- Herbert Read’s Egoist Roots
Even with the recent resurgence of interest in his work, Herbert Read is still probably best remembered for his role in founding the Institute of Contemporary Arts, his editorship of The Burlington Magazine, and his authorship of Art Now and The Concise History of Modern Painting—two books that were, for a time, touchstones of modern art criticism.1 For all the air of established authority that his most well-known achievements suggest, however, a survey of the professional personae that Read adopted in his own lifetime actually reveals a figure that was something of an intellectual will-o’-the-wisp.2 To name just a few of his academic interests: at one time or another, Read claimed to be an imagist, a surrealist, a constructivist, a Freudian, and a Jungian. Even to his contemporaries his protean qualities were obvious, and not always thought to be to his credit. According to Wyndham Lewis, he possessed
an unenviable knack of providing, at a week’s notice, almost any movement, or sub-movement, in the visual arts, with a neatly-cut party-suit—with which it can appear, appropriately caparisoned, at the cocktail-party thrown by the capitalist who has made it possible, in celebration of the happy event.3
Certainly, his enthusiasm for new artistic and intellectual initiatives at times led Read to make what were, even in his own estimation, some questionable alliances. Describing his concurrent support for the surrealists and constructivists, for example, Read noted that he found himself “in the position of a circus rider with his feet planted astride two horses.”4 His epitaph features an even more uncomfortable pairing: “Here lies Herbert Read,” both “Knight” and “Anarchist.”5 [End Page 389]
Despite the apparent inconsistencies in Read’s character, however, arguably a good number of his intellectual and artistic affiliations can be explained by the much earlier and more persistent presence in his thought of Max Stirner’s egoism. Though initially neglected as an influence on modernism, over the last thirty years Stirner’s philosophy has been increasingly acknowledged as an important condition of possibility for the work of, among others, Ezra Pound, T. E. Hulme, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Ayn Rand.6 This article aims to demonstrate not only that Read should be added to this list, but also that the longevity of egoism’s impact on him suggests that the nature of its influence on the better-remembered of his contemporaries may need to be rethought, as might its position vis à vis modernism more generally.
Though little has been said about the philosophy’s role in his work thus far, it is clear from Read’s own comments at the beginning and end of his career that egoism had an important bearing on his intellectual development.7 Writing from the trenches in 1916, he asserted plainly that “[o]ne must love one’s self. Of course, this is Egoism. But I’m not ashamed of it. . . . I have conviction that it is the only true faith.”8 Forty-four years later, though his devotional zeal had waned somewhat, Read openly acknowledged that Stirner’s The Ego and His Own was “[o]ne book that I read in my youth [that] I have never wholly forgotten”:
To say that it had a great influence on me would not be correct, for influences are absorbed and become part of one’s mind. This book refused to be digested—to use our vivid English metaphor: it stuck in the gizzard, and has been in that uncomfortable position ever since.9
Taking these comments as its point of departure, this article observes how Read’s attitude towards egoism changed through the course of his career and how, in the process, it also interacted with and altered myriad other influences that he encountered along the way. In order to plot this shifting topography of influences, the article is divided broadly into two halves: the first half surveying Read’s activities during his unapologetically egoist period in the 1910s, including his imagist poetry and his attempt to establish an art gallery with the editor of The...