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Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), dead for more than half a century, may still take celestial delight in remaining so frustrating: he certainly tried hard enough.

Firstly, his enormous breadth of talent overwhelms today’s overly-specialised critics in their imposed pigeon-holes: some still call him England’s greatest Twentieth Century portraitist and draughtsman, his substantial shelf of novels could keep another league of critics busy, and his volumes of social criticism a third. Next, nobody could be so marvellously abrasive without lots of practice, so whomever you adore from the first half of the Twentieth Century, Lewis said something snarky about him at least twice. Lastly, he had an almost magnetic attraction to being politically-incorrect, giving any sniffy modern who has not read Lewis a good excuse to dismiss him out of hand. So he is largely ignored: a big mistake.

When Lewis is recalled apart from his paintings it is usually for his invective. In one book, he devoted a whole chapter called “The Dumb Ox” to Ernest Hemingway, who went berserk after reading it in the famous Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris, smashed a vase and ended up paying thousands of francs (but he got even and described Lewis as having the eyes of “an unsuccessful rapist”). Virginia Wolfe was scared to show her face in Oxford or Cambridge, the students were so impressed by the drubbing she got from Lewis. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” he described as “a suffocating moeotic expanse of objects” that would remain among the canons of literature, “eternally cathartic, a monument like a record diarrhoea” (if I go “halves” will anyone help get this carved in stone?).

While his best friends, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, called Lewis, respectively, “the only English writer who can be compared to Dostoevsky,” and “the most distinguished living novelist,” he said the former lacked even “a trace of originality,” and accused the latter of “dogmatic insincerity.” However the context is lost to me, they remained friends nevertheless, and this entertaining gossip is still only the “People Magazine” of literary criticism, a nutrition-free distraction.

The man who taught Marshall McLuhan everything he knew about “the global village” (except for the phrase itself), Wyndham Lewis remains desperately timely in his critiques of the youth-cult and its cultural effluvia, the treachery of capitalism, the paucity of well-manipulated bourgeois democracy, and above all the dumbing-down of Western culture and society. If by your friends we shall know ye, think of T. S. Eliot, Roy Campbell and Russell Kirk: in other words he was a conservative defender of The Permanent Things although an ultra-radical, avant-garde modernist, as contradictory as that sounds at first.

Born to an English mother and an American Civil War-hero father on a yacht off Nova Scotia, (Percy) Wyndham Lewis was later to write a novel in which, perhaps unique in literature, the heroine kills herself out of sheer hatred for Canada. Educated at Rugby School and The Slade School of Art, he painted and drew for several small groups attempting to forge Modernism out of the artsy-craftsy movements of the late Victorian era, culminating in Vorticism.

The Vorticists, England’s first indigenous avant-garde movement, were captivated by Cubism and were among the earliest to embrace abstraction, often with industrial themes. Vorticism rebelled against a populist fin-de-siècle fashion for the feminine, the floral and the facile but its thrusting and very masculine techno-optimism died in the trenches of the Great War along with some its talented members.

Its flat, mechanistic images were fine teething-material for Lewis’s draughtsman’s eye and unerring hand, and Vorticism proved a good marketing platform for the ambitious young artist at a time when various Modernist movements seemed to run a dime a dozen: Cubism, Futurism, Tubism, Suprematism, Expressionism, Verismus (may I stop now?) all trying to cram art into an ideological suitcase that was, of course, fully branded, wholly marketable and potentially lucrative. Ultimately, after a stint as an artilleryman, Lewis returned home and moved on, while Vorticism became what veteran art-critic Brian Sewell calls “in the history of western art, no more than a hapless rowing-boat between Cubism and Futurism, the Scylla and Charybdis of the day.”

Vorticism’s inspirations had been far from only graphic and Lewis developed them into a more coherent and visceral rejection of perceived decadence, with antecedents including Hegel and Nietzsche: the former in a belief that art is generated by a conflict resembling the dialectic, differing little from Eliot’s more sophisticated assertion that art progresses through clash but may achieve union, through tradition, with the timeless. Influenced by the latter, Lewis rejected the bourgeois effect on art, which today one might call “dumbing down.”

As Lewis began to write more and paint less, he looked beyond graphic art to see larger forces at work including science, united against individualism and excellence, and this separates him from futurist-utopians of the day such as H. G. Wells. He became, in effect, an anti-Modern Modernist, writing:

“The puritanical potentialities of science have never been forecast. If it evolves a body of organized rites, and is established as a religion hierarchically organized, things more than anything else will be done in the name of ‘decency.’ The coarse fumes of tobacco and liquors, the consequent tainting of the breath and staining of white fingers and teeth, which is so offensive to many women, will be the first things attended to.”

Russell Kirk described their mutual friend, the poet Roy Campbell, as “a hot hater” and Lewis fit the description to the letter, so his objections are often clearer than his beliefs. But Lewis was, fundamentally, a conservator of social dynamism in the same sense that Eliot believed that modern art could be well-applied to defend The Permanent Things.

Even then, the Left’s thus-far relentless Long March to Cultural Revolution identified modernist reforms only with revolution, chiefly through an overly-simplistic notion that new graphics or literary styles somehow had to go hand-in-hand with new, ideologically-driven systems. Hence the startling originality of Lewis on canvas, or Eliot in print, must have confounded Leftist aesthetes who perhaps rarely fathomed how modernism can be part of traditionalism. As both men knew, Western values and vigour are worth conserving, not the delivery-mechanisms.

Propelled by his excellent choice in enemies but still a child of his age, Lewis echoed Oscar Wilde in charging Revolution with the high-crime of being a bore:

“Revolutionary politics, revolutionary art, and oh, the revolutionary mind, is the dullest thing on earth. When we open a ”revolutionary” review, or read a ”revolutionary” speech, we yawn our heads off. It is true, there is nothing else. Everything is correctly, monotonously, dishearteningly ”revolutionary’.’ What a stupid word! What a stale fuss!”

Yet Lewis, in his diagnostic skills a political sophisticate, saw revolution as a mere con-job by ruling elites, part of the intentional process of dumbing-down that strengthened control. He wrote:

“A sort of war of revenge on the intellect is what, for some reason, thrives in the contemporary social atmosphere…The ideas of a time are like the clothes of a season: they are as arbitrary, as much imposed by some superior will which is seldom explicit. They are utilitarian and political, the instruments of smooth-running government.”

Lewis would have regarded today’s simplified political bifurcation, so essentially American, as hopelessly naive: Capitalism good, Socialism bad. He complained that, “In the democratic western countries so-called capitalism leads a saturnalia of ‘freedom,’ like a bastard brother of reform.” He deplored:

“a new familiarity and a flesh-creeping homeliness entirely of this unreal, materialistic 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 forces of feminisation, homogenisation and dumbing-down were many, while true artists manned the last barricade. Whether by cheap products, cheap art or cheap politics, the herd was stampeded by its clever masters, chiefly under the banner of equality:

“The intelligence suffers today automatically in consequence of the attack on all authority, advantage, or privilege. These things are not done away with, it is needless to say, but numerous scapegoats are made of the less politically powerful, to satisfy the egalitarian rage awakened.”

Lewis flirted briefly with Italian Fascism as a means of redirecting society away from self-centred decadence, but soon found that Mussolini’s vainglorious strutting and attempting to replicate Roman glory were retrograde, backward-looking. Briefly in the early 1930s, he thought that Hitler might be a force for peace and cultural reinvigoration but he denounced Nazism in one book and Anti-Semitism in another, even though years before he had fictionalised Jewish characters unflatteringly. The twin verdicts may be that, as so many others, he entertained views now wholly and happily anathema, but he never feared to reverse himself honourably; a better record than many of his adversaries who pimped for Stalin until much later or unto the bitter end.

Meanwhile, Lewis had a remarkable gift for seeing far down the socio-ideological train-track.

In his 1928 “The Doom of Youth,” he described a cult that plagues us yet. A society that destroys faith in the hereafter can live only for earthly life, taking refuge from death in an unnatural fixation with youth and protracted adolescence; hence maintaining the appearance of youth until it becomes ludicrous. Since real youths lack experience, achievements and contacts, “official” public youths will be older and older. Politicians, he predicted, will jump onboard with bogus youth-wings, nevertheless controlled by middle-aged party-apparatchiks; presupposing the Hitler Youth Movement and even the fat, balding and comically-inept, 50-year-old, KGB “youth representatives” sent to international youth conferences to mingle with real Western and Third World teenagers into the 1980s. On to then-trendy monkey-gland treatments, more complicated cosmetics and foundation-garments, real and fake exercise regimens and the rest, until nowadays where in any Florida geriatric home (“God’s waiting-room,” my dad calls it) are toothless, pathetic wrecks hobbling around dressed as toddlers.

Lewis was by no means a systematic philosopher, he was an artist; but his draughtsmanship alone can imply an insistence on precision in thought. Taking art seriously, he saw creativity as a moment of intense thought looking ahead and essentially prescriptive, creating something needed and new yet influenced by tradition.

In his 1927 “Time and Western Man,” he attacked a decadent and romanticised aesthetic that sapped modern creativity of its forward-looking dynamism. Yale critic Kirsty Dootson explains Lewis and:

“…the ‘time-cult,’ which he perceived to be the dominant philosophy of the early twentieth century promulgated by Henri Bergson…and practised by authors such as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Lewis condemned the demonising of ‘space’ due to the rise of the ‘time-mind’ as, for him, Bergsonian time stood for all that is degenerate in art: flux, change, romanticism, the crowd and the unconscious, whereas space represents all that is desirable: stability, fixity, classicism, the individual and consciousness…The former separates us and keeps us still, while the latter binds us all together and keeps us constantly moving.”

Time can be a muddle and a cul-de-sac: is the child the father of the man? The focus turns inward to the self, its influences, conflicts and reactions, and can lead to navel-gazing, solipsism, inertia and paralysis. Space describes the road ahead, even though the artist travels with the essential baggage of values, culture and tradition that influence his every act.

Lewis’s friend Roy Campbell, says Professor Roger Scruton, “began to see the three aspects of the new elite—sexual inversion, anti-patriotism, and progressive politics—as aspects of a single frame of mind. These three qualities amounted, for Campbell, to a refusal to grow up.” For Lewis, the time-cult enabled the process.

A prescient collaboration between Lewis and Campbell resulted in “Satire and Fiction,” a 1930 pamphlet promoting the former’s savage, satirical novel “The Apes of God.” There the authors argue that satire becomes impossible in a rootless age lacking normative behaviour, for satire mocks things against an unstated but presumed cultural norm: Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” would not have succeeded satirically had Georgian Englishmen actually approved of eating Irish babies. Without shared values, satire cannot function: forty-two years later, Terry Southern remarked belatedly that satire became impossible after Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the same decade Lewis returned to painting, establishing his reputation as being perhaps England’s greatest portraitist of the last century. Walter Sickert put him in an even bigger league as “the greatest portraitist of this or any other time.”

Critics attempt to analyse his ingredients of success, some saying that his draughtsman’s attention to detail, or his hybrid of portraiture and caricature, provided the impact. It may be something different augmented enormously by his technical mastery, namely his rare ability to perceive essences of character in those whom he portrayed. The sense of melancholy in his portrait of Eliot, so callously overlooked by the Royal Academy in 1938, is sometimes said to be modern Britain’s finest portrait. Or his picture of the aristocratic and aquiline Edith Sitwell in a cold room, wearing a vast turban and surrounded by her old books, is another example of many. The sparse sketch of a handsome and oddly lissome, young Roy Campbell, drawn with the disciplined, concise lines of a Japanese master of sumi-e brushwork, is one more.

Russell Kirk met Lewis in London circa 1950-1951, living in a condemned flat in Notting Hill that the artist referred to wryly as “Rotting Hill.” He soon gave up his job as art-critic for The Listener (clever it was, uniting his graphic-eye and writing skills for a radio-review magazine) because he began to go blind due to a pituitary tumour. Dr. Kirk memorialised him in a chapter of “Confessions of a Bohemian Tory,” recalling that the old lion feared sightlessness slamming shut a door that would nevermore be opened.

Lewis died in 1957, within a few months of his friend Roy Campbell who was 19 years his junior, and almost eight years before T. S. Eliot. Lewis was long interested in Catholicism but never converted, and his ashes are buried in London’s Golders Green Cemetery.

Besides his startling graphic talent and his socio-political prescience, Lewis deserves the attention of Imaginative Conservatives by blasting the still-prevalent notion that modern art needs be the private preserve of the Leftist, the revolutionary, the meddler and the moon-calf. He lived what he preached with relentless vigour, and in that sense his portrait-bust sits comfortably beside that of T. S. Eliot: two radical-conservatives, modernist-traditionalists and indefatigable champions of The Permanent Things.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Steve,
    I am bedazzled. And I am flat-out astonished that you wrote this at precisely the time I am teaching college students about this era, and indeed Wyndham Lewis himself, as well as T.S. Eliot. When I first encountered Cubism and "The Wasteland" as an undergraduate, I sensed a similarity of style but not intent. Years later the Vorticist connection via Pound and Lewis came to light, and I am gratified to discover that I am in your excellent company in making this connection. I will direct my students to your insightful essay. I continue to be amazed and delighted by your kaleidoscopic knowledge, as well as your rapier wit. And I count myself fortunate to be a comrade in arms defending the Permanent Things with you, in the long shadow of our beloved Russell Kirk.

  2. Basically, Time and Western Man is to me a visionary rambling diatribe against "time philosophy" which today we would call "change" or "progress". Auden referred to Lewis as "that old volcano of the right" or something to this effect, and it is a wonder, really, that Lewis has not been widely or consistently identified as an apologist for permanence of aesthetic (and moral) value. We often confuse history (change) with historicism, or an extra-temporal source of value, and more's the pity. A full-fledged reevaluation of Lewis in this context is sorely needed. The aesthetic left has misappropriated Lewis for far too long.

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