19 APRIL 1963, Page 22


Too Clever by Half

BY MICHAEL AYRTON WYNDHAM LEWIS made a deep mark on his time and considerable pains have been taken to rub and polish it away. The housewives of the arts found an embarrassing burn on the bedside table-top of their tranquillity, but the mark wouldn't move. French polish hasn't worked either, and that was tried.

How difficult it is to cope with a displeasing mark of this sort until the furniture becomes really antique and then of course it is all part of the patination. To be too deep to be success- fully ignored, too raw to be pleasing, like a blister on the veneer, has been Lewis's condition. He wrote too well and drew too well and was too clever by half and he did things displeasingly. Being too clever by half for your society is a most dangerous condition. The other half in- volves being clever enough to be reticent and this reticence Lewis lacked. He considered the intellect more important to the arts than the undisciplined expression of emotion and that was enough to make him suspect and get him disliked by the ascendant champions of matter over mind, those arbiters of fashionable taste who find all deep sources of creation in the guts, where Nature has seen fit to bestow matter. Furthermore, he damaged himself repeatedly with his wit and his invective, with what he called 'the Lewis gun,' a heavy weapon which mowed down opponents but had a kick which in- flicted fearful bruises on the marksman. Above all, he displeased. The Clive Bell tolled for him as soon as he had set in motion the one group of painters and sculptors who made a concerted contribution to European art in England in the first quarter of the century, and forty years later Dr. Leavis called him 'brutal and boring.'

The source of displeasure in the work of Lewis is, I think, the metal-point hardness of his vision, coupled with the fact that, innovator though he was, he was not quite overwhelming enough to bulldoze the world into acceptance. It was not his formal visual language which was rejected, for this language, when spoken in different accents by the Cubists, began to please as soon as it became general currency; nor was it the potent written language of his prose. It was not the brutality of which he is accused by Dr. Leavis and the like which has made him unpopular, for brutal imagery is perfectly acceptable in such writers as Genet and such painters as Dubuffet. It is not his ferocity, a quality which made Yeats compare him to Swift, but the plated carapace of his imagery, which, being impenetrable and sharp-edged as well, discomforted the reader and the viewer at the vulnerable level of the in- telligence. Scrag-end and faggots served on gold plates to jaded appetites have been and were being sold at very high prices during the last years of Lewis's life, but the cooking was invariably flavoured with enough ambiguity to please the palate. Lewis was not ambiguous and you need all your teeth for his work. During the latter years when I knew him, he was largely

ignored as a painter, not simply because the energy of his earlier draughtsmanship had not been entirely maintained in the Forties, but be- cause the forms of his most vital pictures and drawings remained indigestible. As a writer his situation was bitterly ironic. He was known to belong to the formidable and by then historic band comprising Joyce, Pound and Eliot and known to be the close and admired friend of the two survivors. Yet whilst these masters had been canonised despite the matter of Pound's politics, Lewis was still in the wilderness condemned to no small extent for the unacceptable nature of a political attitude he had taken up and aban- doned twenty-five or more years earlier than that which got Pound into trouble. Lewis's books sold very moderately, whereas his holograph manuscripts, towards the end of his life, would probably have been more lucrative than his books. Being totally blind in his last years, he could not, even had he wished, have spent his days copying out his more celebrated MSS in longhand for American university collections, as certain other distinguished literati were doing. Such of his drawings as were in demand were of course those representing who but Joyce, Eliot and Pound, and he neither had any such draw- ings nor, being blind, could he make new ones. No honours, no prizes were given him. No British-Grand-Old-Man condition was ever accorded him, but, on the contrary, reviewers treated his books as if they were the product of an uncouth but promising young talent. He was frequently urged in the press to try and do better. Cut-and-thrust correspondence about him continued in The Times Literary Supplement even after his death and his band of supporters was warned off the turf, blackguarded and accused of all manner of dirty in-fighting by opponents young and old. Hardly a course of events likely to disturb the quiet passage of the later years for Mr. E. M. Forster or even Mr. T. S. Eliot himself, who came out, as ever, to champion Lewis, but was awarded an amnesty for services to literature and got no thick ears.

There have in the past been other creative artists who continue to be treated with exaspera- tion all their lives and long after their deaths. Berlioz is perhaps the grandest example. One has seen notices of recent performances of his works which read as if he had lent the critic money or seduced his wife. With Lewis we have now arrived at the point where an interim 'reassess- ment' is in order. The mark on the table is being filled with soft soap. The fat of Sunday reviews, plumply written, is being rubbed on the burn and it is revealed that Lewis is nearly great and had he been a nice man and not polemical, acri- monious, unfair to his patrons, a sufferer from persecution mania (a condition which has been known to result from not fitting in), but above all, had he been quiet, he might now be per- fectly acceptable, that is to say, great. especially had he not suffered from twin gifts, as painter and writer, which of course is intolerable unless they are gentle, minor gifts. Neither of Lewis's twin gifts was minor. In later life the writing gained upon the painting, but even when blind he wrote, as -it were, from the eye and his writing was more visually compelling than that of any of his contemporaries. Above all it was urgent.

It is this quality which gives even the briefest and least of his letters vitality. Lewis was not a graceful nor a careful letter writer, in fact he maintained he did not write letters, which really means that he did not write letters in the expectation of seeing them collected and pub- lished in this admirable edition by Professor Rose.* He wrote a great number of letters and they contain shrewd fragments of polemic, a good many buffets for acquaintances, a great deal of warmth for friends and an overall urgent generalisation that whatever was in hand should be got on with at once. Professor Rose has edited them with skill and tact and if one is conscious of omissions and cuts, which may well be at the insistence of others, there is quite enough in this volume to show Lewis with and without the plate armour he wore with such panache. The letters which show him biting the hand that fed him and those which, at almost every stage of his career, he wrote as if com- pelled to damage his relations with those who, to use his own word, would have 'promoted' him, are balanced by letters of encouragement to young artists and letters 'promoting' others. In one of these, to the influential American critic James Thrall Soby, he writes that 'no artist of much talent makes a good protege.' He felt this so strongly that he rejected, time after time, the generous assistance of his own well-wishers. The moment he felt patronised, he struck at his patron for fear of losing some part of his in- tegrity, and he was neither the first nor the last artist to do that. Like Cezanne, Lewis would let no one 'get their hooks into him.' It did not, however, serve to endear him and the view became general that Lewis was not a nice man. He could certainly be perverse and he was not a smooth man nor a flabby man. He dammed his stream of consciousness when the thing to do was to let it flow softly if turgidly about the arts and not harness it to any power station. He called himself 'The Enemy' during the early Twenties and he never relinquished that position because what might be called 'The Friends,' with whom he equated 'the Bloomsburies,' repre- sented the very softness he felt to vitiate creative energy in England. This opposition, rightly engendered in my view, led him into a false 'reactionary' position which brought him into conflict with what he considered to be the left. In this he generalised mistakenly because, in fact, the '13loomsburies' never were anywhere near the left, but represented a genteel liberal- ism which has been inherited by their successors in the form of a radical conservatism. 'The Bloomsburies" successors are the very people who are today spread thick upon the better class of journalism and it is they who are now, with apparent dispassion, seeking to place Lewis in the nearly-but-not-quite-great class. These liberal but muffle-headed persons put a premium on feeling and deeply distrust anything which might jolt the arts out of the warm bed of esthetics in which, swaddled to the point of suffocation, they sleep in mindless pleasure. There is. however, a deep burn on the bedside table, still smoulder- ing, and if the climate proves gusty and the table is blown upon, it may yet set the bed alight.

* THE LETTERS OF WYNDHAM LEWIS. Edited by W. K. Rose. (Methuen, 63s.)