The Apes of God

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by Len Gutkin


If Wyndham Lewis, like food cured in lye, is an acquired taste, then The Apes of God (1930), a massive satiric roman-a-clef of unrivaled toxicity, is a glass of straight lye taken neat. “No one’s favorite book,”[1] this longest of Lewis’s works of fiction—623 tightly printed pages in the beautiful Black Sparrow edition of 1981—nevertheless brings Lewis’s rebarbative early style to its malicious apogee. Furthermore, Apes is Lewis’s definitive novelistic counterthrust to the tendencies in modernism he opposed elsewhere in The Childermass and Time and Western Man. In this “notorious barrage against the twin camps of fashionable modernism, the Bloomsburys and the Sitwell clique,”[2] Lewis scandalously personalizes his politico-aesthetic polemic.

Publication and Initial Reception

The Apes of God came out in a limited edition of 750 copies in 1930. Though it received a number of positive reviews, one of them, by Roy Campbell, was rejected by The New Statesman for being too salutary. This so incensed Lewis that he brought out a pamphlet (Enemy Pamphlets no. 1) devoted in part to attacking The New Statesman’s editor. Enemy Pamphlets no. 1 furthermore contains an essay-length statement of Lewis’s theory of satire, “Satire & Fiction,” later to be collected in Men Without Art. Indeed, Lewis saw The New Statesman’s rejection of Campbell’s review as fundamentally symptomatic of the literary public’s response to real satire. The literary public, for Lewis, had its most potent and hated symbol in Bloomsbury: “A prominent ‘Bloomsbury’ is for instance the literary editor of one of the best-known Sunday papers—and so far The Apes of God has not been mentioned in that paper. If that silence is ever broken, it will be broken by a roar or a sneer of hatred, or by a sly Bloomsbury sniff.[3]

In addition to the essay on satire and the history of the “rejected review,” Enemy Pamphlets no. 1 contains numerous epistolary testimonials favorable to Apes, including, most prominently, by H.G. Wells and by W.B. Yeats. Yeats writes, “I felt…on first reading [Apes], that something absent from all literature for a generation was back again, and in a form rare in the literature of all generations, passion enobled by intensity, by endurance, by wisdom. We had it in one man once. He lies in St. Patrick’s now under the greatest epitaph in history.”[4] Yeats’s comparison of The Apes of God to the work of Swift must have pleased Lewis immensely.

There are at least two other important editions of The Apes of God. A 25th anniversary edition, published by Penguin and with a preface by Lewis, came out in 1955. In 1981, Black Sparrow brought out an edition with a useful afterward by Lewis scholar Paul Edwards. The novel is, at present, unjustifiably out of print.

Plot Summary

Apes is a more or less impossible novel to summarize, because very little actually happens. As Paul Edwards puts it, “the middle five-hundred pages or so are experienced as a hiatus filled with purposeless activity” (Afterword 135). Insofar as the novel has any plot to speak of, it moves forward only at the beginning and end of the novel. Apes opens with a seventeen-page italicized prologue titled Death-the-Drummer, in which we meet ninety-six year old ex-gossip columnist Lady Fredigonde. We learn that a certain Horace Zagreus has an important place in Lady Fredigonde’s aged consciousness. The novel’s concluding chapter, The General Strike, which takes place during the strike of 1926, sees this same Horace Zagreus, a sixty-something professional charlatan, engaged to marry Lady Fredigonde—for her money, as we are aware, though she is not. The intervening “five-hundred pages or so” consist of a series of grotesque episodes in which Zagreus manipulates, lampoons, and scandalizes a large cast of characters based on various real-life personages of the period.

Who's Who and Characterization

The fact that many of the characters in Apes were based on real-life figures contributed, as Lewis certainly intended, to its contemporary interest and the aura of scandal surrounding it--it is even reported that Lewis's life was threatened.[5]. I have followed Paul Edward's identifications of the real-life bases for the caricatures in Apes.[6]

Horace Zagreus - Based on the infamous practical jokester Horace de Vere Cole (behind, most famously, the Dreadnought Hoax of 1910), Zagreus is the antic engine that keeps the book humming. Zagreus puts the novel’s series of set-pieces in motion by sending the young idiot Dan Boleyn on a series of visits to prominent “Apes,” the novel’s term for fraudulent artistic poseurs, largely drawn from the upper or upper-middle classes. This round of pointless visits is, so Boleyn thinks, in service of his own budding artistic genius, of which Zagreus has disingenuously convinced him.

Many of Zagreus’s aesthetic and social positions are clearly recognizable as Lewis’s own, but Zagreus—an aging homosexual professional prankster—is, unlike, say, Tarr, not easily reducible to an authorial stand-in.

Pierpoint – Lewis emphasizes the disjunction between author and Zagreus through the character of Zagreus’s mentor Pierpoint, who never appears in the novel save in the form of a letter containing his essential doctrines (“Pierpoint’s Encyclical”) and in Zagreus’s own verbatim “broadcasts” of his master’s speeches. Pierpoint’s encyclical is a typically Lewisean blast against bourgeois-bohemia, whose sin, here, besides general ignorance and stupidity, is to have bought up all the good studio space in Europe, thereby preventing real artists from getting affordable digs. These wannabes "ape" the role of artist, hence the novel's title.

Pierpoint, present only through his disciple and his “encyclical,” provides Lewis with a kind of solution to a problem that had concerned him since Tarr: how to get a theorizing authorial stand-in into his novels? The permanently off-stage Pierpoint, present only in his letter, dramatizes and even allegorizes the role of authorial intelligence, pulling strings and animating events. By filtering Pierpoint through Horace Zagreus, Lewis introduces the comical distance, and a certain possibility for self-satire, that distinguishes his fiction from his criticism.

Dan Boleyn – Possibly based on a very young Stephen Spender, the empty-headed narcissistic Boleyn has been taken up by Zagreus and convinced of his own artistic genius. As per Zagreus’s instructions, he must visit various Apes and take notes on them, though he is incapable of comprehending their activities at all. Lewis uses this borderline-retarded pretty boy to send up Gertrude Stein, whose method, as he writes in Men Without Art, is "infantile,"[7] As one character says to Boleyn, “Miss Stein is a writer—She is a genius Dan—Has a peculiar way of writing. Horace says you are a moron—You think as Miss Stein writes.”[8]

Julius Ratner – A would-be novelist based on John Rodker, author of Adolphe, with a dash of James Joyce thrown in.

Lionel Kein – Based on early Proust translator (and Lewis patron) Sidney Schiff, Lionel Kein would like nothing more than to be a character in the Recherche, so intense is his admiration for Proust. Part IX of Apes, “Chez Lionel Kein, ESQ.” represents Lewis’s most significant and extended engagement with Proust. See below, “Wyndham Lewis and Proustian Satire.”

The Osmunds – The longest set-piece in Apes takes place at one Lord Osmund Finnian Shaw’s. Lord Osmund is based on Sir Osbert Sitwell. Also present are Lord Phoebus Finnian Shaw (Sir Saceverell Sitwell) and Lady Harriet Finnian Shaw (Dame Edith Sitwell). Lewis’s satire of the Sitwell clique is vicious and comprehensive. Lord Osmund, for example, is said to “combin[e], with the traditional irish ‘madness,’ every correct minor mania of the post-Ninety aestheticism of the Chelsea English….”[9]

Wyndham Lewis and Satire

Lewis consciously positioned The Apes of God in the lineage of Anglophone satire extending back to Swift and Pope, a tradition for which he expressed admiration as early as BLAST (“BLESS SWIFT for his solemn bleak wisdom of laughter.”)[10] In Enemy Pamphlet no. 1’s “Satire & Fiction,” later collected in Men Without Art, Lewis articulates his vision of contemporary satire. Andrej Gasiorek puts it well: “[Men Without Art] argued that contemporary society had degenerated so far that art had to be satiric. But, whereas satire tended to be conceived as a tool of reproof and instruction, his view of it was non-ethical and non-political. Aligned with ‘the “truth” of the intellect’ (MWA 100), satire was associated with an objectivism that took no sides and ignored emotional sentiment….This view of satire was continuous with the stylization and dehumanization defended by Lewis in the days of Blast.”[11] Thus Lewisean satire becomes aligned with a rejection of the ethically recuperative role of the artist. The satirical novelist fashions himself as a detached and even scientific observer. Such objective distance is clearly consonant with Lewis’s emphasis, from the beginning of his career, on hardness, externality, and surface. Lewis writes that, besides The Apes of God, “no book has ever been written that has paid more attention to the outside of people."[12] These formulations will be familiar to readers of Tarr and Time and Western Man. In “Satire & Fiction,” Lewis attacks both James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence for their preoccupations with “The dark WITHIN of the Unconscious”[13]. In a clear restatement of the famous passage in Tarr celebrating an art modeled on “[a] hippopotamus’ armoured hide, a turtle’s shell, feathers or machinery on the one hand; that opposed to naked pulsing and moving of the soft inside of life,” Lewis insists: “The ossature is my favourite part of a living animal organism, not its intestines. This might be described as putting the matter in a nutshell. My objections to Mr. D.H. Lawrence were chiefly concerned with that regrettable habit of his incessantly to refer to the intestinal billowing of ‘dark’ subterranean passion.”[14]. The valorization of shell over intestine, armor over guts, outside over inside, is Lewis’s favorite theme from the publication of Blast through that of Apes. In his fiction, his paintings, and his theory, he returns to it with wearying compulsivity.

But what of the question of whether the satirist’s role is ethical, corrective, recuperative? Lewis’s insistence that, regarding Apes, his satire can have no redemptive or recuperative function strikes a new note in his thinking. He divides satire into two camps: “Satire based upon (1) moral values, and (2) non-moral values.” He locates his own work as an instance of the latter, and traces this tradition to Dryden: “It was, in short, not because his opponents were naughty Dryden objected to them, but because they were dull. They had sinned against the Reason, rather than against the Mosaic Law…For all those satirised by Juvenal, or smarting beneath the scourges of most other satirists, have been able at a pinch to snigger and remark that ‘Yes, they knew that they were very wicked!”[15]

The replacement of a satirical critique directed against moral failings with one directed against stupidity complements Lewis's emphasis on exteriority. Indeed, moralistic satire, for Lewis, always misunderstands its proper generic function: "the greatest Satire cannot be moralistic at all...."[16] Lewis picks up Hazlitt's criticism of Ben Jonson: "[W]hen Hazlitt speaks of the characters 'like machines, governed by mere routine,' there, I think, he gives himself entirely away. For what else is a character in satire but that? Is it not just because they are such machines, governed by routine--or creatures that stagnate, as it were 'in a leaden cistern'--that the satirist, in the first instance, has considered them suitable for satire?...the great opportunity that narrative-satire affords for a visual treatment is obvious. To let the reader 'into the minds of the characters,' to 'see the play of their thoughts'--that is precisely the method least suited to satire"[17]. We come, here, to the crux of the matter for Lewis, a crux marked by a certain ambiguity Lewis himself perhaps failed to recognize. If, on the one hand, Lewis valorizes the hard exterior, the ossature or, more humanly, the armor (one thinks of the hard lines of the presumably armored "Timon of Athens" in Lewis's magnificent painting of that name), on the other hand he critiques his characters' machine-like rigidity of habit and routine in the The Apes of God. Or, more precisely, it is his affinity for the armored or machine-like, whether to laud (as in the "Timon" painting) or lampoon (as in Apes), that makes the habitual, machine-like stupidity of Apes' characters fit subject for his satire. There is something potentially incoherent in a system that both celebrates ossified externality and generates, for satirical purposes, these mechanical clock-work characters, puttering along on their fixed rounds with the stupid grins of wind-up toys.

The Apes of God: (More) satirizing of James Joyce and Gertude Stein--and Virginia Woolf

Beginning in The Childermass (1928), Lewis wrestled with the literary influence of his friend James Joyce, about whose work he was extremely ambivalent. The Apes of God continues Lewis's assault on Joycean modernism. In addition to Joyce, Lewis takes on Viriginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Apes also revisits The Childermass's mockery of the "Stein-stutter" of Gertude Stein. Outside of his fiction, Lewis's critiques of Woolf and Stein can be found in Men Without Art.

As Scott W. Klein shows in his major study The Fictions of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis, The Apes of God is in large part an encounter--fraught, hilarious, exhausting--with Joyce. "Ulysses acts as a frame of reference [for Apes], a text that lies beneath the surface of Lewis's fiction as a satirized but anxiously entrapping precursor, a parodied original that cannot be negated but only ambivalently revised."[18] Klein points out that Lewis attempted to package Apes as a kind of antidote to the Joycean strain of modernism, particularly in the multiple blurbs that graced the first page of the original edition. Of the five blubs, two of them mention Joyce by name: "An excerpt from Richard Aldginton's review...states 'that The Apes of God is the greatest piece of writing since Ulysses, while a testimonial from Roy Campbell insists that 'this book will certainly stand to Ulysses as Candide does to the Confessions and the Emile of Rousseau.'"[19] These blurbs are not precisely consonant. Aldington invokes Joyce as artistic master, as virtuoso of literary language, and promotes Lewis's book as exhibiting similar capabilities ("the greatest piece of writing," emphasis in original). Roy Campbell (in a passage from the "rejected review" published in Enemy Pamphlets no. 1), on the other hand, figures Lewis as a revisor or opponent, who with Voltairian sharpness cuts through Rousseauian sentimentality. Lewis certainly endorsed Campbell's conception, but, as Klein demonstrates (and as I have suggested regarding The Childermass and its debts to Joyce and Stein), the complex way in which Joyce figures "as secondary motivation and oppositional subtext"[20] in Lewis's fiction results in something much more ambiguous than a clear critique or parody. Tyrus Miller writes that "Lewis's prose becomes a curious melange of mimicry and violent rejection....In his strong turn toward parody and satire, then, Lewis sharpened his oppositional stance to high modernism while, paradoxically, feeding his opposition on the rich stylistic fodder and personal mythology of the writers he was attacking: Joyce, Stein, Woolf, Hemingway, Lawrence, Pound."[21] In this "curious melange," Lewis brilliantly cannibalizes the formal resources of his opponents, bracketing and mocking them while still reaping the benefits of their technique.

Lewis's satiric engagement with Joyce goes back to The Childermass, but Virginia Woolf only becomes a target in The Apes of God and then in Men Without Art (she will also be targeted, at greater length, in The Revenge for Love). Woolf herself was deeply stung by Lewis's attacks in Men Without Art, as a diary entry makes clear: "I have taken the arrow of W.L to my heart."[22] It is unclear whether she registered the attacks in Apes, which Tyrus Miller notes in Late Modernism. As Miller details, Lewis conflates two passages from Mrs. Dalloway in order to suggest that Woolf's version of modernist practice is "an emblematic instance of a modernism become manner and fashion."[23]. The first depicts Peter Walsh hearing imperfectly articulated or wordless singing in the street, which Woolf renders: "ee um fah um so / foo swee too em oo."[24] The second depicts Elizabeth Dalloway thinking of death while listening to a parade:

The noise was tremendous; and suddenly there were trumpets (the unemployed) blaring, rattling about in the uproar; military music; as if people were marching; yet had they been dying—had some woman breathed her last and whoever was watching, opening the window of the room where she had just brought off that last act of supreme dignity, looked down on Fleet Street, that uproar, that military music would have come triumphing up to him, consolatory, indifferent. ([Woolf]) 138).[25] (138)

Lewis hijacks Woolf's language to describe the kiss that marks the engagement of the gold-digging Horace Zagreus to the ninety-six year old Lady Fredigonde, who hears jazz in the street. Jazz music (a special object of Lewis's scorn) becomes the literal soundtrack to Woolfian stream-of-consciousness:

Their lips met, and the love-light softened the old discoloured corneous surface of the fredigondean eyeball, once a lacteous blue. Over this conventionally she dropped her lids in a token of virgin-rapture.—In the street outside there was a frenzied rattle. . . . There was a drum-tap. Like rain drops, there was a constant tapping, a sharp drip upon the loud parchment. Then came the first soft crash of the attendant cymbal—it was the prelude of the thunder. And in the gutter the crazy instruments at last struck up their sentimental jazzing one-time stutter—gutter-thunder. Whoddle ah doo
Wen yoo
Are far
An I
am bloo
Whoddle ah doo
Whoddlah DOOOO![26]

The Lewisean Sentential Spasm

The phonetically rendered song in Mrs. Dalloway which Lewis parodies towards the end of Apes can be considered the limit case of a certain kind of modernist style Lewis opposed. At the level of the average Lewisean versus the average Joycean (or Woolfian) sentence--insofar as one can speak of such things!--a basic opposition might be articulated in terms of what Hugh Kenner has labelled the "suave" and the "spasmodic." "Lewis alters the Joycean practice in two ways only: he replaces the suave by the spasmodic rhythm, and he multiplies around the static object images drawn from the visual memory, often to the occultation of the object itself."[27]

Kenner intends to suggest that Lewis's loud rejection of Joycean style masks an underlying similarity, though of course a lot might hinge on that distinction between "suave" and "spasmodic" rhythm. Kenner's vocabulary is instructive, since it is clear that, for Lewis at least, the allegedly regressive tendencies of modernist interiority are manifest in part through just this "suavity." For Lewis, such suave sentences effect an infantile retreat from the sharp angle Lewis wants to capture in his spasming line. The suave is associated with the "child-cult," the modernist valorization of the primitive, the fixation on the fluid operations of the unconscious: in short, all of Lewis's favorite bugbears. In any event, the jaggedly "spasmodic" Lewis, whose prose, in this respect, is most closely approached only by Pound's, and perhaps by the poetry of Mina Loy, does present a clear contrast with a suavity one could associate not only with Joyce, but also with Proust, with Woolf, with Lawrence, with Dorothy Richardson, to some extent with Stein, and even with the smooth polish of Eliot. The difference between the suave and the spasmodic sentential rhythm might be brought into clearer relief by analogizing it to the plane of visual art, an analogy, indeed, which Lewis makes in a critique in Satire and Fiction entitled "The Test by analogy with other arts":

If Henry James or if James Joyce were to paint pictures, it would be, you feel, a very literary sort of picture that would result.We know what sort of picture D.H. Lawrence would paint if he took to the brush instead of the pen. For he did so, luckily, and even held exhibitions. As one might have expected, it turned out to be incompetent Gauguin! A bit more practice, and Lawrence would have been indistinguishable from that Pacific-Parisian Pierre Loti of Paint.[28]

The difference, I would argue, that Kenner locates between the spasmodic and the suave, is a difference that makes all the difference. At the risk of seeming to accept uncritically Lewis's strategy of erecting categorically rigid antitheses, I would submit that the Lewisean sentential spasm remains the great formal other within the canonically constituted body of modernist prose.

Wyndham Lewis and Proustian Satire

Lewis's satirical attacks on Joyce and Stein have been long noted, and Tyrus Miller's chapter on Lewis in Late Modernism has decisively demonstrated the less prominent place of Woolf as a target. Lewis's engagement with Marcel Proust, on the other hand, has been less noted, though it informs a major episode in The Apes of God, Horace Zagreus's visit to Lionel Kein (based on Proust translator Sidney Schiff). This is due in part, no doubt, to the very different role played by Proust in Lewis's thought. Though Lewis was opposed to Proustian psychologism, he seems to have appreciated Proust's social satire, at least in theory, and even to identify his own project, to some extent, with Proust's. The following exchange between Zagreus and Kein is instructive: 

"Well Li--I was saying!--In reply to my clumsy compliment you asserted that to be a Proust-character ferait parfaitment votre affaire--to break into the idioma of the Master in question. What flashed through my mind as you said that was this: that in that case you would be one of the first notorious Proust-characters to appreciate the honour. Am I wrong? The originals of the famous social figures in Proust's books are said to have been highly displeased, and to have called Proust a cad or something. Am I right?"     
Kein had grown redder as his irritability deepened. He had moved towards the fireplace, and Zagreus had followed him. With a very-well-I-will-answer-your-question pause, and an after-dinner speech camping of the person, he began:      
"Would I like to be one of Proust's characters--do I understand you Zagreus, that is your question?--one of those who do not receive very flattering treatment at his hands? That is your question? I should consider it well worth the privilege" with the deep tremolo of emotion and the rich assistance of catarrh "of having known Proust, to be treated in any way by him that he thought fit!" (Applause among the angels, heard only by the finer senses of Kein. He stands a moment a blessed martyr transfixed with the arrows of Truth.) "I should know, however little I liked it, that it was the truth about myself. If I were vainer than I am, perhaps then it would be otherwise."[29]

Insofar as Lewis intends, here, a critique of Proust, this critique is suggested by Lionel Kein's failure to register, or to be sufficiently repelled by, the aggressiveness of Proust's satire. Proust's satire, Lewis implies, is too gentle.  A satire sufficiently nasty, Lewis suggests, would foreclose from the start any desire to be numbered among its targets--certainly no one could desire to find himself attacked in the pages of The Apes of God. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that Apes is, in its oblique way, something of a tribute to Proust--it is Proust revised to accomodate Lewis's misanthropy. What allows Kein to desire a place in Proust's fictional landscape is the sense, in Proust, that satire is secondary to the probing psychology manifested in Marcel's intense self-communings. Kein, we assume, finds evidence of his "finer senses" precisely in such exercised interiority. This sort of psychology, of course, is entirely absent from Lewis. Lewis’s version of the Proustian satire is more clinical, more objective, and less inflected by the humanistic melancholy that functions in Proust as a kind of consolation prize for the suppressed viciousness of his (Proust’s) satire. In Lewis, the viciousness, a kind of generalized toxic anti-sociality, is all; his vision is shorn of the comforting nostalgia of the basically romantic Proustian meditative reminiscence.

  1. Klein, Scott W. The Fictions of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. pg. 21
  2. Miller, Tyrus. Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars. Berkeley, UC Press, 1999. pg. 70
  3. Lewis, Wyndham. Enemy Pamphlets No. 1. London: The Arthur Press, n.d. pg. 8.
  4. ibid. pg. 29
  5. Edwards, Paul. "Afterward." The Apes of God. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1981. pg. 634
  6. ibid. pg. 635
  7. Lewis, Wyndham. Men Without Art. London: Cassell & Company Limited, 1934. pgs. 27-28
  8. Lewis, William. The Apes of God. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1981. pg. 420
  9. ibid. pg. 350
  10. Lewis, Wyndham et al. Blast. London: The Bodley Head, 1914. pg. 28
  11. Gasiorek, Andrzej. Wyndham Lewis and Modernism. Devon: Northcote House Publishers, 2004. pg. 62
  12. Lewis, Wyndham. Enemy Pamphlets No. 1. London: The Arthur Press, n.d. pg. 46
  13. ibid. pg. 47
  14. ibid. pgs. 47-48
  15. ibid. pg. 43
  16. ibid. pg. 43
  17. ibid. pgs. 45-46
  18. Klein, Scott W. The Fictions of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. pg. 22
  19. ibid. pg. 115
  20. ibid.
  21. Miller, Tyrus. Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars. Berkeley, UC Press, 1999. pgs. 76-77
  22. Chapman, Robert T. Wyndham Lewis: Fictions and Satires. Plymouth: Vision Press, 1973. pg. 98
  23. Miller, Tyrus. Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars. Berkeley, UC Press, 1999. pg. 71
  24. ibid.
  25. ibid.
  26. ibid. 72
  27. Kenner, Hugh. Wyndham Lewis. Norfolk: New Directions Books, 1954. pgs. 105-106
  28. Lewis, Wyndham. Enemy Pamphlets No. 1. London: The Arthur Press, n.d. pg. 53
  29. Lewis, Wyndham. The Apes of God. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1981. pg. 248

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