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2. Artistic and Literary Commitments (1880-1950)
II/ Modernist Commitments

“Secret-Service buffoon to the Woman’s Cause”: Mina Loy’s ambivalent commitments



This article explores issues of commitment in relation to the early writings of woman modernist Mina Loy (1882-1966). It will be argued that it is not simply by way of her diverse aesthetic output, but also through the very instability of her poetic voice, that Loy troubles established narratives of modernist commitment, and complicates contemporary first-wave feminist debates, at once affirming and challenging the theories of her peers, and placing, in her own singular fashion, the “woman’s cause” at the heart of her artistic practice.

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1“Who is this modern woman that people are always talking about?” the New York Evening Sun asked of Mina Loy in 1917. The British-born poet, novelist, artist and sometime lampshade designer, had been propelled into the popular limelight two years earlier following the publication of the opening section of her scandalously explicit “Song to Joannes” in the first edition of Others magazine. “One of the causes of modernism—whatever that is”, was the newspaper’s bemused reply. Photographed by Man Ray, who said she made a “stunning subject”, Mina was perceived as “a modernist icon” (Goody, “Ladies of Fashion” 271), the embodiment of modernism as a woman. But she, who self-mockingly described herself as the “Imna Oly/ (secret-service buffoon to the Woman’s Cause)”, was much more than simply a mute cipher for modernism. A commitment to furthering the position of her sex seems clear from this self-designated moniker but it also, importantly, suggests Loy’s rejection of straightforward feminist resistance in favour of more subversive and ambivalent strategies, both participating in and mocking the male-dominated artistic milieu, with whose protagonists she was often intimately involved.

2This article will explore issues of commitment in relation to the work of female modernist Mina Loy. It will be argued that it is not simply by way of her diverse aesthetic output, but also through the very instability of her poetic voice, that Loy troubles established narratives of modernist commitment, at once affirming and challenging the engagements of her male high-modernist peers and placing the performance, not the objectification, of the female body at the heart of her liberating aesthetic practice and sexual politics.

  • 1 Ezra Pound’s championing of Italian fascism as evidenced in his radio broadcasts, letters and prose (...)

3As numerous studies on the period have noted, the early decades of the twentieth century remain singular in the history of English-speaking literature because they witnessed a significant number of modernist writers clearly engaging with the political1 and committing themselves to ideological imperatives that from the contemporary standpoint have been viewed as “a horror” (Morrison 3), “an embarrassment and a scandal” (North 1). For some—in particular the Italian futurists and their British “cousins” the Vorticists—the social and economic upheavals that characterised the age served as a direct inspiration for, or motor to, artistic expression. At the same time, a concerted and apparently contrary move—the desire to protect the artwork from the sullying elements of contemporary civilization—has also been observed: a commitment, then, to the championing of the art form for, and of, its intrinsic self. In a quasi-redemptive gesture, many modernist artists posited the artwork as a bulwark to “shore up” against a civilisation in ruins—“the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary culture” as T.S. Eliot famously phrased it in his 1923 review of Ulysses (Ulysses 483). As an appalled yet privileged seer, the artist might thus offer a timely image of the “accelerated grimace” that constituted the face of modernity (Pound, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” 111).

  • 2 Quoted in Potter, Modernism and Democracy 1.

4For many high-profile modernists, “making it new” thus implied a commitment to challenging the burgeoning democratic impulse at all levels—be it political democracy and the fight for equality and rights, or cultural democratisation: “the artist […] has dabbled in democracy and he is now done with that folly […][,] the aristocracy of the arts is ready again for its service” declared Pound in 1914 (“The New Sculpture” 68).2 For Eliot writing in 1924, political democracy—“that meanness of spirit, that egotism of motive, that incapacity of allegiance or surrender to anything beyond oneself which is a frequent symptom of the soul of Man under democracy”— was ushering in a society of atomised individuals robbed of any higher sense, belief, moral or value. For the same author, cultural democratisation meant pandering to the low-brow demands of mediocracy, condemning cultural practice to a backwater of inconsequence and thwarting genuine creative impulse: “[the] aversion for the work of art, [the] preference for the derivative, the marginal, is an aspect of the modern democracy of culture” (“A commentary” 231, 235).

5Pitting themselves and their art against the alienating effects of inclusive social democracy, the practitioners of high modernism have been typically defined as seeking to revive and reinstate an elitist Eurocentric heritage in a move that would preserve the artwork from the potentially nefarious clutches of the contemporary cultural wasteland. In Yeats’ 1911 play Countess Cathleen for instance, national unification is ensured through the restoration of the superhuman or mythic underpinnings of social order (Tratner 14). In literary essays of the period, allegiance to a noble literary lineage or “order” was claimed—Eliot’s famous “Tradition” of “European or English literature”—, the timely guarantor of “conformity between the old and the new” (“Tradition” 47-59, 50, 54).

6Against this politically reactionary and culturally elitist landscape of Anglo-American poetics, the figure of Mina Loy (1882-1966), British-born poet, novelist, artist stands as a “brilliant literary enigma” (Potter and Hobson 1), arguably vindicating orthodox narratives of modernist political and aesthetic allegiance on the one hand, even as she simultaneously and often ironically works to resist them on the other. Deeply committed to change, yet highly suspicious of the constraints any commitment might place on individual liberty, a staunch defender of artistic genius in her early years, but increasingly sceptical of the concept as she matured, Loy was, in Roger L. Conover’s words, the “binarian’s nightmare”, her resolve to “transform the cultures and social milieus” expressed through “so many seeming contradictions, counter-allegiances and inconsistencies” rather than the claim to any fixed political or artistic identity (Lost Lunar Baedeker xiii).

  • 3 Andreas Huyssen’s highly influential reappraisal of the modernist model, After the Great Divide, al (...)

7Certainly, the very plurality of Loy’s jointly experimental and commercial output would appear to flout the purity and autonomy of the high modernist canon discerned by Huyssen and others.3 Sitting astride the ‘Great Divide’ of high and low culture, Loy’s hybrid production transcends the limits of aesthetic genre to encompass plays, poems, manifestoes, essays, novels, paintings, collages, sculptures, fashions, drapes and designs. Her paintings were exhibited in the high art venue of the Parisian Salon d’Automne, her writing published in the exclusive “little magazines” of the 1910s and 20s, while her lampshades and illuminating devices spawned a briefly prosperous gallery in Paris’s rue Saint Honoré and this in spite of the artist’s professed aversion to commerce. Yet despite the prominence and the recognition, Loy was, as Roger Conover puts it, “oblivious to the notion of audience” and blithely “unconcerned about what impact these activities might have on the building of a reputation, or a career” (Insel 10). Set against the backdrop of modernism’s fleet of self-promoters, publicists, and literary midwives, Loy’s political and aesthetic commitments remain a highly private, constitutively elusive affair. The now much-quoted and anthologized “Feminist Manifesto”, for instance, was simply communicated in a letter to arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan with a typically equivocal caveat and would never be published in the poet’s lifetime:

This is a rough draught beginning of an absolute resubstantiation of the feminist question give me your opinion—of course it’s easily to be proved fallacious—There is no truth—anywhere (Lost Lunar Baedeker 216)

8As critic Robert Sheffield has irreverently observed, person and poetics alike thwart even the most dogged theorist’s attempts at categorisation:

Nobody seems to agree on who Mina Loy really is: a poet? A real poet? A great poet? A character? A feminist icon? A well-connected dilletante? A fashion plate? A nice little role model? A boho scam artist? A mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know psycho drama-vampire lampshade pimp? (625)

9It is a portrait the masquerading Loy herself might well have applauded. Born of mixed English Protestant and Jewish descent, Loy dubbed herself the “Anglo-Mongrel”, and donned a number of noms de plume—the name Loy itself replacing the paternal “Lowy” and marital “Haweis” for a start—and as many critics have noted, surreptitiously inhabited her poems through a number of theatrical guises. The self-obfuscation was such that by the 1920s, rumour had it that Loy was not a real person but a forged persona. The correspondingly ambiguous, often ironic, voice in Loy’s writing complicates any sense of stable selfhood, which in turn makes apprehending commitment a far from straightforward affair.

10“A living reproach to the idea of the canonical” in the words of Roger L. Conover, Loy continued to resist incorporation into the Establishment, shunning acceptance and “refusing to meet the art world on its terms” (Insel 11). An increasingly institutionalized and male-dominated literary academy did nothing to stem the tide. Thus, as Loy scholar Sara Crangle explains:

Loy’s widespread recognition suggests that her place must be firmly anchored in twentieth century literary history, but as “modernism” became an aesthetic construct, Loy, like many of her female peers, did not become part of its canon (Stories and Essays ix)

  • 4 Loy died in 1966 having published only two books: Lunar Baedecker (1923) and Lunar Baedeker and Tim (...)

11Yet if Loy stands undoubtedly as one of modernism’s longest and most successfully (self)-silenced female voices4, her personal and intellectual affiliations with many of the significant movements and players of the modernist period are now once again coming to light, suggesting, in their turn, a certain, if ambivalent, commitment to kindred political and aesthetic concerns. Engaging in love affairs with Italian Futurists F.T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini in 1914, Loy became, albeit fleetingly, an honorary Futurist herself. Her pithy avant-gardist manifesto-style “Aphorisms on Futurism”, published in Alfred Stieglitz’s journal Camera Work the same year, embrace the radical transformative potential of speed and the limitless horizons of Futurist consciousness:

DIE in the past
LIVE in the Future

THE velocity of velocities arrives in starting. […]

FORGET that you live in houses, that you may live in yourself—

FOR the smallest people live in the greatest houses.

BUT the smallest person, potentially, is as great as the Universe (Lost Lunar Baedeker 149)

12Loy was also clearly linked to the Poundian modernist enterprise when in a 1918 Little Review book review of an anthology published by the little magazine Others, the American poet lauded the lucid, poised detachment or “arid clarity” of hers and Marianne Moore’s verse: “their writing is neither sensuous nor passionate […] in the verse of Marianne Moore I detect traces of emotion, in that of Mina Loy I detect no emotion whatsoever.” Significantly and seemingly paradoxically, it is in the context of discussion of Loy’s semi-autobiographical “An Effectual Marriage” (where the poet lampoons her affair with Papini) that Pound first formulated his account of “logopoeia” as a self-referential autonomous discursive practice: “poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas” (“A List of Books” 54-58). Re-editing Loy’s poem twice, Pound both champions and disfigures it, giving it a new, less sardonic title (“Ineffectual Marriage”), expurgating references to female sexuality, objectifying Gina, the female protagonist and Loy’s poetic alter ego (Churchill 203) and obfuscating the speaker’s commitment to questioning the place of the woman artist. “Logopoeia” has been remembered, but the source of its inspiration was for decades long forgotten. Peter Nicholls has recently written of his “growing sense of a kind of reciprocal influence at work across the texts of Pound and Loy”, suggesting that “Pound’s discovery of Loy was in some way pivotal to the development of his own work” (“Arid Clarity” 131).

13Elsewhere in her socio-political pamphlet “Psycho-Democracy”, published in the Little Review in 1921 and penned in the shocked aftermath of the Great War, we find Loy denouncing the impact of a de-humanizing commercial media to which the majority fall prey, and which reduces them to a mindless herd. Loy’s declaration calls for the thinking individual —or “Psycho-Democrat”—, to rise up against the oppressive sway of institutionalized forms of mass knowledge and control:

The Psycho-Democrat is […]

The living successor of that travesty of Man the Dummy Public originated by the Press, financed by the Capitalist:

For whom the politician legislates,
The army fights,
the church collects’ (15).

14Resolutely pitted against the “public representation of ideals […] created, controlled and disseminated by the dominant minority” (Bradley 49), this anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist sentiment that is not without recalling Eliot’s vilification of the state of culture under democracy noted earlier, or the Poundian indictment of universal suffrage and the mass media in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”: “We have the press for wafer/ Franchise for circumcision/ All men, in law are equals / […] We choose a knave or an eunuch/ To rule over us” (112). In common with Eliot and Pound, one strand of Loy’s writing then seems committed to highlighting the paradox of liberal democracies that ostensibly promote individual rights and individualist culture while actually fostering a social conformity that stifles free independent thought. Underlying this position is a radical questioning of the enlightenment’s optimistic belief in progress—a sceptic’s view she shares with many modernist artist practitioners.

15In the image of her high modernist peers too, Loy would seem to champion the role of the artist as seer: “MODERNISM is a prophet crying in the wilderness that Humanity is wasting its time”, she declaims in her Futurist-inspired 1914-1919 “Aphorisms on Modernism” (328). In “Apology of Genius”, first published in the little magazine The Dial in 1923, Loy, addressing the masses directly (“we come among you”) apparently celebrates the artist’s heroic commitment to transforming barren contemporary culture—the “civilised wastes”—while as, shunned and mocked, (“Ostracized we are with God”) he braves “the censor’s scythe” (Lost Lunar Baedeker 77-78). Like Pound, Loy was also to celebrate the nobility of the artist, comparing the artistic community to “aristocracy” in “Aphorisms on Modernism” (329).

16Loy’s 1924 essay on Gertrude Stein likewise stresses modernism’s near-messianic potential to transfigure mundane reality, when she returns once again to the haunting image of bland, mass culture as futile wasteland in a reworking of her earlier formulation:

The pragmatic value of modernism lies in its tremendous recognition of the compensation due to the spirit of democracy. Modernism is a prophet crying in the wilderness of stabilized culture that humanity is wasting it’s [sic] aesthetic time. (244)

  • 5 “It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall (...)
  • 6 Eliot’s 1916 lecture notes on French Literature which can be read as an early articulation of his o (...)

17In this essay too she employs a rhetorical move akin to that of “Tradition and the Individual Talent”5 when she adopts the mode of scientific analogy to celebrate the radical autonomy of language in Stein—language for Loy which has been liberated from the cloying dictates of sentiment and convention in a poem on Stein to whom she pays homage, also published in 1924: “Curie/ of the laboratory/ of vocabulary/ she crushed/ the tonnage/ of consciousness/ congealed to phrases/ to extract/ a radium of the word” (Lost Lunar Baedeker 94). For influential modernist theorists such as Eliot, Pound and T.E. Hulme, the exclusion of sentimental excess (often coded as “feminine”) and its aesthetic corollaries, decadence and romanticism, became a leitmotif in their writing on artistic practice: Eliot’s “classicism”6, T.E. Hulme’s apology of the “hard and dry” (126), Pound’s insistence on the sober and unadorned—“austere, direct, free from emotional slither”, for instance (Literary Essays 12). In contrast to her male peers though, Loy celebrates a female artist’s successful deployment of these criteria in her work.

18Loy’s focus on Stein’s skilful crafting of the word, on her ability to obtain from a “basic […] bare statement” the “belle matière” of language echoes a quality often praised by other Anglo-American modernists: linguistic self-sufficiency (Nicolls, “Arid Clarity” 137). As Eliot’s elitist modernist theory placed the artwork firmly within a hallowed cultural continuum, it also effected the “extinction’ of the artist’s “personality” and divorced the artwork from individual experience and emotion: “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates”. The autotelic poem, disengaged from the both creator and the socio-political context of creation, could then as Eliot argued, “in some sense, ha[ve] its own life” (“Tradition” x). Moreover, the artwork would exhibit the rigour and rationality of science, constituting, as Eliot comments in his essay “Hamlet and his Problems”, the “formula” or “objective correlative” of emotion, rather than its direct expression (Sacred Wood 100). Yeats too would idealize the literary work as a self-sufficient “artifice of eternity” (Lamos 4).

19The various parallels that may be drawn between Loy and her male modernist peers are important to underline, not least because they bring to critical attention the long-obscured prominence Mina Loy once enjoyed in modernist and avant-garde circles over the pre-and interwar periods. As Sara Crangle reminds us,

Her work appeared in era-defining periodicals such as The Little Review—the journal that first published extracts from Ulysses—and The Dial, which debuted T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Loy’s work was reviewed and praised by Eliot and Yvor Winters; she was lauded, edited, and published by Ezra Pound (ix).

20Loy was neither a second-rate derivative artist, then, nor should she be reduced to the (albeit iconic) incarnation of shocking modernity, so frequently commented on in both contemporary accounts of the period and more recent scholarly studies alike. Alex Goody for instance notes that:

Memoirs and reports remark on Loy’s physical attractiveness as frequently as on her work itself, and often the two are described interchangeably […] she represented an emblem of modernity who embodied, as much as intellectually and creatively explored, the challenges and innovations of the avant-garde. (“Gender, Authority and the Speaking Subject” 1)

  • 7 The chauvinism and misogyny pervasive in male modernism has been well documented by modernist schol (...)
  • 8 The Waste Land was a cause for celebration for Joyce precisely, according to the author of Ulysses, (...)

21Loy’s notoriety in the 1910s and 20s at a time when her writing braved the social, aesthetic and sexual mores of the period and was so intimately linked to her status as female artist should not be underestimated. Others editor Alfred Kreymborg’s response to the first of four sections of “Songs to Joannes”, which his journal published under the title “Love Songs” in 1915, bears testimony to the power of Loy’s indecorous verse to unsettle established gender paradigms: “had a man written these poems, the tone might have been viewed with comparative comfort. But a woman wrote them, a woman who dressed like a lady and painted charming lampshades” (Bradley 23). Whether she intended it or not, artist and oeuvre would henceforth be viewed as committed and radical: Loy was “shorthand for poetic innovation”, generating “yards of publicity” for Others (Churchill 179). Moreover, Loy’s writing points more generally to the importance of gender configurations at the heart of the modernist project, and this despite—and perhaps because of—male modernist claims to the contrary, and their now well-documented desire for modernism to remain a male preserve7. As Claire Joubert and Alice Jardine have forcefully argued, modernism in no way ushered in the end of “poetry for the ladies”8: not only, they claim, should modernism be viewed as a necessarily gender-inflected ideology—but moreover, “the putting into discourse of ‘woman’” must be understood as “a process intrinsic to the condition of modernity” (Jardine 25):

  • 9 “L’émergence d’une poétique de l’écriture au féminin […] n’est pas simplement concomitante du moder (...)

The emergence of feminine poetics […] is not simply coincidental, but fully constitutive of modernism—and may be the very motor behind modernism’s formal experimentation and revisiting of symbolic material (Joubert 8).9

22For Marianne DeKoven, another feminist scholar, “the radical implications of the socio-cultural changes feminism advocated produced in modernist writing an unprecedented preoccupation with gender, both thematically and formally” (212). It is a preoccupation, I would argue, that lies at the heart of Loy’s radical poetic aesthetic, that is the motor for her subversive creative practice and to which she would remain committed, though rarely unproblematically so, throughout her life. Indeed—and it is this perhaps that best defines Loy’s artistic strategies as woman artist operating within the context of masculinist modernism—, she exhibits what Loy scholar Alex Goody terms “enunciative instability”, enabling her at once to stand clearly inside and remain elusively outside orthodox modernist praxis. As Goody has noted, “Loy is clearly committed to a radical transformation of traditional forms and ideas and this accompanies her subversion of the customary certitudes of selfhood, integrity and aesthetic hierarchy.”

  • 10 In a frequently quoted passage, Pound described creative process in starkly gendered terms as a pha (...)
  • 11 The Little Review, 7.3 (September-December 1920), 39-43, quoted in Loy, 1996 46-50.

23The notion of an unstable speaking subject is, of course, a leitmotif of modernist poetics; Loy’s “double-crossing attitude to modernism” (“Gender Authority and the Speaking Subject” 3, 7) enables her, however, as we have seen, to engage with some of hegemonic modernism’s signature political and aesthetic concerns, while also simultaneously questioning their authority. Thus if Loy, like Pound, explicitly championed the “aristocracy” of art, her deliberately paradoxical aphorism “anarchists in art are art’s instantaneous aristocracy” (Buchanan 1) concomitantly advocates the wresting of aesthetics from the consensual ranks of literary “tradition”, “talent” and lineage, challenging formal discipline, myths of (male) authorial mastery and dreams of semiotic purity. The “anarchy” of contemporary culture so vehemently derided by Eliot is, for Loy, its saving grace, and that anarchy is frequently gendered feminine. Pound’s striving for “a welding between word and thing’ (Selected Letters 158), his virile enjoining of order in the face of chaos–“the combat of arrangement” (Gaudier-Brezeska 97) is met with ironic self-derision, messiness, gaps and insufficiency. “The female chaos” as Pound had it, is no longer synonymous with passive vacuity, but part and parcel of avant-garde artistic practice, a motor for creativity10. The artistic vocation is both lauded and simultaneously debunked as incongruous and deluded, the artistic calling lampooned—“We are the sacerdotal clowns” writes Loy in “Apology of Genius” (Lost Lunar Baedeker 77)— her poetics function “not as the privileged vehicle of avant-garde authority but rather as a witness it its metaphysical pretensions” (Nicholls, Modernisms 222). Frequently, it is through the prism of gender and self-mockery that Loy deploys her most sardonic attacks. In the satiric poem “Lion’s Jaws”11, first published in The Little Review in 1920, Loy parodies Marinetti, reducing his political and aesthetic practice to low-brow phallic posturing in the name of culture—“Raminetti, […] the circus-master/ astride a prismatic locomotive/ ramping the tottering platform/of the Arts”—while she herself features self-mockingly as ‘Imna Oly/ (secret service buffoon to the Woman’s Cause)” (Lost Lunar Baedeker 48, 49).

24A letter from Mina Loy to Carl Van Vechten, written in 1915, describing the experimental method she was using in a novel, suggests the degree to which she consciously sustained simultaneous contradiction: “it is absolutely personal & entirely impersonal-It tries to analyse moods-newly-it never gets away from fact-& is tremendously imaginative-brutally impartial & never unkind” (Feinstein 335). In this wilfully aporetic theory of writing, Loy characteristically employs a dialectical process where an emphasis on exacting artistic detachment, uncannily redolent of Eliot’s pronouncements on the question, enjoins the supposedly contrary subjective approach he so vociferously deplored. The artwork is at once posited as true-to-life yet visionary, both abstract entity and privileged vector of the artist’s own emotions and condition, the artist both central and peripheral to the creative act.

25Thus in “Parturition” (1914), in all likelihood the first poem to chart the physical sensations of childbirth, Loy explores the stark reality of labour from an intensely personal, apparently egotistic, standpoint (“I am the centre/ Of a circle of pain”) and yet simultaneously enacting the self’s estrangement and fragmentation (“And the foam on the stretched muscles of a mouth/ Is no part of myself”; “Negation of myself as a unit”), alternating the brutally real (“Against my thigh/ Touch of infinitesimal motion/ Scarcely perceptible/ Undulation/ Warmth moisture”) and the metaphysical (“Mother I am/ Identical/ With infinite Maternity”). As Mary E. Galvin has noted, Loy displays a futurist focus on immediate conscious perception and a clear commitment to futurist poetics as outlined in Marinetti’s 1912 Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature: “a willingness to rupture syntax, eliminate punctuation and conjunctive words, and create tensions and continuities through rapid juxtaposition” (Galvin 61). Yet while the futurists took inspiration from the newness, energy and speed of modern technology defined against the sapping clutches of Mother Nature—“we strong Futurists have felt ourselves suddenly detached from women, […] too earthly, or to express it better […] a symbol of the earth we ought to abandon” (Marinetti, “Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine” 75)—for Loy, on the other hand, “the maternal body [is explored] as a site and space of aesthetic conception and ontological discovery” (Goody, “Gender, Authority and the Speaking Subject 13). The very meter (long lines balanced against short lines) and the typography of the poem convey the rhythm of labour and the hesitating tempo of the poet’s thought processes: “Relaxation/ Negation of myself as a unit/ Vacuum interlude/ I should have been emptied of life/ Giving life / For consciousness in crisis races” (Lost Lunar Baedeker 6).

26Similarly, the animality of the maternal function, later so derided by Marinetti—“a luminous broody hen who hatches her rotten eggs”—(“Marriage and the Family” 84) here is pushed to extremes of grotesque morbidity that sardonically debunk the romance of childbirth: “Rises from the sub-conscious/ Impression of small animal carcass/ Covered with blue-bottles—Epicurean—”(7). Such macabre imagery contrasts starkly with a male artist’s trite and fanciful celebration of the “fairer” sex and against which Loy juxtaposes the stark reality of physical suffering to which the “irresponsib[le]” man is indifferent:

Pain calls up in me
The struggle is equal

The open window is full of a voice
A fashionable portrait painter
Running up-stairs to a woman’s apartment
“All the girls and tidl’y didl’y
All the girls are nice
Whether they wear their hair in curls
At the back of the thoughts to which I permit crystallization
The conception Brute
The irresponsibility of the male

27Loy’s complex, contradictory allegiances, and her unorthodox conjoining of sexual politics and aesthetic practice are also clearly evident though in her prose piece “A Feminist Manifesto” (1914). As a female artist operating within the context of women’s suffrage, the issue of political and economic agency might be presumed to have a particular and personal resonance for Loy, not least because she did not benefit from the financial security of many of her female modernist peers; nevertheless, Loy’s attitude to direct political engagement remains ambivalent. Most strikingly perhaps, she evinced clear reservations about the reformist imperatives underpinning the British suffrage movement, admitting in a letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan of being “rather hopeless of devotion to the Woman—cause—Slaves will believe that chains are protectors … they are the more efficient for the coward” (Lost Lunar Baedeker 216). Loy employs her own “logopoeia” to engage directly with the emergent mass democratic state, particularly as it impacted on the situation of women. Just as she questions the extent to which liberal democracy truly liberates the minds and intellects of the “Dummy Public” in “Psycho-Democracy”, so her “Feminist Manifesto” questions the value of female emancipation within the legislative framework. Here, Loy challenges the intrinsic value of aligning women with men in the democratic equation and rather argues for the radical specificity of the female subject:

The feminist movement as at present instituted is
Inadequate […]

NO scratching on the surface of the rubbish heap of tradition will bring about Reform, the only method is Absolute Demolition

Cease to place your confidence in economic legislation, vice-crusades and uniform education […]

… deny at the outset that pathetic claptrap war cry Woman is the equal of man—for
She is
NOT! […]

Leave off looking to men to find out what you are not—seek within yourself to find out what you are […]As conditions are at present constituted—you have the choice between Parasitism, Prostitution or Negation” […]

To obtain results you must make sacrifices and the first and greatest sacrifice you have to make is of your “virtue”’ (Lost Lunar Baedeker 153-156)

28Yet if Loy flouts the liberal rights-based focus of existing feminist politics, this is less a rejection of political engagement than a questioning of the autonomy it purports to deliver: only by introducing new ways of thinking and creating may the individual subject be truly liberated. Hallowed “tradition”, so cherished by Eliot, for Loy is to be unceremoniously and unconditionally jettisoned: “absolute demolition” of the “rubbish heap of tradition”. Using the avant-gardist tactics of shock and irreverence which she had learned from her contact with Italian futurists, Loy herself inhabits the generic form of the political tract the better to explode its discursive limits—wresting language from the “glass case of tradition” as she herself said of Stein’s poetic practice (244). Expressing a profound scepticism concerning the value of mass democracy not dissimilar to those voiced by the male modernists discussed earlier, Loy suggests that female autonomy can only be won through the liberation of feminine sexuality and the language of female desire from the fallacies underpinning Victorian double-standards and prudery: “to obtain results you must make sacrifices and the first and greatest sacrifice you have to make is of your ‘virtue’” (154).

29In condoning the seemingly draconian “unconditional surgical destruction of virginity throughout the female population at puberty”, Loy was not simply out to outrage, but gesturing to the Madonna /whore double-bind in accordance with which women were both measured in society and figured in literature, seeking to attack at its roots the linguistic propriety that disenfranchised the female subject in a far more fundamental way by perpetuating internalized forms of psychic imprisonment: “seek within yourself to find out what you are. At the moment you have the choice between Parasitism, Prostitution and Negation” (155).

30This acute awareness of the dangers of adhering to a uniquely mimetic form of political commitment, that will only replicate existing structures, can be observed in the experimental forms and subject matter of Loy’s verse. These brazenly flout the conventions of sexual-textual propriety, as the following extract from the opening of Loy’s infamous and censored Songs to Joannes amply demonstrates:

Spawn of Fantasies
Silting the Appraisable
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
“Once upon a time”
Pulls a weed white star-topped
Among wild oats sown in mucus-membrane (53)

31If “A Feminist Manifesto” seems chiefly committed to denouncing the value placed on female virginity—“the man made bogey of virtue”—(154), here the poetic voice is concerned with debunking as fiction (“fantasy”) the fairy-tale narratives that sustain and elevate normative (“appraisable”) discourses on romantic love. Quotation marks alert the reader to the speaker’s ironic stance, and the conflation of elements from the grotesque and love-lyric (“Pig Cupid”) sabotages any possibility of masculine heroic allure. In an inversion of the conventional romance, love does not transcend and ennoble, but rather debases and degrades. The images seem redolent of the carnivalesque but instead of hierarchy being overturned, the better to be restored to its former glory, here it is quite simply annihilated: the male lover’s “rosy snout” suggests an animalistic sexual function, while the female subject is reduced to the status of sexual detritus (“erotic garbage”), deridingly figured through anatomical synecdoche (“mucus membrane”).

32Their experimental form notwithstanding, “Songs to Joannes”, “The Effectual Marriage or the Inspid narrative of Gina and Miovanni” have tended to lend themselves to biographical mappings, being respectively read as daringly salacious and bitterly sardonic responses to the poet’s failed liaisons with Futurists Papini and Marinetti. Anticipating second-wave feminism’s mantra “the personal is political”, Loy engages here with some of the key women’s issues of the time, discarding as futile vacuity the marriage plot—“an insipid narrative”—and ironizing the place of the female artist: “she wrote a poem on the milk bill/The first strophe Good morning/ The second Good night/ Something not too difficult to / learn by heart” (Lost Lunar Baedeker 37). Yet these poems are in no way merely anecdotal, as Goody notes, they do not engage simply with “a personal narrative of failure” (“Gender, Authority and the Speaking Subject” 12), but are committed both to challenging the validity of the romantic myth and to breaking through the confines of the lyric genre. The female poetic voice figures its own sexual objectification and artistic marginalization, but continues to speak through the presence-absence of irony and interstices.

33As examination of Loy’s early artistic output has demonstrated, her essentially paradoxical and iconoclastic modus operandi sit equally uncomfortably within the bounds of conventional political engagement with its consensual notions of democracy and progress. Moreover, through her equivocal explorations of the limits of commitment for artist and artwork, Loy’s anarchic, boundary-breaking production may be deemed to threaten the self-containment of orthodox versions of modernism, at once affirming and calling into question the aesthetic precepts of many of her peers. By no means an orthodox feminist, it is nevertheless through Loy’s continued engagement with the question of gender that she challenges the weight of aesthetic tradition and authority, proposing a unique and truly modernist response to the question of female artistry.

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— “Ulysses Order and Myth.” Dial 75 (November 1923): 480-3. Print.

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Feinstein, Amy. “Goy Interrupted: Mina Loy’s Unfinished Novel and Mongrel Jewish Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 51.2 (Summer 2005): 335-53. Print.

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— “Gender, Authority and the Speaking Subject, or: Who is Mina Loy?”. Web. 1 July 2013.

Hulme, T.E. Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art (c.1912). Ed. Herbert Read, New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1924. Print.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide, Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Print.

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Loy, Mina. “Aphorisms on Modernism.” (1914-1919) Manifesto, a Century of Isms. Ed. Mary-Jane Caws. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. 328-329. Print.

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1 Ezra Pound’s championing of Italian fascism as evidenced in his radio broadcasts, letters and prose would be perhaps the most salient, but not the only example of this.

2 Quoted in Potter, Modernism and Democracy 1.

3 Andreas Huyssen’s highly influential reappraisal of the modernist model, After the Great Divide, aligns bourgeois mass culture, the quotidian and the feminine as hapless, hybrid Others to be salvaged and valorised in opposition to the “purity and autonomy” of the patrilineal high modernist canon: “But when the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries conjured up the threat of the masses […] and lamented the concomitant decline of culture and civilization (which mass culture was invariably accused of causing) there was yet another hidden subject. In the age of nascent socialism and the first major women’s movement in Europe, the masses knocking around the turn of the century consistently and obsessively gender mass culture and the masses as feminine, while high culture […] clearly remains the privileged realm of male activities” (54, 47).

4 Loy died in 1966 having published only two books: Lunar Baedecker (1923) and Lunar Baedeker and Time-Tables (1958). She first re-attracted critical attention with Virginia Kouidis’ 1980 monograph, Mina Loy, American Modernist Poet. This was followed by a collection of over 300 poems and several prose pieces anthologized in The Last Lunar Baedeker on the centenary of her birth in 1982. Carolyn Burkes’ acclaimed 1996 biography, Becoming Modern, The Life of Mina Loy, and a number of important comparative and contextual studies by scholars Sara Crangle, Alex Goody and Rachel Potter, among others, have continued to fuel academic and general interest and have confirmed Loy’s stature within the modernist canon since then.

5 “It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide” (“Tradition” 53).

6 Eliot’s 1916 lecture notes on French Literature which can be read as an early articulation of his own literary agenda, championed the value of form and restraint in art—“Classicism”—as opposed to the ‘Romanticism’ of a Rousseau-esque personal and egalitarian impulse. See Potter, “T.S. Eliot” 218.

7 The chauvinism and misogyny pervasive in male modernism has been well documented by modernist scholars. Rachel Potter notes for instance how women in T.S. Eliot’s verse are deployed to figure all that is amiss in liberal modernity: “above all women function as key signs of the modern ‘liberal’ moment in Eliot’s poems and essays, a modern moment severed from a meaningful history or tradition” (“T.S. Eliot, Women & democracy” 220). Thus might the poet privately regret “the monopolisation of literature by women” in a letter to Ezra Pound on April 15, 1915 (Letters 96, quoted in Potter, Modernism and Democracy 222).

8 The Waste Land was a cause for celebration for Joyce precisely, according to the author of Ulysses, because it ended the idea of poetry for “the ladies” (Ellmann 51). This caricature of an overly refined, stultifying female or effete literati that reduced art to the level of bourgeois avocation—“a pleasant tea-party” in the words of Wyndham Lewis (11)—was commonplace among male modernist practitioners, and would be famously rendered in J. Alfred Prufock’s women “who come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” (Eliot, Complete Poems and Plays 13).

9 “L’émergence d’une poétique de l’écriture au féminin […] n’est pas simplement concomitante du modernisme mais participe pleinement, si elle n’est pas le moteur même de son projet d’expérimentation formelle et de ses nouvelles explorations du matériel symbolique” (Claire Joubert, Lire le féminin, 8).

10 In a frequently quoted passage, Pound described creative process in starkly gendered terms as a phallocratic battle against imprecision and feminine inertia: “man [is] really the phallus or spermatozoid charging head-on, the female chaos […] even oneself has felt it, driving any new idea into the great passive vulva of London” (Natural Philosophy 169).

11 The Little Review, 7.3 (September-December 1920), 39-43, quoted in Loy, 1996 46-50.

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Electronic reference

Margaret GILLESPIE, « “Secret-Service buffoon to the Woman’s Cause”: Mina Loy’s ambivalent commitments », E-rea [Online], 13.2 | 2016, Online since 15 June 2016, connection on 23 October 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author


Université de Franche-Comté
Margaret Gillespie (b. 1966) is a lecturer in English studies at the University of Franche-Comté in Besançon, France where she co-directs a research group on sexual identities. She is the author of a PhD on Djuna Barnes and has published a number of articles on woman modernists (Djuna Barnes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Mina Loy).

By this author

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