Aesthetics, Politics and the Staging of the World: Wyndham Lewis and the Renaissance
Stockton, Sharon, Twentieth Century Literature
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." For Lewis, the conflation of different types of rhetoric into a single binary opposition is never presented as problematic; on the contrary, this coherence is consummately desirable and everywhere in evidence in his writing. His compulsion for binary order obscures any clear vision of historical reality - whatever that may be said to be.
In Wyndham Lewis's introduction to the first number of The Enemy, his short-running magazine, published in three issues between 1927 and 1929, he defines himself as an "outlaw" who has moved "outside" in order to provide and provoke society with "hostile criticism" (Enemy Salvoes 23). His opponents are many and diverse, and as Campbell points out, "everywhere, and on every level, he thinks in structures of opposition" (xiii). Among the binary oppositions Lewis uses to polarize his relationship to society are space and time, stability and flux, mind and matter, intelligence and stunned paralysis, and the individual and the herd. Lewis is always on the side of stability and individuality, and the first task of his project is to explore how these two concepts are mutually reinforcing. The greatest threat to the individual, for Lewis, is what he perceives as the time-based reality of Henri Bergson, the nature of which is constant flux, and the effect of which is a time "filled with disorder and stupid violence" (Rude Assignment 13). Time and Western Man most directly critiques the "time-mind," the "time-philosophy," and the "time fanaticism" of modern thought. The time-philosophers, Lewis claims, are the cause of the sense of chaotic fragmentation in the modern world because they deny the solidity of the object and the stability of the subject.(1) If the rush of time is the measure of reality, then the object of perception dissolves into the flicker of the cinema; it is defined not by what it is but by where in time it falls and dissolves. Reality or "common sense" is thus excluded for Lewis:
The disintegration of the world-picture of "common sense" [is] effected by the introduction of private and subjective time-systems, by the breaking up of the composite space of the assembled senses into an independent space of touch, a space of sight, a visceral space, and so forth: [this is] the conversion of "the thing" into a series of discrete apparitions . . . . (Time and Western Man 426)
The object becomes a brief "sensory" experience isolated from the more unified quality of "perception," and the sensa that the time-philosophy does allow one to experience are "evanescent, flashing and momentary; not even existing outside of their proper time" (414). Cut out of this picture is the "old stable ego," which Lewis felt it was the unhappy project of the modernists to eliminate, the perceiving subject whose vision registers/creates timeless order. The philosopher-navigators of the "River Flux" - Whitehead, Russell, and Bergson - reduce the subject to the notion of the tabula rasa: "each impression, or visual sensum, fragment as it is, [is] unassisted by thought" or memory, and the mind becomes a screen across which unconnected sensory stimuli flash (414, 410). The desperate attempts to reassert the possibility of the autonomous subject that fill Lewis's works articulate the sense that the permanent and "common sensical" power of the knowing subject is endangered by material flux.
In order to envision a place for the subject, Lewis replaces time-philosophy with a philosophy of space and vision. Common sense tells us, Lewis claims, that we do not perceive the world as a flashing series of disconnected and meaningless fragments; we see pictures - full, enduring, and complete:
The traditional belief of common-sense, embodied in the "naif" view of the physical world, is really a picture. We believe that we see a certain objective reality. This contains stable and substantial objects. When we look at these objects we believe that what we are perceiving is what we are seeing. In reality, of course, we are conscious of much more than we immediately see. . . . In short, every time we open our eyes we envelop the world before us, and give it body, or its quality of consisting of objects, with our memory. It is memory that gives that depth and fullness to our present, and makes our abstract, ideal world of objects for us. (Time and Western Man 408)
Vision, will, and memory are thus linked in a sequence that grants ontological priority to the visual spectacle and the seer, and sets such derivations as "theory," "ideas," and "time" down as secondary and parasitic. The authority and presence of vision thus grant equivalent status to the objects seen, and Lewis constitutes a "common sense" world, utterly solid, out of the claim that nothing exists outside of the perceptions of the stable ego: "'a man need only open his eyes to see' that there is nothing there except what he puts there" (474). Matter is "dead" or "unreal": "It would not be 'purposeful,' except for our purposefulness, for it would have no impulse of its own, it would depend upon us entirely, itself in reality non-existent" (479). In effect, reality and meaning are provided by the perceiving individual, and this perception implies more than sensation: it offers the stability and order lacking in the dead and unreal world of stimuli. The realistic "picture" of common-sensical observation differs from the flux of passing sensation in that it organizes materiality in a meaningful and timeless pattern; the still point of this modernist world, Dasenbrock points out, is thus established as the vorticist himself, who "looks out with detachment . . . at the flux surrounding him" (48). To be a part of that flux is to degrade the observing self; as Lewis himself puts it in the first Blast, "The process and condition of life, without exception, is a grotesque degradation and 'soillure' of the original solitude of the soul. There is no help for it. . . . Anything but yourself is dirt. Anybody that is" (70).
As the guarantor of reality, the individual is an oddly transcendent and contradictory figure in Lewis's work. Lewis's solipsistic idealism contradicts his insistence on the responsibility of "truth telling" in an objective world of "common sense." Idealism posits that reality exists only in the mind, but the notion of reality, for Lewis, implies an objective and authoritative perception - as well as the ability to translate an exterior world. Lewis makes almost no attempt to resolve this contradiction. Instead he celebrates the almost godlike power of the truly perceptive individual/artist who is "empowered by his own consciousness rather than by the surfaces of the world" (Klein 227). This powerful individual, further, is ranked as the "we" of Lewis's own group of conservative intellectuals:
We have overridden time to the extent of bestowing upon objects a certain timelessness. We and they have existed in a, to some extent, timeless world, in which we possessed these objects, in our fastness of memory, like gods. . . . our perceptual self [was] to some extent . . . a timeless self. It is by way of the mystery of memory, of course, that we reached this timelessness. (Time and Western Man 42)
The individuality of the intellectual subjectivity is the key to this objectivist-idealist power. The great artist or scientist, then, cannot, or must not, be objective in the mechanistic sense but must necessarily retain the biases of a unique - that is, singularly privileged - subject: Lewis praises his own title ("The Enemy") for "publicly repudiat[ing] any of those treacherous or unreal claims to 'impartiality,' the scientific-impersonal, or all that suggestion of detached omniscience, absence of parti-pris, which is such a feature of our time." (Enemy Salvoes 24). Democracy is thus defined - and condemned - as "merging," as "cowardice or muddleheadedness" (qtd. in Rae 710); the truth-seeing individual must remain differentiated and differentiating - separate from "the herd" and defined by the ability to separate material flux into meaningful units. In his study of empathy and abstraction in the work of Lewis (and Pound), Vincent Sherry shows how much authority accrues in this double gesture of "aesthetic" separation, pointing out that "whereas the democratic ear merges, the aristocratic eye divides" (5). It is Eliot's attention to the merging of voices rather than to their division that gives Lewis leave to accuse him of being too democratic in his failure to exert his own (superior) individuality, in his attempt to "depersonalize" his art. Lewis argues that the artist must rather exaggerate his beliefs (this in spite of his condemnation of the Impressionists for being too personal, by which he means in this case too interested in the passing and impermanent impression).
Lewis constructs his perceptive individual as being in imminent danger. Everywhere he sees privileged and unique individuality as the validation and guarantor of reality being engulfed by a homogeneous mass of sameness; humanity has been slowly paralyzed since the sixteenth century and now languishes in the "sleep of the machine" (Enemy Salvoes 26). The masses of "philistines," frozen into mindless, mechanized postures, are the result, according to Lewis, of the growth of industry and the abstract time-sciences, the inhuman forces that have swept through the last three centuries, leveling all humanity to "one stale, violent pattern" (26). Even poetry has become "mechanical" or "technical" and has thus, despite itself, become democratic: for this development Lewis blames Stein, Eliot, Pound, Hemingway, and Joyce (186). Capitalist monopolies and their attendant media aggravate and transmit the lethal infection of frozen sameness, the former by obstructing the free circulation of goods (movement in space), the latter by reinforcing the time-philosophers' conception of the object as an arbitrary presence in the flux of time, thus participating in the disintegration of the subject. Capitalist monopoly and the movie industry preside over the final inward collapse of society, sinking "Philistia" into "the working mass underneath it" (Rude Assignment 16). The result of such social leveling is, for Lewis, the end of the world as we know it: "The unity thus obtained would be a cultural zero as injurious to the social body as any other organic atrophy" (16).
In his well-known study of Lewis, Fables of Aggression, Fredric Jameson points out that the protofascist sentiments circulating in pre-World War II thought were founded on the middle-class "terror of declassement and of proletarianization, of slipping back down the social ladder" (113). This nightmare gained its force from material changes in society and the growing sense that there was no stable point from which one could speak with authority:(2)
The secure vantage point of naturalism has disappeared under the impact of inflation, the War Debt, and economic crisis, and the new urban technology which seems to efface the safe frontier between the life of the masses and the life of the petty bourgeoisie. Indeed, in proportion to the leveling of such material articulation of class difference, the bourgeois subject experiences itself as an increasingly isolated monad confronted with an anonymous and faceless multitude. (113-14)
Political and aesthetic elitism and harsh diatribes against egalitarian political reform and "time-philosophies" constitute Lewis's responses to democratization. He desires a static hierarchical order that will articulate the force of an unseen absolute. This end is achieved through the rhetorical construction of the "Archimedean point of the pure eye" (Jameson 17). My argument is that the physical and coherent shape of such a hero - one in possession of a "pure eye" - is gradually developed as Lewis moves out from philosophy through literary and historical criticism to explicit political propagandizing. Lewis achieves his first material vision of such a figure when he looks back to a time previous to "the sleep of the machine" and the rise of democracy - to a stage he himself considers to be Shakespeare's England. This is the odd and unfortunate parallel that leads Lewis to an outright celebration of Hitler's anti-Semitism.
The Lion and the Fox, written in the same year as Time and Western Man, makes explicit the politics involved in Lewis's antipathy for the "time-philosophy" by formulating a "leader" in Shakespeare and an ideal society in the English Renaissance. Lewis thus displaces his own ideology and desire onto a safely distanced "past" which, located at the point where modern capitalism and its attendant discursive and political institutions first appeared, serves, for Lewis, to show where Western culture was before it took the wrong path toward social anarchy. Lewis praises the period in general and several writers, including Chapman, in particular, but his main purpose in devoting so much time and effort to the Renaissance is to define the function of the powerful individual. To this end, The Lion and the Fox both celebrates the Renaissance and validates Shakespeare's role in articulating not only the culture of his own era but a lost ideology that the twentieth century must reinstate if it is to avoid destruction. For Lewis, Shakespeare is the ultimate subject of a unique period of "individualist" (as opposed to democratic) freedom:
In Shakespeare's time every influence of the old and new world met and parleyed; and if we were making Shakespeare the most acute and typical child of his time we should have no difficulty in showing that his universality was inevitable - that the complete eclecticism and confusion of his time gave him that universality in the ordinary course of things. (The Lion and the Fox 21)
Lewis resists, however, this "ordinary course of things" in granting Shakespeare trans-historical authority; a materialist, casual explanation does not offer Lewis the means to celebrate the hero's "will to order." It is "legitimate," Lewis claims, "to feel that it is [Shakespeare] and not the time that is a reality; or that he is a reality independent of his time" (21). Lewis attempts to bypass both the chaos and meaninglessness of materiality as well as the flux and instability of time in order to establish Shakespeare as an autonomous authority in a period that (for lack of guidance?) fostered individuality. Thus, although at least 200 pages of The Lion and the Fox are given to a study of the politics of the late sixteenth century and their effect on Shakespeare's work, Lewis's veiled ideological interest in the power of the timeless visionary individual underwrites his entire "historical" study. In this way, Shakespeare gradually comes to stand in for Lewis's ideal leader: Adolph Hitler. Hitler's politics, by analogy, will eventually be given their aesthetic flavor in Lewis's work through this extended piece of "literary criticism."
In The Lion and the Fox, Lewis defends Shakespeare's individuality against critical arguments that emphasize his "impersonality" (e.g.T.S. Eliot's). Lewis bases his argument, in part, on his construction of the Renaissance as the last age of "Celtism" before the "Anglo-Saxon" and his "roman mind" gained ascendancy.(3) Shakespeare's time, according to Lewis, was still alive with "celtic chivalry" and "feudal nobility," institutions that depended not on groups but on the distinction, and rule, of upper-class, privileged individuals who were thus set in distinct contrast to the "subservient Many" (Sherry 118). Lewis thus unites, in the golden age of predemocratic, precapitalist England, a rigidly hierarchical social structure, the authority of "individuality," and the climate for great, "magical" art: "That was the age of romance, of exaltation of the sexual passion, of aristocratic love and its accompanying poetry" (The Lion and the Fox 52). "Art" and sexual passion are therefore constructed by Lewis as legitimate only when they are functions of an "individualist" social hierarchy in which the validation of static structures of power lies in the "common sense" belief in the essential nature of personality. Lewis also sees individuality as central to feudal and Elizabethan society because the "decentralized governments" of the time allowed for "unlimited and . . . unparalleled development of personal initiative" (30). These were times, Lewis claims, when lawless "defense passed into the hands of private persons [a.k.a. male aristocrats]" who in this admirable "usurpation of authority" supported the English economy through "private war" (30, 31). The defeat of the Spanish Armada was, for Lewis, the culmination of a spirit of individualistic initiative soon to be crushed by the rise of abstract science and bourgeois centralized government. Implicit here is a desire for a modern hero to "usurp authority" again, defeating democratic rule in favor of "private war."
Shakespeare is the expression of this earlier time of expansive "private war." His is a drama, according to Lewis, of externality, space, and ungoverned individuality - as well as the violent conflicts that characterize these three qualities. Shakespeare achieves "truth" by portraying colossal individuals whose violently distinct personalities are capable of moving through time while maintaining their stable integrity. Shakespeare's disregard for the unity of time is for Lewis central to the solidity and violent power of his characters: by "skipping lightheartedly over months and years, he produces a theatre that is essentially one of action," of "violent bustle and adventure" (36). Hamlet's psychology is, by extension, easily explained as an instance of "time-phenomenon" finding itself with surprise on the "bustling, elizabethan stage"; Hamlet is paralyzed "by maladjustment to the altered time-sense, or rather absence of time-sense, he finds" (36). Hamlet is an example, then, of the new (middle-class?) man, without the personality to withstand temporal flux. He is not rated as one of the colossi whose "external" existence and personal initiative push past the slow linear movement of time. Othello is Lewis's most admired hero, exhibiting how Shakespeare "makes a divinity of natural physical action." Because Lewis sees Shakespeare's drama, like the Elizabethan age, as the embodiment of a social structure defined by "private war," Othello serves as the ultimate colossus because his physical violence is ungovernable, yet at the same time he is guided by personal senses of responsibility and morality. Hamlet's unstable personality is shifted by externals; Othello constructs the material reality of all those around him through the violent assertion of his individual will.
At the same time, however, it is clear that Lewis's Shakespeare is not a child of the Renaissance. According to Lewis, the social structures that fostered the "private war" and the tone of Elizabethan drama are already toppling during the time in question, and Shakespeare runs against the current of the age. The Reformation and the rise of democracy, Lewis claims, have already begun to submerge the distinct "personality" in the tide of mediocrity. "Large disciplined armies of centralized governments" overcome the isolated hero who defines the early Renaissance (53), and all sense of personal responsibility is lost: "The more names and personalities there are associated with an act of government the less personal responsibility of course is established in it; and liberty is personal irresponsibility" (129). Lewis defines "liberty" as mindlessly democratic and opposes it to the "anarchy" of the aristocratic "private war." With the demise of the private hero, for Lewis, everything good is lost. Just as social vitality decays into the "sleep of the machine," so is individual initiative disempowered by a crushing Newtonian network of abstractions and maps that freezes the "violence and bustle" of individualist achievement into one stale and repetitive pattern:
Space with [Sir Isaac Newton] became a plan of massive highways: the celestial bodies circulated as safely as possible in the henceforth well-disciplined and blandly illuminated universe. . . . A roman peace reigned in physical science for two hundred years after this great series of calm imperial fiats had regulated the visible universe. (48)(4)
Lewis's reformulation of legitimate power rejects as coercive any form of external discipline, regulation, or centralization - all of which for Lewis mark the collective control of the democratized masses. Legitimate power derives from the anarchy of the responsible individual - the king and the savior, by connotation - and this power is not necessarily connected to a specific time frame (since Lewis, like Eliot, always finds traces of the modern disease no matter how far back in history he looks).
As Lewis moves from his philosophical discussions of aesthetic power to his ultimately chilling discussions of political power, it is important to note that his rhetoric is overcome by a turn in definition: the powerful individual is defined as something other than the vorticist hero. Lewis defends the spectacular authority and visible force of the colossus on aesthetic grounds; when he begins structuring a more overtly political rhetoric, he mystifies violence in a living human by effacing rather than by emphasizing authority and power. It is for this reason that Shakespeare, who implicitly possesses as much, if not more, power than Othello to create the reality of those around him, is constructed not as a visible and defiant force but rather as a humble and sacrificed god with only hidden signs - like the birthmark motif of Renaissance drama - to prove his essential worth. Understanding how the power of Shakespeare differs from that of Othello - the difference between the one who structures spectacle and the one who is spectacle - is crucial to seeing the bridge that unites Lewis's philosophy with what will become his apologia for Nazism. One thing that becomes clear in the contrast between Shakespeare and Othello is Lewis's concern with race. We learn that Shakespeare's association with chivalric code and Arthurian romance derives not only from his historical location but from his bloodlines. The "true child of the Renaissance" was not born of social structure and ideology but rather of an essential ethnicity; Shakespeare shows us that the "most powerful impulses [of the Renaissance were] derived . . . from the small 'celtic' countries - Wales, Brittany, and Ireland" (The Lion and the Fox 52). As the inheritor of "celtic" heritage, Shakespeare is necessarily different from those around him; he is, like Othello, exoticized by ethnic separateness. Unlike Othello, however, whose race is a part of his spectacular presence on the English stage, Shakespeare's ethnicity is unidentifiable to the common observer - not normative, but disguised, unspectacular. Shakespeare sees; Othello is seen. Constructing this privileged position for Shakespeare - we shall see how - is the impetus behind Lewis's use of the term celtic in place of chivalric or feudal, words that would make more sense, throughout most of The Lion and the Fox.
Interestingly, in an appendix to The Lion and the Fox titled "Shakespeare and Race," Lewis recants, denying that there is any such thing as a "celt" and ridiculing any general claim that Shakespeare's genius sprang from such an illusory source. Lewis thus delegitimates his own stance, and in so doing, I argue, he quietly articulates the mystification by which authority is established in his version of fascist politics. The function of the appendix is not, as Bridson claims, merely to make "good fun" of the notion of Celtism and table "a brusque denial that Shakespeare had any trace of it" (4). Instead the appendix mirrors Lewis's general mechanism for establishing power by synthesizing a binary struggle. At stake in "Shakespeare and Race" is the necessity of keeping genuine Celtism hidden and unarticulated by establishing a "false" Celtism and setting it in opposition to Anglo-Saxonism. The "true" Celts, whom Lewis has earlier defined as the small, dark, mystical people who inhabited England before the Romans, are mentioned only in passing in the appendix. The bulk of the recantation focuses on the Normans, an "assimilative" people who adopt in general any culture with which they come into contact, and who thus, during early invasions of the British coast, were transformed into "perfect 'celt[s]'" (324). The "small dark people" are representationally and syntactically excluded from this narrative, and the word Celt only appears in this appendix with real or implicit quotation marks, referring to the "celts" who are actually masquerading Normans.
Lewis is thus situated in such a way that he can stage the opposition between "Celts" (Normans) and Anglo-Saxons while evading entirely the supposed subject of his appendix. The opposition, according to Lewis, is based on images and myth, not on any substantial difference in genetics or culture.(5) The battle between the Normans and Anglo-Saxons is presented as a meaningless one, but it serves to remove from the scene of struggle - as well as to mystify further - the genuine article, the Celt, which privileged stance Lewis reserves for himself and for Shakespeare throughout The Lion and the Fox. This mystified "genuine article," set apart by race and by manipulative power, will appear again in Lewis's representations of Hitler.
Hugh Kenner argues that Lewis arranges the structural units within such fiction as Mrs. Duke's Million, The Apes of God, and The Human Age in such a way as to resemble a "familiar neo-Platonic hierarchy" in which power is always escaping the furthest reaches of vision, only reflected in shadows: "the real origin of power [is] always one level beyond the level we can see at the moment, which we must in consequence understand to be diluted by the unreal" (qtd. in Meyers 88). In the same way, the true Celt, its visible image stolen by masquerading Normans, resides behind Lewis's text, invisibly controlling the struggle of synthetic oppositions. This is the Celt who, like "race" itself, is "deeper and further back" than the visible, "impossible to chart" (The Lion and the Fox 295). The Celts were a race that "always fell" in battle (304) and that therefore left neither record nor clear genealogy; they escape representation, surviving in invisibility and facelessness, existing in language and in visible form only in the Normans. The Celts are only the vague "other-worldly potion (from the same factory as the witcheries that unknit lives in the story of Tristan and Yseult), which makes everything ineffectual that it touches." They are swallowed into the Norman/Saxon struggle just as they are swallowed into Lewis's text, and yet they remain, both in the text and in history, the hidden poison or remedy, the impetus for the conflict between the Normans and Saxons, and their existence or nonexistence constitutes the stake for which the struggle takes place.
Shakespeare is a genuine Celt - of a race so purely idealized that it approaches transcendent racelessness; he is a colorless and odorless potion that stages the central oppositions that unknit society. His power is not that of the private war, the colorful raging on the heath, but is rather that "of art's self-effacing aloofness" (13). It is important to Lewis that the manipulator of the word as a distinct personality and even as a member of a distinct - if metaphysical - race remain unseen; this authority, as opposed to the authority of the feudal lord (whose power we now see is confusedly imaginary, dependent on Norman/Saxon false differences) is guaranteed only to the extent that it is mystified. "A particularly glorious parasite on everything" (152), Shakespeare consumes the "life, art, and ideas around him," and organizes "his bloody supper" into cathartic structure, behind the mask of "sweet Will." Shakespeare's bland and apparently raceless features, in fact, mark him for Lewis as the type of human who surpasses his humanity in his superiority to the physical compulsion of biology and of belief. Shakespeare - or any "individual" - distances himself from the necessity of genetics and from the "herd," which cannot effect a similar separation:
very strong race-characteristics in an individual, in their face, gait, or mental disposition, probably means, at all events to-day, that they are not the highest example of their kind; that had they been more creative and mentally active they would not have been content to repeat - even physiologically: nor would they have followed mechanically the rules laid down by nature and humdrum tradition. (298)
The average human is caught in the time of genetics - compelled to linearity. The great man rises above the compulsion to repeat. He stops (or resists) time through force of mental will; the responsibility for control is therefore given over to this one superior and faceless individual. The power such an individual must hold is ominous - mainly by virtue of the fact that the source of this power is established in an operation that is invisible to the public.
It falls to Shakespeare, then, "Puck-like and anarchic" (14), to assemble the world of his readers into the "beautiful matching of opposed forces" (24). He becomes what Scott Klein argues is the role of the vorticist writer (as opposed to the vorticist hero):
he emerges as the generator and container of doubleness. . . . Able to hold dualities in balance as part of his overarching coherence, he stands free of the external - both the inanimate world and the world of other people (227, 228)
In order to bring about this presentation of duality, the chaos of the age must be violently disparaged and set in the stable control of binarism; so although at work in Shakespeare's drama are "forces of disintegration," "negation and chaos" (23, 24), the end result, the illusion of the drama, is clearly the result of a "highly organized mind" (16): the "services that such a writer as Shakespeare renders a community in stabilizing its consciousness, and giving it that rallying-ground of thought and illusion which it requires in order to survive, are immense" (16). Shakespeare is not the fighter of "the private war"; on the contrary, he is the invisible puppet master, the stager of the seemingly anarchic battle. His translucence is not bland racelessness but rather the quintessence of silent and horrible force: "his impassibility," Lewis claims, "was the mask of the hangman" (145), and his effacement is part of the illusion of the agentless "mirror held up to life." It is not Othello who holds power, nor is it the feudal nobleman who conquers; the true power is behind the scenes, subverting time to create spectacle. Shakespeare's genuine "celtism" lies in his invisible role as killer, consumer, and organizer of life. Lewis thus rewrites the historical role of the famous Renaissance poet in order to make him, in actuality, a political monster whose service to the state was as immeasurable as it was invisible. Never once does this odd turn of rhetoric give Lewis pause.
In fact, Lewis becomes increasingly celebratory as he describes Shakespeare's contribution to the state. Shakespeare, Lewis claims, offers visually the "truth" of oppositional order to a crowd so dull, so caught in the rush of time, as to be unable to perceive it by itself. He is the central organizer in a Renaissance celebrated by Lewis for lacking centralized organization. Social climate, then, I would argue, is ultimately just another front for the truly horrible source of power Lewis is intent on mythologizing. Shakespeare's warring Machiavel and colossus are transhistorical, as is "celtism." The colossi of Shakespeare's drama - Othello, Lear, Timon, and Coriolanus - stage the timeless battle between the individual and the "dark equivocal crowd saturated with falsity" (qtd. in Kenner 25). They represent, for Lewis, a development of the Arghol figure of The Enemy of the Stars, the "gladiator who has come to fight a ghost, Humanity," the "Personality" whose "self is the race that lost" in the battle against time-flux and democracy (Kenner 24). In the moment of violent death, however, the colossus freezes the movement of time into the true spatial stability of hierarchical opposition, and the losing underdog thus legitimates the binary system itself as well as its invisible representor - "the aristocratic eye that divides" (Sherry 100).
The antagonists of Shakespeare's drama - and of Shakespeare himself as the plays' hidden protagonist - represent "the man of the world," the member of the herd created by the rise of democracy and sustained by the growing faith in "time-philosophy." Iago, for example, as Machiavellian and theorist of action represents "the savage rabble of the Elizabethan pit" who crush, in Lewis's view, art and the ideal (The Lion and the Fox 165); this premise guarantees the hysteria necessary for the legitimation of centralized control. Iago is a man of action, a representative of the "agent-principle" (160) whom Lewis condemns as being removed from the ethical and aesthetic. "The man of action" denotes not the frozen emblem or reflective mind which "motionless and deep . . . reflect[s] to the fullest advantage the conflict occurring in its world" (186) but rather the mechanical strategy of the inherently weak, whose arbitrary reactions and sensations are always arranged along the continuum of time, reflecting not a "self" but a mindless and ultimately democratic organism. Iago is merely a "trivial opponent who substitutes a poor and vulgar thing for the great and whole thing that [he has] destroyed" (188). Lewis takes pains to make clear that the Machiavel is not the exception but the rule, merely a distilled representative of the democratic collective:
He is a quite normal and commonplace worldly person complicated by an honesty a la Machiavel. He is not the unusual villain that he is often made out to be. With a little more intensity and resolution, most of the individuals composing any contemporary european "educated" society would be very much like Iago. . . . The making of this villain Everyman is a supreme invention of genius. He is just the ordinary bluff, "honest" man in the street, proud of his strategy, and the power it gives him. (188)
What Shakespeare thus stages is the timeless and universal truth of democratized villainy.
Shakespeare's protagonists then represent the timeless idealistic war against democratic bustling and power. They exist in a state of such dialectical purity against the "men-of-the-world" that they are doomed to die, unable to compromise the integrity of their idealism. Their role is only to stand frozen for a glorious moment in a representation of pure power and then to die in a violent manner that befits them and their status. Kenner claims that this dialectical purity of character is also common to vorticist work, and that it implies generally "a metaphysic of violence; ordinary actions are but as pulse beats and breathings; only the cataclysmic events can be said to happen. . . nothing can happen but the initial and ultimate acts of violence" (Kenner 24). The necessary engagement of the "hero" and democracy - the constitutive elements of the universal binary - result inevitably in violence, "slaughter," or oppression. It is for this reason, according to Lewis, that Shakespeare's colossi are manufactured with the potential only for force or death; they are built on "the grand scale; and desire, passion, or will attains in them a terrible force" (The Lion and the Fox 119).
The colossi, however, do not answer to the source of power that Kenner argues is always receding, invisible, in Lewis's work. It is in part because the colossus is not detached from life - the vorticist ideal - and because he is fully visible that his power is circumscribed. The tragic hero is a spectacle who is blinded by his passionate involvement in life; he is seen rather than seeing. Because of this, like Arghol in Enemy of the Stars, he articulates the "grotesque degradation and 'souillure' of the original solitude of the soul" (qtd. in Kenner 24). At the moment when the truth of the action is revealed to him, the colossus recedes into death, joins with the Celtic author in his removal from the scene of material opposition. It is because of this necessary death and distancing of the tragic hero that Lewis, like Eliot, finds in the image of the fisher-king a "reasonable" myth. In his most exacerbated tone of disgust and hysterical attack Lewis describes the apparently necessary sacrifice of such a king/individual to the herd's "instinct for the divine - that is, of course, the instinct to destroy it, isolate it, or corrupt it to their own uses" (The Lion and the Fox 136). The powerful individual not only chooses but is forced by the mob to some other place of divine presence; after his "death" the tragic hero's power becomes even stronger by virtue of mythic accrual, and yet this power is thrust upon him by the masses.
Lewis thus deflects the responsibility for the active establishment of opposition between the elite and the public away from the ruler and onto the ruled, which of course demands, in turn, not only more oppression but more hidden and subtle ways of oppressing. These tactics are realized in the genuine Celt, in Shakespeare himself. The "fisher-king" section of The Lion and the Fox culminates in explicit praise for Shakespeare's "ancient animal cunning" in invisibly staging the execution of the high, thus channeling social violence into the controlled model of binarism - the struggle of the "individual" against generalized decay - with its attendant emptying out through catharsis of any further desire to act. Shakespeare's masked and public "execution" of his noble colossi dispenses with "the gushing blood, the vinegar and the fainting god, every murderous instinct translated into, and compressed in, civilized reserve" (145). The king is sacrificed, executed, to preserve the (invisible and removed) aristocratic role, but it is important for Lewis to note that Shakespeare's "true" feelings - behind the bland features and the mask that hide his racial superiority - could, if revealed, be read on his face, which was, Lewis claims, "incessantly convulsed with the most painful unprofessional emotions; and it was apt to be tear-stained and fixed in a bitter grimace as he left the scaffold" (145). The parasite organizes and controls through public execution, through staging a Golgotha, Tyburn, or bear-pit that does not unleash the violence of the mob but rather subdues action in the tears and pity demanded by the frozen greatness of the unjustly slaughtered giant. Shakespeare, for Lewis, is the perfect executioner in that his invisibility and parasitism guarantee an effective mode of social control.(6)
This politicization of aesthetics leads to Lewis's later aestheticization of politics, and Shakespeare as executioner is crucial to Lewis's ideological development. This image of power and "slaughter" connects the aesthetic discontent and pacifism of Time and Western Man (published in 1927 with The Lion and the Fox) to the overt support of Nazi fascism in Hitler (1931). Time and Western Man, as I have shown, promotes the seclusion of an artistic elite from the growing force of democratization and social leveling; its heroic individuals, however, even though "like gods," have only a dubiously solipsistic power of vision. In The Lion and the Fox, Lewis extends the power of the artist into the sphere of public action and control through the presentation of spectacle. Lewis legitimates centralized (and centralizing) political power by presenting Shakespeare's role as a public image-maker and propagandist. The rhetorical/dramatic forms of legitimate aesthetic authority can become those of legitimate political action: the great leader, like Shakespeare, controls the masses by staging a dramatic spectacle that pits the hero against the Machiavel in a particular representation of the universal and timeless opposition between mob and individual. In this drama, the mob is always represented as having the upper hand, and thus the individualist is ultimately justified in using more force (which will also, it is implied, necessarily be defeated - the herd is never in any real danger). Lewis's reconstructions of the Renaissance and of Shakespeare in particular thus open directly onto the means by which Lewis feels justified in celebrating in 1931 Adolph Hitler's rise to power.(7) For Lewis, the conflation of one type of rhetoric with another allows him to think that genocide, in effect, is on the same ontological plane with dramatic tragedy.
All Germany is a stage for Lewis - a great spectacle presenting for the world the timeless drama of the individualist underdog (the Nazis) sacrificed to and oppressed by various mindless Others. Germany is now in the hands of a violent mob: "disorder is rampant" in Berlin, "and is checked with firearms and gummiknuppeln in the streets" (Hitler 16). Both the public and the police, in other words, have sunk to a kind of "street-violence" that serves the more democratic of the political parties; riot, for Lewis, not only epitomizes but "suits the book of the republican caucus" (16). At the forefront of this violent mob is the communist, spouting the ideology of class-leveling, and Lewis brands this figure as the central instigator of the social and economic collapse of Germany. In opposition to this chaos and violence are the Nazis, or National Socialists. Lewis evidences his political blindness from the beginning in that he conceives the Nazis as an elite group that argues for peace and order; the Nazis, Lewis thinks, like the Shakespearean colossus, are "incessantly denounced, harassed, and disarmed" (19). "Literally thousands of Nationalsocialists," Lewis claims, "have been killed and wounded" in recent slaughters, and this is largely as a result of the "Communist" who "helps the police to beat and shoot Nazi's [sic]" (16).
Hitler's relationship to the Nazis and to Germany is significantly complicated. On one hand, he is himself "the German Man" and "the Man of Peace" who reflects and in fact embodies the unjustly persecuted stance (44). In this he is absurdly presented as Timon of Athens; the Nazi party is an expression of his will, and that will expresses in turn the absolute values of peace, stability, and the inherent value of "originality" (49). Because of the force of this incredible personality, the German nation will live up to its potential "vastness" and "power"; it will be "infinitely more formidable" than other European nations because it will act under Hitler "as one man" (33). As with Shakespeare's colossi, Hitler's force and point achieve transcendent meaning in that he is frozen in timeless combat with some ultimately "trivial" opponent who in spite of his "triviality" nonetheless threatens the life of his superior enemy. Tragically, Lewis thus conceives the opponent as not a body or group of bodies but rather as an abstract role.
At another level, however, Hitler's position is more like that of Shakespeare himself than that of Timon - he is more invisible director than spectacular vision. Lewis is very interested in Hitler's self-representations and representations of the Nazi cause. He urges his readers not to be overburdened with "a mere bagatelle" of race hatred, for example, but to overlook the anti-Semitism evident in Hitler's politics from the beginning. The reason we should overlook Hitler's evident anti-Semitism is that it is merely a dramatic trope; Hitler is staging the ultimate representation of the universal struggle between the individual and the herd, the timeless and the chaotic. The reader is also expected to buy one final extension of this oppressive logic: The Jew is merely a symbol. The self that Hitler both is and represents must be established, as is Shakespeare's colossus, through what Chase terms "the rituals of blood" and the "sacred act of violence" (qtd. in Meyers 157). This is an aesthetic issue; Lewis has moved easily from literary criticism to the persecution of a people, making of anti-Semitism the "sacred act" of representing the absolute. The English and the Americans must overlook the choice of signifier and look at the signified instead; "Blutsgefuhl" is a "racial red-herring" unreasonably fetishized by the uninformed (Hitler 43). In his modernist zeal to aestheticize the world, Lewis fails to see his own fetishization.
Lewis goes so far as to claim that anti-Semitism is proof of Hitler's artistic shrewdness; Nazi persecution of the Jews - or more accurately, castigation of the Jews as the source of Germany's severe economic depression - creates an oppositional, embattled stance for Hitler that legitimates his rise to power. The anti-Semitism sweeping through Germany is also evidence of Hitler's artistic effectiveness. Lewis is impressed with the particular villain thus chosen: in his view, the Jewish people make singularly effective scapegoats in the drama of Germany because their alien status is a function of race, not of class. At the beginning of Hitler Lewis sets the Nazis in opposition to social chaos in general, democracy and communism in particular; after establishing the Nazis' general underdog status, he makes no more direct attacks on either communism or rampant social leveling and turns his attention to Hitler's representations and thus to the "Jewish question." The "Jewish question" is an issue that, instead of addressing the (for Lewis) distressing declassement of the German middle and upper classes, freezes the traditional German social hierarchy into a unit that must fight a single "other" foe. Friction between classes is thus side-stepped. Lewis explicitly points out in Hitler the political advantage of anti-Semitism and "Race-doctrine" in general: they de-emphasize the increasing trend toward social leveling. Like the "time-philosophies," the "Class-doctrine [embedded in Marxist theory, for example] demands a clean slate. Everything must be wiped off slick" (84). "Race-doctrine," on the other hand, solidifies society on the basis of an invisible but inherent quality that silently insists on the retention of hierarchy and exclusion. Race-doctrine thus allows for the unity that makes of a nation "one man" through association and ranking of those of the same race. Lewis provides the parallel example of gender relations under class- and race-doctrine to make his point. "Feminism" is, for Lewis, a class-doctrine that splinters society (race) through its obsession with "irrelevant" differences; "under a regime ideologically based on Race," on the other hand, the attraction of racial sameness would bond husband and wife into hierarchical solidarity. This static hierarchy would ultimately "secure greater social efficiency" (85) - less mobility, less rebellion, less human surplus and difference to get in the way of "efficient" production (or reproduction in this case).
The anti-Semitism manufactured by Hitler, then, makes of Germany a model of naturalized oppositional spectacle that "secures social efficiency." In this respect, Hitler is established in less than 200 pages of large type as the latter-day Shakespeare: this is the most horrible extreme to which the modernist fervor for aestheticization could lead. For Lewis, it is the construction and imposition of an "efficient" ideology that makes either a great artist or a great leader; the spectacle of control becomes the end of all heroic human endeavor. Hitler, effaced hero and underdog, stages the battle between the colossus and the meanly trivial; he organizes the social and the political as Shakespeare organizes the aesthetic. The universality of binarism that Lewis has established in The Lion and the Fox rhetorically legitimates this maneuver. The Jews become a synthetic construct for purposes of argument, stripped of their humanity within that argument in order to play the villain who furthers the unity of the German state and creates the power vacuum into which a "great individual" like Hitler can step. Unlike Pound, Lewis does not take pains to accuse the Jewish people of being villainous. It is only the villainous role that is necessary for the obliteration of class concerns and the unification of a nation into a static social hierarchy. Lewis never confronts the reality of human oppression. Andrew Hewitt argues that Lewis came to Hitler "in search of deception" - that the "essence" of Nazi Germany consisted precisely in the fact that it did "not offer that essence which was sought" (531). Social control is achieved at the level of artistic deception, and thus Hitler is to be celebrated as the ultimate "crowd Master" (Dasenbrock 174).(8)
By 1934, as Sherry points out, some doubt begins to slip into Lewis's rhetoric; some political/historical reality begins to confront his desire for an aestheticized world: he suspects that "political force must move at cross-purposes with aesthetic form: the necessary dynamics of the State are at odds with the true order of art" (118). By the time he is writing Rude Assignment (published in 1950), Lewis has thoroughly recanted, in language that expresses not only horror but self-condemnation:
Why has nature provided us with no psychical insight so that when we encounter a mass murderer we are apprised of the fact by an instantaneous repulsion? . . . As a portraitist I feel 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, Lewis castigates himself for not seeing Hitler truly; it is precisely because he feels that Hitler lives behind the scenes that Lewis celebrates him in the first place. Lewis's mistake was his conflation of artist and political ruler, the artistic creation and the political creation. Like many of the modernists, Lewis came to believe that a revamping of aesthetics could replace what was perceived generally as a loss of organizing cultural principles. Only with the destruction of World War II was it made clear how deeply problematic - and dangerous - is the aestheticization of politics.
1 Reed Way Dasenbrock's Literary Vorticism examines in fascinating detail Lewis's hostility to "time-philosophy." Dasenbrock shows, among other things, that vorticist art was in large part established in resistance to Futurist art and the latter's emphasis on blurred movement and flux.
Patricia Rae also studies Lewis's objections to Futurist (and Impressionist) art. She argues that painters of both groups, for Lewis, "forfeit the possibility of discerning and articulating any meaning in the phenomenal chaos, and remain completely 'subjugated' to Nature."
2 This sense was heightened by such forces as technology (the cinema, the photograph) and physics (Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle).
3 Lewis's odd use of capitalization is worth noting. "Racial" terms are generally capitalized when used to denote some ethereal, larger-than-life characteristic; when they denote a quality more akin to the biological, the terms are usually lowercase.
4 In this interpretation Lewis adopts a prevalent - though now seen as erroneous - view of Newton, thereby ironically showing how his "individual" reading of the transformation from the Renaissance to the "modern" period is itself ideologically bound and limited by the thought of the group. See Robert Markley's "Representing Order."
5 The English-Irish problem, then, is revealed by Lewis to have no substantial basis:
[The Norman is] so disguised [as a Celt] (even from himself! - for he too has been taken-in long ago) he has had no difficulty in imposing on his simple saxon kinsman, who regards him with the greater awe, as a "foreigner" of the deepest dye, and most alien blood; according him alternately his dog-like admiration and wolf-like hatred, the latter of which is naturally reciprocated; for it serves, on the side of the Irishman, to keep up the illusion of a difference which exists only in the imagination of these two over-romantic relatives. (324)
Lewis thus dismisses as a "little temperamental affair," based only in rhetorical differences, the English domination of Ireland and Ireland's resentment and resistance.
6 This might be contrasted to Lewis's own brand of attack, which left him exposed to criticisms for his extreme conservativism.
7 Vincent Sherry makes a similar argument. In discussing Lewis's attitude toward Hitler in Hitler, Sherry writes:
The worldview in which the national sovereign functions depends on an angle of sight exactly congruent to the one Lewis drew in The Lion and the Fox, where he mapped the scheme of proximate vision into the dynamics of total political control - where the equally "archaic" prerogative of absolute royal force was seen to rely on the same dark, anarchic background that Lewis projects as the source of the national dictator's authority here. (120)
8 Hewitt's fascinating argument explores Hitler's role as transvestite in Lewis's work and shows how that role reinforces the political/artistic deceptions.
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Publication information: Article title: Aesthetics, Politics and the Staging of the World: Wyndham Lewis and the Renaissance. Contributors: Stockton, Sharon - Author. Journal title: Twentieth Century Literature. Volume: 42. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 1996. Page number: 494+. © 1999 Hofstra University. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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