The Poetics of Mockery: Wyndham Lewis's the Apes of God and the Popularization of Modernism

The Poetics of Mockery: Wyndham Lewis's the Apes of God and the Popularization of Modernism

The Poetics of Mockery: Wyndham Lewis's the Apes of God and the Popularization of Modernism

The Poetics of Mockery: Wyndham Lewis's the Apes of God and the Popularization of Modernism

Synopsis

This study reconsiders Wyndham Lewis's adversarial role in the modernist movement through a close reading of his prodigious satire of 1920s cultural politics. It presents a new interpretation of The Apes of God as a Menippean satire, with attention to its style, characterization, allegory, and historiography, and to Lewis's polemics of the period. Previous studies have emphasised Lewis's external method of visual narration and the personal attacks on the London art world. This one also treats the rhetorical and parodic elements in his mechanistic caricatures of literary impressionism and its proponents, besides the theory of participation and the player behind his schizoid image of the modern subject. The study reinterprets the apprenticeship plot as a carnivalesque discrowning based on the primitive themes of the shaman and the scapegoat. It explores the ways in which the discursive broadcasts - on the social exploitation of a subjectivist aesthetic, publicity as imposture, cultural levelling - are dramatized in the sado-masochistic bond between impresario and naif and in the contradiction of carnival institutionalized. Lewis is shown using his rivals' mythic method to implicate the avant-garde itself in nascent mass culture. The study includes an analysis of the scandal surrounding Lewis's private edition of The Apes and the defence of non-moral satire presented in his subsequent pamphlet Satire and Fiction. Drawing upon unpublished manuscripts and correspondence, it demonstrates how Lewis's own devious publicity campaign re-enacted the crux of the novel and epitomized his conflicts with his contemporaries.

Excerpt

It seems as though some explanation should accompany a study that focuses on a single work of an unpopular writer. This began as a comparative study of inter-war satire; when the Lewis chapter reached four times the length of the first, I decided not to summarize it into proportion. It had become apparent that a full understanding of The Apes of God in its generic and historical context required the kind of close reading that has been done, and often re-done, on some other modernist texts. To judge from some interesting recent studies, Lewis is finally being discovered, but much in his large and varied corpus deserves closer scrutiny. Key passages of The Apes had never been discussed; stray lines had the curiosity of Joyce's oddments; and the neglected matter of Lewis's use of myth was a convenient means of re-situating Lewis among his more celebrated colleagues. Since the book embraces all of the prime issues of modernism, in such a lively and unpredictable manner, it was difficult, in the face of both the academic canon and recent reformist tendencies, to resist the chance to adjust a chapter in a different way than usual. None the less, in presenting a new interpretation that makes great claims for this writer and contradicts much foregoing criticism, I have sometimes wondered whether I have been infected with Lewisian fanaticism or whether I have a weakness for Lewis's questionable sense of humour. Perhaps it was indeed that outré quality that was intriguing.

For their help with this study, I would like to thank first George Stade and Michael Rosenthal of Columbia University, who each taught me a great deal about critical argument and good prose. I must also note the generous encouragement given to me by Carl Woodring at an early stage of this project. I am indebted to Michael Ross for his perceptive comments on the entire first draft. I am also grateful to the staff of the Department of Rare Books at Cornell University, Lynne Farrington especially, for steering me through Lewis's manuscripts and offering a pleasant atmosphere for research. It is by the courtesy of Mark Dimunation, the Curator of Rare Books, Cornell University Library, and of J. W. Dolman of the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust that I quote from unpublished manuscripts and letters relating to The Apes of God and Satire & Fiction. Chapter 6, in a slightly different form, appeared as 'Marketing Insults:Wyndham Lewis and the Arthur Press' in Twentieth Century Literature; I thank the Editor,William McBrien, for permission to reprint it. I owe a particular debt to my editor at the Modern Humanities . . .

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