The poet and visual artist Mina Loy has long had an underground reputation as an exemplary avant-gardist. Born in London of mixed Jewish and English parentage, and a much photographed beauty, she moved in the pivotal circles of international modernism--in Florence as Gertrude Stein's friend and Marinetti's lover; in New York as Marcel Duchamp's co-conspirator and Djuna Barnes's confidante; in Mexico with the greatest love, the notorious boxer-poet Arthur Cravan; in Paris with the Surrealists and Man Ray. Carolyn Burke's riveting, authoritative biography brings this highly original and representative figure wonderfully alive, in the process giving us a new picture of modernism--and one woman's important contribution to it.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
July 24, 1996
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Excerpt from Becoming Modern by Carol Burke
THE SUBCONSCIOUS ARCHIVES
Everything has already taken place ... our personality or destiny, like a roll of negative film ... is unrevealable until it has found a camera to project it and a surface to throw it upon.
--MINA LOY, Islands in the Air
We were the last group to grow up under the formidable discipline of the nineteenth century, whose effect, however much we resented, cannot be entirely eradicated from our systems.
--BRYHER, The Heart to Artemis
The Bud beside the Rose
A DOORWAY FIGURES in Mina Loy's earliest memory, of a time when she found herself among strangers. Too young to know why she had been brought to this large, dark house full of people she did not recognize, she knew that she wanted to go home. One afternoon they bundled her into her winter clothes; then someone picked her up and began carrying her down a flight of stairs. There was nothing familiar about the man who held her in his arms. Suddenly something flashed above the doorway at the bottom of the stairs. Colored lights dazzled her eyes. She blinked and stared at the fiery reds and yellows, barely making out the colored bottles that stood in a row behind the fanlight. The sun was shining through layers of glass and straight at her, as if she had caught fire, as if shards of color had entered her body. But as she stretched her arms toward this brilliance, the force that gripped her like a clamp kept on going down the stairs. The colored lights vanished when they went out the door.
In this first memory, something precious is lost, and something else --which we might call self-consciousness--is gained. Trying to analyze this moment decades later, Mina could still feel its power over her in middle age, as she wrote and rewrote the many versions of her autobiographical fiction. First impressions of this kind were unconditional, she wrote: such experiences could "print pictures, even maps, which are not, as it were, taken 'off the press' until years later."
But as a child, Mina could interpret neither this first "map" nor her feeling of having been "so lately embodied." In adolescence she learned from a chance remark that she had been sent to stay at the family doctor's house during her sister Dora's birth one month before her own secondbirthday. When she remembered being carried downstairs to go home, she understood that the doctor's professional grasp had been the clamp that held her: "The entire event emerged quite clearly. I was staying with the wife of our family doctor to be 'out of the way' while my younger sister was born."
Mina returned to this memory as an adult because she wanted to grasp its meaning. She had yearned to become one with the glow, she thought, since an infant, "conceiving no distinction between the thing to be known & the knowing of it ... becomes in turn everything it encounters." In that moment her precocious aesthetic sense had been "quickened by that fundamental excitement combined of worship and covetousness, which being the primary response to the admirable very likely composes the whole human ideal." The memory also crystallized the time just before self-consciousness. "My conviction of having been everywhere-at-once while definitely aware of my self survived my discovery that something I since have known as space intercepted my relation to other contents of the nursery." This "first concrete impression" underlay her efforts to map her inner world.4
Yet it stayed "on the press" for reasons other than those revealed in her autobiography--even when she saw the difference "between the thing to be known & the knowing of it." The intensity of her focus on this first memory also suggests a disturbance in the little girl's passage from her parents' house into the world.5 The image of the door is charged with ambivalence--on neither side can she regain the comfort of her mother's arms. At the onset of self-consciousness--she is not quite two--the child finds herself in the grip of a stranger who, rather than giving her what she wants, carries her off in the opposite direction. She must forgo the blazing reds and yellows and return to the house where she is always "in the way."
For the young Mina Loy, the discovery of self was linked not only with the enchantments of light and color but also with the loss of "home." The memory stages embodiment as a shock. She is exiled first from her mother, then from the colored glass. Although her yearning is displaced onto the glowing shapes, this consolation proves inaccessible and, for that reason, all the more fiercely desired. (In memory, the blaze of colors signals pain as well as wonder: gazing up at them, she is "riddled with splinters of delight.") Like a palimpsest or a pentimento lying beneath the "homes" she created in verse and on canvas, this first impression maps the spacewhere Mina felt that she had been cast out from paradise; its component parts--the door, the colored glass, the flash of illumination, the sense of embodiment--recur in her art like sudden glimpses into her imagination.
By reflecting on such memories, Mina hoped to write her way to self-knowledge: "Far from being fantastic interpretations of half forgotten infantile responses," she believed, "these analyses are as painstaking in their accuracy as a blueprint." For this reason she kept analyzing her life in poems, fiction, and lightly veiled memoirs. This unfinished "autobiography" is voluminous but fragmentary, as if her experiences as she traveled from the Victorian era into the modern world were too diverse to be woven into a single narrative. Yet certain threads recur. Rage against her mother runs like the weft through her tales of childhood, and a sense of herself as the family outcast interlaces her later forays into modernism. Taken together, these stories comprise the materials for an autoanalysis carried out on the page, and only in part, since they bristle with unassuageable anger at her mother as the cause of her difficulties and internal divisions. Yet to a sympathetic reader they also suggest that without this adversary, Mina might never have been driven to compose her own story.
She was born Mina Gertrude Lowy, the first child of Julia Bryan and Sigmund Lowy, on December 27, 1882. Anxiety about the family name, which sounded unmistakably Jewish to British ears, would inspire in both mother and daughter a variety of strategies for dealing with the awkwardness it inevitably provoked. But Mina never guessed at the equally embarrassing circumstances that preceded her birth, nor did she realize that her mother had been seven months pregnant at her wedding. Had she known the reasons for this unlikely marriage, they might have given her greater insight into what she saw as her mother's innate dislike of her firstborn. About this union, only the date and place are recorded: whether the delay reflected the Bryans' concern over Julia's marriage to a man who was both a foreigner and a Jew, or whether there was little love between the couple, is not known.
What is known about Mina's grandparents is suggestive. George Bryan, a carpenter and, later, cabinetmaker, lived with his wife, Ann, in Bromley, a village southeast of London where, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Evangelical and Nonconformist chapels outnumbered Anglican churches. As the daughter of an artisan in this area, Julia was presumably raised as a Baptist, a Congregationalist, or in one of the Methodist denominations. Consequently, even if her parents respected Lowy's skill as a tailor, they could not have helped thinking him an unusual choice for her hand. While forced marriages were not unusual, mixed ones were: a Jew was foreign to their experience except as a descendant of the Old Testament Hebrews.
There were many secrets in the Lowy household. Mina had no idea that her mother had married Sigmund, who was twelve years her senior, to avoid disgrace. Nor did she know what had attracted her to this handsome foreigner in the first place. But she was aware that, for her mother, life with a man who clung to his faith and his profession, and who could not--or would not--lose his accent, was a trial. In Mina's view her mother tried all her life to conceal both her husband's religion and the source of his income. Although Julia sometimes let it be known that he was "connected with trade," no one was allowed to mention what he did. Mina was surprised to learn in later years that he began as a tailor.
Haunted by the contradictions of her family life, Mina wrote and rewrote her autobiography--first as the modernist verse epic "Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose" (1923-25), then in the many prose versions that constitute her fictionalized memoirs. While this writing brims with the sensuous immediacy of childhood, it is also shot through with the analytic insights of adulthood, in nearly the same proportion in which physical exactness and intellectual acuity combine in her poetry. She rarely recorded sensory memories without commenting on them or trying to interpret their meaning; returning to the same incidents from different angles, she kept trying to grasp the emotional dynamics of her childhood and its effect on her imagination. It is difficult to see beyond her perspective--both because it is so persuasively presented and because there are no sources other than her autobiographical writing for most of her life. Yet it is possible to evaluate the plausibility and consistency of these accounts, as well as their confirmation in her art and adult experience.
In one version of her childhood, the free-verse autobiography Mina wrote in her forties, she and her father are "Anglo-Mongrels" and her mother the "English Rose"--a blossom "self-pruned" yet bristling with "the divine right of self-assertion." Once Sigmund decided to follow Jewish custom by assigning the spiritual education of his girls to their mother, Julia could bully the family in the name of religion; in Mina's view, her mother's delicate coloring concealed a self-righteous determination to have her way. Julia probably believed that children were born not in innocence but in sin, and that girls had to learn to suppress their natures through self-denial. Like most Evangelicals, she was undoubtedly raised to think that the slightest indiscretion paved the road toward depravity. If Julia resented her firstborn as intensely as Mina's memoirs suggest, it was because her daughter was a daily reminder of her own lapse from rectitude.
But Mina came to suspect that her mother's religion was based less on theological principles than on her concern with other people's opinions. For those of uncertain social status like the Lowys, genteel affectations and censorious cant justified their claims to middle-class respectability, especially at a time when "not only were the middle classes drawing away from the poor, but each stratum within the bourgeoisie was drawing away from the stratum next below it." And as the Lowys moved up the social ladder,trading the lower-middle-class standing of small shopkeepers for the more middle-middle rung of the merchant and professional classes, Julia's enhanced respectability only partly concealed the insecurities of her position. Lacking self-assurance as well as an education, she paid close attention to the codes of propriety--a practice which complemented her religious belief that stringent rules applied to the least acts of everyday life.
Julia may have also shared the widespread Victorian belief that parents should repress young children for their own good. Reflecting in middle age on her "inner necessity to escape from the Victorian era," Mina was thinking of her own childhood, but also more generally of the sternness with which childish attempts at self-expression were usually met. Although Julia maintained only a slightly exaggerated version of common practice, Mina came to see her mother's tyrannizing as the domestic version of imperial rule: just as Britannia had taken for granted her right to govern the uncivilized peoples over whom she held sway, so her mother believed it her duty to encourage the repression of her daughter. While one could not overemphasize the inhibiting force of Julia's views on Mina's temperament, one could also say that this oppressive force may also have served to strengthen her resolve and focus her imagination.