Monday, May 13, 2019

Commentary: 'Wyndham Lewis, a Retrospective' by Peter Cowlam

The fatal commingling of art with capital-p politics is probably what characterises, to present generations, the problem of Wyndham Lewis. As a man he was drawn to powerful fascist leaders, and as a novelist has been seen as misogynistic and hostile to Jews, homosexuals and other generally persecuted groups. He is not entirely redeemed in having offered retractions, notably in his attack on anti-Semitism and in the reversal of friendly views towards Hitler. It is tempting to condemn, having made no real attempt to understand what we condemn.
First then, a few biographical notes—
Lewis’s ‘…early background – his American father and Canadian birth, separation of his parents, impoverished gentility, difficulties at Rugby and the Slade, long years of art-student life, artistic quarrels, ardent ambition, passion for painting and polemical skill – all contributed to make him a rebellious outsider….’[1] As such he ‘enjoyed notoriety and dramatized himself as an insurgent against the flaccid conventions of Victorian taste and the decorative softness of British Impressionism.’[2]
All this set him apart from, for example, the Bloomsbury Group, who, having arrived at their position, with the help of Moore’s Principia Ethica, asserted ‘the pleasures of human intercourse’,[3] the ‘enjoyment of beautiful objects.’[4] A good Bloomsburyite regarded the pursuit of these as the ‘ultimate end of social progress’[5] – which was perhaps feasible only through the privilege of independent means. That, of course, was an elevation from which it was easy to sneer at an impecunious Wyndham Lewis. Virginia Woolf, having heard gossip about Lewis’s ‘wretched studio at Adam and Eve Mews…expressed her loyalty to Fry [whose biography she wrote]…. “Herbert Read, who had been in the Lewis pigsty without wallowing in it, had some amazing stories of the brutes. Lewis now paints in a shed behind a curtain….” The clear insinuation is that Lewis was a brute because he could not afford to rent the kind of elegant studio that Fry’s independent income enabled him to have.’[6] For his part, Lewis proposed that ‘…Bloomsbury equated mannerisms with manners’,[7] that they ‘…used their stammering, halting, blushing affectations to justify their own work’,[8] and that they ‘employed the “time-honoured technique of social superiority, but put to the uses of intellectual superiority: to be socially snobbish about the possession of taste….”’[9]

Lewis’s own view of art and the artist is less to do with the drawing-room and much more to do with the wider world of power (in fact is not typically British and insular). British insularity Lewis deals with in The Apes of God, an enormous tome that dwells on the minutiae of social interaction, and adds up to a stinging critique of affected bohemianism in a 1920s middle-class artistic milieu.
On the problems of what it is to practise art, we have Lewis’s own testament as to how the artist fares

‘…at the hands of the new-rich money-masters of the old democratic societies of the West, who have not the same incentives to be “cultivated” as had their predecessors: they have not been at any pains to disguise the fact that commercial values are the only ones that mean a great deal to them; and that to all these intangible, non-commercial, non-quantitative values, resident in everything that can be labelled “art”, they are sublimely indifferent. It is thus that the tennis-player, the sob-stuff film-star, the beauty-queen, the dirt-track rider, the money juggler or stunt flyer (along with the exponent of the “perfect murder”, and the gunman, the armed sheikh of the gutter) now occupy the position formerly reserved for the Wagners and the Beethovens, Goethes and Carlyles, Dickenses and Tolstois. These were literally the saints of pre-war Europe, still as much Roman and pagan as anything else: Stratford-on-Avon was “the most celebrated birthplace of the Western World” (I quote Mr Shaw). But neither the materialism of…democracy, nor the “dialectical” materialism of the Marxist dictatorship, cares overmuch for this particular type of “great man” – in that matter as in some others, they agree. It is a sort of “greatness”, an order of prestige, which is apt to interfere with the smooth working of materialist dogma, whether of the Kremlin or of Wall Street….’[10]

Why, then, for Lewis, was it so important to set those ‘saints of pre-war Europe’ (the Beethovens et al) in direct contrast to the ‘sob-stuff film-star’ (doyen of commercialised culture)? Lewis again: ‘…the artistic impulse is a very fundamental, semi-magical, thing, of deep organic importance in the life of man…. …[T]he Money Man…is detested by every true artist…the latter, with his highbrow airs, makes him feel small…. […] [P]eople in general possess an uneasy conscience where art is concerned. Their instinct tells them that it makes life less hideous, that without it routine existence would become so unlovely, so stripped and black and snarling, that the very appetite for life would cease to operate….’[11]
It would, I think, be hard to miss the point (or a wilful misreading not to acknowledge it), that what Lewis means by this is that care should be exercised if we are content to sacrifice the highest ambitions of art (which might also be construed as the ambitions of society) for its mercantile reduction. Certainly as an artist (a painter, an essayist, a poet, a novelist) Lewis was prepared to make no such sacrifice himself, and therefore could not expect to progress – in terms of income and status – through the marketplace of inter-war Britain. This leads inevitably to politics, where with fascism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, the jury has reached its considered verdict. However. It is not difficult to see how a man who believed fervently in the aristocracy of art could be swayed by political extremes. This is particularly so in his antithesis of Bloomsbury, which vilified him, and which flattered itself that its was a liberal outlook, when in its dealings with Wyndham Lewis it showed itself as reactionary. Lewis ‘was a frustrated man of action who had exercised the “leadership principle” by forming the combative Vorticist group and commanding their art wars; his belligerent strain and theoretical love of power were always roused when he wrote political tracts. His antagonism to Anglo-Saxon democracy was based on a hatred of the common mass and of a civilization that put so many obstacles in the way of the artist…. He was therefore powerfully attracted to the idea of a strong savior-leader who could implement his own social and aesthetic ideals….’[12] One such leader was, of course, Mussolini.
‘In December 1937, a year after the Abyssinian campaign, Lewis told Pound: “I think the Brit. government a lot of warts, and Musso makes rings round them as a politician.” We have seen that Lewis preferred Fascism to Communism…he thought this regime would give him more influence and be better for the future of art; and he followed D’Annunzio, Marinetti and Pirandello, who wrote: “There must be a Caesar…for there to be a Virgil.” These three artists, and others who supported Mussolini and lent prestige to his government, were richly rewarded by the Duce. “Chirico, the ‘official’ painter of Fascist Italy,” Lewis observed, “is a better type of painter than those encouraged in Communist Russia. In return for a pastel of a gladiator, once a month, it is probable that the Blackshirt Emperor would allow you great latitude in your choice of subject.”’[13]
While one cannot sympathise with Lewis’s adopted position in that brutish world of politics, there remains the wider debate as to the phenomenon of human creativity – that irrepressible urge to etch the glass of our existence. Precisely what kind of creativity we wish to engage in – given our world of corporate publishing, wall-to-wall soap operas, a music industry built on ephemera – is an issue to which Lewis has contributed intelligently, and moreover without compromise. Everything’s fine, if we’re happy to hand over control of that part of our lives to publishing magnates and media barons. But perhaps though we’re not happy with this: ‘The bourgeoisie has no relish for language, which it no longer regards even as a luxury, an element of the art of living (death of “great” literature), but merely as an instrument of d├ęcor…. The People? Here all magical or poetical activity disappears: the party’s over, no more games with words…. [Reign] of the stereotypes imposed by petit bourgeois culture.’[14]
‘The People?’ as a Donald Trump might ask. ‘I tell them what they want to believe and they believe it.’

[1] Meyers, Jeffrey, The Enemy, a Biography of Wyndham Lewis (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p 55.
[2] Loc cit.
[3] ‘Bloomsbury Group’, article in The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed Drabble, M (Oxford: OUP, 1989), p 110.
[4] Loc cit.
[5] Loc cit.
[6] Meyers, p 163.
[7] Loc cit.
[8] Loc cit.
[9] Loc cit.
[10] Lewis, Wyndham, ‘Art and Patronage’, in Wyndham Lewis on Art, Collected Writings 1913–1956 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969), pp 297–98.
[11] Ibid, p 298.
[12] Meyers, p 185.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Barthes, Roland, The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), p 38.

Peter Cowlam is equally at home with prose and poetry. His most recent novel New King Palmers is at the intersection of old, crumbling empires and new, digital agglomerates. Due out imminently is collection of poems Addendum Manifesto, aimed as a counter-blast at the political and financial institutions complicit in the deceptions of our master-slave society, wage slaves exhorted to fund a debt economy, and by that heavy price remain obedient citizens. Poems forthcoming in Fulcrum. Poems and short stories have appeared in The Battersea Review, Literary Matters, Easy Street, Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Galway Review, The Liberal, and others. His books are published by the UK indie CentreHouse Press.