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  • Anti-Egoism and Collective Life:Allegories of Agency in Wyndham Lewis's Enemy of the Stars
  • Joel Nickels

We have come to know Wyndham Lewis as one of modernism's most vocal advocates of the static, self-contained ego. In Time and Western Man, Lewis insists that "our only terra firma in a boiling and shifting world is . . . our 'self.'"1 He then suggests that this "formally fixed" (TWM, 133) self "must cohere for us to be capable at all of behaving in any way but as mirror-images of alien realities, or as the most helpless and lowest organisms, as worms or sponges" (TWM, 132). In other words, "the Ego" must be constituted as a "static 'substance'" (TWM, 298) in order to prevent itself from being absorbed into the fluid "time-mind" of mass society. And as Vincent Sherry points out, this does not merely constitute a personal credo for Lewis. Shunning the ontological blurring of "acoustic empathy" and "demotic fellow feeling"2 allows one to resist the hypnotic effects of mass political movements. Individuality and stability, it seems, are the last lines of fortification against the sensationalism of crowd-life.3

But what of the Lewis who writes in 1932 that "such artists as Shakespeare or Dickens are very little individuals at all—they are, as a matter of fact, a very great and numerous crowd"?4 And what of the Lewis who writes in 1925 that "the expansiveness that manifests itself in inventive or expressive work . . . is not so very far removed from the consciousness of the crowd, since in multiplying itself a crowd is formed" (CH, 120)? In statements such as these, Lewis suggests that the artist's sensibility is not so distant from collective realities—in fact, it seems to serve as an embodiment or analogue of these realities. Indeed, in a 1932 essay entitled "Physics of the Not-Self," Lewis describes a speculative organ that allows one to "participate . . . in the life of others outside [oneself]" and states, unironically, that "every altruism can be traced" to our ability to "go outside our self."5 These statements present us with a less familiar Lewis, whose ideas may seem completely at odds with his well-known celebrations of individuality and detachment. [End Page 347]

A number of critics have afforded this anti-egoistic tendency in Lewis's work some exacting and sensitive critical attention. For example, in Modernism and the Fate of Individuality, Michael Levenson argues that Lewis undermines the fiction of autonomous personal identity by exhibiting the ego as immured in the vagaries of bodily experience. Levenson shows how in Lewis's novel, Tarr, "thoughts and emotions do not possess that intimate inwardness which the realist tradition had ascribed to them."6 Instead, they seem like physical externalities, which means that "any attempt to pierce to the innermost thought, the central emotion, must expect to find, not an ineliminable sincerity, but more elaborate artifice."7 In other words, for Lewis, identity itself is a form of artifice: it is a performance, and one that is continually being undermined by the "wild body" of involuntary physical responses.8

Paul Peppis also provides a highly valuable contribution to this anti-egoistic conception of Lewis. He claims that Tarr, which appeared in serial form in The Egoist from 1916 to 1917, is in fact a literary critique of the philosophical and aesthetic Individualism espoused by that journal. Lewis's principal concern in the novel is not the unique, Stirnerean individual who struggles against external social constraints, but rather a "would-be Individualist" who is continually thwarted by his own "conflicted, porous, and shifting subjectivity."9 And, like Levenson, Peppis suggests that "identity" in Tarr "is a transitory concatenation of contradictory desires and compulsions" which causes characters to "keep trying-on social identities . . . in hopes that by performing such pseudo-selves they might somehow acquire real ones."10

These analyses go a long way toward exposing Lewis's ambivalences about egoism. But there is one aspect of Lewis's anti-egoism that invites even more critical attention: in much of his work, Lewis does not represent the ego as beset by extra-egoic forces that overwhelm or subvert it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 347-373
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-28
Open Access
No
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