Hulme and the opening of a new religious age

At the end of his life, in a series of articles sent to The New Age from the trenches, published in Speculations under the title 'Humanism and the Religious Attitude', Hulme developed an argument that the changes that were occurring in art indicated that a historical cycle - the cycle of humanism that had begun in the Renaissance - was coming to an end and, at least by implication, a new cycle, which could be called religious, was emerging:

'It is necessary to realise that there is an absolute, and not a relative, difference between humanism (which we can take to be the highest expression of the vital), and the religious spirit. The divine is not life at its intensest. It contains in a way an almost anti-vital element; quite different of course from the non-vital character of the outside physical region. The questions of Original Sin, of chastity, of the motives behind Buddhism, etc., all part of the very essence of the religious spirit, are quite incomprehensible for humanism. The difference is seen perhaps most obviously in art. At the Renaissance, there were many pictures with religious subjects, but no religious art in the proper sense of the word. All the emotions expressed are perfectly human ones. Those who choose to think that religious emotion is only the highest form of the emotions that fall inside the humanist ideology, may call this religious art, but they will be wrong. When the intensity of the religious attitude finds proper expression in art, then you get a very different result. Such expression springs not from a delight in life but from a feeling for certain absolute values, which are entirely independent of vital things. The disgust with the trivial and accidental characteristics of living shapes, the searching after an austerity, a monumental stability and permanence, a perfection and rigidity, which vital things can never have, leads to the rise of forms which can almost be called geometrical. (Cf. Byzantine, Egyptian and early Greek art).' (pp.8-9)

We have seen that Hulme's initial enthusiasm for Bergson was that the inner life - a potentially infinite 'intensive manifold' - was a means by which human integrity could be preserved in the face of an apparently mechanistic Universe. Now he argues that it is by insisting on the limits and fixity of the human person in the presence of an essentially non-human Divinity that the sense of the human can be preserved in the face of an apparently formless flux of arbitrary events. There is a resemblance to the ideas being developed in the 1920s by Gleizes, who also believed that the development of a non-representational art indicated the ending of a materialist cycle and the opening of a new religious cycle. Where Hulme, however, stresses a static, spatial art, Gleizes saw time and movement as essential to human nature and therefore inseparable from the very idea of Form.

But what is of interest in the present discussion is the relation to the thinking of Wyndham Lewis. Lewis's Time and Western Man, published in 1927, was a polemic not just against Bergson but also against Oswald Spengler and by implication any notion of a 'zeitgeist', an irresistible movement of history whether thought of as 'progress' in a continual straight line, or as a succession of cycles. Lewis was not anti-religious but nor was he obviously religious (I tend to imagine that a Wyndham Lewis capable of engaging in prayer would have ended up rather resembling G.K.Chesterton - indeed a resemblance to Chesterton, the endlessly garrulous essayist, is suggested in New Perspectives by Jameson). Nonetheless, he shares Hulme's fear that the solidity of the human person is dissolving in a Bergsonian flux. Although he wrote in an almost insane abundance, there is a remarkable consistency in his thinking from the earliest grotesque caricatures of Breton peasants in the first decade of the century to the end of his life. It is as if he had, when very young, a vision and has since been engaged endlessly in an effort to find different ways of sharing it with the world. The crudest summary of this vision would be that art best serves human personality by being impersonal, by affirming space and the full maturity of the object, fixity, against the fleeting moment, the accidental by-products of a process. In his 'Essay on the objective of plastic art in our time' (published in The Tyro No.2, 1922), he quotes Schopenhauer:

'While science, following the unresting and inconstant stream of the fourfold forms of reason and consequent {sic - PB. Consequently?], with each end attained sees further, and can never reach a final goal nor attain full satisfaction, any more than by running we can reach the place where the clouds touch the horizon; art, on the contrary, is everywhere at its goal. For it plucks the object of its contemplation out of the stream of the world's course, and has it isolated before it.' (p.31)

Lewis's vision is not the same as that of Hulme but they shared the idea that the problem of 'form' in art was closely related to the problem of what it is to be human and that human nature was threatened by philosophies that blur the distinction between the human and the divine, the human and the natural, the individual and society. Both saw art as something other than simply an embellishment of life, both saw it as a weapon in the battle to preserve the integrity of human being. Vorticism was a moment when they came together, abstraction was a means by which positive values could be affirmed without the direct evocation of religious imagery. Lewis, without renouncing his central idea, then fell back again into satire and caricature. He assumed the role of The Enemy, the artist confronting the fashions of the world from a position of permanent alienation. I think Hulme would have understood. I doubt if he would have approved.

Hulme and the war

I am now faced with a moral dilemma. It will be obvious that I like this line of argument, especially in the openly religious form it assumes in Hulme's late writings. I think this is in line with arguments that would soon be developed more fully by Gleizes. But I am obliged to admit that the articles sent from the trenches which developed this case, published in The New Age as 'A Notebook' by 'T.E.H.' were accompanied by another set of articles, also by Hulme, writing under the pseudonym 'North Staffs' called 'War Notes.' These largely consisted of a polemic using arguments similar to those in 'A Notebook' to excoriate pacifism and particularly the pacifism of Bertrand Russell, seen as a necessary consequence of his rationalist, humanist philosophy.

Two members of what we might call the wider Vorticist group joined up right at the start of the war and both were killed - Hulme and Gaudier-Brzeska (otherwise the Vorticists got off quite lightly). They could be said to represent opposite intellectual extremes of the movement - Gaudier on the anarchist wing discussed in New Perspectives by the Antliff brothers, Hulme on what has been called, not entirely happily, the 'neo-classical' wing. One might have expected Gaudier's anarchism to incline him to pacifism. I assume his motivation was simple. He was French. His country was under attack and he felt the need to defend it, anarchist or not, regardless of any understanding he might have had of the reasons for the outbreak of war. 

All the major participants in the 1914 war could claim credibly that they were defending themselves against aggression - except Britain. No one was invading or threatening to invade Britain, so Britain's involvement must be explained either as a matter of disinterested moral integrity or of opportunistic aggression. Hulme admits in the 'War Notes' that he personally had joined in a mood of exuberant bellicosity (his writing often uses pugnacious imagery and he once famously suspended Wyndham Lewis upside down from the railings of Soho Square - admittedly after Lewis had threatened to kill him). He claimed, however, that by 1916 all traces of bellicose feeling had vanished and that what was left was the clear cold calculation that Germany had to be defeated because the balance of power in Europe was a Good Thing and a Europe dominated by Germany would be a Bad Thing. He continually promises that he will elaborate on this purely political argument but he never does, always managing to distract himself into an assault on the philosophical premisses that prevent the pacifists from seeing what he regards as obvious. The 'War Notes' make very disagreeable reading for someone who like myself is sympathetic to the line of thought being developed in the 'Notebook'. A man capable of recognising that the future should in some sense be 'Byzantine', meaning abstract-geometrical-religious, should have recognised that the Britain he was fighting for would be its implacable enemy.