A Call to Timelessness
In the words of his lifelong friend T. S. Eliot, Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957) was “the most fascinating personality of our time.” For not only was Lewis an extraordinarily gifted artist and writer, he was fully involved throughout his career in the problem of identifying the individual in the modern world. American on his father’s side, he soon found congenial company with Eliot and Pound, and with these “men of 1914” (including Joyce in the typically militant phrase) he expressed a cultural stance.
In the broadest sense this was an effort to establish the structural unity of man in a world of flux, in a period that paid court to change. All these four had been to Paris in the first decade of this century. All had understood the currents of their time, from the disturbing findings of Planck and Einstein to those of Bergson (see Lewis’ Time and Western Man). Finally, all insisted that the artist had to stand aside in order to create. This aesthetic was itself one of protest at the time. All knew the chaos to which the technological rush (the “popularizing” of science) was leading Europe, and all tried to counter with some kind of spatial form in literature—a call to timelessness to overcome time. For to be impermanent, they knew, was in a manner of speaking not to exist at all. “Only through time,” as Eliot put it in Burnt Norton, “is time conquered.”
Thus Lewis’ letters, which have been admirably edited by William Rose, are a fascinating record of life lived in permanent opposition to what the sundry establishments of our time have nicknamed life. I recollect Lewis once telling me that he would have preferred to live in practically any other century than the twentieth. Exactly. At the end, when he was going blind, he wrote to Russell Kirk that “Your praise of Edmund Burke is very much to my taste.” The wheel had come full circle. To try to relate to any tradition of permanence in the modern world—to be “real”—was to look suspiciously like a Byronic romantic; it was to be “ideal.”
Professor Rose divides these letters into a number of useful sections, those dealing with the period in Paris early on, those when Lewis served in the Royal Artillery in World War One, those between the wars, and then those from Toronto in the second holocaust and in England afterwards. All these sections are well prefaced with biographical information, and the letters are accorded useful annotation; it must be said, however, that they are written to a rather small group of people, generally sympathetic.
What I learned from them was the intense poverty in which Lewis seems to have spent most of his days. This pushed him into parenthetic activities in which he should never normally have been involved, and into the writing of non-fiction books that he admitted were no more than potboilers. Another great literary artist, also worried by problems of vision, James Joyce, also lived at odds with his time and in need of money. But Joyce was another personality. He was devoted to one art only and, towards the end, to one book only. He was not involved in a hundred and one activities on the side, like Lewis who was forced (as he put it in a poem) to be “his own bagman, critic, cop, designer,/Publisher, agent, char-man and shoe-shiner.” From the early cry of 1907 to his beloved mother (“pray God I make some money soon”) to the tragic finale when the money, at last coming in, had to be spent on consultations concerning his tumored eye, Lewis never had enough to make both ends meet. He was a proud man, increasingly aware of the cynicism of the literary market place. Accordingly, his relations with publishers were nearly always unhappy (one of his novels is still unpublished). I have several letters from him to London firms that display this testiness, and Rose includes a fine plea to Desmond Flower of Cassell’s when that house was about to issue The Revenge for Love:
as I was reading my proofs I realised that the book that is thus about to be contemptuously flung upon the market is probably the best complete work of fiction I have written; and you may agree that it will be considered one of the best books in English to appear during the current 12 months . . . Surely not so many serious books are written these days that one can afford to spit on and hurry out of sight a 150 thousand word novel, upon such a scale as this . . . here is a book that it is indecent to smother.
But the book was hurried out of sight, was smothered, despite the fact that it is one of the unread masterpieces of the past quarter century. So far as I know, it is not even in print on this side of the Atlantic. Why not? This raises another point. In America Lewis has been hurt by the all-or-nothing attitude of the average academy. There has been a lot of good work done on him but he simply fails to fit anywhere, except marginally, within our usual modern literature courses, especially as administered by the run-of-the-mill Liberal professor. The result is that Ulysses sells upwards of fifty thousand hard-cover copies a year—1984 probably hundreds of thousands of paperback equivalents more—while The Revenge for Love may sell fifty. I am not saying these works are comparable. But there is a sameness, an orthodoxy, in the cultural attitudes of the class appointed by our society to select great books for our young—I refer, of course, to the average college professor. Lewis makes no appeal to this class. More, he challenges their very existence. For a New Critic to explicate Lewis would be so much hara-kiri.
secondly, I feel that Lewis was born to an era of experiment as an artist who did not basically want to experiment. His fundamental contradiction with his age resulted in the epistemological eccentricities in which he grew involved—and finally spilled over into his private life, which became increasingly paranoiac (he would always, according to Sir Herbert Read, sit with his back to a restaurant wall so that he couldn’t be attacked from behind; he subjected me to a sort of FBI check and refused a BBC interview in case he might be assassinated). If it is too easy to flaw Lewis as a thinker, he still remains elastic enough to supersede the majority of his detractors; above all, in works like The Art of Being Ruled (of 1926) or the neglected squib The Doom of Youth (of 1932—withdrawn after publication), he predicted early the direction in which the machine age was leading us. In his art criticism, from the early The Caliph’s Design (1919) to the final The Demon of Progress in the Arts (1954), he remained unfailingly brilliant, almost distastefully perspicacious. We need an anthology of these prescient and glowing aperçus.
Yet this is not enough to say for The Enemy. He was terribly funny (look, here, at his letters to the “mad” Pound); he was able to analyze innovations long before others repeated his criticisms; he was an incredibly intelligent individual, He was unlucky that—as regards literature, not his authentic medium—he was born among giants, and so looks smaller than he was. There is an unfinished feel to much of his written work, as if he half-despised the literary form. If not the greatest prose innovator of his time, as Eliot would still have him, there certainly has not in England been anyone since Blake who has commanded such consummate technical skill in twin media of aesthetic expression.
Finally, on this note, it should perhaps be pointed out that for “the men of 1914” beauty was eternal—a substitute for the promised eternities of the past, if you wish. Lewis clung constantly to this absolute which was never, for him, a matter of varying standards and least of all to be found in the domain of social panaceas. Man was man. The line drawings he did of various individuals in the twenties (Rose reproduces a ravishing one of his wife) are exquisite; and there are isolated passages in his prose works where the descriptive ability is quite marvellously sustained. All in all—a great misunderstood, and, above all, a misrelated man.
Geoffrey Wagner is author of Parade of Pleasure, The Dispossessed, Selected Writings of Gerard de Nerval, Wyndham Lewis: A Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy, and other books. He is professor emeritus of English at the City University of New York.
Posted: February 19, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.