Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis
London: Pimlico, 2000
In his acknowledgment pages Paul O’Keefe states that it took him a decade—not including the years of research already donated to him by another writer—to complete his biography of Wyndham Lewis, a project he began in 1990 while he was president of the Wyndham Lewis Society. And this is apparent, for this volume, holding 700 pages of tightly packed print, offers an indefatigably detailed and masochistically researched account of the British modernist artist and author’s life.
Biographies differ in emphasis, depending on the author’s biases, and the tone here is set early in the first chapter, which consists of a detailed description of Lewis’ bisected brain—now preserved in the Pathology Museum of the Imperial College School of Medicine—and the progressive destruction (through compression of the adjacent structures) caused by the growth of its pituitary tumor, medically known as a chromophone adenoma. O’Keefe’s narration is temperate and balanced in the extreme, abstaining from either celebration or condemnation, or indeed evaluation, of his subject. Instead, we are presented with unvarnished facts and restrained descriptions of circumstances, and, where records have not survived or never existed and witness memories were unavailable, with the most disciplined of inference.
Initially, the effect of this cold detective approach is a certain literary anhedonia: the narrative barely raises the pulse, despite Lewis’ turbulent social life, truculence, and extraordinarily difficult personality. One feels that another author would have been able to produce much more dramatic prose with the same information.
All the same, O’Keefe’s biography is impressive, and after a somewhat laborious account of Lewis’ Bohemian early life and career—which, ironically, includes his most significant artistic period, coinciding with Cubism and Futurism, and now referred to as Vorticist—the pace picks up once we get to 1930, the year Apes of God (London: Arthur Press, 1930), Lewis’ savage satire of London’s literary scene and the Bloomsbury Group, was published. We learn, as we race through the decade, that Lewis would routinely ridicule his friends and patrons in his novels, where they would appear thinly disguised under a pseudonym. Few were spared, which led to many a falling out, libel writs, and loss of patronage. This, plus Lewis’ quarrelsome, irascible, ultra-individualistic, cruel, secretive, litigious, and somewhat paranoid personality, kept him always on the verge of bankruptcy, despite his tremendous creative energy and productivity. Indeed, when a group of friends decided to contribute monthly to a fund so that Lewis could work without financial worries—for he was always in arrears and in debt—he very quickly and rudely alienated his benefactors. This was probably because he resented being beholden to anyone. Any well-meaning gesture was an affront.
The book is hard to put down as we pass through the 1940s. From the late 1930s, when Lewis travelled to North America, where he alternated between Canada and the United States and where he remained until after the end of the war. There we are taken to what was probably the most bitter and penurious period in his life. By this time he had difficulties finding a publisher, having become notorious for attracting libel suits, locking horns with his earlier publishers, and not delivering manuscripts for which he had been paid an advance. In the United States his books were deemed by some not the most marketable. Commissions for portraits and other art, which he desperately needed and assiduously sought, were scarce and not proof against upsetting his patrons. They were also not terribly popular—in 1938 his portrait of T. S. Eliot had been rejected by the Royal Academy. And speaking engagements, greatly facilitated by the publicity efforts of friend and future media guru Marshall McLuhan, proved insufficient and disappointing financially—Lewis was no Jonathan Bowden, in any event. Thus, he and his wife survived in cheap hotels and grim rented accommodation only a dollar, sometimes a few cents, away from eviction until 1945.
Lewis’ situation improved marginally thereafter, though by this time his eyesight was in steep decline, owing to his as-yet-undiagnosed pituitary tumor compressing his optic nerve. His 1949 portrait of T. S. Eliot would be his last painting. All the same, Lewis marched on, continuing to author substantial and difficult books—including the last two volumes of his Human Age trilogy, the first of which had been published many years earlier—even after he went blind in 1951. In his final years, Lewis benefited from the radio dramatisation of his trilogy and from his Civil List Pension, which, though exiguous, provided him with a bare minimum of security.
O’Keefe’s narration continues through to a search of Lewis’ condemned flat soon after his death and to his final resting place inside a niche in a wall at Golders Green Crematorium.
Despite its comprehensiveness in all that pertains to Lewis, O’Keefe’s biography has two major deficiencies, which stem from the fact that all we learn is tightly circumscribed to the facts and events relating to Lewis and his immediate social periphery. Firstly, aside from a few clinical descriptions, we learn very little about Lewis’ art and writing, or their cultural significance. By the time he finally receives a modicum of institutional honors and recognition, it comes almost unexpectedly; it is as if there had been a sudden sea change and the invisible powers who had previously been critical, suspicious, or unimpressed suddenly decided to relent. Secondly, there is virtually no wider historical, cultural, or sociological context, leaving Lewis’ life and work somewhat abstracted; the points of reference appear shadowy, remote, and somewhat peremptory. One can go too far in the opposite direction, of course, which would detract from a work that aims to be objective, devoid of opinion and coloration, or about an individual as opposed to his times, but it seems O’Keefe was a little too careful to avoid this.
We do obtain some perspective through Lewis’ relations with (and on occasion anecdotes involving some of) the various and now illustrious members of Lewis’ circle—which included Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and W. B. Yeats—but this perspective remains somewhat shallow, and the individuals concerned remain somewhat distant. This may well be because Lewis was a study in detachment; we learn that for him friends were there to be used, and were friends only in so much as they were useful. Bowden described him as “a bit of a rogue” and “a rascal,” and one can see why.
Having said that, in this biography Lewis does not come across as the iron-hard Right-winger that Bowden made him out to be. It is admitted that Lewis wrote a book called Hitler (London: Chatto and Windus, 1931), but he wrote it hastily and it seems he later regretted it, writing The Hitler Cult and How It Will End (London: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1939) and The Jews: Are They Human? (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1939), the latter of which is an attack against anti-Semitism. (O’Keefe also documents the frustration with Lewis of German National Socialists visiting the United Kingdom in the early 1930s in the face of the British author’s refusal to identify Communists as Jews—although this may have been recalcitrant individualism on the part of Lewis, for an anecdote a few hundred pages later on in the biography suggests he was aware of the “Jewish question,” a state not necessarily incompatible with dismissing anti-Semitism as “a racial red-herring.”)
It is admitted that Lewis met William Joyce and Oswald Mosley (O’Keefe, p. 370), but any relations in this biography appear vague and non-committal, his article in the British Union Quarterly notwithstanding. It is admitted also that, he wrote two other books (Left Wings Over Europe [London: Jonathan Cape, 1936] and Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! [London: Lovat Dickson, 1937]) which have been interpreted as in support for Mussolini and Franco respectively, but they are anti-war tracts. Later, Lewis would write Anglo-Saxony: A League that Works (Toronto: Ryerson, 1941), which is pro-democracy, and America and Cosmic Man (New York: Doubleday Company, 1949), where he pledges allegiance to a cosmic or cosmopolitan utopianism (Cosmic Man, p. 238).
Lewis’ politics were complex. Not Red, certainly, but not pure Black either. Now, Bowden, who knew O’Keefe for a time, described the latter as a liberal, and told in his 2006 talk about Lewis how, while being a member of the Wyndham Lewis Society, he told those present at an AGM that the society was “based on a lie”—proceeding then to accuse its members of revisionism, timidity, and denial. It may be that Bowden saw in Lewis want he wanted to see, or that his interpretation of Lewis as a Nietzschean metapolitical fascist owed to Bowden’s approaching his subject as a Nietzschean and a Stirnerite. Or that he focused only on the parts of Lewis that interested him, obviously the inter-war and then the late period.
In O’Keefe’s biography, certainly, Nietzsche does not figure in relation to Lewis. This is not to say, however, that Lewis was not a Nietzschean force or cannot be seen as such: aside from what can be gleaned from his prose or the conceptual elitism of his 1917 manifesto (“The Code of a Herdsman”), Lewis was certainly always against, always difficult and “rebarbative,” and always—despite his navigating a fairly wide circle of leading modernist artists and literati, alone against all, unabated by poverty and refusing to throw in the towel even after he went blind.
The reason for the above remarks is that I read this book as background research for a biography of Jonathan Bowden. Bowden mentioned Lewis frequently in his early writing, and among his effects after his death several books by Lewis were found, including Childermass (London: Chatto and Windus, 1928), The Revenge of Love (London: Cassell and Co. 1937), Self Condemned (London: Methuen Press, 1954), Apes of God, Snooty Baronet (London: Cassell and Co., 1932), Tarr (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918; London: Chatto and Windus, 1928), and The Demon of Progress in the Arts (London: Methuen Press, 1954).
From the present biography of Lewis one can easily see the reasons why Bowden could have conceivably either identified with or seen something of himself in Lewis. Both lost a parent in early life. Both were prolific painters and writers, both of an experimental sort, though Bowden more than Lewis. Both identified with the politics of the Right, while also being aggressively individualistic, though, again, Bowden more than Lewis. Both were unafraid of—and indeed enjoyed—including friends and acquaintances in their prose, where these victims of cruel and often libellous psychoanalysis appeared quasi-cartoonified and only thinly disguised under pseudonyms. Both moved frequently during early adulthood and later lived closed off, hidden away at a recondite and obscure address. Both were secretive in their personal lives, which they strictly compartmentalized—in Lewis’ case, many of his friends were unaware of the fact that he had a wife and several children (by previous lovers) until Lewis was in late middle age; initially, he never mentioned her, few ever saw her, and no one was ever given access to the flat hidden behind a door below his studio, where she lived with him, until many years later. Both found wealth elusive, and were mostly interested in recognition. And there are other parallels. On the whole, however, Bowden was more consistent philosophically, harder politically, and a more extreme artist and writer.
Irrespective of your thoughts on modernism in general, Wyndham Lewis is sufficiently interesting on his own for this major biography to be educational and entertaining, though I suspect it will be those familiar with Jonathan Bowden’s oratory who will get the greater profit.