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"Surrounded by a Multitude of Other Blasts": Vorticism and the Great War

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 4, Number 2, April 1997
pp. 39-66 | 10.1353/mod.1997.0036

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Modernism/Modernity 4.2 (1997) 39-66

Figures

There is certainly a new type of energy arrayed against [the Germans] which they, with their eyes fixed on the past, had not suspected the growth of.

--Wyndham Lewis, September 1914

That the Vorticist movement should have survived a year such as that we have just passed through argues a grimness and tenacity of purpose such as must needs reflect itself in the works of these contributors.

--Ford Madox Ford, July 1915

A story is often told about World War I and the politics of Anglo-American modernism. Following the lead of writers like Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, it figures the war's impact on the Vorticist movement, which Lewis and Pound led, as a (if not the) critical factor in shaping the modernists' postwar politics. The war's senseless destruction, it explains, intensified the Vorticists' critique of Britain's liberal, parliamentary government, and encouraged them to support the radical right-wing parties that arose across Europe between the wars. Given the ubiquity of the tale, one expects to find numerous studies of Blast: War Number, the second issue of the Vorticist periodical, published almost a year into the conflict (July 1915). Even a cursory reading reveals the journal's active and complex engagement with the war and home-front life, especially politics and popular culture: it provides a wealth of valuable evidence of the war's influence on the Vorticist movement, evidence that illuminates the trajectory of modernist art and politics. So it comes as something of a surprise that we find comparatively little critical interest in Blast 2, particularly in its political art and polemics.

The scant discussion Blast 2 has provoked suggests another, related story about Vorticism and the Great War. In this narrative, the War Number is a rather tragic document of artistic (and political) concession in the face of war; its less radical, less innovative artworks and polemics demonstrate not just a decline from Blast 1's more genuinely oppositional and progressive standards, or even the lamentable death of Vorticism (or the avant-garde), but perhaps, and most disturbingly, a tendency to anticipate modernism's later retrograde politics. At best the War Number is a casualty of war, at worst an ur-text of fascist modernism.

There is truth in both of these accounts. Still, I concur with Samuel Hynes that Blast 2 is more productively examined in light of British public discourse and popular culture during the first year of the Great War. When read in this way, the document tells a different story about the transformations of modernist art and politics during the conflict, a story that raises its own interesting questions about the other two, more common tales. Insisting on the importance of its wartime context in Blast 2's opening editorial, Lewis described his magazine and movement as "surrounded by a multitude of other Blasts." This essay recovers some of those other "blasts" and articulates some of their consequences for our understanding of Vorticism and the development of modernist politics. Reading Blast 2 as a failure -- of aesthetic will or progressive politics -- is to misunderstand its proclaimed doctrine, artistic practice, and the ways they dovetailed with the realities of British life during the war's first year. Because the Vorticists had from the start placed at the center of their doctrine the allegedly incompatible aims of avant-garde critique and nationalist politics, Blast 2 turns out to have been well suited to the circumstances of the early war: the conflict created a cultural and political environment that validated more powerfully than at any time before the war the Vorticists' program of dissenting patriotism in art and politics.

The Vorticists responded polemically to a wartime context in which the British government was expanding control of public discourse, clamping down on dissent, and promoting an antimodernist cultural policy, by reorienting the principal foreign target of their opposition from Italian Futurism to German (or Prussian) imperialism. The accusations of passéism, sentimentality, and effeminacy that the Vorticists had aimed at the Futurists in Blast 1 were now turned on Germany, which became in Blast 2 the international locus of the cult of the past and...


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