and others, which had changed the relation between man and reality, disclosing an ambiguous, pluri-dimensional reality. . . . Whilst the futurist seeks to become one in a mystical surrender to his reality and expresses this state with sensuousness and enthusiasm, the Vorticist, despising this sense of fever and emotionality, aims to create an intellectual art, controlled and unsentimental.”3

The first World War ended Vorticism but its tenets remained with Lewis to inform his fiction and social criticism. In The Revenge for Love, the first of his novels I read,  I  sensed the intelligence in the writing and the objectivity of the story quite different from the novels of the day.

Lewis spent the early years of the first World War as a gunner on the front lines and, when recuperating from wounds, was hired by Lord Beaverbrook as a war artist to paint the scenes of Canadians at war. He continued his objective classical geometric style, which became valuable testaments to the futility of war. His aim was, he said, “to do a series dealing with the gunner’s life from his arrival in the depot to his life on the line.” Paintings such as “Pill Box”, “Battery-Shelled”, “Walking Wounded”, ”Battery Salvo”, “though decidedly angular were realistic.” They were his first one-man show, in London in February 1919, called “Guns.” Critical of his early abstract paintings, he thought abstraction eliminated nature which was important for understanding the human.

He developed his painting skill alongside his writing, including his remarkable novel Tarr until he suffered some years of illness in the twenties. He depended on his writing for an income and in his later years painted portraits for the money he so badly needed. His first portrait of T. S. Eliot became a cause célèbre when the Royal Academy rejected it and Lewis called that establishment a “disgusting bazaar.”

The Bloomsbury writers and artists, whom he satirized, made him persona non grata to editors such that he began his own journals, first Blast and then Tyro and in 1927 The Enemy, short-lasting but influential. “What must have seemed an exaggerated individualism on my part in The Tyro, as much as in The Enemy,” he wrote, “is not to be traced, oddly enough, to love of the ego, but to a sense of typicalness of a type out of place. I have never felt alone. . . . It did not matter being rather odd; like an albino in the physiological order,— It was probably a good thing to have something so contradictory around: somebody who did not hasten to agree with everybody else. . . . Something of these psychological backgrounds, that is all contributed to the particular note of mock defiance: the images of the bedizen horseman, or the masked harlot swaggering across the cover of the latter of these reviews,” [viz. “The Enemy”.]4

When the second World War began Lewis relied on his Canadian passport to give him refuge in Canada from criticism by the English press and society’s opinion-setters because of his book of 1931 in praise of Hitler’s management of Germany. He wrote to his publisher: “My presence on the North American continent is a question of force majeure. I can earn a living here whereas I doubt if I could in England. When the war started I wanted to go back, but at the time I was going through a minor economic Blitz of my own, and had not the necessary jack.”5

An introduction to his philosophy of how art affects the development of society is fundamental for comprehending his writings. I quote from scholars of Lewis’s works for explanations of the philosophical thought that interested him.

His Philosophic Roots

European influences were paramount. Lewis had studied contemporary French political writings, including those of Georges Sorel, Julien Benda, Charles Peguy and Jacques Maritain, and had read widely in German and Russian literature, philosophy and criticism. Thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant, Leibniz, Spinoza, Croce, Hegel, Worringer and Santayana were influential in his own development and subsequent work. Lewis's self education may have seemed a haphazard and unsystematic affair, but it is this background which provided a rich, if eclectic basis for the formation of his aesthetics and philosophy. It is the influence of Nietzsche and of Schopenhauer that Lewis readily admits of importance in his early years; Kant was found equally accessible and continued to exert a powerful and active influence on aspects of Lewis's thought after both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer had been denounced as precursors of the time-philosophy.

Both Lewis and Schopenhauer, however, shared a ‘veneration for ‘timeless values' and would have agreed on the ominous effects of 'Time', which immediately aligns them together against the Bergsonlan view of duration as a positive life-force.

Henri Bergson’s teaching of the importance of the flux of time to the development of society had a major influence on artists and particularly on modern literature with Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past its most popular example.

Real time consisting of heterogeneous moments is perceived as “pure duration” by intuition and intellect combined. Duration stresses the open flow of time, a continuous progress of the past “gnawing” into the future as opposed to one instant succeeding another which would mean a continuous present with no past. As the past grows without ceasing, there is no limit to its preservation—”all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it.”

The act of knowing is dualistic. One strand is the intellectual, spatializing process, representing the portals of consciousness, the seeing of things in the world as static, solidified and mechanistic. The other strand is intuitive knowledge, an unconscious feeling and emotion that allows humans to have inner knowledge of other selves and matter. Bergson claims that the spacializing process facilitates decision-making and helps us act in the physical world but cannot apprehend the “real”, since duration and flux, which are ineffable, may only be understood in terms of intuitive, sympathetic means. Man cannot experience change which operates outside him and be subject to the vagaries of movement through time, since the true self is the movement through time itself. We exist dynamically as change, and we are most aware of our essential selves when we live by intuition, identifying with the elan vital, the life-force (the inexpressible spiritual and creative energy, the ultimate reality of the universe.)6

To believe in the ultimate, supreme reality as consisting of time, to which all forms of life, intelligence and matter are subject was anathema to Lewis because it undermined the notion of self and the individual in a universe determined by temporality. Bergson by substituting time for the unconscious propels the inner recesses of the mind into a public domain where all is accessible and nothing is exclusive to the self. It leaves no place for the spatial, classical intellect. It denies that there are unique creative personalities since creativity itself is wrested from the individual and distributed universally at the behest of the elan vital. It threatens the artist’s ideas and beliefs about the uniqueness of his medium and mode of expression.

Lewis thought that a dual source of creativity, intellectual and instinctive, produced art. The plastic artist valued the forms, outlines, surfaces and external appearance of things and would attempt to maintain the objective hardness of material objects rather than have them dissolve into the flux and cease to exist as a separate activity in a spacial reality.

One of the most important characteristics of this spatial world—with its ties to the visual, the common sense, the mind, and thus the personality—is that in it, Lewis believes, we can maintain a clear distinction, a clear opposition, between a dead material world and the living mind. The introduction of private and subjective time-systems by the time philosophers—Bergson, Samuel Alexander, Oswald Spengler et. al. —destroy the autonomy of both matter and mind by breaking up the composite space of the assembled senses into an independent space of touch, a space of sight, a visceral space, and so forth: the conversion of the things into a series of discrete apparitions. In the world of the time-cult, both object and subject are dissolved into fragments, mind and matter merge into each other, and our power as thinkers is abandoned. In his space world, Lewis claims, matter stays dead and we retain our primacy. The time-cult’s emphasis on discontinuity between different temporal versions of the self Lewis rejects with the statement: "The more highly developed an individual is, or the more civilized a race, this discontinuity tends to disappear. The 'personality' is born. Continuity, in the individual as in the race, is the diagnostic of a civilized condition. If you can break this personal continuity in an individual, you can break him. For he is that continuity." He added, “. . . as stability is the manifest goal of all organic life, and the thing from which we all of us have most to gain, we see no use, in the first place, and in the second see no theoretic advantage, in this fusion [of space and time]. For the objective world most useful to us, and what may be the same thing, most ‘beautiful', and therefore with most meaning, and that is further to say in a word with most reality, we require a Space distinct from Time.” 7

Man’s capacity for a detached and dispassionate analysis appealed to Lewis and therefore the intellectual was a central figure to his thought. “Men owe everything they can ever hope to have to an ‘intellectual' of one sort or another.” He preferred an engagement in the politics of the intellect rather than the politics of power. The intellectual such as Marx, Proudhon and Rousseau, being the source of suggestions and definitions of human possibility, is the source of political change. “I claim further that the intellectual is the only person in the world who is not a potential "capitalist," because his "capital" is something that cannot be bartered. What he deals in, even when it gives him power, gives him no money. . . . The intellect is more removed from the crowd than is anything: but it is not a snobbish withdrawal, but a going aside for the purposes of work.”8

Lewis’s most productive period was the decade between 1924 and 1934, when he published some nineteen volumes of fiction and criticism, a "series of books devoted to the work of radical analysis of the ideas by which our society has been taught to live."' Originally conceived as one enormous work to be called “The Man of the World”, these books illustrate the major concern of Lewis's work as a critic (and, to a considerable extent, as a novelist): the hidden connections, motives, and consequences of apparently unrelated phenomena, "the notions behind the events occurring upon the surface." . . . His best and most representative volume of criticism, is the massive Time and Western Man, Lewis's analysis of modern literature and philosophy (with forays into history, psychology, popular culture, theoretical physics, politics, and a score of other topics).9

Nonfiction

In Time and the Western Man Lewis studies “the time notions which have now, in one form or another, gained an undisputed ascendancy in the intellectual world”. He “defeats” them by showing the time cult “in full operation” in the works of writers such as Proust and Joyce and “unmasks the will” behind the Time-philosophy.

A letter he wrote to an American college for a prospective teaching post reveals the importance he placed on the book.10

What I should aim to impart at Bard would be more especially the projection downwards, as it were, upon the social plane, of certain modern philosophies: what in practice they stood for. And I should show, by way of classical analogy, how Plato's teaching would work out on the social plane, what his teaching was calculated to do to those who came beneath his sway, upon the social and political plane: what type of life was adumbrated in his philosophy.

This was, of course, the kind of problem which occupied me in Time and Western Man. Treating metaphysics as arbitrary myths, almost as much as does Professor Ayer [a logical positivist]— as doctrinal propaganda for an individual, or a group, personality and its way of life (cf. Hegel and the god-State, as example of group expression, Vico as example of personal), I set out to analyse, from this standpoint, the contemporary systems in which the concept Time played so revealing and monopolistic a part.

D. G. Bridson’s The Filibuster. A Study of the Political Ideas of Wyndham Lewis discusses several of Lewis’s nonfictional books, especially Time and Western Man, Paleface, and The Art of Being Ruled. One passage provides a segue from Lewis’s abstract argument about the dangers of the Time Cult to its expression in modern literature.11

 . . . with his essay Paleface, he drew down a great deal of abuse for what was regarded (quite unfairly) as his 'racialist' attitude towards the Black American and the American Indian. . . . If anything, Paleface is a book about White emancipation. It is a protest against the sense of inferiority which the white race is being invited to feel when faced with the moral integrity, innate understanding and artistic achievements of the coloured races—the invitation coming as much from certain white intellectuals as from the coloured races themselves. It is, in fact, one more broadside in Lewis's onslaught against a Bergsonian over-selling of the intuitive in art at the expense of the intellectual tradition. We are back once more with the hip and the square—the Black and the Hopi being the hipsters on this occasion, and Lewis once more the square determined at all costs to defend his classical values. It is the insistence of certain writers on the moral superiority of the primitive that he is disputing. Such an insistence, allied as it was to a modern obsession with the primitive in art, he sees—once again—as a deliberate undermining of the intellectual position. It is to substitute the instinct for the intelligence, the emotion for the thought, and the spontaneous for the calculated. . . . It is, in short, a dangerous form of sentimentality; and when he finds writers of the calibre of D. H. Lawrence and Sherwood Anderson indulging in that sentimentality, Lewis once more moves up his artillery. . . . .

 Paleface becomes political only when it moves on to examining the reasons behind the fashionable acceptance of Lawrence's love for the primitive by an audience that could hardly have been expected to share his 'little ghost'. The fact is, says Lewis, that the popular acceptance of the 'superiority' of the coloured races by liberal intellectuals is based upon something far deeper than a romantic liking for the strange and the exotic. It is an outcome of the inferiority complex which the white race has been developing over the years, and which the writings of Sherwood Anderson, Lawrence, the Green Mansions of W. H. Hudson and other works were doing far too much to encourage.

In The Art of Being Ruled Lewis writes of modern literature’s effects on society.12

The Lunatic, or the Demented, and the Child are linked together by psycho-analysis, the link being its dogma of the Unconscious. . . . The willed sickness of the modern man is connected with the atmosphere of revolution and threatening chaos . . .

Miss Gertrude Stein is the best-known exponent of a literary system that consists in a sort of gargantuan mental stutter. What she is exploiting in her method is the processes of the demented. . . .Her art is composed, first, of repetition, which lyricizes her utterances on the same principle as that of the hebrew poetry. But the repetition is also in the nature of a photograph of the unorganized word-dreaming of the mind when not concentrated for some logical functional purpose. Mr. Joyce employed this method with success (not so radically and rather differently) in Ulysses. The thought-stream or word-stream of his hero's mind was supposed to be photographed. . . .

The exploitation of madness, of ticks, blephorospasms, and eccentricities of the mechanism of the brain, is a thing of a similar order in language to the exploitation of the physical aspect of imbecility in contemporary painting. The acromegalic monsters of Picasso, which gaze at you with the impenetrable dullness of the idiot, are an example of this. Matisse provides, throughout his work, an excellent illustration of the fascination felt for not only disease and deformity, but imbecility.

Lewis illustrates how Ernest Hemingway used Gertrude Stein’s method of repetition and simplicity to form his “infantile, dull-witted” style. Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Henry James, Virginia Woolf and himself are dissected in his Men Without Art but his  analysis of Hemingway’s style is most revealing.13

Take up any book of his, again, and open it at random: you will find a page of stuff that is, considered in isolation, valueless as writing. It is not written: 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. The matiere is cheap and coarse: but not because it is proletarian speech merely, but because it is the prose of reality — the prose of the street-car or the provincial newspaper or the five and ten cent store. . . .

This is the voice of the “folk," of the masses, who are the cannon-fodder, the cattle outside the slaughter-house, serenely chewing the cud — of those to whom things are done, in contrast to those who have executive will and intelligence. It is itself innocent of politics —one might almost add alas! That does not affect its quality as art. The expression of the soul of the dumb ox would have a penetrating beauty of its own, if it were uttered with genius —with bovine genius (and in the case of Hemingway that is what has happened): just as much as would the folk-song of the baboon, or of the "Praying Mantis." But where the politics crop up is that if we take this to be the typical art of a civilization —and there is no serious writer who stands higher in Anglo-Saxony today than does Ernest Hemingway — then we are by the same token saying something very definite about that civilization.

This leads him to his major concern, the decay of society under democracy and the challenge of authoritarianism, which he eventually sees as worse.

Democracy vs Authoritarianism

“A kind of gigantically luxurious patriarchate is what democracy and monster industry together have invented. The analogy between a great industrial city and the desert—the emptiness and abstractness of industrial life—is patent enough. So patriarchal conditions in contemporary urban life are not so unnatural as would appear at first sight. There is no king; but there are many mercantile despots, more or less benevolently patriarchal, indistinguishable in taste, culture, or appearance from their servants, or subjects, or "clients." This is how it comes that the family once more occupies the foreground of our lives. With a new familiarity and a flesh-creeping "homeliness" entirely of this unreal, materialist world, where all "sentiment" is coarsely manufactured and advertised in colossal sickly captions, disguised for the sweet tooth of a monstrous baby called "the Public," the family as it is, broken up on all hands by the agency of feminist and economic propaganda, reconstitutes itself in the image of the state. The government becomes an emperor disguised as Father Christmas, an All-father, a paterfamilias with his pocket full of crystal sets, gramophones, Russian books, and flesh-coloured stockings, which he proceeds to sell to his "children."14

All are potential blood-donors to swell the veins and magnify the bulk of a Moloch called 'the State'. (For this Power House goes by the name of 'the State'). Its Bank is a 'Blood-Bank'. We are forcibly bled to feed it. Its Capital is drawn from our veins. . . . The much-photographed, well-housed, well-fed politician, the object of much deference and flattery, is rather like the much-photographed Hollywood Star — he is only envied by the very simple and untalented people, or by the power-addict. On the other hand he has something the glamorous Star has none of —namely power. This means licence to interfere with, direct, and control other people.15

The disintegration of society is being brought about by the feminization or neutralization of the White European. “The feminist had been followed by the feminising male — a compensatory movement — and these developments took a spectacular form. New York was far less affected than London; the American he-man is a redoubtable conservative obstacle.”

The change from the traditional social pattern, dominated by sex, into an asexual pattern, with maleness shorn of all but its merely organic distinctness, will come about in many ways. One of the most obvious, is via class-war. Man constitutes as it were a class. Among the many class-wars by which European society is being very effectually disintegrated, the sex-war occupied a position of great importance. Though no longer a 'war', the effects of that civil war of the sexes are everywhere evident: in the form of pressures tending to dissolve the Family (which is the stronghold of the 'masculine' as much as of the 'eternal feminine') is revealed the same great design as was, in the first place, responsible for setting in motion the 'sex-war', and its Press-slogans injurious to the man as husband. . . .

Lewis's antipathy to the chaos of democracy stemmed from a fundamental preference for “the rational and well ordered.” By treating people functionally autocratic government could make them more contented by persuading them to stop “seeking always outside themselves objects of happiness” and instead to discover “their own reality.” As he saw matters, the “‘noble' exactitude and harmonious proportion of the European, scientific, ideal" was threatened not only by the impressionism of movements such as futurism and surrealism, but also by the levelling drifts of parliamentary government. [“The parliamentary system . . . lost its meaning. . . the humbug involved in such a transparently one-sided assembly makes it impossible to go on with it once a certain point of enlightenment or exasperation has been reached. . . .All the liberal tricks are seen through and known now by heart.”]16

Lewis likens fascism to marxian doctrine, all etatisme or collectivism. He sees that militant liberalist elements are being physically wiped out “as happened in Russia, but they are being eliminated quite satisfactorily without recourse to murder on a large scale.” Written a century ago, his words are eerily prescient.

In ten years a state will have been . . .the creation of a tyrant or dictator, with virtual powers of life and death: for with his highly disciplined, implicitly obedient, fascist bands, no person anywhere will be able to escape assassination if he causes trouble to the central government, or holds, too loudly, opinions that displease it. As the press will be — is already — under the direct control of the central government, and its editors and responsible staffs appointed by it, death, imprisonment, or banishment can be inflicted on anybody, anywhere, without ruffling the surface of opinion — indeed, can occur, if required, without its being reported. In such a state it is difficult to see how "politics" could exist. "Economics" will similarly disappear. All the boring and wasteful sham-sciences that have sprung up in support of the great pretences of democracy, and in deference to notions of democratic freedom, will die from one day to the next: for they are the most barren of luxuries, and no one would be interested to keep them alive for their own sakes (in the way that arts are sometimes kept alive) for an hour. . . . That the greater number of socialists, especially of the reformist type, still live in a quite unreal world of liberal idealism is an absurdity that cannot be imputed to any neglect on the part of fate in supplying them with portents. Darker portents, from their point of view, could hardly have been devised for them. Nor can leaders of revolutionary opinion, like Sorel, be accused of leaving them unenlightened as to what a dark and desperate world they have chosen to dream their dreams in. . .  The intelligence of the white races has been softened by success; they have been used for so long to easy and unchallenged power where other races were concerned, they succumb at once to a little intelligence. That is the weapon they have scorned and neglected, alas for them: and a litany of such scorn they are being today carefully taught, to the tune of "You may have those highbrow airs.”17

In his The Lion and the Fox. The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare, Lewis analyses “Coriolanus”, the exemplar of a dictator. (I see the Roman man-child in the former U.S. President Donald Trump, who is regarded as an obstreperous ten-year old with a psychopathic mind-set.)

In Machiavelli's case the ‘Prince' was, it is important to recall, a new self-made ruler, a martial adventurer: one, that is to say, who did not inherit power, but seized it. This Italian was only interested in the founding of States, and he thought uniquely of power. — The attention paid by Shakespeare to his doctrines would certainly not be that of one sharing this nasty obsession. What would attract him in Machiavelli would be the latter's exposure of the manner in which the thirst for power maddens men, and how ruling is in fact a disease. . . .

Coriolanus, as a figure, is of course the super-snob. Of all Shakespeare's heroes he is the coldest, and the one that Shakespeare himself seems to have felt most coldly towards. He was the child of Volumnia, not of Shakespeare, and one that never became anything but a schoolboy, crazed with notions of privilege and social distinction, incapable of thinking (not differing in that from the rest of Shakespeare's nursery of colossi), but also congealed into a kind of machine of unintelligent pride. He is like a Nietzschean, artificial "aristocrat," with little nobility in the sense that Don Quixote caricaturally embodies the noble, but possessing only a maniacal tolerance and stiffness. . . 18

Lewis recalls a performance of “Coriolanus” at the Comedie Francaise “in the feverish thirties” that “was productive of the next thing to a riot. At that moment in the play when Coriolanus passionately denounces, in the presence of the Tribunes of the People, the populace, the French Theatre audience, unable to contain itself any longer, leaped to its feet. Men shouted defiance at one another, fists were brandished: in some instances hot partisans of the aristocratic principle seized vociferous proletarians by the throat, bellowing 'communard!' (Where I sat the 'aristos' were in far greater force than 'le populaire'. There were some brisk exchanges.)”

Lewis concludes: “There remains the personal question —not as that affected Shakespeare in his grandiose single figures (either kings or great captains) but in its application to theories of the State. Ever since the English cut off the head of Charles I, personal rule has been invested for them with many of the attributes of Satan. Yet there is much to be said, in theory, for personal rule. And much was said in favour of rule by the One in ’The Lion and the Fox'. Even, as you may recall, a famous Englishman expressed the view that ‘a benevolent tyrant would be the best type of ruler’. It is the benevolence that is the trouble.”19

His Lesser  Known Nonfiction

From an overview of the controversies that Lewis addressed in his more important books we touch upon three other books of interest among many that are worth finding. (Finding them can be expensive: the only copy of Anglosaxony I discovered was selling online for $3,000)

In 1932 Lewis published The Doom of Youth, which attacked the encouragement of intense consciousness of youth.. . .  For youth, trained, militarized, rigidly organized (and organized to appear spontaneous and un-rigid), was becoming "mechanical." Futurists and the Italian Fascists were exploiting youth in the first instance, but the period following the first World War was everywhere fertile in "youth-politics," since the male principle, representing authority, had shown itself capable of being overthrown. The result was that youth and woman could more easily take hold of values.

Lewis warned that "youth-politics" intended to shorten human life by insistence on being young (the "doom" of youth), to level genius, break up family life, encourage precocity and radicalism, extinguish the true individual, effeminize values, and turn youth into a unique value at the same time as (in fact) abolishing it, a divide et impera policy on the part of big business aimed both at cheap labor and an uncritical consumer public.

Lewis had written in praise of the “Hitler Youth” the previous year in a short book of collected articles on the “peace-seeking” Hitler and his growing of the German economy. He downplayed the anti-Semitism that he had seen on a visit as did many others in Britain. The appearance of a book critical of the youth movement implies that he was having second thoughts. He found Italian fascism admirable in reinvigorating Italy but he was undecided about the German version. By the late 1930s he realized his huge miscalculation and his stupidity in dismissing those voices who tried to inform him of the true savagery of Hitlerism. His book of 1939 The Hitler Cult condemned Hitler as “vulgar, warlike and romantic insofar as his movement became an “unsubstantial Gothic dream.” His disillusion with Mussolini is complete. Also in 1939 appeared his The Jews, Are They Human? (following the successful The English, Are They Human?) which is a direct plea for the Jewish race. It attacks anti-Semitism, pays tribute to Jewish ability, and criticizes current German racial theories. Lewis rejects his former idea that, like the Negro, the Jew is in power, his supposed racial inferiority a myth, and that in reality the Aryan is the victim of intolerance in our society can be attributed to his sincere belief (expressed in Hitler) that racial bias breaks down class bias. "The more racial feeling, the less class feeling."

"I do not think it is unfair to say,” wrote George Orwell in 1939, “that Mr Wyndham Lewis has 'gone left'," and has declared himself a 'revolutionary' and 'for the poor against the rich.' He was referring to The Mysterious Mr. Bull, in which Lewis examines already-existing opinions, and dismisses all of them. He concludes that there is no such thing as "John Bull," and he is "mysterious" because he does not exist. Lewis narrates English history from the workingman’s experiences; thus the book can be said to dissolve actively the ideologies of Englishness, in all their variety.20

The writings we have discussed give us a foundation upon which we can survey his fiction with perhaps a better understanding than we would have had otherwise.

Lewis’s Fiction

I found three of his fictional works the most readable—Mrs. Dukes’ MillionThe Revenge for LoveSelf-Condemned. Professor Daniel Schenker also favoured them in his excellent study, Wyndham Lewis; Religion and Modernism.

Mrs. Dukes’ Million, according to Professor Schenker can be read as an ingenious and intellectually sophisticated mystery novel that belies the indifference of its author. (The manuscript was rejected for publication and found in a London junk shop about forty years later).

The mysterious Raza Khan, an Eastern potentate living in London who heads a gang of criminals dedicated to the staging of elaborate impersonations for personal gain, gets word of a one-million pound estate left to old Mrs Dukes by her deceased husband who left her thirty years ago. He decides to defraud the old woman, kidnap her, replace her with one of his “Actor-Gang’ and enjoy the artistry of his actors acting and living at the same time. The actor imitating Mrs Dukes is bored with repeating the same mechanical scheme of robbery. By avoiding the police and Khan’s henchmen, he escapes with the money. The plot of Lewis's novel rests upon two premises of aestheticism: the corrupt nature of the social and material worlds, and the redemptive power of the individual artist's imagination.

Critic Hugh Kenner noted that Lewis regarded it as a potboiler which would gain him enough money to have the time to write Tarr, a novel about student life in Paris. His other attempts to write bestsellers lacked “a cardinal motif: empathy: a sequence  of small unfakeable indications that the writer in some fundamental important way enjoys the world he is presenting.” But here Lewis is ‘having fun. . . . As it twists and turns like a merrily epilectic snake, his plot achieves scene after scene of pure farce.”21

Revenge for Love

The novel opens as Percy Hardcaster, an English communist agent, tries and fails to escape from a Spanish prison. After recovering from the bullet wound that cost him part of a leg, Hardcaster returns to England, where he is lionized by London's "salon-Reds," middle-class artists and intellectuals sympathetic to international communism. On the outer fringes of this group we meet Victor and Margot Stamp. Victor is a young, rugged-looking Australian artist whose modest talents have brought him nothing in the way of material success; Margot (not legally Victor's wife) is a quiet and perceptive woman whose being is determined by her absolute devotion to Victor. Unable to make a living as an artist, Victor becomes involved with two well-heeled fellow travelers named O’Hara and Abershaw, who first employ him in the "manufacture" of lost Van Gogh masterpieces and later send him on a gunrunning expedition into Spain. There he and Margot link up with Hardcaster, who, disgusted with the hypocrisies of his English admirers, is only too happy to return to the dirty but honest work of revolution. What none of these three realize is that O’Hara and Abershaw intend to use Victor as a decoy and have already betrayed him to the Spanish authorities in a move calculated to protect the real gun shipment. Hardcaster, who has developed a genuine affection for Victor and Margot, is captured once again as he attempts to warn them of the double cross; later, in his prison cell, he reads a newspaper account of how the couple perished in the mountains attempting to escape back into France.

Professor Schenker writes: “By the mid-1930s, Lewis sounded like a jaded old revolutionary, complaining about how the world had "fallen back" from the future he and his contemporaries had tried to create for it.  An important sign of Lewis's change in temperament was the modified scale of his writing in the 1930s. . . . His major works of the decade (Snooty Baronet, Men Without Art, Blasting and Bombardiering, The Revenge for Love, and The Vulgar Streak) have a narrower focus. Each of them is less concerned with metaphysics than with localized events. Although Lewis may have been forced to this position by disillusionment, he soon exploited the resources that this new literary territory afforded him, as we can see in what is often acknowledged as his most well-crafted novel, The Revenge for Love.”

Rebecca West regarded Lewis’s novel the only realistic portrayal of the Spanish Civil War. She wrote a review of Revenge:  “This extraordinary work is the first truly modern novel to express artistically the complete absolute quintessential Nothing, the underlying lie of this imperialist epoch. There may be writers who have felt this but so far only Wyndham Lewis has succeeded in giving it form.22

Every part of the book carries on the electric charge until the circuit is complete. . . . That daring leap, from the kingdom of dehumanising necessity to the kingdom of freedom, that creative Promethean act by which a revolutionist, a friend, a woman, an artist attempt to break the cash-nexus, that creative love the crime of crimes against the system, must be crushed out by torture, must be revenged. This revenge for love is the large theme of the novel expressed variously in the outrageous punishment meted out to Hardcaster, revolutionist, Stamp the artist, and Margaret his wife, a character very much like Lear's loneliest daughter Cordelia. The tension is like that in Lear— they are flies to wanton boys who kill them for their sport. These three are trapped in an absurd wanton senseless system, a system of lies which Wyndham Lewis symbolises in the "immense false-bottom underlying every seemingly solid surface" upon which they tread, the "prodigious non-sequitur". Like a composer developing a motif, not by simple repetition but by a continual transforming and deepening of all the incalculable resonances latent in the original motif, Wyndham Lewis traces the "false-bottom" in faces, gestures, places, communists, lovers, friends, artists, and finally in the ex-bootleg machine turned into a gun-running machine, with yet another false bottom — no guns!

What underlies the fiasco in Spain, none of the novelists have made clear. Malraux, Hemingway, and others smear the issues with eloquent rhetoric. Take this eloquence and "literachoor” and wring its neck for hiding the truth! Fearlessly truthful, Wyndham Lewis alone has expressed in art, what (others have) expressed in polemic. He did not take the romantic battlefield, the heroic martyrs, beat our brains with the bones of corpses or blind us with the mass bombing. He did not attempt an analysis of a whole epidemic. Like a scientist, he isolates instead some microbes during the Lerroux administration. . . . shows up all the false "politics" which made such a lavish use of the poor and the unfortunate, of the "proletariat" . . . to advertise injustice to the profit of a predatory Party, of sham underdogs athirst for power: whose doctrine was a universal Sicilian Vespers, and which yet treated the real poor, when they were encountered, with such over-weening contempt, and even derision. This devastating portrait is not . . . from a reactionary viewpoint. The figure that unmasks the bourgeois fraud in the Popular Front is himself a communist. . . . In this book there is no moralising, no cant, neither sentimental Hope (Malraux) nor hysterical fear.'

Lewis commented: “Just as real war is not an affair of waving operatic plumes, surmounting a proudly erect figure, brandishing a sword, but the squalor of a mud-caked, or dust-steeped, perspiring creature, as often as not on his belly, or emulating the stealth of an Indian rather than the martial stance of a Sixteenth-Century copperplate of a plumed Capitan: so it is in the class-war, necessarily. That reality I attempted to convey.”23

Self-Condemned

As I mentioned, Lewis had to leave England in 1939 owing to his early praise of Hitler in his book of that name. (“I hoped to break the European ostracism of Germany.”) Although his book The Hitler Cult published in 1939 depicted the real monster he had mistaken for an efficient reformer, the claque was unforgiving and vociferous. He took refuge in Toronto, Ontario.

Ontario in the 1940s was bleak intellectually and artistically. Lewis and his wife managed to survive, an achievement he narrated in his novel Self-Condemned, considered  by some to be his best.

Lewis’s latent hostility toward the grand designs of history in The Revenge for Love becomes explicit in his next important novel, Self-Condemned, published almost twenty years later.24

Professor Rene Harding, on the eve of World War II, can no longer in good conscience teach the record of criminal acts that passes for Western history and leaving a British university for Canada, he and his wife, Hester, occupy a one-room flat in a seedy Toronto hotel. Months of loneliness and a devastating fire that destroys the hotel drive Hester to suicide and Rene to a nervous breakdown. He recovers a semblance of mental health after a few months in a Catholic seminary and later returns to academic life, accepting a position at a major American university.

The Hardings, completely contained within the hotel room—"twenty-five feet by twelve"—live in virtual isolation from their somewhat xenophobic Canadian neighbours. Grateful for even the smallest kindness extended to them, they develop an affection for the hotel manageress Mrs McAffie, a flying wraith, who dashed, flew and darted everywhere.

Rene Harding's transition from history professor to hotel resident, accompanied by an increasing concern with life (as opposed to art)  made him forsake satire for an appreciation of humanity. “Neither in this novel nor the ones that follow does Lewis adopt a humanist position, if we understand humanism as a philosophy that sees man as the ultimate measure of things,” Schenker writes. “His way of seeing the world is analogous to the Vision of the Saints. But it is not necessarily in any way connected with saintliness. . . . in reality, is a taking to its logical conclusion the humane, the tolerant, the fastidious.'"  "Fastidious" is a key term here, balancing "humane" with its suggestion of the continuing need for careful discriminations among the things of this world, and reminding us that Lewis's religious sensibility remains hieratic rather than mystical. . . . the belief that the divine exists not only for its own sake, but also as the measure of man's essential humanity.”

Rene proceeds to dig himself in "with concrete and steel" against any future misfortune by becoming a respected citizen of academe, and by the time he accepts his professorship at a prestigious American university, he is little more than the "glacial shell of a man," who once proposed a new way of thinking about history.

Alan Munton writes: “The postwar novel Self-Condemned (1954), particularly, is a reflexive commentary on the failure of the 1930s. The primacy of the intellectual in initiating change too often issued in contempt for the passive 'mass' of people for failing to resist the tricks democracy played upon them.” Timothy Materer referred to it as a book of 'remorse'. “It was conceived out of the same wartime experience of Canadian exile which changed his politics in a crucial respect: 'All the hostility I felt for the centralizer I no longer feel', Lewis wrote in 1941. ‘But it is a wish for global centralization-universalism that has made decentralization 'an absurdity'; 'universalism' will be 'much better than internationalism'.25

Satire

In Wyndham Lewis. Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy, Geoffrey Wagner defines Lewis’s type of satire:

Lewis called English humour “the greatest enemy of England”. He detested the cosy or Punch variety. Humour is a delightful dope, based on the evasion of reality, which can be used as a political weapon to keep the masses quiet—a brief romantic tool. George Bernard Shaw exemplified this humour; he evaded reality and created safe, lovable characters to take the mind off any real social change. Satire, however, presupposes change and reforms society. By doing something to you, it is accordingly hated by the indolent many.

. . . Like Flaubert, he says, the modern satirist must show up his age far more than his classical antecedent was required to. To this end contemporary satire must be disinterested and cruel. It must be violently destructive. . . . Lewis constantly asserts that it must be amoral. "I am a satirist . . . But I am not a moralist.” Yet of course he is a moralist, in the sense that the urge to change the status quo, which avowedly prompts his satire, has a moral intention. One presumes that Lewis is exposing the evils in our society by means of satire in an effort to correct them. But what he clearly desires is that satire should not be "edifying." Any overt connection with a system of contemporary morality, especially one embedded in a religion, will vitiate the work of art for Lewis. It will soften it and make it ineffectual. "Perfect laughter, if there could be such a thing, would be inhuman," he writes. To succeed satire must have a painful effect.’ It is a mixed form, so capacious that it can deal with almost any subject.26

Some consider Lewis’s satirical works among his best but then a taste for Lewis’s  merciless punctures of pride, pretence and perversity has to be special.

Tarr

In 1928 Lewis’s novel Tarr, a revised edition of the first, which he wrote in 1909-10 and published in 1918, established him as a satirist of the social scene. It has become a talisman in the world of the artist. Praised as a mixture of originality and vitality when it first appeared, it was boosted by Ezra Pound—“the most vigorous and volcanic English novel of our time”—and by T. S. Eliot—“the thought of the modern and the energy of the cave-man.”

It concerns the Parisian adventures of Frederick Sorbert Tarr, a young English painter, and Otto Kreisler, a failed German artist in his mid-thirties who is engaged on a path of self-destruction. Tarr considers himself to be a true artist in a world of 'bourgeois bohemians', the pseudo-artists of Paris who lack talent but can afford to rent studios for themselves, and who declare their independence from bourgeois society even as they create their own hypocritical community with its own equally predictable societal mores. Tarr acts as the spokesman for the novel's aesthetic ideas, and he proclaims, as the model post-Nietzschean his first name 'Frederick' suggests, that he stands beyond conventional morality. The plot follows his romantic and sexual involvement with two women. The long-suffering Bertha Lunken, a German, is soft-hearted, simplistic, and filled with conventional ideas about romance, while the stylish cosmopolitan Anastasya Vasek exemplifies the new woman of the early twentieth century, intellectually self-sufficient and sexually independent perhaps to the point of alarm. The novel describes a sort of roundelay between these four characters, who change partners in a quasi-symmetrical dance of coupling and uncoupling.

Tarr holds up to scorn the absurdity of the Germanic Romanticism that underlies both Kreisler and Bertha, the former a product of Prussian militarism, the latter steeped in received middle-class worship of the culture of Goethe and Beethoven. It scathingly reveals the inability of many of its characters to keep separate those human energies antithetically appropriate to the making of art versus the making of love. . . . No novel before the work of Samuel Beckett so thoroughly introduces to the English tradition the idea of the Absurd ('we represent absolutely nothing thank God!', Anastasya drunkenly proclaims in the restaurant with Tarr, as though she has reached an apotheosis.) No other English novel sets its action in play with so little concern for morality.

 Geoffrey Wagner sees the prophetic warning in the novel: Kreisler's tragi-comic flaw is his inability to come to terms with reality. . . .In this martial nihilist, who ‘hated powerfully,’ the comic type as envisaged by Lewis achieves real stature. No character he has created since matches Kreisler in importance, or suggests that need for social reform which the best satire presupposes. . . . There is something of Kreisler in every adolescent. But it is as a nationalist symptom that he makes an especially disturbing character to read today. With his hatred, bellicosity, paranoia, romanticism, and love of the alt'deutsch, Kreisler is Goebbels or Hitler. And the sexual side of the Nazi myth is in him also. So Lewis writes prophetically in this work: "Instead of rearing pyramids against Death, if you can imagine some more uncompromising race meeting its obsession by means of an unparalleled immobility in life, a race of statues, in short, throwing flesh in Death's path instead of basalt, there you would have a people among whom Kreisler would have been much at home.”27

The Apes of God

Paul Edwards wrote, “The phrase 'neglected masterpiece' is used too often, but it justly describes The Apes of God.” Rave reviews mixed with “dissentient voices”. The Bookman wrote: "The greatest novels the twentieth century has so far produced, it is generally agreed, are James Joyce's Ulysses and Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. With the publication of Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God, a third takes its place among them, and can claim superiority so far as intellectual content is concerned.”

Stephen Klaidman attacks Lewis as biting the hands that fed him because Lewis ostensibly lampooned Sydney Schiff, a rich friend of artists whom he aided financially at times. “Wyndham Lewis, a man with a capacious intellect, had a diminutive idea that he transmogrified into a monstrous, ramshackle literary blunderbuss,” he wrote. “Most of The Apes is hopelessly obscure and forgotten because it is pretentious in its display of frequently irrelevant erudition that would distract from the narrative if there were one. And it was forgotten because its argument, much but not all of which is banal, is too often encrusted in deliberately baroque language spoken by puppets, not people.”28

Paul Edwards’ article “The Apes of God: Form and Meaning” provides a starting point for understanding the novel:29 

The Apes of God is a portrayal of a 'time without art’— a portrayal of a world in which there is a disjunction between meaning and appearance. One of the major achievements of Lewis in this book is to create a style capable of depicting such a world. It is not a world from which meaning is completely absent, but one in which the categories imposed on naked experience are second-hand and ill-fitting. The superfluity of imaginative material with which the artist informs reality is, in the social life of the Apes, replaced by a series of hastily assumed conventional facades. It is as if they were constantly signaling to each other, but the signs never mean anything of value. . . . The Apes of God who are the main objects of Lewis's attack are the prosperous amateurs who have monopolized the artistic world and frozen out those with real talent, making the creation and survival of true art virtually impossible. . . these are people with no future. At the same time they represent the future, since no-one is producing imaginative fictions upon which an alternative future might be modeled. The Apes are important not as relics of the bourgeois era soon to be superseded; on the contrary, they are actually a sample of the future:

It is picaresque and episodic, the picaro being the beautiful but moronic Irish youth, Dan Boleyn. This simpleton is conducted round various salons and visits numerous pseudo-artists under the wing of the sixty-year-old albino Horace Zagreus, whom he reveres, and who in turn is captivated by the youth and 'genius' of his protege. Unlike the usual picaro, Dan is desperately shy and reluctant to undertake any adventures, learns virtually nothing from those he is forced into, and, as if Lewis were mocking the responses of his readers, is painfully and paralytically bored by the constant lecturing and explaining that he has to sit through, most of which he is unable to understand. . . .

The story begins and ends at the great town house of the Follett family, there being competition between relatives for the Follett inheritance. Ninety-six-year-old Lady Fredigonde Follett, whose toilette is described in the book's prologue, favours Horace Zagreus, who needs money to finance his Ape-hunting, while Fredigonde's equally ancient husband, Sir James, favours a nephew, Dick, who is rich already and, being an amateur professional artist, is a specimen Ape. There is also rivalry between Zagreus and Melanie Blackwell over the person of Dan Boleyn. Dan's relationship with Horace Zagreus reaches its zenith . . . when Dan learns that he has been replaced in Horace's affections by the Jewish cockney, Archie Margolin, and is abandoned to Melanie Blackwell.

More significant than the plot itself is its formal disposition—a pattern in which the resolution of the plot is a mirror image of its statement at the opening.

Edwards recommends Cena Trimalchionis of Petronius, Pope’s The Dunciad, Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, and Joyce’s Ulysses to help a reader understand and place The Apes of God. The range of these literary relationships, coupled with Lewis's selection of the General Strike of 1827 as a conclusion to the work, reinforces the notion that The Apes of God is far more ambitious than the description of it as a satire on artistic life suggests.

The only one true artist in the book, the elusive Pierpoint, provides all the 'meaning', without which it would be a collection of discrete appearances. 'Life' in itself is nothing (Lady Fredigonde is the representative of life); only art gives it meaning and value.

Geoffrey Wagner’s sees it as “a merciless exposure of men and women as social symptoms” and as Lewis wrote.’”a social decay of the insanitary trough between the two great wars, an inferno of local decadence.”30

"A society has premonitions of its end,” Lewis wrote. “Mortification already set in at the edges. They began to stink. I have recorded that stink." Homosexuality, the youth cult (Dan has the "prestige of the 'under-twenties'"), the revolutionary orthodoxy, all are flayed in this unforgettable picture of a moribund society—primarily leveled against the class in which Lewis lived and by which he was most hurt, namely the literati—the "lettered herd." The artistic amateurism is for Lewis only one more example of the collapse of the authoritarian tradition which is the principal weakness of our societies today. The longing for irresponsibility in the child, artist, and imbecile (all three conveniently coalescing for Lewis in a figure like Gertrude Stein) is itself a social phenomenon against which Lewis inveighed. . . . the work does show us the tragic fall from high estate. . . .The satire of this moribund society—now dead?—begins appropriately with the prelude of Lady Fredigonde preening herself, getting ready, in fact, to die. "The especial effluvium of death, like a stale peach crept in her nostrils.".

Geoffrey Wagner concludes: “Of all Lewis' works The Apes has for me the greatest artistic integrity. Hugh Kenner calls it Lewis' "worst-written" book. It is, of course, his best. Every page has been composed with honesty. Every page, despite one's immediate feeling to the contrary, is functional.”

Today in the 2020s The Apes of God seems irrelevant in a world so different.—English society characterized by Sidney and Violet Schiff, the Sitwells, Virginia Woolf long gone. Certain passages are gripping, i.e. when a gay male model poses for a lesbian sculptor. Lewis’s later satires such as Snooty Baronet and The Vulgar Streak are lighter, easily readable and still relevant as they expose the English class system as a sham and ridicule the London literati as at a house party in The Roaring Queen). Lewis’s last published novel, The Red Priest, is the most dramatic. It uncovers an Anglican priest whose gentle facade is broken when he kills an assistant over a theological disagreement.

Anne Blott in her article, “The Merman and the Mint: A Study of Wyndham Lewis’s The Vulgar Streak” demonstrates the depth of Lewis’s “lighter” novels.”31

“For Lewis freedom, the gift of nature,” she writes, “depended upon clarity of perception and access to exact information. He saw in modern culture a growing technology of misinformation and psychological control, leading to a reduction of the reality of the self to a behaviorist's dummy whose perceptions were increasingly controlled by print and electronic media. .  .  . A firm and unsentimental grasp of the main features of the present was one means of securing this freedom, and each of Lewis's books has its provenance in a particular set of features from the immediate historical and social context. He took the position that every serious work of art is grounded deep in philosophy, politics, aesthetics, and theology — intellectual departments that form the structures of meaning in his work.

The story opens in Venice with two Englishmen, an upper-class effeminate with a fake stutter and his friend, Vincent Penhale, who had escaped from a working-class background to pose as a rich dilettante artist with an income derived from passing counterfeit bank notes. The time is the autumn of 1938, at the peak of Hitler's war of nerves over Czechoslovakia. Vincent manoeuvers to seduce socialite April Mallow, and his subsequent marriage to her marks the summit of his climb to social power. Confident of having legitimized his position by this marriage into an established family, Vincent returns to London for his father's funeral, a brief but compelling sequence of dialogue and narration in the world of the working poor, from whose ranks Vincent had so anxiously fled. Meanwhile, Vincent's former counterfeiting partner murders a man who suspects them, and Vincent, when arrested and charged as an accessory, sees his claims to respectability rapidly evaporate. At this point, he begins to appreciate that he has sacrificed real love and humane values in his greed for power, and so he hangs himself, leaving behind him sardonic messages to the survivors of his world.

The hidden meanings of the novel are not easily seen from the action on the surface. Lewis correlates the narrative with patterns of political and economic history as Europe stirred into war. He explores a type of mind and standard of values. The metamorphosis of a society is wrought as much by a process as by a single man.

In Crime and Punishment, Lewis wrote, the hero follows in the footsteps of Julian Sorel (and of Napoleon). It seemed to me that the time had come to add another book to this line: that the doctrine extracted by Mussolini from Les Reflections sur la Violence and from Nietzsche (who got his stuff fundamentally from Darwin) — it seemed to me that this doctrine taken over by Hitler, and influencing so many minds in Europe, might be made to do its fell work in the soul of a character in fiction, once again. On very different lines, it was time to project another Sorel or Raskolnikoff; whose bug could not be the Napoleonic bug this time, but rather the self-consciousness 'power', 'force', and 'action' that has infected so many people today.

“Even if the reader could ignore the insistent clamor of the newspaper headlines that Lewis has laced throughout the text of The Vulgar Streak, Lewis's careful plotting of times, settings, and actions shows that the plot is linked to contemporary political developments. . . .Vincent Penhale shares several individual characteristics with Hitler. For example, Alan Bullock describes Hitler as a consummate actor, 'with the actor's and orator's facility for absorbing himself in a role and convincing himself of the truth of what he was saying ... there were few who could resist the impression of his piercing eyes, the Napoleonic pose, and the "historic" personality.'  Both men of action manifest an aggressive use of the personality, with the voice as an instrument of an over-riding will. . . . Alan Bullock observed that Hitler's power to bewitch his audiences worked the 'occult arts of the African medicine-man or the Asiatic Shaman . . . and the ‘magnetism of a mesmerist.’ Vincent, the ‘mer-man of action’, wields a magic force over his family.  The shaman's control over others is especially dangerous in politics, Lewis wrote, because it disarms the spectator. The shaman specializes in transmutation: bashfulness overtakes him when he begins to transform himself for this office; he becomes womanized, a soft man whose dissimulations go unnoticed. From contemporary accounts of Hitler, Lewis assembled an image of a 'monster of shyness' and a 'paranoiac violet.’ Like Vincent in the novel, Hitler conformed consciously to the stereotype of the artist: nervous, volatile and prone to emotional excesses. Vincent himself describes the construction of the 'artistic' temperament as a 'damned convenient thing’.

Through Vincent Penhale, Lewis was developing an exploration of the selfish manipulation of power by fomenters of revolution and violent action. The citizen of modern society who did not recognize in the twentieth-century environment new forces which were fundamentally changed from those of the past was inevitably marked out for exploitation by men who, potentially, could control his education and the media that are his sources of information. The mass of men in contemporary society seemed numbed by vulgarizations of technology, mesmerized by advertisement, and dulled by commercialism and cliché. The politician, by taking advantage of this human peculiarity, operates, and brings off his most tragic coups. Those who ignored their present situation were 'firmly on the side of those people who would thrust us back into the medieval chaos and barbarity; at whose hypnotic "historic" suggestion we would fight all the old European wars over again, like a gigantic cast of Movie supers, and so fill the pockets of these political impresarios.’ These concepts of hypnosis, mesmerism, and torpidity operate symbolically throughout Lewis's presentation of Vincent's conquest in The Vulgar Streak. Vincent, like Hitler, is a charismatic form of energy, gesticulating theatrically to control the will of his passive audience. But behind this facade of magnetic personality and hypnotic voice is emptiness only. Hitler called himself a 'sleepwalker' and was guided into disastrous decisions of strategy by forces he could neither control nor understand. So it is with the 'mer-man of action' in The Vulgar Streak.

As for the “Mint” in the essay’s title, it refers to Lewis’s exploring of the monetary system. “Not only Vincent but also the whole British economy of the pre-war years is shown to be living on an overdraft. . . . One falsehood leads irrevocably to another in the novel; when the characters have been deceived or self deluded into accepting one false standard of value, they can no longer measure the true value of anything. . . . This system of counterfeit credit and unreal value, of which the forged bank note is the emblem, blights the larger field of the novel, as the forger takes his place in a setting of international fakery and deception. The 'phoney war' of 1939-40 was a prelude to real destruction, and was sustained in part by the false fronts of the Maginot and Siegfried lines. Again, the appeasement of Hitler at Munich was bought with a phoney note, the 'scrap of paper.' Winston Churchill's address to the Commons in October, 1938, amplifies this point: “At Berchtesgaden ... £ 1 was demanded at the pistol's point. When it was given (at Godesberg), £ 2 was demanded at the pistol's point. Finally the Dictator consented to take £ 1.17s.6d. and the rest in promises of good will for the future. ... We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude.”

The Human Age

The Human Age” was the title Lewis gave to the four novels he planned to write on the afterlife. In 1928 he published the first volume The Childermass, whose characters are in purgatory hoping to get to Heaven. The next two volumes Monster Gai and Malign Fiesta he did not start writing until his return to England after World War II.32

The narrative relates to events of our day when autocracy is trying to destroy democracy. In an imaginary all male afterworld controlled by a figure called the Bailiff,  an intellectual, Pullman, who is deceived by the Bailiff, . . .”represents all those forces in Western European democracies which diminish freedom”. Instead of opposing him, as Lewis believes he should, Pullman accepts the Bailiff's view of the world, and concedes his authority. The Childermass shows what it is like to experience the demands of a ruler who pretends to be a democrat, but is in fact a ruthless exploiter of all the means of persuasion available to him. Pullman abjectly renounces all those critical powers that the intellectual should possess; we see him betray the intellect and, in effect, the intellectual community.”33

Alan Munton recognized the tradition of the satiric method Lewis used: Lucian [Roman author of The Golden Ass] uses the journey between the world of the living and the underworld as an opportunity for satire in his story 'Menippus', which attacks false philosophers and includes a guided visit to the underworld. It provides a precedent for both parts of The Childermass. 'Menippean satire', a term proposed by Northrop Frye, places such works as Brave New World, Samuel Butler's Erewhon books and the satires of Peacock and Voltaire in a tradition which goes back 'through Rabelais and Erasmus to Lucian’.  Frye describes the 'short form of the Menippean satire' as 'a dialogue or colloquy, in which the dramatic interest is in a conflict of ideas rather than of character' and this clearly describes the latter part of The Childermass, where the form is much expanded.

The Bailiff must find supporters, for he does not have full control over his world; it is unstable and subject to sudden changes. Satherwaite, who mistrusts the Bailiff, as a schoolboy on earth was Pullman’s fag, wanders with Pullman in the ever-changing 'Time-flats', where objects move, not in space but in and out of different times. As Pullman guides them forward he is on the qui vive for the new setting, fearing above all reflections, on the look-out for optical traps, lynx-eyed for threatening ambushes of anomalous times behind the orderly furniture of Space or hidden in objects to confute the solid at the last moment, every inch a pilot. Because he has to do this, Pullman knows well that his admired Bailiff has limited control. To sustain his admiration he has to deceive himself, and try to deceive “Satters" too.

“On their mock-epic journey through the Afterlife, the anti-heroes of The Human Age fail to discover an ideally perfect place, whether in its social, political, or moral aspects,” Peter Caracciolo writes. “In The Childermass the newly dead souls find themselves in ‘a pretty dud Heaven’. Across the River Styx looms what might be Augustine’s City of God, one of the two great archetypes of the Christian Utopia—the other being the Messianic Kingdom of Heaven. Almost immediately, though, such hopes are checked, the city looking as if it had suffered a ‘tragic exodus’“ 34

With Monstre Gai, the second volume of the sequence, there is an increased sense of God’s absence. . . .What this ‘degenerate, chaotic outpost of Heaven’ offers Mankind is scarcely Purgatory (as Catholic theologians and many other Christian thinkers have understood the concept) . . . as for Womankind, their fate is utter degradation. In the third volume Malign Fiesta the Devil (bored with acting as the torturer in the Divine scheme of things) attempts to reconstruct his Nazified Hell as a Hollywood utopia. His celebratory Carnival ends in an eschatological failure of the kind revealed in John’s Apocalypse.

The books mirror “an appalling epoch”, writes Caracciolo: The first part of “The Human Age” emerges from the trauma of the Great War and the bloody revolutions of Right and Left that ensued. In the Bailiff’s concentration camp, Pullman and “Satters" are far from the Judgement Seat of Judaeo-Christian tradition; the irregular proceedings presided over by the Old Bailiff resemble more the Soviet show trial and its Surrealist prototype. Indeed, Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta (both 1955) are horrified responses to Gulag, Blitz, Shoah, and the threat of Nuclear Holocaust. In “The Human Age” there is little sign of utopia.35

The British Broadcasting Service subsidized Lewis, who wrote the last two novels when blind. It dramatized the three novels for radio.

Alternate  View

Another “Outsider”, the prolific Colin Wilson, in his essay, “Wyndham Lewis: A Refracted Talent?” judges Lewis’s writing by his Existential Criticism, an original conception advocating that a writer’s work should be judged by what he has to say rather than how he says it—“to see how much of reality it incorporates, or, conversely, to determine how far a writer’s attitude to the world is parochial or based upon some temperamental defect of vision.” Defects in the Lewiston vision, he wrote, were “solipsistic realism” and artistic pessimism. Tarr, he found, was obsessed with the trivial and personal—that Lewis never forgets himself for a moment and lacks “the redeeming flights into impersonality.” Lacking the capacity for such abandonment of the self, Lewis turned to politics as his form of objectivity.36

Wilson thought Lewis was attempting a post-impressionist revolution in prose by translating into text the Cubist craving of beauty through abstraction. The new classicism that Lewis promoted was overcome when the emotional romanticism of the eighteenth century “gave way to an intellectual romanticism of Proust, Ulysses, The Waste Land or Musil’s Man Without Qualities.” Lewis failed to translate the discriminating idealism of precision and “coolness” of his painting into his prose, “where one needs the patience of Job to cut through the blanket of fog to figure out what it is about.” Lewis believed the writer should kneed the exterior world as an amorphous imitation of himself into himself. Wilson claimed the great writers do not kneed the world into their own image. They get rid of themselves from their work as if they were mirroring reality.

Much in Lewis’s writings contradicts Wilson’s assumptions. Wilson does admire Lewis’s criticism of the time-philosophers through his belief in a world of timeless ideals but insists that Lewis’s “Platonic Nature” led him into artistic pessimism, a sense that the real world is corrupt and disjointed. It deprived his work of that all-important “vital creation”.

Lewis’s personality

The man’s output of art work and writings was phenomenal. One can get a valuable education by reading his works, those written about them and by consulting the various philosophers and authors who informed his intellectual development.

He had setbacks: “From 1932-36 I was very seriously ill,” he wrote in Rude Assignment, so ill that it was currently reported that I was dying, and those standing to benefit in business ways by the death of a well-known person began to look at me hopefully for a short while. I underwent several operations: this cost, first and last, a great deal of money. As a consequence I was unusually hard-up and could ill afford to write unpopular books.

“At length I was so pressed for money—to be thoroughly circumstantial that I went for an operation into the general ward of a hospital. (I must have been in every nursing home in London before this). Some patients would die every twenty-four hours or so where I was: I still can hear the soft thudding rush of the night-nurses, when certain signs apprised them of the approaching end. For some reason it was preferred that death should occur in another ward, reserved for the purpose. The patient would be hurriedly wheeled out to die. Though I saw death often enough as a soldier, that was the only occasion on which I heard the authentic death-rattle.

Then in December 1949 Lewis was told his optic nerves, at their chiasma, or crossing, were being pressed upon by the cranial pharyngeoma. He was totally blind in 1951 and could no longer write reviews of art openings for the BBC’s Listener. He wrote, however, on a large pad and dictated his last books to his patient wife Froanna and Agnes Bedford his old friend and one-time lover.

His views were often controversial and brought him enemies.

The personal loss entailed, in every sense, by my stand against war was incalculable. Had it been a capitalist war it would have been otherwise: but it was a Left-wing war (though it was not because it was a Left-wing war, but because it was war, that I acted). I received less money — to take that first — than I should for any other type of book, and for one of the best of them practically nothing, as advances go. I did myself so much damage that at the time it diminished the value of my other books.

He was dedicated to his art such that his relations with people suffered. He had two children with one mistress, helped support them when they were very young and then abandoned that family, and two with another mistress. Later in life he reportedly blackmailed their stepfather by threatening to disclose to his upper-class family that the children were his. (His biographer did not know if this was said in jest). When he married, his wife, Froanna, agreed not to have children. They seem to have been happy even though his wife was kept out of sight of visitors in the early years of their marriage.

He could be curt, even hostile, to some people and gracious to others. He mellowed in middle age. His apparent misogyny abated. He was recognized, in accord with the title of a biography about him, as “Some Sort of Genius.”37 He died in 1957. T. S. Eliot wrote an appreciative obituary: “There is, in everything he wrote, style. I would even affirm that Wyndham Lewis was the only one among my contemporaries to create a new, an original, prose style. Most prose of my time, indeed, seems to me, when compared with that of Lewis, lifeless. A great intellect is gone, a great modern writer is dead.”

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David Richard Beasley lives in Simcoe Ontario. Born Canadian he lived in Europe and Manhattan for 40 years, has a PhD in political economics, worked for years at the New York Public Research Libraries where he was the president of the union of library workers. He has written over a score of books in all genres including biographies of Canada’s first novelist, of North America’s greatest actor, of the great artist Clay Spohn, of the curator Douglas MacAgy, a major force behind modern art,  historical novels of WWII in Burma, escape from slavery in North America, child abuse in 1805, and 19th century Hamilton Ontario, a trilogy of acclaimed detective novels set in New York city, travels by donkey in Turkey and canoeing down a Canadian river, a political-economic study of the invention of the automobile, light entertaining social novels, short stories, novellas and Episodes and Vignettes; an AutobiographySarah’s Journey, the story of a slave escaping to Upper Canada in 1820, won a literary prize and with From Bloody Beginnings; Richard Beasley’s Upper Canada won a Brag Medallion. He was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his writings.   See www.davuspublishing.com.

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1 Catharine M Mastin, Robert Stacey Thomas Dilworth, “The talent ted Intruder.” Wyndham Lewis in Canada, 1939-1945. (Windsor, Art Gallery, 1945).

2 To Robert Hale [Toronto] April 16, 1941 The Letters of Wyndham Lewis, (New York: New Directions, 1965,) p.287.

3 Annamaria Sala, “Some Notes on Vorticism and Futurism,” Agenda (London) v.7, No.3—v. 8, No. 1. Autumn-Winter 1969-70, p.159.

4Wyndham Lewis, Rude Assignment; an Intellectual Autobiography (Santa Barbara, Black Sparrow, 1984. P.212-213.

5 Letters of Wyndham Lewis, op.cit.

6 Pamela Joyce Bracewell, “Space, Time and the Artist: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Wyndham Lewis.” (Thesis, Dept of Eng. Lit., Univ. of Sheffield, July, 1990). These paragraphs owe their content to Ms Bracewell.

7 SueEllen Campbell, The Enemy Opposite. The Outlaw Criticism of Wyndham Lewis. (Athens: Ohio U.P., 1958) p.78.-85.

8 Alan Munton’s “The Politics of Wyndham Lewis” (PN Review 1, Volume 4 Number 1, October - December 1977).

9 SueEllenCampbell, Ibid.

10 Letters of Wyndham Lewis, op.cit., To Theodore Weiss, April 19, 1949, p.489.

11 D. G, Bridson, The Filibuster. A Study of the Political Ideas of Wyndham Lewis (London, Cassell, 1972) p.75-79.

12  Wyndham Lewis. The Art of Being Ruled (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow,1989), p.346--347.

13 Wyndham Lewis, Men Without Art (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1987) p.32, 36

14 Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, op.cit. p.181

15 Rude Assignment, op.cit. p.180,181.

16 Nathan Waddell, “Lewis and Fascism” The Cambridge Companion to Wyndham Lewis, no.10 (Cambridge U.P., 2016, p.91

17 The Art of Being Ruled, op.cit, p.322.

18 Rude Assignment, op.cit, p.174

19 Ibid, p.178.

20 See Alan Munton, “Lewis, Anarchism, and Socialism in The Cambridge Companion to Wyndham Lewis op.cit. p.108.

21 Hugh Kenner, “Mrs Dukes’ Million: The Stunt of an Illusionist.” Wyndham Lewis: A Revalution. New Essays, ed. Jeffrey Meyers (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1980) p.87.

22 Rude Assignment, op, cit, p.34.

23 Ibid, p.235.

24 Daniel Schenker, Wyndham Lewis. Religion and Modernism )Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1992) p.105ff.

25 Alan Munton, “The Politics of Wyndham Lewis,” op.cit. p.[10].

26 Geoffrey Wagner, A Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy (New Haven, Yale U.P., 1957) p.210-213.

27 Ibid, p.243.

28 Stephen Klaidman, Sydney and Violet. Their Life with T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis (New You, Doubleday, 2013). p.194.

29 Paul Edwards, “The Apes of God: Form and Meaning,” Wyndham Lewis:A Revaluation. op.cit. p.133ff.

30 Geoffrey Wagner, Wyndham Lewis. op.cit. p. 247ff.

31 Anne Blott, “The Merman and the Mint: A Study of Wyndham  Lewis’s The Vulgat Streak” In Figures in a Ground, ed Diane Bessai and David Jackell (Saskatoon, Western Producer Prairie Books, 1978).

32 Frederick Jameson, a deep thinker and writer, uses principally “The Human Age” in his Fables of Aggression; Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist to analyze Lewis’s works to ferret out his psychology, ideology and political contradictions; thus his book should motivate one to try reading “The Human Age”.

33 Alan Munton, “A Reading of the Childermass,” Wyndham Lewis. A Revaluation, op.cit. p.120.

34 Peter L Caracciolo, “‘What rough beast’; Yeatsian glimpses of ‘Utopia’ in Wyndham Lewis’s The Human Age and America and Cosmic Man.” (and what Tzvetan Todorov and Ernst Blochj, let alone Barack Obama might make of it all)” Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies (2010), p.82.

35 Ibid.

36 The comments in these paragraphs come from Luke Gilfedder’s article “The Outsider & The Enemy: Colin Wilson on Wyndham Lewis” (citing Wilson;s article “Wyndham Lewis: A Refracted Talent?” in his Existentially Speaking) in Lewis Letter 37 (Wyndham Lewis Society, Summer 2020).

37 Paul O’Keeffe, Some Sort of Genius. A Life of Wyndham Lewis (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2000).

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