There is No Vulgarity in Revolt Part 6: The Life and Art of Vorticist Prose

A modern take on a hypothetical cover of BLAST 3- J Garratley

*Note: this blog post covers brief discussions of rape and suicide*

My last blog post examined a selection of Vorticist poems, examining how the topic, language, and structure of these poems underscored various conflicts championed by the movement, even if such poems were not perfectly reflective of the Vorticist aesthetic.  This post will similarly analyze Vorticist works of prose, focusing on three different works—a short story, a novel, and a play—and how the main characters of these pieces exhibit the specific conflict between “Art” and “Life” outlined in Vorticist philosophical writings.  George from Rebecca West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony,” Frederick Tarr from Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr, and Arghol from Lewis’ Enemy of the Stars each represent an increasing opposition to “Life” and movement towards “Art,” exemplified in their philosophical perspective, their relationship to their foil, and the mechanical language used to describe them and their surroundings.

Wyndham Lewis, in the Vorticist Manifesto and “Life is the Important Thing!”, outlines the conflict between artistic passion and passion for life, a conflict from which numerous other Vorticist conflicts emerge.  The manifesto argues that England, too “busy with this LIFE-EFFORT,” is “the last to become conscious of the Art that is an organism of this new Order and Will of Man,” establishing both the mutual exclusivity of “Art” and “Life” as well as pointing to this conflict as the root of the depiction for all other conflicts in the machine age (Lewis 39).  The manifesto additionally notes that  the conflict between primitivity and modernity emerges from this struggle between “Life” and “Art” in its statement that “the Art-instinct is permanently primitive” and that the “artist of the modern movement is a savage” (33).  Lewis’ essay “Life is the Important Thing!” continues the discussion on the Life-Art distinction and draws a parallel between this conflict and the conflict between nature and machinery.  This essay, with its declarations that “‘Life’ is a hospital for the weak and incompetent” as well as “a retreat of the defeated,” associates “Life” with the complacency decried throughout the Blast/Bless statement as well as the manifesto and thus associates “Art” with the energy and conflict celebrated by Vorticism (130).  Furthermore, the essay bluntly states that “‘Nature’ and natural art [are] synonymous with ‘Life,’” indicating that complacency associated with “Life” is equally as associated with the reverence towards pure nature in contemporary society and art (129).  This statement additionally suggests that the energy of “Art” parallels the new mechanized nature which “has reared up steel trees where the green ones were lacking” (Lewis, “Vorticist Manifesto” 36).  The conflict between “Life” and “Art,” according to Vorticist philosophy, runs parallel to the conflict between nature and machine and spawns the conflicts between complacency and energy as well as Romantic and avant-garde art, making this conflict a central one to be explored by the prose of the movement.

Rebecca West in 1912, two years before the publication of “Indissoluble Matrimony,” photograph by George Charles Beresford

While not an artist, George, the main character of Rebecca West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony,” opposes his wife, Evadne, for her complacency and  placing him in parallel to the Vorticist idea of “Art.”  However, his behavior during and after the fight with his wife—notably following his near-death experience in the whirlpool—indicates that his weakness and complacency result in his failure to reach the standards of “Art,” resulting in a turn to “Life.”  George’s food preferences at dinner establish his opposition to Evadne early in the story; he only eats tongue, “the only sensible food to be seen” at the meal, while she indulges in only sweet fruits such as “softly red” plums and “a great yellow melon” (West 99).  George’s desire for solely for food obtained through slaughter indicates his alignment with the violence and energy of the Art-instinct, while Evadne’s “appalling catholicity of taste” for soft, sweet fruits illustrates her aversion to this violence and energy (99).  Additionally, in a flashback to the moment he met Evadne, George notes that he stood in light while “she stood by the piano against the light, so that he saw her washed in darkness,” underscoring his bright energy in contrast to her dark placidity (100).  Furthermore, Evadne’s singing “was a purely physical attribute” and had “no index of her spiritual values,” an additional indication of her inability to produce true, vibrant art (100).  However, George exhibits his inability to handle actual conflict following a fight with Evadne over her supposed infidelity; he capitulates and apologizes, as “he could not bear the discord of a row” (104).  Moreover, after Evadne runs away following this fight, George clumsily chases after her and gets lost because of his lack of “strong primitive instincts,” another indication of his movement away from the primal energy and conflict of the Art-instinct in the face of actual conflict (106).  George’s transition away from the Art-instinct becomes complete after falling into the “brawling blackness in which whirled a vortex” during another fight with his wife (West 111).  This physical manifestation of violence and conflict quickly takes total control of George’s “flaccid body” and leaves “the dry dust of his character […] blown hither and thither by fear,” illustrating George’s complete inability to handle the chaos of a radical vortex (112).  His behavior following his escape from the vortex indicates his total movement into complacency.  Immediately after he emerges, the narrator notes that “weakness closed him in like a lead coffin” and he felt “neither pain nor joy,” a signal of the death of any remainder of his Art-instinct and his movement away from strong feelings into mediocrity (113).  The “weak cheerful twinkling” of lights, the “bluish milk of morning mist,” and the “reeds” which “no longer stabbed […] like little daggers, but seemed a feathery fringe” George observes on his walk home all suggest a softened, de-mechanized nature that opposes the mechanical nature celebrated by the Vorticists, reinforcing George’s alignment with the Life-effort (113).  Finally, George returns home “beaten” and goes into bed with Evadne, “as he would do every night until he died;” unable to handle the actual violence and energy required for the Art-instinct, George accepts the mediocrity and quiet disagreement of a more placid “Life:” the “retreat of the defeated” (West 117, Lewis, “Life is the Important Thing!” 130).

Self Portrait- Wyndham Lewis (1923)

Frederick Tarr, the titular character of Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr, represents an artist more fully exhibiting the Art-instinct in his rivalry to his foil, Otto Kreisler.  Scott Klein notes that “all of the relations between characters in Tarr are duels of one kind or another—sexual, social, or emotional” (xiv). The artistic perspectives of both Tarr and Kreisler mirror their actions—most prominently in their treatment of women—creating a parallel between these two figures and the Vorticist conceptions of avant-garde and Romantic art.  Thus, the conflicting lives of Tarr and Kreisler represent this duel between avant-garde innovation and Romantic stagnation, as well as the conflict between the Art-instinct and the Life-effort.  Tarr cleanly separates his artistic passions from passions of “Life,” stating plainly that he is primarily “an artist.  With most people, who are not artists, all the finer part of their vitality goes into sex” (Lewis, Tarr 16).  He further underscores his aversion towards sex with his declarations that “sex is a monstrosity” and is “just the opposite of art” (13, 12).  This philosophical aversion to a passionate Life-effort takes shape in his treatment of women.  He often carelessly cheats on his fiancée Bertha Lunken, who he sees as living a “simple little life” of traditional sex and Romanticism, with Anastasya Vasek, who he describes as a “challengingly original Modern Girl” whose “plain blunt womanhood contrasted with this pretentious super-sex” (Lewis, Tarr 162).  This constant movement away from a Romantic woman to a modern one who eschews traditional views of sex indicates Tarr’s opposition to passionate sex, instead favoring sex which is not “pretentious” and without thought.  Tarr’s art equally reflects his antipathy for the Romantic Life-effort.  Richard Cork argues that “Tarr’s studio procedure was intended as a model for the working attitudes of a Vorticist artist” (274).  Tarr’s “witty pastiche” which contains contrasting colors of “bilious saffron” and “transparent lead” and resembles “the art of some malicious Syrian poking fun of the greek culture” with its “strained dancers’ faces” and “simple yet contorted curves” reflects both Vorticism’s use of contrasting colors and contorted human forms as well as its preference to  non-Western art to disrupt the Hellenic influences of the art at the time, solidifying Tarr’s alignment with the avant-garde Art-instinct (Lewis, Tarr 176).  Finally, Tarr paints alone, without a model; women are as unnecessary to his art as they are to his day-to-day existence.

Otto Kreisler is the opposite to Tarr in both his attitudes towards art and his treatment of women, creating an ideological contrast to Tarr and indicating his alignment with the Life-effort.  Even though Kreisler is an artist by trade, his passions reside with matters of “Life.”  Klein argues that Kreisler “elevates ‘woman’ into an abstraction of purity that is worthy of masculine protection, even as it simultaneously reduces her to an object subject to masculine control,” placing him in opposition to Tarr’s relative indifference towards women (xxi).  The narrator’s statement that “womenkind were Kreisler’s Theatre, they were for him art and expression,” reinforces the argument that Kreisler’s vitality and passion goes towards the Life-effort rather than the Art-instinct (Lewis, Tarr 86).  However, despite his passion for women, he is unable to successfully woo Anastasya, fumbling to talk to her “like an unworthy merchant who finds himself in the presence of a phenomenal dupe,” underscoring his failure to grasp the Art-instinct exhibited by Anastasya (85).  Instead, he turns to the more traditional Bertha, using her as model for his Victorian “Salon picture” which he begins to paint with “an expressionless lazy stare;” his type of painting, his emotion towards painting, and his use of a model all contrast with Tarr’s avant-garde artistic procedure, further reinforcing his inability to produce radical, energetic art (Lewis, Tarr 164).  Finally, he fails even to complete the painting, instead going on to rape Bertha after her command that “I don’t wish you to touch me:” an act of monstrous sexual violence which stems from his obsession of Life and reflects Tarr’s statement that “sex is a monstrosity” (167, 13).

A 1951 reprint of the novel

The ultimate fates of each character provide a final indication of both characters’ alignment to “Life” or “Art” and suggest the outcome of such alignments.  Kreisler commits suicide in prison, suggesting that his passion for “Life” is ultimately unsustainable and will eventually result in its own self-destruction.  The description of his death additionally reflects the complacency associated with the Life-effort; he dies “gradually choking” and “did not resist” (251).  Tarr, on the other hand, leaves both Bertha and Anastasya and goes on to become involved with Rose Fawcett, who he eventually leaves for “the painted, fine and enquiring face of Prism Dirkes” (284).  The movement to and from these two women provides a final indication of his nonchalant attitude towards women as well as his alignment with the radical energy Art-instinct; he leaves Rose Fawcett, whose name suggests both sweetness and slow trickling (“Fawcett” is a homophone to “faucet”), for Prism Dirkes, whose name suggests both the sharp angles of avant-garde painting as well as violent weapons (“Dirkes” being a homophone to “dirk,” a kind of dagger).  However, the fact that he continues to return to traditional women at all suggests that Tarr exhibits an internal conflict between his Art-instinct and some level of sexual desire and that, even though he exhibits the Art-instinct in many ways, he may not be in complete alignment with the Vorticist conception of Art.

The 1932 first edition reprint of Enemy of the Stars, dustjacket design by Wyndham Lewis

Arghol, the main character of Lewis’ play Enemy of the Stars, however, represents a total alignment with the Art-instinct, as evidenced by his philosophical ideas of the “Self” and his voluntary isolation from society.  Additionally, his violent interactions with his foil, Hanp indicates  plural  indicate that even though he has fully accepted the Art-instinct, conflict with “Life” still continues.  Arghol condemns the Vorticist conception of “Life” and its origins in a complacent society with his definition of the “Self:” a “loathsome deformity […]; affliction got through indiscriminate rubbing against their fellows: Social excrescence” (Lewis, Enemy of the Stars 71).  Arghol’s hatred for this conception of the “Self” is the primary reason for his departure from his past Life in the city, indicating his expression of the Art-instinct.  In his flashback dream sequence, he refers to the city as an “appalling tabernacle of Self and Unbelief” which he decides to escape following an accidental reading of Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own—a philosophical text which William Wees describes as advocating “a radical from form of egoism perpetually in conflict with everything around it”— mirroring the Vorticist celebration of conflict and indicating Arghol’s position separate from the “Self” and the Life-effort (Lewis, Enemy of the Stars 76, Wees 185).  Arghol’s reading of Stirner prompts him to declare that “All this Art life, posterity and the rest, is wrong” and that all his “companions” are “of parasite Self:” a total rejection of both the bourgeois, Victorian art and values around him as well as the complacent members of his contemporary society (Lewis, Enemy of the Stars 77).  George from “Indissoluble Matrimony” failed to reject both of these elements—resulting in the failure of his Art-instinct—and Frederick Tarr from Tarr failed to reject the latter and chose to embrace physical relationships—resulting in his continued interactions with traditional women.  Arghol, on the other hand, fully seizes his identity untouched by the influences of Life and society by “obliterate[ing] […] accumulations of Self” and bluntly proclaiming that “I am Arghol” (78, 80).  However, Arghol’s hold on his identity and total rejection of “Life” does not lead to peace, but rather further conflict with his foil Hanp, who “crept gloomily out of my [Arghol’s] ego” following Arghol’s exile and represents a physical manifestation of the “Self” (73).  The two live in an existence of constant opposition where “the conflict never ended,” an indication that Arghol’s pure egoistic Art-instinct requires constant conflict against the “Self” in order to stay energetic and independent, paralleling the Vorticist celebration of internal conflict for self-renewal (81).  The ending scene of the play, in which Hanp slits Arghol’s throat and then commits suicide by drowning out of “rapid despair,” further suggests that, in the world of the play, “the ego and the ‘Self’ cannot be separated, nor live together in peace:” a final indication of the inevitability of conflict between “Life” and “Art,” the ego and the “Self” (Lewis, Enemy of the Stars 85, Wees 185).

The Enemy of the Stars Wyndham Lewis (1913)

Additionally, the colorful and mechanical description of Arghol and his surroundings further reinforce the presence of his Art-instinct.  Arghol is introduced as a “POISED MAGNET OF SUBTLE, VAST, SELFISH THINGS” who “SITS LIKE A GOD BUILT BY AN ARCHITECTURAL STREAM, FECUNDED BY MAD BLASTS OF SUNLIGHT,” violent and energetic descriptions which establish the main character as mechanical and powerful, reinforcing his separation from normal society and mirroring the depictions of mechanized humans throughout Vorticist art and sculpture (Lewis, Enemy of the Stars 61).  Furthermore, the descriptions of Arghol’s surroundings, from the stage arrangement instructions which call for “RED OF STAINED COPPER PREDOMINANT” to the “rough moonbeams” which act as an “immense bleak electric advertisement of God” all present a nature completely replaced by mechanization (60, 64).  This “more violent and vivid” nature which Arghol chooses reflects his prominent Art-instinct; he opposes the green nature which “is a blessed retreat” for those “whose imagination is mean and feeble (Lewis, Enemy of the Stars 64, “Life is the Important Thing!” 130).  These mechanical surroundings both mirror the robotic natural forms in Vorticist painting and sculpture and indicate that Arghol’s aversion to Life influences not only his actions, but his surroundings as well.

The prose of Vorticism—in its depiction of George’s failure to reach, Tarr’s partial grasp of, and Arghol’s total alignment with the movement’s conception of an idealized “Art”—provides an alternate perspective to visual art regarding specific Vorticist conflicts.  While visual art can readily use conflicting colors, sharp angles, and contorted human forms to depict conflict in ways words cannot, prose’s ability to explore the thoughts, actions, and motivations of human conflict through language offers new angles of approach to such conflicts.  This use of two different perspectives to investigate the same conflicts reflects the Vorticist Manifesto’s call to “fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause:” a final example of an internal conflict leading to self-improvement (Lewis 30).



Works Cited

Cork, Richard. Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age. N.p.: U of California, 1976. Print.

Klein, Scott W. “Introduction.” Introduction. Tarr. N.p.: Oxford U, 2010. Ix-Xxix. Print.

Lewis, Wyndham. “Enemy of the Stars.” Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. N.p.: Black Sparrow, 1981. 55+. Print.

–. “Life Is the Important Thing!” Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. N.p.: Black Sparrow, 1981. 129-31. Print.

–. Tarr. Ed. Scott W. Klein. N.p.: Oxford U, 2010. Print.

–. “Vorticist Manifesto.” Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. N.p.: Black Sparrow, 1981. 30-43. Print.

Wees, William C. Vorticism and the English Avant-garde. N.p.: U of Toronto, 1972. Print.

West, Rebecca. “Indissoluble Matrimony.” Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. N.p.: Black Sparrow, 1981. 98-117. Print.