The financial collapse, which loomed so large more than a year ago as trillions of dollars disappeared and politicians ran for cover, may have suggested a lesson or two. The chairman and a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, the former head of Goldman Sachs (nice name, that), the president of the United States, two candidates to replace him, and many another all showed evidence of panic and a remarkable unanimity of opinion, which finally turned to the image of printing lots of paper. Jumping down and spinning around to pick a bale of greenbacks, the national leadership junked years of economic theory and development so decisively that the field of discourse was abandoned to the opposing ideology of statism, socialism, even communism. No limit whatsoever was accorded to the assumption of debt, and that for—whatever. We would have bailouts or bale-outs for the financial sector and the banks and the automobile industry, and a revolution in healthcare, all at the same time as gross deficits, numerous wars, and blame enough to go around for just about everyone. The citizens, or many of them, had long since maxed out their credit cards and borrowed against their houses: The bubble was inclusive. And so was the shared but unstated assumption that we want the bubble back—the bubble was a good thing. As Warren Buffet said, when the tide is going out, we find out who’s been swimming naked. And I think that Bernie Madoff (nice name, that) will be remembered even after the money he made off with is forgotten.
Yes indeed, but my purpose here is not to engage in economic points but in other ones. The not altogether unrelated attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center just over eight years ago was another case of now you see it, now you don’t. The symbol of money, of the dollar, of international commerce, was vaporized along with the humanity and the digitalized archives as Islamic fanatics more than suicidally but with nihilistic violence attacked these and other material images of American power. The terrorist agenda to provoke doubt, panic, confusion, and, more subtly, overreaction was no bluff; it rested on a tough insight into reality, and into unreality.
This grim situation suggests various reflections: One is that nihilistic violence has its Western precedents. Another, that the look into the abyss is best dealt with philosophically or fictionally, or otherwise at long range. After the 20th century, there are many survivors left who know that a look over the precipice is best entertained obliquely. So there is a literature of the confrontation with the void, and those familiar with French, Russian, and other such forays know what that is. Looking further back, there is precedent in tragic vision and in the traditions of philosophical speculation that allows us to gaze upon the Medusa-head without ensuing petrifaction. In truth, there is a literature of confronting the void even in popular culture, as is well known in various strands of the horror film. But it is in more conventionally respectable precincts that we hear of existential angst and the crisis of modernity and its rendition in fiction. Sometimes this topic appears to be “political,” but it is more serious and searching than any such category can contain.
So as far as the oblique or secondhand approach to the sense of crisis is concerned, there are various vehicles to be nominated. And one of them that comes to mind these days also presents itself when I am asked to nominate a novel of quality that is off the beaten track. And this same novel comes to mind when I am asked to identify a novel that is a model of composition.
That novel is The Revenge for Love by Wyndham Lewis, first published in 1937. But as this novel deals with communist agitation, gun-running into Spain, and the usual British parlor pinks, we must be precise about the situation in which it was written, for even today people refer to it erroneously as a novel having to do with the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. That’s not true, though the association is there. Lewis wrote the novel in 1934-35, before the war but not before the tensions. The publication was delayed until after the start of the war in Spain, whence the association. The book begins in Spain and ends there, but most of it is set in England and involves an exposition about trendy fellow travelers of the 30’s. That is the sense in which the novel is a “political” one, but I think that this specificity is provisional—certain characters must speak and act in their particular way, but this is only the occasion of the engagement. The essential subject is deeper, more elusive, and more worthy than tags or labels can indicate.
The story has a circular design: We begin and end with Percy Hardcaster, that professional communist agitator, in a Spanish prison. In a sense, the novel’s statement is determined by its form: Percy before, and Percy after. There has been a change in him—he has been touched in spite of his tough attitudes, and not only by the amputation of his leg.
Percy is the only character in Lewis’s work to share his discarded first name; and Hardcaster puns on “hard cast” and “hard castle” to suggest the man’s toughness. In both these ways, P.H. has something in common with his creator. That is perhaps what is to be changed—and may I add that this Percy gets pierced? Though Percy is changed in a necessary way, there is also a sense that his integrity is real, at least in comparison with the parlor pinks whom he falls among back in London.
A scene between Percy and Gillian Phipps is at the heart of the novel’s dialectic. The professional working-class Red tells off the bourgeois bohemian toff and teaser, Gillian Phipps, wife of Tristram the artist, in a scene of opposition that is physical and personal and literal, but also intellectual allegory or dialectic. She is according to him a snob and a phony—he tells the hard truth. He doesn’t quite get his own implication that the communist line is merely whatever set of lies will generate power.
But, if it ever comes to a showdown and if there’s a bit of a shoot-up, it will be a matter of complete indifference to me which of you—whether you “communist” intellectuals, you fancy salon-revolutionaries, you old-school-tie pinks, or on the other hand your fascist first-cousins—are wiped out.
For stating these truths about the nonexistence of left-wing solidarity, Percy is severely punished.
In contrast to him stand two countervailing figures—the untalented artist Victor Stamp and his mistress, Margot. Their love is such as to provoke the revenge insisted upon by fate and arranged by communist-capitalist betrayers. Victor and Margot are not ideologues—far from it. And the alternative vision is that of Margot, who does not see Victor as better than he is, but loves him anyway. No matter what lies she hears, what deceptions are exposed, what false bottoms are identified—in houses, in cars, in ideas, in actions—Margot courageously perseveres, so that her dedication, her love, is the truest image of reality in the book. Or perhaps the truest thing is her hysterical laughter at confronting a dwarf, or at confronting the void itself.
In a world of bottomless falsehoods, hers are the values that are real, if vulnerable. And in a novel written in the spirit and with the finish of Conrad, Lewis achieved a command of detail and sense of proportion and an appeal to human identification that he had never achieved in his “puppet” fiction of the late 1920’s, towering though that was. Along the way is the detailed workmanship that redoubles the power of the architectonic strength—the replication of the “false bottoms” that Lewis had intended to give a title to his fiction; the puns on victor and stamp, even on the writer’s name in “Lewis gun”; the repeated examples of fraud, forgery, lies, absurd ideology, and experience that seems unreal, but is not. Add to that the informal manner, the vulgar breeziness of approach, the reification of clichés, the grotesque humor, the philosophical engagement, the dramatic force—and you have a novel that impresses itself on the memory. And not only that. It also impresses itself upon the mind as the best representation of ideological distortions in modern literature, eclipsing works of Malraux, Hemingway, Orwell, Koest-ler, and Trilling.
The combination or dynamic blend of tragedy and satire meant that Lewis had found a way to take advantage of the form of the political thriller in order to engage rather than alienate his implied reader. Needless to say, this accomplishment did him no good at all 70-plus years ago, for the book sold fewer than 3,000 copies in a hostile environment and was actually conspired against in New York City by the editors of Partisan Review, who turned down the favorable notice given it by Rebecca Citkowitz on three occasions!
But this combination does us a lot of good today, if we take advantage of the opportunity. Copies of The Revenge for Love in the 1991 Black Sparrow publication, edited by Reed Way Dasenbrock, can be easily obtained by exploiting the obvious contemporary technology and will deliver an experience that is justified in every way. The power of the grotesque mode, which synthesizes laughter and tears, which frees us from the preformulated so that we may apprehend a higher reality, is here harnessed in a form we might refer to as black humor. The two best novels of Nathanael West come to mind, as well as, perhaps, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; but behind such work loom other precedents and connections—and even effects or results.
In one of his autobiographies (Rude Assignment, 1950), Lewis recalls his bohemian days in Paris just after the turn of the century, when he was educated by reading the great Russian novelists—in French. He devotes a paragraph to Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, and goes on, “I too came out of that mantle of Gogol: a lot of things have happened to me since, but there was a time when I did not follow my own nose, but his.” And perhaps we remember that in a notebook of 1876, Dostoyevsky himself wrote that “Tragedy and satire are two sisters who go hand in hand, and the name of both of them, taken together, is truth.”
The impression of truth is, in Lewis’s imposing novel, crafted dialectically, through a sensibility formed by the great Russian and refined by the brilliant Pole—a sensibility attuned to the mysteries of being and nothingness in the violent 20th century.
[Wyndham Lewis, The Revenge for Love (1937)]