Wyndham Lewis: The Irascible Enemy
Here are some amazing recordings by English painter, controversial writer, and chief proponent of the Vorticist art movement, Wyndham Lewis—a man possessed of an antagonistic temperament, but, in the words of George Orwell, “enough talent to set up dozens of ordinary writers.”
Percy Wyndham Lewis was born in 1882 off the coast of Nova Scotia, aboard the yacht of his British mother and American father. Lewis was educated in England, though both Rugby private school and the Slade School of Art asked him to leave. At the age of 29, he began to paint in a Cubist/Futurist style and became part of the Bloomsbury group of artists, but soon left to start the short-lived Rebel Art Centre with Kate Lechmere. Throughout his life, Lewis always had more talent and charm than money, so Lechmere provided the funds. His bitterness toward the Bloomsbury clique remained, and—always one for the last word—both his pre-World War I book, Tarr, and The Apes of God (1930) gave the Bloomsbury clique the proverbial “good kicking”:
“Your flabby potion is a mixture of the lees of Liberalism, the poor froth blown off the decadent Nineties, the wardrobe-leavings of a vulgar bohemianism…. You are concentrated, highly-organised barley water; there is nothing in the universe to be said for you: any efficient State would confiscate your property, burn your wardrobe—that old hat and the rest—as infectious, and prohibit you from propagating.”
After the short-lived Rebel Art Centre disbanded, Lewis formed the Vorticists, who interrupted a Futurist performance by F.T. Marinetti and announced that they had no interest in making people wear pink badges or obsess about motor cars. The Vorticists (Ezra Pound came up with that name to describe those at the vortex of artistic energy) set out to merge Cubism’s structure and Futurism’s dynamics. The Vorticist manifesto, published in the first issue of their magazine Blast (1914), was a list of In/Out; namely, things to be Blessed or Blasted.
World War I broke up the Vorticists, with Lewis determinedly completing the fiction Tarr before departing for duty. He became a government war artist and painted works like A Canadian Gun Pit in a conventionally representational manner. A Battery Shelled, now exhibited in the Imperial War Museum in London, followed in the Vorticist style. Shelled depicts soldiers indistinguishable from the killing machinery they wield—not an unusual view of people dehumanized in extreme acts of obedience to authority, but clearly Lewis held this view of people outside the arena of war.
Wyndham Lewis, A Battery Shelled (1919)
The Little Review published The Code of a Herdsman (1917), which sharply encapsulates his views on the life of an artist, revealing him as a man determined to sit atop his mountain either out of contempt for humankind, or for the sake of his creativity:
“Spend some of your time every day in hunting your weaknesses caught from commerce with the herd, as methodically, solemnly and vindictively as a monkey his fleas. You will find yourself swarming with them while you are surrounded by humanity. But you must not bring them up on the mountain… Do not play with political notions, aristocratisms or the reverse, for that is a compromise with the herd. Do not allow yourself to imagine a fine herd though still a herd. There is no fine herd. The cattle that call themselves ‘gentlemen’ you will observe to be a little cleaner. It is merely cunning and produced by a product called soap…”
Lewis’s magazine The Enemy followed, in which, unsurprisingly, he continued to establish a critical distance from the avant-garde. This process of self-isolation has always reminded me of the Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais TV series Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, where Terry, the great working-class curmudgeon, sits at the kitchen table and reveals his prejudices towards the populations of the entire Earth. Continents full of people are dismissed with a phrase, whole countries and cities reduced to a single negative word, until finally he admits that actually doesn’t think much of his own town or his neighbors either! A fiercely antagonistic individual, Lewis did not merely peddle prejudice; he believed artists must confront ideologies that prevent revolutionary change. In his view, expressed in writings such as The Art of Being Ruled (1926), unless artists did so, their work became absorbed into dominant ideologies for use as their mouthpieces. I think “Sold Out” is the phrase he was looking for.
Accusations of Fascism have long stuck to Lewis, since his books Hitler (1931) and The Revenge for Love (1937) respectively contended that the German leader could bring peace to Europe, and criticized communist actions in Spain. Lewis felt that Britain was unwise to ally with the Soviet Union, not least as Stalin was responsible for the murder of millions of his own people. Lewis wrote a denunciatory text, The Hitler Cult (1939) and the satirical The Jews, Are They Human? , but it was too late to change his reputation. Even though it is possible to argue that Lewis’s arguments were based on aesthetics, the damage to his career during this period was huge. His painting began to be ignored as a result of controversy, and in 1939 he moved to North America. There, Lewis and his wife, Froanna, lived in a virtually penniless state while he lectured infrequently, produced modestly well-received books, and undertook another war commission. They returned to England in 1945, and Lewis was blind by 1951. He still produced a book in each of the next seven years, including the semi-autobiographical novel Self Condemned.
In 1956, a major exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery entitled Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism began the favorable reassessment of Lewis’s painting, but he remains either largely unread or simply despised for his controversial writing and quarrelsome persona. At times, though, his fierce insistence on individuality, distrust of democracy in art, and warnings about group-think seem not too far removed from subtle world views like those expressed in Woody Allen’s Zelig, Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Groucho Marx’s joking contention that “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
The Enemy Speaks—a new collection of Lewis’s spoken-word writings and rants—is the exact opposite of the phrase “dumbed down”, and is best approached with an open mind and plenty of stamina. The sharp artistic and philosophical musings presented here must have seemed like intellectual pollution to the bemused early 20th century milieu into which they originally seeped. It is impossible to imagine the effect that “When John Bull Laughs” had on its unsuspecting BBC audience on June 29, 1938. In the piece, Lewis spins ideas about satire and humor like plates on sticks. He expounds his theory that laughter is an unwelcome distraction to serious artistic ambition that manipulated the masses half a century before Milan Kundera wrote The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
In parts of The Enemy Speaks, Lewis’s slightly flat, halting delivery could distract from the clarity of his razor-sharp arguments. Mostly, though, due perhaps to careful selection, the recordings are smooth. “End of Enemy Interlude” refers to Lewis’s Enemy persona and is intriguing, since here is a very polite-sounding (and very English) voice analyzing the creation of the character and his hostile intent. The piece is from a 1940 visit to Harvard, as are “Song of the Militant Romance” and “If So the Man You Are”. These are short bursts of effective, precise, and fluid spoken word. “A Crisis of Thought” is an amusing discussion of Lewis’s exposure to Russian literature in Paris 1903-05, and is as much about himself and the French, as Dostoyevsky et al.
Another BBC broadcast from 1951 called “The Essential Purposes of Art” examines the decline of literature, music and oratory, and bemoans that in our ruined world, visual expression (and indeed all expression) is generally dismissed as childish and worthless. Lewis regrets that political speeches are no longer works of art. While he considers gallery painting and commercial art to be full of marvelous talents, he argues that “unless the State steps in painting will die out”. Remarkably, without mentioning God, Lewis even suggests that in the atomic age the “inventor of peacocks” and other natural beauties remained in favor of art. About twelve minutes into this piece, Lewis halts and flounders like an old uncle who has sleepily worked his way through a sherry-induced rant against something which has momentarily slipped his mind. The effect is rather charming.
The Apes of God, by Wyndham Lewis (1930)
Listening to this disc, a picture emerges of a man dazzled by his own talent and ambushed by his temperament. V.S. Pritchett introduces an extract from “The Apes of God”, broadcast by the BBC in 1951, before returning to pronounce Lewis a “difficult writer, obscured by his own fireworks, but he had so many ideas that it will be impossible to give him his due.” The last track, “Sympathy”, is a brilliant ironic twist: in 1917, when Lewis was a lieutenant stationed on the Belgian coast, his fellow officers had a phonograph on which they played records, including Sympathy, a Broadway tune which Lewis particularly despised. Lewis wrote to Ezra Pound: “They’ve just put on Sympathy; may their next fart split up their backs, and asphyxiate them with the odour of their souls.” Later—as usual, speaking too soon—he expressed his joy that the station had been hit by an enemy shell. Unknown to Lewis, the shell had killed his sergeant and wounded several others, but had spared both the phonograph and Sympathy.
Wyndham Lewis brought a scintillating intellect to his artistic endeavors. Favoring reason over instinct, he lashed jazz, the paintings of Gauguin, the writings of James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, and much more. The critical thrashing he gave to gossip columnists and the cult of celebrity was devastating, and his description of the invasion of bohemian territory by the redundant economic elite remains pertinent. If only we could let him loose on the majority culture of our time. James Hayward’s liner notes for The Enemy Speaks state that Wyndham Lewis created “more than 40 books, 100 paintings, 360 essays and 1000 drawings.” T.S. Eliot described Lewis as “a man of undoubted genius, but genius for what, it would be remarkably difficult to say.” These days, modern English curmudgeonly wordsmith Mark E.Smith calls him “a funny old stick…the most underrated writer this century…hard to read…a man years ahead of his time.”
Wyndham Lewis died in March 1957, either of the brain tumor that caused his blindness, or of kidney failure. I prefer to think that it was the latter. That way, the only person this savage critic couldn’t take the piss out of would have been himself.