February 21, 2013

review "Phantom of the Arts" (on Timothy Materer's Vortex Pound, Eliot, and Lewis) by Douglas Messerli

phantom of the arts
by Douglas Messerlli

Timothy Materer Vortex Pound, Eliot, and Lewis (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1979)

Over the past decade a number of new books, essays, and gallery shows have focused on Vorticism, the most notable of which is Richard Cork’s encyclopedic, two-volume study of the “movement” in terms of visual art, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age. In Vortex Pound, Eliot, and Lewis, Timothy Materer has attempted a work as definitive—if far shorter—on Vorticism literature. Unfortunately, Materer’s raises almost as many new problems as it lays old ones to rest; and one can reasonably expect more essays in the near future in which these and other dilemmas are tackled afresh, the idea of which is somewhat perplexing when one considers that both Materer and Cork, as well as this reviewer (in a 1978 essay on the problem), implicitly argue that Vorticism represents neither a true “movement,” nor a coherent body of ideas concerning literature or art.

     The attractions of this phantom of the arts are apparent. It brings two of the most irascible geniuses of the century in Lewis and Pound together with the artist Guadier-Brezeska, whose life reads as if it had been lived for just such a romantic-expressionist frenzy that film director Ken Russell conjured up in Savage Messiah, his film on Gaudier. Materer further mines the glitter of his subject by adding Eliot and Joyce, who were tied to Vorticism less as practitioners, than as skeptical critics of it.

      In many ways such an approach is fruitful in that it helps to delineate some general differences between Pound’s and Lewis’s theories of literature and those—which have dominated the first half of this (the 20th) century—of Eliot and Joyce. Whereas Pound and Lewis spoke for an “art of discords,” for a literature and visual art spun from the energy of which the vortex was a symbol, Materer perceptively notes that

              Eliot was never a Vorticist in the sense of a modern who accepts the machine
              age and the “new multiverse of forces.” T. E. Hulme might have been speaking
              for Eliot…when he rejected the symbol of the spiral, with its implication of
              progress and optimism, in favor of the wheel….

And some of Materer’s most useful analyses center on Joyce’s hilarious satires of Lewis and Pound in the “Ondt and the Gracehoper,” “The Mookse and the Gripes,” and the “Burrus and Caseous” fables of Finnegans Wake. In the end, however, Materer makes the logical mistake of confounding philosophy with diatribe. Materer, thus, sees Eliot’s editing of The Criterion—vituperatively attacked by both Lewis and Pound—as remaining “true” to a “Vorticist principle”; in his plea for tolerance of “antipathies” in Finnegans Wake, Joyce—as opposed to Pound, Eliot, and Lewis—is seen by Materer to be at the “still center of the vortex of history”; and throughout his study, Materer stretches to find a “standard” common to the Vortex, Joyce, “Eliot, the Anglo Catholic, Pound the monetary reformer and supporter of Italian Fascism, and Lewis, by turns, the Fascist sympathizer, internationalist, and socialist.”

      However hard Materer struggles to bring these diverse authors together in their ideas of reality, abstraction, and time, and in their readings of the French philosopher Julien Benda, it remains apparent that there is really no one common ground. To speak of Vorticist “principles,” to attempt, moreover, to apply any such principles to Eliot and Joyce, misses the point, it seems to me, of what Vorticism represented to the original contributors of Blast. For them, it was less an ideology than an opportunity—for Pound to break away from the Imagism which Amy Lowell and others had reduced to mere visual presentation, and for Lewis, Gaudier-Brzeska, Edward Wadsworth, and the English artists, to break into the public consciousness. If there was anything else that brought them together it was only the diatribe (from the Greek, “to rub away”), whose function was to rid England of its Idol, Prettiness, and open it to the new. The look and the sound of the new art were as broad-ranged as the “blasts” of the old. As Pound wrote of it, “The vorticist movement is a movement of individuals, for the protection of individuality” (“Edward Wadsworth, Vorticist,” The Egoist, I, August 15, 1914).

     Certainly, more coherent manifestoes emanated from this public maneuver. Pound’s brilliant manifesto, Gaudier-Brzeska, and what Hugh Kenner has described as Lewis’s “satiric-fantastico-polemic omni-gatherum,” The Apes of God, The Art of Being Ruled, and Time and Western Man, all arose more or less as attempts to define what each author meant by Vortex. But it is in just such works that one quickly perceives how substantially different were Lewis’s ideas from Pound’s. As Materer rightly observes, for Lewis—who sought to spatialize art—the enemy was always Bergson and his time-philosophy; for Pound, however, the power of the vortex lay not in the stasis at its center, but in its dynamism, in its ability to funnel time and space into a new reality, into a new combination. In his attempts to find links between the four writers, Materer has glossed over these and other important distinctions between even the two who had the closest relationship.

     “Beyond Action and Reaction we would establish ourselves,” reads the first statement of the original Blast manifesto. Heeding such a statement, future critics and historians of Vorticism might look less for coherent principles, or even less for what Materer argues are related “patterns of thinking,” and more carefully investigate how each artist defined and applied the idea of Vorticism for his own purposes.

Philadelphia, 1979
Reprinted from Journal of Modern Literature, VIII, nos. 3-4 (1980/1981)

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