George Orwell, Wyndham Lewis and the Origins of Cultural Studies
This paper is part of a research project supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology (BFF 2002-02842), the Communidad Autonóma of La Rioja (ANGI-2002/05), and the
To bring together in one discussion George Orwell and Wyndham Lewis is to associate two apparently very different writers, one of whom—Orwell—holds an established place in the history of cultural studies, whilst the other—Wyndham Lewis—is not thought to have any links whatever with cultural studies. Orwell is part of the history of British socialism, Lewis, if he is known at all, is remembered as the most reactionary of the modernists. Yet I shall argue today that the dialogue that took place between Orwell and Lewis between 1932 and 1952 is crucial to our understanding of the history of cultural studies. Let me hint at what is to come by saying that whenever we use the phrase ‘the global village’ to describe new relationships between centre and periphery, we are quoting Wyndham Lewis. As cultural critic, Lewis is present but unrecognised. There is a second difficulty: modernism and cultural studies do not meet. Lewis was a high modernist, and high modernism is not a point of reference for cultural studies. Rita Felski has very recently written a vigorous denunciation of the way in which ‘cultural studies [is] oblivious to modernist studies’, so that (she writes) ‘when “modernity” appears at all in cultural studies, it is often there to be refuted, derided, or denounced, a handy catch phrase for conservative politics, old hat metaphysics, and snobbish aesthetics’. That is exactly how Lewis has been conceived, though the critical situation is beginning slowly to change. Felski urges that we need to ‘reverse the optic’, as she puts it, ‘to realize that modernist studies can throw light on cultural studies, as well as the other way around’ (502). I am doing that here; and I am taking a further step, toshow that modernism and cultural studies are, in the case of Orwell and Lewis, closely linked.
My third introductory point concerns the history of cultural studies in
The transition from Hoggart to Hall at this period permits me to prepare for what follows by pointing to this structure: under Hoggart, Orwell’s way of exploring culture, in such an essay as ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, was predominant; under Hall, it is through Althusser and Gramsci that the crucial questions of ideology and hegemony are developed.
What, then, was the relationship between Wyndham Lewis and George Orwell? Wyndham Lewis was born in 1882 and was therefore eleven years older than Orwell. Lewis became established in 1914 as the leader of a British avant-garde in
When Lewis published his criticism of Joyce, Pound and Bergson in Time and Western Man in September 1927, Orwell had just returned to
In 1941, the relationship between Orwell and Lewis becomes one of mutual recognition. In that year Lewis published a novel about class in
In 1942 Orwell recognised Lewis as a European modernist; in 1943 he described the essays in The Enemy as among the few ‘really good pamphlets’ published in recent years. There are further references during the war, until in 1945 he returns to Tarr and Snooty Baronet as ‘good bad books’. And in 1946 he makes a blunder, writing in the
The convergence between Orwell and Lewis is first apparent in the 1939 review I mentioned earlier, where Orwell recognises that Lewis had moved towards the left. He is reviewing a little-known book by Lewis about
Another convergence occurs when in 1952 Lewis devotes five chapters to a wide- ranging discussion of Orwell in The Writer and the Absolute, entitled ‘Orwell, or Two and Two Make Four’. His discussion is devoted to getting the politics out of this most political of writers. For Lewis, everything in Orwell before Nineteen Eighty-Four is that of a conventional political mind, ‘the story of a man who rescued himself from a convention, and finished his life in a burst of clairvoyance’. Lewis’s own position is that ‘Every writer should keep himself free from party’ (p. 193), a view that he had held since his earliest writings before the First World War, but which intermittently broke down to permit his right-wing enthusiasms. Freedom from party gives the opportunity to achieve ‘objective truth’, Lewis says, by which he seems to mean coming into possession of an inclusive sense of reality, a comprehensive understanding of politics that is not in any way partisan, but which recognises all the forces at work at any moment. Lewis concludes that in Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell very nearly achieved this: ‘He went much farther on the road to an ultimate political realism than any of his companions or immediate English contemporaries’ (p. 193). In other words, Orwell came close to believing what Lewis himself believed. It is an early example of the ‘Orwell agrees with me’ syndrome. And it is my second example of a convergence between these two writers.
As the conclusion to this first part of this argument, I want to point to the significance of this convergence for cultural studies itself, in what I have called the early or Hoggart model. I have mentioned in passing Orwell’s 1940 essay ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, in which he discusses the significance of such comics for boys as Magnet, with its stories of
But what is not so clear to very many people is that the most harmless piece of literary entertainment - the common crime story, for instance, or the schoolboy epic of the young of the English proletariat centred around the portly figure of Bunter, ‘the owl of the Remove’ (see Magnet Library, weekly 2d., of all newsagents) is at all events politically and morally influential.This will be exactly Orwell’s point. Whether there was any influence in this instance, is not really my concern. But we can now point to an historical continuity between what Lewis proposed in 1934, through Orwell’s popular-cultural essays of the 1940s, and down to the early work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the mid-1960s.
The question that now suggests itself is this: if there is a continuity between Lewis, Orwell and the early Hoggart phase of cultural studies, is there any continuity between Lewis and the much more theoretically advanced work initiated later by StuartHall? As I have said already, this was marked by Althusser and ideology and Gramsci and hegemony. In Lewis’s theoretical critique of modernity Time and Western Man, the 1927 book published just as Orwell returned from
Lewis develops ‘ideology’ in complex ways. Again warning of difficulties, he writes that ‘Some . . . analysis of the domination achieved by an idea and how it ceases to be an idea and becomes an ideology, as Napoleon called it, an instrument of popular government has to be undertaken’ (p.85). He speaks of ideas being replaced by an ‘ideologic simulacrum’ (p.78), and describes the artist’s resistance to ideology: ‘It is equally his [the artist’s] business to know enough of the sources of his ideas, and ideology, to take steps to keep these ideas out, except such as he requires for his work’ (p. 136). This suggests that even the self-aware artist is not immune, and hints that Lewis is aware that in the reception of ideology complex subjective processes are at work.
These concepts of hegemony, dominance and control move the discussion into questions of power. Even before the work I have been describing, Lewis had begun a major critique of the state from within literary modernism This occurs in a book entitled The Art of Being Ruled, published in 1926. There, Lewis makes the crucial link between the state and ideology when he writes: ‘[W]hat we call conventionally the capitalist state is as truly an educationalist state’. The history of cultural studies does not return to this question until Althusser argues that in modem capitalism the main ideological state apparatus (ISA) is education.
Finally, we can ask from a position within recent work in cultural studies, whether Lewis at any time attempts a critique of the material processes of cultural production. In 1932 he published a book entitled Doom of Youth in which he reproduced texts from newspapers and magazines, and then developed a critical discussion of them. The texts are not reproduced photographically, but the book attempts a typographic version of the newspaper original. Cultural studies does not return to this device until
The Orwell-Lewis relationship requires, it seems to me, a revision of the history of cultural studies. First, we must recognise that the ideological critiques conducted by Wyndham Lewis are the actual foundations of the field, though they have not been recognised as such. Second, the Orwell-Lewis relationship is one of convergence and recognition, and this is worth attending to. Thirdly, there is a history to the relationship that is divergent. Lewis initiates the study of popular culture, but he has no followers because his reputation on all fronts had been ruined by his 1930s politics. In practice it is Orwell whose work on popular culture is recognised and accepted as the historical precedent and model for the Birmingham CCCS. It remains unclear how much influence Lewis had on Orwell in that respect. When the Orwell model was dropped at
 Rita Felski, ‘Modernist Studies and Cultural Studies: Reflections on Method’, Modernism/modernity 10, 3 (September 2003), .
 George Orwell, ‘Letter to Eleanor Jaques’, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume I: An Age Like This 1920-1940, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, Books, 1970), p. 106. Henceforth
 CEJL I, p. 126. Dated ‘[September? 1932]’. Orwell has been reading about Lewis’s novel Snooty Baronet, published 15 September. He again mentions The Enemy, published in three numbers, Nos. 1-2 in 1927, No. 3, 1929.
W. K. Rose (ed.). The Letters of Wyndham Lewis (London: Methuen, 1963), p. 307. Letter dated
 George Orwell, ‘The English People’, CEJL III: As I Please 1943-1945, p. 19, p. 51.
 George Orwell, ‘The Rediscovery of
 George Orwell, ‘Review of The Mysterious Mr. Bull by Wyndham Lewis; The School for Dictators by Ignazio Silone’ in The Complete Works of George Orwell Volume Eleven: Facing Unpleasant Facts 1937-1939, ed. Peter Davison, assisted by Ian Angus and Sheila Davison (London: Secker and Warburg, 1998), p. 353. First published in New English Weekly,
 George Orwell, ‘Boys’ Weeklies, in CEJL I, p. 531.
 Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man, ed. Paul Edwards (1927;
Press, 1993), pp. 86-7.
Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, ed.
Sparrow Press, 1989), p. 106.
[Wyndham Lewis, Doom of Youth (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932), p. 246.
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