The Childermass

by Len Gutkin

Wyndham Lewis’s The Childermass (1928), the first volume of the unfinished epic The Human Age (parts two and three came out in the fifties), is unarguably the most radical, outlandish, and formally experimental work in Lewis’s oeuvre. Aptly dubbed by Frederic Jameson as “the supreme realization of what has to be called theological science fiction,” [1] Lewis’s second published novel follows the adventures of two Englishmen, Sattersthwaite and Pullman, presumably killed in the Great War, as they posthumously explore a weird purgatorial afterlife while awaiting admission to something called The Magnetic City. As in Tarr, Lewis in The Childermass spends a good deal of time dramatizing his theoretical, political, and aesthetic concerns, which he had been publishing (post-Tarr) in The Art of Being Ruled (1926) and Time and Western Man (1927). Along the way, he produces extensive parodies of the styles of both James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, while also pushing the inimitable Lewisean sentence he had developed in Tarr to its extreme limits.

Plot and Characterization

The novel begins when Sattersthwaite (Satters), newly arrived in purgatory, discovers his school-days acquaintance Pullman (Pulley) standing before the Stygian river that runs through the landscape and contemplating the “peons”—the mysterious laborers who do what work needs to be done in this afterworld. The early part of the novel follows the newly reunited pair as Pullman, longer resident in the land of the dead, tries to help Satters get his bearings. Satters, large, flabby, and babyish, is represented as the immature novice, emotionally needy and intellectually incompetent, while the intelligent Pullman (“half hero’s nurse, half nursery-governess”)[2] must quell his own exasperation and compassionately look after the newcomer. They wander about the wasteland, with its fogs and multiple suns, its shifting mountains in the distance, its river whose course can alter without warning, and, beyond all, the distant skyline of “the magnetic city,” to which the inhabitants await entry:

The sheer profile of the city is intricate and uneven. Above the walls appears, naissant, armorial, and unreal, a high-hatched outcropping of huddled balconies, black rufous brown vermilion and white; the upper stages of wicker towers; helmet-like hoods of tinted stucco; tamarisks; the smaragdine and olive of tropical vegetation; tinselled banners; gigantic grey sea-green and speckled cones, rising like truncated eggs from a system of profuse nests; and a florid zoologic symbolism—reptilian heads of painted wood, filled-out tinfoil or alloy, that strike round beneath the gusts of wind, and pigs made of inflated skins, in flight, bumped and tossed by serpents, among the pennants and embossed banners. The severe crests of bulky ziggurats rise here and there above this charivari of roof-life, perceived beyond and between the protecting walls. It is without human life, like a city after a tragic exodus.[3]

Much of the novel’s resources in its early phase are devoted to bravura evocations of this purgatorial landscape itself—Lewis succeeds brilliantly in generating the kind of comprehensive sci-fi or otherworldly atmosphere we associate today with the possibilities of film, particularly genre film. Against this surreal backdrop, Satters and Pulley engage in a constant dialogue about their surroundings. The dialogue has a certain absurdist rhythm one might usefully associate with larger developments in twentieth-century drama. Here, for example, is a discussion on the nature of the “peons”:

‘Are peons—What was I going to say? Are the peons—’ [Satters begins].
‘No not men; I mean are they always peons?’
Pullman is in a huff; he moves the previous question. The dialogue prevents him from leaving.
‘They are not always peons.’
‘Always is a big order. Once a peon, always a peon: is that what you mean? Not necessarily.’
‘Yes I expect sometimes—they are human like us, aren’t they, in a way, Pulley?’
‘Not like us.’
‘Not like us? What is the difference? Are we very different. I believe we only think we’re so different.’
Pullman is bending over his basket.
‘I have to go to Cradducks.’
‘It’s out of bounds. – What is this place Pulley? I forgot to ask you.’
‘This? It’s the city of the dead I imagine. Can’t be too sure—’ [.][4]

The most important “character” in The Childermass is perhaps the landscape itself, considered in terms of its effects on those doomed to traverse it. In this ever-shifting “city of the dead” the principal law is  disorienting mutability: objects can disappear or shift in size, human inhabitants can suddenly age or become younger, not to mention switch sex, while roads obstinately refuse to lead today where they led the day before. To top it all off, there is the troubling possibility of walking into time-warps, a risk exemplified in one extended set-piece when Sattersthwaite and Pullman stumble into an 18th-century England full of toy-sized humans going about their business: “Small and nimble figures are going and coming on all hands: ostlers bring horses out of a stable: there are two large wagons full of hay, on the shafts of which miniature carters sit, muffed in banks of clothes, legs dangling, one with the gesture of lazily cracking his whip”[5]. It turns out they’re near “The Old Red Lion…where Thomas Paine wrote his Rights of Man,” and the scene turns ugly when a misbehaving Sattersthwaite antagonizes Thomas Paine himself, who demands, “How would you like to be scragged by a giant six times your size?” and calls Satters a “lout.”[6] In petulant revenge, Sattersthwaite murders Paine by stamping him under his boot.

Pulley and Satters eventually make their way to the “camp,” a specially enclosed area in which the dangerous temporal-spatial vagaries of the city of the dead have been contained and suppressed. Here, the underworld’s head magistrate, known as “The Bailiff,” holds court to his adoring minions, Pullman among them (Satters, despite his stupidity and immaturity, remains presciently suspicious). The Bailiff is, apparently, this purgatory’s general ruler, a hideous omnipotent demagogue who alternates violent displays of his enormous power with crowd-pleasing rhetoric to achieve control over the land’s inhabitants. He determines, furthermore, who can pass out of purgatory and into the magnetic city. He does not operate entirely unopposed, though—the heroic and vaguely fascist Hyperides, with his band of followers, reject the Bailiff and accuse him of fraudulence and deceit.

Roughly the second half of The Childermass follows the war of words between the Bailiff and his interlocutors, while Pulley and Satters drop out for large swaths of narrative. Perhaps signalling the dialectic character of the argument, large portions of the dialogue, from here on out, are laid  on the page like a play, and dramatic devices such a stichomythia are pointedly employed. In other words, large sections of this “novel” consist, formally, of drama.

When not appealing to the masses or sparring with the Hyperideans, the Bailiff spends his time evaluating his subjects for entrance to the Magnetic City–and quelling, sometimes with extreme violence, minor instances of dissent. The novel concludes, after extensive debating between the Bailiff and Hyperideans, with a kind of draw. Pulley and Satters get the novel’s last page, after the meeting is called to an end and both the Bailiff and the Hyperideans depart, though they only use it to squabble pointlessly with one another before, presumably, continuing to wander about the city of the dead. The final line:

PULLMAN: ‘Step out. Pick your feet up. If you must go nowhere, step out.’[7]

From Time and Western Man to Childermass

Hugh Kenner has usefully helped identify the dialectic animating the agon between the Bailiff and Hyperides, which would be obvious only to readers familiar with Lewis’s Time and Western Man and The Art of Being Ruled. Put schematically and very reductively, the Bailiff represents all those aspects of what Lewis calls the time-cult, with its attendant impressionistic interiority and its debt to Henri Bergson. Lewis wants to oppose this time-cult with a violent expressionism of surfaces, as manifested by the Hyperideans who “in tumbling set-speeches anatomize with forensic hostility the cult of homosexuality, the dismemberment of the person, the apotheosis of the child, and the other themes of The Art of Being Ruled.”[8] Artistically productive sterility vs. sex, the lone genius vs. the herd, the outside vs. the inside, expressionism vs. impressionism–these are the binaries according to which Lewis organizes the debate. This dialectic repeats, in expanded form, the tension in Tarr between the misogynistic artist Tarr on the one hand and his surrounding environment of bourgeois-bohemianism and Freudian prurience on the other. As in Tarr, although more so, self-parody attends the depiction of Hyperides’s cult, a preposterous wannabe Hellenic militia whose followers assume Greek names and say things like “But independent thought bursts out…That is by reason of the demonic force of genius you understand nothing else would do it.”[9]

Beyond the dramatization of these dialectics, though, The Childermass, most pointedly through the character of the Bailiff, dramatizes the pernicious efficacy of certain kinds of politico-ideological rhetoric itself. And indeed, as Alan Munton points out, though ideas derived from Time and Western Man and The Art of Being Ruled can easily be read into The Childermass, such ideas “account for very little of the text”[10] Munton, in one of the best readings of the novel, convincingly argues that “The Childermass shows what it is like to experience the demands of a ruler who pretends to be a democrat, but is in fact a ruthless exploiter of all the means of persuasion available to him. Pullman abjectly renounces all those critical powers that the intellectual should possess…” in submitting to the Bailiff-cult.[11] In this reading, The Childermass is an allegory about the dangers of authoritarian populism.

“Bless his brain-weed and word-fungle”: Parodies of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein

Lewis’s ambivalent relationship to the literary developments of his period are well known, and The Childermass provides some beautiful instances of his parodic energy, particularly regarding the work of Joyce. The Bailiff speaks in advanced Joycese for a good four pages, a small sample of which below:

‘Ant Shorn o’ Joys no John o’ dreams but rarely pragmatical, to solemnly declare that he will nadd narfter thort he wilt, for it’s all one to him seeing orl his thorts is narfter thorts for the mattero that come-to-think, ant one more nor less is all one and he’ll accommodate as many narfter thorts as never narfter may come knocking…. “Sure I was not dipped in Shannon for nothing” sez he and he composes himself in his best foxy book-for-martyrs posture for the pot-shot, winking the while with his Nelson’s optic, a cute little Cyclops with his one sad water glim as he regards me as though I were some shrewd spudassin and he my martyred prey. But I exorcizing the man’s privelege to change me mind (and wishing it’s a fact no mortal harm to the stumer stammerer bless his brain-weed and word-fungle) aims low for I only wished to wing him so I advizes his understandings and I dispatched me narfter thort thus.’[12]

Clearly responding to the fragments of Finnegans Wake that had been coming out in the twenties in Criterion, Lewis tries to demonstrate that he, too, can play this game, though it’s not one he thinks is worth playing. As he writes in a passage discussing Joyce in Rude Assignment (1950), “Odds and ends of words or phrases were always floating about in his pockets…Joyce carried about with him from one country to another a trunk full of such fragments, bits of paper, newspaper cuttings. The resulting book [the Wake] was too much of a patchwork of these.”[13] By placing his own Joycean patchwork of verbal odds-and-ends in the mouth of the time-cultist Bailiff, Lewis dramatizes what he sees as the pernicious effect of Vico, Bergson, and Freud on Joyce’s work[14]. Joyce, after all, had been prominently featured among those writers criticized in Time and Western Man for having “abandoned themselves” to a “disintegrating metaphysic.”[15]

Lewis was more hostile to Stein’s work even than to Joyce’s. “Miss Stein and many like her,” he writes in Rude Assignment, “exponents in the ‘creative’ field of the ‘time-philosophy’, will, three centuries hence, be recognised as what they are, the dark stammering voice of a social dissolution.”[16] He expresses his contempt for Steinian play by using her distinctive idiom to express the babyish mewling of the regressive Satters at his most dependent: “Pulley has been most terribly helpful and kind there’s no use excusing himself Pulley has been most terribly helpful and kind—most terribly helpful and he’s been kind.”[17]

For the contemporary devotee of Stein and Joyce, Lewis’s idiosyncratic objections to their work, based on a set of obscure and rather politically suspect assumptions, can be irritating in the extreme, but, interestingly, the parodic incorporation of their signature styles into the bustling texture of The Childermass only makes that work an even more thrillingly lively piece of writing. He may have intended to attack, but the Steinian and Joycean threads that make up a small part of Lewis’s eccentric masterpiece seem, now, more like a tribute.

  1. ↑ Jameson, Frederic. Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. pg. 6
  2. ↑ Lewis, Wyndham. The Childermass. London: John Calder Press, 1965. p. 49
  3. ↑ ibid. p. 15
  4. ↑ ibid. p. 38
  5. ↑ ibid. p. 105
  6. ↑ ibid. pps. 106-107
  7. ↑ ibid. p. 320
  8. ↑ Kenner, Hugh. Wyndham Lewis. Norfolk: New Directions Press, 1954. p. 99
  9. ↑ Lewis, Wyndham. The Childermass. London: John Calder Press, 1965, p. 303
  10. ↑ Munton, Alan. “A Reading of The Childermass.” in Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation. ed. Jeffrey Meyers. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1980. p. 120
  11. ↑ ibid. p. 120
  12. ↑ Lewis, Wyndham. The Childermass. John Calder Press: 1965, p.175
  13. ↑ Lewis, Wyndham. Rude Assignment. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1984, p. 60
  14. ↑ ibid. p. 59
  15. ↑ ibid. 58
  16. ↑ ibid. p. 209
  17. ↑ Lewis, Wyndham. The Childermass. London: John Calder Press, 1965, p. 44