Mina Loy: Apology of Genius
(Reaktion Books, 2022)
Those who know Mina Loy’s work often find it astounding that others don’t. I am one of those. And yet, I can never tell if I am surprised that people don’t know her poetry, paintings, designs, manifestos, or life story. The daughter of a Jewish father and Methodist mother, born in England with an art education spanning London, Munich, and Paris, she made a 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 feels tactless to name them, as she was never defined by them. A clear member of Italian Futurist, Paris Surrealist and New York Dada gatherings, she couldn’t be contained by any of these, unlike so many of her male peers. It’s tempting to suggest this comes from her position as a woman except that she defied easy hand waving gestures at the feminine or feminism. She had several marriages with children by different men, and numerous famous lovers; yet none of these relationships eclipsed her as an artist. Her “Feminist Manifesto” (1914) shows frustration with seemingly any kind of gender identification; Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack included a depiction of Mina as a character named Patience who insisted “that to have two genders is far more interesting than to have only 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’s biography of this great woman defends Loy as one who “went right on, exclusive in herself, reclusive in herself, being herself.”
Mary Ann Caws is a widely respected modernist scholar with a particular ability to bridge image and text while acknowledging in the introduction that her focus remains firmly on Loy’s own writings. This would be true except that Caws, like any biographer of Loy, can’t help but also attest to Loy’s productive life as a painter and designer. The startlingly symbolist paintings and decorative designs of her early years at the turn of the century transform by the mid-1950s into stark social statements as illustrated in Christ on a Clothesline (1955–1959). Her designs are some of her best work and her lampshades led Peggy Guggenheim to finance Loy’s shop. Throughout, Loy’s poetry is deftly woven across this biography, both to present life experiences in her own words, as well as highlight her extraordinary ability to turn language into insight.
The chapters progress loosely in chronological order with intervals on Futurism, Arthur Cravan and Loy's work as a visual artist, to provide context to her story. This is not an academic text full of “deadly detail” but rather a gathering of those creative impulses where “everybody was always writing something.” Loy’s larger-than-life story is revealed through her words, as well as others’ poems and letters, comments and books about her, themselves, modernist moments and locales. Caws strews names and events that some may find unfamiliar; however, they don’t halt the narrative which leaps from one interesting anecdote to another. Even the entire section on Loy’s abandoned and unpublished novel Insel, which Caws describes as “enormously bizarre” or even “unreadable,” deserves Caws’s attention because she finds in it how Loy, “as we all have been taken in at some point,” could become fascinated by a subject, in this instance the surrealist Richard Oelze. Living amidst the salons of this modernist milieu, including Mabel Dodge, the Arensbergs, and Peggy Guggenheim, Loy’s “lyric style of caring” presents a sensitivity to a general social callousness for those less fortunate:
Whenever I have seen poor people asleep on stone seats in the snow, […] there arise in my mind unused ballrooms and vacationers’ apartments whose central heating warms a swarming absence.
The same concern appears in a poem about a Christmas service and staged nativity scene:
there is another baby, a horrible little
baby—made of half warm flesh;
flesh that is covered with sores—carried
by a half-broken mother.
And I who am called a heretic,
and the only follower in Christ’s foot-steps
Among this crowd adoring a wax doll
—for I alone am worshipping the poor
sore baby—the child of sex igno-
rance & poverty.
Her thoughtful use of line work and spacing expresses as much as the language. Loy could turn that same care for her own experience without ever descending into sappy pathos. “Parturition” describes her childbirth as her husband visited his mistress:
I am the centre
Of a circle of pain
Exceeding its boundaries in every direction
The irresponsibility of the male
Leaves woman her superior Inferiority
He is running up-stairs
I am climbing a distorted mountain of agony
Incidentally with the exhaustion of control
I reach the summit
And gradually subside into anticipation of
Which never comes
For another mountain is growing up
Which goaded by the unavoidable
I must traverse
When her child died a year later, she would wait ten years to write in “Ada Gives Birth to Ova” from the longer poem Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose:
apprenticed to the butcher business
offers organic wares
A dim inheritor
Of this undeniable flesh.
Loy frequently adopted the third person and included snippets of conversations from friends, lovers, strangers, salons, and private whisperings into her writings. Others were as real to her as her own interiority, her voice mocking, mimicking, and claiming with a surprising aplomb. Caws presents Loy’s life full of partnerships and relationships, love and loss as one of continuous becoming, “nothing derogatory and everything celebratory” even as she began to age, with her life concluding in Aspen where her daughters lived. Loy’s message in “There is Neither Life nor Death” from her youth remained ever true:
There is no Space or Time
And tame things
Have no immensity.
In an era careful to avoid great man narratives like genius, Caws’s subtitle “Apology of Genius” is a provocation just slightly tempered by the rhetorical apologia. And yet, the need to write a defense of genius as regards to Mina Loy, given the admiration of her peers, is a reminder of the challenges that women faced in gaining recognition. The Civil Rights movement helped compel such reclamatory efforts, though these occurred with difficulty alongside the deconstruction of grand narratives posited by post-structuralism, which abandoned the canon as a regressive mode of thinking. This challenged efforts to insert new figures and so the canon remained staunch, albeit veiled. Recognizing that privilege enabled this lineage of men to produce the discourse that defines Western Civilization (please do imagine that phrase with an echo effect) doesn’t discount the strange and often radical ideas presented across those texts. They are singular. In that context, it’s even more important to note how others without that privilege were truly extraordinary in their ability to depart from the path determined for them. To quote one such canonical figure, Kant described genius in The Critique of 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 cleverness for what can be learned according to some rule; and that consequently originality must be its primary property. (2) Since there may also be original nonsense, its products must at the same time be models, i.e., be exemplary; and, consequently, though not themselves derived from imitation, they must serve that purpose for others, i.e., as a standard or rule of estimating.
A genius is someone who can produce something that can’t be prescribed and yet also becomes a model for others. It’s possible to observe from this definition how someone can use their position, context, surroundings, and alliances to produce something that arises from this background and yet is novel. The concept of emergence is apt here. This digression was necessary in order to address Caws’s ruminations at the end of this biography.
Caws speaks personally about Loy’s importance to her own writing, “the entrance to a place in which […] I hope I might 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 her a difficult subject. Her singularity is many. Mina Loy was categorically her own figure and Mary Ann Caws’s biography presents these assorted facets of Loy’s life in a loose arrangement that encourages readers to go beyond the biography and meet, through their own discovery (perhaps recovery) of her works, this irresolvable woman.