Aesthetics, Politics and the Staging of the World: Wyndham Lewis and the Renaissance

Article excerpt

Wyndham Lewis is best known for what he termed his "enemy" rhetoric - a discourse that posits Lewis himself as a marginalized and persecuted member of a small group desperately clinging to "traditional value" in the face of what he defines as the encroaching flood of modernist corruption. Lewis assumes this embattled stance in Blast, the vorticist manifesto of 1914 and 1915, directing shrilly righteous anger against a variety of species of decay - materialism, philistinism, chaos, and especially democracy - which he perceives to threaten all that is or could be "worth while" in Western culture. Although all of these "corruptions" embody his growing fear of the increased social leveling and democratization that followed World War I, early "enemy" rhetoric is generally used in defense of certain aesthetic practices alone. By the early 1930s, "enemy" rhetoric has become overt political propaganda for German fascism. Significantly, then, Nazi ideology moves easily in the vorticism Lewis developed prior to his direct involvement in politics, and his "enemy" rhetoric is easily applied to a defense of Hitler.

As I trace the development of Lewis's politics, I am interested in showing that the aestheticization of politics common to modernist rhetoric in general appears in his work as a shift from one pole to the other - from avowed concerns with art alone to a clear primary interest in politics - and my project locates the rhetorical fulcrum of that shift. This rhetorical point, at which Lewis conflates the discourses of aesthetics and politics, is located in the seemingly obscure critical work Lewis conducted on the English Renaissance. The mystified political agenda of Lewis's aesthetic rhetoric in general is openly played out in his reconstructions of the political and cultural climate of this safely distanced period. In his criticism of Shakespeare specifically, Lewis develops the discourse that legitimates the stance he later takes toward Hitler. Lewis constructs in his recasting of Shakespeare a means to validate those explicitly ideological discourses that further the cause of totalitarian rule: a binary model of oppression and opposition that extends other modernist binary models to their full political potential.

Unlike most of the other modernists, Lewis remained completely blind to the terrible danger inherent in such a conflation of aesthetics and politics until as late as 1950, at which time he recanted, condemning his own short-sighted aestheticization of the atrocities of fascism in general and Hitler in particular: "I should have detected the awful symptoms, even if I was wanting in the visionary power to see this little figure, only a few years later, popping into his gas ovens. . ." (qtd. in Sherry 126). Ironically, it was only at this late point in his life - when he was sinking into actual physical blindness (he was completely blind by 1951) - that Lewis seemed to see past his "enemy" rhetoric to what should have been clear much earlier. Even T. S. Eliot, whose aesthetic remained wedded to multiple ideological forms that were highly compatible with fascism (such as the desire for externally imposed order and the validation of transcendent force), was quite coherent from very early on about the distinctions that must be maintained between art, religion, and politics. In "The Literature of Fascism," for example, published in The Criterion in 1928, Eliot warns against the "danger" of fascism taking the place of religious creed; such a political movement, he argues, must not be allowed to "appropriate . . . a form of faith which is solely appropriate to a religion" (282). Eliot claims in this essay to be "suspicious of fascism as a panacea" because its rhetoric is stolen, based on the usurpation of certain religious and aesthetic forms - which in and of themselves are good forms - as well as on the vague and abstract desire of the public to be "benevolently ordered about" (288). This confusion of rhetorics, according to Eliot, is symptomatic of a "general sickness of politics. …