Ideology deals with concepts like power and order. Mythology deals with percepts, like the hard and the soft. Of course, the story is more complicated than that. They are a duality, and like many dualities, they love to dress up in each other’s clothes. Ideological concepts disguise themselves in percepts, and mythology’s percepts disguise themselves as arguments.
I’ve just read a fantastically detailed biography of Wyndham Lewis. By the end of it, the reader will have a good sense of Lewis’s bank account balance, year by year. And yet, the reader won’t know why Lewis painted the way he did, thought the way he did, or wrote the way he did.
After Lewis’s death, many critics, following Hugh Kenner’s lead, swallowed Lewis’s version of modernism. It was a modernism that kicked out the Bloomsbury group, and in particular Virginia Woolf. It is as if they caught Lewis’s allergy to Woolf . Now, Woolf, it seems to me, was a much greater artist than Lewis, and her novels can’t be kicked to the curve as somehow not in the modernist spirit – on the contrary, they are modernist in the most cosmopolitan sense. They link up to Bely, to Joyce, and to Faulkner in the genius with which they slant plot, character, description, and the event of reading itself.
Nevertheless, Lewis is a fascinating writer. I’ve never been able to finish Apes of God, with its impossible mannerism, or Self Condemned, with its rather mysterious gloom, So I’ve decided to repair this by reading Tarr. Tarr is the essential Lewis book, where the material that became The Art of Being Ruled or Time and the Western Man is put to the test of being lived – that is, of being contested. Walter Allen, in an essay on Lewis, made the suggestion that Lewis wrote in the tradition of the Victorian sage – Carlyle, Ruskin, etc. What distinguishes the sage, Allen says, quoting John Holloway on Carlyle, is a rather disquieting feature:
“One of the things that most disturbs a modern reader of his work is constant dogmatism. Through Carlyle’s work the nerve of proof – in the redily understood and familiar sense of straightforward argument – simply cannot be traced; and the sucession of arbitrary and unproved assertions tends to forfeit our attention. Yet this is only a subordinate difficulty, because although proof is clearly missing it is by no means clear what would supply this lack, as it is by no means clear what needs proof. The general principles which would summarize Carlyle’s ‘system’ are broad and sweeping gestures, hints thrown out, suggestions which leave us quite uncertain about their detailed import. And what is clearly true of his work is also true of the others. “
It is the lack of proof – which I would interpret as an indissoluble overlapping of the mythological and ideological levels of the text - that makes Lewis’s politics difficult. He obviously flirts with fascism, but he is not a party member like Pound. Rather, I feel his fascism is expressed in his mythology, in which the hard struggles against the soft. The soft, for Lewis, is always disgusting, whereas the hard is always an admirable achievement. In a way, this mirrors the way, in the 21st century, the American establishment mythologizes. Toughness is always good, weakness is always bad. America’s horrendous foreign policy is based on this seemingly infantile binary – in fact, one could say that the foreign policy, tout court, is a case of homosexual panic. Uncle Sam must always present his butch side to the world.
In artistic terms, Lewis’s flight from the soft is what connects his entire career as a polemicist, satirist, painter, and novelist. He associated the hard with vision. In a sort of primitive physicalism, the eye becomes a projector of rays – not the soft receiver that it actually is and has to be. What is truly seen is truly seen in hard lines. The fetish of the hard is the fetish of the machine, which, in Lewis’s mythology, is never oiled, never uses weakness, the spring, the buffer, the tampon, but is always in a maximum state of hardness. Such machinery is so strong, in fact, that it is always in peril of crashing. It can’t last. It is a machine that is built not to function, but to express the mythological state of hardness.