restricted access Wyndham Lewis and the Avant-Garde: The Politics of the Intellect (review)
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Reviewed by
Toby Avard Foshay. Wyndham Lewis and the Avant-Garde: The Politics of the Intellect. Montreal & Kingston: McGillQueen's UP, 1992. 176 pp. $34.95 cloth.

Criticism written about less-widely studied writers tends to be much less contentious in tone than that on firmly canonized writers. If there are so few of us interested in this writer, we should stick together, united as we are in our admiration for the writer—something like this tacitly governs much academic discourse. I had some similar thoughts while reading Wyndham Lewis and the Avant-Garde: whatever its faults, it is on one of the supremely interesting and underappreciated writers of our time and such interest ought to be encouraged. However, Wyndham Lewis and the Avant-Garde is a weak book, poorly written, inadequately researched, and committed to a set of extremely dubious central theses. It's good to see more people writing about Lewis, but this won't do the job.

Two central theses compete for our attention in Wyndham Lewis and the Avant-Garde: first, that Lewis is better understood as a member of the avant-garde than as a modernist, and second, that Lewis is a Nietzschean, that Nietzscheanism was "the dynamic source of his thinking." The connection between these two contentions is never firmly articulated, and there [End Page 180] is ultimately a tension between them, for though the avant-garde surely has Nietzschean elements, the articulate, reflective, theoretical Lewis Foshay presents as reflecting Nietzschean themes seems as far from the artistic avant-garde as the Nietzsche who came to prefer Bizet to Wagner. Where the theses overlap is in a close reading of a number of early works of Lewis', his play Enemy of the Stars and two essays, "Physics of the Not-self" and The Caliph's Design. Enemy of the Stars is programmatically avant-garde and thematically Nietzschean, and Foshay reads the two essays as commentaries on Enemy which establish the Nietzschean dimension to Lewis' thought. Even if this were so, this would establish Foshay's claim only if these works are central works in Lewis' oeuvre—which no one has ever claimed—or if they are keys to the key works—which seems to be Foshay's view. But when Foshay attempts to use them as keys to readings of more central works of Lewis such as Tarr, The Revenge for Love, and Self Condemned, the readings which emerge aren't terribly persuasive. These works anatomize avant-garde aesthetics and Nietzschean attitudes rather than exemplify them.

So I do not find myself in agreement with Foshay, but I am more troubled by his failure to make the best case for his theses that he could. The problem is that he simply hasn't done his scholarly homework. He presents Peter Bürger's differentiation between modernism and the avant-garde as if it were new and then quotes Clement Greenberg, for whom such a distinction was central forty years ago. It's known what texts and works of Nietzsche Lewis read, but Foshay doesn't refer to this research and does not work from those editions, preferring instead to invoke a generalized and more recent "Nietzsche" as an influence on Lewis. He assumes that references to Zoroastrianism in The Art of Being Ruled must be coded references to Thus Spake Zarathustra, ignoring Lewis's direct interest in Zoroastrianism, something studied by other scholars. His discussion of "Physics of the Not-Self" also ignores much of what is known about the sources of Lewis' knowledge of Hinduism and Buddhism. Finally, he quotes only from the 1932 version of Enemy of the Stars and the 1928 version of Tarr even though his roughly chronological discussion suggests his claims are about the quite different 1914 and 1918 versions.

These scholarly lapses are symptomatic of a larger problem. Foshay provides us with close readings or interpretations of an array of Lewis' works rather than an scholarly examination of those works in context because, I would guess, that's what he knows how to do best. But the kind of argument he is making demands scholarship, not just interpretation: it demands a good deal more archival...