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Paul Scott Stanfield’s article, “The Betrayed Father: Wyndham Lewis, Homosexuality, and Enemy of the Stars,” from the Journal of Modern Literature’s newest issue, is now available on JSTOR & Project MUSE. Below, Paul elaborates on attitudes can be neither avowed nor discarded.
For a good many years now, I have wondered about the peculiar circumstance that so many of the Anglo-American writers whose work was radically innovative happened also to drift towards reactionary politics: W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis. Why so many instances? Was there some secret affinity between their modernist aesthetics and authoritarianism?
Quite a few investigators have thought there was, but these critics tended, naturally, to view the question from a great height, looking for large patterns. I found myself wondering what I could discover by looking at the specific circumstances in which Yeats, Eliot, and Pound made their choices and declared their allegiances. Those choices and allegiances, looked at up close, turned out to be so idiosyncratic as to frustrate even someone as keen to discern a pattern as I was. Can one locate Yeats’s fascination with Parnell, Eliot’s admiration for the writing of Charles Maurras, and Pound’s infatuation with the economic theories of C. H. Douglas in one grand unified field? I could not, certainly. And Lewis’s politics were the most idiosyncratic of all.
Lewis’s politics superficially resemble classic reactionary positions in their conviction that Western rationality, traditional authority, masculinity, heterosexuality, etc., are under siege and have to be defended. Upon learning that he also wrote an approving book about Hitler, anyone might well consider the case closed. Anyone who actually reads Lewis’s political writings, though, will find they are stranger, cannier, and more revealing than Lewis’s general reputation suggests.
His attitude towards homosexuality is a case in point. He wrote about the topic repeatedly, typically in the somewhat over-heated, anxious vein that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick taught us to recognize as “panic.” At the same time, Lewis did not display the straightforward homophobia of, say, a Roy Campbell. A queasy fascination crept in, particularly evident in the chapter in Lewis’s Hitler book in which he visits a Berlin drag bar. The community that was asserting itself in Berlin, Paris, London, and elsewhere in the 1920s got Lewis’s attention because its members were taking the same risks with their lives that he was taking with his painting and fiction. They were his kindred, in some ways. At the same time, he found them disturbing, alarming, even a threat.
Whether Lewis’s attitude towards homosexuality—this volatile compound of anxiety, disdain, identification, and perhaps even a little envy—deserves to be called “homophobia” is contested, as is the usefulness of the term “homophobia” itself. One of Judith Butler’s ideas about the genesis of homophobia did prove useful to me, however, in thinking about Lewis. She suggests in Gender Trouble and elsewhere that homophobia may begin in feelings of love for someone of one’s own sex that one can neither acknowledge nor do without. The unsolvable double bind within generates the exaggerated sense of a danger without.
A peculiarity of Lewis’s discussions of the heightened visibility of gay men in the 1920s is that it often leads him to the topic of fathers and sons. In The Art of Being Ruled, Doom of Youth, and The Lion and the Fox, Lewis presented male homosexuality as the sons’ rejection of the masculinity they associated with their fathers. This rejection (he argued) was one front in a larger rebellion against the older generation, particularly the men who had sacrificed their sons on the Western Front. The sons’ feminist mothers and sisters, in Lewis’s scenario of post-war culture, made common cause with them in this conflict with the fathers.
The implausibility of Lewis’s scenario led me to wonder about his relationship with his own father, who was banished from the household when Lewis was a boy. Lewis would have been placed in the difficult situation of a child for whom loyalty to one parent means disloyalty to another. Thanks to the Lewis archive at Cornell University, I was able to read Charles Lewis’s letters to his son, which provided some clues, and an unpublished essay by Lewis on his father, which provided a few more, but the most powerful evidence that Lewis’s feelings about his father are braided into his attitude towards male homosexuality lies in Lewis’s enigmatic early text Enemy of the Stars.
Looking at both the version of Enemy of the Stars published in 1914 and the revised 1932 version that may have traces on an earlier, pre-1914 version, I see a kind of family drama as the kernel of the text: a son inspired by a mother to attack a father, and a love that erupts in violence because it can be neither avowed nor discarded.
The emergence during the 1920s of a vibrant LGBTQ community in London and elsewhere, even while under continuing threat of harassment, persecution, and imprisonment, is a rich topic that has only recently started to get the attention it merits, and the light Lewis’s work projects on that community, lurid though it sometimes is, nonetheless helps us see it.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Paul Scott Stanfield is a professor of English at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
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