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  • "Acting the Man":Wyndham Lewis and the Future of Masculinity
  • Erin G. Carlston (bio)

The work of Wyndham Lewis seems like a strange place to go looking for innovative configurations of gender. Notoriously associated with what Jeffrey Herf termed "reactionary modernism," Lewis is well known for the flamboyant misogyny and homophobia expressed in both his fiction and his theoretical writing. Unlike male modernists whose work has been subjected to richly revelatory feminist and queer rereadings (James Joyce, Marcel Proust, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway), Wyndham Lewis was for a long time generally assumed to be unsalvageable for any kind of progressive or even very interesting politics of gender and sexuality.

In 1979, Fredric Jameson pointed out that what was even more profoundly rooted in Lewis's work than his obvious and "polemic hostility to feminism, the uglier misogynist fantasies embodied in his narratives, the obsessive phobia against homosexuals" was an abstract ideology of gender that motivated these "extreme restatements of grotesque traditional sexist myths and attitudes."1 According to that ideology—influenced by widely circulated fin-de-siècle texts like Otto Weininger's Sex and Character—the female or feminine is a primitive, undifferentiated, mushy bog, with no possible relation to transcendence. Femininity is the condition of the homogeneous crowd, of the Nietzschean herd.

This entrenched hostility towards the feminine is intrinsic to Lewis's conviction that liberal values like equality and progress are a sham, the means by which malevolent forces determined to consolidate their own power induce people to sacrifice their individuality and will. Lewis considered that little had changed [End Page 771] in the four centuries since Machiavelli had described in The Prince how tyrants can manipulate political power—except that in the twentieth century coercion masquerades as democracy and employs a vast superstructural apparatus to manufacture cooperation. Virtually every aspect of modern politics and culture can be read as a manifestation of this nefarious, coordinated extension of power, behind which Lewis saw "Big Business," "financial interests," or, most broadly, "capitalo-socialism."2 As Hugh Kenner has written, in Lewis's ideology:

those who possess power (and power has many disguises) are, solely for the sake of exercising it, herding the rest of the population hither and thither, and performing on them every operation that will make them easier to herd. This has always happened; the peculiar feature of the twentieth century is that no one knows it is going on.3

Lewis's descriptions of these herding operations equate homogenization with castration; the male or masculine is reduced to "a lower form of life" by the eradication of any "erection" that rises above the primeval feminine morass:

In the levelling, standardization, and pooling of the crowd-mind, pressure on any irregularities of surface or temperamental erection, it is the masculine mind that tends to approximate to the feminine rather than the other way round. This is inevitable, seeing that the masculine is not the natural human state, but a carefully nurtured secondary development above the normal and womanly.4

Within this framework, feminism and the homosexual emancipation movement are evidence both of capitalo-socialism's assault on Western white masculinity and of Western white men's complicity in their own demasculinization; the European male, Lewis claims, has been "hypnotized" into carrying out his own castration (Art of Being Ruled, 241). While the crisis had been some time coming, World War I precipitated it by demonstrating the fatal consequences of masculine aggressiveness, thereby convincing Anglo-European men of the advantages of passivity.5 Simultaneously, liberal Christianity promoted the virtues of childish innocence, and modern feminism made claims for the superiority of "feminine" characteristics like intuition. Modern men capitulated, becoming childish and effeminate and thus incapable of offering rational resistance to capitalo-socialism's manipulations (Mao, "A Shaman," 210).6

This description of Lewis's gender politics is uncontroversial, so far as it goes. While acknowledging the clear evidence of his work's misogyny, however, scholars have also noted the complicated place Lewis's claims about gender have within the framework of his larger political project of satirical critique. Jameson's own Fables of Aggression goes on to suggest that Lewis's representations of gender...


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