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“Acting the Man”: Wyndham Lewis and the Future of Masculinity

© 2018 Johns Hopkins University Press

The work of Wyndham Lewis seems like a strange place to go looking for innovative configurations of gender. Notoriously associated with what Jeffrey Herf termed “reactionary modernism,” Lewis is well known for the flamboyant misogyny and homophobia expressed in both his fiction and his theoretical writing. Unlike male modernists whose work has been subjected to richly revelatory feminist and queer rereadings (James Joyce, Marcel Proust, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway), Wyndham Lewis was for a long time generally assumed to be unsalvageable for any kind of progressive or even very interesting politics of gender and sexuality.

In 1979, Fredric Jameson pointed out that what was even more profoundly rooted in Lewis’s work than his obvious and “polemic hostility to feminism, the uglier misogynist fantasies embodied in his narratives, the obsessive phobia against homosexuals” was an abstract ideology of gender that motivated these “extreme restatements of grotesque traditional sexist myths and attitudes.”[1] According to that ideology—influenced by widely circulated fin-de-siècle texts like Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character—the female or feminine is a primitive, undifferentiated, mushy bog, with no possible relation to transcendence. Femininity is the condition of the homogeneous crowd, of the Nietzschean herd.

This entrenched hostility towards the feminine is intrinsic to Lewis’s conviction that liberal values like equality and progress are a sham, the means by which malevolent forces determined to consolidate their own power induce people to sacrifice their individuality and will. Lewis considered that little had changed in the four centuries since Machiavelli had described in The Prince how tyrants can manipulate political power—except that in the twentieth century, coercion masquerades as democracy and employs a vast superstructural apparatus to manufacture cooperation. Virtually every aspect of modern politics and culture can be read as a manifestation of this nefarious, coordinated extension of power, behind which Lewis saw “Big Business,” “financial interests,” or, most broadly, “capitalo-socialism.”[2] As Hugh Kenner has written, in Lewis’s ideology:

those who possess power (and power has many disguises) are, solely for the sake of exercising it, herding the rest of the population hither and thither, and performing on them every operation that will make them easier to herd. This has always happened; the peculiar feature of the twentieth century is that no one knows it is going on.[3]

Lewis’s descriptions of these herding operations equate homogenization with castration; the male or masculine is reduced to “a lower form of life” by the eradication of any “erection” that rises above the primeval feminine morass:

In the levelling, standardization, and pooling of the crowd-mind, pressure on any irregularities of surface or temperamental erection, it is the masculine mind that tends to approximate to the feminine rather than the other way round. This is inevitable, seeing that the masculine is not the natural human state, but a carefully nurtured secondary development above the normal and womanly.[4]

Within this framework, feminism and the homosexual emancipation movement are evidence both of capitalo-socialism’s assault on Western white masculinity and of Western white men’s complicity in their own demasculinization; the European male, Lewis claims, has been “hypnotized” into carrying out his own castration (Art of Being Ruled, 241). While the crisis had been some time coming, World War I precipitated it by demonstrating the fatal consequences of masculine aggressiveness, thereby convincing Anglo-European men of the advantages of passivity.[5] Simultaneously, liberal Christianity promoted the virtues of childish innocence, and modern feminism made claims for the superiority of “feminine” characteristics like intuition. Modern men capitulated, becoming childish and effeminate and thus incapable of offering rational resistance to capitalo-socialism’s manipulations (Mao, “A Shaman,” 210).[6]

This description of Lewis’s gender politics is uncontroversial, so far as it goes. While acknowledging the clear evidence of his work’s misogyny, however, scholars have also noted the complicated place Lewis’s claims about gender have within the framework of his larger political project of satirical critique. Jameson’s own Fables of Aggression goes on to suggest that Lewis’s representations of gender are “so extreme as to be virtually beyond sexism” and that Lewis’s goal is to record the “primal ugliness” of such views rather than endorse them (20–21). Andrew Hewitt interprets Lewis’s preoccupation with homosexuality as an important structuring principle underlying his criticisms of democracy, observing that Lewis’s treatment of male inversion cannot be contained within a gendered binarism opposing sissy homosexuals to manly heterosexuals.[7] Instead, Lewis depicts a range of homosocial, homosexual, and gender-deviant male types and relations with widely differing political functions. In particular, Hewitt describes Lewis’s representation of the transvestite in Hitler (1931) as a figure that “denatures and politicizes not only the category of the feminine, but the very modality of representation itself,” exposing both gender and politics as manipulable sign systems (“Wyndham Lewis,” 530).

In the two edited collections on Lewis that appeared in 2015 and 2016, Wyndham Lewis: A Critical Guide and The Cambridge Companion to Wyndham Lewis, several contributors arrived independently at similar conclusions about Lewis’s gender and racial politics, suggesting that virtually all of Lewis’s contradictory and evolving political claims should be understood as provisional strategies and provocations rather than entrenched dogmas. In A Critical Guide, Ivan Phillips admits that “Lewis’s treatment of sensitive issues is invariably provocative and uncompromising, often reckless, at times foolish, unpleasant, and culpably ill-considered,” but goes on to add, “It is also, however, compellingly radical and can be surprisingly progressive in its sympathies and implications.”[8] In the Cambridge Companion, Lara Trubowitz argues that Lewis was invested in racial stereotyping, or what he would call “hatred,” as a useful political gambit rather than a sincere belief about the innate qualities of groups of people. She writes that works like Filibusters in Barbary (1932) position Lewis, “despite all his own egregious bigotry, as an uncannily progressive critic of racial categories, if certainly not of people themselves.”[9]

I proposed in the same volume that we might see Lewis’s entire project as an excavational endeavor, digging into the foundations of structures of (gendered and other) domination in order to expose them.[10] We know how much Lewis admired The Prince (1532), which can be read either as “a vade mecum” for dictators, as Mussolini enthusiastically claimed, or (as Rousseau would have it) in exactly the opposite sense: as a warning to republicans about how tyranny functions, and thus a primer on how to resist it. Lewis’s work—especially in The Art of Being Ruled (1926), his most direct response to Machiavelli—offers similarly slippery interpretive terrain, inscribing misogyny, homophobia, and racism while also providing us with a description of the machinery of domination so detailed and satirical that at times it reads more like exposé than prescription.

My argument in the present article enlarges on my Cambridge Companion chapter, in which I wrote that “Lewis articulates strongly hierarchical and gendered theories of aesthetics and politics while simultaneously calling into question the very meaning(fulness) of gender in terms that can approximate the radical anti-essentialism of third-wave feminism” (“Women, Masculinity,” 126). Douglas Mao has similarly observed Lewis’s surprising proximity, in certain passages in The Art of Being Ruled, to both Simone de Beauvoir and poststructuralist feminisms; for his part, Phillips remarks wryly that Lewis can so “often be caught in the act of frustrating the very binary oppositions that he has set up” that he sometimes “begins to resemble an exemplary poststructuralist” (Mao, “A Shaman,” 209; Phillips, “Political Incorrectness,” 125).

So, for instance, while characterizing femininity as the primitive and natural condition of humanity, Lewis also—in the same texts—describes it as an artificial, and pernicious, result of enculturation, suggesting that femininity is actually a “carefully nurtured secondary development” in the same way that masculinity is. The eponymous protagonist of Tarr (1918) argues that “everything was female to begin with,” imagining the feminine as primordial ooze; but his lover Bertha is sharply aware of the energy required to sustain the behaviors and attributes of a “femme.” For her, femininity is an arduous performance.[11] And in Men Without Art (1934) there is a long passage in which Lewis demonstrates how capitalo-socialism uses cultural media to promote stultifying concepts of femininity and masculinity that blind young women and men to the way they are all equally threatened by imminent political violence. So, far from being “naturally” feminine, girls are given insipid, sentimental books and artworks to teach them to think of nothing but their own sexual attractiveness, rendering them naively unready to exert themselves as political actors “once the button is pressed, and the dogs of war, and the wolves of revolution, are released.”[12] Worse, while girls read bad novels, adolescent boys are lectured about patriotism to prepare them to die for their country (Men Without Art, 203).

Fig. 1. Cover, BLAST (War Number), 1915.

In fact, Lewis’s most concentrated venom is directed not at women or femininity at all, but at the social and political formation of masculinities. In my view, Lewis’s tireless denaturalization of masculinity in interwar works like The Art of Being Ruled, Time and Western Man (1927), The Childermass (1928), Paleface (1929), Men Without Art, and Revenge for Love (1937) provides the richest terrain for the kind of feminist reassessment of his oeuvre I will propose in this article. Given Lewis’s view that one of the most malignant trends of the twentieth century was the effeminization of Western men, we might expect to uncover a nostalgic agenda in these texts, to find him sketching a program for the recuperation of a corrective masculinity that could redeem both Man and Western culture. Yet Miranda Hickman points to “the surprising distance Lewis strove to develop between the conventionally ‘masculine’ and the successfully Vorticist” even in his earliest work, and Jameson notes that Lewis does not attempt to balance his hostility towards women with any “correlative celebration of the male principle” (Fables, 97).[13]

In what follows, I will build on these claims, proposing that neither Lewis’s fiction nor his theoretical writings offer much in the way of an alternative to the demoralized, effete Western male, and that ultimately Lewis is much less interested in salvaging masculinity than in interrogating and reworking the categories of masculine and feminine altogether. Neither nostalgic retreat to premodern forms of gender and gender relations, nor restoration of the masculine values and affects destroyed by World War I, is even envisioned in his work as a desirable outcome, much less a possible one. If there is any trace of a “solution” to the problem of masculinity to be found in Lewis’s work, I will claim, it will be located not in the past but in the future, in new forms of gender independent of all previous modes of gendered being.

This is because Lewis implicates not just threats to masculinity, but all extant concepts of masculinity themselves, as factors in the cultural and political crisis that the interwar texts delineate and decry. All masculine norms can be weaponized by the institutions of capitalo-socialism and used to persuade men to sacrifice their individuality and their lives to the machines of war; thus what is at stake for Lewis in dismantling gender at large, but specifically masculinity, might be nothing less than imagining how we could bring an end to institutionalized violence. My reading here suggests, therefore, not only that a nuanced analysis of Lewis’s treatment of masculinity is central to appreciating his larger political claims, but that such an analysis reveals Lewis as a surprisingly—if inconsistently—astute critic of those social formations that feminist modernists like Virginia Woolf did not hesitate to call patriarchy.

Inversion and Modernity

Lewis’s claims about gender and masculinity must be understood in the context of his extensive treatment of male homosexuality, which recurs implicitly or explicitly in all his writing. Lewis groups the traits he associates with male femininity—passivity, childishness, irrationality, weakness, and lack of individuation—under the rubric of inversion. This was of course the word he and others commonly used for homosexuality, which Lewis believed had increased enormously since World War I. But in Lewis’s usage inversion cannot be equated with same-sex desire and sexual behavior, nor does it overlap precisely with either a physiological condition or effeminacy.

In Lewis’s work from the 1920s and 1930s, he argues that physiological inversion (what others at the time termed “innate” or “congenital” homosexuality) is, in men, “quite rare,” and he refers to this exceptional condition benignly as “simple and harmless topsy-turveydom” (Art of Being Ruled, 209). In addition, although he often conflates same-sex sexual behavior with inverted gender identity, he also peels sexuality and gender apart. Thus, in his schema, there are homosexuals whom he calls inverts but whose gender presentation is nonetheless exceedingly masculine, and there are also many men whose inversion is constituted solely by their effeminacy rather than by sexual acts or desires.

Finally, Lewis distinguishes sharply between the mass of inverts and what he calls “true blue inverts,” who are “often,” though not necessarily, “free from . . . . feminine bias”; Lewis asserts that these are “The most agreeable inverts to be met” (213). Hewitt speculates that Lewis is associating different types of invert with socioeconomic classes here, and that the “true-blue” invert can be read as the “blue-blooded” or “aristocratic” homosexual who is naturally, given Lewis’s politics, to be preferred to the petty-bourgeois homosexual (“Wyndham Lewis,” 538). My own reading, though, focuses instead on two other suggestive phrases in this passage which underline the crucial difference, in Lewis’s thought, between leaders and the herd.

First, he qualifies his use of the phrase “true blue inverts” with the explanation that they are “those who, whatever the orthodoxy of the moment would certainly be unaffected by it” (Art of Being Ruled, 213). Then, a few lines later, he contrasts “the small nucleus of ‘pukka’ material, the ‘regulars,’ with the sheeplike indoctrinated majority” among modern homosexuals. The “pukka” or “true blue” homosexual is set apart not by his “blue-blooded” status per se, but by the independence of mind—the resistance to conformity—that also characterizes the artist in Lewis’s work. The pukka homosexual is an aristocrat, to be sure, but his is an aristocracy defined not by socioeconomic capital but by its stern refusal to be co-opted by any prevailing cultural and political trends.

In contrast, Lewis’s most vehemently homophobic statements are directed at men who are neither physiologically inverted nor truly homosexual in the tendency of their desires, but simply unable to withstand the pressures of capitalo-socialism—“the sheeplike indoctrinated majority.” In these men, inversion is a “capitulation” to a feminine conception of freedom, which means freedom from the responsibility, activity, and initiative incumbent on the adult heterosexual male. In The Art of Being Ruled, Lewis writes:

That the present widespread invert fashion is not an Oscar-Wildeism, or the excrescence of a dilettante sex-snobbery only, is certain—although such elements are to be found in it and are part of its conspicuous advertisement. It is much more an instinctive capitulation of the will on the part of the ruling male sex. It is much more a political phenomenon than anything else, too. . . . The commutative nature of freedom and irresponsibility in what I have called the feminine conception of freedom—which is the type of freedom which is gradually substituting itself today with the European for the masculine, which circumstances have almost compelled him to discard—that is the true key to this great movement throughout Europe. And it is a law that, if left alone, or sufficiently supported by the intricacies of civilization, an individual invariably tends to evade any position of burdensome trust, or indeed any position at all. A receipt for such evasion can be the most popular of social specifics. Sex inversion for the male is such a receipt. (239)

Both modern art and modern democracy are manifestations of inversion in this wide sense. For example, in Men Without Art, Lewis not only dismisses women writers, but also accuses nearly all his male literary peers of having “deeply feminized” minds, evidenced in writing he derides as “feminine” (Proust and Henry James), “romantic” (Sherwood Anderson), and “hysterical” (Faulkner) (140, 133, 244–45, 41–42). The only writers of the day to resist the plague of neoromanticism and promote a “technically tough” prose fiction are, in this account, Lewis himself, and—before Gertrude Stein’s influence ruined him—Hemingway (24–27).

Meanwhile, in politics, democracy is obviously a manifestation of a herd mentality and the male renunciation of responsibility; in addition, it can be seen as a form of cross-dressing. In The Art of Being Ruled, Lewis recounts the story of Haroun al Raschid, who had the “objectionable habit” of disguising himself as a commoner to mingle with his people, a harbinger of contemporary forms of democracy (93). Since Lewis identifies rulers with males and the ruled with females, for a ruler to pass as a commoner constitutes a drag performance: “Thus, the transvestite is the emblem of modern Western democratism—a ruler disguised as the ruled, a man disguised as a woman” (Art of Being Ruled, 92; Hewitt, “Wyndham Lewis,” 536). Male femininity erases a critical hierarchical distinction between male and female, while democracy erases the distinction between leaders and governed; in both cases those who ought to assert their prestige and authority renounce them, and lower themselves to the level of the herd.

Given this strongly hierarchized and binary framework, it might seem self-evident that the “receipt” for curing the epidemic of responsibility-evading effeminacy would be the promotion of a cigar-champing, chest-thumping virility. But in fact, that is a model of masculinity Lewis dismisses out of hand: “much as Lewis satirizes all things linked to the ‘female principle,’” writes Hickman, “he castigates with equal venom characteristics linked to the overtly manly man” (Geometry of Modernism, 69). Whether the manly man appears in Lewis’s work as a “he-man,” a hearty footballer, a bluff colonial administrator, a policeman, or a soldier reliant on brute force, Lewis blasts him as “monotonously martial and heroic” (Men Without Art, 134, 142; Art of Being Ruled, 224–25). In Lewis’s view, martial posturing fueled the World War that helped cause the demasculinizing plague in the first place, and therefore cannot be expected to antidote it.

The Collapsible Man: Colonials and Primitives

When Lewis portrays men who are “puffing and snorting with the he-mannish instinct,” they are almost always British, caricatured as red-faced old reactionaries who sit in their clubs punctuating their complaints about modern youth with ejaculations of “Damn it, sir!” (Men Without Art, 142).[14] On a few occasions, Lewis does appear to envisage an alternative to this Old World masculinity, as when he juxtaposes his obnoxious Englishmen with the figure of a working-class, native-born colonial male, like the attractive and virile Australian painter Victor Stamp in Revenge for Love. In Revenge, the phony Percy Hardcaster, a “cripple,” represents an equally phony and infirm British Empire, or rather its excreta; he is described as a “little plump miniature lion that had crept out of the belly (by the back-stairs exit) of the big stuffed British Lion whose roar rattles the Seven Seas” (29). In contrast, Victor, whose name presages a triumphant destiny, has an authentic, primal maleness that derives from the “hot, vast, and empty” spaces of his native country and “the simple life that was his natal background” (79).

In addition to Victor, we get one brief glimpse in the novel of a few other colonials who are similarly identified with health, youth, heterosexuality, and vigorous outdoorsy-ness as well as with artistic talent. At a social gathering, we are told, “Most of the half-dozen young chaps who were there looked as healthy and capable young men as you could wish to meet. There was a young Canadian who was a fine sunburnt young hiker-like lad, with a little girl-friend by his side. He was a young poet . . . [b]ut he looked like a farm-hand or lumberjack” (103–4). Victor too has an adoring and feminine little woman by his side, the lovely Margot, and for a time it appears that in these colonials, we have a template for an Anglo-European hetero-masculinity successfully revitalized by the fresh air of the New World, precisely as the colonizing project promised it would be. These are neither neutered inverts nor stagy, hypocritical chest-beaters. Their manliness seems natural, unforced, genuine—the masculinity of the self-creating, intellectually independent artist.

But Victor allows himself to be involved in others’ fraudulence, first turning to art forgery to earn money and then being taken in by the false promises of the communists. Womanly Margot has to assume the masculine, rational, protective role Victor relinquishes, with predictably fatal consequences for both of them. Thus it turns out to be not Victor’s first name but his surname, “Stamp,” that is predictive: making copies of artworks rather than the creative originals he should paint, Victor becomes complicit with mass reproduction and finally allows his own individuality to be stamped out by the coercive pressures of capitalo-socialism.

It is possible, though, that his tragic destiny inhered from the outset, not only in his name, but in his virility itself. Early in the novel, when Lewis describes Victor embracing Margot, he writes that her “face got hidden at once under [Victor’s] granite chin, and in the he-man hollows of his collarbone, as she fitted herself in beneath the pressure of his arms” (71). At this point and especially in comparison to the horrible Percy, Victor’s strength and literally chiseled good looks seem unproblematically appealing, a perfect embodiment of Lewis’s own visual aesthetic of massive forms, geometrically precise angles, and planar surfaces. Yet in retrospect, knowing Victor’s fate, we can return to this passage and ask whether there is not after all a touch of satire in Lewis’s depiction of his protagonist’s “granite chin” and the “he-man hollows of his collarbone.” Perhaps Victor was intended to be read all along not as a creative individual who is forced into a mold in the course of the novel, but as a τύπος: literally, an impression, stamped first with one (stereo)type—that of rugged colonial masculinity—and then with another—that of self-castrating acquiescence to debased Western modernity. And from Lewis’s perspective, we notice, the first of these types would, simply by virtue of being a type, participate in the mentality of the effeminized herd as much as the second.

A second alternative to depleted Western masculinity championed by many of Lewis’s modernist contemporaries was the primitive male. Whether African, Native American, Pacific Islander, or Russian peasant, the primitive emerged in the early twentieth century as an incarnation of qualities Westerners imagined they had lost in their own overrefined, etiolated, war-traumatized cultures: bodily vigor, childlike energy, uninhibited sexuality, an unmediated relation to nature. Lewis roundly attacked contemporaries like D. H. Lawrence and Sherwood Anderson for this kind of romanticizing and essentializing view of racial difference, but at times he also made the claim himself that races have distinctive souls or modes of consciousness.

In The Art of Being Ruled, for instance, Lewis’s discussion of male inversion circulates between two apparently remote poles, Paris and Siberia. Initially focusing his analysis on the French capital, epicenter of the crisis in postwar European masculinity, Lewis then suddenly detours to the Arctic Circle to discuss the phenomenon of Chukchee [Chukchi] shamans, spiritually powerful people who are anatomically male but living as females. Lewis claims that he is using this “distant case . . . paradigmatically for comparison” to reveal the essential nature of gender inversion objectively, because the indigenous Chukchee enact a pure form of inversion stripped of the decadent accoutrements of Proust’s Baron de Charlus. Lewis contrasts the raw and bracing environment in which the shaman lives with the hothouse of Paris, writing that in the course of his investigation, “The luxurious stuffiness in which M. Charlus and his engaging little victim are immersed will thus be blown aside for us by the icy winds that are the accompaniment of more primitive Chukchee inversion” (Art of Being Ruled, 259). In addition, Lewis asserts that focusing on the Chukchee will place inversion in a cultural context that distances it from unhelpful and irrelevant moral condemnation—because, as he says, “No one can get passionate about the untaught behaviour of a poor oriental savage” (261). The Chukchee man, off on his windswept Arctic tundra, is thus defined as natural, abject, oriental, and savage, the antithesis of the urban, cultured, occidental invert.

No sooner does Lewis set up this binary opposition between primitive and Proustian inverts, however, than he begins to demonstrate the constant flow and interchange between the poles of the opposition he has generated. Indeed, it becomes clear in the course of his chapter on the Chukchee that the ultimate effect of the apparent contrast between the Chukchee shaman and the Proustian homosexual is to underline not their difference, but their similarity (Mao, “A Shaman,” 212). Like the effeminate Europeans to whom Lewis refers as the shamans’ “sex-correlates,” for instance, shamans are bashful to the point of prudishness (Art of Being Ruled, 266). Additionally, among the Chukchee and other primitive peoples, the choice of a feminine gender identity results from exactly the same desire to avoid adult male responsibility that causes homosexuality in Europeans; in the case of primitives it is the initiation rites accompanying the onset of puberty that some boys shirk, rather than the tests to which European masculinity is subject, but the impulse is the same: “It is natural that at this juncture, faced with the often very unnerving and disagreeable tests which accompany initiation, a certain percentage of boys should shrink from crossing this bridge to responsibility and manhood. The ‘spoilt child’ would no doubt much rather stop with its mother” (265).

Now, in Lewis’s account shamanism is only one manifestation of a larger crisis of masculinity among the Chukchee, resulting from the environmental stresses of the north’s long winters: “In spite of their hardiness,” the Chukchee are, Lewis writes:

subject to annihilating collapses of vitality of which the phenomenon of “arctic hysteria” is a celebrated symptom. But another symptom is equally striking. Prolonged slumber, lasting many weeks, is common with them—a suddenly occurring hibernation or estivation. A man will collapse, feeling unwell, and go to bed and to sleep, and so remain until he either dies or recovers. (260)

Tellingly, Lewis analogizes this form of “hysteria” to the distinctly European experience of shell shock; after describing the symptoms of nervous collapse among the Chukchee, Lewis writes:

These facts are interesting as showing the precarious nature of this sublime hardiness and male virtue that we associate with many northern races: how, a spring of activity and the sense of freedom once touched roughly, the whole structure of what we connect with manhood can crash, in the way that the personality of a shell-shocked man disintegrates in a moment. (260)

While the hysteric Chukchee is compared to a shell shock victim, the Western male assumes the quality of the Chukchee; Lewis describes the “shamanized individuals met frequently today in Europe,” then refers to “the shamanized personality of the male, whether occurring in Asia or Europe” (261, 266).

It is interesting to note that in Lewis’s later volume Men Without Art, the diagnosis of “hysteria” would be applied to the “demented” characters of Faulkner, whose style, with its profligate use of adjectives, is too ornamented and lush for Lewis’s taste and whose “novels are, strictly speaking, clinics,” in Lewis’s words (42). Apparently, then, there is less distance between the effeminizing pathologies of indigenous primitives and those of sophisticated Western moderns than suggested by Lewis’s original justification for evoking the comparison in Art of Being Ruled. The shaman turns out to be, not a culturally specific figure whose interest lies in his remoteness, but a cross-cultural type; and the “pure” form of Chukchee inversion actually reveals the inherent precariousness of all masculinities, whether under assault by the brutal Arctic winter, Western feminism, or World War I.

There are many indications in Lewis’s work that the fragility of masculinity itself (“the whole structure of what we connect with manhood”) is indeed not only a cross-cultural, but a transhistorical phenomenon. In the section of Art of Being Ruled just before the chapter on the shaman, Lewis had argued that masculinity is essentially artificial and highly unstable, writing that “the male is not naturally ‘a man’ any more than the woman. He has to be propped up into that position with some ingenuity, and is always likely to collapse. . . . A man, then, is made, not born: and he is made, of course, with very great difficulty” (247–48). At most, then, Proustian inversion, shell shock, and other symptoms of the disintegration of Western masculinity are only historically specific manifestations of an ahistorical universal truth: that the category “man” is always a site of/in crisis. Where other modernists looked hopefully to the primitive for a model of authentic and unimpaired masculinity, Lewis scornfully dismisses fantasies (even, perhaps, his own) that Western men can be redeemed by emulating the noble savage—who, it turns out, is every bit as neurasthenic as his European “sex-correlate.”

The Greek Investment

Lewis does gesture towards one other alternative mode of masculinity that seems potentially more stable and robust than either contemporary European forms, or the colonial or primitive models. Men who are homosexual, but not gender-inverted, would be free from any threat of feminine contamination in either their sexual relations or their gender expression. Perhaps the Greeks, in their martial virtue and unselfconscious acceptance of pederasty, were such men; at times they appear to represent for Lewis an historical manifestation of inversion that, feeling no need to flaunt itself, managed to avoid making a convention of camp. Contrasting the Greeks with modern homosexuals like Wilde, Lewis asks,

What would a Greek (brought up in the recognition as “natural” of what Oscar Wilde regarded as deliciously “unnatural”) what would Alcibiades, as an eminent example, have made of this fat Dublin buffoon, horrifying the mob, and himself into the bargain, by this “wickedness”! He could have been little else but an object of astonished derision. (Men Without Art, 143)

Untroubled by Christian (thus: feminine) morality, the Greeks might indeed have had available to them a form of gendered sexual being that Lewis finds appealing and that, if reproducible, would be a “receipt” for the ills of contemporary masculinity. The difficulty is that it is not reproducible—first, because we now live in a post-Christian world and, secondly, because once “reproduced,” Hellenic masculinity would simply be another τύπος. In The Childermass, Lewis’s depiction of characters representing a Greek ethos makes this problem clear; the dialectic Lewis creates in this work between modern effeminates and Hellenes demonstrates why no already-existing historical mode or model of masculinity can be called upon to rescue Anglo-European men from their predicament.

The Childermass is a formally and thematically baffling work even by Lewis’s standards; it has been called “theological science fiction,” satire, and a conte philosophique, although I will refer to it simply and inadequately as a novel. Along with the later companion volumes Malign Fiesta and Monstre Gai, The Childermass, as Scott W. Klein has written, “represents Lewis’s most sustained attempt to imagine alternative versions of the Universe as embodiments of his consistent yet constantly revised sense of the relation between individuality and political power.”[15] This is a particularly interesting observation when we consider the peculiar manifestations of gender and sexuality in the work, for in this “alternative version of the Universe,” the characters’ gender performances are the most obvious indicator of their relationships to identity and to power; the genre of speculative fiction seems to have been interesting to Lewis at least in part because of the way it allowed him to experiment with ideas about gender.

The novel is set in an otherworldly waiting area for heaven, a sort of purgatory, through which wander two men who have died in World War I, Pullman and Sattersthwaite. The purgatorial landscape is extremely volatile: objects, people, and natural features of the scenery keep changing shape, size, direction, species, and time period. Gender is no exception to this rule of incessant mutability; although the characters are all putatively male, many of them are marked by femininity and turn, repeatedly, into women and little girls. Furthermore, the whole group of men associated with a malevolent leader called the Bailiff are homosexually paired off, often in butch-femme couples.

The Bailiff is opposed by a man named Hyperides and his followers, and the entire second part of the novel is written in the form of a dramatic dialogue between these two factions. Daniel Schenker, like numerous other critics, observes that the Bailiff is associated with “virtually all the cultural phenomena that Lewis identified as outward expressions of [the] decline [of Western civilization]: Dadaism, feminism, homosexuality, communism, relativism, and, of course, ‘Time.’”[16] In contrast, the Hyperideans are Hellenic figures, upholding the values of militarism and sport; many commentators describe them as fascist or protofascist. The Hyperideans often give voice to Lewis’s own political views, delivering speeches that rehearse, sometimes word for word, positions he articulates in the theoretical works that complement Childermass. For instance, at one point a Hyperidean named Alectryon offers a political interpretation of homosexuality that reiterates many of Lewis’s own arguments in Art of Being Ruled and Men Without Art: Alectryon tells the crowd waiting for judgment that there are far more homosexuals in their time (that is, just after World War I) than there had been a decade previously, because of “the Feminist Revolution,” and argues that “The pathic is the political twin of the suffragette or he is her immediate political successor. Large-scale male perversion is the logical male answer to the New Woman, in short it is the New Man.”[17]

The Bailiffites are almost all “New Men.” Sattersthwaite is characterized as feminine, homosexual, and immature: “the weaker vessel,” an “overblown neuter,” a “baby-face,” “a big moody schoolboy,” and “little Cissy Satters ravished pulling cheekily at her apron, roguishly downcast and cunningly civil” (The Childermass, 27, 28, 29, 46, 83). Pullman is similarly described as having “the trunk and limbs of a child” and “a girlish hand” (10). Although masculine signifiers also attach themselves to him, they are frequently used in conjunction with feminine ones. Referred to as Sattersthwaite’s “Nanny” or “Abigail,” he is termed “masterful Miss Pullman,” and we are told that “Cool and masculine . . . . Miss Pullman urges Satters along” (21, 26). The two thus maintain the hierarchical relationship first established at their public school between senior boy and fag, but refigure the poles of the hierarchy as either male/female, or adult female (Pullman) and child (Satters). The same pattern applies to other Bailiffites, paired up in couples that retain a gendered structure despite the fact that both partners are effeminate:

Many of those they [Sattersthwaite and Pullman] pass are also arm-in-arm, immersed, it appears, in a similar relationship, detachable master-spirit with rooster strut and bashful satellite, one who speaks bold and high the other retiring and low with a sideway gazelle-like glitter of the eye. Both usually possess painted lips, but around the paint of the one is often a delicate whisker. (247)

In lengthy passages describing the crowds of Bailiffite couples, Lewis introduces more and more varied homosexual (stereo)types; he portrays, among others, “dwarfish shapes . . . accompanied by adoring monsters of falstaffian proportions”; “big rough-diamonds . . . big middle-aged pairs in languishing embrace”; “stock panting soss-paunched Aunt-Marys linked with dapper half-bred Middle-West midinettes”; “proustite academic pairs”; and “those who have dwelt in studios d’outre tombe . . . in exciting pullovers or expressive plain jerseys, with pipe stuck mannishly in painted lips” (248–49). Some of the men “drag at the end of a lead toy Sealyhams and Blenheim Spaniels,” others “support small Japanese parasols,” and yet others, Lewis writes in a jab at a recognizable John Betjeman, “carry Teddy-bears which they regard as mascots and play with when they think they are observed” (248–49).

What is the point of these endlessly proliferating taxonomies of masculine aberrance, encompassing such a range of morphologies, affects, class and gender markers—even descriptors specific to a single individual who becomes, here, avatar of an entire sex/gender type: the “Betjeman type,” as it were? In Fables of Aggression, Jameson analyzes the way Lewis’s style compiles preexisting fragments of cultural cliché in order to demonstrate that individual thought and individual experience are illusions, concocted out of “the junk materials of industrial capitalism” (73). Jameson writes that within the world of The Childermass, “conventionalized formulae dictate in advance the thought that had seemed to choose them for its own instruments” (73). His analysis disregards gender; yet, as we see in the passage just quoted, gender paradigms are among the most prominent of the “conventionalized formulae” dictating forms of selfhood in Childermass. Here, all gender expression is produced by the degraded language of cultural stereotype: the “rooster strut” of the male, the “painted lips” of the female. This undermines the idea of natural or authentic gender—as does the tremendous volatility of gender in Purgatory—and emphasizes that gender difference is generated by a symbolic order that is, in Lewis’s view, an instrument of the totalitarian forces dedicated to eradicating genuine individuality and variability from the modern world.

Understanding this, we can see how Lewis can emphasize the enormous range of gender typologies among the denizens of Purgatory while simultaneously insisting on their uniformity. For in their conformity to early twentieth-century stereotypes of homosexuality—however various—these men constitute a class, and their gendered identities are dictated by the preexisting parameters determined by that class status:

Those they [Pullman and Sattersthwaite] meet in the same situation as themselves are from every class and of all ages but tend to a uniformity that is strictly passionel and that confers upon them the cachet of a social class. Their class-life dominates them so that their responses to alien stimulus would be impersonal class-responses, or such as are proper to their prescribed function. Thus some would respond as the aggressive squaw-men that are highly intelligent, armed to the teeth with the tongue mainly but very fierce, and some as the female of the species, either adventurous or domesticated, whose fierceness is variable, as shy as doves or as bold as musk-rats, but in every instance responding truly as disciplined units of the great and prosperous hominy class. (The Childermass, 248)[18]

To be a disciplined unit of a class is, of course, to fail to be an individual. In their adherence to type(s) the Bailiffites become de-individualized members of the herd, and, as we know, for Lewis individuality is masculine, whereas the “herd” is always feminine, or at least feminized.

If the effeminacy of so many of the Bailiffites indexes their loss of individuality in World War I and the postwar western world, however, it is vital to realize that the erosion of individuality also afflicts those characters in the novel whose gender performance is masculine. Some of those characters are Bailiffites, for these men do adopt not only feminine traits, but also male-gendered affects and behaviors (whose arbitrariness is made hilariously evident by the rapidity with which the men transition from one gender style to another). For instance, in one passage, Satters loses his temper with “Nannie Pullman” and instantly turns from a small child into an ultravirile British Army officer:

But Satters has stood enough of it; there is another Satters. Out of the nursery Satters-number-two shoulders his way to show this Nannie! Guttural roll ascended into his voice, he grumbles suddenly forth:

“It’s a bit late in the day to think about that! God it’s hot!” He stops forcibly, mopping his face. “Where are we going? I’d give something for an ice drink! My kingdom for an ice-julep, or grenadine frappée, what?”

...The stage shakes. (49)

The shaking stage here is a suggestive piece of fantasy, given the way the Bailiffites are acting out in the theater of gender, performing set roles and reading from clichéd scripts. But, crucially, this is no less true of the Hyperideans, the Hellenes who appear in the novel as antitheses of and alternatives to the Bailiffites. The Hyperideans are coolly logical, handsome, self-possessed; they display none of the mutability of the Bailiffites, since they are not partisans of the Bergsonian time cult, and, as we have seen, they are often used to voice Lewis’s own opinions. They obviously inherit the Greek tradition Lewis identified with a virile, unselfconscious antiromanticism.

And yet they, too, are enacting clichés—in their case, clichés of militaristic masculinity, detailed with the same mocking and exuberant excess Lewis lavishes on his catalogues of inverts. “All the Hyperideans affect some variety of the Greek investment,” Lewis tells us, before describing their comically assorted costumes, compiled from a series of stereotypically masculine visual images, from the Greek pilos to motor-helmets:

they have pelisses of black wool, sweeping black cloaks of canvas or linen; some wear a workman’s pilos or dogskin kune, there are many different shapes of the more elegant and languishing petasus, the unequal brim drawn down over the ear and tied beneath the chin: motor-helmets with buttoned cheekpieces surmount a leather thorax and a chiton. Several are naked except for girdles: these are the more athletic. There is also an intermixture of Norse head-dress, where the Phrygian mitre merges in the piratic cap of Edda-legend, the Greek helmet with lophos of horsehair combining with the Scandinavian horned helmet. (254)

Like their clothes, the Hyperideans’ behaviors are assembled from a motley collection of military references:

At the slightest hint they take fire, in everything over-zealous, they leap into every suggestion of a breach, theirs is the Legion of Lost-Causes, they have the tattered grandeur of an Imperial Guard at its Waterloo, a cambronnesque The Guards die, they do not surrender is painted all over them, they advertise doom in all their attitudes with a heroic rejoicing. (254)

The Hyperideans, then, travesty the “conventionalized formulae” of masculinity, just as the Bailiffites travesty both genders. All gender expression in Purgatory is costuming and the performance of a clichéd script. Nor, Lewis suggests, does the body under the clothes offer any authentic or stable basis for masculine identity. In fact, from his first novel, Tarr, through the rest of the interwar work, Lewis consistently interrogates and satirizes the male body itself as a form of masquerade. In Tarr—where, as we saw earlier, Bertha is well aware of the effort involved in presenting herself as feminine—Tarr is similarly conscious of his own gender performance, which he views as a farcical competition with other men in which the sexed body must be manufactured and displayed:

Talking to Butcher while he was changing, [Tarr] stood behind his bedroom door. Men of ambitious physique, like himself, he had always noticed, were inclined to puff themselves out or let their arms hang in a position favourable to their muscles while changing before another man. To avoid this embarrassment or absurdity, he made a point of never exhibiting himself unclothed. (Tarr, 315)

In later theoretical works, Lewis insistently challenges the notion that men are physically stronger than, or even physically different from, women, arguing instead that for millennia male embodiment has been a strenuous, tenuous drag show:

The large, bloated, and sinewy appearance of the male, again, is partly the result of manual work or physical exercise, but is the result as well of thousands of years of ACTING THE MAN. The more muscular frame of the male, and his greater hardihood, are illusions, like everything else about him, provisionally and precariously realized, but no more stable than the muscular development produced by some intensive course of physical exercise, resulting in the inflation of this system of muscles or that. . . . The male is by nature (uninflated by vanity and physical exercise) as muscleless, slight, and as we say “feminine,” both physically and mentally, as the female. (Art of Being Ruled, 250)

Standing Alone: The Fourth Gender

To summarize the vision of male ontology Lewis elaborates throughout his oeuvre and lays out in its most dramatically explicit form in The Childermass: first, both masculinity and the male body are in essence frail and collapsible; and, second, every extant or historical form of masculine presentation is now available to us only as nonsensical fragments of discourse circulating through a corrupted, homogenizing regime of power. In a 1994 article on Tarr, Paul Peppis wrote about how, in that novel, the characters’ efforts to establish a stable subjectivity are repeatedly thwarted. His conclusions can easily be applied to gender identity as a component of subjectivity, and they explain why all gendered performances, whether Bailiffite or Hyperidean, must terminate in a degraded effeminacy:

[B]ecause identity [in Tarr] is a transitory concatenation of contradictory desires and compulsions, the task of personality becomes an ongoing but ultimately futile series of efforts to find such an authentic self. Unable to locate that self within, persons strive to adopt an identity they wish were authentic in hopes that by performing that pseudo-self it might somehow become real . . . internal and external disturbances always render their roles obsolete, insuring that all their performances eventually flop.[19]

Is it possible to reconcile this skeptical view of gendered identity with Lewis’s incessant trumpeting of male supremacy? Perhaps not; ideological consistency was never a feature, or a goal, of his work. But let us see what happens when we put these foundational premises together: (1) the masculine is superior to the feminine; (2) the moment the masculine can be identified with any existing or historical (stereo)type of masculinity it becomes feminized, thus no longer superior. If this is not simply a despairing concession that capitalo-socialism’s hegemony is irresistible and irreversible, then we have to conclude that the “masculinity” Lewis values so highly must be something independent of all already-existing concepts of the masculine, and perhaps even of the male body. If there remains in Lewis’s work any suggestion that some small, elite faction of humanity might still be capable of resisting capitalo-socialism through creative endeavor—and most critics seem to agree that the theoretical works at least do hold out that hope—then apparently this faction is going to have to be gendered in entirely new ways.

Bearing in mind Klein’s association of The Childermass and the rest of The Human Age with speculative fiction, it is unsurprising that Lewis can imagine an ideal of gender—a gender that is truly individual and resistant to power—only by projecting it into the future, in a reference that seems to belong to the realm of science fiction. In my Cambridge Companion article, I pointed to the short, cryptic passage in Art of Being Ruled in which Lewis suggests that in the future a fourth gender will evolve that is “neither male nor female nor androgynous (‘exact half and half’) but sexed in ways unlike those we currently know” (“Women, Masculinity,” 134, quoting Art of Being Ruled, 223–24). This fourth gender would, in Lewis’s words, “involve a new creative element”—it would partake not of debased theatricality but of genuine art—and it would be unselfconscious about its genderedness, in the way that the Greeks were once able to be unselfconscious about pederasty: “It would not always be reminding people what a close shave it was that they had not divaricated to one side or the other” (Art of Being Ruled, 224). This is, as far as I know, the only place in Lewis’s work where he mentions this fourth gender, and his terse, opaque comments in this paragraph are less helpful than they could be in allowing us to imagine what such a gender would entail. Given his emphasis on the “creative element” involved, however, his opacity might be very much to the point; for if Lewis described the fourth gender in any detail, would he not simply be generating another type that, encouraging imitation, would once again promote effeminacy?

Fig. 2. Wyndham Lewis, illustration for Timon of Athens, circa 1912, Folger Shakespeare Library.

All we can guess about the fourth gender, then, is that it would be a creative, self-determined form of being. Such a radically new ontology could surely emerge only from a politico-cultural matrix that had been thoroughly disrupted, and this may explain why Lewis alludes more than once to the revolutionary potential of male homosexuality, saying that “male sex-inversion can be regarded, I believe, as the prognostication of a deep revolution in the european character” (240). While not a desirable end in itself, Western male homosexuality at least contributes to the exposure and dissolution of congealed forms of European hetero-masculinity and the social structures that enable them. This is one reason that, while abhorring his effeminacy, Lewis also values Proust, “a great revolutionary figure” whose “usefulness” is that “His hands are apt at unpicking, if only because they are small, agile, and feminine ones” (245). To unpick, to unravel the psychosexual fabric of fin-de-siècle Paris as Proust does in the Recherche is a demolition project that is not, in fact, too remote from Lewis’s own form of satirical cultural critique, however different the tools he and Proust might use to tackle the task of de-construction.

In Lewis’s account, he and Proust apparently share one other admirable characteristic. In a passage in Men Without Art in which Lewis derides literary “old maids” like Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, he both groups Proust with the other old maids and approvingly differentiates him from them because of his “commendable habit of standing, half-concealed, but alone” (Men Without Art, 139). Standing alone was, after all, the preferred stance of the self-identified Enemy, as well as the attitude he identified with the artist, the effective political leader, and the “true blue invert” alike. That Proust was homosexual matters less, then, than the fact that, like Lewis, he was capable of standing apart from the herd.

The independence and the capacity for critique characteristic of both Lewis and Proust would presumably be essential features of members of the fourth gender, who would by definition participate in “masculinity”—Lewis’s label for autonomous creativity—but would not be “acting the man,” and indeed would not be “men” in any way in which that word is now understood. Beyond τύπος, performance, imitation—beyond any repetition of a fatal stamp—Lewis’s ideal artist would necessarily announce a revolution in gender as well as in art.

This may be an impossible ideal, but it is not, from my own perspective as a feminist critic, an uninteresting one. At the least, Lewis’s desire to deconstruct masculinity and to reconstitute gender on a new basis should earn him a place alongside Proust (as well as Woolf, Joyce, and the other contemporaries he reviled) as a modernist whose work merits careful reassessment for what it can tell us about the complex rearrangements of gender taking place in the early twentieth century. No doubt being placed in such company would have infuriated him—but then that is, surely, all the more reason to put him there.


[1] Fredric Jameson, Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 4.

[2] Despite its vagueness, “capitalo-socialism” is probably the most precise of Lewis’s various terms for the shadowy conspiratorial forces that he, as both an anticapitalist and an anti-Marxist, opposed. Lewis was virtually alone among right-leaning conspiracy theorists of the time in declining to identify the nefarious agents of capitalo-socialism with Jews.

[3] Hugh Kenner, Wyndham Lewis (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1954), 72.

[4] Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, ed. Reed Way Dasenbrock (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1989), 166.

[5] See Douglas Mao, “A Shaman in Common: Lewis, Auden, and the Queerness of Liberalism,” in Bad Modernisms, ed. Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 206–37, 209.

[6] See Art of Being Ruled, 201, 247; Wyndham Lewis, Paleface. The Philosophy of the ‘Melting-Pot’ (London: Chatto and Windus, 1929), 240–41.

[7] Andrew Hewitt, “Wyndham Lewis: Fascism, Modernism, and the Politics of Homosexuality,” ELH 60, no. 2 (1993): 527–44, 528, 534.

[8] Ivan Phillips, “Political Incorrectness Gone Sane: Lewis, Race, and Gender,” in Wyndham Lewis: A Critical Guide, ed. Andrzej Gasiorek and Nathan Waddell (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 112–27, 113.

[9] Lara Trubowitz, “Race and Antisemitism in Lewis,” in The Cambridge Companion to Wyndham Lewis, ed. Tyrus Miller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 113–24, 121.

[10] See Erin G. Carlston, “Women, Masculinity, and Homosexuality in Wyndham Lewis,” in The Cambridge Companion to Wyndham Lewis, 125–35.

[11] Wyndham Lewis, Tarr: The 1918 Version, ed. Paul O’Keefe (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1990), 168.

[12] Wyndham Lewis, Men Without Art, ed. Seamus Cooney (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1987), 203.

[13] Miranda B. Hickman, The Geometry of Modernism: The Vorticist Idiom in Lewis, Pound, H.D., and Yeats (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 56.

[14] Wyndham Lewis, The Revenge for Love, ed. Reed Way Dasenbrock (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1991), 142.

[15] Scott W. Klein, “The Human Age,” in Wyndham Lewis: A Critical Guide, 189–202, 189.

[16] Daniel Schenker, Wyndham Lewis: Religion and Modernism (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992), 151.

[17] Wyndham Lewis, The Childermass (London: Jupiter, 1965), 311.

[18] Hominy is one of Lewis’s terms for homosexual, a neologism apparently derived from Romany.

[19] Paul Peppis, “Anti-Individualism and the Fictions of National Character in Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr,” Twentieth Century Literature 40, no. 2 (1994): 226–55, 241.