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Wyndham Lewis and the Cultures of Modernity


Edited by Andrzej Gasiorek, Alice Reeve-Tucker & Nathan Waddell


Farnham: Ashgate, 2011

Hardback. 280 p. ISBN: 978-1-4094-0054-7. £55.00


Reviewed by Nathalie Pavec

Université de Franche-Comté (Besançon)



The aim of this collection of twelve essays is to contribute to the ongoing re-evaluation of Wyndham Lewis's place in twentieth-century cultural history, not just as one of the four “men of 1914” but as a major contributor to the vast range of reflections on politics, philosophy, society, art and culture which were developed during the heyday of modernism and which continued to exercise an influence over the rest of the century. As the editors make clear in their Introduction, this collective work comes in the wake of scholarly studies carried out over the past two decades which have challenged a “narrow, author-centred view of modernism” partly derived from Lewis's much-quoted phrase referring to Eliot, Joyce, Pound and himself. Just as recent research has restored a far more complex view of those involved in the emergence and development of modernism (namely documenting the role of women artists, patrons and writers, and pointing out the involvement of influential authors and artists in editing, reviewing, networking or publicising), this volume provides a multi-faceted perspective on Lewis's output from the pre-war years to the 1940s, and emphasises the extent of Lewis's interaction with contemporary artists, writers and thinkers.

Significantly enough, the first of the three parts into which the volume is divided is entitled “Friends and enemies”, thus clearly marking the emphasis laid on “relationality” in the discussion of Lewis's work. However, the perspective is not—or not only—biographical or interpersonal, as Chapter 1 demonstrates. By highlighting Lewis's use of quotation, Alan Munton looks at how Lewis engages with the words of others, in works as distant in time and as different in genre as his very first piece of fiction “The 'Pole'” (1909), the Manifesto pages of Blast (1914), or the political writings of the 1930s. All in all, Munton relates Lewis's use of quotation to a means of confronting otherness, either the other within oneself—in line with the Lewisian figure of the divided self—, or the other against whom one may define oneself in a playful or more ironical gesture combining presentation and re-interpretation.


Chapters 2, 3 and 5 investigate Lewis's relationships with contemporary painters and writers, and question some of the familiar topics or stereotypes associated with Lewis. His place as the leader of the Vorticist movement and his rivalry with other forerunners of the avant-garde such as David Bomberg and William Roberts are tackled in “Vorticism Denied: Wyndham Lewis and the English Cubists”. Dominika Buchowska goes into the reasons that led these artists associated with Lewis in the 1910s to distance themselves from him and to altogether reject the label “Vorticism” applied to their work. One key event Buchowska explores in detail is the 1956 Tate exhibition “Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism”, which offered a misleading picture of the Vorticist movement, confining the other painters to a marginal role as followers of Lewis and denying their own individual styles. Drawing on archival sources from the Tate, the paper thus questions the critical reconstruction of Vorticism and, more generally, illustrates the problematic definition of artistic movements in the first decades of the 20th century.


Lewis's notorious image as a misogynist and anti-feminist is set in perspective and partly deconstructed through the account of his friendship with Naomi Mitchinson and Rebecca West, two feminist women writers and leftist political activists (Chapter 3). Michael Hallam points out Lewis's literary influence on them and highlights shared concerns with gender and the possibilities of genre-writing. However, he also brings out the ambivalence in Lewis's sexual politics reflected in the 'Enemy' persona which became Lewis's public image in the 1930s and about which Mitchinson and West expressed divided feelings.


As for Lewis's anti-Semitism, it is addressed from the angle of his relationship with Jewish writer, reviewer and publisher John Rodker, who is targeted by Lewis in a sharply satirical portrait in The Apes of God (“John Rodker, Julius Ratner and Wyndham Lewis: The Split-Man Writes Back”). Ian Patterson relates Lewis's blunt hostility to a fundamental disagreement on Rodker's approach to the interplay of interiority and exteriority, which was in stark contrast to Lewis's own view of the human body as radically separated from the mind.


Another topos associated with Lewis is the impact of Blast on the artistic and critical landscape in the war years and beyond. In an insightful essay (“The Crisis of the System: Blast's Reception”, Chapter 4), Jodie Greenwood revisits the wide range of public reactions to Lewis's avant-garde magazine, focusing on early reviews and contemporary response in order to discuss the extent of Lewis's “challenge to rational common sense, and thus [...] to the established relationship between text, reader and criticism” [84]. The confusion and bewilderment experienced by critics is viewed as part and parcel of Lewis's programme, a way of engaging in a critical act aimed at both art and criticism, and therefore highly modern. Away from the contentions of some later critics that Blast was a short-lived explosion of avant-gardism heavily influenced by Marinetti's Futurism, Greenwood retains a sense of its paramount importance at the time and its absolute modernity.


The second part of the volume (“Media and Mass Society”) contains four essays devoted to Lewis's engagement with the media of the day (music, cinema, radio) and to the way they inform his view of aesthetic politics, in opposition to the positions adopted by other twentieth-century artists or thinkers. In “Sound and the Cultural Politics of Time in the Avant-Garde : Wyndham Lewis's Critique of Bergsonism” (Chapter 6), James Mansell sheds light on Lewis's disagreement with Bergsonian philosophy, namely with the prominence given to the 'flux' of sensation over the clarity of the intellect and to the imprecision of auditory experience over the “spatializing effects of the plastic or the visual intelligence” [111]. This 'musicalized' society, in connection with the rise of a “Time-mind”, was seen by Lewis as a sign of the decadence of modern civilisation.


Chapter 7 (“Modern Times against Western Man : Wyndham Lewis, Charlie Chaplin and Cinema”) addresses Lewis's ambivalent treatment of Charlie Chaplin in Time and Western Man (1927). Scott Klein convincingly argues that Lewis's dismissal of early Chaplin results from his desire to distance himself from what might be consonant in Chaplin's cinema with his own ideas of satire. In that sense, Chaplin appears as “a kind of counter-figure against whom Lewis develops [his] aesthetic criteria” [141] and acts as a synecdoche for cinema in general, revealing Lewis's wariness of a new art form he was interested in and which he may have felt closer to his own concerns with humour, social critique and representation than he liked to acknowledge. The common popular cultural heritage denied by Lewis is thus highlighted by Klein and parallels are drawn between screen comedy and Vorticist experiments in painting and language.


Chapter 8 on “Corporate Patronage in Wyndham Lewis's Late Work” turns to another form of technology—radio—of which Lewis provided appraisals, especially as he discussed and experienced the new model of patronage represented by the BBC after the 1920s. Alexander Ruch focuses on a variety of writings by Lewis on patronage in both the 1930s and 1950s, together with his fictional depiction of the dangers of individual and state patronage in The Human Age (1955). Interestingly enough, Lewis's analysis of the consequences for aesthetic production of the breakdown of the patronage system opens out onto the wider issue of the autonomy of the artist in an inhospitable economic climate.


In chapter 9 (“Wyndham Lewis, Evelyn Waugh and Inter-War British Youth : Conflict and Infantilism”), Alice Reeve-Tucker and Nathan Waddell shift the focus to Lewis's social commentary in the 1920s and 1930s. The counter-figure, at this stage, is Evelyn Waugh, whose appreciation of the bohemianism of the Bright Young Things was (mis)interpreted by Lewis as supporting a dangerous youth-cult, which he himself denounced.


The various facets and changing nature of Lewis's cultural criticism are further illustrated by the last part of the volume (“Culture and Modernity”). Victor Barac's “The Culture Theories of Wyndham Lewis and T.S. Eliot” compares the way Lewis and Eliot drew on a common pool of anthropological knowledge and shows (although from a somewhat biased perspective) how differently they made use of it, in accordance with their respective notions of culture.


In “Wyndham Lewis on Art, Culture and Politics in the 1930s”, Andrzej Gasiorek considers Lewis's work against the backdrop of the highly-politicised 1930s and of the debates over the relation of the individual to the collective or the separation of art and politics. Gasiorek handles this highly sensitive subject with great care, getting to grips with the twists and turns of Lewis's thinking during these years, discussing his views of Marxism and National Socialism, exposing the most objectionable sides of his political stances, while working against easy conclusions and probing the artistic issues involved in this complex nexus of genuine ideas and misconceptions.


Lastly, Paul Edward's “Wyndham Lewis and the Uses of Shellshock : Meat and Postmodernism” reads Lewis's later work in the light of his experience as an artillery officer in the Great War. He traces the effects of this trauma and relates Lewis's post-war theory of laughter to shellshock and to the sense of an unbridgeable “chasm lying between being and non-being”, to use Lewis's own terms [234].


After reading this collection of essays, we can but conclude that the editors' aim to bring to the fore Lewis's under-explored “role as a philosopher-critic who produced distinctive appraisals of modernity” [3] has been fulfilled. Completed by a 16-page bibliography and an index, this thoroughly-researched and carefully-documented volume proves very stimulating. Given the variety of fields and issues explored, some chapters will be of greater interest to readers than others, but the book as a whole is a very useful contribution to the study of Wyndham Lewis's complex work and, more broadly, to the exploration of twentieth-century modernity viewed through the prism of culture.


Furthermore, this book has a polemical edge to it, and this is perhaps what makes it more than just another study on Lewis or another book on a modernist figure to be added to the 'cultural studies' section of our university libraries. Actually, the most enlightening chapters are probably those which discuss Lewis's misreadings of his contemporaries—in other words, those which enter into critical dialogue with Lewis's own critical dialogue with other artists or thinkers, thereby using controversy both as their subject and their methodology. By highlighting the inconsistencies in Lewis's arguments or, as Klein puts it, the “oddities of rhetoric and conceptualization” [128], by examining the way Lewis constructs distorted versions of other people's views in order to serve his polemical or satirical purposes, the volume as a whole problematises the act of interpretation and thus provides an illustration of the sort of challenge to the audience and to criticism which is one of the hallmarks of modernity.


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