Monday, 15 June 2015

Praxitella:Reading/Writing the Verisimilitude of the Other

Multiple empathetic identifications, an always potentially violating, interpolating gaze and an understanding of its historicity mark the author’s encounter with Wyndham Lewis’ Praxitella. In the spirit of ‘being true to the complexities of exploration-expression’, how can writing, a technology of articulation, reproduce the affective resonances that constitute this encounter?

Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relationship to language….he enjoys the consistency of his selfhood (that is his pleasure) and seeks its loss (that is his bliss). He is a subject split twice over, doubly perverse.[1]

I guess I'm kind of divided about how to respond: on the one hand I like the moulting metaphor if that's what it is, the peel and pit/inner fruit metaphor, the sure-of-oneself shell that's covering up, well, not just a weakness, because there's another strength, etc., and when I looked again at your Wyndham Lewis exoskeleton painting at the art gallery not too long ago I wondered if it too might be almost a partial or potential self-portrait of yours, and so I suppose I'm both for getting past shells and at the same time, on the other hand, I'm convinced that masks can be alive too, i.e. I'm wary of too simple a narrative of ripping off the shell or the 'lie', as you put it, to get at some 'authentic', 'true' inside…and so the question is just how to find your forms of exploration-expression, your ways of being true to those complexities, rather than trying to conform to some supposed ideal of academic writing.[2]

In these prefatory remarks I aim to set out the project at hand, marked by discursivity, and delimit some of the definable lines of inquiry that constitute this essay, whose scope regularly shifts as the boundaries of my investigation, vacillating between the internal and external, occupying border-spaces marked by varying degrees of tension. The object of my research is Wyndham Lewis’ painting Praxitella (1920-21); I will speculate on this object as a representation and a figure, describing and interpreting the intertwined image and its context/s, its objecthood (‘itness’) and its sexed verisimilitude (‘sheness’), asking not solely what made the work possible then, but what makes it possible today, as an artefact producing fascination in me, a 21st century subjectivity/viewer/analyst.
I must ask the painting what it is, formally; the inquiry will be multi-faceted. I will question its veracity as a portrait (of a lover, a ‘new woman’ of the Modern period, perhaps a feminist), as a sophisticatedly ciphered self-portrait of the artist himself, and through the prismatic operation of my identification with the subject, a fragmented [self] portrait of the author/analyst.
I am concerned with the transformative process of mirroring that occurs in my relationship with the object; my subjectivity is altered in the wake of the encounter – I am undone, and the fascination that marks my encounter with the object is linked with desire, suturing my subjectivity onto the object, which doesn’t return the gaze and instead, ‘offers itself to view’[3] absorbing my projected subjective and culturally delimited identifications, ideals and inventions. I am very attentive to the need to articulate these complex revelatory encounters, encounters that are disturbed by the presumed singularity and containment of subjecthood.
Wyndham Lewis’ detached, ironical relation to Modernism and the play of paradoxical romanticism, in the literary register, will signpost this work. Finally, analysis of the instrumentalisation of animal, mechanical and robot as metaphor and representation of femininity, corporeality and control in the context of early 20th century Modernism and world war will be deployed, at the critical thematic conjuncture of masks, mirrors and Juliet Mitchell’s summary of Lewis’ relationship to the interface: ‘mechanical surfaces are just as much part of reality of inner emotions.’[4]
The primary question I put to the object of my analysis is – why has the subject of the painting, Lewis’ lover Iris Barry, been depicted in this way? One biographer of Lewis frames their query, which is proximate to my own, thus: ‘she is formidably armed but…we feel like reproaching the artist for turning her out in this an alienated condition.’[5] Another biographer steps beyond these concerns and into the psyche of the painter (with specific reference to his writing); it disturbs him that Lewis’ fictional automata “act but never interact” and seeks, like I do in this essay, to access “the human reality [underlying these gesticulations].”[6]
I wish to conduct an analysis of the image, my relationship to it, and its’ historicity via the contextual landscape offered by Lewis’ autobiographical fiction to piece together a picture of the scene of its production (and fascination with it), keeping in mind that discourses of the sentimental and the unadulterated were anathema to Lewis, who in his literary texts appraised ambivalence. My suspicion, unsettling in its alleged division down the line of sexual difference, is that Wyndham Lewis depicts his lover harshly as a result of post-WWI trauma, derailment by collateral operations of Modernity, and the operation of an occlusive (self-destructive) criticality that detests both feminism and feminine romanticism.[7]  By extension of this movement, love, desire and pleasure seem entangled into a knot, or a fist with which to resist the institutional restraints on freedom of expressions of love, desire and pleasure. I can relate to this radical attempt at wresting meaning from interpersonal encounters that are often, in the contemporary world as in Lewis’ time, tainted by the logic of capital and normative discourses.
In the encounter, curiosity and fascination slide into seduction; I am disrupted and psychically split open by the verisimilitude of the image. THE OED defines verisimilitude as ‘the appearance of being true or real,’ and the Latin roots of the noun are derived from ‘probable’ and ‘likeness.’ It/her ‘probable likeness’ to it/herself (a living woman), the artists projections (as defined in Laplanche and Pontalis as ‘the operation whereby a neurological or psychological element is displaced and relocated in an external position, thus passing either from centre to periphery or from subject to object), and the projections of this writer. In the latter case, I admit, the proper psycho-analytic sense of projection is an ‘operation whereby qualities, feelings, wishes or even objects, which the subject refuses to recognise or rejects in himself, are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing.’[8] 
I have frequently mistaken a potential friend for a lover; I have often confused the scopophilic pleasure of looking, holding the object at a distance and abstracting it, erotic identification, empathy, a sort of dissolving subjectivity; I  frequently confuse being with having.  A subject – object dissolve is apparent from the off, and I am uncertain as to the precise borders of my (‘I’) identification with Iris Barry (the woman), Praxitella (the signifier), Wyndham Lewis (the artist and orchestrator of the image); the multiple dissolves that proceed from these identifications lend themselves, to paraphrase Ettinger, to cross-inscription, resonances, auto-affective/alter-affective, auto-erotic/empathic processes that will pulse through the text. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore this mutual melting, which interlinks in a psychic space of intellectual jouissance (the deployment of Ettingerian ‘erotic antennae’, or ‘aerials of the psyche’).

Praxitella (or ‘Praxi’ as it/she is known colloquially – illuminating the more general tendency to blur the object/subject distinction), was gifted to Leeds Art Gallery in 1945 by a private collector and has hung ever since at the head of the gallery’s sweeping stone and marble staircase. Usually displayed with contemporaneous work, curated on the theme of post-WWI trauma and the crisis in modernity, the dominating image remains at all times in situ, subordinating the other works both by virtue of its dimensions (142.2 x 101.6cm) and film-noir-esque opacity; the painting is monumental in scale and affect, depicting a figure both majestic and torpid, gazing down from her elevated position (or rather, staring obliquely, backwards, in consideration of what lies behind the lids, which veil the scene: trauma, or a chasm?) The placidity of the figure’s composure, can elicit in the viewer a fear of secret or dangerous knowledge, implying a portentous wisdom.
The simultaneity of these moods or somatic/psychic movements produces an ontological unease in this viewer: what one thinks one knows and who one thinks one is fractured by uncanniness; it is at once familiar, close, and yet amputated, elevated. I identify with Praxitella on the basis of its signified, sexed form, the primary bearer of its meaning, as opposed to as an object, which is its destiny; I cannot not at least partially process the image as a metaphor, a simulacrum, and a figure of similitude. I witness self-containment, self-binding – a holding on to ego and a sense of sovereignty in this state of detachment from the world.  I am altered by the serene emptiness of its physiognomy; its’ interpolation across the borders of singularity is made possible through the operation of identification and projection: I implore the image to dissolve with me. Funnelled from the dead irises of the eyes ‘under hooded metallic lids,’[9] the absence carried by these ocular shapes, intimating corpses or drunkenness, also intimate The Frankfurt School’s criticism of Enlightenment rationalism.
The rationality of Enlightenment is termed ‘corrosive’ by Adorno and Horkeimer, who maintain that the so-called liberation and disenchantment that Enlightenment results in is a totalitarian, corrosive type of humanism that, placing human beings at the centre of the world, deprives them both of wonder and of criticality. In their preface to The Concept of Enlightenment they write: ‘By tabooing any thought which sets out negatively from the facts and from the prevailing codes of thought as obscure, convoluted and preferably foreign, that concept holds mind captive in ever deeper blindness[10] (my italics). In its enslavement to rationality, Enlightenment is masked deception. Relational process therefore tend to be ‘caught up in the general process of production.’[11]
The intertwinement of rationality and social reality means that man ‘attain[s] the identity of the self which cannot be lost in identification with the other but takes possession of itself once and for all as an impenetrable mask…nature, stripped of qualities, becomes the chaotic stuff of mere classification, and the all-powerful self becomes a mere having, an abstract identity.’[12] I am unclear on Lewis’ position regarding the issue of identity, though his opposition to subordination to social roles and rationality would seem to indicate a tendency towards a type of abstraction of identity that may or may not be compatible with the Frankfurt School – however, his right-wing political affiliation (his friendship with controversial Tory politician Enoch Powell, for example) might put paid to this speculation.

Praxitella's seeming omnipotence is at the level of representation, and as a construct, its power is held in the body, a sovereign body, charged, material (real) and devoid of apparent vulnerability. The painting depicts a figure, seated at diagonal coordinates with the frame on a chic modernist armchair; a detail that invokes the vehicular eroticism of a Tamara de Lempicka painting, celebrating the pleasure derived by woman in harmonious conjunction with the machine: in possession, if not of its flesh counterpart, then the substitute phallus. In contrast to that joyous yielding to the other, Praxitella displays a malodorous quietude; instead of coquettishness a libidinal withdrawal that hovers (speculatively) around the closure of frigidity, or perhaps the site of a traumatised resistance to desire.
‘The figure is removed from this world, both rendered through a series of quasi-mechanical lines and textures and herself apparently a mechanical assemblage of sheet metal.’[13] An effect of the sitter’s comportment is that, ‘arising from the dark carapace’ of her dress, her ‘neck and impassive face modelled in shades of blue steel,’ the ‘dead irises of the yes, under hooded metallic lids…bright yellow,’[14] Praxitella’s gaze confronts with a glacial detachment that simultaneously invokes the robotic and the animal. Synonymy with the category of animal is also present in the rendering of the eyes, whose irises are indeed yellow, reptilian; and her hand, rigid and metallic, with fingers like the talons of a bird of prey, a ‘shining, prosthetic claw.’[15]
The figure can be read as occupying the taxonomical attributes of the insectile (a category of organisms with a particular set of attributes that universally arouse a particular horror in humans), as does Paul Edwards, who deems Praxitella ‘…human, but with the alien quality of a wasp or grasshopper: dangerous looking but also very placid.’[16] Insects seem more proximate to machines than mammals, which are for the most part encased in fleshy membranes that is comparatively destructible. Morphologically ‘truly’ alien (other, non-self), they contain liquefied innards or circuit boards armoured with carapaces, shells, exoskeletons.
The face of the figure is resonant of that of a praying mantis, her neck, poised, just exceeding the proportionate and suggesting the presence of a ball and socket joint, intimates the mantis’ ability to articulate a 180-degree rotation. The homonymous aspect of the term praying mantis resonates in the register of power relations; the insect is named for its comportment:  outstretched, folded fore-limbs aligned in a praying gesture. It is a species known for its threat displays and predatory habits; the female indulges in sexual cannibalism, biting off the head of the male during copulation in a vicious paroxysm that increases the potency of the seminal fluid and doubles her chances of fertilisation. In the human register, seminal fluid fertilises the ovum and, forthwith, the paternal role is established. Evoking the Vagina Dentata, a dread of feminine sexuality and its possessive, castrating potential seems an obvious extrapolation form this metaphor, feeding into Lewis’ presumed misogyny.

My intervention with Praxitella elucidates complex particularities of its specific object / subject desiring relation. This line of inquiry acknowledges the work as representational portraiture (pre-emptively isolating it from the multiple hypothesized determinations. It occurs to me that the process of assuming its fixed representative character I collude with the ensuing violence that is done to the object / subject of the image – the artist’s lover, Iris Barry – producing a heightened awareness in this analyst of the spacial-temporal implications in spite of the body of the subject being emptied of sentience at the moment of her death, her material transience carried across time and space, the historicity of the subject / object rematerialized in a time-space lapse.  I find myself traversing the terrain of a personal relation to this Modern artefact from the perspective of my own time: the logic of capitalist economy being fully integrated into most social relations; my serial monogamy; polyamory; a particular shade of restraint and propulsion, all operating under the constellation of the non-committal, which was predicted by the Frankfurt School in its inquiries into love under Capitalism.
Iris Barry (1895 - 1969) was a novelist, poet and later film critic; she was a flapper in the ‘teens, later part of London’s demimonde and in the 1930’s established the film archive at MOMA, New York. She was raised on a farm in the Midlands, educated at Birmingham Grammar school and later a convent school in Belgium. She read voraciously and had poems published from a young age; after a short correspondence with Ezra Pound, who was living in London at the time, she moved from the farm to the capital in 1917 and found herself among Pound’s coterie, and the wider Bloomsbury literary scene: after the war began a ‘consequential liaison’[17] with Wyndham Lewis. Whether or not she manifested the simpering feminine qualities he so openly detested (‘soft-hearted, simplistic and filled with conventional ideas about romance’[18]), and in spite of his apparently ‘erratic’ behaviour, Lewis was consistently ‘the one person who never bored her.’[19]
The following passage from Lewis’ novel, The War Baby (1918), depicts the aftermath of a typical intimate encounter, and elucidates the attitude of ‘anti-pathos’ to which he subscribed, its seepage into sexual relations, and the chilly, anti-empathetic quality of the post-coital condition that is produced from it:
The next morning, Beresin found a warm mass beside him in bed, and realised, as he would have done at the presence of a pool of blood or a dead body, that the preceding night had been marked by a human event. The lass stirred and a cumbrous bestial scented arm passed round his body. In the middle of a thick primitive gush of hair, he found the lips with their thoughtful pathetic spasm. He looked with curiosity and uneasiness at what he found so near to him.[20]
Is this Barry? One cannot be sure, but this squalid prose, delimiting the woman as animal (‘a cumbrous bestial arm’) and her warmth and limpidity analogous to that of a fresh corpse, is alarming as well as, in its way, lascivious – evoking the eroticism of disgust. I am struck by the detachment of the narrator from the object of his desire, articulated in a totally dissociated register, and what this reveals about his desire, her desire, the impossibility of love – as a general conclusion of social structures into whose economic logic of capital the loving relation is absorbed – and as a gesture rendered impossible by virtue of the subjects’ own self-disgust, which irradiates out into and degrades all encounters with the other.
Lewis was a virulent anti-humanist; he ‘liked to present himself as inhuman, and maybe in personal relationships he was.’[21] Undermining the possibility of enchantment, this attitude, in conjunction with the modern condition, exposes a sickness at the core of Enlightenment rationality; paradoxically, for Lewis (narrator-character Beresin) detested rationality and exempted himself from the project, he operates rationality in his rejection of intimacy, constructing a romanticism out of foreclosure. The unheimlichtkeit of the unobtainable lover is an enduring fantasy.
There is a specificity to this revulsion which is also resonant of Freud’s conceptualisation of male sexuality (and I refute this gender division) as an operation that requires for its accomplishment (the orgasmic spasm being cognitively cathected) the articulation of disgust; he identifies such men as ‘[seeking] objects which they do not need to love,’[22] and goes on to categorise desire for such lovers into sacred and profane (or animal).  Which leads on to Wyndham Lewis and his tendency to smash human and animal, living and dead together, in an elliptical gesture of division that is echoed in other texts and resonates acutely in the figure of Praxitella. For Lewis, woman, machine and animal form a somatic and psychic constellation.  ‘Animal nature,’ writes Juliet Mitchell, ‘is mechanical [for Lewis]; nature runs the robot.'[23]

Their kisses in the taxi on the way to the Alhambra partook of the disordinate character of the orchestra in its last bout. She arrived there in physical disarray, her eyebrows raised, eyes staring, lips in reminiscent uncontrol…She did not deny the Bacchanalia its culmination.[24]
This passage from Tarr introduces the reader to Anastasya Vasek, a possible cipher for Iris Barry through the prism of autobiographical fiction prototypical of Wyndham Lewis. On the one hand, she is inebriated, yielding and unhooked from the Victorian moral mores that bound her sex and, on the other, expectant, romantically (in spite of her performance of being unbound) maintaining a confused pursuit of love, marriage and – since we know that Barry bore Lewis 2 children – a child. ‘Willie, do you love me a little bit?’[25] Reading on, one detects attentiveness to the complex situation of modern femininity, which has been labelled misogynistic in its criticality of both ‘conventional’ (‘romantic’) and feminist modes.  This seemingly contradictory pattern of behaviour, marked by variable modes of articulation that are wholly dependent upon the situation at hand, collides violently with my own suppositions about the object of my analysis and its shifting subjects, embodied in the figure of Praxitella.
With adjectives that are applicable to the physiognomy of Praxitella, in The War Baby Lewis refers to his lover’s ‘hard, bloodless face,’ evoking a ‘beauty as formal as a playing card, as neat and clean as a fish.’[26]  I return to the painting with its subject in mind, reading the posture – ankles pressed together and hands clasped on the lap (like a ‘shining, prosthetic claw’[27]) – as comportment suggestive of a formality befitting her class rather than, necessarily, a sign of straight-laced sexuality.

Anastasya looks blankly into his eyes and sees only a ‘blasted landscape’…‘as though he contained cheerless stretches where no living thing could grow.’[28]
My proposition is that Praxitella, at least in part, is a satirical painting, depicting femininity at one pole of its most wanting forms, according to the terms set out by the artist. This proposition resonates with the attitude of Wyndham Lewis to feminists of his day, whose nauseating properties he synonymised with that of the slushy romanticism of ‘conventional’ femininity; according to Lewis, ‘just as feminine women are a class controlled by men, and feminist women are a class controlled by Big Business.’[29] Both seemingly antithetical modes of femaleness he classed as anti-intellectual; the intellectual mode for him being synonymous with freedom, and the anti-intellectual as mechanistic as a robot.
The garment in which Barry is attired especially appealed to Lewis according to one biographer, who describes it thus: ‘very dark with a plain V-shaped neckline and long sleeves ending in two light bands at the cuffs. The skirt [was] a complex affair, incorporating he underskirt of the same material, hanging lower than the outer one and decorated with three broad bands matching the two on the cuffs.’[30] I suppose that the reason this dress appealed to Lewis had something to do with its sculptural quality; the great many folds that encase Barry create a carapace, an impenetrable shell. Her ‘blue steel’ body is ‘faceted like overlapping splinters of razor blade.’[31] Similarly tough and chitinous, the dress armours the inert, paralysed fleshiness of her form, dangerously placid, like a machine on standby mode, in the midst of a ‘sleep’ from which one is dimly aware of the possibility of it ‘waking’.
Freud classified the automata in his taxonomy of ‘things, persons, impressions, events and situations’ arousing a sense of the ‘uncanny.’ In my reading of Praxitella I am concerned with the depiction of figure who seems both animate and inanimate, alive and dead, inside and outside, seeming most coherent when one allows the distinctions between these categories to dissolve. As a disrupter of binaries, as is a tripartite composite image that is proximate to the animal, mechanical and robotic, I propose that this work reveals Wyndham Lewis’ detached ironical and yet serious, though satirical, perspective on the social, interpersonal and psychosexual – his own sense of unheimlichkeit motivating him to total perceptual engagement, that is, producing himself in blindness to the condition of the world in which he was nonetheless subsumed.
In his essay on the ‘uncanny,’ Freud locates this affective sensation in the schemata of the unheimlich; ‘not being at home in the world,’ which is to say, a state of intellectual uncertainty, ‘as it were, something one does not know one’s way about in.’[32] The affect is experiential and defined by its disobedience, borne out by its proximity to the familiar. According to Schelling whom Freud quotes extensively in the essay, ‘everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light,’ and it is my contention that Praxitella displays its complex ambiguity in this register.
The subject of the ‘uncanny’…is undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what rouses dread and horror; equally, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general.[33]

Chitin, n. A tough, protective, semi-transparent substance, primarily a nitrogen-containing polysaccharide, forming the principle component of arthropod exoskeletons and the cell walls of certain fungi. (OED)
I have come to realise how imperative to Lewis was the mask and its radical possibility as representation and social reality ‘social facts…appeal to the mind with the strangeness of masks, each sense, isolated, being like a mask upon another…’[34] As interfaces, screens or masks, in negotiation with the historical moment, can the image be read as signifying the projections of the artist in a state of grief, trauma or bitterness with his personal and wider condition at a period of radical social rupture?
Wyndham Lewis cleaved a chasm between self and sitter that is transplanted across into the experience of the viewer of the painting in a gallery setting. Thereby creating essential conditions for the production of ironic distance, this device may even be a protrusion from a detachment of his own personality, termed ‘characteristic’ in one article.[35]
Sitters’ faces in Lewis’s portraits are like masks in the way individual expression or the registering of particular moments in time are eliminated. The paradox is that these masks do resemble the sitters. Why mask the face if you want to represent it? It was Lewis’s way of acknowledging his sitters’ individuality while keeping his distance and recording the typical rather than passing features.[36]

There are compelling ontological contradictions between the medium (dense oil paint) and its materiality (threadbare canvas); its materiality and the power of its representational / metaphorical omnipotence; its apparent sovereignty (which is carried along by the majesty of its composition and the correlative analysis) in conjunction with its actual condition of grave malleability. An affect of this knowledge is powerfully disruptive to the analysis: her steely patina degenerates into wrinkled flesh – so penetrable; the taut drapery of her gown rendered in dense black oil slackens and seems disintegrated instead of formidable and robotic, reinforced in its density by exposure to the elements, or lack of consideration: time passing by and soiling the materiality of the object, like an unwashed, oft worn overcoat, smeared with a greasy patina.
In this sense the painting can be recast as a chilling reminder of fragility in the midst of a play between permanent, originary ‘nature’ and technology as a tool for the diversion of instincts that one might tentatively call ‘natural’. And I ask: what does the materiality of the object bring to the metaphor of slipping subjectivity, masking and revelation that weaves through this text? This affect, for me, is somatic – it is held in the body – a curious combination of future-haunting that is held in deferred tension, combined with a spreading sense of horror (for who I am and what I have done), fear and dread being libidinally cathected. I hook-up here with the post-war condition of modernity of which Wyndham Lewis spoke, wrote about and, it is my hunch, invested in the figure of Praxitella.
The viscous oil paint, dense and tonally dark, has a generalised cracked veneer that is, at the present moment, an integral part of this image, visible even in the shoddiest reproduction. In a conversation with the curator of the collection at Leeds Art Gallery, the ‘true’ or ontological veracity of the picture was revealed to me; the painting is not only too fragile to travel (so it can only be seen in Leeds), but this fragility actually constitutes the most powerful mask of all. Nigel Walsh is convinced that the Praxitella I have come to know, its material condition, its ontological status, conceals multiple dissimulations, its surface, the object itself, newly recalibrated as a mask. In order to ‘reveal’ the ‘true’ historicity of the image the painting would need to be transported to London and X-rayed; Praxitella, to reiterate, is too fragile to be displaced and it is henceforth charged by the permanence of its situation in time and space.

My reading of Praxitella is attuned to the most obvious context of its production, in terms of representation, the gaze and the relation between subject and object – the splitting of the romantic union of sitter and artist – but subordinates it to the wider context of a generally devastating milieu in which the artist’s previous reification of the powerful thrusting dynamism of modernity is called to question.
For the attitude of modernity, the high value placed on the present is dissociable from the desperate eagerness to imagine it otherwise than it is, and to transform it not by destroying it but by grasping it in what it is.[37]
Praxitella was made in a period of cultural and personal trauma; WWI and its promiscuous devastation turned the promise of modernity over to carnage. As Tarr remarks in Lewis’ eponymous novel, in conjunction with erotic mode, ‘the corpses of the battlefield had perhaps cheapened flesh[?][38] His friend and fellow Vorticist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska died in active service, shortly followed by his mother, who was fatally afflicted with Spanish flu. Praxitella, materialising out of this carnage, might be seen as an object onto which the many horrific manifestations of the modern moment are projected, targeting the sequestered sex who evaded first-hand exposure to the horrors of modern warfare, ‘anyway, realities were infectious; and all women seemed to feel that they should have their luxurious battles, too; only they were playing at dying, and their war was fruitful.’[39] Articulating the Futurists’ notion that art can be ‘nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice,’[40] the analysis of the image as a notion of end-times is also the catastrophe of beastly humanity and the ‘disenchantment’ (Entzauberung) of the rationalised, beaurocratised, secularised world (coined by Max Weber).
After Futurism, the Vorticists, whose painting style abstracted images or scenes, presenting objects as shards or shafts of colour, as an assault on the eyes, and saw themselves as ‘primitive mercenaries of the modern world’ (mercenaries being the ‘best troops’).[41] They celebrated the potential of the technology to ‘blast’ the Victorian era into history, entering into a new modern era in which the stuffy, uptight attitude typical of the British, that is to say, ‘blasting’ the future from the ceaseless flow of the past: like the Futurists they railed against a ‘futile worship of the past’[42] that does nothing for the modern but beat them into submission to the old rules and regulations that have no place in the future. However, the Vorticsts ‘rhetoric of opposition to paradox’ diverged from the Futurists call to ‘total war’, which reveals the latter’s ‘fetishizing of instinct, masculine power, militarism and programmatic contempt for women.’[43]
In representing the New Woman – a product of high modernity –  in its most attenuated manifestation, stripped of humanity, pared down to its most basic instincts, Lewis depicts the triumph of the will to power, passed across the gender divide and in the process desexed. Because the (privileged) New Woman, liberated herself from the grip of patriarchal forces, has colluded with logic of Capital in which no one shall be excluded, she apparently imitates the ‘masculine’ mode in dress and manner, concealing softer ‘feminine’ traits beneath a veil of ‘masculine’ vigour. I detect in Praxitella Wyndham Lewis’ desire to expose the dialectical tension that is produced from this so-called masquerade, whereby one assumes the concealed attributes are forcibly repressed. The emotional distance suggested by her glazed stare into the middle distance intimates subjectivity drained of empathic qualities, a ‘way of thinking and feeling,’ a ‘mode of relating to contemporary reality.’[44]
Foucault’s essay on Enlightenment describes a historicity in which the boundaries are blurred and the linear, chronological narrative is abolished. The post-modern ethos, straddling attitudes, seems to seek both to grasp the nature of reality of beauty through transfiguration and to desire its violation, perhaps even seeking to achieve the former through the process of the latter: ‘extreme attention to what is real is confronted with the practice of a liberty that simultaneously respects this reality and violates it.’[45] Modernity moved through multiple social-cultural processes in tandem with Capitalism, encompassing the democratisation of entertainment, increased efficiency of production processes through Fordism, culminating in the sophisticated technological warfare that would enable the mass genocide of humans. Later on the horror of managed murder would be revealed in the Nazi Holocaust.
Writes Foucault, ‘we must try to proceed with the analysis of ourselves as beings who are historically determined, to a certain extent, by the Enlightenment.’[46] The modern register aims to recapture ‘something eternal that is not beyond the present instant, nor behind it, but within it’[47] as distinguished from simply accepting and yielding to the constant movement, which Baudelaire would term ‘fashionable’. Praxitella, corroborating Baudelaire’s synthesis of the quality of modernity, is an ‘object of a complex and difficult elaboration’.[48] If modernity consists of a relationship with the present and, additionally, a relationship with oneself, then my reading of this painting explores some of the multitudinous possible elaborations of this selfhood and the attitude of the artist who has rendered her so extraordinarily.

‘Sentimentality – what an absurd word that is with its fierce use in our poor modern hands. What do we mean by it?  Has life become such an affair of economic calculation that men are too timid to allow themselves any complicated pleasures? [49]
Lewis wrote autobiographical fiction and subscribed to the Modernist paradigm that art and life should be indistinguishable. I have therefore read his texts and the Praxitella, which is also a text, with a loose apprehension of time, space and character, the fracturing of which serves to display his ironic, vaudevillian attitude to identity, haughtily loathing as he did those who ‘lack the capacity to adapt, to play roles knowingly instead of being taken over by pre-fabricated identities.’[50] Does Lewis intend readers to accept Tarr at his own valuation, including endorsing what most would consider to be his virulent misogyny?’[51] writes Scott Klein in his introduction to Lewis’ eponymous novel, to which I respond that one would benefit by considering his self-reflexive mode of ironic detachment, and penchant for anti-humanistic social satire prior to making that judgement.
In specific relation to this essay’s primary object of analysis, and the multiple determinants that I propose constitute it, is the idea of the imagination and its possibilities, intersecting with Foucault’s statement against the self as an innate entity that iterates Baudelaire’s notion of subjectivity production, which is nowadays perhaps, partially, naturalised:
Modern man, [for Baudelaure], is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself. This modernity does not “liberate man from his own being”; it compels him to face the task of producing himself.[52]

Lewis’ fidelity to’ discontinuous selfhood’, witnessed in the fractured representation of self, other and his time is enshrined in the figure of Praxitella. This reification of the playful and performative, and his violent rejection of ‘anti-intellectual’ control mechanisms of any order are not analogous to misogyny, nor even nihilism, which one might suggest as an alternative. An advocate of anti-pathos, his life and work intersected at the inversion of sentimentality – as a Baudelairian Modernist, he was in the business of self-production, not romanticised self-discovery; for him, like Foucault later, theory and practice were one and the same thing; he lived in accordance with a programme of self-generated codes: oblique, playful and anti-rational. His ‘harshness’ was, at times, ‘clearly a demonstration, a performance, albeit one in which it is hard to tell the dancer from the dance.’[53] And he wrote that ‘if the book [Tarr] has a moral, it is that it describes a man’s revolt or reaction against his reason.[54]
To ‘fascinate,’ ‘to bewitch,’ is derived from the Latin Fascinus: ‘spell, witchcraft,’ itself deriving from the Ancient Roman embodiment of the divine phallus: the deity Fascinus – amulets were deployed to remedy envy, or the ‘evil eye’ acknowledging the transformative, transmogrifying power of looking, and linking the scopic with the phallic, which in turn articulates the ‘male gaze,’ a concept that I refute. There is as much disintegration of the self in the operation gaze as there is of the other, I feel. Lacanian fascinance makes legible the arresting moment of the gaze, which suspends the subject of it; it is my assumption that a binding of subjectivity follows on from this process, a tense apprehension that is a narcissistic, introjecting, circuitous communication. The fascination (‘bewitching’) that constitutes my encounter with the object renders it polymorphously cathected by my desires, projections and fantasies of self and other. The figure of Praxitella represents a hybridised consciousness that is in continual re/construction.
Disturbance; my involvement in the movement of looking at the image, and sensing the push-pull operation of pursuit and retreat of the thing and of myself,  is one I both absorb and abhor, and this tension is a personal definition, declaration and confession of slipping, polyvalent subjectivity, and is also a state of self-binding that is a detachment from externality. This is the site of my troubled identification with Lewis, the (albeit misunderstood) ‘misogynist’ artist. Perhaps I see myself, taking up the position of an observer of my own self, as his ‘ideal’ woman, as described by Tarr, matching him ‘as an intellect, as a sexual being, as a game-player in relationships, as a manipulator of images,’[55] and therefore Iris Barry’s rival for his affections, which, should they ever be enacted, emerge tantalisingly detached, non-committal (at least within traditional structures to which I too am ambivalent), and at the service of an anticipatory erotic tension that emphasizes the creative impulse (it is presumed).
Having grown attached to my own construction of Iris Barry, imagining her as a consummate modern, independent, knowing, akin to Tarr’s Anastasya Vasek, ‘the new woman of the early twentieth century, intellectually self-sufficient and sexually independent perhaps to the point of alarm,’[56] it disintegrates in the text after researching their relationship and learning of Lewis’ indifference and Barry’s compromises. One is defined by what one is not. In a letter to Lewis, who was flighty, she wrote ‘I have no friends and no acquaintance and nothing at all either hobby or career or whatnot for except to get on with you.’[57] At this juncture I am acutely aware of my position as the source of projection and producer of meaning, and the abstract surface provided by Praxitella for the unbridled, oscillations of self-analysis that stem from the identification. I subjugate the image disrupting its potential singularity, interpolating through the violence of the gaze. I also disrupt my own subjecthood in my refusal to accept the singularity that I actually presume of the other. In the midst of this conflict, the image is revealed/ I expose (make something visible by uncovering it) myself to it/ I allow myself to recognise (to know/learn again), the image as a ‘partial or self-portrait.’
According to Juliet Mitchell, the detached, cynical male narrator petered out in Wyndham Lewis’ writing after 1937.  She surmises that ‘Lewis was not…a woman-hater,’ and rather than misogyny, his impulse (and its corresponding literary/visual devices), was to think ‘the reverse of freedom,’ that is, to challenge rationality and its attendant classifications in the sphere of the social, which was responsible for the creation of what he termed ‘puppet-groups’. Thus, writes Mitchell, ‘what he disliked was the exploitation of women by their division into robot-classes, the feminist class on one hand and the feminine class on the other.’[58]
Playing roles is the only way to produce oneself, it is a task, which is antithetical to being taken over by a pre-ordained schemata of social convention. However, ‘the avant-gardist looks directly into the mirror when he condemns the word around him,’[59] and it is my belief that Praxitella represents this contention in the visual register. I have offered up a variety of mirrors to the image, both on the surface and subcutaneous level (which is to say, behind the paint, behind the mask, behind the flesh of the woman and the painter: materiality and ciphering), and indeed to myself, and have found it unresolvable, an analytical ricocheting and criss-crossing nodes of Enlightenment and Modern thinking, in addition to the unique contemporaneity of my passage through a historical space-time-lapse, in which (at least) tripartite mutual melting takes place, borders dissolving.
To conclude, I propose to encapsulate what might seem like an impasse, and all the better for it. The paradox at the heart of Praxitella, from the perspective of lover-other to which I continually return, is that there is a romanticism in every move, even ‘swagger sex,’ a term coined by Lewis to describe an attitude of casualness to matters of love and sex: a mode for survival in the Modern world that works against disenchantment, mythologizing the performance of selfhood, recognising multiplicity. Lewis refers to an ‘irresolvable vacillation between women,’ which resonates today (for it might compel us to rethink the humanist narrative of linear progression that should be called into question) ‘who are maternal, romantic and intellectually unthreatening, and women…who are intellectual extroverts and thus dangerous to the male ego.’[60]
As a text to be read, Praxitella is, for me, a resonating surface onto which I expel elements of subjecthood that require re-materialisation in an external form, repositioning and recalibrating the scopic function; Praxitella, recalibrated as a reflective surface, is an interface upon which I turn and look at myself. The verisimilitude of the object, its appearance of realness, renders it a (disturbed) reflective surface, externality and internality co-existing. Meaning is produced ‘cross-inscriptively;’ the trans-subjective process of encountering isn’t simply violent and one-sided; the interpolating procedure exhausts and alters both the object and subject. In the play of revelation and obfuscation, mining, tracing the intractable threads that are also knots, the analysis hooks the author/reader, who was never anyway unhooked. The text reading the reader; I read myself/my selves in the text.


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Baudelaire, Charles, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, (London: Phaidon), 1964.
Edwards, Paul, Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer, (Connecticut: Yale UP), 2000.
Bal, Micke, Reading Rembrandt, (Cambridge UP), 1991.
Barthes, Roland, The Pleasure of the Text, (Oxford: Blackwell), 1994.
Foucault, Michel, ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in The Foucault Reader, ed. Rabinow, (London: Penguin Books), 1984.
Lacan, Jaques, ‘The Mirror-Stage.’ in Ecrits, (Oxford: Routledge), 2001.
Lacan, J, ‘The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’, in Ecrits, (Oxford: Routledge), 2001.
Laplanche, Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, (London: Karnac Books), 1988.
Lewis, Wyndham, Tarr, (Oxford: Oxford UP), 2010.
Lewis, Wyndham, ‘Vorticist Manifesto’, in BLAST Magazine (1914), [accessed 9.3.15].
Marinetti, F.T, The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism
[accessed 9.3.15].
Mitchell, Juliet, Women and Wyndham Lewis, Modern Fiction Studies (24, 2), Summer 1978.
O’Keefe, Paul, Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis, (London: Pimlico), 2001.
Probyn, Elspeth, ‘Writing Shame,’ in The Affect Theory Reader, (Duke UP), 2010.
Rose, Jacqueline, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, (London: Verso), 1991.
Rose (ed), Letters of Wyndham Lewis, (London: Methuen), 1963.
Sitton, Robert, Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, (NY: Columbia UP), 2014.
Trotter, David, A Most Modern Misanthrope, [accessed 30.3.15].

[1] Barthes, R, The Pleasure of the Text, (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 14.
[2] Anonymous personal email.
[3] Rose, J, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, (London: Verso), p. 227.
[4] Mitchell, Juliet, (1978) Women and Wyndham Lewis, Modern Fiction Studies, 24, 2, pp. 223 – 230, p. 229.
[5] Edwards, Paul, Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer, (Connecticut: Yale UP), p. 269.
[6] Kenner, Wyndham Lewis, pp. 48 – 49.
[7] ‘He avows his dislike for militant feminists on one hand and romantic “feminine” women on the other’.
Mitchell, p. 223.
[8] Laplanche, Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, (London: Karnac Books), p. 349.
[9] Paul O’Keefe, Some Sort of Genius, (London: Pimlico), p. 228.
[10] Adorno and Horkeimer, The Concept of Enlightnement, (California: Stanford UP, 2002), p. xvii.
[11] Ibid, p. xv.
[12] Ibid, p.6
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] O’Keefe, p. 228.
[16] Paul Edwards, Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer, (Yale UP), p. 269.
[17] Sitton, R, Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, (NY: Columbia UP), p. 49.
[18] Ibid, p. xiii.
[19] Ibid, p. 58.
[20] Ibid, p. 60.
[21] Ibid, p. 625.
[22] Freud, S,
[23] Mitchell, p. 224.
[24] Lewis, W, Tarr, (Oxford: Oxford UP), p. 60
[25] Ibid
[27] O’Keefe, p. 228.
[28] Lewis, Wyndham, The War Baby
[29] Mitchell, p. 223.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Freud, S, The Uncanny, (Stanford UP), p. 195.
[33] Freud, p. 193.
[34] Klein, Scott, Introduction, in Tarr, Wyndham Lewis (Oxford: Oxford UP), p. xvi
[36] Ibid.
[37] Foucault, Michel, ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in The Foucault Reader, ed. Rabinow, (London: Penguin Books), p. 41.
[38] Lewis, Tarr, p. 60.
[39] Ibid, p. 60.
[40] Marinetti, F.T, The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism

[41] Lewis, Wyndham, ‘Vorticist Manifesto’, in BLAST Magazine (1914), <> [accessed 9.3.15].
[42] Ibid.
[43] Klein, p. xxi.
[44] Foucault, p. 39.
[45] Ibid. p. 41.
[46] Ibid, p. 43.
[47] Ibid. p. 47.
[48] Ibid. p. 41.
[49] Lewis, p. 282.
[50] Klein, p. xvi.
[51] Ibid. p. xiii.
[52] Foucault, p. 42.
[54] Rose (ed), Letters of Wyndham Lewis, (London: Methuen), p.76.
[55] Lewis, Tarr, p. xiii.
[56] Klein, p. xi.
[57] Sitton, p. 67.
[58] Mitchell, p. 231.
[59] Klein, p. xxvi.
[60] Klein, p. xxvi.