- Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Radical Modernism, and: Wyndham Lewis and the Avant-Garde: The Politics of the Intellect
Being Wyndham Lewis means never having to say you’re sorry. Being a Lewis critic, on the other hand, means constantly apologizing. You’ve arrived at the cocktail party a few minutes after the guest of honor you picked up at the airport the day before has made a pass at the host’s wife, thrown up on the carpet, and reeled out into the night after stabbing the family spaniel. Vincent Sherry and Toby Avard Foshay have both written books that deal plainly but variously with the predicament of being the guilty latecomer.
Sherry’s Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism is at once valuable and methodologically questionable. The questions are worth asking because the book contributes importantly to the recovery of a milieu. His project is both to chart a convincing map of then-contemporary intellectual currents and to argue that Pound and Lewis were formed by bathing in those waters that vexed them, and still vex us in political ways.
Sherry’s premise is that two paradigms competed for priority within intellectual—that is to say, political, sociological, and artistic—circles at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries: the visual and the aural or verbal. The visual was espoused by French writers like Julien Benda, Charles Maurras, and—at least in his poetry—Rémy de Gourmont, who rallied around the belief that the physiological processes involved in visual perception could be translated into moral, aesthetic, and political tenets. You have to back off from paintings to understand them; the eye needs a critical distance to work. Aural perception, however, requires empathy. You are moved, and you are probably moved in a crowd, listening, for example, to a concert; you are, as Henri Bergson, Georges Sorel, and Gustav LeBon would say, actually in concert with your fellows: submerged in a democratic mass of empathy, the discrimination necessary for individualized perception is foreclosed by this seemingly democratic union.
Beginning with the etymological contradictions in the word idéologie—the swerve from an analysis privileging empirical, objective data as the basis for liberal politics and philosophies to a reactionary affirmation of the/any status quo—Sherry outlines the divergent tensions in postures regarding body talk: if the body is the basis of experience, and somatic metaphors a way of organizing that experience, there seems to be a natural conflict, or at least a hierarchy, between the eye and the ear as the primary organ of sensation or, to use Sherry’s pun, the organ of “reaction.”
What results from Sherry’s scheme is persuasive on the whole, though it falters occasionally on specifics. As instructive and useful as his outline of historical and intellectual currents is, to argue that Pound ultimately comes to be an antagonist of “the vulgate sounding its doggy yawp” (146), as Sherry wonderfully describes it—he is said to favor a cold visual imperative, a poetic doomed to gesture, loudly, in the direction of silence—requires some contortions. It leads to uncomfortable local readings: for example the excessive talkiness of the Cantos is said to authorize the lone voice of the poet, though that, awkwardly, happens not to exist. What is validated, Sherry claims, is the idea of Pound’s narrative, ringing single and clear. If this doesn’t sound like the Cantos you read, don’t worry, because, as Pound would say, it ain’t. Sherry is quick to [End Page 172] admit this, but hedges his bets by saying that Pound wanted the Cantos to epitomize the intaglio method, and when the poet couldn’t manage this, he “record[s] his failure of method...with the bleak mastery of his next best poem” (82), “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” What gets charted, then, is an artistic genealogy of failing forward (not...