I missed this post from Doctor Nathan Waddell, with some really great news about Wyndham Lewis’ works, and something to explore when looking at authors from the past.
Recently I listened to the In Our Time podcast devoted to ‘Literary Modernism’ (broadcast 26 April 2001). Wyndham Lewis is characterised in passing as a modernist whose life’s work amounts to ‘a few, stupid phobias’. The remark, made by John Carey, raises an important question: How do we assess Lewis’s distinctive achievements as a painter and writer while staying appropriately critical of the outrageous viewpoints to which he was liable? The query supposes that Lewis’s paintings and writings are ‘distinctive’ and ‘achievements’ (some would disagree on both counts), but it also signals the high-wire act performed by Lewisian scholars. To write about Lewis means writing about a modernist who’s only partly understood, to a certain extent because almost all of his written work is out of print, because his reputation precedes him, and because a lot of what has been written about him is based on selective reading. The charge applies to both sides of the debate. Critics of Lewis often present one side of a nuanced problem, ma
ke mountains out of molehills, or simply get things muddled. Champions of Lewis (myself included) can protest too much or excuse significant failings too quickly, smoothing over wrinkles that should be left crumpled and creased. The Prosecution ideally should read and critically evaluate Lewis’s output, which is as substantial as any produced by his modernist peers, before it convicts him. The Defence continually needs to clarify what it takes to
be the cultural and intellectual value of Lewis’s work without straightforwardly apologising for it.
Doctor Waddell points out something very important. Lewis’ political opinions may be unpalpable to modern readers, but that does not invalidate his artistic value. Like any historical figure, he came out of his specific historical context. Distaste with the Lewis’ “outdated” opinions is understandable for many modern readers. It is important to understand Lewis’ position in history, especially his flirtations with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. For the intellectuals of the post-WWI period, political ideologies on both the far left and the far right were new, interesting ideas. The Soviet gulags and Nazi death camps had not happened yet. It’s easy to say in hindsight that people, especially interwar intellectuals, should have known better, but they lacked the frame of reference we have today. Ezra Pound was an open fascist sympathizer, and jailed by the US government for treason during WWII but even today he is rightfully recognized for his place in twentieth century American poetry, bringing Chinese poetry into the West, and support of key figures like T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. Lewis’ runs into the problem of having a less prominent place among Joyce, Pound, Hemingway, and Eliot; it makes defending him to an audience critical of his political views, or rather what they assume his political views to be based on the aforementioned selective reading, difficult to say the least. Lewis was a key member of the celebrated “Lost Generation,” part of the Modernist movement long before Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald arrived to partake in the Paris scene.
Lastly, there is a piece of great news in the post as well:
The most stimulating work in contemporary Lewisian criticism tries to evaluate that output while scrutinising its analytical requirements in tonally and contextually conscientious ways. Now that Oxford University Press is publishing a complete critical edition of his writing [empasis mine]
Hopefully this will expand awareness of Lewis, and his unique role as both a Modernist painter and novelist to more people.