Mixed doubles

The Fictions of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis
June 23, 1995

By T. S. Eliot's own admission, James Joyce's stylistic experimentation in Ulysses heavily influenced the initial draft of The Waste Land ("I wish for my own sake that I had not read it", Eliot wrote in 1921), and the radical editorial work of Ezra Pound supplied the "Caesarean operation" that ensured delivery of the iconic modernist document that the poem became.

But if The Waste Land was conceived in a matrix of influence and collaboration, its publication underscored certain contrasts. In its wake Eliot ascended into respectability, Pound exiled himself in infamy, Joyce embarked upon a "revolution of the word" that neither poet sympathised with. The Waste Land thus contains fields of influence and antagonism at its canonical heart, and invites approaches to the mapping of modernism that take account of this.

Although Wyndham Lewis is well known as a detractor of Joyce, the way in which each writer incorporates or "doubles" the other in their respective fictions has not received sustained attention. Taking his lead from Finnegans Wake, with its theme of "the intermisunderstanding minds of the anticollaborators", Scott Klein suggests that a form of collaborative opposition can be seen as a structural and political principle in the work of both Joyce and Lewis.

The "strife" between the two writers' aesthetics is always apparent. For the authoritarian Lewis, a visual artist and a belligerent promoter of the power of the ego and "eye" over the external world, nature must be placed under the yoke of design, a controlling aesthetic which redeems it from formlessness and experience from fragmentation. Joyce's writing, on the other hand, is wide open to the flux of the contingent. Indeed according to Stephen Dedalus's aesthetic theory in Ulysses, art is initiated by violation and fragmentation of the self. Such a "wounding" is sexual and psychic: both Shakespeare (betrayed by Anne Hathaway) and Leopold Bloom (cuckolded by Molly) embody the idea that an adultery or an "adulteration" of the self founds by "confounding" the categories of art and nature.

Klein's aim is to locate the doubling principle at deep levels of the Joyce and Lewis's writings. The apparently authoritative aesthetic stance of Lewis can be seen constantly to betray itself into Joycean relativism. The Vorticist programme remains irreconcilable with the drive behind Lewis's fiction, where figures that function as vehicles of his philosophy split into egos and agonistic alter egos that often destroy themselves. In Finnegans Wake the artistic event is always the product of such self-division; accordingly, Shem and Shaun (representative of a Joycean and Lewisean aesthetic respectively) stage a dialectic between the indeterminacy of the aural and the objectivity of the visual that can be resolved only in the play of the text (the realm of the "verbivocovisual").

Klein wishes to show that in "mediating" each other's aesthetics Joyce and Lewis acknowledge the "expulsion and acceptance of the other". He suggests rightly that "To perceive Lewis's and Joyce's interconnectedness is thus to revise our sense of modernism", for as we get further away in time from this period we perceive modernism as an ever more complex phenomenon.

Gerry Carlin is a lecturer, department of English and comparative literary studies, University of Warwick.

The Fictions of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis: Monsters of Nature and Design

Author - Scott W. Klein
ISBN - 0 521 43452 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £32.50
Pages - 260

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments