Monday, April 20, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

 “BLASTING AND BOMBARDIERING” by Wyndham Lewis (first published 1937; posthumously revised edition 1967)

Only once before on this blog have I given an account of a work by Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), the early 20th century Modernist who is now largely a back number and is no longer read in the way his fellow Modernists Pound and Eliot and Joyce still are. The book I then covered was Lewis’ overlong and ultimately tiresome attempt to skewer London’s art and literary scene in the 1920s The Apes of God [look it up on the index at right]. In the course of that review I noted that Lewis’ novels tend to be tedious pieces of attitudinising, but that he was genuinely a very good artist, one of the best that English Modernism threw up, especially in his portraits and First World War landscapes. I also noted flippantly that “his name-dropping memoirs Blasting and Bombardiering are still readable.”
Indeed they are, which is why I am now dealing with them. That, plus the fact that we are still commemorating the centenary of the First World War and parts of this
strangely-constructed and digression-filled book are a very interesting war memoir.
Wyndham Lewis (who hated his first name Percy and resented it when people addressed him by it) wrote his eccentric and idiosyncratic memoirs in the mid-1930s.  Blasting and Bombardiering confines itself to the twelve years between 1914, the outbreak of the First World War, and 1926, the failed General Strike in Britain, taking Lewis from the age of 32 to the age of 44. Lewis repeatedly tells us that he brackets these twelve years together because they represent the war and the “post-war”. Frequently he uses the term “post-war” to represent not only the unsettled state of affairs after the ’14-’18 war, but also to designate a set of values which he rejects. Lewis’ view is that after 1926, the “post-war” ended, attitudes in Britain changed radically, the Slump meant a different sort of art was produced, and there was also an awareness that another major war was an inevitability. Writing in 1937, Lewis takes it for granted that in a few years Europe will once again be at war.
Putting together from various parts of this book what Lewis’ judgement on the First World War was, I come up with the following. First, he sees the war as having little real cause and as having settled nothing:
The War went on for far too long, or too long for a ‘totalitarian’ war, as it would now be called. It was too vast for its meaning, like a giant with the brain of a midge. Its epic proportions were grotesquely out of scale, seeing what it was fought to settle. It was far too indecisive. It settled nothing, as it meant nothing. Indeed, it was impossible to escape the feeling that it was not meant to settle anything – that could have any meaning, or be of any advantage, to the general run of men.”  (Part Four, Chapter One)
Second, claiming the authority to speak as an ex-combatant, he distances himself from pacifists, whom on the whole he regards with contempt, and suggests that he is morally neutral about war. But nevertheless he sees the war as having been started by foolish people as part of the inevitable foolishness in which humanity is involved:
My attitude to War is complex. Per se, I neither hate nor love it. War I only came to know gradually, it is true. War takes some getting to know. I know it intimately. And what’s more, I know all about War’s gestation and antecedents, and I have savoured its aftermaths. What I don’t know about War is not worth knowing. When first I met War face to face I brought no moral judgements with me at all. I have never been able to regard war – modern war – as good or bad. Only supremely stupid. Certainly I understand that almost all wars are promoted and directed by knaves, for their own unpleasant ends, at the expense of fools, their cannonfodder. And certainly knaves are bad men, very bad men. But the greatest wickedness of all – if we deal much in moral values – is the perpetuation of foolishness which these carnivals of mass-murder involve.” (Part Two, Chapter Five)
Third, he describes the peace treaties at the end of the war as having destroyed a valid form of power structure in Europe and having put in its place shaky mob rule, for which he uses the term “democracy”. Here is Lewis suggesting what he couldn’t foresee when he was actually fighting in the War:
  The insane attempt to stultify and hamstring forever all that was robust, industrious, intelligent, in Europe, and put in the place of the real the unreal. These barbarous triumphs of ‘democracy’ I should have been a seer indeed to imagine. In short, had I been able to see Armageddon Number One, I could at least not have seen Armageddon Number Two, which is now bearing down on us; a coming home to roost of all the Peace Treaties”. (Part One, Chapter Six)
And finally there is his sense of social and moral exhaustion at the end of the war – the exhaustion which he calls the “post-war” and which justifies the way he has organised his book:
 The War bled the world white. It had to recover. While it was in the exhausted state a sort of weed-world sprang up and flourished. All that was real was in eclipse, so all that was unreal came into its own and ran riot for a season. But now the real is recovering its strength. Beneath the pressure of this convalescent reality our cardboard make-believe is beginning to crack and to tumble down.” (Introduction)
As you can deduce from all this, Wyndham Lewis liked to think of himself as part of an intellectual elite, was a great egotist, and tended to limit his sympathy for most human beings to pity at their gullibility. Lurking behind all the above statements on the war is his sense that most people deserve to be ruled by those who are stronger and more capable than they are. We remember that he had at least a flirtation with Fascism, though by the time he wrote Blasting and Bombardiering he was diplomatically backing away from it. In the chapter “Death to Mussolini” (Part Four, Chapter Four) he claims rather disingenuously to be totally apolitical and to have had no inkling of what was going on in Italy when he visited there in the early 1920s. (More interestingly, Lewis wrote a pamphlet before Hitler came to power, hailing Hitler as a force for order; but later on changed his mind and – before the Second World War – wrote a pamphlet, which was praised by the Jewish press, condemning Hitler’s anti-semitism.)
Having presented you with this summary of Lewis’ political views, I should also note the other aspects of this book that will probably offend your sensibilities. Lewis makes the occasional sardonic and dismissive comment on the Spanish Civil War, which was in progress when Blasting and Bombardiering was being written. Lewis occasionally pokes fun at homosexuals, though never specifically identifying them as such. (Typical of his technique is the comment that “herds of lipsticked Nancyish nobodies” holiday in Venice, Part Four, Chapter Four). And – in my opinion with fairly good reason - Lewis hates with a passion those moneyed and patrician individuals known as the Bloomsbury Group. At one point he calls them “sheep in Woolf’s clothing” and he sniggers at their behaviour during the First World War thus:
The ‘Bloomsburies’ were all doing war-work of ‘National importance’, down in some downy English county, under the wings of powerful pacifist friends; pruning trees, planting gooseberry bushes, and haymaking, doubtless in large sunbonnets. One at least of them, I will not name him, was disgustingly robust. All were of military age. All would have looked well in uniform…. The ‘Bloomsburies’ all exempted themselves, in one way or another. Yet they had money and we hadn’t; ultimately it was to keep them fat and prosperous – or thin and prosperous, which is even worse – that other people were to risk their skins for.” (Part Three, Chapter Twelve)
Now having thoroughly oriented you to when this book was written, and the essential world-view of the man who wrote it, let me explain why I think it is more than an historical curiosity and still worth reading. More than anything, and opinionated and egotistical though it may be, it is an interesting gossipy account of Britain’s artistic circles just before and after the First World War, and of one man’s experience during the war.
Lewis begins (Part One, Chapter One) with an anecdote about being a battery commander taking parade ground drill and an adjutant interrupting him to ask him a question about Futurism. At once he situates himself as both an artist and a soldier. He proceeds in Part One to give an account of how he was making a name for himself among the avant-garde just before the war, how he was lionised socially and how he launched the little magazine Blast to promote an anti-Romantic form of art. There are amusing anecdotes about clashes with the Italian artist Marinetti, who was promoting his Futurism against Lewis’ Vorticism. There is name-dropping about Lady Cunard. One gets the impression that the artistic avant-garde, no matter how “revolutionary” its pretensions, was an awfully comfy business.
Lewis describes meeting the Prime Minister Asquith at that self-promoting busybody Lady Ottoline Morrell’s table. The prime minister quizzed him about the arty movement he was involved in. Lewis records it thus:
As to his personality, it was that of a cultivated old clergyman, or he inhabited a borderline where Law and Divinity met. And he certainly had the manners a little (with me) of an investigating attorney, tempered with the courteous mildness of a sky-pilot. I might have been a client of his – a client whom he regarded with considerable mental reserve. And he would sit down beside me and start his questions, as if resolved to thoroughly go into the case, incessantly pulling at his nose, as if he were raking snuff.” (Part One , Chapter Five).
When he moves into Part Two, Lewis gives a typically contemptuous account of the mood of Britain when war was announced and the uncouth crowds rushed to recruiting offices. He tells amusing jokes about the behaviour of the Sitwells, takes a poke at Arnold Bennett as the “dictator” of book reviewers, notes how Gaudier Bzseska hastened to enlist in the French army when he realized that French culture was in danger, and speaks a little more respectfully of the admired coterie intellectual T.E.Hulme who later, as chance would have it, died in shellfire while manning an artillery battery not far from the one Lewis was manning.
If this sounds like opinionated chit-chat (and some of it is) it gets more interesting in Part Three (“A Gunner’s Tale”) when Lewis is in uniform on the Western Front, first as a bombardier and then as commanding officer of a battery. His general view of the Western Front is one that most historians would still endorse:
The Western Front, at the time of my service, was purely siege warfare. We might as well have been before a city which we were investing – except that we were both besieging armies, as it were – besieging each other. On this principle what would be the ‘Assaults’, if it were a regular old-fashioned siege of a place-forte, were the ‘Attacks’; namely the infantry-attacks. These were interminable attempts to put an end to the ‘Stalemate’. Throughout 1917 when I was there this was what was happening. Passchendaele – at which I was present – was the culmination of this. The British Army sustained enormous losses, to no purpose. It was the worst battle of the War, and the stupidest, which is saying a lot.” (Part Three, Chapter Three)
Most often in recounting his war experience, Lewis adopts an ironic, self-deprecating tone, frequently telling us that artillery men don’t really “fight”, as they never see their enemy face-to-face, and that they spend much of their time lounging about doing very little. Yet, for all this tone, it is clear that Lewis did see some of the horrors. After a big “push” he advances with squaddies through mashed-up fields of decapitated and dismembered corpses. He knows the mud-wading of Passchendaele. One chapter in particular is so macabre that it deserves to be anthologised as a classic of First World War experience. This is Part Three, Chapter Nine (“Hunting With a Howitzer”), where Lewis tells how he and some companions were methodically chased across a desolate moonscape by the explosions of German artillery shells, which were directed at them by a German observation balloon, which hung low and ominously over them.
Brighter (or plain silly) anecdotes dominate, however. The story of a scared squaddie who farted loudly each time shells exploded near their bunker, creating a musical counterpoint to the shells. The anecdote of the trimly-bearded artist Augustus John being routinely saluted by soldiers who mistook him for King George V on a clandestine visit to the trenches. Eventually Lewis’ real active service ended when he wangled a position as war artist, attached to the Canadian division at Vimy Ridge and undertaking his famous painting of a Canadian battery.
So to the “post-war” in the last two parts of the book. Lewis settles (Part Four) back into painting in London, making an income with portraits of the well-known, although some of the names he drops are now rather faded – Roy Campbell, Ronald Firbank, Noel Coward, the Sitwells (who rapidly became his enemies – Edith Sitwell he routinely identifies as “my enemy”), Nancy Cunard. The art scene gives Lewis the opportunity to comment on English Philistinism thus:
It is important to understand what an odd place England is to be an artist in, especially a painter. The English experience little response to artistic stimulus. In their bones, they are the ‘Philistines’ Matthew Arnold said they were. They have heard that they are ‘civilized’ and that civilized people are fond of art. So they make the necessary arrangements for the unavoidable presence of the fine arts in their midst. All ‘pictures’, when they come into the world, are to be sent immediately to a concentration camp, called Burlington House. And once a year the British Public will go and look at them. After that they will forget all about art until the same time next year.  (Part Four, Chapter Two)
On the whole, Part Four is most the dullest section of the book, though there is one chapter of such ambiguity that it deserves comment. In Part Four, Chapter Eight, Lewis describes his meetings with T.E.Lawrence. Clearly he is resisting the legend of “Lawrence of Arabia”, making a few cracks that cut Lawrence down to size. And yet at the same time it is clear that he half buys into that legend. Lawrence was, after all, one of those “men of action” whom he, as one who believed in a natural elite of leaders, admired.
Finally, in Part Five, he declares his allegiances and comes closest to an artistic and
literary credo. This is the part in which he gives detailed accounts of his meetings with Ezra Pound, T.S.Eliot and James Joyce. Much of this consists of a long narrative of a holiday he and Eliot took in Paris visiting Joyce, complete with anecdotes of Pound sending Joyce a pair of old shoes as a joke, and Joyce (who had wealthy patrons) producing fat wads of money to pay for every restaurant meal they ate.
Lewis begins this section with three chapters of general social and artistic criticism. His essential theme is that the avant-garde of his generation (“the men of 1914”) were genuinely trying to shake free of Romantic sentimentality and were in effect trying to construct a new Classicism in their hard objectivity. But, he claims, post-1926 a new Romantic sentimentality crept back into art thanks to commercialisation and the political polarisation of Left and Right. Both Left and Right, as they impinge upon art, have utopian plans to transform humanity, which again leads to idealisation in art. Hence sentimentality.
Of course Lewis’ style is rhetorical, his views tendentious and his tone egotistical (remember he’s defending the art of “his” generation, of whom he sees himself as a leader). One also notes how culturally specific his views are. We recall that in 1937, to many thinking Europeans, the combat of Communism and Fascism seemed to be what would decide the future of the world. Even so, and reading him nearly 80 years later, I have to concede that Lewis makes some palpable hits  - when, for example, he speaks of the “death” of opera, and when he notes that the “official” art of the extremes (Left and Right) is simply conservative 19th century art with propaganda bells on.
How am I to pass a verdict on this odd congeries of opinion, theory, anecdote, malice and above all egotism? Of course it is often self-contradictory. Of course Wyndham Lewis is often a pompous ass. It is abominably constructed, with Lewis too often not sticking to the point of his chosen subject and flying off at tangents. Yet so much of it is still fascinating – as a participant’s account, however biased, however prejudiced, of both the art world at a crucial time and the war. Still an invaluable read, then, for anyone interested in modernism and the directions of 20th century Western art. And so often as I read it, I recognised passages that have been quoted by biographers and social historians. This book has, in effect, been a primary source for other people who want to plough over its era.

Necessary Footnote: Blasting and Bombardiering has appeared in two distinct forms – the original 1937 edition and the revised edition which his widow Anne supervised in 1967, ten years after Lewis’ death. It is the latter which I have read. It contains all of the 1937 text, but Anne Wyndham Lewis decided to add three chapters that Lewis had written, related to the war. They are short works of fiction called “King of the Trenches”, about an eccentric army officer; and “Cantleman’s Spring Mate” and “War Baby”. Both the latter are sardonic stories of a soldier seducing a girl and impregnating her. Both are narrated with a sub-Nietzschean sense of love as being a mere power game, with the male character looking down condescendingly on the seduced woman. They are as tedious as hell and remind me how bad most of Lewis’ fictions are. Blasting and Bombardiering should have continued to do without them.

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