Tag Archives: Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis – The Credentials of the Painter

The English Review; Part 1, no. XXXIV (January 1922), 33-38; Part II, no XXXIV (Aprl 1922), 391-96. Reprinted in Creatures of Habit, Creatures of Change, 66-78.

Begins  by arguing that each artist correlates with a certain type of man. He contrasts the painter and the musician. The musician, however austere his music may be (Schoenberg), still cannot help but affect the body of the spectator; whereas the painter, especially the painter of abstract forms, can be completely cold and cut off. However, somewhat contradictorily, he also claims, “the fundamental and trump credential is…that he alones gives you the visual fact of our existence. All attachment to reality by means of the sense of sight is his province or preserve” (69). This mimetic function has he potential make the spectator participate in a certain type of life:

A portrait evidently ceases to be a portrait when it has that transporting effect that makes you feel, not only that you are sharing a moment of life removed by centuries from your own lifetime, but also that you are participating in a heightened life, that living of which only is an event as solitary and fixed as the thing at which you are gazing. (68-69)

Very curious why it must cease to be a portrait. Something here about mimetic comportment and the experience of history…relate to Pater’s fulness, perhaps. Lewis is frank about this contradiction: “that the painter participates more in life itself in one way than any other artist; but in another sense he is most removed from it” (71). NB: Hegel and Adorno will work through a similar contradiction in their aesthetic theories.

Part 2 broadens out the conversation to artists in general. He claims that there are no clear-cut laws that can be universally applied to artistic production. Neither are there universal, rational laws for deciding between good and bad art.

Argument and reflection are certainly very necessary, much as people dislike them, where the finer, or better the finest, art, in any kind, is concerned. But, in the interests of this dialectic, no laws can be adduced of universal application. The work of art, in the end, has to impose itself on men like a living individual. Instead of appealing to their intelligence only, supplying them with a mechanical formula of universal efficacy, it must appeal to their whole make-up, or to their taste. The taste is a sort of higher, more complex intelligence. Every faculty serves it, and is found represented in its composition. (73)

This, so far, is a very Schillerean notion of taste–not necessarily (only) a separate faculty, but the fruit of the development of a range of other faculties. For Lewis, taste serves as “a synthesis of the ego,” something which brings order to otherwise fragmented existence: “it is taste alone that can make him a dependable and ordered being” (73). This is meant as a corrective to metaphysicians who transform the “aesthetics” into an appendage of a philosophical system. He uses Hegel as an example. He also implicitly critiques Kant’s strict association between art and pleasure:

But is [pleasure] not also the object of any other activity higher than bread-winning? To make the majority of men feel comfortable and keep them quiet, the notion of the dignity of toil, in the sense of mechanical labor, was long ago invented. To unrivet the perception form the need, to disentangle art from the practical artifice of life, is the artist’s constant task in his work. (74)

He thus goes on to define his own concept of taste: “Taste, as I have described it, is what would occur of David Hume’s ‘argument and reflection’ became a habit, something that accompanied a man in whatever compartment of his existence he might be passing at the moment” (75).

He concludes by constructing two sides of a dialectic–that between a human world (civilization) and a material world (stones and matter):

If, however, without identifying ourselves with mater entirely, we yet evolved into a total material aceticism, how would it be with art then? One is bound to admit that art has so far been dependent on religion, a luxurious life, or superstitious fancy for its existence. But for any life that we could evolve into, short of identification with matter, or the other extreme of disassociation from it, there would be an art, or “expression.” It is a half-way house, the speech, life, and adornment of a half-way house. Or it is a coin that is used on a frontier, but in neither of the adjoining countries. As we know nothing about these or any other countries, it is impossible for us to say. Art is a coin, if you like, that has no aesthetic value, only an historic one. But it must be composed of a certain metal, and it must ring true. To recognize this ring you depend entirely on your ear. Your eyes, and even your teeth, ca also be brought into play, ANd you can speculate on the character of the stranger who is tendering you the coin. These, taken together, make up your “taste.” (76)

Lots to say about this: coin as medium (gold, exchange, etc.); taste as mediation between two “worlds” (relate to Hegel and art, but also transition to modernism; the way he keeps he make definite claims and then slightly shifting an qualifying them; the “teeth” as part of taste; identification with matter, but not entirely, etc.


D.H. Lawrence – Women in love (1916, 1921)

In the Foreward (1919), Lawrence takes aim at those critics that attempted to censor Women in Love in the same way that The Rainbow was censored back in 1915. He accuses those of living in the form of the old, in which they will perish, much like Birkin will theorize throughout the novel. He also preempts critics that would take issue with the forms of repetition that Lawrence uses throughout. He says that the “pulsing, frictional to-and-fro” motion working up to some sort of “culmination” is what fiction is.

The plot: Ursula and Gudrun Bragwen are two sisters, thoroughly modern, that will eventually be paired with Birkin and Gerald, respectively. Birkin is a stand in for Lawrence, spouting off a bunch of theories about passion, life, convention, etc. Gerald is a passionate captain of industry that eventually dies for love of Gudrun in the French Alps.

Nietzsche: In short, a vulgarized Nietzsche. Compare with Hardy in Tess, where dangerous activity of equating a character with a vital ontology leads to tragedy, whereas in Lawrence, he just assumes that ontology as that which needs to be embraced. This leads to all sorts of ethical problems, ranging from violence towards women to the environmental effects of over-extracting coal from the earth. Also, worth comparing to Tarr…in the Preface to that novel, Lewis talks about the English obsession with Nietzsche, and will go on to critique that sort of unrestrained passion in the form of Kreisler. But he of course turns the screw again by hollowing out the more traditional, Eliotic notion of the artist in the figure of Tarr himself.

Description as Repetition: Lawrence describes his mode of fiction as “repetition with modification,” and this bears out in the use of a single word multiple times within a single paragraph. In order to describe Ursula’s reaction to the urban, he uses the words sordid, ugly, amorphous, and formless mutliple times in different combinations. Similarly, a water-party is described with booming, splashing , drowned, all repeated twice. The effect is one in which the language takes on a mimetic power–not that it necessarily mimes the things it is describing, but that it mimes the sort of sexualized repetition and friction that characterizes the act of writing itself.

The Wrestling Match: Work out Lawrence’s  gender fantasies. It seems to me to be a vulgarized version of Nietzsche imported into, first of all, the blond beast that goes by the name of Gerald (the chapter on the Industrial magnate is one lone discourse on the will to power as manifested through the extraction of coal). But it is also present in the way that Lawrence attempts to excise the woman from the passionate impulse. He wants to make desire immanent to the person desiring, rather than locating it in the object of desire. Thus two men can love without loving something or someone–it is the motion of repetition and struggle that is characteristic of desire.

The classroom: this chapter is the first time we get Birkin lecturing on his theory if passion, life, etc. Ironically, it is Ursula’s classroom. He is accusing her of only wanting knowledge of passion, consciousness, etc., while what has real value is passion itself. Ursula hardly responds to any of Birkin’s point, making Birkin into the didactic, thus subverting his own attempts to live out his theories.