July 2011

S. J. Chambers


Stories and Essays of Mina Loy by Mina Loy, edited by Sara Crangle

Stories and Essays of Mina Loy, out this month from Dalkey Archive Press and edited by Sara Crangle, is the third installment over a twenty-year effort to recover the omitted Modernist doyenne's work. Mostly known for her innovative poetry and infamous circulations within Futurism, Dadaism, and Imagism, Mina Loy (1882-1966) was uninterested in self-promotion and became a Modernist footnote until 1982, when Roger L. Conover published The Last Lunar Baedeker, followed twelve years later by the more known The Lost Lunar Baedeker, published concurrently with Carolyn Burke's stellar biography Becoming Modern. While the two Baedekers featured some of Loy's prose, including her didactic manifestoes on facial structure and feminism, they primarily showcased Loy's poetry, characterized by its rejection of meter, reinvention of style, and confrontation of sexual politics. Stories and Essays gathers Loy's last complete and unpublished prose manuscripts into her first full-length prose collection, one that continues to celebrate Loy's inventiveness, but also taps into the main intellectual vein coursing throughout Loy's oeuvre. The vast majority of the stories, dramas, and essays in this collection show a preoccupation with answering the Freudian one-liner "What do women want?", a rhetorical question that Loy saw only answered by men, and that she allegorized within the Sphinx.

Best known as the Greek half-woman, half-lion sentinel of Thebes, the Sphinx asked those wanting entry a riddle, and devoured them if their answer was incorrect. However, as Sara Crangle writes in her introduction to this collection: "Robert Sheffield appears to be the only critic thus far to comment upon Loy's frequent mention of the sphinx in her papers; he quite reasonably claims that 'Loy's point of departure is Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray in which the decadent Lord Henry Wotton dismisses women as "Sphinxes without secrets."'"   

But Dorian Gray is not the only point of departure. The entire last half of the nineteenth century, a femme-fatale fog that Loy struggled to lift, crawled with Sphinxes, a Symbolist totem of feminine sexuality and emasculation, and as is more apparent in Wilde's poem "The Sphinx" that she is a beast to be tamed. Perhaps more so than Dorian Gray, Loy departed from this poem that reduces the femme fatale to a femme feline, and riddles her questions that she never answers because the narrator answers them for her. This act of "mansplaining" was a phenomenon that not only robbed the Sphinx of her power, but was occurring all over the more "progressive" twentieth century intellectual and artistic plane, thanks to Freud's woman question. 

Loy saw little difference between her liberated time and Wilde's. She felt women were still seen as voids made enigmatic by their sexuality, a mystery modernist men were only too eager to fill and solve (see: Ulysses, Women in Love, Nadja, Il Fuoco, etc.). This Sphinx reoccurs throughout the collection, and is "not silent because ignorant," writes Crangle in her introduction, "but because she has yet to formulate herself, let alone her riddle. Via the ancient sphinx, Loy contends that although an extensive history of Western civilization has already unfolded, women remain in the infancy of their attempts to identify themselves and be recognized." Although Loy sets out with the radical act of answering the Sphinx herself, she does so, as her male counterparts, by asking. These questions touch on myriad aspects of womanhood -- love, sex, marriage, birth control, and motherhood; all very autobiographical concerns, and all with fragmented answers that don't necessarily point to a philosophical whole, but they do disprove Wilde's notions of secretless sphinxes.  

The collection is divided into three sections, broadly categorized as stories, dramas, and essays. The stories provide the broadest range of Loy's explorations. The opening tale, "The Agony of the Partition," is fragmented and poignant, about a failed love affair and its consequential abortion, while "Lady Asterisks" reads like a free love manifesto. "The Stomach" relates the artifice of catering to the male gaze, and likewise the above mentioned "Pazarella" makes fun of the intellectual double standard Loy knew too well of muse and mistress. In "Pazarella," the eponymous protagonist tries to intellectualize sex and relationships, and "had known all along what she was -- woman aware of herself." But in being so, she tries to intellectualize her affair with Geronimo, who is of the theory that "The secret of woman is that she does not yet exist," and therefore sets out to formulate her with mind games and sexual demands.  

Similar battles of the sexes continue in the dramas section, which exhibits Loy's wit and satirical talents in various send-ups of the hypocritical behavior of her intellectual boyfriends like futurist Tomas Marinetti. However, the ballet "Crystal Pantomime" resumes answering with a satirical and surrealist look via a crystal ball at a woman's future that is solely formed by her future husband's actions and experiences.  

While the stories delve into experience, and the dramas satirize intellectualism, Loy is most forthright about her feminist concerns in the essays section. In "Catholik Confidante" she illustrates the ruinous nature of sexual ignorance and superstition in women's lives: "She stood out among the working classes as the perfect exemplaire of wife and mother... her terror of having another child -- was financially sound... The only safeguard... was entire chastity. 'But the Church says "it's" wrong!'" 

Loy saw false securities in the notion of intellectual equality as well as body politics. In "Conversion" she declares a blatant mistrust for psychoanalysis, and sees within its semantics the same oppression as she saw in "Catholik Confidante": "The obsession prescribed by the Holy Church of Rome, are reedited by the Psychoanalysis... [Who] has raised sex to the venerable status of a duty and WHO -- wants to do his duty?" According to the "The Library of the Sphinx," the collection's pièce de résistance, it is mostly Modernist male authors who want to do their duty. This women's literature manifesto calls out Joyce, Ellis, Lawrence, and D'Annuzio for projecting their desires upon the liberated woman, and simplifying her worries as a congested "sexual passage" needing clearing by the "syringe in his pocket." The modern woman was only questioned about her sexuality, and the only answer her male inquisitor allowed her were orgasmic affirmations to his prowess: "The primary phenomenon of our new 'liberate' literature -- is the superiority complex of the male as regards his intimate relationship with the female." 

What was perhaps most disappointing to Loy was not that women were being liberated by the same thing that had oppressed them for so long, but that women were not writing about it. The Library that should be filled with liberated Sphinxes -- women who regained their awareness and could answer -- was empty of their presence. In fact, according to Loy, most intellectual women seemed content to have male authors write on their behalf: "Your literature --" Loy scoffs at The Sphinx, "let us examine it your literature -- It was written by the men --"   

At this point in the collection, The Sphinx has transcended allegory and metaphor for Loy, and is a person embodying those Bluestockings that have been sleeping on the job. Loy hits The Sphinx on the head with Ulysses and tells her to wake up from her impassivity: "Let us make the absolute descent from Parnassus and examine the opus par excellence wherein the secret of the sphinx claims to be positively shredded of its veils..." Within the vast male literature explored, Loy sees nothing but female dissatisfaction: "Practically the whole of our psychological literature written by men might be lumped together as the unwitting analysts of the unsatisfied woman."   

Loy ends the essay on that truncated note, but even so, I found the sudden conclusion resonant with Loy's entire objective. In her poetry, and in the prose presented here, women, Loy included, are dissatisfied with their lives, not just sexually, but intellectually and in love, marriage, motherhood, etc. These works never finish what they start, however; a solution to the dissatisfaction is never given, and really it seems the work's purpose is that the dissatisfaction was being recorded.  

Of course, Loy's answer isn't the right one, nor do I think she meant to propose it as so, but it is closer to the truth than Wilde, Joyce, Ellis, or Lawrence would have it. As the title of the essay proposes, Loy saw within Freud's question volumes of complex and convoluted answers diversified by individual experiences. Loy offered up her own knowledge as a woman, not as the ultimate female experience, but as one among myriad volumes in a Library reclaimed from the Sphinx and filled with women who "have left off looking to men to find out what they are not," and answered themselves. Loy would be happy to see that now, almost a hundred years after she began writing, that such a Library exists, and that this collection fits nicely upon its shelves. 

Stories and Essays of Mina Loy by Mina Loy, edited by Sara Crangle
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 978-1564786302
280 pages