Niceness Exposed

Satire is an expensive trade. I was reminded of this over “the holidays,” dipping back into Wyndham Lewis, an author who is not read much anymore.

This is because the subjects of his books are considered “out of date.” Even in his novels, he recreates characters and situations of another era (a long one that sweeps through the first half of the last century).

All books do this, including those by Plato and Shakespeare; all books are out of date, which perhaps explains why few read them anymore. Literature, generally, is behind the times. There are books for today, but it would be misleading to call these “literature.”

Still, Lewis will be my example. He was still being published, forty-something years ago, a quarter-century after his death. This was not because he was now accepted as an Immortal, but because minor publishers in England could still find a minor market for what was written well back in the 1920s and 1930s, but not publishable then.

This was because they were esteemed libelous. He made fun of important, reputably nice people, and worse, touched on the book industry itself. That he exposed it as an “industry” was his first mistake.

How are reputations made? How are they sold, through puffs by reviewers? How is public taste consistently relaxed, and the world made safe for “bestsellers”? Who are the kingpins of the literary art, and how are they able to afford steam yachts?

With a couple of quite intentional exceptions, who wouldn’t have been bothered to sue, the books weren’t actually libelous. Where there were originals to the characters, they were combined and recombined. They were genuinely imaginary.

But “little people” would, precisely because he did this so well, think that they had been personally libeled, when in reality they were only “types,” accurately portrayed. They would guess either the author or his publisher had some money, and they would go see a lawyer.

And then the defendants would have to engage a lawyer, so that even if author and publisher won, there could be hideous expenses.

I notice from the Gospels that Christ himself gives a warning against lawsuits (Matthew 5:25, &c), and it is anticipated in Proverbs. “Settle with your adversaries quickly.”

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This is good practical advice. The booksellers follow it by settling most lawsuits out of court. Lawyers themselves advise that, as in other forms of capitalism, the accused will pay cash to avoid court proceedings – even when they know they are in the right.

But I doubt a religion that has produced so many martyrs is quite so peaceable. On some issues, we make a stand.

Note that this stand is not personal, however. The foot goes down when we are asked to deny Christ or to retract our affirmation of Him. At this point, we are beyond mere contest with some greedy, snarling opponent in a money trial. The Devil is to pay, as we might say; or, we to pay the Devil with our lives. And our Advocate tells us to pay cheerfully.

This aside has been inserted to make clear that Wyndham Lewis was no martyr. He was merely the victim of conventional injustice, now buried decently in the receding past.

He paid by staying poor. Whereas others of his stature (his genius and originality, both in letters and in painting) would finally prevail, and some died rich beyond the dreams of avarice, Lewis and his wife moved hand-to-mouth, then back again, through the decades.

His disinclination to take advice was, as for other satirists, the secret of his poverty. Compare, for instance, his loyal friend T. S. Eliot, who never to my knowledge took on an opponent who could seriously hurt him, and carefully avoided satirical jests.

Compare, again, Ezra Pound, whose genius got him into Saint Elizabeth’s (mental) Hospital, as an alternative to being hanged as a traitor. (Never choose the losing side in a big war.)

Whereas, Wyndham Lewis would choose the losing side in small wars, with very little press coverage. And because he was poor, even if rather famous, he was easily done down. Books like Unlucky for Pringle, The Roaring Queen, Mrs. Duke’s Millions – that are hysterically funny, among their other merits – could be quietly suppressed just because they interfered with the vanity of persons now utterly forgotten.

Paradoxically, their names might be remembered if, like Alexander Pope’s enemies, his books had received the light of day. One thinks, for instance, of Arnold Bennett, whose own once bestselling works no interest could long sustain.

But so what? From what I can make out, Wyndham Lewis never made a big issue about unpublished books. He took his lumps and moved on. By some sort of miracle, he and his childless wife Froanna continued to eat, most days, and his debts were mostly paid. Among his friends were real ones, and although his miseries were also real, he died having survived them.

He died in 1957: old, feeble, blind, and industriously writing what may have been the best in his “Human Age” series, which had begun with The Childermass in the 1920s, but ends in gleaming fragments; among images of creation and crucifixion.

Both as artist and writer – of novels, stories, and memoirs, as well as rudely shocking essays – he left what now seems like an encyclopedic tour of “modernism” and all its foolishness, with hints to the wisdom in its reverse.

Curiously, he is typecast as the modernist he rejected; which is why the warmth of his rebellion is too often missed. (He is taken for mechanical when he is anti-mechanical.)

I celebrate him as a patron semi-saint for the politically incorrect; not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, as it were, but one of the necessary irritants that have marked our course, and made even the “mainstream,” against which he “blasted and bombardiered,” somehow endurable.

 

*Image: [Self-]Portrait of the Artist as the Painter Raphael by Wyndham Lewis, 1921 [Manchester Art Gallery]

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.