Percy Wyndham Lewis Childermass New York: Riverrun Press, 2001
This novel is probably one of the most difficult written in the last century, but it is also very interesting in relation to the phenomenon of the mass media which surrounds us all now. Indeed, the prescience of certain “unfashionable” thinkers like Lewis (The Art of Being Ruled), L. P. Hartley (Facial Justice), or Ernst Jünger (The Glass Bees) is very striking the further we move away from them in historical time. Do not forget that Lewis posited, in 1926, that unbridled market economics would do for conservatism — not communism — and Jünger pre-figured a Mankind which is totally at the mercy of media . . . the latter invasive and vertiginous. This is decades before the US military began to link computers together in a way that would become the Internet.
But to return to The Childermass, this book was designed by Lewis to be his Ulysses by Joyce; a work of uncontrollable ferocity and illisibility (that’s elitist unreadability). Believe it or not – Lewis believes in attacking the audience . . . a key component in all early forms of modernist art. In this respect, such intellectuals regarded themselves as at war with bourgeois life, partly by virtue of their own role as outsiders or critics of materialism.
The book concerns two English public school boys who have just been slaughtered in the Great War (1914–18). [Note: with breezy irony, the most monied, private, exclusive and rarefied schools in England are called public schools]. Lewis did not regard the First War as a war in the conventional sense, but as a revolution in the soul of Man. The industrialization of mass death which built on the semi-industrial Armageddons of the American civil war and the Boer war, respectively, was something to behold. Most of that generation were rendered speechless by it for at least ten years or so.
For example, Lewis fought at the front as an artillery officer with a Canadian regiment (he’d been born in his father’s yacht off Canada) and the corpses of men who’d literally been eviscerated fell down upon him. He was in a bunker with his men in the middle of No Man’s land. They existed in a small pre-fabricated cage of steel between the German and British Commonwealth lines. The job of his outfit was to spot Prussian artillery activity and ring back to high command so that the great Allied batteries could rip forth flame & death.
On one occasion the ‘phone rang in the dug-out. Lewis answered it and who should it be but his commanding officer. “Lewis,” he said in a very upper-class English accent, “what’s going on?” To which Lewis replied: “It’a a War, Sir” and slung the receiver down — as if to say, “Bloody fool, what does he think’s happening?” Lewis was always like this — he loved to upset people, most especially when they were on his own side.
Childermass partly relates to Roman Catholic theory or theology about life after death. Lewis was not technically a Catholic, although his beloved mother had been, and he flirted, off and on, with many of its ideas throughout his career. Had he known the mechanics of conversion, he would probably have been received into the fold before his death. An interesting fate, this, for a semi-pagan figure of utmost truculence who gloried in war, ugliness, modern life, and technology. Nonetheless, there is a growing ‘endless return’ to the old faith during the Human Age trilogy with which his life ends in the mid-fifties.
He wrote Childermass in the late ‘twenties as the first part of this trilogy before returning to it at the end of his life. Strongly influenced (both artistically and morally) by Dante’s Divine Comedy in three parts, the classic triadic division in Western art, Lewis’ sequence deals with the big themes; Death, War, Is there an After-life?, Does God exist?; and if so, do we have any sympathy for the Devil? Mephisto — in Lewis’ system — is decidedly Talmudic, takes the formulation of Sammael, and yet is strangely sympathetic.
Lewis always sympathized with the enemy. It’s what caused him to write Hitler in 1931 as an Englishman, a book still effectively banned now eighty years later! He only sympathizes with Sammael, though, in the sense that he’s been left to punish a nihilistic, vague, and contemptible species after death. Why didn’t God have a better plan? Furthermore, in the third volume of the triad, Malign Fiesta, possibly the most remarkable version of Hell ever written is depicted. This book is truly extraordinary, goes beyond even Milton, and happened to be written at the end of his life when Lewis was completely blind.
This is the thing to remember about figures like Lewis. He wrote such material at the end of his life, returned to the innermost verities of the Western tradition, and yet was universally vilified everywhere as a “fascist.” From the point of social success and post-war survival, he certainly opted for the “wrong” side. One of the reasons, en passant, why so many people who’ve followed him in the Arts have been ultra-secretive about where their allegiances lie — even to themselves.
But to return to Childermass, after the fantastical revelation of the after-life in all its surrealness, we return to the meat of the piece. The oneiric vastness can only be hinted at here, but it has to do with reversed perspective, discontinuities in time and space, the non-survival of individuals who were half-formed anyway (they live on as hands, feet or noses); as well as the humidity, heat and glare.
Pullman and Satterthwaite (the two dead Public School boys) wait by a river for admission to the Celestial City. But remember this isn’t Purgatory or a way-station afore Heaven — it’s Limbo in Catholic theology. (Hence we note the title Childermass — i.e., a mass for children . . . in that both of them are child-like, too innocent, profoundly unknowing yet gunned down before their time.)
The real point of this first volume in a trilogy, which Lewis continued and brought to a conclusion later, is the appearance of the Bailiff. About two thirds of the volume — leastways sixty percent — is given over to his speech and interaction with these dead souls. Yet, cannily, Lewis really believes in the occult principle of as above as below. Since the Bailiff is entertaining the peons, this myriad assembly of Gogol’s Dead Souls, prior to their entry into the City.
It’s just like Life, in other words, in that the Bailiff is the incarnation of mass democracy, hucksterism, Million ton Vaudeville, soft commercialism, the right to vote, as well as every little man’s right to have his say. The irony shot through all of this, nonetheless, is that the Bailiff is a cozener and a dictator — but, at least superficially, in the form of a bloated Punch, a children’s entertainer.
By this reckoning: the Bailiff is visually akin to the Puppet character delineated by George Cruikshank in the early nineteenth century, albeit taken from Porsini’s show as transcribed by Collier. Lewis believes that twentieth century Man is completely infantilized or reduced to a child-like status — whether before or after death. The Bailiff is also truly entertaining — his spiel (for that’s what it is) goes on for hundreds of pages — imagine Hollywood, mass entertainment, shows for the troops, popular television (just beginning at the moment Lewis dies), and MTV/Fox/Sky (in Britain)/& MSN “culture” going on and on . . . forever.
Moreover, this mountebank jigs about in the box, wriggling, squawking, nodding, joking, and engaging in ridicule, inviting it as well; and yet for one extraordinary moment our figurine turns around to reveal that it’s a twin. The Bailiff has a sort of coeval or other-half, rather like a Siamese twin, and this is only possible because of his manikin or puppet-like dexterity. This other half is Hebraic, Talmudic, DerSturmer-esque, quite pronounced in its ethnic charge, and related to Julius Evola’s hermetic interpretation of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.
Indeed, the literary establishment has always regarded Lewis as an anti-Semitic version of James Joyce; that’s why he’s so much less fashionable. The reason for why he hasn’t been totally demolished, however, is due to various dissidents who regard him as a great talent (including a Catholic convert like John Rothenstein), his Modernism, and the extreme difficulty of his material. Crude attacks on figures like Eliot, Lewis, Pound, Yeats, and Celine make the academic or journalist who does them look moronic. Who wants that on their CV? This has certainly helped protect him. There is also his importance as a visual artist as well as a writer — this gives him a double insurance-lock, up to a point.
Nevertheless, his anatomization of the box in almost everyone’s living room; its endless patter, lying, entertainment, cajoling and imbecile fascination is pretty unique. It strongly influenced the media inquiry of Marshall McLuhan — a sort of spiritual son of Lewis’. Only one and a half per cent of people in Britain don’t own one. I haven’t watched the Bailiff’s shape-shifting alter ego, mechanization, cube, tube, or box since 1983. A record; or what?
For those who would like to plunge headlong into Lewis’ black metal prose — that is, its cold bath of lightning flashes and soundscapes — the first four pages of Childermass have been uploaded to the “creative writing” section of the Wyndham Lewis Society’s web-site. It is available here: http://www.uniroja.es/wyndhamlewis/pdf/writing/childermass.pdf