Thoughts on Brion Gysin and Wyndham Lewis
By Jan Herman
I wrote the following article in the summer of 1971. I’m tempted to rewrite it, mainly to improve the prose and eliminate the foolishness. Despite its deficiencies, I offer it here with minor corrections for two reasons though it may be no more than a curiosity: 1) to lend support to Jed Birmingham’s masterly column Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker; and 2) to explore a largely neglected aspect of Brion Gysin’s early writing and intellectual development. (I haven’t yet read John Geiger’s recent biography of Gysin, Nothing Is True — Everything Is Permitted, but I presume it deals with that and goes much further.) For the record: The article was published in a shorter version with a different title, “America Out of Print,” in The San Francisco Book Review, No. 23 (the August 1972 issue), not in Len Fulton’s Small Press Review, as I mistakenly recalled earlier. The text and title below are from the original manuscript.
Roundup at the O.P. Corral
If editors of “little magazines” and publishers of small presses are to gain any importance for the mainline culture beyond the use they now have as weathervanes of cultural trends, they must be willing to examine books that have gone out of print. Like their predecessors, the small presses publish editions in small quantities and these are often lost sight of. So it would seem only natural for the small press editor / publisher to look into the past. He can lick his wounds that way or he can do something preferable. The fact is there are many books collecting dust in the University’s library stacks or in the antiquarian bookshops that carry modern first editions which still have cultural value.
It could be argued that one of the purposes of the small presses is to reissue certain books that have gone out of print, in order to keep both the books and the small presses alive. This is sometimes done since authors are willing to allow a reprint of their work if they think it is still appropriate — and it is not usually too difficult or expensive to get the necessary written permission from the original publisher. If goes without saying, of course, that any editor or publisher who is not aware of books that have gone out of print on a subject in which he may be interested is suffering from an intellectual handicap. This is the kind of handicap from which too many editors currently suffer. So let’s shape up now.
Two books that bear interesting, if peculiar and not too rigorous, comparison are Brion Gysin’s To Master, A Long Goodnight and Wyndham Lewis’ America and Cosmic Man. Both were published in the United States just after World War II, the first by Creative Age Press Inc. in 1946 and the second by Doubleday & Co., Inc. in 1949. Both editions are now out of print.
Gysin wroteTo Master, A Long Goodnight when he was a young man in the Army and at the beginning of his literary career. In his own words the book was written “in barracks before ‘lights out,’ in hotels, in trains, and in those libraries which could be reached on week-end passes.”
America and Cosmic Man was written by an already elder statesman of letters who died in 1957, his career having spanned more than half a century. The precise circumstances of how Lewis wrote his book are not given, but one can assume that it was written on his return to England from a trip to America which he said “never seemed to have an end.”
Both writers were born in England. [Correction: Lewis was born in Nova
Scotia, Canada, but grew up in England from age 6.] Lewis became “Americanized” late in his life. His trip to America “will influence everything I think and write henceforth,” he said; Gysin was “Americanized” early, having been born to a Canadian mother (who brought him to the U.S.). Both writers began their careers as painters and both claimed they did not get the recognition they deserved. Both writers were published in the “little magazines” of their time. Lewis edited and wrote much of the well-known Vorticist magazine Blast in 1914 and The Tyro at the beginning of the twenties. Gysin has been published by such small publishers as Two Cities in the late fifties and he has been featured in Henri Chopin’s small avant-garde magazine OU in the early sixties. Both became associated with other writers whose popular reputations eclipse their own: Lewis with Ezra Pound, Gysin with William S. Burroughs. Lewis has been praised by T.S. Eliot as “the greatest prose stylist of my generation — perhaps the only one to have invented a new style.” W.S. Burroughs has described Gysin as the true innovator of cut-up techniques as applied to writing from collage in the days of the Beat Hotel. And, finally, both writers are in a class with very few others for scathing satire and wit, evidenced by Lewis in The Apes of God along with other novels, and by Gysin in his recently published novel The Process. But here is where the comparisons come to an end.
Although To Master, A Long Goodnight and America and Cosmic Man were written about the same time, the atmosphere surrounding each book and the conclusions one must draw from each are quite different. Lewis’ book is cradled in the circumstances of the Cold War which had begun immediately following the conclusion of WW II. As noted on the dust jacket, it was supposed to be “an investigation of the citizen of the future.” Lewis concluded that it was the typical American who would set the example for the rest of the world in his internationalist beliefs, who would set aside the petty nationalist feuding that led to the great conflagration of the war, who would become the universal man par excellence because of his intimate understanding of atomic power. Little did Lewis realize what a rotten example the American average man would set. His conclusions hardly stand up these days, especially in view of the McCarthy era which followed almost on the heels of this publication of Lewis’ views; the Korean war; the Eisenhower Administration, whose foreign policy was molded by John Foster Dulles (a man whose provincial self-avowed brinkmanship need hardly be expanded upon); the Kennedy Administration, which seemed so enlightened that it led to the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis and other misadventures; the atrocious Johnson [Administration], whose foreign policy led the willing American people (such promising citizens of the future) to nothing less than racist genocide in Vietnam; not to mention the ascendancy of a worldwide military-industrial complex that has for years successfully circumvented the United Nations charter in which Lewis seemed to have had so much belief; and, of course, the expansion of colonialist secret organizations like the CIA / KGB, whose existence, we are assured by the Nixon Administration in the daily press, is so necessary to “keeping the peace.”
No, on the internationalist score Lewis was all wet. But he did write a book of brilliant cursory essays that depended for their force on the author’s convincing style and, where he was right, on his wide-ranging knowledge. He could draw the outlines of a public figure such as Woodrow Wilson with a draughtsman’s acumen, highlighting his portrait cleverly with paradoxical details much as he did as a portrait painter. He could express the general milieu of the time about which he was writing in broad sweeps of the eye, while taking exception through the addition of some particular piece of information, which leaves the reader more than mildly amused at the apparent contradiction in his characterizations. His “thumbnail sketches,” as he called them, were inimitable. Three of them were entitled “The ‘Presbyterian Priest'” (about Wilson), “The Clubman Caesar” (about Franklin Delano Roosevelt), and “Rancher-Caesar, or the Man with the Mind of a Boy” (about Theodore Roosevelt). Here are a few excerpts from his portrait of Woodrow Wilson:
Erect, professorial, reeking of integrity, Woodrow Wilson, at the age of fifty-four, suddenly deserted his quiet study at Princeton University, and strode out into the fierce world of American politics, like a figure from the pages of Bunyan. The inmates of the thieves’ kitchen into which he so unexpectedly burst — and Jersey City ranks with the toughest American can show — looked up in amazement and alarm.
His “high-principled” eyes level and stern behind coldly glittering glasses; inner rectitude imparting a prim starching to the outer man; the bland glare of dominie intimidating only the more because of the frosty political smile which, as a candidate, he wore: he must indeed have spread consternation. For he was there to propose himself as next Governor of the state. They did not know what to make of it at all, the myrmidons of Boss-rule. No man of the type of the “Presbyterian priest” had ever done this before. Had he come there to reform them? Or was he a paradoxical recruit to the racket?
This should give you a sufficient idea of Wyndham Lewis’ capabilities as a writer. Witty, incisive, with a taste for the offbeat and an interest that ranged across two centuries of American history, Lewis’ book could make a nice addition to the college professor’s reading list as well as that of the small press editor.
But if the international situation following WW II cradled Lewis’ book in circumstances that finally eluded his conclusions, based as they were on casual evidence, Brion Gysin’s To Master, A Long Goodnight rests for its validity on something entirely different. A far better fate is reserved for Gysin’s book. Here we see a perfect example of extreme foresight with regard to what was to become the burning issue of the American scene, namely racism. And with regard to Gysin’s methodology, contrary to the spit and polish of Lewis’ sometimes rambling observations, we see a thorough, discursive investigation of “the story of the real-life “Uncle Tom,'” no less readable for its intense scholarship.
How some men are able to hit upon an issue long before it enters the popular consciousness of the time, and others are not, is probably a moot question. There can be no doubt, however, that Gysin did. Perhaps certain incidents in his life which are unknown to me touched off his intuitive faculties. Maybe he was discriminated against as a black man himself. Pictures of Gysin that I have seen, including a rare unpublished photo of him robed as a Tibetan monk (in the archives of the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial LIbrary) lead me to believe he is white. It is true that The Process (Doubleday, 1969) is narrated by a black man who has turned away from white Western civilization toward the exotic Arab cultures of North Africa. Many times there are references to an earlier work which the narrator, Ulysses O. Hanson, has written on the history of black slavery. And in the appendix to the real-life story of Uncle Tom one of the chapters is called, in fact, “Early History of Slavery.” But it would be rather foolish to conclude from this that Gysin is the same individual as his narrator only with a different name and, therefore, a black man. Nope. The more obvious deduction is that Brion Gysin is someone else, someone more difficult to pin for his identity than by his name or the pigmentation of his skin. More likely he is someone who stands outside his skin, and I have more to go on, of course, than deductions. I have his own words from “CUT/UPS: A project for Disastrous Success,” which appeared in the Evergreen Review back in 1964: “I am the artist when I am open. When I am closed I am Brion Gysin. Science is near enough ready to tell me who he is for me to be much less interested than formerly in him. I could not care less about his so-called talent or lack of it. Brion Gysin is a drag. I am not interested; I am his soul. Yet, as long as he is one with matter in hand, I am bound to a vital interest in the pattern of his activities and patterns of the matter in which he is so desperately involved.”
It took about twenty years for the entire fabric of American society to realize what Gysin realized in his book in 1946. His desperate involvement then has become ours now. It may take another twenty years, if ever, to learn what he learned long ago and set before us in his opening chapter “Don’t Chase After Me”:
There are, of course, both Negroes and whites who will defend the manner in which an Uncle Tom conducts his relations with the rest of the world. They assure themselves that there is no other way in which the things that are vitally necessary at the moment can be obtained, and are inclined to find justification for their point of view by claiming that they are “practical” …
“Uncle Tom” meant one thing to the nineteenth century, but today the term means something quite different. For while John Brown has passed into history and legend, it is Uncle Tom who goes marching on. He is the ghost of a certain relationship between the races in America and as he marches toward the second half of the twentieth century his is a ghost which must be laid.
It is perhaps not too astonishing to read these words now, but in 1946 they must have seemed shocking. The entire book was prophetic. There is nothing glib anywhere else in the book, either. It is mostly a sober, gracefully written, well-detailed account of the life of Josiah Henson, who was the model for Stowe’s fictional character — a character, Gysin points out, that did not to justice to Josiah Henson, despite Uncle Tom’s great popular appear before and after the Civil War. Gysin follows Henson’s adventures all the way to the Dawn colony, which he managed to establish in Canada after he finally escaped from slavery. We learn more about ourselves in this story than you would normally think applicable so long after Josiah Henson’s flight through the cities of the southern Slavocracy. According to Gysin:
The life of Josiah Henson is illuminating because it shows how a man was formed in slavery and in freedom. Lewis Clark, himself an escaped slave and the author of a narrative from which Mrs. Stowe borrowed some of her material, said, “Slavery was a curious blend of force and concession; of arbitrary disposal by the master and self-direction by the slave; of tyranny and benevolence; of antipathy and affections.” The escape from slavery often involved a moral decision on the part of the slave, curious though that may seem, which has a relevance today. So, in our time, a moral decision, complicated by social and economic factors, faces every individual of the Negro group who comes in contact, as indeed he must, with the dominant white majority.
That about sums up the situation now in 1971, doesn’t it? If this book has not been widely read among the masses of black people in America, they should read it now. And whitey should, too. As a book that is out of print it may not be so available, but perhaps there will be a reprint.
The contrasts between Wyndham Lewis’ sociological observations and those of Brion Gysin, both of whom were writing about tangentially similar subjects at approximate points in time, become quite obvious. Lewis, though he considered himself an “extremist painter” in his youth (and, therefore, a rebel), was by the forties, if not earlier, nothing different from a radical conservative (since one must find a term for his political coloration). Gysin, on the other hand, is nothing less than a full-blown intellectual terrorist dedicated to screwing the system, an articulate anarchist radical whose ideas were dangerous to society as it stood in the late forties. They still are.
To judge from America and Cosmic Man, Lewis managed from his pinnacle of intelligence to subvert his own most-telling observations about the oligarchic nature of American society and to become something of an apologist for the American way of life. There is in his book an easy, rather too easy, explanation of American idiosyncrasies. As if that’s all they were! He fell victim to the novelties of America for a European, and his book suffers from it. I suppose Wyndham Lewis was never quite a Tory in his sympathies, for as a writer he was too willing to satirize their breed; but the square American individualism to which he seems to have subscribed, the do-it-yourself, shake-and-bake variety, is marred by its dangerously close similarities to the cultivation of personalities that all Tories — Conservatives, Elitists, call them what you like — must exploit in those they consider to be beneath them. This is strange, since Lewis sincerely mocked elitism and the cult of personality elsewhere in his works; but it is true.
Writing for a British audience and probably considering himself some kind of diplomatic go-between, Lewis shows a glib, alarmingly superficial and sometimes creepily mystical understanding of American life. Penetrating “thumbnail sketches” and excoriating novelistic broadsides he was certainly capable of. But he also succumbed to conjuring
images of admirable relaxation to give an idea of what America has been, and to some extent still is. A fine irresponsibility and innocent egoism survives, to be a preview, in this peaceful checkerboard of races, of the world to come. There men will be able to jettison a good deal of responsibility — to gain for the advantages of their ego what the wind-up of Mars and Co. make generally available.
It looks like Wyndham Lewis made a bad guess there. His “peaceful checkerboard of races,” the “innocent egoism” and the “fine irresponsibility” as a high-flown preview of utopian conditions, were purely wishful thinking. So far as I can tell, Mars and Co., as Lewis so coyly put it, have not wound up their operations. Whatever Americans might have gained for their creaking retrograde egos by putting an end to war could certainly have been nothing more than Product (the consumer’s delight), whose growth needed a great mill to be constructed and more and more robotized mill workers — Lewis’ disastrously technologized men-of-the-future. Lewis was no doubt a more sophisticated thinker than my easy swipes of hindsight might indicate, but he sure as hell made some colossal goofs:
Whether America has a Big Business Fascism, or some sort of change to a Socialist economy, will not alter the outcome, except that the latter would precipitate the process of miscegenation. If it were a Business-Fascist economy, with America’s penetration of Asia greatly stepped up, that must result in the impoverishment of the white population. Cheap Asiatic labor — which would doubtless be used in America proper, as well as on the spot in Asia, in affecting disadvantageously the home labor market, and in reducing the living standards of the masses — would overcome snootiness of a racial order.
The policy of both the Socialist and his enemy the Capitalist would work out identically as regards the white and colored population. The former is committed to the non-recognition of race discrimination, the latter is the natural protector of all colored people, because they work for less money.
Somehow all the factors of the socio-economic equation are present, but in the wrong order. It sounds like the explanation of a dowsing reactionary professor who’s mixed up doubtful economic postulates with even more doubtful sociological vectors. After all, it nearly makes you want to fall down laughing to hear Capitalism referred to as “the natural protector of all colored people, because they work for less money” — it is rather the reverse which is true — or to hear exploitation by race referred to as “snootiness.”
In his hope for an international order quite different from the one we now have, Lewis saw in America “the requisite raw materials … namely the great variety of races present — all that is needed for the manufacture of Cosmic Man.” But his Cosmic Man is not yet to be found on these shores unless it is the exploited, servile “personality” who is still at the mercy of contradictory commands handed down everywhere through institutional policy. It is just this exploitation of Josiah Henson’s “personality,” molded as it was by the institution of slavery, according to Gysin’s account, which led Henson to deliver himself and his fellow plantation slaves from Montgomery County, Maryland, to his master’s brother in Davis County, Kentucky, under his own recognizance in order to save his master from bankruptcy — going so far as to pass up the chance to flee to freedom across the Ohio River at Cincinnati, where they were welcomed by other black ex-slaves who had already fled. In Henson’s own words we see how it was done:
“My pride was aroused in view of the responsibility and heart and soul, I became identified with my master’s project for running off his slaves. Fortunately for the success of the undertaking, these people, who had long been under my direction, were devotedly attached to me in return for the many alleviations I had afforded their miserable condition, the comforts I had procured them and the consideration I had always manifested for them. Under these circumstances no difficulty arose from want of submission to my authority.”
Gysin’s keen sense of the machinery of exploitation as it appears everywhere on earth and especially in America runs counter to the kind of unwitting exhibition of peculiarity that Lewis made. Nowhere is Gysin’s argument more clear than in the following excerpt:
[W]hile one group is elevated at the expense of the other, the mass pressure generated in the subject group must be occasionally relieved. In order best to accomplish this — to provide a safety valve, as it were — an influential individual in the minority can be allowed special privilege on the understanding that he will, in exchange, work to soften the ugly moods and pacify the anger of his fellows. Such a man can be had in many ways and he need not be a villain — as indeed Josiah Henson was not. The Uncle Tom of any group can be persuaded to accept a position of minor importance, where his every gesture will, in fact, be padded with compromises, if he can be made to feel that his elevation is not only an individual triumph but is an achievement which, by reflection, will be of benefit to the minority from which he comes. Unless the person concerned be of high moral character and integrity of purpose, it is easy to succumb to comfort and advantage, to become a mere tool.
It may seem almost cynical to say that to a large extent this is happily not possible for members of the Negro minority. The maneuver cannot be managed well enough because of the rigidity of the system of prejudice which surrounds all men and women of color. An affluent Negro, or one who has achieved distinction, will find it as arduous and even impossible as will his poorest and most illiterate brother to achieve and enjoy the equality which is his legal right.
The passage of more than twenty years since these lines were written allows us the opportunity of valuing Gysin’s theme more highly for its prophetic accuracy and humanity, not to mention his avowal of the need to struggle against “the enforcement of discrimination by legal means or by extralegal means” and the “application of force against a minority group” with which these means are always allied. (Nixon’s threat to fire anyone in his Administration who favors school busing to achieve integration is a case in point.) Therefore Gysin demands that we counterpoise ourselves against the “age-old techniques of divide and conquer” — which brings me to my conclusion.
In assessing To Master, A Long Goodnight, I call it revolutionary (that word has meaning left, I hope) for two reasons: first, it gives us an incontrovertibly factual analysis of the early history of slavery on the North American continent, documented by original materials and by the archetypically crucial case of Josiah Henson; secondly, armed with an historical analysis that has stood the test of time, we should be able to form from it a large strategy against the forces at work to exploit racism for current political reasons. In the case of Wyndham Lewis’ book, however, we can read it now only with bitter amusement.