The following text is a transcript by V. S. of Jonathan Bowden’s lecture on Wyndham Lewis which was delivered to the 8th New Right meeting in London on May 28, 2006. There are a number of passages marked unintelligible. These passages appear in the recording at 4:00, 34:21, 40:12, 41:52, and 46:28. (You can listen to the lecture using the player below or by downloading the lecture.) If you can understand these words, please post a comment below.
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Now the last of our talks is about “Elitism, British Modernism, and Wyndham Lewis,” and it’s by me. Wyndham Lewis is a paradoxical figure in all sorts of ways, because you could argue on one trajectory, certainly from a very traditional and perennialist one, that Lewis is actually a part of everything that exists now. He was an ultra-modernist and an arch-modernist. Indeed, he founded the only meaningfully indigenous modernist movement, called Vorticism, in these islands. And yet, Lewis was also an ultra-Right-wing and hierarchical figure. So, in a way, my interpretation of Wyndham Lewis—who died in the 1950s and so we now have quite a perspective on him of at least half a century—is that he was a man who believed in a Right-wing version of what we can now call the modernist project.
Now, what did they want? One of the ironies and conceits about modernism is that it is in some respects new. It’s been around since the middle of the 19th century, and there are predecessors in all sorts of currents of art that predate that. Lewis believed in a Promethean way that the world could be made again, and this was because, in a sense, he was a Nietzschean.
One of his first published articles was The Code of a Herdsman. This is the idea that the artist comes down from the mountain and communes with the masses, often by using masks, often by using stratagems, often by manipulating them, by bullying them, by attacking them, by working on them and trying to raise them and their level.
One of the things about Lewis is that Lewis is totally opposed to “entertainment” and the idea that the artist has to sell himself to the mass of people, particularly through commercial middle-men. This is has had an unfortunate consequence, because a large number of Lewis’ books are entertaining and very readable, but many of them are deliberately rebarbative and are an attack on the audience. The Apes of God is an attack. Childermass, for example, which was published in 1928 and is a part of an enormous sort of tetralogy, only three parts of which were written, is attempts to deal in a Heideggerian way— without any of Heidegger’s discourse—with ultimate matters of life and death and purpose.
Lewis was a great artist, flawed in some ways, but great because he attempted to reach the stars. His view of art was almost that it should be a religion for secular, post-modern man. He had an enormous amount of energy and he wrote 50 books, he painted at least 200 very large canvases, a significant number of which are in the Tate Gallery and elsewhere and owned by major museums across the world like the Guggenheim, the Peabody Museum and so forth.
He’s probably the only figure that we have in early 20th century British high culture who combines painting and writing—very different discourses that come out of completely different parts of the brain—in one individual. He comes out of the 19th century. He knew virtually every major cultural and artistic figure in the British Isles and beyond during his lifespan. He met every great modernist from Picasso onwards. He met every great politician, including Sir Oswald Mosley with whom, of course, he was reasonably intimately politically associated.
One of the reasons Lewis is less fashionable than the rest of the Gang of Four, as they’re called—namely Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, the men of 1914—is because he has never been forgiven for some of the political discourses that he came out with at particular times. Now, this is rather remarkable, because Pound was put in an insane asylum after the Second World War where the poison of alleged treachery to the United States of America by virtue of his allegiance with Mussolinian Italy was virtually burned out of him through [4:00 unintellgible—sounds like Harry B. Duty] shock treatment. And Eliot went into the bosom of the Anglo-Catholic Anglican and Tory establishment in this country, despite his American birth. And Yeats, of course, more than made his peace but was a part of the new Irish Republican dispensation, the state that became the Irish Republic after de Valera. It was the Free State before. It’s arguable who was the most Right-wing amongst these particular people.
Yeats in many ways can’t be seen as a modernist, although he was most alive to Lewis’ talents at certain times partly because of his extraordinary ability satirically. Yeats deeply admired that tradition from Swift through to Lewis. The canvas is a sort of negative, harsh, critical, and yet poetic discourse in our culture which manifests itself through the savagery of an Evelyn Waugh, through the poetry of the Churchill of many centuries ago who was a member of the Hellfire Club, through Nash’s prose, for example.
Lewis is an outsider, and he always styled himself as such. He adopted various strategies which in turn relate to the wearing of masks and in further go back to his little credo The Code of a Herdsman. One of the masks that he liked to wear was that of the enemy of received values and opinions. Although it wasn’t entirely articulated in this way, he fought against liberalism in the arts and in the general culture all of his life.
In 1926, he wrote a book called The Art of Being Ruled, which is a genuinely extraordinary book, because he predicted many things which were from so far off the agenda then that very few people had thought of them and indeed this book was regarded as slightly madcap even in its era. It looks at theories through Georges Sorel, it looks at theories through Charles Maurras, but in the end it’s Lewis’ thesis that ultimately in the West, if we don’t watch it—and it had partly arrived in Weimar Germany and contemporary pre-Depression Britain anyway—we will have Left-wing capitalism. This was a heterodox and absurdist thesis in the 1920s, which partly sophisticated Marxian critics and so on laughed to scorn! But we have all around us a global, itemized, Left-leaning capitalist order.
Lewis’ real view was that you’ve got this strange combination between thinking that conservatives of the more rigid type are the less modernistic and futurist and energy-based type, as he would configure it, have always been bemused by. Even politically today you sense this, that many conservatives think that they’re running the world, and yet they’re alienated from the very streets that they walk through and they have this odd double-take in relation to reality. They feel that culturally, instinctively they’ve lost everywhere, and yet history tells them that they’ve triumphed over Communism, over state socialism, and dirigisme and so on.
But Lewis’ real point is that the market is the greatest egalitarian leveler that has ever been developed, and that more rigid and “conservative” structures statally to enforce egalitarianism aren’t really necessary, because the market will do it for you. If you decide taste or concepts of beauty or honor or national pride or elitism or voluntarism, and you have a plebiscitary vote through tickets of commerce via the market, you will always get a lumpen and a reasonably leveled-down and drivelish answer.
Lewis’ career began really with his studentship at the Slade School of Fine Art, which is now part of University College London. The most famous fellow student when he was there was Augustus John, whose sister Gwen John was also a famous painter and in turn was Rodin’s mistress for a while. Now, they clashed quite considerably, and Augustus, to this day, is regarded as in a sense an academic artist; freed up, maybe, romantic and energetic in spirit, but still largely loyal to naturalistic portraiture and traditional Western art.
Lewis broke with all of that, even when he was a low student at the Slade College in the center of London. Lewis was probably linked conceptually to the Formalists and Constructivists in pre-Soviet Russia. We’re talking about the proto-Soviet revolution of 1906, long before the Bolsheviks had even been heard of on the world-historical stage.
The interesting thing about Lewis is that Lewis creates for a period the most savage and the most modernistic art possible, and in a later phase he rejects it. In the early 1950s he published a book called The Demon of Progress in the Arts, which has never been reprinted, incidentally, and which is actually a criticism of many of the tendencies that he himself helped to create 50 years before.
But the criticism is because his view of culture is essentially energy-related and discourse-driven. He believes that you can take modern culture and adopt a Rightist view of it by hierarchicalizing it and by dinning it into the masses through every organ of propaganda. He basically believes that you can have a Right-wing modernist culture, essentially.
When he saw that by the middle of the 20th century, modernism, which initially a lot of liberal humanism was reluctant to touch—except for separate, isolated individuals—and reluctant to embrace in the way that we now have . . . If you sit back and watch your television screen today about art and artistic matters, people will tell you that the Turner Prize is received culture, is the culture that New Labour and Cool Britannia endorses. You have to step back in time when these sorts of discourses which have led to that point were much more fugitive, much more formative.
In a way, there’s a subtext to the politics of art in the 20th century which has never really been explored. Whenever modernism is taught in universities, the political partiality of many early modernists—Céline in relation to writing, certainly ultra-modernist writing of the sort exemplified by Beckett or Joyce, Pound in relation to the hard-edged, semi-classical early modernity of his Imagist movement, and many, many of the others—their incorrectness politically is always slightly elided over. They are crucial to the modernist project and experiment, and they therefore cannot be voided from it, but there is a reluctance to admit where their politics began and where it ended.
There is a school of what is called deconstruction, which is a late type of linguistic theory whereby all culture is considered to be relative and a play of words and signifiers. It’s the latest of the most destructive types of Critical Theory which have convulsed the Western academy during the course of the 20th century. Now, this school produced a particular variant in the United States at Yale University and is known as the Yale School of Deconstruction. Fredric Jameson, who was a prominent professor there, wrote a book on Wyndham Lewis called Wyndham Lewis: The Modernist as Fascist. Of course, that in itself is a paradox, because to many minds the radical Right and modernity or radical modernism would appear, superficially speaking, to be antithetical. Yet, all of these ultra-modernists that I’ve just listed in their early formulations at the beginning of the 20th century, 100 years ago, were ultra-Right-wing and anti-democratic.
Why have artistic movements that were championed by many of these people and other lesser lights of similar ilk come to mean the exact reverse of what they postulated a century on without falling into traps like “the revolution betrayed” and so forth? In many ways, it’s complicated, and a particular key text that we need to look at is a Spanish work by Ortega y Gasset called The Dehumanization of Art which was one of the earliest statements of Right-wing modernism.
In this work, this particular Spanish philosopher said that he likes a modern art which is a break from the past and is an attack on the sensibility of the people. He likes modernism because the people don’t like it. He likes it because it looks like material that’s landed from outer space, essentially. He likes it because it’s misanthropic and there’s a strong element of that in artistic creativity.
This is a very insightful point because if you ever move in the circles of the arts the bulk of the ideological trajectory is and has remained well to the Left. But if you associate with a lot of artistic people for a long time you realize that art isn’t really about an open-minded and globalist love of humanity. All artists compete savagely with each other. They’re obsessed many of them with fame. And although they’re not materialistic people, they’ll take what they can where they can get it. There’s a sort of interesting inhumanism about all custodians of beauty, even if certain people, both absolutely and relatively, don’t believe that what they are producing is beauty.
The modern movement became by default the cultural vanguard of contemporary liberal humanism because the radical Right has become associated retrospectively with the aesthetic discourse of National Socialist Germany, which was neo-classical and looking back, whereas the partial modernisms, that were partly agglomerated into the states of an authoritarian Rightist character in Portugal and in Spain and in Italy, are partly being shunted to the side or disprivileged.
Let’s take the Soviet example and its many satellites throughout the Second and Third World, now many of them collapsed in the century that has just passed. Soviet art up until 1928 embraced the most revolutionary and the most radical and the most destructive currents of prior thought and brought them all in, despite Lenin’s avowed personal distaste for a lot of it. But he welcomed these modern movements because they broke up that which existed before, because before you build a new house you must dynamite what was there before and put in new foundations so that there can be a new structure. There’s a famous conversation between Gorky and Lenin where Gorky allegedly said to Lenin, “What do you think of all this modern stuff?” And Lenin said, “I can’t stand it, but we must support it because it destroys.”
The interesting thing is that after 1928, of course, the Stalinist dispensation after Trotsky’s purging and the purging of the Left opposition from the Soviet Communist Party, reversed this cultural flow and a cultural restoration of traditional artistry came sweeping in. Many of the modernists who saw which way the wind was blowing suddenly altered the way that they composed and wrote poetry and wrote novels and so on to fit in with this new wave.
In the middle of this, liberal humanism, which deep down has had many, many doubts about the elitism and the misanthropy of elements of the modernist project, post-Second World War cleaved to radical modernity, and you see a clique all over the world whereby the most unlikely cultural people, from Prince Philip onwards, develop a liking for modernist painting and sculpture. You see it almost as a glacial thing right across the Western establishment.
There was even a deeper subtext to this because in the early 1950s the Central Intelligence Agency, believe it or not, actually put money into the sponsorship of Abstract Expressionism. You can imagine these bullet-headed types in Georgetown and the CIA base in Langley, Virginia holding abstract Expressionist paintings upside down, because you don’t know which way they’re up! And wondering how many millions of dollars they should invest in this sort of thing. They bought into an ideology about this that the Soviet Union was restrictive and reactionary and wanted to go back whereas sunny America was the new uplands of freedom and participation in democracy, and everyone could throw their paint on and do what they liked. We were for freedom and not these old, hide-bound forms! And you can see them not really agreeing with it, but thinking it was a good propaganda line.
So, by a strange, sort of reverse process in the liberal West, which is now post-Soviet collapse and has superficially triumphed all over modernity, a leveling down to the lowest common denominator of the pre-war modernist space, or virtual reality space, or moral cyberspace has occurred. So, in a way, all of the early modernists who wanted a new world and were full of energy and belief and anger and pain, and power and beauty—which is what this modernist aesthetic really amounted to—have fallen away, and we’re left with something like the Turner Prize, which is interesting and yet sort of ironic because of course this prize indicates the fact that modernism has died and died quite far back in the 20th century in terms of its own internal vitality, never mind any attributions that may be put upon it from the outside.
There’s an art critic and academic and curator called Suzi Gablik who’s married to John Russell who is a rather well-known art critic and historian. He was art critic on the New York Times for many years and wrote books on Seurat and Bacon, and this sort of thing. Now, she wrote a book in the 1970s called Has Modernism Failed? Like a lot of academics, she couldn’t make her mind up, so she presented the case, and she presented the evidence, and she left the sort of terminal paragraph, the one where you have to bite the bullet and answer the question, “has modernism really died,” vacant.
But it was quite clear from the profiling of the evidence that the belief that there could be a new world, that man could be energized and transformed by art, that art could be meshed with technology to create cyborgs of the real or the hyper-real and that we could take a new evolutionary leap by virtue of these sorts of discourses characterized by Vorticism (Britain), Cubism (France), Surrealism (France), Expressionism (Germany), Futurism (Italy), and so on and so forth, with all sorts of various tendencies, has failed and hasn’t come to pass.
With a movement like André Breton’s Surrealism an enormous number of shards and interconnected revolutionary and pseudo-revolutionary movements came out of that as it collapsed: Lettrism, Situationism. Tiny little groups with small numbers of people, but actually strangely influential, because when many of the Paris students rioted in 1968—and this is called a New Right group and, of course, the New Right as a conception was essentially, if things have a foundation, a foundation created by Alain de Benoist and other intellectuals of the ultra-Right as a response to the rioting in 1968—because these people had taken over the streets and were rioting in the CRS, and blood was flowing in the streets, and they were putting slogans on walls saying, “Imagine” or “We want everything to be different” or “A revolution against all values that currently exist,” an odd take, if they knew it, on a Nietzschean phrase of more than half a century before. So, these students were replicating radical modernist ideas, albeit at the level of street slogans.
And don’t forget that graffiti on billboards now sells in Sotheby’s today. I’ve been to exhibitions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s and Bonham’s and Carter’s and Phillip’s and all the others and graffiti—graffiti art, it’s called—is there, praised by liberals as an expression of the urban masses and the vitality of lumpenproletarian exclusion, aesthetically stated. So, a trajectory that begins with hierarchical elitists who wanted a new world has ended with the “art” of Baselitz and of Basquiat and of these sorts of people.
For those who don’t know, Basquiat was a mulatto rent boy and drug addict who was taken by Andy Warhol and made into a considerable artist. This was bought into considerably in terms of financial access to profit through the selling of his texts of oppression which consisted of—I could do one now! I could do that for you. You get a big piece of paper. You have a couple of police cars coming to drag you away = Racism. You have a small Black man being dragged off, and you write “RACISM.” And you put a little flower on the end. It’s to say racism is allied to the possibility of sexual identity oppression.
I want $40,000 dollars for it. And somebody would stand between the person who wants to buy it and say, “You’re buying into pain; you’re buying into redemption; you’re buying into modernity. It may not really be your taste. You may actually think it’s rubbish that he pulled up in ten minutes. But buy into it, because it might be worth something in the future, and at the same time it relates to ideas about art.”
One of the interesting things about modernity—and Lewis’ role in it, which we’ll get back to in a minute—because modernism has to be discussed in a way, because it’s an extraordinarily complicated area, and Lewis is a very interesting and problematical figure, the one and the other . . . But what modernism has led to is a fracturing and a dissonance of things and of prior organic forms. It released an enormous amount of energy. It was a volcano and an explosion.
It has now died. It’s really died in our art for about 40 years, because when the Turner Prize goes to the Sun and replicates to the masses, who nothing about art whatsoever, that this is the coming stuff it is several levels of lies and mendacity piled upon one another. Damien Hirst: that’s taxidermy. It relates to the ready-made. Warhol did that. The Dadaists after the Great War did that. Duchamp specialized in that. Duchamp went to a gallery with a urinal that he’d just bought in a Parisian flea market and said, “This is art!” And the chap said, “Well, you know, not quite sure about that . . .” He said, “Look, I found it, it’s purposeful, it’s in front of me, we use it for a physiological purpose. How dare you deny, in your authoritarian subjectivism, that this isn’t art!” And the bloke said, “How much do you want?” And that’s how it started, you see.
But they say the Turner Prize is original. Let’s look at the unmade bed [My Bed] by Tracey Emin. Now, this again is a form of a ready-made. It’s again a form of a text. “I have a life. I’ve had this abortion.” Not me personally, Tracey Emin. There’s a degree to which I had this done to me. Notice that this is an inversion of every artistic credo, because art is something you objectify outside yourself. It’s not something that’s done to you. It’s something that you leave. You leave an object. You leave a trace. Even to use Beckett’s terminology, you stain the silence that’s external to oneself. She just says, “I’m in pain!” That sort of thing and it’s considered almost an artistic statement. “Oh, this is my unmade bed.”
One of the more interesting ones, though, in this sort of dying world is somebody called Marc Quinn. Now, many of you who’ve wandered around Trafalgar Square recently will have seen something by Marc Quinn, because on the fourth pedestal—which they can’t decide how to fill—he has a 13-ton sculpture of a pregnant thalidomide woman. You must have seen it if you’ve been to Trafalgar Square. It’s Alison Lapper who is pregnant and thalidomide. And naked, even better. In a way, what Quinn is doing is actually in a strange way—this would be denounced 50 years ago by ultra-Left critics within Modernist art—he’s actually smuggling in certain representational and Neo-Classical features even as mockery into the discourse.
You have to understand that in the middle of the 20th century, partly because of the Second World War and its aftermath, there was a hysteria in the contemporary arts. If anyone painted in a representational way they could be and were hounded out of colleges. They were howled down at conferences. Certain of the art was, in a sense, disprivileged to the degree it was conceptually destroyed even if it still existed in some garage or attic somewhere. Anyone who said they were in favor of beauty was regarded as a “Nazi” or a “conceptual Nazi” or an “aesthetic Nazi.”
The irony is that that sort of extremism, of course, docked the market, because ultimately there was a reductio ad absurdum, here with many of the Abstract Expressionist painters before big museums came into their work many private dealers were exhausted and didn’t want to buy anymore, and a new movement was founded called Pop Art which was recidivistically popular. It rejected Clement Greenberg’s theories. He was the main theorist of abstract Expressionism. And they went back to Batman, if you like. They went for stuff the masses would like, because you could sell it. And many dealers around the world went, “Thank God for that! You’ve got something that’s recognizable and that’s popular and that we can invest in again.” So, that was actually a retreat from ultra-modernist hysteria in relation to the sheer capitalism of contemporary art.
Many people wonder why pictures—not just Old Masters, but many contemporary pictures—sell for such ludicrously large amounts of money, if one’s frank about it. Bearing in mind that at least 10% of all artworks are forged in every category. Everyone in the art business knows that. The former head of Sotheby’s, Mr. Taubman, was placed in prison in the United States of America, despite saying he had 36 grandchildren and had to take 26 pills a day in order to live, because he had set up a cartel to prevent other people dealing with Sotheby’s and Christie’s in art.
Some people wanted art to become a religion in comparison to the post-Christianity of the contemporary era. Other people see it as an investment for life, because artistic works have become a currency for the ultra-rich, and they are actually very little looked upon or viewed. They’re stored in warehouses. They’re stored in bank vaults. Many of the people never look at them. Onassis bought things, put them on his yacht, and never looked at them again, even though millions of dollars had been expended on them.
There was an enormous fire at the Saatchi warehouse in Leyton in East London a couple of years ago that burnt down most of the collection of Britart, and Saatchi’s share price fell slightly. The Chapmans, who are famous for interconnected labyrinths of quasi-pedophile dolls which they glued together, said, “We can do another one damn quick!” And Saatchi said, “Right away!” So, several new ones appeared.
But back to Wyndham Lewis, the nominal subject of my talk. Now, Lewis in my view is a great genius within the culture that I’ve just described. His first major novel was called Tarr, which of course is an anagram for “art” and “rat.” Lewis always liked the aggressive side to artistry. He always liked the fact that he was in some ways attacking the audience, although he didn’t really accord with Left-wing ideas of attacking the audience. One thing you have to remember is that Lewis was pathologically anti-bourgeois, and he was totally opposed to what he would have regarded as the culture of sentimentality. “You’ve got to smash the face of the bourgeois with your fist!” This was his view. He’s a Right-winger, but he’s not really a conservative at all. He’s a revolutionary Right-winger. The mediocrity of the majority of people, the total absence of taste: he wants to shake them by the throat! It’s a very aggressive form of culture, and Lewis was perforce a very aggressive man.
Pound once called him “Wynd-Damn” with a hyphen because he was always casting anathema on everybody. Although Lewis, despite his termagant nature, was one of the few people who wouldn’t break from Pound when he was incarcerated in a prison, which was an asylum and where the lights were on 24 hours a day as he was trying to write the Pisan Cantos, just because he’d appeared on Italian radio. So, Lewis remained loyal to his friends.
But his first novel was Tarr.
He expected to die in the Great War, and he fought at the front, and he fought at the Battle of Passchendaele. Lewis regarded the First World War as a revolution in the soul of man. He didn’t think it was a war. He thought it was a climactic moment whereby machine technology invasively entered the human space. You would see a thousand men charge toward some enclave. Two would be left afterwards, and their bones would be showered miles behind you because of the impact of the bombs that were coming down on them. Lewis turned to people afterwards and said, “This isn’t a war. It’s something else. It’s the mass industrialization of death within modernity.” He believed, as much of that generation did, that those who went through this were never the same.
One of the reasons, if you like, for the radicality of his modernism and his belief that everything should be changed is the belief of that generation, in part, that everything should be changed after what they’d been through! They weren’t going to come back here and listen to the old men preaching about the same old stuff. They wanted a new world!
Of course, one of the people who wanted a new world was Oswald Mosley, beginning in his class, in hierarchical terms, as a Tory then shifting over to the Left-wing of the Labour Party as the depression of the late ’20s and early ’30s loomed. Lewis formed a bit of a cultural alliance with Mosley, although, like all intellectuals and bohemians, Lewis was very wary about getting into bed with anyone. He wrote for British Union Quarterly, which was one of the BUF magazines of the 1930s, but he always kept a certain distance.
In the texts themselves, you can detect the fact that, unlike the other great modernists—Yeats and Pound and Eliot—Lewis has been demonized less because of association, less because of organizational joining or not joining, less because he spoke to this person or not, but because the texts are in some respects are more Right-wing, are more remedially and recidivistically “incorrect” than any of the others.
Lewis’ great thesis throughout his whole range of books— such as The Art of Being Ruled in 1926, such as the satire on Bloomsbury and Sitwell domination of the arts in the media space, The Apes of God, in 1930, such as his analysis through the prism of Pareto and Machiavelli of the tragedies of Shakespeare, The Lion and the Fox, such as the short story collection which came before the Great War but that he actually brought into the post-Great War period and reworked and re-edited and reformulated and produced as The Wild Body in 1927-28, and an enormous number of other texts, such as satirical texts which he’d almost write in half an afternoon. They were just pamphlets. They were 18th-century devices of spleneticism and rage: The Doom of Youth, which is actually based on a text by Evelyn Waugh’s brother, Alec Waugh, called The Loom of Youth and was about homosexuality in public schools, and an enormous amount of “Right-wing” pamphlets which Lewis considered as destroyers; strange Panzers that he allowed to loom up into some field and go careening over a cliff. Two of these were pacifist works written in the 1930s against war with Germany which was then quite apparent. One of them was called Left Wings Over Europe and another one was called Count Your Dead: They are Alive! They’re polemical works, essentially. Another book that caused a great deal of problems for everybody which is almost completely forgotten now is a book called The Jews: Are They Human? Which was actually based on a funny book, a book which was a sort of Alan Coren book of the time called The English: Are They Human? by a German satirist. This is one of the many, many problems. We live in such a relative cultural space that things have been taken completely out of context because there is no context from which to take them, because you have to understand context, go back to another one, realize that it was in it and relate it to something that was different.
Another very controversial text about race called Paleface, which is an attack actually on the cult of the primitive in the works of people like D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence and Lewis had a standing hostility to each other. This is very ironic, but also metaphysically true, because Lawrence is a pagan and a vitalist but in some ways really a perennial heathen and a Traditionalist, and Lewis is a violent eruptor of modern discourse. Although not a subjectivist in a relativist and pure sense, he is a Nietzschean. He believes that there is a separation between the modern and that which has preceded it. In a sense, what he’s saying subjectively in terms of his teleology in a way is that we don’t know absolute truth. Absolute truths exist, otherwise everything is meaningless, but we cannot entirely configure them in our own destiny. We arrive at the understanding of the possibility of their configuration through struggle, through life, through dialectic, through reordering the energy within matter. It’s the difference, if you like, between Nietzsche and Evola. That’s why the two of them would clash in the way that they did. They detested each other, basically.
Indeed, in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the depiction of her husband as a First World War veteran who’s sort of castrated in a way and she goes for a more virile man in the gamekeeper, Mellors, and the fact that he likes this tubular modernist art that Lawrence feels is disgusting and maggoty and technologically based and without purpose is, amongst other things, a satire on elements of the culture that Lewis represented.
Don’t forget, the great novelists and artists never picked somebody and said, “That’s Wyndham Lewis. I’m going to do a hatchet job on him!” They use what [34:21 unintelligible] Anthony Burgess in the post-war period called sense data. They take 20 or 30 different sources and amalgamate an individual together in order to make a point. It’s a synthetic creation that’s worked on the way that a writer will work on a number of manuscripts; 1, 2, 3. One of our previous speakers talked about Henry Williamson. He would actually rework a new work nine times before it went to the printer, and so on.
So, Lewis and Lawrence quarreled bitterly, because Lewis was a quarreler who quarreled with everybody. One of his first cultural manifestos and explosions that launched the Vorticist movement with Pound and others—Saunders, Dismorr, Roberts, Nevinson, who later went with the Futurist current more closely aligned with Marinetti, and all sorts of other people—was one of the most famous and infamous magazines in Britain in the 20th century. It was called Blast! Blast! (There were issues 1, 2 and 3.) because it came out of the Great War and out of the energy of the Great War. Certain people were blasted others were blessed and this sort of thing and this dialectic of approval and disapproval.
Basically, Lewis was arguing for an authoritarian society based on Hellenistic norms seen through the mist of contemporary technology. By Hellenistic norms, I mean that although there will be discourses such as continuing Christianity and so on, that a degree of skepticism based on the possibility of truth is cardinal—in other words, it’s freedom of thinking and genuine expression not of the sort we get in the mass media now—is cardinal to Western identity and to Western thinking.
One of Lewis’ books in his middle career was Men Without Art, which is again a sort of satire on Hemingway’s book Men Without Women. He would often take a title like this, wrench it out of its bearings and reformulate it in a molten sort of way. Everything with him comes back to Nietzschean ideas, because he believes that you work on a brain. You work on a text. You work on a mind before you. Everything’s molten, and you reconstitute it and create new forms and throw them out, and then it’s on to the next one. It’s a sort of Promethean attitude. A slightly demonic attitude in many respects, and he wouldn’t have hidden from that.
When he produced The Demon of Progress in the Arts in the 1950s, he was beginning to go blind, which of course for an artist and for an intensely visual person is a great affliction, possibly the greatest one there could be. He had a particular type of cancer that came behind the nose and pressed upon the optic nerves and gradually dulled both eyes. He lost secondary vision, everything became misted, and finally they went. It’s exactly the condition that John Milton had many centuries before.
Now, when he was going blind, the one interesting thing about Lewis because of his Nietzschean credo was a total absence of sentimentality. There was no pity for the other, but there was no pity for himself either. One of the cardinal prerequisites that’s true for a man like Bill Hopkins, who I discussed in one of my last talks, is the total absence of the ethic of self-pity. When he went blind, he was reviewing fine art for The Listener at that time, and he just had a one line paragraph saying, “I can no longer review because I am blind.—Lewis.” And that was it!
Because of the pervasive pressure of middle-brow journalism that states that it knows everything but in actual fact is postulating on a tiny degree of knowledge that was already well under way in the culture of the 1950s, a journalist said to him, “Oh, Mr. Lewis, are you going to write anything more?” And Lewis said, “How dare you! How dare you say I’m not going to write anything more!” He said, “If I could see you, I’d throttle you!” He said, “The lamp of aggressive voltage has turned inside. The mind has many mansions!” He was offered a choice by his doctors, because the sort of cancer that he had can be eradicated now by laser surgery, but he distrusted all doctors and regarded them all as quacks, so he’d get ten opinions and then become confused. But the general melting down of the opinions was that if you went in with a knife bluntly to get this cancer out from underneath the brain, you would damage the brain. And Lewis said, “Life is the brain. Better to lose the sight than the mind!”
After he went blind, he wrote six books, and two were uncompleted on his death, including an enormously major work that in some respects, given the contemporary and rather faddish vogue for fantasy literature, has never received the kudos that it should, at least in my opinion. This is his The Human Age trilogy which is based on Dante’s Inferno. Because often when you want to go forward, you go back, because when you confront death, you confront ontology and being and purpose and meaning and absolute values. What are we here for? Is there any purpose? Will there be life after death? What can we expect? Does life have an ultimate meaning, or is it contingent and purposeless and valueless, and we just choose one for ourselves? Which is, really, all that Sartre’s theory boils down to.
Lewis began this enormous work with the Childermass in 1928, which was an extremist modernist book. I’ve read it three times. It’s an incredibly difficult read, because he’s attacking the reader the whole time. He writes these sentences where the stress is between punctuation marks in such a way that the majority of people will give it up after a couple of pages. And he almost wants them to.
But when he goes blind, it becomes a lot more accessible because you’ve got to write in a much more linear way. He said he used a Dictaphone, but this isn’t true. What he would do is he would have a board on his knee, he would put a ruler with rubber bands on either end, he would have a pen, biros were coming in, I suppose, and he’d get to one end and he’d go back. And he would go back. And he would go back. He would fill page and page and page and then throw it on the floor. For all I know, his wife would collect them up, and they’d be typed and collated. Now, obviously, a certain slackness and a little bit of repetition enters in when you are creating in that way, and few people had the temerity to suggest to W. Lewis, Esquire that there should be any changes. But these are still an extraordinary series of works given the state he was in physically when he created them.
This particular series of works consists of the Childermass, which is his version of limbo, and we’ll come on to that in a minute, Monstre Gai, which is his version of purgatory, and you’ve got Malign Fiesta, which is his version of hell. Lewis is very interested in hell and fascinated by it. The devil in The Human Age is Sammael. That’s the diabolical personification. Paradoxically, in a sort of reversal of the figure known as the devil’s advocate in the Roman Catholic Church—during the period of ordination before somebody like the previous pontiff is going to become a saint—Lewis argues against his own positions, because he gives many of his best positions to Sammael and then argues against them in the work. If you ever come across it, the avant-garde ’60s publisher, Jean Calder, published Malign Fiesta, and it is an unbelievable book in my opinion.
Towards the end of his life, residually his modest Catholicism loomed rather large. For most of his life, of course, he’d been a nominal atheist because of his Nietzschean [41:52 unintelligible], but as death approached and because reception by a Catholic priest in Canada—where he was in exile during the Second World War, partly as a protest against the war, partly as a result of looming financial chaos and a desire to get out of Britain, because in a way he’d warned against the looming war for 30 to 40 years, and now that it happened he didn’t really want a part of it.
He wrote a novel called The Vulgar Streak, which is about forgery in the arts. The idea of forgery always fascinated Lewis and the idea of fakes and how people can buy into it as discourse and aesthetic value. There’s also a book which he wrote which is in the modern Penguin Classics called The Revenge for Love and which is an anti-Communist satire. It was one of the more humanistic books that Lewis wrote. There wasn’t just anti-humanism in theory, there was a more developed, psychological side to his oeuvre as well.
One also should mention his painting, which, of course, began to dwindle away as his blindness increased and became more severe. The paintings of the First World War hang in the Imperial War Museum, and most of them are in the public exhibition space. If you’re ever in that museum, which of course is based where the old Bedlam Hospital used to be, wander around and have a look. His most famous one is Canadian Gun-pit because, although completely British by adoption, he was born off Nova Scotia on his father’s yacht. And there is something primordial and New Worldish about the energy that quite a few of these moderns had at the beginning of the 20th century. Canadian, American—in this context makes no difference. Pound, Eliot, Lewis—all very different men—but they were the classicism of the Old World coming back to the Old World via the New World, and it did come back with some of its fire in the belly, it has to be said. But he didn’t enjoy his experience in Canada and was pleased to return.
He wrote a book of short stories about Notting Hill, which of course was beginning to be a center of Third World immigration even in his time after the passage of the Labour Nationality Act in 1948. It was called Rotting Hill, not Notting Hill, which was a joke between him and Ezra Pound at the time.
I think the one text which demonized and did-for Lewis’ behavior pre-war and post-war is a book he wrote almost in half a year, just as journalism, almost with the speed and rapidity of talk, and this was a book called Hitler, which he wrote in 1931 and was published by Chatto & Windus in 1933. He was invited, as many writers are, to go and see this movement that was making waves in Germany, to report, to produce a text, and come back, and they published it with just a bit of minor editing. And they did. This book was one of the few books that contemporary British writers produced that was actually reproduced under Goebbels’ ministry once the government had come in after 1933. Even though, as always with Lewis, Lewis is always critical, always against, never completely supports any issues, and even his own up to a point. As Nietzsche once said, “Believe totally in your own philosophy and then have your doubt” only to maximize the gap that you can then transgress when you return to the sureness of your own faith. So, as always, Lewis is a very uncomfortable man and a very uncomfortable bedfellow.
In the 1930s, he used to go to establishment parties with Lady Abercrombie and these sort of grand dame hostesses and so on and if people weren’t paying him any attention he’d produce a pistol and put it on the table. She’d come around circling and give him some chat and scoop the gun into her handbag. But it was essentially because he was a sort of histrionic artist who always wanted to be at the center of the vortex. He founded the Vorticist movement, and he always wanted to be at the center of his own vortex, if you see what I mean.
He did appear in many fascinating novels even by people who hated his guts, and there were quite a few of them. There’s a novel by Huxley, one of his Crome Yellow-type novels re-issued in the ’70s and 80s with Tamara de Lempicka covers. There’s an Edith Sitwell novel largely forgotten today.
Because Lewis was a fascinating character: 6 foot tall, eagle-eyed, used to wear this enormous Spanish sombrero tilted slightly to the side, used to wear a cape like Sandeman’s port, and just sweep around. He once had a fight in Soho Square, the one with the pagoda in it, when T. E. Hulme—who was a great man who died in the Great War and who was an ultra-Conservative theorist of modernity—made a point that Lewis didn’t agree with, so Lewis grabbed him by the throat! Hulme, who was an enormous Yorkshireman and had no time for any of this nonsense, picked him up, and people wore turn-ups then and he put him over the spikes in Soho Square and left him dangling there. Lewis said, “That pagoda always looks different when you’ve seen it upside down.”
So, he was quite a character, and there are endless stories about him: his affair with Nancy Cunard, his affairs with all sorts of other women. The famous one about how he was into having intercourse with Nancy Cunard until a painting came on him. He shoved her out naked into the street and got on with the painting. He was a character and very, very, very difficult to get on with. He also was in debt most of his life as well because he had people dunning him all the time, bills coming in. He used to have flits between Kensington studios, you know, these mews flats and so on. He’d have a studio at the back and as he’d hear some crazy banging on the door at one end of the street, and he’d hear it and skedaddle with the wife to another place. He was a bit of a rogue, he really was. He also took money from the British government and didn’t entirely do all the paintings that he was supposed to do, and then he’d on-sell them before they could go to other museums and so on. So, he was a rascal in a way. He was very, very difficult with his publishers and he was a man who was, as Pound remarked, pursued by the Furies.
The first book on him was by a poet called Geoffrey Grigson, who was a total fan and adored Lewis and so on. But Lewis insisted on writing it himself! Because he couldn’t trust Grigson to give him the proper hagiographical treatment. When Grigson included a few criticisms Lewis ripped it out of his hands and almost tried to eat it! He said, “Once you came up against me, peeing against my leg, I should have seen you off with a stick, Grigson!” That was his first biographer.
The most famous post-war biographers are Jeffrey Meyers and Paul O’Keefe. O’Keefe I know personally because he was chairman of the Wyndham Lewis Society for a while. They used to meet in rather august bursar’s in offices in Bertram’s in the city of London well into the late 1980s. I once caused a lot of consternation, believe it or not, at the AGM at the Wyndham Lewis Society because I got up and said, “This society is based on a lie.” And they went, “What’s he talking about? Who’s that bloke?” I said, “It’s based on a lie. The reason the society exists is because Lewis isn’t acceptable, and the reason he isn’t acceptable is because he wrote the book Hitler, and because he’s Right-wing.” And they all went, “Ugh, uh, he’s a conceptual anarchist. Uhh, he’s metapolitically Right-wing, you know.” I said, “Look, well, he’s deconstructively and modernistically Right-wing, but in all essential purposes he’s a radical modernistic fascist, or he’s fascistic.” “Don’t use that word!” they said, because the whole criticism that surrounds him is evasive of that. There’s a sort of black hole. It’s like you don’t mention the war, you know. You don’t mention his political affiliations because they’re tip-toeing around it all.
For people who want to examine the texts, The Apes of God is available in Penguin. The Revenge for Love is available in Penguin. The very pro-Islamic, actually, travel book—that’s how it’s described—Journey into Barbary about his visits to North Africa where he did unbelievable things. He insisted on tea in the desert, insisted on dressing in great coats with scarfs in the middle of the desert. The Arabs thought he was totally mad, totally mad, but they left him to it. Tarr is available in Penguin as well.
Tarr is an extraordinary novel, a Dostoevskian novel in many ways, written in these sort of bullet sentences. In the first edition, he tried to change punctuation. He introduced the equals mark instead of semi-colon and this sort of thing. That was done away with in the second edition. The publisher that published that was The Egoist Press, a small press in the center of Paris that published Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce first, before anyone else did, because no one else would touch it. One publisher, Grayson & Grayson, a publisher that no longer exists, was sent the manuscript of Tarr by Lewis and they returned it saying, “We can’t publish your book, because it’s too strong.” Too strong! Lewis almost had to be restrained from going around and hurling a brick through the window of Grayson & Grayson, because he was like this.
But that in some ways is a metaphor for his career, because he believed that art should be about strength and glory. One of his great criticisms of the modernity elements of which he championed was the idea that our culture has become so wet and so effete and so self-critical and so implausibly plausible and is terrified of making an affirmative statement about anything. One of the theses of The Human Age is the cult of infantilism in the modern West, the cult of the child, the cult of the Negro, the cult of the outsider, the cult of the sexually inverted, and so on, all of which they anathematized and anatomized long before it became fashionable so to do.
Lewis as an artist and as a writer is an American, a Briton, an Englishman, a Europeanist, a modernist who advocated ultimately the values of tradition within the vortex of force that he put forward, and I personally think he was a great man in his troublesome and vexatious way.
His brain is preserved, because he’s one of these people who left his body to medical science. When Paul O’Keefe did the second major biography of Wyndham Lewis called Some Sort of Genius, he went to one of these specimen labs in King’s College, London, and they have preserved a section of the brain: W. Lewis—Writer and Artist. Then he got this computer number, and it’s this section of the brain. You can see the tumor growing up underneath its base. It’s an extraordinary photo. The first three to four pages of this biography are O’Keefe describing it. O’Keefe is a lecturer in English from Liverpool. O’Keefe is quite liberal, and this is in some ways a mildly liberal revisionist biography of Lewis, but it’s fair to Lewis and it’s factually true. It uncovers many things.
The thing about Lewis that he prizes most is the courage. He goes on writing. He goes on thinking. To write is to think and is to be Western and it is to be part—even as a radical modernist—of our tradition. When you’re poor, when the lights have failed, when you can’t see, when you can’t even see what you’re writing, you go on.
I commend Wyndham Lewis to you, a British modernist life. Thank you very much!
1. It does not appear that they were married. Rather they wrote an exhibition catalogue called Pop Art Redefined.
2. It appears to have been written instead by a Dutch historian named Gustaaf Johannes Renier.