Fire, Ice, and Mud: The Material Imagination of Wyndham Lewis’s Self Condemned

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In his literary writing, even more than in his visual art works, Wyndham Lewis had an extraordinary sense of the reciprocal relations of materiality, meaning, and mind: a complex that the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard captured in the term “material imagination.”  For instance, in his early, expressionistic drama Enemy of the Stars, Lewis combined a characteristic blend of ice, fire, and mud, with his evocation of a volcanic eruption in a landscape he specifies is in the “upper Baltics”:

The Earth has burst, a granite flower, and disclosed the scene.

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Full of dry, white volcanic light.

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Rouge mask in alluminum mirror, sunset’s grimace through the night.

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A leaden gob, slipped at zenith, first drop of violent night, spreads cataclysmically in harsh winter of coming. Caustic Reckett’s stain.

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Across the mud in pod of the canal their shadows are gauky toy crocodiles, saw up and down by infant giant?

His main characters are, he notes at the outset, “Type of characters taken from broad faces where Europe grows artic, intense, human and universal,” and they possess “Eyes grown venturesome in native temperatures of Pole–indulgent and familiar, blessing with white nights.”

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And just as the spectators of their agonistic duet–the sinister stars–draw closer or withdraw according to an immanent logic of conflict, magnetically attracted by human violence, so, in an oppositely directed chiasm, their struggle seems to emanate from an underlying impersonal force of nature, the wind.  The elemental push of the polar wind lends the protagonists their animation and “inspiration,” their “voice,” as if they were mere trumpet-like channels for its rhythmic propulsions: “A GUST, SUCH AS IS MET IN THE CORRIDORS OF THE TUBE, MAKES THEIR CLOTHES SHIVER OR FLAP, AND BLARES UP THEIR VOICES.”

Lewis intuited that this interaction of character, space, and materiality in a single, immanently evolving system of aspects and relations was especially related to material properties of language.  As much as in his expressionistic use of language in Enemy of the Stars, with its suggestively named antagonists Argol and Hanp, this logic of language can be discovered in the brutal “second nature” of technological war.  Thus, for example, Lewis notes of the notorious site of the Third Battle of Ypres in World War I, the “battlefield, or battle-bog, of Passchendaele: “The very name, with its suggestion of splashiness and of passion at once, was subtly appropriate.  This nonsense could not have come to its full flower at any other place but at Passchendaele. It was pre-ordained.  The moment I saw the name on the trench-map, intuitively I knew what was going to happen” (Blasting and Bombardiering).  He goes on to characterize the battle by its most salient material feature–as an “epic of mud.”

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Lewis’s material imagination creates connections between material spaces and human subjects in ways that differ from the ordinary causal and psychological character-motivations of which novelistic plots are typically constructed.  Why, for example, does Hanp kill Argol in Enemy of the Stars?  While we can give a number of psychological, allegorical, and ideological “reasons” that underlie the interpretative meaning of the act, Lewis’s actual plot has a much more elemental and shocking motivation: he can’t bear the sound of Argol’s snoring:

Bluebottle, at first unnoticed, hurtling about, a snore rose quietly on the air.

Drawn out, clumsy, self-centered! It pressed inflexibly on Hanp’s nerve of hatred, sending hysteria gyrating in top of diaphragm, flooding neck.

It beckoned, filthy, ogling finger.

***

More acutely, it plunged into his soul with bestial regularity, intolerable besmirching.

Aching with disgust and fury, he lay dully, head against ground. At each fresh offense the veins puffed faintly in his temples.

***

His whole being was laid bare: battened on by this noise. His strength was drawn raspingly out of him.  In a minute he would be a flabby yelling wreck.

–Hanp’s extreme “affect” thus derives, first and foremost, not from some deep emotional wellspring, but from his being “affected” by Argol’s irritating perturbations of the air with his stentorious breathing.

We may be more surprised, however, to find similar, if more subtle uses of the material imagination in works of Lewis that are less evidently experimental or satirically hyperbolic, more psychologically and narratively “realist” in their literary mode.  A case in point would be his 1954 novel Self Condemned, which draws upon Lewis’s experience of expatriation in Canada during World War II.

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It is easy enough, of course, to note how Lewis utilizes settings as metonymies of phases in the psychological and narrative evolution of his protagonists, René and Hester Harding, who have come to Canada after René has renounced his History professorship in England, due to his increasing suspicion about the value-system of both academic society and society at large.  The Hotel Blundell, whose name suggests both René’s “blunder” and the “blunted-dull” nature of the couple’s three years there, plays a central role in the characterization of the Hardings.  It is a sort of null point in which their essential relation–which is, Lewis makes clear, an ambiguously loving dependency and dependent lovingness–can be unfolded as an almost static, spatialized construct occupying the preponderance of the book’s pages.

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The material imagination, introduced at first primarily through the harsh climate of Lewis’s fictional Canadian city Momaco, is first muted under the architectural image of the residential hotel.  For instance, Lewis describes, from the perspective of “the Room,” the ice-world that surrounds them when the first blizzards hit:

“The backyards became a strange submerged version of themselves; with a deep soft icing of the Angel-cake variety all seemed phantasy of a sudden, its relation to what was underneath beautifully pathologic.  Every branch or twig had on a furry coat of snow that swelled it out as a kitten’s hair puffs out its miniature limbs. Festoons and lianas of this souffléish substance of weightless young snow made a super Christmas card of what had a short while before been a piece of drab and brutal impressionism.”

Yet these natural forces are already penetrating the house and overwhelming it, in an ominous foreshadowing of its complete annihilation under the twin forces of fire and ice later on:

“Icicles six feet long, and as thick as a man’s arm, hung from the eaves and gutters. The heat of the hot-water pipes could some days scarcely be felt. . . . Below zero temperatures started when the cold came down from Hudson’s Bay and higher, and the Polar Sea walked right through the walls of the hotel as if it had been a radio wave and went clean through your bones. At 50 below zero, in a place by no means perfectly dry, like Momaco, with a sizable river running through the middle of it, it was as impossible to keep it out as radium, in the imperfectly-heated apartment of the Blundell. It walked through your heart, it dissolved your kidney, it flashed down your marrow and made an icicycle of your coccyx.”

Lewis here clearly extends the material iciness into the bodies of his characters, but eventually it will penetrate to their very psychological substance, shattering Hester literally to pieces and hollowing René into an icy, rigid shell.  The cataclysmic turn occurs in the chapter that Lewis symbolically titled “The Microcosm becomes an Iceberg,” in which the Hotel Blundell burns down while being pummeled by water, soon to freeze into sheets and blocks of ice, from the firemen’s hoses.  It is the ultimate scene of a human society, the constructs of humankind, being consumed by the elemental forces of materiality:

“But he could not help being amazed at the spectral monster which had been there for so long, and what it was turning into.  It was a flaming spectre, a fiery iceberg.  Its sides, where there were no flames, was now a solid mass of ice.  The water of the hoses had turned to ice as it ran down the walls, and had created an icy armour many feet in thickness.  This enormous cocoon of ice did not descend vertically, but swept outwards for perhaps fifty yards. . . . The flames rising into the sky seemed somehow cold and conventional as if it had been their duty to go on aspiring, but they were doing it because they must, not because they had any lust for destruction. These were the flames that still reached up above the skyline of the facade.  But a new generation of fiery monsters, a half-hour younger, appeared behind them, a darker red and full of muscular leaps, charged with the authentic will to devour and to consume.  And there were dense volumes of black smoke too, where fresh areas were being brought into the holocaust.”

The effects of the hotel fire never really leave the Hardings for the remainder of the novel.  Although there is a transplantation to a new residence and superficial healing, it leaves its icy, fiery trace in the personalities of both Hester and René.  In Hester’s case, in relation to René’s increasing stabilization of his life and career in Momaco, she is driven to a violent suicide, by throwing herself in front of a truck that severs her limbs from her body and rolls her decapitated head into a gutter.  It is, however, René who is fated not just to be affected by the hotel fire, but to become, involuntary, the gutted shell of the hotel itself, by a kind of mimetic assimilation.  At the end of the novel, when he has superficially recovered from the nervous shock of Hester’s suicide, he is described as an sort of icy edifice, akin to the burned out hotel:

“In any case, the vacuum left by the departed Hester was large, darksome and chilling.  The temptation to provide himself with a human buffer against the environing cold (within and without) was at times painful.”

But it is not solely the iciness that René retains from the hotel fire, as Lewis underscores a page later, it is also the fire, gutting the life of the Room out from within.  Having fallen into a spontaneous outburst with his friend McKenzie, René apologizes:

“‘My brain is burning.’ He began to speak stolidly and matter-of-factly, as if transmitting a piece of information about one of the organs of his body. ‘I have had that sense of a hot devouring something inside my skull, and of a light as well, of a fire-coloured light, since the day I banged my head in the police morgue. You know, I told you how I fell.”

This fall is not just a literal one–it is a descent from human agency into material properties, a mimetic regression into antipodal states of material affection, a burning and freezing of the “soul.”  In his concluding paragraphs, Lewis underscores that there will be no “resolution” of this antipode: René’s infernal fire and ice will be his permanent state, he will be condemned to a hellish Canadian hotel fire through all eternity: “The presence of all this molten material within did not affect the impenetrability of the shell, nor did it interfere with the insect-like activity with which he proceeded with the concreting of his position in academic success and widely acclaimed authorship.”

It is worth adding one brief speculative note to this meditation on Lewis’s material imagination. If, on the one hand, it serves to create resonant interchanges between spaces, characters, and material objects within single works, might it also not also serve to establish resonances across apparently separate, historically divided and differently contextualized pieces of writing?  Might the “material imagination” in Lewis have not just a synchronic function, but also a diachronic one?  Here, then, my choices of examples might not be merely thematically connected, but more strongly historically associated, through the communicating vessels opened by the material imagination.   Enemy of the StarsBlasting and Bombardiering, and Self Condemned each have in common is the immanence of violence and combat in human relations; each establishes the action of war at a distance, and in anticipation and after-effect, in situations that apparently bear no direct resemblance to a battlefield.  It is clear that Self Condemned, on the explicit terms of its plot, is at least in part a novel of World War II.  But is it not possible that, secretly, it is still very much a novel of Lewis’s “Great War,” manifesting itself in a still more untimely fashion than Enemy of the Stars‘ short anticipation of the trench battles and yet more belatedly than Blasting and Bombardiering‘s twenty-year hangover from them?

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