- Anatomy of Folly: Wyndham Lewis, the Body Politic, and Comedy
In the first paragraph of “The Meaning of the Wild Body” (1927), Wyndham Lewis sets out the major premise for his mature theory of comedy. This entails an axiomatic, apparently inarguable separation between the object of comedy and its laughing observer, between the Wild Body and its percipient:
First, to assume the dichotomy of mind and body is necessary here, without arguing it; for it is upon that essential separation that the theory of laughter here proposed is based. The essential us, that is, the laugher, is as distinct from the Wild Body as in the Upanisadic [sic] account of the souls returned from the paradise of the Moon, which, entering into plants, are yet distinct from them. Or to take the symbolic vedic figure of the two birds, the one watching and passive, the other enjoying its activity, we similarly have to posit two creatures, one that never enters into life, but that travels about in a vessel to whose destiny it is momentarily attached. That is, of course, the laughing observer, and the other is the Wild Body. 1
This uncompromising dichotomy appears at odds, however, with Lewis’s attitudes in a contemporary treatise, “Inferior Religions.” 2 Here the “Wild Body” is “regarded as a brain” and
laughter [as] the brain-body’s snort of exultation. It expresses its wild sensation of power and speed; it is all that remains physical in the flash of thought, its friction; or it may be a defiance flung at the hurrying fates.
The Wild Body is this supreme survival that is us, the stark apparatus with its set of mysterious spasms: the most profound of which is laughter.[WB, 152]
No superior or derisive sneer, laughter here wells up from the very source and matrix of the laughable. Although Lewis seems equally to root his laughter in the Wild Body and laugh his way [End Page 121] out of that vibrating corpus, he stands as no credible witness at a comic marriage of brain and blood. For he scores his doubts too deeply into these essays—into their conceptual fabric, into the very rhetorical textures of these passages: the figure of the souls returning to the plants in the Upanishadic account, for example, is poised with suspicious ambivalence between entry and abeyance.
The contrary positions Lewis assumes in these essays may reflect a generic or typical division in modern ideas of the comic, which have focused variously on the internal or psychological dimensions of laughter and its external, mechanical occasions. His preoccupation with the nature and character of the laugher resonates with Sigmund Freud’s interest, in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, in the laugh as an unleashing of forbidden energies. And his fixation on the comic object of the Wild Body matches Henri Bergson’s focus, in Le Rire (Laughter), on the risible automaton, the primary scene of comedy. These several interests may testify to the comprehensive scope of Lewis’s engagement with the comic, but their differing interests do not explain away the inconsistency here: the uneasy shift in positional relation between the target of humor and the laugher’s vantage. There is an uncertainty about the proper comic response that we may understand as a vacillation between an experience of the ludicrous and a sense of the ridiculous: between a spirit of play, in which homo ludens happily joins with the wild body of the laughable, and a spirit of ridicule, where the observer distances and chastises the mechanical object of laughter but does not redeem or reclaim it. 3
This double measure of ludic participation and satirical rebuke has only been obscured by the figure of the Enemy, the professional antagonist, which Lewis projected so strenuously as his public persona in his middle years and put forward as his literary identity in Satire and Fiction (1930). There is indeed a richness of texture in his comic texts that is informed by a self-division that the Enemy could not admit. Now, these rival attitudes might be assimilated to some standard critical counter like “generative tension” or “creative opposition,” but they are understood...