Archive | October, 2014

Damned and Blasted – Wyndham Lewis and the Modernists

26 Oct





    Described by Hemmingway as the man with “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist” and by his contemporary T.S. Eliot as “the most fascinating man of our time,” Wyndham Lewis, although not entirely resigned to the dusty book shelf of “Modernist” history, is a giant among the dead and nearly forgotten. A novelist, poet, artist, entrepreneur and soldier, among many other titles, he’s personifies the concept of the “Mask” to which Yeats often referred. Hidden behind the many visors of literary and artistic endeavor he was undoubtedly one of the driving forces behind the British “Modernist” art movement and the architect of his own brain child “Vorticism.” Wyndham’s pioneering work can perhaps be described through the analogy of the development of early aircraft which at the beginning of the century consisted of nothing more than rude mechanisms of wire and cloth and which, by the end of World War 1, had metamorphosed into engineering fetes of aerodynamics worthy of “those magnificent men.” One tends to forget the pioneers and remembers the entrepreneurs: those who take concept to the next level. In this sense Wyndham’s magazine “Blast” was just such a foundation stone, a necessary pioneering prototype in what would later lead to post-modernist magazines and the kinds of literature available to contemporary readers.

            “Blast” although leaning heavily on the work of Marinetti and “The Futurists” does have a style of its own and rather than concentrating on the phenomenon of speed and mechanical innovation recognizes instead the inevitability of modernity. Rather than simply embracing the idea of change, “Blast” documents word and image and in doing so exhibits a “new vision.” Just as the label “Vorticism” invokes that all change comes from the fringe, never from the center, the idea of a spinning vortex illustrates how radical “Modernist” thinking, emerging from the outer reaches of the artistic fraternity, would eventually move towards the main stream: not dissimilar to the imagery of a whirlpool or that of water disappearing down a sink. Influenced by the maelstrom of avant-garde interpretations “Blast” added its own literary and artistic ethos to the “Modernist” ideal and so was an addition to the movement rather than an innovator of it.

            “Blast” is both an “anti-magazine” and a polemic. In what appears ostensibly as a collection of random brush strokes, graphic art and impenetrable prose, it is synchronically unreadable in parts and fascinating in others. “Blast” although originally designed as a quarterly magazine only ever appeared in two issues. It had a limited readership and was poorly circulated by an artistic movement that created one gallery event that virtually nobody patronized. “Blast” and “Vorticism” was more an indication of mood rather than a literary movement. Stamped indelibly with British humor and tongue in cheek cynicism one has to wonder just how serious Lewis and his partner Ezra Pound were with their project? Not unlike the “Da Da” movement and their contemporary Tristan Tzara, the “Vorticists”, in the great tradition of breaking down institutional walls, clearly had their place.

            The fact that “Blast” is a polemic is self-evident by its manifesto. Contained within the first issue it appears to be more of a jibe at Britain, its place in the world and that of its neighbors, than a public declaration of “Vorticist” policies and aims. The use of text emboldened by disproportionate type-set attempts to emphasize reason and yet verges on the edge of gibberish. Once can almost visualize what it was that Wyndham was trying to convey but ultimately, thanks to the disparity of ideas that bear neither resemblance nor affinity to one another, the thread of thought and comprehension is dashed upon the rocks of juxtaposition. The descriptions are lurid even vague, the diatribe cutting and yet, one is left questioning the intent of Wyndham and his fellow artists. The writing in the manifesto portion is glib and asinine and so the reader is left with feelings of curiosity and bewilderment. The reader is purposely hindered in the pursuit of the idea that somewhere amongst the bombast of words hides a deeper meaning. Not unlike Biblical allusion where one is instructed in connotation, “Blast” holds a deeper secret that can only be revealed by its authors: a rash of words and prose that don’t stand upon a structured scaffold but rather like pebbles on a beach, even when collected together, offer no clue to their truth.

            Anti-disestablishment and none conformist the Vorticists “Discharg[ed] themselves from both sides” as they “bless and blast” those they list in no particular order in what appear to be random selections of what England is and what it will be. Although paying homage to the sanctity of the hairdresser and his professional equivocation with nature one has to wonder why? Is it supposed to shock, to make one sit up and take notice? Not dissimilar to the Sarah Kane play entitled “Blasted” (1995) that is both provocative and shocking, “Blast” is meant to elicit reaction. One doesn’t expect to be informed or enlightened by the contents of “Blast” but rather awakened. “Blast” is an assault on the senses; the thought process it creates delivering an incomprehensible literary slap in the face. Rather than adhering to literary tradition the magazine is an in-road to “Modernist” discourse. Following neither convention nor tradition, not dissimilar to “Bloomsbury dogma”, it blazes its own path through conventional expectation. It’s easy to dismiss the style as beyond logical, unreadable and unnecessary and yet ploughed between its furrows is the germ of something intangible. It’s the undefinable that the Manifesto attempts to list, criticize and praise; an esthetic and yet very real; the notion of something, rather than a clear image. One can almost grasp the intent but at the last second the prose are elusive and intangible. “Blast” is a magazine that’s provocative and witty but at the same time indecipherable.

            The magazine contains no commercial advertising and is not linked to any third party organization and so to suppose financial enterprise would be wrong. “Blast” simply exists in and of its own right, showcasing likeminded poets, authors and artists and appears to be a self-contained work of art distributed in order to influence. The magazine failed to garner recognition because of its intentional overt “Modernist” principles and was therefore an attempt – more than likely – at co-opting the notoriety of the “Futurists” in order to embellish the cache of its contributors. “Blast” even goes as far as to incorporate pseudo commercialism to entice its “readers.” Thumbing its nose at convention and the mediocrity of capitalism it advertises the advent of a nonexistent circus to the reader. The announcement heralds the impending arrival of an unlikely cast of circus performers and their animals upon an indefinite date “Some bleak circus, uncovered, carefully chosen vivid night that is packed with posterity!” The circus of course is pure fiction and will only perform in the theatre of the reader’s mind and is merely an allusion to the idea that “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” The humor is obvious when one realizes the entropy of performance art when paralleled with a society that serves exactly the same purpose.

            In what can only be attributed to proto “da-daism” there is an empty playbill with no text, no dramatis personae or story line that is randomly placed in the magazine. The blank playbill mutely questions the utility of acting and the necessity for traditional artistic endeavor when, as “Blast” continues to allude, life is nothing more than a play. The use of Shakespearian idioms unintentionally negates the “Modernist” crusade for an alternative voice. There is, as they prove by their own implication, no such thing as essence as everything is derived from something else: as expressed by “determination theory”. Society is created by contradictions and that is exactly what “Blast” offers: things only exist in relationship to one another and so everything is cause and effect. Consequently, “Nothing is bad, but thinking makes it so.” “Blast” demands this of the reader and although seeming to offer very little in the way of literary prowess, is a part of an optimistic experiment in mutual effectivity: the magazine on its readers and the readers on society. This cerebral provocation by “Blast” induces personal revelations which, once established, can never be forgotten. “Blast” rather than just a magazine is an important instrument in the universal dialectic.

            Not only does “Blast” contain a philosophical treatise but it also acts as a showcase for “Vorticist” poets and authors containing as it does, a selection of their poetry and short stories. As can be expected the selection isn’t the usual metered verse nor the delicate prose one reads to entertain oneself. The poetry of Ezra Pound is jarring, difficult and uncomfortable and listed under the self-effacing epitaph of “Poems.” This is almost a reminder, rather than a chapter header to the reader, to treat them as such, even if they liken more to “stream of consciousness” than poetry. Pound’s verse is deliberately obtuse and is an obvious attempt to separate the traditional from the modern. The sentiment of the Romantics and the Victorians is anathema to Pound and his fellow poets, who do all they can to distance themselves from conventionality.

            The short stories “Blast” contains run in the same vein. Difficult to read, they offer narrative commentary, dislocated text and open ended conclusions. There is little finality and the reader is left wondering at the experience. The stories pour cold water over reader sensibilities and leave one unfulfilled. Tradition and societal expectations are attacked and in particular, the institution of marriage in the story “Indissoluble Matrimony” by Rebecca West. Rather than the romantic notion of marriage one would expect to find in a comedy of manners or a “Bronte” novel, marriage is viewed as claustrophobic and inescapable: a predicament to be shunned rather than aspired to. “Blast” turns the “civilized” world on its head by declaring that which is supposedly beneficial to social felicity, as retrograde to human desire.

            “Blast” and “Vorticism” along with other “Modernist” concepts were knee jerk reactions to the past; metaphorical lines drawn in the sand that clearly stated that the era of “Romanticism” was gone forever. The First World War didn’t just destroy life and property but also obliterated the engrained attitudes and traditions of the proceeding century. Although similar to “Futurism” and Marinetti’s own manifesto, “Blast” was English centric. This probably accounts for its revival if not its longevity. The fact that the various pages are labelled as “Damned and Blasted” seems to be Anglo idiomatic and consequently pleasantly humorous. Although conservative in writing style, it was bold in design and content and if nothing else, controversial. A clear example of “Modernist” estheticism, “Blast” is a bare bones structure that emulates a period of perceptional and societal change. One does have the feeling that there is irony in the text and the question remains as to whether “Blast” is a work of art or a literary magazine. If a work of art then clearly Wyndham has the last laugh, as it was probably never meant to be read in the first place. The fact that “Blast” enjoys contemporary popularity proves that the passage of time and the inevitability of main-stream acceptance is the ironic evolution of every “Modernist” movement.