Apology of genius – The Brooklyn Rail

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Mary Ann Caws
Mina Loy: apology for genius
(Reaction Books, 2022)

Those familiar with Mina Loy’s work often find it surprising that others do not. I am one of those. And yet, I can never say if I’m surprised that people don’t know about his poetry, his paintings, his drawings, his manifestos or his life story. Daughter of a Jewish father and a Methodist mother, born in England with artistic training in London, Munich and Paris, she has the talent of never fitting in. Her friends are a who’s who of European modernism: Marinetti, Ezra Pound, André Breton, Beatrice Wood, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Isadora Duncan, and yet it seems awkward to name them, because she was never defined by them. . An undisputed member of the Italian Futurist, Parisian Surrealist and New York Dada gatherings, she could not be contained by any of these, unlike so many of her male peers. It’s tempting to suggest that it stems from her position as a woman, except that she defied easy hand gestures to the feminine or feminism. She had several marriages with children of different men and many famous lovers; yet none of these relationships eclipsed her as an artist. Her “Feminist Manifesto” (1914) shows frustration with any form of gender identification; At Djuna Barnes Ladies’ Almanac included a depiction of Mina as a character named Patience who insisted “that having two sexes is much more interesting than having just one”. A free spirit, she was also a devout Christian Scientist, like her friend and correspondent Joseph Cornell. Loy emerges as a singular figure, and Mary Ann Caws’ biography of this great woman defends Loy as one who “carried on, exclusive in herself, recluse in herself, being herself”.

Mary Ann Caws is a well-respected modernist scholar with a particular ability to connect image and text while acknowledging in the introduction that she remains firmly focused on Loy’s own writings. That would be true, except that Caws, like any Loy biographer, can’t help but testify to Loy’s productive life as a painter and designer. The startlingly symbolist decorative paintings and designs of his early years at the turn of the century morphed by the mid-1950s into austere social statements, as exemplified in Christ on a clothesline (1955-1959). His designs are some of his finest work, and his lampshades led Peggy Guggenheim to fund Loy’s boutique. Throughout, Loy’s poetry is skillfully woven through this biography, both to present life experiences in her own words, as well as to highlight her extraordinary ability to turn language into insight.

The chapters progress freely in chronological order with intervals on Futurism, Arthur Cravan and Loy’s work as a visual artist, to provide context for his story. It’s not an academic text full of “lethal details”, but rather a gathering of those creative impulses where “everyone was always writing something”. Loy’s larger-than-life story is revealed through her words, as well as poems and letters, commentaries and books by others about her, themselves, modernist times and places. Caws sprinkles names and events that some might find unfamiliar; however, they don’t stop the narrative from jumping from one interesting anecdote to the next. Even the whole section on Loy’s abandoned and unpublished novel Insel, which Caws describes as “extremely bizarre” or even “illegible”, deserves Caws’ attention because she finds in it how Loy, “like we’ve all been duped at some point”, could be fascinated by a subject, in l occurrence the surrealist Richard Oelze. Living amid the salons of this modernist milieu, including Mabel Dodge, the Arensbergs and Peggy Guggenheim, Loy’s “lyrical style of caring” exhibits a sensitivity to a general social insensitivity to the less fortunate:

Whenever I’ve seen poor people sleeping on stone benches in the snow, […] disused ballrooms and resort apartments pop into my mind, their central heating warming a swarming absence.

The same concern appears in a poem about a Christmas service and a staged nativity scene:

there’s another baby, a horrible little one

baby – made of half-warm flesh;

flesh covered with wounds – carried

by a half-broken mother.

And I who am called heretic,

and the only one to follow in the footsteps of Christ

Among this crowd worshiping a wax doll

– for I alone adore the poor

sore baby—the child of the ignorant sex-

rancid & poverty.

His thoughtful use of linework and spacing expresses as much as language. Loy could turn that same care into her own experience without ever lapsing into sappy pathos. “Parturition” describes her delivery while her husband was visiting his mistress:

i am the center

From a circle of pain

Exceeding her limits in every way

male irresponsibility

Leave to woman her superior inferiority

He runs upstairs

I climb a twisted mountain of agony

Incidentally with exhaustion of control

I reach the top

And gradually sag in anticipation of

Rest

who never comes

‘Cause another mountain is growing

Who spurred on by the inevitable

I have to cross

Cross me.

When her child died a year later, she waited ten years to write in “Ada Gives Birth to Ova” of the longer poem Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose:

Blade

butcher’s apprentice

offers organic products

to sensitivity

A weak heir

Of this undeniable flesh.

Loy frequently adopted the third person and included excerpts from the conversations of friends, lovers, strangers, parlors, and private whispers in his writings. Others were as real to her as her own interiority, her mocking voice, miming and claiming with surprising aplomb. Caws presents Loy’s life full of partnerships and relationships, love and loss as one of becoming continuous, “nothing pejorative and all celebratory” even as she began to age, her life ending in Aspen where her daughters lived. Loy’s message in “There Is No Life or Death” from his youth has always remained true:

There is no space or time

single intensity,

And tame things

Don’t be huge.

In an age keen to avoid tales of great men like genius, Caws’ subtitle “Apology of Genius” is a provocation lightly tempered with rhetorical apology. And yet, the need to write a genius defense of Mina Loy, in the face of the admiration of her peers, reminds us of the challenges that women have had to face to gain recognition. The civil rights movement helped impose such recuperative efforts, though they occurred with difficulty alongside the deconstruction of the grand narratives posed by post-structuralism, which abandoned the canon as a regressive way of thinking. . This defied efforts to insert new figures and so the canon remained faithful, albeit veiled. Acknowledging that privilege enabled this line of men to produce the discourse that defines Western civilization (please imagine this phrase with an echo effect) does not dismiss the strange and often radical ideas presented in these texts. They are unique. In this context, it is even more important to note how others without this privilege were truly extraordinary in their ability to stray from the path laid out for them. To cite one of these canonical figures, Kant describes genius in The criticism of the judgment as:

Genius (1) is a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given, and not an aptitude in the way of skill for that which can be learned by rule; and that consequently originality must be its first property. (2) Since there can also be original nonsense, its products must at the same time be models, that is, be exemplary; and, therefore, although they themselves do not derive from imitation, they must serve that end for others, that is to say, as a norm or rule of estimation.

A genius is someone who can produce something that cannot be prescribed and who also becomes a model for others. It is possible to observe from this definition how someone can use their position, their context, their environment and their alliances to produce something that arises from this context and yet is new. The concept of emergence applies here. This digression was necessary to answer Caws’ ruminations at the end of this biography.

Caws speaks personally of Loy’s significance for his own writings, “the entrance to a place where […] I wish I could have known, like Mina Loy, how to be myself. It took Caws twenty-one years to write this book, perhaps because Loy’s multiplicity makes it a difficult subject. Its singularity is multiple. Mina Loy was emphatically her own figure, and Mary Ann Caws’ biography presents these diverse facets of Loy’s life in a loose arrangement that encourages readers to go beyond the biography and encounter, through their own discovery (can -being the recovery) of his works, this insoluble woman.


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