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  • The Energetics of Tarr:The Vortex-Machine Kreisler
  • Michael Wutz (bio)

"What, after all, does Kreisler mean? Satisfy my curiosity."


The formulation of an explicit aesthetics of the machine is constitutive of the turn-of-the-century European Zeitgeist and is generally encapsulated in the activities of Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, the galvanic maestro of the Italian Futurists. His manifestoes and his entourage announced the creed of speed and steel throughout Europe as early as 1910, and their triumphant celebration of airplanes and automobiles had a crucial impact on the artistic reception of technology, the way it was recuperated as an objet d'art. To attribute this love of machines to the sole influence of Italian Futurism, however, would be a misrepresentation of the historical situation. Rather, as Renato Poggioli and, more recently, Marjorie Perloff have argued, the voguish reception and reformulation of the Futurist program corresponded to a strong predisposition within the avant-garde to recognize the artistic potential of the machine. The barrage of Futurist pronouncements only awakened the dormant sensibilities of artistic circles that had been forming under the crust of dated aesthetic beliefs (Avant-Garde 68-74; Futurist Moment xvii-xxi).

Wyndham Lewis, the founder of English Vorticism, contributed his share to this new aesthetic. While Lewis quickly recognized his affinities [End Page 845] with the Futurists, indeed formulated part of the Vorticist platform in the wake of Marinetti (such as the valorization of contemporary technology and motion and speed), he soon spelled out the differences between the Italian and the British version of this modernist sensibility. Chief among his dislikes was what he called the "Futurist gush over machines," a lack of intellectual detachment that did not allow the Italian Futurists to recognize the machine's form (Blast 1:41). In Lewis's view, the Futurists were not endowed with "a rational enthusiasm for the possibilities that lie in this new spectacle of machinery; of the technical uses to which it can be put in the arts." The Vorticists, by contrast, did recognize in the machine "a new pictorial resource" with suggestive formal possibilities and always "sought out machine-forms" (On Art 150, 340)1

This preoccupation with machine-generated form is apparent in Lewis's early paintings, but emerges with particular clarity in his first novel Tarr. Lewis in this novel translates the Vorticist fascination with machinery into the domain of narrative form and dynamic. The figure of Otto Kreisler, the novel's protagonist and the major character is conceived as a machine, and it is through him that Lewis signifies the momentum and the form of the narrative. Kreisler moves through the novel in a series of vortical gyrations that functions as his principal mode of engagement with others and that generates a force field surrounding him. By discharging the energy of his force field into the novelistic space and by drawing other characters into his orbit, Kreisler produces activity in the novel, and thus energizes the textual event. This event comes to a standstill the moment Kreisler, the rotating vortex-machine, can no longer charge himself, and he begins to run down.

Equally significant, the vortex provided Lewis with a suggestive figure to encode the protofascist misogynism of his protagonist. Kreisler "naturally" gravitates toward voluptuous women that hold the promise of sexual (and financial) gratification, a form of attraction that points to the parasitic nature of his relationships. Beyond the momentary fulfillment of this physical desire, however, lies Kreisler's meta-physical desire: namely to dominate, and eventually to obliterate, the women of his involvement, and to derive strength from this very obliteration. For while Kreisler will always need women to induce his field of force-their presence helps him to generate the initial spark-he is always intent upon swallowing, that is, subsuming, these women into his widening energy field following its moment of female-male ignition. Kreisler's fantasy is one of male self-empowerment, the generation of his force field becomes his form of male self-generation; and the visual suggestiveness of the vortex, with its drilling motion and its conical protrusion, associates Kreisler with a self-sustaining phallus.

Lewis thus encodes in Kreisler's vortical rotations the myth...


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