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  • Personality, Impersonality, and the Personified Detachment of Wyndham Lewis
  • Heather Arvidson (bio)

Few words invoke the pieties of high modernist aesthetics with the force of "impersonality," which, since the early twentieth century, has served as shorthand for the fragmented forms, intellectual detachment, and imperious command of abstraction and allusion conventionally associated with modernism. Even as scholarship of recent decades, and the new modernist studies in particular, has dismantled any notion of a unified modernist aesthetic, privileged statements of the so-called doctrine of impersonality by T. S. Eliot and James Joyce continue to exert a grip on received understandings of modernism's formal investments. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) supplies a formidable touchstone, presenting a cryptic "impersonal theory of poetry" imagined with all the austerity of scientific objectivity.1 Eliot claims that in acquiring an "historical sense" of aesthetic tradition, the artist undergoes "a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable," and hence submits to "a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality" ("Tradition," 102, 103). This formulation has come to stand more broadly for modernists' rejection of subjectivity as the expressive basis for art. Its institutionalization is not only a product of the New Criticism that championed Eliot's iconic severance of the artist from the art work but was—importantly for this article—well underway in the 1920s, as may attest Laura Riding's 1928 complaint of the "ritualistic impersonality" of emergent modernist orthodoxy.2

Less well known is that "impersonality" lived an equally vibrant discursive life outside of art in transatlantic print culture. [End Page 791] Coeval with modernism, elaborations on what was "impersonal" about modernity—in culture, science, industry, and human character—proliferated in newspapers, mass and middlebrow magazines, scientific periodicals, and works of sociology and political analysis. Equivocal in valence and remarkably catholic in semantic application, impersonality was both "in the air, part of the 'climate of opinion'" and resolutely in print, grafted to debates about the prospects of the individual within urban industrial life.3 As John Dewey put it, "the invasion of the community by the new and relatively impersonal and mechanical modes of combined human behavior is the outstanding fact of modern life."4 Yet impersonality at times bore a more sanguine aspect, as when Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy proclaimed that "to impersonalize scientifically the material sense of existence—rather than cling to personality—is the lesson of to-day," or when Bertrand Russell pronounced that "the desire for a larger life and wider interests, for an escape from private circumstances … is fulfilled by the impersonal cosmic outlook of science as by nothing else."5 As such examples suggest, impersonality and its cognates accommodated meanings that ranged from a pervasive hazard for personhood, emotion, and intimate connection to an interpersonal or scientific ideal; from urban alienation to collective affiliation; from the machine to mythic consciousness; from subpersonal matter to the transpersonal soul. In short, what cultural historian Warren I. Susman has famously called "the culture of personality" was deeply entangled with a culture of impersonality, and it was within this broader context that modernist impersonality acquired its durable correlation with modernist aesthetics.6

No one was more alert to the enmeshment of personality and impersonality, or more convinced of the debt modernism owed to this discursive background, than Wyndham Lewis. In addition to the roles for which he is best known—novelist, painter, critic, polemicist, and Enemy-at-large—Lewis also served as modernist impersonality's reverse engineer. As part of an impossibly vast project to "lay bare the widely-flung system of cables connecting up this maze-like and destructive system in the midst of which we live," he sought to diagram the ideological workings of the interwar status quo of British and American culture.7 In the process, he seized impersonality as a key hermeneutic. In defense of the allegedly persecuted "Person" of Western culture, Lewis's immense critical output of the second half of the 1920s and early 1930s reiteratively attempted to dismantle the "rationale" that impersonality "possess[es] today."8 Lewis recasts impersonality as a key narrative of the era—and one on...


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