For this week, I’m trying to piece together the argument between Lewis in "The Diabolical Principle" and the writers featured in transition (mainly Paul and Jolas). As first, I thought I was seeing infighting between two different, yet very related art movements: Surrealism and Vorticism. The more I read Lewis, though, the more I realized how diametrically opposed Lewis was to the concepts of Surrealism.
In many ways, his opposition was an argument about origins. The first way this appears in when Lewis challenges the assumption Paul makes about a humanistic lineage of thought/art. Paul cites several Russian writers who exhibit humanist tendencies; Lewis responds by suggesting that nihilism was the overriding idea for those writers (or, at least, that it was central to their work) (63). Since Darwin, Lewis argues, “men have doubted the Christian premises and tended to regard themselves as animals rather than ‘humanists,’ and ever since the French Revolution they have dreamed spasmodically of universal armed proletarian revolt to put back a bit of the jungle where it was badly needed in the centre of the artifices of very imperfectly humane life” (63). The nihilistic, aggressive, contradictory posture Lewis assumes is, by his logic, more in line with those thinkers, more natural perhaps and thus closer to our origins as humans which is as animals (?). Paul, Eluard, and Breton desire the lost humanism that modern life has corrupted or repressed—captured by Breton’s assertion: “Childhood that comes closest to one’s ‘real life’… childhood where everything nevertheless conspires to bring about the effective, risk-free possession of oneself.” Lewis, on the other hand, embraces a more cynical understanding of man’s natural state.
According to Lewis, what modern life has done is make people into child, infants, dulled and “idiotic” products of modernity. The disagreement between Lewis and the authors in transition can be captured in the valuing of childhood and child-like states of being. The surrealists want to return to a child-like state of understanding the world (this is the super-reality blending of dream and the real world [I think]). Lewis takes issue with this for two reasons: 1. Such a mindset reduces the status of art to the mundane, profane, since everyone can produce art because everyone has an automated state of thought, everyone can free associate and 2. There isn’t a clear distinction between Surrealist, child-like art and art that is complex and worthy of serious consideration. In this slippery space, art can be coopted by corporate and political interests (and is currently being coopted by Communists, according to Lewis). And as art is coopted, it loses its meaning and its ability to inspire revolutionary thought. It becomes an opiate that reduces the masses to an infantile, child-like state. Or, perhaps more accurately, it deigns to the level of the masses to be comprehensible, accessible. It is thus sullied, “rendered ineffective” in its potential. The image of the child is the image of the masses for Lewis, something that is a dangerous threat to the art world.