"MATTERS OF RECEIVED WISDOM, GOOD TASTE, AND LOVE"
Summer of 2001 found me poring over the fascinating sleeve notes to Luke Haines’s shot heard ‘round the world (in my head), The Oliver Twist Manifesto. The album itself was a gauntlet-slamming catalog of trenchant observations from Mr. Haines’s always deliciously poisonous pen, this time directed at those strange and not always so wonderful creatures, past and present, that manage to shove or slouch their way into the unifying (or is that leveling?) spotlight we call popular culture. Clearly, Haines has informed my own view of the world to a significant degree, and within the album’s little four-page booklet, one name after another superimposed over endlessly repeated mug shots of the man himself (in a Clockwork Orange-style bowler cap, no less) is a sort of Luke Haines Hall of (In)fame.
These names intrigued me for obvious reasons, but the one I’m going to discuss today resides in the upper right-hand corner of the second page in: Wyndham Lewis. I didn’t research each name too awful thoroughly, but as I browsed the shelves at Vandewater Books, a little nook in my corner of Seattle that features a surprisingly fine selection of used books, the name leapt out at me from the spine of a 1937 novel, The Revenge for Love. By Wyndham Lewis. An aged Penguin paperback “not for sale in the U.S.A.” I took the little volume home with me, shelved it in its alphabetical slot, and now, only seven or eight months letter, I’ve gone and read it!
The novel is a fairly episodic (the episodes run in domino-effect order) surgical procedure on a diseased body consisting of English artists and Communists in the moral and spiritual vortex of the Spanish Civil War. It’s essentially a tragedy, but full of sardonic comic observations; like Haines, Lewis can spot hypocrisy a thousand miles away, knows it resides somewhere in all of us, finds it extremely amusing, and mines it for all the rich observation he can. Since his the keys of his Olivetti are pounding down upon the worlds of art and politics, rounding up a motley crew comprised of Percy Hardcaster, an embittered yet fiercely devoted English Communist; Jack, an English bourgeois whose insatiable taste for female flesh draws him into the orbit of Gillian, an upper-crust Communist who wears her political “convictions” as just another badge of class superiority; Gillian’s husband Tristy, a painter; Tristy’s friend Victor, also a painter and a decent, naive Australian expatriate trying to do the right thing in a distinctly foreign land with foreign customs; and Victor’s wife Margot, a fragile and earnest wallflower being crushed under the duplicitous worldliness of her milieu.
Lewis straddles that fine line between apoliticism and healthy skepticism- he’s concerned with the issues of the political idealist, but he writes from the vantage point of rancorous disappointment. Communism’s fantastic, impossible aspiration is to transcend the baseness of human nature while retaining the humane, but as Lewis mockingly, despairingly writes (through the eyes of Margot) of the left-wing exemplars that make up his little cast of characters as they engage in the verbal turf war and oh-so-subtle establishment of pecking order common to groups of people everywhere, ideologues or no: “It was a mad notion, but it was just as if they had engaged in a battle of wills, to decide who should possess most reality- just as men fought with each other for money, or fought each other for food.”
The novel’s original title was very apt: False Bottoms. Lewis knew that human failing and flaw is the sort of inescapable contraband that makes it into the secret compartments of even the most airtight and foolproof vehicles.
Shortly to be residing on my nightstand is a present inspired by a more recent entry in the Luke Haines Hit Parade, The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family. Yes, those Mitford sisters!
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