- The Machine
Two copies of this article exist: a typescript of five leaves with a cover leaf inscribed by Lewis, “The Machine. | typescript for article. | Wyndham Lewis,” and a carbon of the same typescript. The first is at Buffalo, the second at Cornell. The typing is poor and inaccurate, and both copies have occasional marks (probably by Mrs. Lewis) separating words that the typist has run together. The carbon has one spelling correction, but neither copy has been properly corrected. The essay was probably written in 1934 or 1935, when Lewis published a series of articles on industrial art and the machine. The subject was topical in literature, design, and architecture. Its political side is brought out most clearly in “Shropshire Lads or Robots Again” and “Power-feeling and Machine-Age Art.” 1 Lewis associates enthusiasm for machinery in the arts with political enthusiasm for the industrialisation of the Soviet Union and its accompanying feats of social engineering—enthusiasm in which he did not share. Lewis’s theories of the necessity for human imperfection conflicted with his modernist utopian ambitions (expressed in the 1919 pamphlet, The Caliph’s Design: Architects! Where is Your Vortex?). 2 Mechanical perfection dissolves human identity. “The Machine” bears traces of Lewis’s admiration of the architecture of the Berbers of North Africa, whose romantic (and “European”) barbarism he praises in Kasbahs and Soukhs, an unfinished book of the early 1930s, sections of which are included in Journey into Barbary: Morocco Writings and Drawings. 3 [End Page 171]
If we confine ourselves to things of which we have ocular evidence—excluding all modes of life or art that might come about, or that should come about, or that might have been, or should have been—then no argument is possible, I think, when those two modes are contrasted—the human mode and the non-human mode. The human modes are the better and brighter.
If by the fiat of a despot a city could be built (such as I imagined in The Caliph’s Design or Architects, Where is Your Vortex) and if the despot could be so trained and so endowed—his state so rich in resources, possessing such transcendent workmen, politically so firmly established etc. etc. etc.—as to ensure a maximum result, in speed, effort and intelligence, then, of course, the city that would be built would be second to none in history, it would be far better than any city ever built.
But that is a city of Ifs and Ans [sic], for a rather vulgar streak somewhere in the mind of the despot, for instance, would be enough to spoil the city. 4 Meanwhile the human seems to have the advantage of the non-human, or the superhuman. Where men have physically been able to act the giant, and chop through nature, instead of crawling over it, in the manner of Lilliput, and override an accident, instead of accommodating themselves to it, they have not been able to supply the appropriate mind for the super-body, that is the trouble.
There are no rules for cities of course: Venice is built upon the most disadvantageous basis imaginable, a stork of a city: Manhattan on the other hand depends for its existence upon the rock-mass beneath it. You might cite Venice as an example of Man imposing his will upon the waters. But in fact the charm of Venice is the waters, of course. The obstacle (technically) turns out to be prime factor, aesthetically. With Manhattan the rock underneath is of no importance except as a socket and platform. And after all the Earth itself must always play that role in anything we undertake upon its surface.
Taking Venice and Manhattan together—the first as a specimen of human art (typifying a human submission to the natural beauty of the waters), the second a specimen of the non-human—then, I think, in its heyday of course, Venice could be the better place, as the Venetian is the better man.
So we have to admit it seems to me that at a period when man has not been powerful enough to transform the accidental...