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PART I    THE WAR WITH TIME

1. THE MAN FROM NOWHERE

    We must have the Past and the Future, Life
    simple, that is, to discharge ourselves in, and
    keep us pure for non-life, that is Art.
      --Wyndham Lewis, Blast, No. 1

The Wyndham Lewis of subsequent legend materialized one day in 1909 on the stairway at 84 Holland Park Avenue, London. Mr. Ford Madox Ford--then Hueffer-- was at the top of the stairs, pink and aghast that his privacy and his luncheon with the original of Christopher Tietjens should be invaded by a silent steeple-hatted figure wearing a huge black cap. The figure mounted the stairs, saying nothing. From beneath the cape it produced and flourished crumpled rolls of manuscript, which it pressed into Ford's unnerved hands. More wads of paper appeared from beneath the hat, from inside the waistcoat, from the pockets of the long-tailed coat. Ford numbly accepted them. All the time the figure said nothing. At last it went slowly down the stairs, without a word, and vanished.

Ford, if he was the last Pre-Raphaelite, was also a great editor; he printed in subsequent numbers of The English Review the prose sketches decipherable on those sibylline sheets. The first was an account of certain "Poles" who gulled the bourgeois landladies of Breton watering-places by pretending to be artists. (Rumors of the dealer Vollard's prices for stray Gaugins had recently made "artist" a magic word in the provinces.) Having exiled himself from the Slavic world because he had run out of money, the "Pole" (who was usually really a Russian) selected a victim and, disguised as a noble in suède gloves, paid three months' board in advance. After that he paid no more, and battening on the inscrutable Breton hospitality, became a gentle and mysterious parasite.

This mystery man without a past had before him in 1909 a lively future. He is the Wyndham Lewis protagonist, who arrives out of nowhere onto the pages of the book: successively Kreisler in Tarr, Ker-Orr in The Wild Body, Zagreus in The Apes of God, Kell-Imrie in Snooty Baronet, Hardcaster in The Revenge for Love, and Vincent Penhale in The Vulgar Streak. Even in his one first-person novel, Lewis takes pains to conjure his "I" into the book with a maximum of assertiveness. Having for a page and a half described a man's face and extracted the man from a taxi ("Then stealthily there issued from its door, erect and with a certain brag in his carriage, a black-suited six-footer, a dollar-bill between his teeth, drawing off large driving-gauntlets"), the narrator-hero of Snooty Baronet asserts,

   The face was mine. I must apologize for arriving as it were incognito upon the scene.

This black-suited six-footer with a certain brag in his carriage is a 1932 incarnation of the "Pole" of 1909 and the most virtuosic master of the Lewisian vocabulary of dramatic gestures; he only apologizes because he is also the first of Lewis's clubman-personae of the thirties. Horace Zagreus (1930) broke in upon his fellow-apes with a less studied éclat:

   "I suppose no one else is coming?"
   "Not so far as I know--no, no one but Mr. Rogers, unless her ladyship has anyone coming."
   "She didn't mention that she had."
   The door opened as though to swallow the room. A small man in black was first revealed holding it by the handle.
   "Mr. Zackroost sir, to see you."
   A tall figure eclipsed at once the body-servant of the invalid baronet, and . . . .

Zagreus is an especially schematized paradigm. Within a few pages of his sudden appearance, he performs the other ritual action of the Lewis hero: he disowns his past. The past, as he is shepherding his protégé Daniel Boleyn through London traffic, manifests itself on the opposite sidewalk and, despite Zagreus's attempt at evasive tactics, succeeds in confronting him in the shape of a puffed little man with a thinning tan. After a page of frosty conversation--

   "Well goodbye!" Horace exclaimed hastily.
   "Is that all?" . . .
   "Run away Francis like a good boy!" said Horace firmly as he turned away, while, strong in the emanations of the unhealthy days of long-ago, the old companion's claim to recognition for things dead and gone thrust on him its cruel caricature.
   Rejoining Boleyn, Horace Zagreus swept away at a gallop. . . .
   "That is an awful man!" at last he remarked.

Like the "Pole," the Lewis protagonist dabbles in some mode of creation, or exists on the fringe of an art world: Zagreus is a specialist in "genius," Kreisler an art student, Percy a manipulator of Chelsea pinkos, Penhale reputed to be a fashionable designer. Like the "Pole's," his means of support are either exiguous or invisible: the crisis of The Vulgar Streak turns on the discovery that Penhale exists by passing counterfeit money. Like the "Pole," he is a figure of melodrama who imposes a vibrating reality by permitting us to see around him a little. We are made aware that we are meant to accept his opinions, however bizarre, as diagrams of a richer and saner bizarrerie off-stage. Sometimes he seems aware that he is being read about, and busies himself, like Kreisler or Penhale, disowning a past the better to assemble his energies for sustaining what he would have us take him for in the present. Sometimes, having mobilized his forces before the curtain goes up, he arrives by fiat from Mars, like the apparition on Ford's stairs, inhibiting questions with aggressive implacability. "I have never," Ford recalled, "known anyone else whose silence was a positive rather than a negative quantity": and the Lewis protagonist can impose himself on the reader with the aplomb of that phantom.

It is a profound intuition of how best to make himself seem real that inspires this impostor to maintain his knowing relationship with the art world. It is his way of maintaining contact with his creator, who holds art to be the mirror of Self, and Self in reverence as the one thing real, wrung from the void by will. As Zagreus in The Apes of God "broadcasts" the opinions of the omniscient but invisible Pierpoint, so the Lewis protagonist more of less clumsily imitates Wyndham Lewis, painter and mystery man, who placed the personae of his early paintings in a moon landscape, argued in 1914 that England was a suitable place for creative artists to work because it was a cultural desert, and has spoken, in a chapter called "The Case Against Roots," of feeling at home in America's "wholly excellent vacuum" because "no one really belongs there more than I do."

"All personality is raceless," he has written; ". . . for the characteristic work of personality is to overcome the mechanical ascendancy of what is imposed on it by birth and environment. So, since it illustrates itself essentially by triumph over race, class and fashion, these things are rather what it is not, than what it is. . . . In Shakespeare's case there is less temptation than in that of almost anybody to occupy ourselves with where he came from."
Taking this cue, perhaps, Lewis has written two autobiographical books without so much as divulging his birthplace. In the first of these, in fact, he comes onstage at thirty and drops the curtain at forty-two. The books of reference say "Nova Scotia, 1884." Another account, said to be quasi-authorized, has it that he was born "in Canadian waters on an American yacht in the Bay of Fundy of an English mother" and hints at thunder and lightning. On the third page of Blasting and Bombardiering he writes with disarming aplomb,

   Let me, however, formally introduce myself. I am just as genial a character as Mr. Bernard Shaw, to give you an idea. I am rather what Mr. Shaw would have been like if he had been an artist--I here use "artist" in the widest possible sense--if he had not been an Irishman, if he had been a young man when the Great War occurred, if he had studied painting and philosophy instead of economics and Ibsen, and if he had been more richly endowed with imagination, emotion, intellect and a few other things. (He said he was a finer fellow than Shakespeare. I merely prefer myself to Mr. Shaw.) . . .
   I will go over my credentials. I am an artist--if that is a credential. I am a novelist, painter, sculptor, philosopher, draughtsman, critic, politician, journalist, essayist, pamphleteer, all rolled into one, like one of those portmanteau-men of the Italian Renaissance.

Though Lewis here appears at his most engaging, the stress remains not on what has been but on what uncompromisingly is. The strategy of excluding the past from view so as to enhance the sensationalism of the present has often, during his forty-five years' career, commended itself to the painter who, regarding art as "a civilized substitute for magic," is forwardly conscious of the way the painter's activity takes no account of Time.

The magician's gestures owe their meaning to the fact that the rabbit from the hat--like the story from the cape--has no history. More flamboyantly than his irritation with roots, Lewis's manifestation on the stairway was part of a war with Time--especially with the time past that his heroes emphatically disown--a war which underlies every manifestation of his genius, from the galvanic absolutism of his prose syntax (which, at its most characteristic, works by systematic denial of the existence of sequence) to his heroic studio portraits of the late 1930's, in which certain men existing in time--Eliot, Spender--are transformed into looming objects on which a "sort of immortality descends. . . . It is an immortality which, in the case of the painting, they have to pay for with death, or at least with its coldness and immobility."

It is a Lewis axiom that we cannot see what is before our eyes. "The Present can only be revealed to people when it has become Yesterday"; in fact, "There is no Present--there is Past and Future, and there is Art." Hence "The production of a work of art is, I believe, strictly the work of a visionary. . . . If you say that creative art is a spell, a talisman, an incantation--that it is magic, in short, there, too, I believe you would be correctly describing it." So the Artist is a man at war with Time, inhabiting the invisible point between Past and Future, and the Lewis protagonist is his melodramatic Ape.

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