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Just before the opening of the first World War, Percy Wyndham Lewis (who chose to drop his first name) grouped himself with T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and James Joyce as one of "the men of 1914"--four young writers assembled under the vague banner of neo-classicism. Yet Lewis, despite his skills as a painter, satirical writer and critic, has long since fallen into a relative obscurity beside his illustrious contemporaries.
In "Wyndham Lewis; A Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy," Geoffrey Wagner presents an unintentional obituary and a general analysis of Lewis' rather erractic literary achievements, and makes a half-hearted stab at an evaluation of his importance as a twentieth-century writer and critic.
The task is not an enviable one, for Lewis' almost compulsive need to maintain a position of opposition and the rapid extremities of position he adopts, lead to a series of self-contradictions--and often to sheer absurdities--which must suggest from time to time that he was nothing more than a crank.
As his starting point, Wagner fixes upon Lewis' deepseated loathing for the romantic tradition and all that it implied in art, philosophy and sociology. With remarkable impartiality for one who has obviously devoted much time to his subject, Wagner trys to explain Lewis' various stands in terms of this fundamental position. The result does more to cast a little side-lighting on the literary movements and issues of the early decades of this century than it does to explain the mind of Wyndham Lewis. (The book makes no attempt to deal with Lewis' contributions as a painter).
"Contradict yourself, in order to live. You must remain broken up," wrote Lewis in 1917. His contempt for the sham he felt in Western Society led to, "Self. Self. One must rescue that sanity. Truth, duty--are insanity." And again, from the mouth of one of his characters, "Expect nothing out of my mouth, therefore, that has a pleasant sound. Look for nothing but descriptions out of a vision of a person who has given up hoping for Man, who is scrupulous and just, if only out of contempt for those who are so much the contrary."
These remarks suggests the desperation with which Lewis felt he must attack the rot, artistic and otherwise, which he felt existed all about him. Unfortunately, it was this vehemence which led him to be unjust in much of his criticism, and this eagerness to be "the enemy" under any circumstances, which gave rise to excesses and inconsistencies that tend to discredit his work.
Wagner's book covers the various fields of Lewis' attacks with scholarly care. Lewis' distaste for democracy ("a democracy necessarily is a corrupt and disorderly type of government") and his sporadic enthusiasms for fascism are well discussed, as are his quarrel with the cubist school of painting, his feud with Joyce, and his vigorous anti-Bergsonism. His own books are also discussed in considerable detail.
The outcome of all this is the clear realization that Lewis has made few contributions in the positive sense, with the possible exceptions of "Tarr" and "The Apes of God," which may be reheard and remembered for their literary virtues alone. In the main, however, Wagner's study indicates that Lewis has been valuable chiefly through his constant attacks from the enemy position. Like the burr under the saddle, he has helped to hurry things along. Speaking of Vorticism, a movement initiated by Lewis, Wagner remarks, "It was a necessary interim. It 'hustled the cultural Britannia, stepping up that cautious pace with which she prefers to advance.' And Britannia was certainly goosed up the gangplank to Modern Art." Lewis, then, with his blasts and diatribes too often ill-conceived and over-angry, at least helped prevent stagnation and kept alive an awareness of the phony and the sentimental in art.
Any evaluation of Lewis will probably attract a limited audience, and the author of "Wyndham Lewis" has made no effort to entrap the casual reader. The book is a work of scholarship, and makes no particular attempt to capitalize on Lewis' volcanic personality or his famous colleagues. Wagner writes clearly, if without particular flair, and covers his points in orderly progression. Though the scholarly tone of the work and its meticulous consideration of details will probably deter the general reader, it contains much of interest about a provocative man in a turbulent literary era.
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