Four selections from Wyndham Lewis’s Rude Assignment

Feeling pretty accomplished in my beach reading this vacation; I finished Bend of the World, read Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men, Padgett Powell’s short but masterful Lost-Cause-as-senior-daydream novel, and plowed through most of Wyndham Lewis’s “intellectual autobiography” Rude Assignment. I’ve got  the Black Sparrow Press edition, which has six of Ezra Pound’s letters to Lewis regarding the work, which are very entertaining and some really great intellectual sparring. Anyway, here are some selections. On socialism as a bourgeois fad:

The worst blemish in the English character is not, as many people would have it, hypocrisy: it is that the Englishman is a congenital snob. This fact seems to me of importance to socialism — though I am often told it is not. Will the Englishman divest himself of his snobbery, as he passes over into the new social order: or will he take it with him — assuming, in its new environment, horrible and unexpected forms? Will the Stalin of England insist that he is of an awfully good family, and will it be high treason to remind him that his papa hawked fish in the New Cut? Will the shoddy genius of the Old School Tie go hand in hand with the British version of the Commissar?

There has been ‘Labour,’ but in England socialism has mostly existed as salon-socialism, up till now: a middleclass monopoly. I know and have met great numbers of socialists but only two or three issuing from the working-class. You would think that a young middleclass man, when he decided to dedicate himself to the emancipation of the working-class, would lay aside for good the old school tie, and with it the degrading emotions of idiot-pride in the not very interesting fact that his ‘people’ floated at a respectable middleclass distance above the gutter. You would think he would dump all that into the trash-can and try and be serious.

But this as a rule does not happen: among Popular Front acquaintances I have met with more straight social snobbery than anywhere else. Where one had thought only to find a passion for social justice, one so often discovers nothing but an unlovely little power-complex. Snob and socialist are not regarded as mutually exclusive terms in England. And this feudal atavism, or, as it usually is, hangover from the Servants-hall, has not been by any means confined to the small-fry. — When, many years ago, I met Prince Kropotkin, I detected no sign that he remembered that once he had been a prince. That he had left behind, along with his fortune, when he went into a most honourable exile. Perhaps this is easier for an aristocrat: it is easier to leave a great deal, possibly, than to turn your back upon something insignificant.

On being shaped by his service in the artillery in World War I:

As the time and place of a person’s birth is in some sort a spell, so my politics bear signs everywhere of their origin in war.

Most socialist doctrine in the case of the older men is rooted in christian teaching: with the young it is rooted in power impulses. There is very little trace here, today, in England at least, of the christian basis of feeling about things: and it is difficult to see what a socialist doctrine can base itself on, if you eliminate christianity, except some impulse to power. So it may have been the vigour of the christian past that gave the particular colour to this birth-in-the-war of a political sense I am describing, for undoubtedly war has less effect upon people now, which is not only because they become desensitised, but there is no kick left in the moral nature. It is so flabby you can murder in front of it, and it response no more than to the death of a fly — which is the point at which ‘crime’ ends, and there is no longer any right or wrong, which notions depend for their validity entirely upon a privileged isolation of the human spirit from the rest of the universe.

On the battlefields of France and Flanders I became curious, too, about how and why these bloodbaths occurred — the political mechanics of war. I acquired a knowledge of some of the intricacies of the power-game, and the usurious economics associated with war-making. None of the troops I came in contact with — excepting the Anzacs, whom I found myself in the midst of in the Salient for a while — would, left to themselves, have treated war otherwise than as a major nuisance. The officers in the battery were humorous about it, treating it as they would a licensed clown who sometimes ‘went a little too far.’

In spite of this, I found, then and afterwards, a good deal rooted in the psychology of everybody of ‘British stock’ a tolerance of war as something they could not imagine not being there. Soon after the war’s end I became acquainted, for instance, with Col. Lawrence. I tried to talk to him about war: but apart from agreeing that it of course was ‘beastly,’ I did not get very far. He was, it is true, an unlikely subject: too big a profiteer — in reputation, not money. The conservatism of the English must make it difficult for their minds to give hospitality to the idea of anything ending, especially anything which had continued for so long, under such august patronage, as war. In England, or the European continent generally — in contrast to the New World, where it is quite a different picture — I met few people who regarded mass-killing as a crime. If you kill enough people, that is somehow all right, they seemed to think, and quite normal.

On ‘brutalism’ and responding to leftist critics:

I am not usually accused of being stupid. The sort of accusation I have generally had to meet is that I think like Machiavelli. Like him I favour despots. That I am brutal (as a satirist) to sweet kind nice people in whose mouths butter would not melt: a bad man in the nursery, wanting in love for children; and that (like miss Sidney Webb) I do not feel warmly towards the poor and lowly.

Since a mildewed residue of christian morality — the only part of the religion of Christendom that appealed to the contemporary ideological politician as useful — has been employed to bait, or to camouflage, contemporary power-doctrines, it is consequently the moral issue that this the background of all contemporary controversy. The critical attack upon the views of Mr. X is on the basis of goodness, not on any other. For it is his badness alone (if that can be brought home to him) with which opinion can be inflamed against him. And, needless to say, all those who do not agree with the ideologue are bad; for he possesses a monopoly of the virtuous — the humane and the social — attributes.

The form the indictment takes is not: ‘Mr. X does not subscribe to our doctrine, so he is lacking in judgement and intelligence, is politically unenlightened.’ That would leave people cold; they would not get bloodshot about Mr. X’s intelligence. Also, it would leave the matter open to argument. So the form the indictment takes is as follows: ‘Mr. X does not subscribe to our doctrine, therefore he is an immoral and inhumane man.’

The fellow-travelling intellectuals, comprising a solid majority, who put me under a curse — because I spoke of communism as practised by the bolsheviks as inhumane and too like the jesuit or ottoman disciplines — these partisans who have controlled the literary world for a quarter of a century would not have gained acceptance for their crypto-communism in the West without a liberal flavouring of christian morality. …

Seeing that ours has been in the West a generation of hypocrites — and of persecutory hypocrites excessively partial to blood-sports, at that: who, in changing from empire-builders into fellow-travelers, retain the old sanctimonious pretexts that it is for the good of others they practise violence, and clothe themselves in power, and in discarding the Bible tear out all they need of the sanctions of the Mosaic law: seeing that it is a generation that has shown less care for men in the mass than any for a great many centuries, combining this demonstrable indifference to the welfare of the generality with never-ceasing hosannas to the Common Man: a generation of power-addicts who put a red tie on with a smirk, climb upon the back of the Working Class and propose to ride it to a new type of double-faced domination; seeing all this, that any one should have to defend himself from charges of insufficient regard for the Many is imbecile, of course.

On the “Puritans of the Steppes,” apropos our Eurasianism discussion:

Paris was full of Russian students (this of course was before the Russian Revolution), who walked about in pairs, in tight black semi-military jackets. They conversed with no one — they were contemptuous of Western levity, stern and self-absorbed. It has been said that when Dostoevsky wrote ‘The Possessed’ there were in Russia no Stavrogins or Verhovenskys, that they came much later and this was a divination of the future. In that case these characters, now become flesh and blod, were met by me every day on the Boulevards, and they decidedly looked the part.

These were the new Puritans, who were to dominate Europe: a generation with many points of resemblance with the black-coated sectaries who began to swarm in England in the first days of the Seventeenth Century, and who subsequently transmitted their passionate disciplines to, and became the genius of, the ‘New World.’

The world of imagination I inhabited at that time, however, was anything but puritan, taken as a whole. For this great volume of creation produced in the Nineteenth Century by a group of men over a space of fifty or sixty years there is no parallel since the Renaissance — to which the Tudor stage, of course, was the greatest English contribution. The impression conveyed is of a release on the grand scale of prodigal energies.

All of the writers, it seems to me, responsible for this new world of the spirit are of the same half-Western, half-Eastern, ethos; which, among other things, gives them a particular value — like everything about Russia. They must, in consequence, for the Western European, remain a great universalising influence. And all the Russians, Tolstoy almost as much as Dostoevsky, were conscious of their curious relationship to the West — of it, and yet not of it: conscious also of something like a mission with regard to it, namely as the purveyors of sincerity to the over-institutionalised European. We find this missionary spirit, itself institutionalised, its ethical passion dimmed in the process, in the contemporary Russian.

A cultural see-saw, of westernising and anti-westernising, proceeded among the intellectual leaders: but to hold themselves apart from the West — a little contemptuously apart — was by far the more popular attitude. … No more today than yesterday, I think, do we appreciate how genuine sincerity can take even a self-righteous form, and how insincere and untrustworthy, in many respects, the West must seem to these Puritans of the Steppes, whose lineaments already are visible in the dramatis personae of the Nineteenth Century Russian classics. When however, self-righteousness grows so extreme that it violently liquidates all whom it regards as sinful, it is natural it should awaken hatred and alarm.

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