Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Apes of God Notes

A Wall (Shard and Crescent)

The Apes of God dabble and occlude. They mass up and “do” art—“masses of Gossip-mad, vulgar, pseudo-artist, good-timers—the very freedom and excess usually of whose life implies a considerable total of money, concentrated in the upkeep of . . . costly ‘bohemian’ life.” They make indiscernable—by spurious ease, by number and mediocrity—the “activities of the effective artist—that rare man born for an exacting intellectual task,” devoted “unsparingly” to it. They are “those prosperous mountebanks who alternately imitate and mock at and traduce those figures they at once admire and hate.” And: “All are ‘geniuses,’ before whose creations the other members of the Club, in an invariable ritual, must swoon with appreciation.” One identifies one source (and target) of Wyndham Lewis’s animus in “Bloomsbury,” “a select and snobbish club,” whose “foundation-members consisted of monied middleclass descendants of victorian literary splendour.” And one asks, worries the bone of the possibility that it is here that Lewis’s own art falls off, topical, proceeding by fits of “editorialism,” too shrilly ire-soak’d to hold its water. Maybe. It’s undeniable fun though, and likely all too acquitted by its aperies today in whatever invariably “hip” borough one took to name:
For whereas the new Bohemian is generally as ‘mondain’ and smart . . . as he or she can be, this little phalanstery of apes of god went the length of actually dressing the part of the penniless “genius” . . . they presented the curious spectacle of a lot of men and women, possessed of handsome bank balances, drifting and moping about in the untidiest fashion. This rather scandalous shabbiness it was, besides a queer exaggeration of speech (bringing to one’s mind the sounds associated with the spasms of a rough Channel passage) that cut them off from the outside world—also perhaps their freakish literal interpretation of the august aloof originals.—They yield to none, however (and in that provide an instructive analogy) in their organized hatred of living “genius.”
Lewis’s position—“replete with bitter energy,” as Kenner says—melodramatic, compulsive, the result, maybe, of something like “calamitously fecund ingenuity,” (Kenner again): what’s up here? Is the Self—not the post-modern leaky sieve, perennial shape-shifter Self, the Self unpredictable and solitary as a force of nature, is that completely insurmountable, impenetrable in the artist? One might think so. Here’s one Matthew Plunkett, who’s brought tiny doll-sized (to satisfy the “canon of the Analyst”: “For that truly uppish self-feeling, which you will find essential for a free flow of libido through the tap, you must choose your friends small!”) Betty Bligh, who’s transporting a book call’d Hard-boiled Virgin and chewing “the gum of the U.S.A.,” to the Bloomsbury room he inhabits. The Self—prone to control only—reacts by making Bligh a machine: running a hand under her jumper, her “delicate toy-spine” is “as neat as the couplings of a small boy’s locomotive”; her nuque “as cold as tempered steel and excessively hard.” (Her reply: “Oh you are potty!”):
The sham-gum-chewing lips grinned up at this funny boy. With both hands he seized her head, holding it in his palms like an orangoutang which had possessed itself of a coconut, and preparatory to breaking it, held it chest-high, to delect itself with its intact and hairy roundness, like that of an animal head.
Elsewhere (Kenner says) Lewis’s got characters who talk of the Self as a “loathsome deformity,” an “affliction got through indiscrimatate rubbing against their fellows: Social excrescence.” (A less impermeable self.) That self—assault’d by the mob, the apes—is the one Lewis, artist, aims to avoid. Here’s Kenner’s succinct take:
The man of genius has a Self which is very nearly a force of Nature. It inhabits a “bacillus-ridden, terribly exposed pied-à-terre,” but it enjoys “a perpetually renewed power of DOING WHAT NATURE DOES, only doing it with all the beauty of accident, without the certain futility that accident implies.” Most artists (and most people) can’t accomplish “the beauty of accident,” and work like machines. That is why they form “schools.” They counterfeit the man of genius from beneath an indurated carapace of mannerisms, by means of a ritual of mechanized gestures which pass for creativity and are really only the cycling motions of manufacture. Or they counterfeit Nature, which amounts to the same thing, their constructions in words or pigment having for the critical intellect the status of meticulous paper flowers.
Nowhere is the “carapace of mannerisms” more evident than in the bleak nursuries of the “post-avant” today, of course. Abstract fragment and no-spittle, asyntactical hardwiring, aporia and typgraphical hijinkeries. Death without even its rampant throes.

Wyndham Lewis’s “Couple”
(Edwin Morgan Collection, University of Glasgow)