Time and Western Man

by Kirsty Dootson

Between the wars, Wyndham Lewis entered into the most prolific period of his career, writing twenty-three fictional and non-fictional books concerning politics, religion, philosophy and the arts. His non-fiction texts of the nineteen-twenties were originally planned as a single enormous work entitled The Man of the World but Lewis decided (or was encouraged by his publisher) to publish them in more marketable, individual volumes, one of which became Time and Western Man (first published in 1927). The venomous and ironic tone Lewis adopted may have been in reaction to the resistance to the project he met among friends and colleagues (many of whom came under attack in the text) who thought the thousand-page tome he planned to be somewhat over-ambitious. These associates were also subject to harsh criticism for failing in what Lewis had seen to be the goal of Modernism – to engender actual revolutionary action. [1]

The book is a virulent attack on what Lewis calls the ‘time-cult,’ which he perceived to be the dominant philosophy of the early twentieth century promulgated by Henri Bergson (and his followers Samuel Alexander and Alfred North Whitehead), and practised by authors such as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Lewis condemned the demonising of ‘space’ due to the rise of the ‘time-mind’ as, for him, Bergsonian time stood for all that is degenerate in art: flux, change, romanticism, the crowd and the unconscious, whereas space represents all that is desirable: stability, fixity, classicism, the individual and consciousness. Time and Western Man polarises space and time. The former separates us and keeps us still, while the latter binds us all together and keeps us constantly moving. It serves as an insight not only into contemporary philosophy but also Lewis’s aesthetic and his ideas concerning the methods and aims of the artist.

In both content and form Time and Western Man illustrates Lewis’s belief in contradiction as a method of creation, which he had derived from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Perhaps this concept was expressed most succinctly in the Vorticist periodical BLAST when Lewis claimed the Vorticists ‘start from opposite statements of a chosen world… discharge ourselves on both sides… We fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause.’[2] Quoting Nietzsche in Time and Western Man, Lewis states that ‘action is impossible without an opposite – it takes two to make a quarrel.’[3] He believed that the artist should be constantly engaged in combat as stability was achieved when two opposing forces reached the highest point of tension – they did not cancel each other but created a highly charged deadlock. Even the artist’s identity was formed by a kind of internal civil war between conflicting parts of his personality: ‘the group that has proved most powerful I have fixed upon as the most essential me.’[4]

For Lewis, nothing could exist without its other, and art is produced when the opposing sides come into conflict. In order to maintain the tension between these two opposing factions, everything had to retain a certain distinctiveness, solidity and clarity of outline so that it would not be confused with its ‘other’ – and the artist especially had to retain his individuality. Lewis’s Nietzschean contradiction strategy was therefore incompatible with the main tenets of the time-cult as, in Bergsonian time we occupy a collective unconscious (as we all experience the same time, even when we do not occupy the same space.) The individual is subsumed into the crowd in Bergson’s space-time-flux; hence Lewis described his philosophy as ‘an eternal mongrel itch to mix,in undirected concupiscence with everything that walks or crawls.’[5] Because the artist is ‘mixed’ with the crowd he is no longer a distinct entity with an opponent and cannot enter into conflict. Lewis criticised Stein because she ‘became the people she wrote about’ – intuitively entering into their mind, sacrificing her distinctiveness. [6] He also condemned Joyce for employing this method of ‘telling from the inside.’[7]  While intuition was associated with time and submersion into the flux, the intellect thought spatially as it worked analytically, separating things into distinct elements. For Lewis ‘the intellect works alone…[and] it is precisely this solitariness of thought, this prime condition for intellectual success, that is threatened by mystical mass doctrines.’[8] He believed externality was essential as the outside world of space was real and not immaterial like the internal zone of the mind. Also, as a visual artist, Lewis valued the spatiality and stability of the visual world which was occluded from the time-cult.

This feeds into a further criticism of the time-mind that Lewis proposed – its obsession with the past and future to the detriment of the present. As Lewis stated in BLAST ‘there is no present, there is past and future – and there is art.’[9] The artist exists in the present which is a space of conflict; the point at which the past and future meet. Obviously the emphasis on the present was to be a marker of modernity whereas dependence on the past was too romantic, and the future mere speculation. While Lewis had already critiqued the Futurists for their idolisation of the world of tomorrow, he brought the stream of consciousness technique under attack in Time and Western Man for its obsession with a world which was solely in the past. Through recreating the process of memory and free association, authors like Joyce were relying on things in the past which no longer existed except in the mind (that is in time and not in space). Lewis saw this as an attempt to bring dead matter to life – an attempt to disguise the past as the present. In a work such as Ulysses Lewis criticises the use of an ‘all-life-in-a-day-scheme’ which compressed past and future into the present, not only destroying time’s neat linearity in favour of a convulsing mess, but also barring our view of the here and now.[10] Lewis’s criticism for Pound also centred on the poet’s love of archaic forms and his fondness for the past.

Ultimately the form of Time and Western Manis a lesson in contradiction strategy in itself. Lewis has not sought to write an alternative philosophy to depose the time-cult, but states violently his contradicting opinions constantly bringing terms such as ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’, ‘stability’ and ‘flux’, ‘space’ and ‘time’ into stark contrast. Throughout the book he creates these jarring pairs of terms which create the vibrant tension for which is prose is known.

  1. ↑ For a full analysis of the development and final content of the novel, see P. Edwards, Wyndham Lewis: Painter Writer, Yale University Press, 2000
  2. ↑ Lewis, ‘Manifesto II’, BLAST I, 20th June 1914, London, p.30
  3. ↑ Lewis, Time and Western Man (1927), ed. P. Edwards, Santa Rosa 1993, p.37
  4. ↑ Ibid. p.6
  5. ↑ Ibid.
  6. ↑ FN
  7. ↑ See chapter XVI ‘An analysis of the mind of James Joyce’
  8. ↑ Ibid. p. 37
  9. ↑ Lewis, BLAST 1, p. 147
  10. ↑ Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 84