Essay | The Fate of the Artist: Wyndham Lewis and Saul Bellow by Jeffrey Meyers

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Jeffrey Meyers


The Fate of the Artist: Wyndham Lewis and Saul Bellow


Wyndham Lewis’s adult life spanned two world wars. In the First he fought on the front lines and was also a war artist; in the Second he lived in poverty in America and Canada. An innovative painter, he wrote fierce polemics on art and the role of the artist in society but held a bleak view of modern life. Auden called the self-styled ‘Enemy’ and conservative advocate of western culture ‘That lonely old volcano of the Right.’ Lewis idealistically believed that the power of art, language and style could not only oppose materialistic society but could redeem civilization and save it from destruction. Both Lewis and Saul Bellow were born in Canada. Lewis became the writer’s soul mate and intellectual touchstone.

On March 19, 1990, Bellow wrote to me that he knew Lewis’s work well and owned some rare copies of his books: ‘Just now I am reading your Wyndham Lewis biography and it is sending me back to The Diabolical Principle and Rude Assignment. I’ve always had a high opinion of Wyndham and own a shelf of his books, including The Doom of Youth and The Jews, Are They Human?’ Bellow admired Lewis for defying the prevailing tides of thought and for his passionate belief in the supreme value of the artist and high culture. In an interview and essay of the mid-1960s, Bellow declared, ‘I have learned a great deal from and I admire Wyndham Lewis,’ and called him ‘a brilliant critic and observer’ of contemporary society. Bellow had absorbed Lewis’s ideas, and as he became older and more conservative he often cited his Master — including long excerpts from eight books by Lewis — to fortify his own political and cultural arguments. Between 1966 and 1994 Bellow quoted Lewis in two of his novels, his novella, his travel book, his Tanner lecture, two volumes of essays, and a collection of his interviews.

In interviews of 1976 and 1991 Bellow cited Lewis’s Rude Assignment (1950) to explain the crucial cultural shift, which began in the mid-Victorian age, when literary culture had divided into two main streams. ‘The distinction, which is a useful one, was originally made by Wyndham Lewis, who noted that in the middle of the nineteenth century writers of great power — among them Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky — wrote and seemed to be understood by a large public, whereas later in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century a different kind of writer, no less of a genius but with something odd and difficult about him — Rilke, Joyce, Proust, Mallarmé, for example — appeared. The difficulty of their genius made them perforce writers for a “small public”.’ Rilke and Joyce depended on wealthy patrons, Proust on his private income. Today, difficult authors — like Bellow himself — are enthusiastically analyzed by academic critics and given positions in the academic world. Bellow’s novels, packed with learned references, dazzling style and charismatic characters, appealed widely as well as to an elite public.

Lewis arrogantly despised the large public in his satiric story ‘The Crowd Master’ (BLAST 2, 1915) and painted the chaotic dissolution of the common man in The Crowd (1915). Bellow quoted Lewis’s book on Shakespeare, The Lion and the Fox, in his novella ‘What Kind of a Day Did You Have?’ The intellectual hero Victor Wulpy quotes Lewis, one of his favorite authors, who says that Iago epitomizes ‘the dark equivocal crowd saturated with falsity.’

Lewis also expressed his disdain for conventional society in Monstre Gai (1955), the second novel of his Human Age trilogy, which refers to a demonic and destructive Nietzschean figure beyond good and evil. The French phrase began in the eighteenth century with the Italian economist and priest Ferdinando Galiani, who falsely attributed the quotation ‘un monstre gai vaut mieux / qu’un sentimental ennuyeux’ to Voltaire. Nietzsche quoted this verse in The Will to Power, where Lewis discovered it, and Bellow took these lines from Lewis. In The Dean’s December (1982) Bellow first writes, ‘Nietzsche had said that it was better to be a monstre gai than an ennuyeux sentimental.’ Bellow then states that his hero Albert Corde identifies with the monster and describes a newspaper attack on him ‘as an exhibition match — Monstre Gai versus Ennuyeux Sentimental, five rounds of boxing. The Ennuyeux won the first round.’ Galiani, Nietzsche and Lewis all emphasized the dark side of their own characters and believed, like Bellow, that it was better to be gai than sentimental, far better to be a monster than a bore.

Lewis’s contempt for the average man led him to exalt the status of the artist, an idea that Bellow found irresistible. Lewis argued that since art has become too difficult for the mass of men to understand, the artist has become a pariah. Bellow quoted Lewis’s The Writer and the Absolute (1952), an attack on contemporary writers, more often than any other work by him. In Bellow’s 1967 essay, which included a long passage from this book, he agreed that the difficult modern author now writes mainly for his peers: ‘The late Wyndham Lewis wrote in the early Fifties that the artist offered his work primarily to the community of artists. The audience most competent to evaluate a novel is an audience of novelists, he believed. The writer writes for somebody and “in our day that somebody is almost infallibly another writer.” . . . Lewis believed in what used to be called the Republic of Letters.’ Bellow adopted this phrase as the title for the journal he co-founded in 1997. He also repeated Lewis’s frequently expressed paradox: society needs art and artists, but the common herd cannot understand them. The artist, both superior to and cast out by the rest of the world, is driven to reject the society that has rejected him.

Bellow’s 1984 essay on Alexis de Tocqueville explained his own idealistic credo by quoting Lewis’s belief that great art — like oxygen to the brain — was absolutely vital to human existence. He wrote that Lewis (who used Keats’ concepts from ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’) ‘will give it as a postulate that the valuing of art is bound up with the valuing of life. Lewis goes further in The Writer and the Absolute where he declares that ‘Truth, clearness and Beauty, naturally are public matters. Indeed, Truth is as public and as necessary as the air we breathe. Truth or Beauty are as much public concerns as the water supply.’ ‘ Bellow’s essay includes a long quotation from Lewis’s Men Without Art (1934), which also warns of the existential threat to contemporary society. Lewis rhetorically asks whether we should vigorously defend our cultural heritage or ‘whether the society of the immediate future should be composed, for the first time in civilized history, of Men without art.’

Like Lewis, Bellow saw two dangerous threats to the valuable but vulnerable modern artist: apocalyptic warfare in the atomic age and a philistine society that destroys the innovative creator. The antagonistic Lewis was often impoverished and seriously ill. He spent most of his career fighting with the artistic and literary establishments and — though Joyce, Pound and Eliot recognized him as their peer — was cast into the outer darkness. In a 1978 essay, Bellow, who revived Lewis’s reputation in America, noted that ‘Lewis in Blasting and Bombardiering [1937] concedes that it is still possible to write a good book or paint a good picture; but, he says, “the mass stupidity and helplessness of men, with all the power of machines to back them, is against us. An artist starting his career today does so under the most enormous handicap.”’

In the 1940s Lewis lived isolated and ignored in North America. In America and Cosmic Man (1948) he argued that the artist could, ironically, be damaged not only by his personal enemies (he’d been victimized in London in the 1920s and 1930s), but also by the kind of pretentious and superficial culture represented by the great collections and galleries of north America. Millionaires, like Isabella Stewart Gardner in her Boston museum and William Randolph Hearst in his California castle, had imported vast quantities of art objects from the crumbling mansions of impoverished European aristocrats. (In The Golden Bowl, 1904, Henry James described how the self-styled connoisseur Adam Verver buys up art and ships it back home). In his 1981 Tanner lecture at Oxford, Bellow quoted Lewis’s satiric description of these American imports: ‘The cultural monuments of big American cities, Lewis writes, include “big universities, theaters, art schools and a Symphony Orchestra — the latter de rigueur. There are large libraries, usually very good art museums. . . . But all this immense apparatus of culture, of learning and taste, is a discreet screen to cover the void. . . . And, of course, such things are there to advertise the city, not to promote letters, fine arts and science.”’  As Lewis’s friend Roy Campbell wrote: ‘You’ve got the bridle and the bit, / But where’s the bloody horse?’

Bellow continued to develop Lewis’s argument by writing that the material benefits of American society — and its millionaires’ patronage — do not compensate for its hostility to the innovative artist. In a provocative passage in America and Cosmic Man, where he calls Woodrow Wilson a ‘Presbyterian priest’, Lewis wrote, ‘The young man or woman of unusual gifts might just as well have been born in Eskimo Land as in such an environment’ antagonistic to the artist. In a 1987 essay, Bellow combined two of Lewis’s phrases and improved his caustic remark: ‘For some foreign observers, America had many advantages over Europe. It was more productive, more energetic, more free and largely immune from pathogenic politics and ruinous wars, but as far as art was concerned it would be better, as Wyndham Lewis put it, to have been born an Eskimo than a Minnesota Presbyterian who wanted to be a painter.’ Bellow also quoted these words in his Foreword to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987).

In To Jerusalem and Back, published in 1976 when Israel had been at war for three decades, Bellow quoted extensively from Lewis’s chapter in The Writer and the Absolute on Jean-Paul Sartre. Lewis, who’d fought on the battlefield himself, wrote that modern men are constantly threatened with annihilation. Quoting Lewis, Bellow wrote: ‘familiar with world wars, holocausts, bombardments, coups d’état, they “are necessarily of a heroic mould. Our virtues are either terrific, or else we are submen of the vilest kind. These immediate ancestors of ours, of comfortable prosperous periods, lived before ‘airpower’ held forth the promise to dash you to pieces or shrivel you up from the sky.”’

Bellow repeated the danger of artistic extinction in his favorite phrase from Lewis: the incandescent Dantean image of the ‘moronic inferno.’ In Rude Assignment Lewis explained that this idea originated in his political opus The Art of Being Ruled and in his satiric novel The Apes of God, which describe ‘the decadence occupying the trough between the two world wars and introduce us to a moronic inferno of insipidity and decay. . . . It was, as it were, Utopia-gone-wrong.’ Lewis even inspired the hero’s unusual name in Humboldt’s Gift (1973). A newspaper headline in Self Condemned (1954) — Lewis’s greatest novel, written when he was blind — refers to World War II Air Raid Precautions and proclaims: ‘CITRINE BEATS A.R.P. WALKOUT.’

In Bellow’s novel, when Chicago hoodlums vandalize Charlie Citrine’s expensive Mercedes, he realizes that violence was inevitable: ‘The idea, anyway, was to ward off trouble. But now the moronic inferno had caught up with me.’ In a 1986 interview, Bellow, echoing Lewis, defined the destructive effect of the moronic inferno: ‘it means a chaotic state in which no one has sufficient internal organization to resist, and in which one is overwhelmed by all kinds of powers — political, technological, military, economic and so on — that carry everything before them with a kind of heathen disorder in which we’re supposed to survive with all our human qualities.’ He was even gloomier four years later when he confessed that art, which Lewis felt was for essential for the survival of civilization, provided only a feeble defense against the oppressive moronic inferno: ‘people will be asking themselves how seriously any man can be taken who still believes that the moronic inferno can be put behind us, bypassed or quarantined by art.’ Bellow’s disciple Martin Amis, possibly thinking that his master had invented the phrase, used it as the title of his 1986 book and of his lead chapter on Bellow.

Bellow admired Lewis as one of the most lively and stimulating forces in modern English literature, as a courageous artist and ‘brilliant observer’ of contemporary society. He was powerfully attracted to Lewis’s range of knowledge and gale-force energy, his vigorous experimentation and fighting spirit, his caustic wit and analytic ingenuity – his whip-cracking prose and astonishing invention — and poured Lewis’s inspiring ideas into his own intellectual bloodstream.

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        Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has published The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis and Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation (both 1980).


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