No 17 - Spring 2008
Not an Apology: Mina Loy's Geniuses
‘An exceptional gardener will succeed in advancing, ever so slightly, the fence that hems his garden in, to enclose a hitherto unfound flower, and discovering it to his fellows he gives them some seed. This is the act of genius.’
Was Mina Loy a genius? Since her death in 1966, oft-repeated sound bites from Loy's final hermetic years drably renounce her once brazen self-belief: 'But, why do you waste your time on these thoughts of mine? I was never a poet.' Were these kinds of repudiations less personal than an aged poet's abjurations to would be 'rediscoverers'? Do they reflect, in fact, a deeper loss of faith in poetry, the avant-garde, and the artist's potential to improve humanity and deflect the rapidly 'civilising' approaches of war and 'progress'? These questions tie into Loy's own initial belief in the poet or artist-genius as the herald of social evolution. In Loy's writing, the genius is both bound to and separate from mankind: the genius points towards a reformist social order based on the importance of individuated consciousness, and the genius is unheeded, ostracised and (usually at society's peril) censored. Although not present at the censorship trial for The Little Review's publication of James Joyce's serialised Ulysses, Loy wrote the poem 'Apology of Genius' (1922) partly in response to the U.S. Post Office's decision to confiscate and destroy copies of the Review. (Interestingly, several copies of Loy's own first collection, Lunar Baedecker [sic] would be destroyed by U.S. censors in 1923 for its lurid sexual language.) Her poem, 'Joyce's Ulysses', also written in 1922, figures the Irish writer as the 'recreator' who 'flashes the giant reflector/ on the sub rosa'. These are only two of Loy's poems on the subject of genius. In addition, she drafted several essays and autobiographical writings about the centrality of genius to the advancement of mankind. Many of these remain unpublished, and are archived at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Loy returned to ideas about genius and the status of the artist-genius throughout her career. Born in London in 1882, Loy studied art in London and Paris before settling in Florence in 1907. After an unsuccessful marriage and the birth of three children (one of whom died in infancy), she moved to New York in 1916 and soon gained prominence as a poet among the Greenwich Village literati. Between 1916 and 1923, Loy travelled from North and South America to Europe, having met and married the poet Arthur Cravan (who would disappear in 1918 off the coast of Mexico). She settled again in Paris in 1923, opened a lampshade shop that sold her own designs (with the financial backing of Peggy Guggenheim) and published poems in New York and Paris-based little magazines. Loy's later, reclusive years were spent under the care of her children, in Aspen, Colorado. It was not until 1982 that a comprehensive collection of her published and unpublished poems, The Last Lunar Baedeker, came into print. That volume has since been superseded by The Lost Lunar Baedeker, a more concise and accurate edition of Loy's writings, published in the UK by Carcanet Press in 1997.
Loy's attitude towards genius shifts considerably over a span of thirty years, beginning with her socio-political treatise 'International Psycho-Democracy' (ca. 1918-1920), her poems from the 1920s of which 'Apology of Genius' is the most well-known, to her later autobiographical prose novels, namely Insel (ca. 1936-1940s). Historical elements of genius, as a superior human characteristic found among a privileged few, inform Loy's image of the genius, in particular a late eighteenth-century replacement of individual genius with earlier figures of the hero, the saint or the universal man. Loy's genius figure appears in similar incarnations, some of which are: the embryonic child-genius; the prophet or mystic-genius; the god-like cultivator; or the racial scion of genius. All of these have in common their bodily experience of genius through which they transcend physical existence. Often Loy's geniuses receive inspiration from an external, universal force, which is conducted through their body via the senses. They never contain genius as something that is uniquely their own; it is inherited or bestowed on them as a result of their receptivity. Indeed one has only to trace the history of the concept of genius to see that it has wavered historically somewhere between transcendence (the pluralized individual) and wholeness (the unique individual). The shift in the meaning of genius from a protective or 'tutelary spirit' to individual uniqueness is staged primarily within the nineteenth century.
Loy's political treatise 'International Psycho-Democracy' exhorts the artist to further the evolution of modern society and instructs readers to be guided by the artist-genius's aesthetic rather than the militaristic principles of post-World War I politicians. Begun in 1918, while Loy was in Buenos Aires and completed in Geneva in the climate of post-war reformation, 'Psycho-Democracy' is made up of a series of tenets by which her 'International Psycho-Democratic Party' would propose mankind govern itself. Loy writes:
‘Our purpose is the instatement of Actual Values to destroy the power - inimical to man - of those things he does not understand. Our party stands for the redemption of the Intellect from the hypnotism of Education and the Press, for the new system of Experimental Ideative Exchange, and for the Indication of Explorative Being. Our intent is to reproach the Heroic Personification of Man as Denominator of the Elements until those elements are at the disposal of every man, to his greatest advantage, to his least inconvenience; and to inspire the leisure requisite to the human organism in its progressive racial conquest of consciousness.’
Loy's proposition for a new human order is based on 'the redemption of the Intellect' from institutionalised modes of knowledge such as education. In an earlier essay, she describes education as 'recognizing something that has been seen before' and confirms that the artist has an intrinsic 'pure, uneducated [way of] seeing'. As an artist herself, Loy sets out her 'democratic' plan from an artist's perspective; she urges the common man: '[m]ake the world your Salon'. Her self-admittedly 'nebulous' principles for social evolution depend on the reclamation of each individual's 'imagination'. The underlying scheme of Loy's ideal society's enlightenment relies (ironically) on a Wordsworthian return to individuality, free from social or class constructs, one that precedes socialisation. She writes that 'The Aim of [an ideal] Society is the Perfection of Self' and that '“Self” is the covered entrance to Infinity'. This 'infinite' and uneducated self is at the core of all of her genius-figures. Loy self-published limited copies of her treatise and circulated them solely among the literati and the intellectual elite. A recurring trope within Loy's meditations on genius is that she positions herself as herald to the masses, a prophet whose duty it is to spur on the intellectual evolution of mankind. However, this relationship is never a dialogue; Loy offers her text and does not involve herself beyond her authorial role. One senses from her tone that humanity's fate entirely rests on whether or not mankind chooses to listen.
Loy's figure of the artist as a god is most evident from her poetry about her fellow writer 'geniuses'. In 'Apology of Genius' Loy's criticism of censorship is directed to the 'watchers of civilized wastes'. These 'watchers' are not 'the masses' or the 'contaminating rabble' as one critic has suggested. Loy directs her attack at those who govern prohibitively and restrict artistic freedom. However she elevates genius above the rest of Man, and suggests that although geniuses share mankind's mortal condition, they are still superior:
You may give birth to us
or marry us
the chances of your flesh
are not our destiny -
The cuirass of the soul
still shines -
And we are unaware
if you confuse
corrosion with possession
The 'flesh' relationship between the genius and the common man is, according to Loy, not enough of a contaminant to 'possess' the genius's 'destiny'. The genius is 'ostracised' with 'God' and is 'beyond' the control of human laws. 'Apology of Genius' portrays the genius squarely as a god-like figure, and is an 'apology' only in terms of its defense of genius and its depiction of martyrdom. Loy's geniuses (among whom she numbers herself by using the pronoun 'we') are 'sacerdotal clowns', or priest-like sufferers in 'pastures of poverty'.
In the raw caverns of the Increate
we forge the dusk of Chaos
to that imperious jewellery of the Universe
While to your eyes
A delicate crop
of criminal mystic immortelles
stands to the censor's scythe.
Loy's deific beings are not only so untouched by human society that they are pre-civilised; they inhabit the 'Increate' world before human existence. This world is governed by the creative imagination, and its ability to translate perception and desire unimpeded into art. Therefore society's inability to see beyond the prohibitive laws of the 'censor's scythe', perceives the 'mystic' genius to be a 'criminal'. Here Loy alludes to the persecution of religious heretics to support her assertion that geniuses are misunderstood by their fellow man. To the non-genius, Loy's gods are as 'delicate' as 'immortelles'. These delicately textured, papery flowers are everlasting and retain their colour and shape in death. Loy's association of 'immortelles' with genius suggests that despite their fragile appearance, her geniuses are immortal in terms of their influence and therefore exempt from the confines of human life and civilisation. Loy's editor, Roger Conover, claims that often Loy wore immortelles in her hat. Possibly this was her private symbol of genius, and notably one that could convey a kind of elite, and coded, membership.
In an essay published in The Dial in 1926, entitled 'Mina Loy', the American poet and critic Yvor Winters concluded that Loy's 'apology is in itself a proof of genius - and of a genius that rises from a level of emotion and attitude which is as nearly common human territory as one can ever expect to find in a poet'. Winters praises Loy's poem as indicative of her genius but he also suggests that because genius rarely displays 'emotion' it is uncommonly 'human'. He does not cite any displays of emotion in Loy's poem. Perhaps Winters is referring to Loy's sympathy for herself and for her fellow geniuses, but 'Apology' casts the 'common human' as the adversary of the intellectual. One would have to empathise heavily with the plight of the 'genius' to feel included in the poem's 'level of emotion'.
Conover notes that Loy followed The Little Review's trial over its serialised publication of Ulysses and that she met Joyce for the first time early in 1922, shortly after the first edition of his entire novel was published. This is possibly the meeting described by Loy's biographer Carolyn Burke, which took place in a Paris café in 1921. Loy sketched Joyce's portrait while the American novelist Djuna Barnes interviewed him for the Spring issue of Vanity Fair. In June of 1922, Thayer wrote from Vienna to James Sibley Watson, Jr., who co-edited The Dial:
‘Mina [Loy] says she told Joyce she was just a real girl and Joyce was tickled to death. On the other hand Joyce did not take to Djuna [Barnes] and Bobby [Robert McAlmon] had to do considerable polishing to keep Djuna at all eligible. So you should try to be less like Djuna and more like Mina when you feel <up> Joyce.’
Presumably, Thayer's advice is meant to aid Watson (who was in Paris at the time) to procure a contribution from Joyce, who only published once in The Dial (in 1920). It appears from Thayer's letter, and his caution to Watson, that Loy claimed that Joyce favoured her over Barnes. According to Barnes's biographer, Phillip Herring, Joyce and Barnes were friends and admirers of each other's work. Apparently, he presented her with a bound proof-copy of Ulysses, just two weeks after it was published, inscribed: 'To Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Paris 16 February 1922'. Whether or not Loy claimed that Joyce preferred her to Barnes, what these letters and biographers' claims show is that an association with Joyce was much coveted at the time of Ulysses's publication. Thayer's assertion, that McAlmon (whose attendance is not recorded in either Loy's or Barnes's biographies) 'had to do considerable polishing to keep Djuna at all eligible', borrows the diction of courtship and marital negotiations. Thayer insinuates that Loy charms Joyce by being 'just a real girl' and that she is not a threat to him. Similarly, Watson must seduce - or 'feel [Joyce] up' - if The Dial is to profit from the escalating celebrity of his genius. It is tempting to read Loy's 'Joyce's Ulysses' as an investment in Joyce's reputation, whom she called the 'God of Paris'. Her inclusion of Joyce's title in her own aligns the two authors primarily through their artistic product, and not their personal acquaintance. She makes no hint of their friendship, and exhibits their kinship as writers (and geniuses) instead by explaining Joyce's vision.
Within the Loy archive is an unpublished, handwritten manuscript of 'The Apology of Genius II', dated 'Oct. 1930', a sequel to her original 'Apology of Genius'. The poem appears on nine letterhead pages from Loy's Paris lampshade shop and does not appear to be a finished draft. Loy seems to redraft similar stanzas over the nine pages, as in the lines: 'Thus it is to us eventual/ Even to survive with god'. She rewrites this into: 'Our Eventuality/ it is/ Even to survive with god'. The revised stanza's heavily enjambed line 'it is' is more definite than the original and the initial use of 'Our' declares immediately that the poem is written by a 'genius' for the 'geniuses'. 'Our' takes control over the 'eventuality' of the genius's survival, whereas 'thus' lacks volition. Loy's sequel documents her original 'Apology''s predicament of the genius as 'ostracised' with 'God':
Even to survive with god
The over withdrawn
elate in elusion
The genius is a god-like 'Aristo[crat]' who is 'over withdrawn' but exhilarated by escape from the common, mortal man. 'Over withdrawn' puns on 'overdrawn', meaning both penniless and exaggerated, and hints at the genius's withdrawal from society. The underlying suggestion of these lines is that the genius is already in exile and so need not withdraw at all.
So shall we loom
In this monstrous coma
of our completion-
that we should be consummate
elate in elusion
of [pinned] intellection
of the obvious-its face
genius chooses no doubt
of the obvious its face
is genius solely insuspect
These lines have in common a characterisation of genius as deathly or marked by fatalism. The 'loom[ing]' genius's 'monstrous coma' results from an ominous 'completion', the consummation of their consumption. Possibly this 'completion' and consumption are artistic and refer to finishing a piece of art for public viewing. It is also likely that the 'consummation' of their 'consumption' refers to the avant-garde's practice of moving from one defining genius to the next in order to maintain artistic relevance. These lines are followed by: 'Genius/ the jocular case knowledge-/ or joculative case of intellect’-. Loy later settles on the line 'genius is in jocular case'. Perhaps Loy's line 'we should be consummate' suggests that her geniuses, who are punished, 'consumed', lampooned by society and traded by vying aesthetics, are the 'jocular case'.
Her repetition of the phrase 'cloud-brewing space' and the poem's focus on the division between man and god might also refer to a painting that hung in her apartment, painted by the real-life central figure in Insel, the German artist Richard Oelze. This painting, entitled Expectation, depicts a dense but potent sky and various expectant onlookers. Its message could be summarised in part by the final lines of 'Apology of Genius II':
the origin of evil
-is vanity's envy of god-
If it is the genius's 'vanity' that is 'evil', then Loy's apportioning of blame has shifted from her earlier 1922 'Apology'. No longer critical of the censors, her 'Apology of Genius II' suggests that it is both the art world's expectation of genius and the artist's own attempts at divine creation that are at fault. Loy's sequel is more foreboding than her original poem. Her second 'Apology' does not plea for the survival of geniuses' contributions or for their acceptance by society. The genius's indulgence, their 'idle perogative’ [sic], and 'lazy perquisite', are a result of futile vanity rather than a desire to offer wisdom or beauty. Possibly Loy's own reluctance (or inability) to bring her 'Apology of Genius II' to a finished state says something about her ultimate pessimism about the genius's role in social evolution. In 1929, the editors of The Little Review, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, brought out the 'suicide' issue. They, too, were becoming less convinced that the artist or the literary magazine was able to 'reform or reorganise the world-mind'. This issue of the Review included responses from artists to questions about their views of the world and its future. Some examples of the questions are: 'What do you fear most from the future?' and 'What is your attitude toward art today?' Loy's answers are also included in the Review; they are 'fear' and 'I never take such attitudes', respectively. It appears that Loy's 1930 'Apology', and indeed its unfinished state, reflects a similar interwar disillusionment with the arts' potential to create a 'new world order'.
Yet what else might account for her shift in attitude towards genius? Also between 1922 and 1930, Loy obsessively drafted and redrafted versions of her childhood in the form of highly philosophical autobiography. She avoided recounting the years after her adolescence and (unlike her contemporaries Robert McAlmon, William Carlos Williams and Mabel Dodge) she did not partake in the biographical constellating of her meetings with fellow artists, involvement in landmark exhibitions, or her own career achievements. Also, between 1932 and 1936, Loy acted as the European agent for her son-in-law Julien Levy's New York art gallery. Perhaps it was her exposure to the commercial side of international genius-mongering that resulted in her distaste for the label 'genius' and her eventual belief that geniuses were 'made' only to be exploited, torn down, and ridiculed by successive artistic movements.
the pensive immemorial
of cash cognizance
and the world
with sloughed sheaths-
of upsped percepts-
And what of Loy's reputation as a genius today? The importance of her existing literary contribution (as a poet) can be gauged, in one way, by her lasting effect on poets writing today. Notably, Drew Milne's collection of 30 anonymously published poems, Pig Cupid: A Homage to Mina Loy (2000), was culled from poets all over the world who wrote in response to Loy's 1915 poem series 'Love Songs'. As one would expect, there are echoes of Loy's 'Songs' throughout: 'wandering incendiaries' (from '19th C'); 'Sift in the praisable' (from 'poppycock:'; and 'pouting optic fibrous' (from 'The Aspirant Inhabits Javel and I have a Spiral-shaped Penis'), to name but a few, react to Loy's style and poetic diction. On some level, these tributes attempt to shock, much in the same way that Loy's 'Songs' shocked her readers less than a hundred years previously. In Pig Cupid, poets contributing anonymously are given license to invent an erotic alter ego within the confines of Milne's tribute. One reviewer aptly summarised Pig Cupid's homage to Loy as 'the anonymous chat of [Milne's] masked guests'. The cult, subversive connotation of 'masked' emerges directly from images of a proprietary 'tug-of-war' between factions of poets and factions of critics (although many of these anonymous contributors could fall into both categories, as does Milne himself).
In a letter written to Gertrude Stein in 1917, Mabel Dodge exclaimed: 'Ducie Haweis [Loy's nickname during her residence in Florence] flashed up over here-but got in almost at once with all the wrong kind of people-I mean the kind one tries & passes up finally!' Presumably, Dodge was updating Stein on Loy's recent arrival in New York and her subsequent reception into the literary circles of which Dodge did not approve (or into those which Dodge herself was presumably not accepted). While Dodge's comment points to a possible rivalry between herself and Loy, it more importantly signals the relevance of literary factions similar to those represented by Milne's 'masked guests'. Though unnamed, his 'guests' contribute by invitation. Membership within literary circles that guarantees vital connections operates in a similar way for contemporary poets as it did for the modernists.
However, to return to the question of Loy's genius, one might conclude that recent attempts to bring her into the canon do so by defending her linguistic and structural innovations, only one marker of poetic genius. But E.E. Cummings would be given credit ultimately for using devices that Loy had employed years earlier. It is also possible to connect Loy's work with the evaluative writings of recognised geniuses such as Pound or possibly Eliot. But putting Loy in the same category as Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, or even Stein, is not enough to prove her status as a modernist genius. Genius appears to have a shelf-life of contemporiety; it is about direct and timely influence - and as Loy suggests with her metaphor of the 'exceptional gardener' - genius unrecognised by those around it becomes, after a time, a dead seed. The rest is left to archivists and scholars, the archaeologists of literary history, to decide.
Notes to Pages 77-85
Mina Loy, 'Being Alive', Yale Collection of American Literature (hereafter cited as YCAL), MSS 6, box 1, folder 20, p. 5 of typescript.
Loy, a letter cited in the Introduction to The Last Lunar Baedeker, ed. and introduced by Roger L. Conover (Highlands, N.C.: Jargon Society, 1982), p. xv. (Hereafter cited as LLB82). Conover offers no specific source for this quotation.
Loy, 'International Psycho-Democracy', LLB82, pp. 276-282 (p. 276).
Loy, 'The Artist and the Public', LLB82, p. 285.
Loy, 'International Psycho-Democracy', LLB82, p. 276.
Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 280.
Loy, 'Apology of Genius', The Lost Lunar Baedeker, ed. by Roger L. Conover (New York: Noonday Press, 1996), pp. 77-78 (p. 77). (Hereafter cited as LLB96).
Barbara Will, Gertrude Stein, Modernism and the Problem of “Genius” (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. 6.
Loy, 'Apology of Genius, LLB96, pp. 77-78.
Roger L. Conover, 'Notes on the Text', LLB96, p. 197.
Yvor Winters, 'Mina Loy', The Dial (June 1926), 496-499 (p. 499).
Conover, 'Notes on the Text', LLB96, p. 201.
Burke, pp. 310-311.
Letter from Scofield Thayer to James Sibley Watson, June 1922, in Pound, Thayer, Watson, and The Dial: A Story in Letters, ed. by Walter Sutton (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994), pp. 242-243 (p. 242).
Letter from Mina Loy to Nellie Grandjean, January 1922, quoted in Burke, p. 311.
Loy, 'Apology of Genius II', YCAL MSS 6, box 5, folder 76. (All subsequent quotations of this poem are taken from this MS.)
Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson are quoted in Burke, pp. 369-370.
Loy's responses to The Little Review Questionnaire (1929), reprinted in LLB82, pp. 305-306.
Loy, 'Songs to Joannes', LLB96, pp. 53-68. 'Love Songs' and 'Songs to Joannes' are titles that Loy used interchangeably for different versions of this poem published between 1915-1923.
Anon., Pig Cupid: An Homage to Mina Loy, ed. by Drew Milne (Cambridge: Parataxis Editions, 2000), p. 20 ('19th C'), p. 15 ('poppycock:'), and p. 6 ('The Aspirant Inhabits Javel and I Have A Spiral-shaped Penis').
Burke, pp. 6-7.
Andrew Jordan, 'A Being Rooted in Being', 10th Muse, 12 (2002) [accessed 17 September 2007] (paragraph 10 of 29)
Letter from Mabel Dodge to Gertrude Stein, 14 January 1917, in A History of Having a Great Many Times Not Continued to Be Friends: The Correspondence Between Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein, (1911-1934), ed. by Patricia R. Everett (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), p. 244.
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