Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr: An Exploration of Humour
Tarr is a novel that describes reality as deplete of an inherent moral code, and Lewis articulates the world as hostile, set in direct opposition to the romantic, Rousseauvian vision of “wild nature and unspoilt man”. Within this world Lewis questions whether ‘the self’ is intrinsic or is built up of the external self we express to others; paradoxically he endorses and criticises the superficiality of the way we present ourselves to others. This questioning of identity is reflected within the genre of the novel itself, which vacillates between comedy and tragedy. Tarr has been described by T.S. Eliot as “terrifying” in its scrutiny of “modern civilisation”, and upon the surface the frequently violent developments in plot – ranging from rape to suicide – are more appropriate to a tragedy. And yet the majority of the novel is written in a darkly comic, sardonic tone that would seem to undermine the seriousness of the events described. Contrary to this apparent tone, Lewis’s own views on humour are conflicted, frequently he claims its effect to be that of a drug – an opiate to null our grip on reality. The treatment of comedy as problematic, or even dangerous is nothing new – Plato argued that taking pleasure in comedy was abhorrent, claiming that “taken generally, the ridiculous is a certain kind of evil, specifically a vice”1. However, if we are to accept a world absent of morality, comedy takes a different form – by provoking the reader to laugh at subjects typically seen as immoral (rape, murder and suicide) crucially I will argue Lewis makes the reader complicit in, or rather submit to, this violent world.
Within Tarr nature is presented as both hostile and valueless, nonetheless Lewis manages to maintain a comedic tone. This ruthless presentation of the natural world is evident both in outcomes of the plot (Bertha’s romanticizing causes a mental breakdown; Kriesler’s national pride results in manslaughter and suicide) but also in Tarr’s philosophizing and analysis of events in the beginning and latter stages of the novel. For example, in reaction to Anastaysia likening his world-view to that of Rousseau’s, he remarks “there is no more value in stupidity and formlessness than there is in dung, but they are necessary. The conditions of creation and of life disgust me”. This disgust, but acknowledgement of the necessity of, the primal state of man – expressed through scatological vocabulary – is reflected in Lewis’s involvement with Vorticism. In the avant-garde magazine Blast he proclaims “we want to leave Nature and Men alone” with the manifesto acting as “an avenue for all those vivid and violent ideas that could reach the Public in no other way”2. Within this world, in the words of critic Michael North “human beings actually are mechanical objects”3, indeed the language of man-made machinery pervades the text and is consistently blurred with the natural world: “Nature was not friendly to him; its metallic tints jarred”. Laughter and humour do not escape this automation, as North continues “it is the function of laughter, to expose their [human] pretentions to be otherwise [to be anything other than a “mechanical object”]”; to Lewis laughter and tragedy are intertwined, as in our laughter we delude ourselves into believing we are not machines, but simultaneously in the act of laughing we betray our own machinations. In regard to the relationship between this world to the artist, sex is highlighted as being in direct opposition to Art, with sensuality possessing corrosive effects, as Tarr exclaims to Anastaysia “naked men and women are the worst art of all, because there are fewer semi-dead things about them”. This hostility towards sex, in reaction to the hostility of Nature itself, is prevalent in much of Lewis’s writing, including short story Cantleman’s Spring-mate. Here he describes the rape of country girl Stella by newly enlisted First World War serviceman Cantleman, and towards the end of the story, the female body becomes synonymous with the natural world: “nature tempted him towards her”4. As critic Alex Houen argues “Nature itself provokes the rape… Cantleman’s actions show that he is incapable of forming any proper ethical understanding”5. This argument can be extended to Kriesler’s rape of Bertha in Tarr, and its deconstruction by the eponymous protagonist: “The nearest the general run get to art is Action: sex is there form of art: the battle for existence is their picture.” Kriesler, in part due to the displacement of his “art-instinct” with sex, attempts to fight against nature – or his “Destiny” (“Doomed, Evidently”, the chapter 2 title describes this destiny, and was originally intended to be the name of the novel 6) – with an act of sexual assault. Yet the rape itself is proceeded by the ridiculous: “your arms are like bananas”, and like Cantleman his attempts to emerge victorious with, or assign purpose to, nature crucially proves to be futile, resulting in his suicide. In the preface to the earlier 1918 American edition of Tarr, Lewis makes the claim that the title character “exalts Life into a Comedy, when otherwise it is, to his mind, a tawdry zone of half art, or a silly tragedy”. The authors idiosyncratic playfulness with capitalization – with the capitals of nationalities often dropped such as in “But he was more german than the Germans (p190) to mock the arbitrariness of national conventions – visually expresses concepts he regards as important. And in the case of the preface, these concepts are critical to the overall genre of the novel itself. While Lewis chooses to capitalize “Life” and “Comedy” he refuses to do the same for the genre of tragedy, confining it to the reductive adjective “silly”. At its heart, the world – filtered and assessed by Tarr – is the makings of a tragedy that has been transfused by its protagonist and author into a satire.
Fluctuations in genre are experienced most dramatically in the description of rape which quickly veers from the brutal depiction of Bertha (arguably the most sympathetic character in the novel) “convulsed upon her back, her mouth smeared with blood” to the comparison of her arms to bananas. The rape itself is obscured as “an iron curtain rushed down upon that tragedy” – the tone and narrative become fragmented, and through use of a theatrical metaphor Lewis consciously prevents the novel from becoming a “tragedy” – the machine-aged curtain closes the set-piece, subverting traditional storytelling. Tragedy and comedy have always been closely intertwined – both are “based on the violation of mental patterns and expectations, and in both the world is a tangle of conflicting systems where human live in the shadow of failure, folly and dead”7. And yet what distinguishes tragedy from comedy is that while the former asks its audience to hold an “emotional engagement with life’s problems”, the latter “embodies an anti-heroic, pragmatic attitude toward life’s incongruities”8. Yet the description of rape and Bertha’s own perspective, adopts elements from both camps in rapid succession, and Bertha’s subsequent perception of Kreisler aligns him with this fragmentation: “She saw side by side and unconnected, the silent figure engaged in drawing her bust and the other one full of violence … four in all, that she could not for some reason bring together, each in a complete compartment of time of its own.” (167) Kreisler’s external self, split into four, acts as one of the most surreal images in the novel. While it can be interpreted psychologically, perhaps it can also be explained in terms of genre; just as Kreisler splits into multiple selves, the novel is split between its depiction of violence and its relation to tragedy and comedy. This tonal warfare is resumed in Bertha’s opening of the door to reveal Kriesler, which is compared to “the tearing of a characterless mask off a hideous and startling face” leaving Bertha – in a motionless, “paralysed gesture” – in between the emotional extremes of laughter and tears; externalizations of the comic and tragic elements of the novel. Ironically, in their static pose both characters – to an extent – embody Tarr’s artistic ideals of which “deadness is the first condition for art” and “anything living, quick and changing is bad art”. While Bertha and Kriesler are alive, their rigidness and lack of movement alongside the description of Kriesler as ghostly or “an apparition from the remote Past, but from a Past almost a Present, a half-hour old, far more startling: the too raw and too new colours of an image hardly digested” blurs this supposedly rigid distinction between “Life” and “Art”. Both characters are caught in a vortex (“the chilly return of a circling storm”) – blurring the continuum between space and time, alongside the blurring of the tragic and comic.
However, making light of a subject as morally abhorrent as rape to some critics is further evidence of Lewis’ explicit misogyny, a quality of his writing which Frederick James argues “no longer exists at the level of mere personal opinion, as is the case, for example, with the various attitudes and “ideas” of a Balzac or Faulkner”. Lewis’s depiction of women throughout Tarr is plagued with an apparent distain for them: “A complex image developed in his mind as he stood with her. He was remembering Schopenhauer … A woman had at her centre a kernel, a sort of very substantial astral baby: this brat was apt to swell” (46). The infantilization of women as “astral baby”, alongside the appeal to Schopenhauer who in his essay On Women writes “women are qualified to be the nurses and governesses of our earliest childhood by the very fact they are themselves childish”9, is surely proof of Lewis’s rampant misogyny filtered into his fiction. Perhaps in conflict with this view – specifically in regard to Bertha’s rape – critic Ann Ardis takes the position that the scene, due to its nontraditional presentation, forces the reader to leave behind their moral judgement. “Lewis also refrains from encouraging the reader to judge Kreisler’s actions on moral or ethical grounds”, she writes “to read this scene as a representation of violence against a woman is as “inane”10 as Bertha’s tears, because the morally centered, sequence-oriented reading strategies that work for classic realism (and that would fuel Bertha’s interpretation of Kreisler’s action as a violation of her personhood) simply do not obtain here.” Ardis provides a compelling, arguably controversial, case for her claim that Lewis encourages the reader to put aside their moral code. By avoiding “classic realism” in the sequence the reader cannot interpret the sequence in the same way that they would a classic realist text. This position can be extended to the discussion of humor; through use of comedy throughout the novel Lewis not only makes us morally impartial to the violence, but he also invites us to laugh at the nature of nature’s absurdity.
Despite the fact Lewis may attempt to illicit this response upon the reader, his own views on comedy were riddled with ambivalence. In the first addition of Blast, humor is one of his targets for the firing squad: “BLAST HUMOUR Quack ENGLISH drug for stupidity and sleepiness. Arch enemy of REAL, conventionalizing like gunshot, freezing supple REAL in ferocious chemistry of laughter.”11 However, in the same edition Lewis suggests humor is acceptable as long as it is structured in the same way as tragedy and vice versa: “We only want Humour if it has fought like Tragedy. We only want to surface a laugh like a bomb.”12 This militaristic language, reminiscent of futurism (“We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.”13) likens the act of laughing to the explosion of a bomb. As critic Michael North points out Blast itself was meant to be “a gust of satiric humor, aimed like a bomb at the heart of English complacency (…) But Blast also blast humour, and though it is possible to distinguish the kind of humour found among the targets of the manifesto from that used by the manifesto itself, these is still a residual sense of difficulty and contradiction”14. This sense of contradiction described by North pervades Tarr, as the titular character proclaims that humor “does paralyse the sense for Reality, people are rapt by their sense of humour in a phlegmatic and hysteric dream world”. And yet as established in the very prologue (albeit for the 1918 edition), Lewis makes Tarr’s comedic inclinations, as a way of dealing with a reality disposed to tragedy, clear. The concept that humor results in a disconnect from reality and ultimately a “dream world” solipsism, is reflected in Lewis’s article ‘The English Sense of Humour’. Within the piece, which again likens humor to a drug, he laments that “accustomed as he is to deadening and drugging everything with his Sense of Humour (lest he should suffer pain or shock by the contact of too crude a reality) in the end the Englishman ceases to respond at all to novel aggressions, or the increasingly unpleasant circumstances in which, historically, he is now liable to find himself”15. It could be argued that Lewis is guilty of committing upon the reader the act his very article describes. Indeed, by provoking us to accept and even laugh at the violent world of Tarr, we are forced – to refer back to Ardis – change our “reading strategies”16 and set aside our moral judgement. And yet by doing this we are forced to conform to Lewis’s worldview – namely that of a violent world devoid of morals. The result of this is that his own brand of humor, rather than entirely subverting what North describes as the “herdlike conformity”17 of contemporary comedy, has the effect of forcing the reader to submit to it.Ultimately, the paradoxical nature of Lewis’s opinions of comedy converge with the tenants of Vorticism, in that no single idea is given prominence, rather we are presented with a swirl of conflicting opinions reminiscent of his BLAST and BLESS dichotomy. Indeed, in the same edition of the magazine in which he blasts humor in general, he blesses “English Humour” claiming it to be the “great barbarous weapon”18. This is simultaneously in direct opposition to his later chastising of the subject in the Spectator article. The comedy of Tarr resembles this vortex, on the one hand the humor is subversive, reflecting Lewis’s view in Men Without Art of the purpose of satire to refer to “an “expressionist” universe, which is receding a little, a little drunken with an overdose of the ‘ridiculous’”19, and yet on the other hand through making us laugh at what should typically be tragic it forces us to conform to his hostile worldview. By the middle of the novel Lewis provokes us to laugh at Kriesler’s threats of suicide to his father (“If.. no money is sent, it being impossible to live without money, I shall on the seventh of July… shoot myself) and Bertha’s mental and physical dishevelment (“She, too is german pastry, more homely than you though — Homely’s the word”). Lewis also illustrates that recognizing the absurdity of the world in terms of a comedy offers little protection from said world. While Anastaysia and Tarr may hold a sense of self-superiority against Bertha, Kriesler and the “bourgeious bohemians, they are also condemned to a vicious cycle of sexuality illustrated by the novels end: “Tarr and Anastaysa did not marry…The cheerless and stodgy absurdity of Rose Fawcett required as compensation the painted, fine and enquiring face of Prism Dirkes.” The recognition of the absurdity of the machine-like nature of humanity does little to help one escape from being a machine themselves. And in finding this hostile natural funny the reader must accept that Lewis proves his own point, namely that our laughter forces us to withdraw our moral code resembling the world of Tarr itself. And crucially, this humour acts as an act of self-delusion, a tragic, mechanical trick in an attempt to convince ourselves we are not mechanical.Endnotes and Bibliography:1 Bury, Robert Gregg, ed. The Philebus of Plato. University Press, 1897. 2 Lewis, Wyndham. Blast. Vol. 1. Kraus Reprint Corp., 1914. 3 North, Michael. Machine-age comedy. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, 2009. P1144 Lewis, Wyndham. Cantleman’s Spring-mate. Little review, 1917. 5 Houen, Alex. Terrorism and modern literature: from Joseph Conrad to Ciaran Carson. OUP Oxford, 2002. P139 6 Lewis, Wyndham, and William K. Rose. The Letters of Wyndham Lewis. New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1963 p223 7 Morreall, J. (2012). “Philosophy of Humor” The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. URL: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/ [Accessed 10 Jan. 2018].8 ibid9 Schopenhauer, Arthur. Essays of Schopenhauer. The Floating Press, 2010. P122 10 Ardis, Ann L. Modernism and Cultural Conflict, 1880–1922. Cambridge University Press, 2002. P10411 Lewis, Wyndham. Blast. Vol. 1. Kraus Reprint Corp., 1914. 12 Ibid 13 Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. “The founding and manifesto of futurism.” Le figaro 51, no. 1 (1909). 14 North, Michael. Machine-age comedy. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, 2009. P11615 Lewis, Wyndham “The English Sense of Humour, The Spectator, 15 June 1934 16 Ardis, Ann L. Modernism and Cultural Conflict, 1880–1922. Cambridge University Press, 2002. P10417 North, Michael. Machine-age comedy. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, 2009. pp117-11818 Lewis, Wyndham. Blast. Vol. 1. Kraus Reprint Corp., 1914. 19 Lewis, Wyndham. Men Without Art. Russell & Russell, 1934.