LUKE GILFEDDER examines the differences – and parallels – between two original thinkers
In 1956 Colin Wilson published The Outsider, an overnight literary sensation which saw the 24-year-old autodidact hailed as a prodigy and the first home-grown British existentialist. He sent a copy to T.S. Eliot, who, in a prompt and kind reply, said it was a pity to have missed Wyndham Lewis out of the book, for Lewis was surely an ‘archetypal outsider’ . Wilson would make up for this omission – albeit 33 years later – with the excellent but sadly neglected essay ‘Wyndham Lewis: A Refracted Talent?’. Published in a long out-of-print collection 1989 Existentially Speaking, it is to the good fortune of Wilson and Lewis scholars alike that the title still survives in the British Library archives.
Wyndham Lewis was born in circumstances quite distinct from Wilson’s Leicesterian upbringing, on his father’s yacht off Amherst, Nova Scotia, in 1882. Yet by the time he died, in 1957, Lewis was based just a few streets away from the then-rising star Wilson in a Notting Hill Gate flat. The young Wilson had made several attempts to appreciate Lewis, but each time to no avail. He likened late career works such as The Human Age to “mediaeval castles”, impossible to get into, or quite possibly “not worth the effort”. Yet Wilson soon found himself in Lewis’s position of critical neglect – once a boy genius, twice a “pretentious fraud” – the critics who launched The Outsider savaging 1957’s Religion And The Rebel. Both were to remain best regarded for their earliest works: Wilson, for The Outsider, andLewis as pioneer of the avant-garde art movement, Vorticism (England’s double-edged critique of the franticness of Marinetti’s Futurism and the passivity of Cubism).
Wilson soon left London for Cornwall, fulfilling Lewis’s reflection in Rude Assignment that “the writer does not ‘escape’ or flee from the world of men in general: he is more likely driven from it”. When Wilson next encountered Lewis’s work, via Tomlin’s 1969 anthology, he found he had acquired a fairly strong feeling of identification with Lewis. Here was, as Eliot had suggested, a true outsider, out of key with his time, equally unsympathetic to the assumptions which his contemporaries took for granted, turning out book after book in defence of his unpopular and idiosyncratic views. Lewis saw modern science, art and politics as conspiring to create an unreal state of mind in which the sentimental, illusory and mechanically Progressive flourished, and to this, he opposed a vison that fused radical modernism with an external, static and classical approach to art. Still curious as to whether Lewis was an important writer, Wilson decided to settle the matter by writing an essay purely for fun, delivering his opinions “en pantoufles”, as if “sitting over a glass of wine with friends”.
As a result, ‘Wyndham Lewis: A Refracted Talent?’ is a lively example of Existential Criticism, an original conception of Wilson’s which advocates that a writer’s work be judged by what he has to say rather than how he says it. William James wrote “a man’s vision is the great fact about him”, and Existential Criticism seeks to examine that vision, to see how much of reality it incorporates, or, conversely, to determine how far a writer’s attitude towards the world is parochial or based upon some temperamental defect of vision . Wilson begins by criticising Lewis’s first novel, 1918’s Tarr (a satire of the bourgeois-bohemia of post-war Montparnasse) as a “savage, humourless Shaw”. The book, he says, is obsessed with the trivial and personal, much in the manner of a D. H. Lawrence novel or Ulysses, yet without the redeeming flights into impersonality these works take. If Joyce is a “thin-skinned Irishman who disciplined himself into greatness” and Lawrence a “thin-skinned Englishman who occasionally forgot himself enough to be great” , then Wyndham Lewis, Wilson argues, never forgets himself for a moment. Not that Lewis, who held that “art is the expression of a colossal preference” – and posited “what is genius but an excess of individuality?” – would necessarily contend this. But Wilson differentiates between a strong self-image – an instrument writers use to convey higher truths about reality – and self-preoccupation, which is, by contrast, inward-looking and pessimistic. Wilson posits that artists find release from such solipsistic nihilism through their symbols of meaning, be it Religion for Eliot, Courage for Hemingway or the mystery of sex for D. H. Lawrence. But Lewis was said to find sex as boring and irritating as he found everything else. Wilson speculates that lacking the capacity for such abandonment of the self was Lewis’s main reason for his fateful turn to politics as his form of objectivity (Lewis’s reputation never recovered from his ill-judged and hastily recanted 1931 essay, Hitler).
Having foregrounded solipsism and artistic pessimism as potential defects in the Lewisian vision, Wilson attempts to trace throughout his essay how they might have developed and their effect upon Lewis’s value as a writer. He understands Lewis to be striving to achieve a post-impressionist revolution in prose, seeking to transmute into text the Cubist craving of beauty through abstraction. Wilson describes this as a romantic urge, a turning away from the real world to a misty ideal one, as is made clear in the 1927 story ‘Inferior Religions’:
Beauty is an icy douche of ease and happiness at something suggesting perfect conditions for an organism… Beauty is an immense predilection, a perfect conviction of the desirability of a certain thing…
Wilson says this formulation could have come from Yeats or even Walter Pater – a far cry from T. E. Hulme’s classicism with which Lewis was associated. But Wilson makes an interesting distinction here: the new Classicism never fully materialised, at least not as we like to think of it. All that happened was the emotional romanticism of the 18th century gave way to the intellectual romanticism of Proust, Ulysses, The Waste Land or Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Only the likes of H.G. Wells and Chesterton truly dispensed with romantic idealism by turning back to human reality, immersing themselves in socialism or Religion. Wilson says Lewis glimpsed another vision, namely that the ideal beauty of the Romantics could be achieved not by “flying up into the eternal gases” but instead through a cold, precise, intellectual art, gleaming like the snows of the Himalayas. This does not sound like much of an existential defect; in fact, it is rather close to the worldview of Bernard Shaw – a Wilsonian hero – who rejected romantic idealism in favour of a discriminating idealism. Discriminating idealism is just what Wilson perceives in Lewis’s paintings; their determined clarity, their quality of precision and “coolness” is said to remind one of Blake or indeed Shaw’s plays.
Wilson’s central contention is that Lewis’s effortless mastery as an artist failed to translate into his prose, where one needs the “patience of Job” to cut through the “blanket of fog” and figure out what it is all about He reasons that while painting can survive a lack of purpose – it deals in visual effects and can still be great if the worldview of its creator is ambiguous – writing deals in ideas and cannot survive the same ambiguity. Prose must have a positive impetus; satire alone is not enough. Lewis may paint like Blake, but he is said to write with the technique of a Daumier. Wilson judges this satirical bent as a negative trait, for Lewis is placing himself above his characters for the sake of lacerating them – only in The Revenge for Love does one sense any sympathy between writer and protagonist. So where War and Peace feels bigger than Tolstoy personally, in The Apes Of God (a satire of the Bloomsbury group), for example, we never forget for one second that it is Lewis holding the brush, pulling the strings of his puppets. And whereas Joyce’s precise technique of photographing his characters through words makes the reader blend with his descriptions, Lewis constantly interjects himself as though trying to dazzle the reader with verbal brilliance, never allowing the object to appear in its own right. This, Wilson says, creates a contradiction between Lewis’s impressive, even “monumental”, technique and his “rather vague, boring characters”. Resultantly, Lewis’s novels tend to “run down like an old hand-gramophone someone has forgotten to wind” .
Wilson proposes that such “miscalculations of effect” in Lewis’s prose stem from his solipsistic vision of art, as announced in Blast 2:
There is Yourself: and there is the Exterior World, that fat mass you browse on. / You knead it into an amorphous imitation of yourself inside yourself”
Wilson insists that Tolstoy or Shakespeare’s greatness depended on them not kneading the world in their image, but instead trying to get rid of “themselves” from their work, becoming more like a mirror or a magnifying glass, able to capture that “odd whiff of reality, like a spring breeze blowing through an open window”. He speculates whether the character of Victor Stamp (the protagonist of The Revenge for Love) is a partial admission by Lewis of this “parochial” defect when, in desperation, Victor decides to forego his usual mannerisms and paint something which would “remind him least of Victor Stamp”. It still does not sell, because it is old-fashioned. But old or new-fashioned, Victor never attempts to say anything, he – like Lewis – fails to recognise art is not self-expression but a reaching out towards reality.This overpowering sense of self-expression in Lewis was also critiqued by Anthony Burgess, who described the wartime autobiography Blasting and Bombardiering as reading like a “gor-blimied police report” with the strange yoking of the “Allo-allo-allo-what’s-all-this-‘ere to the intellectual and the exquisite painter” making for such exasperating reading .
We must pause briefly to deal with the objection that has doubtless sprung to mind, at least to readers familiar with Lewis, namely that Lewis does know that the root of great art is the impersonal and the objective; moreover, he was a paragon of the ‘lone external viewpoint’ . It is not for nothing that Lewis’s critical writings develop from a defence of the self in 1927’s The Art Of Being Ruled – a treatise in how to remain a “sovereign of oneself” in a world where this is “nothing so difficult as not belonging to a party” – to a defence of objective reality itself against Sartrean existentialism in 1952’s The Writer and the Absolute. Lewis directly attacks solipsism in the former work, writing that “ideas of beauty, of a god, or of love, depend severally on separation and differentiation”, and compares the foolishness of “the savage who ate his god to procure divinity” to Freudian inwardness . Yet we may argue the clearest contradiction to Wilson’s interpretation is in The Letters Of Wyndham Lewis, where Lewis opposes the “crushing of the notion of the subject” and states a belief in a sense of objective value which sees “the answer is there all the time; we ‘discover’ it”.
Wilson is, however, too perceptive a critic not to have anticipated this response; he explains the above as merely demonstrating Lewis’s “Platonic sense of reality” . This interpretation is the string with which he binds together his varying conclusions as to Lewis’s merits and defects. On the one hand, Lewis’s belief in a world of timeless ideals makes him an excellent critic, especially of the philosophies of time in Spengler and Marx, and in his merciless dismantling of imperfect idealisms – Lawrence, Hemingway, Orwell, Sartre, Malraux – any kind of romanticism that is the opposite of the real. But, on the other hand, Lewis’s Platonic nature is said to lead him into an artistic pessimism, a sense that the real world is corrupt and disjointed, and the artist must remain true to his ideal world. As a painter, Lewis may have stumbled on Shaw’s trick of uniting the irreconcilable opposites of romanticism and anti-romanticism (this is especially evident in Lewis’s late-career paintings, such as 1942’s Homage to Etty, a Lewisian heaven of exterior forms). But as a writer, his Platonism led him into a “life-denying pessimism”, and he spent more energy denouncing the world than expressing with discriminating idealism that “perfect conviction of the desirability of a certain thing” . As if unfavourably comparing Lewis to Shaw wasn’t enough, Wilson concludes by noting how much he has in common with George Orwell. Both are said to be tough-minded and honest cultural critics, but who wrote “hysterical” and “bad” novels because of this same artistic pessimism, a pessimism out of which “no vital creation can spring” . Alas, Wilson’s final judgement is that Lewis was less the “enemy of the stars” than of himself.
Such an atypical interpretation of Lewis may appear highly contentious upon first reading, but even if one disagrees with the answers Wilson provides, his essay leaves the reader with better questions than they arrived with – surely the true mark of fine criticism. He intended for the piece to be “the kind of thing I would want to read if I was curious about Lewis” and on this count, he has succeeded. The only minor gripe is that there is scant discussion of the sympathy between Lewisian and Wilsonian themes. Lewis’s critique of existentialism as merely placing a token emphasis upon freedom – “Sartre’s novels are jokes about Freedom” is the perfect foil for Wilson’s ‘New Existentialism’, a corrective against Absurdism. Lewis’s writings also dovetail with Wilson’s criminology studies, each observing the “evil fog” of pessimism and nihilism present at the start of the 20th century plunged people into acts of violence as a means of escape . Both have an intuitive approach to literary criticism, finding similar flaws, for example, in Hemingway’s characters. Wilson says they know who they are, not what they want to become , just as Lewis writes “they are invariably the kind of people to whom things are done, who are the passive (and rather puzzled) guinea-pig type – as remote as it is possible to be, for instance, from Nietzsche’s ‘super’ type” . Lewis, however, believes this is not a shortcoming in a work of art, it “defines it merely”, meaning “the work in question is classifiable as lyrical” . Lewis allows a novel to be superior from a literary standpoint, even if it is existentially lacking. In the final analysis, Wilson does not afford Lewis the same generosity.
The new avenues of thought opened by this essay make it a double pity that Outsider and Enemy never met, especially given that they once lived just a few hundred yards from each other, in Notting Hill. One senses that they had more in common than this essay suggests, and they could have found common ground over their similar mistreatment by the establishment. When F. R. Leavis derided the Sitwells as belonging to the history of publicity, not the history of literature, we may conclude that no two writers embodied the reverse equation more than Colin Wilson and Wyndham Lewis.
NOTE This article first appeared in Lewisletter, the journal of the Wyndham Lewis Society, and is republished with permission
LUKE GILFEDDER is presently completing a PhD on the works of Wyndham Lewis. He has previously worked as a playwright, with scripts produced at The Royal Exchange Manchester, the Lyric Hammersmith, and on London’s West End