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The Fictions of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis: Monsters of Nature and Design (review)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 3, Number 2, April 1996
pp. 119-121 | 10.1353/mod.1996.0029

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
The Fictions of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis: Monsters of Nature and Design. Scott W. Klein. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. 260. $52.95 (cloth).

Definitions of modernism have given way to discovery of modernisms, as we have come to recognize that different and even contradictory modes make up what for the sake of classificatory or pedagogical convenience we continue to give a single name. With more practitioners and more inclusive dates and regions, modernisms continue to proliferate, articulating the diversity of aesthetic practices formerly muddled together. The best current accounts of modernism account for the clash and conflict, for example, between new classicisms and belated romanticisms, between masculine and feminine aesthetics, and between naturalist and formalist styles. If this pluralism has advanced the study of modernism, Scott Klein’s study of Joyce and Lewis advances it further, ironically, by returning to a belief in modernism’s unity. Not retrogressive, his argument suggests that fundamentally opposed strains of modernism define each other, dialectically joining a range of aesthetic possibilities in an integral structure. Klein argues that representation of “nature” and abstractional “design”—the modes practiced respectively by Joyce and Lewis—define themselves through reflection of their alternative and ultimately collapse into each other. Explaining this “anti-collaboration,” Klein grounds the plurality [End Page 119] of modernisms in a unified field, interceding as modernisms proliferate with an auspicious new way to structure their study.

As Klein notes, the conflict between Joyce and Lewis has drawn a good deal of mostly biographical attention. Lewis chose Joyce as the main target of Time and Western Man’s attack on the Bergsonian time-cult; Joyce defended his philosophy of writing in personal parodies of Lewis in Finnegan’s Wake; and critics have taken these parodies and attacks at their word, allowing them to constitute the debate about modernist representation. Klein subjects the conflict to less reverent scrutiny, and finds that Joyce and Lewis both protested too much: Lewis disapproved of Joyce’s naturalism, but defined his formalism through it, and finally produced a version of it in his own writing; Joyce mocked Lewis and his formalism, but translated the argument that Lewis instigated into a theme of his own writing, and fell into an anti-representational mood at key moments in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. Klein interprets this peculiar pattern of influence (quoting Joyce to call it “the continually more or less intermisunderstanding minds of the anti-collaborators” [196]) in terms of a post-structuralist view of the nature of oppositions. Unmoored from any logocentric stability, the oppositional engagement between Joyce and Lewis prevented theoretical consistency, since “to criticize through imitation . . . one must engage with the ideas one intends to destroy, preserving, if in altered form, what intends to dismiss” (150). Applying the belief that “it is through reflection of the other that one defines one’s own identity” (196), Klein offers intricate, expert readings of this particular process of reflective definition; able, for example, to thread knowledgeably though many understudied texts and to chart the role of both Socratic and Hegelian dialectics in modernism’s oppositions, Klein’s readings constitute an impressive biography of modernism itself.

As the argument unfolds, however, it seems less certain that Klein sustains what seems to be his book’s great achievement: his deconstruction of “the dual thinking that was typical of modernism” (204). To discover the countervailing impulses beneath those for which Joyce and Lewis are more properly known, Klein applies a necessary and productive skepticism about modernism’s manichean professions. But his fascination with those persistent oppositions raises questions: does Klein’s appealing new view of modernism still require an uncritical view of modernism’s oppositional rhetoric? Does Klein accept without sufficient skepticism that Joyce’s naturalism and Lewis’s formalism stand at extreme ends of the range of modernist possibilities?

What suggests that the Joyce-Lewis opposition limits Klein’s sense of modernism more generally is the lack of any place in its scheme for a more extreme “naturalism,” the one implicitly stigmatized as feminine representational aesthetic by Lewis and his formalist colleagues. Lewis’s argument with Bloomsbury, admittedly irrelevant to Klein’s subject, is an alternative modernist...