Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, May 3, 2013

Wyndham Lewis, _The Writer and the Absolute_

CONTINUING MY TRAWL (after The Red Priest) of the Lewis books from the 1950s I had not previously gotten around to, I picked up this.

1914-30 seems to be the period of choice for people who decide to investigate Lewis, and for good enough reasons, but his books from the fifties deserve to be better known. Self-Condemned ought to make any list of the five best British novels of the 1950s, I think; Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta are at least as compelling as the comparable theologically-inflected fantasy novels of Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis; Rotting Hill is a convincing portrait of post-war austerity England. So, what about the critical prose of his last decade?

The Writer and the Absolute (1952) carries on the critique of his literary contemporaries Lewis had begun in the 1920s and 1930s with Time and Western Man, Paleface, and Men Without Art. The prose and the analysis are less energetic here than in those books, but by the same token less vituperative, and on the whole just as worthwhile; Lewis shows the same acuity in picking his subjects (targets?) for the period 1946-50 (Camus, Sartre, Orwell) that he did for the period 1925-30 (Joyce, Pound, Woolf, Eliot, Hemingway, Lawrence).

The Writer and the Absolute is ostensibly a defense of the principle that writers should free themselves from the demands of party or ideology. The arguments are much along the lines of those in Julien Benda's Belphégor and La Trahison des Clercs, books that strongly impressed Lewis (and Eliot, among others) in the 1920s.

The reader soon gathers that, for Lewis, the party writers need most urgently to distance themselves from is the Communist one, and that the complementary ideology-to-avoid is Marxism. Well, no surprise. Lewis had found himself marginalized on several fronts thanks to the fashionable leftism of the 1930s, and at several spots alludes to his having been frozen out (almost literally--he moved to Canada) from the London literary scene during the Auden-worshipping/Spanish Civil War/Popular Front era.

Accordingly, what interests him the most about Sartre is his vexed relationship to the Communist Party, and what interests him the most about Orwell is Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and 1984. By the standards of 1952, though, Lewis treats writers who made left-wing commitments in the 1930s with moderation--his American publisher at the time was Regnery, whose list also included William F. Buckley, Brent Bozell, Whittaker Chambers, James J. Kilpatrick, Albert Nock... compared to the foamings of that crew, Lewis's recognition that Sartre and Malraux are important and valuable writers seems extraordinarily fair-minded.

Lewis always gravitated towards intelligence--ungenerous, unfair, even vicious he could certainly be towards the works of his most gifted contemporaries, but he he always had an infallible nose for which books were the real thing.

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