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The Agon of Modernism: Wyndham Lewis's Allegories, Aesthetics, and Politics
Anne Quéma. The Agon of Modernism: Wyndham Lewis's Allegories, Aesthetics, and Politics. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, London: Associated UP, 1999. 242 pp.
Quéma seeks to "reclaim" the specificity of modernism from alleged misreading by the champions of postmodernism and the avant-garde, via an argument that also redresses Wyndham Lewis's critical neglect. She attempts to show that at every level (style, genre, meaning) Lewis's work exhibits modernism's signature quality, which Quéma variously terms "agonism," "contradiction," "paradox," "dialectic," "chiasmus," and "double movement." Thus, she argues, the accessible language of Lewis's nonfiction develops a utopian vision of totality in which the spatializing intellect rescues its object from the time-flux, while his fictional writing practice contradicts all this, its alienating stylistic effects and semantic instability incarnating a Lewisian/modernist dystopia where time and the body prevail. In Lewis's oeuvre the opposition between fiction and nonfiction self-interrogates, moreover, as both genres are haunted by the ghostly figure of prosopopoeia, and by a typically modernist generic hybridity (combining the antithetical voices of the pamphleteer and the philosopher in Time and Western Man, for example) that precludes ideological closure. [End Page 526] While this may sound like protodeconstruction, Quéma rejects any assimilation of modernism to the postmodern, insisting that modernism's self-contradictoriness be understood not as a textual predicament primarily, but as the symptom of an historically localized "crisis" of Western culture, which she associates with the two world wars, the Great Depression, and the upheaval in gender identity brought about by the movement for women's suffrage.
Almost a third of Quéma's book, including the longest of its ten otherwise brief chapters, develops the "speculation" that Lewis misrecognized himself in Hitler because of ambivalence toward the mother (yet another kind of "agon") and repressed homosexual desire. To what extent this analysis might apply to the authoritarian strain within modernism generally Quéma does not say. Her treatment of the subject is loosely tied to contemporaneous discourses on sexuality by such writers as Otto Weininger, but not to contemporary work in gender studies such as Klaus Theweleit's Male Fantasies. Instead, for some reason Quéma draws chiefly on mainstream psychoanalytic writings from the 1960s in theorizing the connection between male homosexual desire and modernist politics. And despite an illuminating discussion of Lewis's best-known novel, Tarr, using Jessica Feldman's theory of the modernist Dandy, Quéma does not register that such perspectives are now available because feminism has redrawn the map of modernism over the last twenty-five years. Before Gilbert and Gubar, how often was Suffragism cited alongside the Great War as a major source of cultural transformation, as Quéma does here? Yet with the exception of Woolf, the modernists referred to by Quéma are male--Pound, Eliot, Joyce, even Lawrence. One wonders: (how) would her paradigm accommodate Stein, Barnes, and Mina Loy?
A contradiction between avant-garde writing practices and reactionary ideology is common to many, but not all, modernists. Quéma amply demonstrates this contradiction at work in Lewis, but her approach suggests that the relationship between Lewis's dystopian fiction and his utopian non-fiction could also be described in terms of negative aesthetics--just as the radical fragmentation of The Waste Land has been said to evoke the lost totality it negatively signifies, and in this sense to complement Eliot's cultural nostalgia. Although Quéma calls for attention to the "sociocultural contexts of production" of modernist works, [End Page 527] her methods are mainly rhetorical, thematic, and psychoanalytic. Ultimately what she describes as "modernism" is a kind of Hegelian totality, a formation unified in contradiction. Stuffed with ideas, information, and arguments, The Agon of Modernism omits too much by not omitting enough. The book does not persuade me that Lewis personifies modernism, but it does help me read his texts--a difficult task enough.