"Monstre Gai" in Wyndham Lewis and Saul Bellow

By Meyers, Jeffrey | Notes on Contemporary Literature, May 2010 | Go to article overview

"Monstre Gai" in Wyndham Lewis and Saul Bellow


Meyers, Jeffrey, Notes on Contemporary Literature


In Wyndham Lewis' Monstre Gai (1955), the second book of his often impenetrable trilogy The Human Age, Pullman and his ex-school-fag Satterthwaite try to gain admission to the Third City, a purgatorial world beyond the grave, by joining the entourage of a cynical, ambiguous and authoritative figure called the Bailiff. He may be the devil or belong to the devil's forces and is in fact the Gay Monster, whom Lewis had defined as "a man 'beyond good and evil,' a destroying angel and cultivated Mephistopheles" (Lewis, "Nietzsche as a Vulgarizer," The Art of Being Ruled [London: Chatto & Windus, 1926]: 123). Once inside the city, Pullman must choose between the evil Bailiff and his arch rival, the angelic Padishah (or great king), who is a sentimental bore. He remains loyal to the Bailiff and must flee with him when God's angels recapture the city.

All three titles in The Human Age are sinister. The Childermass, volume 1, commemorates the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem by the order of King Herod. Malign Fiesta, volume 3, is the very antithesis of a joyous feast day. The monstre gai in the novel may look like the grimacing and menacing self-portrait Mr. Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro (1920-21). The title is also an intriguing oxymoron: monsters are almost never gay, but miserable and tragic like Frankenstein's creation and the bloodthirsty Dracula.

In Wyndham Lewis the Novelist Timothy Materer, using a booksellers' catalogue as evidence, wrote, "A page of the novel's manuscript has this quotation from Voltaire: 'un monstre gai vaut mieux qu'un sentimental ennuyeux'" (Detroit: Wayne State, 1976, 180n4). This was a good start, though he doesn't say where Lewis got this quotation, when Voltaire wrote it and what it means. Friedrich Nietzsche dedicated his Human, All Too Human (1878) to his intellectual hero Voltaire, and the title of his Gay Science (1882) recalls monstre gai. Lewis, strongly influenced by Nietzsche, refers to his concept of "beyond good and evil" in his novel (Human Age, London: Methuen, 1955, 263). He found the elusive quotation not in Voltaire, but in Nietzsche's The Will to Power (1901; trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann, NY: Vintage, 1968, 23 & 56). Nietzsche twice quoted the couplet--translated as "A gay monster is worth more / than a sentimental bore"--and said that Galiani had cited Voltaire's verse. It's worth noting that Galiani, a priest, had read and admired the most notorious heretic in Europe. But The Will to Power, unreliably compiled by Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth and published after his death, is not included in scholarly editions of his works, and no one has ever identified the source of Voltaire's quote.

Abbe Ferdinando Galiani (1728-87), economic theorist, savant and diplomat, served in Paris from 1759 to 1769 as secretary to the ambassador from Naples. After leaving France, he corresponded extensively with his contemporary Madame d'Epinay (1726-83), a leading member of intellectual society and friend of Rousseau and Diderot.

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