“O Laziness, have pity on our great misery! O Laziness, mother of the arts and noble virtues, be thou the balm of human anguish!”–Paul Lafargue, “The Right to Be Lazy” (1883)
One of the best pieces in Wyndham Lewis’s 1951 short story collection Rotting Hill (which was Ezra Pound’s moniker for the London neighborhood where Lewis lived, Notting Hill) is entitled “The Rot,” which satirically narrates the chaotic repair of Lewis’s London apartment, which had been damaged by dry rot originating in damage from the London bombings.
It would be easy, and far too simplistic, to dismiss Lewis’s collection as an anti-Labour, anti-welfare state screed, and see “The Rot” as a demeaning portrayal of lazy, shoddy, socialist workmen at (so-to-speak) “work.” Of course, it would be obtuse not to acknowledge Lewis’s intent to satirize and provoke, and that his major target was the dysfunctionality and mendacity that he perceived in the post-World War II Labour government. But “The Rot” suggests nuances within this larger, manifest political aversion to Labour welfare state socialism, warranting our seeing Lewis as an innovator in fashioning a politicized fiction that functions more like an ideological grenade–exploding in all directions at once–than a weapon aimed at one side in the ideological conflict of Right and Left.
Before discussing the story in detail, it is worth suggesting a comparison of Lewis’s story to another modernist depiction of a similar phenomenon, again a microcosmic scene of domestic “rot” set in metonymic conjunction with large-scale warfare. I mean the celebrated “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. In “Time Passes,” Woolf displaces the bloody scene of history to focus in on the infinitesimal decay that grips the house while it is shuttered and temporarily abandoned. The pathos of her depiction lies in the incommensurability of human and non-human timescales, with the house as their uncanny point of intersection. The social, as is typical with Woolf’s more classically “high modernist” fictions (though by no means all of her works), is discernable at the margins of her depiction, or in highly mediated, symbolical connotations of descriptions of apparently asocial objects, spaces, and processes.
Lewis, by contrast, has little interest in the more poetic resonances of domestic decay. He insists on the fully and literally social character of the “rot,” which is a direct material outcome of the aerial bombardments, his wartime exile that kept him from his residence, and the new social order under which he finds himself reoccupying his old Notting Hill residence. In a certain sense, though I doubt Lewis had it precisely in mind in writing his story, Lewis’s “The Rot” can be understood as a “disfigured” complement of “Time Passes,” with Woolf’s geographically distant house returned right to the wartime scene of battle and stripped of its rich poetic resonances in favor of a number of naked social significations. In the image of his rotting house, Lewis explores no Lili Briscoesque familial, gender, sexual, or psychological obstacles to artistic creativity, but far more practical ones: there is too much damn noise, dust, and interruption from busy workman to “finish his painting.”
“The Rot,” in brief, narrates the repair and restructuring of Lewis’s Notting Hill apartment following the discovery of dry rot softening the wood and turning parts of it to a flimsy, powdering foam. “I must confess that it was with surprise,” Lewis begins, “that, resting my hand carelessly upon a windowsill at our apartment, I found my nails sinking into the wood. . . . These were my first contacts with the rot.” He goes on to explain that this dry rot is a quite banal and realistic side-product of the recent war and bombardments: “Hundreds of streets in London were uninhabited during much of the six years of war, the houses shuttered and fireless. In the damp winters the fungoid condition, the dry rot, developed in the beams, joists, architraves, jambs, window-frames, floorboards of these unlived-in places.”
After considerable bureaucratic rigamarole, which Lewis presents with his characteristic satiric panache, plans are made for the plaster to be knocked out, the rotten beams replaced, the walls and ceilings be repaired and repainted. Lewis and his wife have to move out of one set of rooms while the workmen do the repairs, then move back while other rooms are serviced. In a jab at what “planning” means in a highly bureaucratized system, Lewis notes that the destruction of the old apartment takes place considerably before the repair work takes place. Destruction is attended to with dispatch and vigor. Construction is slow and always in danger of being suspended at some impossible halfway point:
“As a fact, the carpenter moved in to pull down, weeks before the building-up again could start, the order not having come through from the Town Hall releasing the necessary material. Neurotic as this man was, he could not keep his hands off it. He would have demolished the entire building had it lain in his power to do so–the entire quarter, too: and, on a particularly good day, all of Greater London.”
Lewis’s carpenter will figure, importantly, into the conclusion of the story, as I shall discuss further on. But for now it is worth noting that Lewis presents him as a sort of post-war “Blitz” in the body of a scrappy workman. He pummels walls and ceilings with his tireless hammer, and in Lewis’s hyperbolic image, batters whole buildings and districts of London. What the German bombs couldn’t accomplish by way of urban destruction, Lewis’s carpenter is prepared to complete in the name of (socialist) reconstruction.
In a 1931 text, Walter Benjamin described (affirmatively) a revolutionary type he termed “The Destructive Character”:
“The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.
“The destructive character does his work; the only work he avoids is creative. Just as the creator seeks solitude, the destroyer must be constantly surrounded by people, witnesses to his efficacy.
“The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter wall or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. . . . What exists he reduces to rubble–not for the sake of the rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.”
There were times in Lewis’s career as an avant-gardist, cultural revolutionary, and “Enemy” in which he might have been willing to embrace the nihilistic traits of Benjamin’s destructive character, even arrogating some of the qualities Benjamin describes onto his own demolition-work on traditionalist culture. But in ‘The Rot,” Lewis presents himself as an artist whose work cannot look anything but petty-bourgeois idleness, cased in middle-class domesticity, to this carpenter and dialectical instrument of Hegelian-Marxist “negativity.”
Lewis thus humorously builds up the allegorical connotations of the “rot” in his house by imagining his dealings with the carpenter as a manifestation of class war between a newly empowered working-class and a rotting late-imperialist petty-bourgeoisie (and Lewis is undoubtedly very aware of how often “rotten” and “rotting” were part of left and communist rhetoric; compare Edward Upward’s The Rotten Elements in his “Spiral Ascent” trilogy). He writes, for example:
“With what frenzy of accumulated resentment this stunted man, deformed with toil, flung himself upon us. The rot was, no one could doubt it, his master passion. But he was socially minded–he knew how to give his rot an historico-economic perspective too, being no fool like the painters (without exception) and deeper than the plasterer. We and the rot were one, we were involved as if we had been wood. Was it not our rot? The rot existed for us. If there was a fungus here instead of the wood which honest workmen forty years before had lifted into place, we had produced the fungus–an emanation of social decay. Were it eventually necessary to pull down the house, we ought to be demolished with it. Such was the line of feeling at least of the mastermind among what eventually became an army of invaders.”
Yet to call this an allegory, in the sense of a supplementary meaning imposed on it by the author, is not completely accurate. Rather, it is a dimension of meaning that is elaborated and explicated not just by Lewis, but by the carpenter as well, as the most intellectually advanced and ideologically minded of the workers. In his typical way, Lewis’s representational economy is driven by what he perceives to be degrees of intellectual power and awareness, and “meaning” here is a co-creation of two minds locked in struggle, Lewis’s and the carpenter’s. The painters and other workers in the stories mostly remain mere cartoon sketches, since they don’t really have anything more than a childish heedlessness in work and play. The carpenter in contrast has a world-view, an ideology, and a workman’s ethics, which Lewis respects enough to give, over the course of his story, a rather “fair” and respectful representation–even as he comes to be the “enemy” which Lewis, as Enemy, strives with a kind of deliberate perversity to defeat.
He pokes a bit of self-directed fun at his own singling out of the carpenter as enemy in this clearly mock-epic scene of battle:
“So, thinly disguised as care for the health of buildings, it was reaching the point of open confessions–when, axe in hand, the carpenter would appear at the head of the stairs and snarl:
“‘You can keep your plaster and your rotten wood, Mr. Lewis! You are the dry rot I’m after!’ At the latest mountainous fall of plaster underneath, I allowed my eyes to rest upon a drawer where an old, rusted, practically token, revolver probably was.”
Lewis draws two other pictures of workers, salient for their contrast to one another, as well as to the worker-intellectual that the carpenter represents. The first are the young, carefree painters, who spend most of their time singing, playing mock-soccer games with various wadded up papers and household objects, and generally making a raucous mess:
“One day I met the master plasterer hurrying out. Through his cement-grimed lips, coldly cross, he muttered: ‘Nothing but a blooming boy’s school up there. The noise they’re making I shall be glad when they hop it, all of them!’ The plasterer alluded to two diminutive boy-electricians and a friend–the firm seemingly had no grown-up workmen to spare in that department. With what misgivings I had watched them for a moment gambolling and frisking as they attended to our lighting system! The boss looked around fourteen. . .Later I could hear their shrill shrieks of delight and bumpitty bump went the ceiling. Because these noise-makers were so minuscule, in so remote an age-class from himself, the plasterer could see them and hear them. Even he left the house in disgust. But when the whole place rocked with heavyweight lightheartedness his eardrums recorded it, if at all, with indulgence.”
The other image comes not from the domestic space, but rather from the urban exterior, when Lewis steps outside to get away from the noise and chaos of the apartment. There he is confronted with a scene of work that stands in stark contrast to the loosey-goosey, playful atmosphere of the building work, a regimented, technologized phalanx of roadworkers. Drawing on the vocabulary of vorticism, but perhaps even more saliently, on his depiction of artillery warfare in such paintings as “A Battery Shelled”–and he underscores the wartime connection–Lewis describes the street-scene thus:
“The road-workers were trained to work quickly, they were the same men who had made the airfields during the war, and remade them at top speed. Eight drills, for instance, each as explosive as a motor-boke, were in massed action, blasting down to the eighteen-inch line of the specification, and though there was no rushing but concentrated deliberation–of progressive unmaking, layer by layer, and then of remaking, from earth-line to the street-level–the tension of the time-table was felt. Were these Irish workmen? People said so in the shops. But this may have only been because it was an Irish contractor and the men were small. Here was the gang: and there was the ganger. This is how my house-party of rot-hunters must work one day, when the honeymoon is over. I do not say this with satisfaction: in theory at least I am all for football and song.”
The story ends shortly after with a final encounter on the street. Lewis is about to enter Thomas Cook and Sons travel agency when he is startled by the carpenter at his side. The carpenter confesses he has been following Lewis and wanted to tell him something, if Lewis was going to be going on a trip. He tells Lewis that the repair has not been done well, and that there is still some rot that hasn’t been replaced:
“‘Well, there’s one place Harry, that’s the plasterer, told me I’d missed in the toilet, where the rot. . .” ‘The rot?’ ‘Yes, the dry rot, sir. . .’
After his various complaints and carping about the shoddy, noisy activity going on in his apartment, Lewis unexpectedly takes sides against the carpenter, in spontaneous solidarity with the undisciplined, imperfect, and–underscored by the remaining rot being in the toilet–the “wasteful” character of the domestic repair-work. Like Lafargue in his famous treatise, and implicitly finding in it something essential to the artist, Lewis affirms the “right to be lazy” as a kind of primordial ground of freedom that he asserts even against his apparent interest in getting his apartment repaired in a timely and efficient manner:
“‘In the toilet the rot will remain!’ I found myself saying, to my surprise. I could never have been rude to the plasterer, or spoken discourteously to the bricklayer, nor have turned my back upon a painter. I turned my back squarely upon the carpenter, as I burst my way almost into Cook’s. I was going to taste liberty as well.”