Marketing Insults: Wyndham Lewis and the Arthur Press
Perrino, Mark, Twentieth Century Literature
Many of the modernist writers had to resort to unusual measures to publish and distribute their work. While the publishing history of the works that came to dominate the academic canon of twentieth-century English literature is fairly well known, that of the failures is not. Probably the strangest case of modernist independent publishing, and the most spectacular failure in comparison to its ambitions, is Wyndham Lewis's 1930 satire The Apes of God. The publication and publicity campaign of this novel make an especially interesting study of the role of private patronage and self-promotion in the modernist movement because the novel's subject is these very phenomena and Lewis's handling of the affair recapitulated the issues that the novel explores. Like much experimental writing, the book was too dense and idiosyncratic for a wide audience; its satiric venom also made it unpalatable for many capable of understanding it. Its additional liability was that it denounced the literary world from which it needed support, and this handicap led Lewis into some unusual publicity tactics. His marketing strategy included making very economical use of the satiric victims of this roman clef, some of whom were his former patrons. He sold them an expensive "collector's edition," used them to promote it, and, during the novel's scandalized reception, blamed them publicly for unfavorable reactions, always maintaining that he had not written about them. In addition, he impersonated his fictitious publisher to assemble a record of the scandal, the pamphlet Satire & Fiction, in order to prove that it was really he who was being maligned; and in its title essay he formulated a theory of "scientific" satire, based on an "external method" opposed to modernist impressionism, that would absolve him from charges of personal malice. In this ploy he re-enacted the roles of two of Apes's main characters and surreptitiously confirmed the contradictions of "Apery" that the novel unmasks. The outcome, like the failure of his hero's confidence game, typified the unhappy fate of the reputation of modernism's self-proclaimed internal "Enemy."
Although this episode presents a striking instance of satiric paranoia, it is more than a study in psychopathology. Apes is Lewis's most controversial work of fiction; it exemplifies the factors that have consigned the writer whom T. S. Eliot called "the greatest prose master of style of my generation" (526) to a secondary place in the movement that he had helped to create. Although most of Lewis's critics concede that the novel contains some of his most brilliant writing, few consider it among his best work overall; most follow Hugh Kenner's view of it as a dead end, the unreadable extremity of his puppet-fiction" (97), and also discount its topicality and strident antihumanism. It is true that it is an uneven, daunting work, a wild ream of sarcasm; but it is less "unreadable" than some modernist classics, and the subtlety of its design has not been appreciated. It was a dead end for Lewis partly because it was a relative failure commercially, and it was a failure partly because in his overzealous promotion he actually hindered its distribution and directed the critical discussion toward narrow aspects of it as well. But Apes is of great aesthetic as well as historical interest; indeed, its artistic achievement cannot be separated from its sociopolitical critique of the modernist movement. Lewis turned Joyce's and Eliot's "mythic method" upon the contemporary avant-garde itself and produced a prophecy of mass culture. The marketing of the book adds another paradoxical layer onto an already complex tale. Lewis intended Apes to rival both Ulysses and Proust's Recherche; he staked his career on it, and he was the sorest of losers. This essay concerns the peculiar way in which his promotion elaborated the novel's drama, and it demonstrates how Lewis's own diabolical cleverness and pride contributed to his marginalization in literary history. I will focus on Satire & Fiction, now out of print, and also refer to Lewis's unpublished manuscripts, publicity materials, and correspondence relating to the reception, which throw the issues into even sharper relief than does the public record.
Since founding the multimedia movement Vorticism and editing the rabble-rousing journal Blast immediately before the Great War, Lewis had much experience in independent publishing and controversy. In that period, which he later considered the truly revolutionary phase of modern art and in which he was best known as a painter, he collaborated with others, including Ezra Pound, although by all reports he was a difficult partner. After returning from the war, he was discouraged to find the art world controlled by people whom he considered self-important dilettantes. He stopped painting in the early twenties and wrote the Man of the World series of polemics, an encyclopedic study of post-World War I Europe in which he interpreted the "decadence" of contemporary art as a symptom of diverse ideological currents involving industrialization, relativity physics socialist sentiment, and the rise of mass culture. He aligned himself against nearly every prominent literary figure, producing studies of Gertrude Stein's childish irrationalism, Joyce's preoccupation with mundane experience, Pound's insurrectionist bluster, and Lawrence's dreamy primitivism, many of which first appeared in his one-man journal The Enemy.
Apes is the climax of this project, a dramatization of the economy of the arts in the twenties. The title characters are wealthy amateurs who masquerade as artists in order to adopt a bohemian mode of life and who dominate British art by their social and financial power. They are imitators of the more radical writers living in Paris, and much of the satire is aimed at the contradiction between their rebellious posturing and their conservative social objectives. Lewis's premise is that because the enormously destructive War had made suspect all institutions of authority -- government, capitalism, the patriarchy, the white race -- many members of the British gentry took cover under the guise of cultural revolution. Anyone who could afford a studio or vanity publishing set up as an artist and cultivated celebrity; the real art involved was self-promotion. In the novel Lewis attacks "personal" fiction, "impersonal" fiction, the roman a clef, Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting, the vogues for primitivism and literary eroticism (conflated as the "Back to the (g) Land movement"), pulp thrillers, cinema, jazz, the gossip column, and the "time-cult," the term he used for the Zeitgeist to comprehend both the ethic of technological progress and an artistic preoccupation with the flux of subjective experience.
Along with Lewis's "external method," in which characters are depicted as machine-like animals, the biographical "key" is the feature of Apes that has received the most attention, and some knowledge of the novel's social background is indeed necessary for understanding its reception. The "Apes" are modeled on the Sitwells, Bloomsbury figures, and other writers and artists.(1) Clive Bell, the Bloomsbury art critic, is portrayed as Jonathan Bell, a pompous fool who jokes about seducing a woman to get hold of her printing press. Julius Ratner, a figure combining traits of Joyce, Lawrence, and the minor novelist John Rodker, publishes genteel pornography and his own maudlin variety of automatic writing, for which he "burgle[s] all the books of western romance" (144). Lytton Strachey is portrayed as Matthew Plunkett, a shell fetishist whose psychiatrist prescribes that he seduce a small woman. Sydney Schiff, Lewis's patron and Proust's translator, became Lionel Kein, an amateur author of gossipy novels about his social circle. Dick Whittingdon, based on the amateur painter Richard Wyndham, keeps a block of empty studios and takes up flaggelantism in order to "hold up his head in a universe of dogmatic perversion" (Apes 138). The character based on Pound I will discuss shortly. Above all, it is the Sitwells who represent for Lewis the meaning of Apery.
The three Sitwell siblings, at least Edith and Osbert, were notorious for their publicity mongering, hypersensitivity to slights real and imagined, and vindictiveness. The first mention of Apes in Lewis's letters comes in the fall of 1923, so I estimate that he began writing it soon after the first public performance of Edith Sitwell's and William Walton's Facade, which he attended on June 12 of that year (Letters 133-35). Although in the novel he only alludes to it as "Lady Harriet's operette," it is probably the best historical example of what he characterizes as Ape-art, because of the Sitwells' attitude toward the public as well as its nature. It was a performance combining music and nonsense verse -- irreverent, silly, and derivative (of Cocteau's and Satie's Parade). In a memoir Osbert Sitwell describes the event, beset with hissing and threats of assault, as a scandal to the philistines and the establishment press, while others present reported that it was badly performed and received with indifference (Sitwell 215-23; Pearson 183-84). In Apes's climactic chapter of nearly three hundred pages, "Lord Osmund's Lenten Party," the Sitwells are portrayed as the Finnian Shaw family. Lord Osmund buys friendly mentions in the gossip columns and lampoons society hostesses because they see him as a rival Lion hunter rather than a Lion. Lady Harriet is a flighty author of childish verse who barters party invitations for the inclusion of extra poems in an anthology. As they barricade their guests from the dining room, the trio conducts a ritual of malicious gossip about their detractors. During their opposition to the War, they had discovered that their youth "coloured with a desirable advertisement-value their special brand of rich-man's gilded bolshevism," and now, approaching middle age, they are loathe to relinquish the image of youthful rebellion (565). The Sitwells' family biography shows that this caricature was well founded (Pearson 144-48).
Lewis's critics find the wealth of detail lavished on this gallery of poseurs a wasted effort, since the Apes are only minor popularizers of modernist tendencies. The satire reaches beyond the Apes, however; their masters are also held accountable for an aesthetic that is conducive to this fraud. There are allusions to the cults surrounding Stein, Joyce, Lawrence, and Proust that the Apes exploit; but the role of the major modernists is most apparent in the plot, which orchestrates the theme of marketing and is thus crucial for understanding the novel's own publishing history. It concerns the introduction of a dim-witted but beautiful young man, Daniel Boleyn, into this society -- as a …
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Publication information: Article title: Marketing Insults: Wyndham Lewis and the Arthur Press. Contributors: Perrino, Mark - Author. Journal title: Twentieth Century Literature. Volume: 41. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 1995. Page number: 54+. © 1999 Hofstra University. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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