Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr:
An Exercise in Right-Wing Psychology
Wyndham Lewis’ novel Tarr (an anagram of both “art” and “rat”) appeared first in 1915 as the Great War was raging, and it remains one of the great exercises in hard-boiled psychology. Most behaviorist prose tends to be shunted aside into genre fiction such as adventure and perhaps the noir detective novel. Tarr is unusual in that it represents a fusion of high-grade literary fiction and the sort of psychology which animates the characters in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead — such as Dominique Francon, Howard Roark, and Gail Wynand, for instance. Critics at the time — if not seduced by literary modernism — spoke of a tough-minded work in which the main characters mean to “have their cake and eat it!”
The action revolves around five main characters, the eponymous artist Tarr, the radical bohemians Kreisler and Soltyk, and the two women, or items of love interest, Bertha and Anastasya. The esteemed critic Rebecca West once compared Lewis to Dostoyevsky on the basis of this novel and said that its character was Russian rather than English because of its undue interest in the human soul.
The characters are multidimensional and fervid in the expression of their desires — particularly their intellectual ones. Every one strives not to have liberal or love-oriented reactions to things — with the sole exception of Bertha . . . although she has to shape up, too, when she is raped or sexually assaulted by Kreisler, the German artist.
The central part of the novel — from about a third of the way in until just about the end — belongs to Kreisler. He is a distrait and semi-psychopathic individual — who is doubtless an amalgam of eastern and central European bohemians whom Lewis met during the early part of the twentieth century. Much of Tarr is actually based on his own life. Kreisler decides to “break out” of civilized constraint, given the license which Bohemia affords, and during the course of this he is found to be highly destructive indeed, in that Bertha is raped and Soltyk killed in a duel in the woods that goes wrong.
Most critics have compared Kreisler’s personality to Hitler’s and accused Lewis of a terrible premonition or the possession of an occult sense . . . given that the book was written between about 1909 and 1915. It would be much more accurate to accuse Lewis of possessing magisterial antennae — in the matter of the chaos, moral and otherwise, that lurks in the undergrowth of bohemia.
This is especially the case with that wide penumbra cast by those characters who are not really artistically creative, but who feed off the arts in an attenuated or prescriptive way. Lewis was always very alert to the non-professional and amateurish in the arts — whether it can be attributed to a penniless or a millionaire bohemia, of the sort which he satirizes in The Apes of God.
With the exception of a few minor bohemians who do not appreciably develop the plot — mostly English expatriates living abroad and acquaintances of Tarr — the main characters are all hard-boiled in the way that I have described. The sole exception would be Bertha. All of the others are carnivorous raptors who feed off the psychic carcasses of those around them . . . for the articulated psyche is closer to that of soldiers or military personnel than to an accepted portrayal of artistic types. The objective method for handling human beings — wherein they are viewed from outside-in, as well as in a hard-edged, Cowboys and Indians, striated manner — all contrives to bring about this effect.
Although Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel did not appear until after the Great War, the mental atmosphere of this book is remarkably similar. Wherein a description of a meal between Bertha and Tarr, for instance, becomes an instance for all-in mud-wrestling — all of the combativeness remaining emotional and linguistic.
Tarr, as a book, also indicates the tyranny of originality, for all of the characters disconcert by dint of their inability to say anything unoriginal. One of the “shocking” plausibilities of this fiction is what it tells you about normal relations — namely, how boring they often are! Try and have a Tarr day, in which everything you utter to everyone is fresh and aggressively original, and you’ll find yourself dismissed as a monster by the end of it.
All of the characters, particularly Kreisler, are monsters who lap up life’s cream with abandonment and gusto. All of them (minus Bertha) live in accordance with Nietzschean maxims and in accord with Lewis’ Nietzschean credo and essay, The Code of a Herdsman. This essay is difficult to sum up, but it essentially involves never repeating yourself, wearing masks in front of the majority of people, never going back to repeat your mistakes, and making of daily life a theater of cruelty, to use Antonin Artaud’s felicitous phrase.
All of this strikes liberal critics as callow and adolescent, but it actually betrays a deeply fascistic register of the emotions. It is very rare for a novel to be written from such an illiberal vantage point, in a literary and meta-political sense. For nearly all novels, poems and plays proceed from the premise that all you need is love (The Beatles’ anthem which made the ‘sixties its own). Nonetheless, the only characters — in liberal fiction — who evince poor morality in their day-to-day conduct are the villains. This is one of the reasons for contemporary transgression — namely, the fascination with evil and negativity because such persons seem to be the most alive. It is the Aleister Crowley phenomenon writ large, if you will.
A key example of this can be found in Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil, a book in which everyone is soft, decent, moral, Quakerish, and liberal-minded, with the sole exception of the Russian philosopher, who comes across as twice as alive in relation to the other characters. In Tarr, all of the personalities, even the conventional German romantic Bertha, betray the fascination for illiberal qualities always manifest in the liberal breast. Surely the secret attraction, particularly in art, that liberals have for anti-liberal intellectuals is a love that dare not speak its name.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World & Me