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   Jacket 34 — October 2007        link Jacket 34 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Sandeep Parmar

Mina Loy’s ‘Colossus’ and the Myth of Arthur Cravan

This piece is about 33 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Sandeep Parmar and Jacket magazine 2007.

Jacket 5 has six articles about Mina Loy.

paragraph 1

I would like to be in Vienna and Calcutta,
Catch every train and every boat
Lay every woman and gorge myself on every dish.
Man of fashion, chemist, whore, drunk, musician, labourer, painter, acrobat,
Old man, child, crook, hooligan, angel and rake; millionaire, bourgeois, cactus,
giraffe, or crow;
Coward, hero, negro, monkey, Don Juan, pimp, lord, peasant, hunter,
Flora and fauna:
I am all things, all men and all animals!
What next?
Assume a distinguished air,
Manage to leave behind perhaps
My fatal plurality!

Arthur Cravan, Paris, circa 1910. Photographer unknown.

Arthur Cravan, Paris, circa 1910. Photographer unknown.


When Arthur Cravan disappeared and was presumed dead in 1918, he left an equally illustrious list of ‘occupations’: ‘poet, professor, boxer, dandy, flâneur, forger, critic, sailor, prospector, card sharper, lumberjack, bricoleur, thief, editor [and] chauffeur’. [2] His ‘plurality’ wilfully annihilated any fixable identity. Although his desire to be ‘all men’ and ‘all things’ was not in itself ‘fatal’, his obsessive recasting and his self-mythologizing make it impossible to trust the many ‘facts’ of Cravan’s short life. Almost immediately after his death, at the age of 31, he was subsumed into the successive ‘isms’ gaining currency during the early twentieth century: first, Cravan was named a proto-Dadaist, and their patron saint, and later his life and work was written into the lineage of surrealism by André Breton. Rumours that he had staged his death and produced forgeries, paintings, and poetry under various pseudonyms persist today. [3]


Cravan’s afterlife and his iconicity are as authentic as any ‘record’ of his life; the man of ‘all things’ figure we have historically inherited is implausible and appealingly overblown. His self-splintering disintegrates into a masquerade of all-consuming changeability. For this reason it is fitting that Cravan could be subsumed into the aesthetics of Dadaism and surrealism. Both movements meant to shatter expectations about the relationship between the art object and its audience. Cravan’s life and his antics, perhaps more than his actual writing, had a useful brutality for those wishing to shock with an aesthetic about-face.


The blurring of Cravan’s life with his art seems inevitable because both were equally ephemeral and fantastic. The question of whether he did or did not die in 1918 invariably induces a forensic re-examination of what little is documented about his life. Most scholars begin ‘[b]orn Fabian Avenarius Lloyd in Lausanne, Switzerland, on May 22, 1887, he was the son of Otho Holland Lloyd, whose sister Constance Mary Lloyd was Oscar Wilde’s wife’. [4] Although these are ‘hard facts’, Cravan never published under his given name, and had accumulated so many fake passports and identities that he could comfortably pose as German, Swiss, French, and English with utter fluency. [5] In a recently published American anthology, Cravan is mistakenly described as an ‘American poet’. [6] This is a particularly humorous error, especially when one reads Cravan’s 1913 essay ‘To Be or Not to Be...American’:


Today [...] everyone is American. It is essential to be American, or at least to look like you are one, which is exactly the same thing. Everyone does. It is the only way to be fashionable. Everyone does, I tell you, from the most miserable wretches to the most extravagant fops. [7]


Cravan clearly understood the benefits of camouflage and yet his ‘praise’ of the American seems ironically sarcastic. Cravan’s writing cannot be mined for the author’s intent; ‘Arthur Cravan’ refers to one who not only changed voices, but who intentionally undermined and satirised the concept of a single, consistent author. He has come to represent an idea, a mode of behaviour, a type of writing, rather than a person or an individual poet.


Still, scholars writing about Cravan are obliged to partake in hagiography by recounting all that is known about his life: those infamous labours that are an essential part of the Cravan myth. Some examples of these mythic details are listed here. Between the years 1903 and 1917, he travelled across America and lived in Berlin, Paris and Barcelona before sailing to New York in 1917. After arriving fresh from a fight with Jack Johnson (Cravan lasted six rounds), he met up with the American art patron Walter Arensberg and the artist Marcel Duchamp through his existing friendship with the Spanish writer Francis Picabia. In Paris, Cravan had brought out five issues of his little magazine, Maintenant, which in three short years had allegedly ‘offended virtually every artist of standing in Paris’. [8] Within a year of arriving in New York, Cravan delivered a lecture before the Independents Exhibition, during which he drunkenly began to strip off his clothes and to swear at the assembled crowd. The result was a succès de scandale that brought Cravan’s already reputed dynamism to the attention of New York’s literati.


Avoiding conscription in 1917, Cravan eventually found his way to Mexico, where he opened a boxing school, the Escuela de Cultura Fisica. Cravan was last seen trying to make his way alone via boat eventually to Buenos Aires from the coast of Mexico. [9] Since his death, a few unlikely candidates for his possible afterlife have been singled out: the mysterious forger Dorian Hope and B. Traven are among them. [10] Various sightings and tantalising linkages pepper the haunting inexplicability of Cravan’s disappearance, and the fact that no trace of his body was ever found had the effect of sublimating his once towering presence (quite literally, he measured 6’4’’) into an all-encompassing myth. [11] The aesthetics imposed by those who have built our image of Cravan inevitably taint any attempt to work back through the myth to assess his writing. Cravan’s readers have had to take him at his ‘word’ — that is to say, the image that his writing portrays — as the devouring wanderer who ‘gorge[s]’ himself on what the world has to offer. Yet, how has this ‘word’ been edited, manipulated or variously released by those with an interest in Cravan’s ‘modernity’?


Cravan’s appetite, his physical strength and his sexuality all factor into ‘the modern individual [who] is assumed to be an autonomous male free of familial and communal ties’. [12] In The Gender of Modernity (1995), Rita Felski challenges the idea that ‘modernity’ is, among other things, an inherently masculine ‘revolt against the tyranny of authority’. [13] Certainly, the outward impression of Cravan’s extreme masculinity has a basis in his prose and poetry. However, the fecundity of his (dead or living) body and the generative aspect of his masculinity — a brutal ‘knock out’ of tradition — lures Cravan’s image back from simplified polarities of ‘male’ destructiveness. Cravan’s art relies heavily on his becoming the art ‘object’, a spectacle of newness for the consumption of an (often live) audience. Any approach to Cravan’s work must also be wary of drawing conclusions about the ‘actual person’ portrayed in his writing.


Among those who wrote about him was his wife, the poet and artist Mina Loy. Cravan and Loy met in 1917 at an Arensberg Party in New York. Details of their courtship and marriage in Mexico City in 1918 are found in Loy’s unpublished prose manuscript, ‘Colossus’. ‘Colossus’ was written after Cravan’s disappearance, and most likely begun in the early 1920s when Loy returned from her brief sojourn in South America (waiting for Cravan to appear) to live in Paris. Portions of ‘Colossus’ were published in 1986, as part of a collection of essays on the Dadaist movement in New York, New York Dada. They were selected from a larger manuscript privately held by the ‘leading Anglophone Cravaniste’ Roger Lloyd Conover. [14] Conover is also the executor of Loy’s literary estate and he has edited the only two widely circulated collections of Loy’s poetry. He is currently writing a long-awaited biography of Cravan. [15] Conover writes in his introduction to the selections from ‘Colossus’:


One of [Loy’s unpublished prose works], Colossus, is a thinly disguised roman à clef or series of prose “newsreels” about her life with Arthur Cravan. As an intimate profile by his wife, this is probably as accurate a psychological profile of Cravan as anyone has written, and it is the only piece of writing on him that dwells on his emotional life as opposed to his public behavior. To enhance the advantage of Mina Loy’s unique perspective, I have chosen excerpts which offer a view of Cravan’s private, offstage existence; Cravan the Performer has been featured in every other profile written. [16]


Conover’s intimate knowledge of Cravan’s and Loy’s writing and life influences the title of his introduction: ‘Mina Loy’s “Colossus”: Arthur Cravan Undressed’. Conover asserts that Loy knew the ‘real’ Arthur Cravan, and not just the staged version conveyed by his writing and his performances. Conover’s assumption extends to Loy’s own intentions while writing ‘Colossus’. He imagines that she presented Cravan in an ‘accurate’ way and that her depiction does not distort the man she married. However, in the same introduction he writes that like Cravan, Loy ‘began camouflaging her once demonstrative and theatrical first-persons behind inscrutable selves, and adopted increasingly reclusive habits’. [17] If Loy did in fact practise Cravan-like methods of disguise and performance, then can we trust this ‘psychological profile’, and in doing so, are we missing Loy’s own possible investment in the writing of ‘Colossus’? Conover would like us to believe that Loy’s ‘Colossus’ is the ‘undressing’ — that is, a physically and emotionally stripping down — of Arthur Cravan. Yet her manuscript, like many of her other writings about Cravan, is yet another deft angle by which to approach his posthumous image.


In a sense ‘Colossus’ is part of Loy’s own act of mourning, and her writings convey a controlled image that became collectively mourned by those who inscribed Cravan into their own movements and by Cravan scholars. Loy’s writings on Cravan do mean to arrive at a cohesive picture, one that is indisputably the most ‘knowing’ of them all, but to discredit her contribution to Cravan’s mythic status by portraying it as merely ‘factual’ is to undermine the achievements of ‘Colossus’. In whose interest should we ‘undress’ either Loy or Cravan, and what, if any reason is there to arrive at some ‘truth’? I have dispensed with any attempt to pin down some supposedly ‘actual nature’ of either Loy or Cravan in order to ask how Loy’s writing about Cravan shaped his current iconic status. How does ‘Colossus’ portray Cravan differently than Loy’s other writings about him? What is Loy’s involvement as a widow figure in her own text and how are these writings forms of eulogy?


Loy and Cravan’s romance is central to the published version of ‘Colossus’. By all accounts, including Loy’s, they were an unlikely pair. In an interview with Carolyn Burke, the French Dadaist painter Juliette Roche was far more interested in discussing Loy’s marriage than she was in commenting on Loy’s skills as a painter. Still in disbelief, Roche asked sixty years later: ‘Why did a woman as refined as Mina Loy marry a brute like Cravan?’ [18] Bob Brown, an American expatriate who also emigrated to Mexico to avoid conscription and knew Cravan, included Loy and Cravan in his novel about the expatriate ‘Slackers’ community in Mexico, You Gotta Live (1932). [19] In the book, Rex (Cravan) and Rita (Loy) are harmoniously (and alliteratively) married, but somewhat awkwardly matched. William Carlos Williams also weighed in on Loy’s marriage in his Autobiography:


Once Mina invited me to meet John Craven [sic]. I was a bit late and the small room was already crowded — by Frenchmen mostly. I remember, of course, Marcel Duchamp. At the end of the room was a French girl, of say eighteen or less, attended by some older woman. She lay reclining upon a divan, her legs straight out before her, surrounded by young men who had each a portion of her body in his possession which he caressed attentively, apparently unconscious of any rival. [...] I looked and turned to Mina. But she was engrossed with Craven. I was introduced to the man after a drink or two and in the end wandered wearily home as was my wont. Later Mina married Craven and went to Central America with him where he bought a seagoing craft of some sort. One evening, having triumphantly finished his job, he got into it to try it out in the bay before supper. He never returned. Pregnant on the shore, she watched the small ship move steadily away into the distance. For years she thought to see him again — that was how long ago? What? Thirty-five years. [20]


Williams’s recollection is strangely banal and domestic. The image of Cravan dusting off his hands and taking his little boat out before dinnertime is most likely a combination of Williams’s conversations with Loy and his own misremembering. It is curious that Williams also misremembers Cravan’s name. Although the two were never properly acquainted — Cravan left New York and disappeared soon after their meeting — it is surprising that Williams would be unfamiliar with the artistic reputation associated with Cravan’s name. One possible reason is that Williams would not have been involved in the European Dadaist circles that praised him. Interestingly, Loy narrates the same night, at the Arensbergs’, quite differently.


One night King Dada [Duchamp] and Colossus [Cravan] lolled about a divan in Walter’s [Arensberg] parlor, engaged in the privileged male sport of the evening which consisted of drawing their forefingers along the green stockings of the blond Countess stretched among the cushions. Every now and then a man would rise, giving his place to another. Colossus had been occupied with one leg for ages, and when he had had enough, he came and laid on the floor beside me, tilting the brim of my hat onto the tip of my nose to cover my eyes — so as to hide from them the approval in his.
      “Don’t have him,” urged Carlos [Williams], joining us. “ You will only find yourself in a ridiculous situation. All these pugilists are bunglers in bed. I’m off,” said the Doctor, kissing me good night. “You’re all so damned sophisticated, I might as well be deaf and dumb.” [21]


Reading these two accounts side-by-side, one immediately notices that Loy’s reaction to the ‘blond Countess’ is quite different to Williams’s obvious discomfort with the highly sexual display. His distrust of the scenario is betrayed by undertones of moral judgement: the girl is ‘eighteen [years old] or less’ and she is being caressed nearly all over. Loy claims that only the countess’s stockings are being touched; indeed Loy’s characterisation of the ‘girl’ as a ‘countess’ suggests that she is socially superior to her male admirers. Williams is acutely aware of the masculine competition at hand, whereas Loy’s description downplays the parlour scene as boring and almost bourgeois. With these two descriptions in mind, the French ‘young men’ ‘unconscious of any rival’ are in stark contrast with Williams, the American whom Loy portrays as so impotently unsophisticated that he might as well be ‘deaf and dumb’.


If Williams is to be believed, he once remarked to his wife, Flossie, that he might have married Loy. Flossie quickly pointed out that he did not earn enough money. [22] Loy’s version of the evening hints at an undercurrent of masculine rivalry between Williams and Cravan and also, prophetically, quotes Williams as warning that she will only ‘end up in a ridiculous situation’. This ‘ridiculous situation’ is illustrated, years later, by Williams’s imagined account of Cravan and Loy’s ill-fated marriage. And although Williams could not correctly recall Cravan’s name, he concludes his retelling by adding that ‘[Cravan] was reputed to be a son of Oscar Wilde and had been a capable boxer and boxed in fact with Jack Johnson once in Spain’. [23]


Loy’s description of Colossus’s behaviour that night indicates that he was engrossed by her and not the reverse, as in Williams’s version. Loy casts him as the dutiful, determined lover. However, Colossus is never truly sincere:


“All of your irony is assumed,” he whispered to me, “You really have the heart of the romantic. Why will you not let me show you what life can be in the embrace of my boundless love? My one desire,” he continued, parting the ethereal green grapes that hung from my hat and burying his lips in my hair, “my one desire is to be so very tender to you that you will smile without irony.”
      While I laughed inwardly at how unknowingly men use stock phrases to advance their amour, Colossus importuned me again. “If you won’t take me home with you, I shall never address you again.”
      “Colossus, I couldn’t bear that. I give you my word of honor that the next time I meet you I will take you home with me.”
      “You needn’t shout,” he reproached with severe pudency, as if the whole scene had been staged in private, “everyone can hear you.” [24]


Loy implies that his lovemaking is a performance, a spectacle meant for an audience of one. The extremes of his behaviour and his ‘stock phrases’, complete with a melodramatic scene in which he ‘bur[ies] his lips in [her] hair’ are grossly at odds with Cravan the brute. Loy’s accession immediately changes Colossus’s manner; the staged chase, which he has won, comes to an abrupt end and the play disintegrates as soon as the actors are exposed. Loy is well aware of her lover’s game, or so ‘Colossus’ suggests. She documents her cool-headed resistance (and Cravan’s persistence) before she describes their first night together. Loy casts herself as one who belongs in the assembled group and depicts Colossus as a less fashionable outsider.


To take a lover? What lover? Colossus was heavy. The ‘moderns’ accused him of admiring Victor Hugo! What was he doing in this crowd, anyway? “Well he has a title,” the Americans reminded one another.
      Having nothing of the modern spirit, he was at a disadvantage, and men at a social disadvantage are likelier to fall back upon ‘love.’ Therefore, I confided to myself, he might make a passable lover. I had forgotten how afraid of him I had once been. [25]


Part of Colossus’s sexual appeal is that he lacks the social advantages of the other ‘moderns’. On the one hand, Loy suggests that bedding Colossus might have a negative effect on her reputation as a modern among her circle. However, Colossus is also less threatening than his ‘modern’ counterparts. Unlike that select crowd, which Loy firmly describes as unscrupulously lascivious, Colossus is passé in the sense that his outmoded ‘spirit’ is still capable of love. As one who appears to lack cynicism, and who discourages Loy’s ‘assumed irony’ towards modern romance, Colossus is no longer a threat.


‘Colossus’ soon backtracks on its disparaging picture of Cravan as a boring brute:


Only later would I realize that to most of those early encounters he had come as an entirely different persona, and wonder how it was that I had been able to recognize any identity behind his frequent transformations. Not until those separate elements had, through intimacy, coalesced into a single man did those ‘first people’ I met ‘of him’ become entirely alien. [26]


The ‘first people’, or first impressions Loy has of Cravan, quickly unify into the ‘real’ Colossus. This transition from seeing Colossus as undesirable to desirable occurs once Loy has given in to his urging and taken him as a lover. It is only when Loy decides to merge her own life (and reputation) with Colossus’s that she begins to highlight his ‘modern’ qualities.


It is impossible, or at least dangerous, to remember Colossus after he left New York, for by this time I had magnified his being to such proportions that all comparisons vanished, which is the trick of falling in love. During the period of our New York acquaintance I had gradually become aware of the adventures that preceded his coming to America, and the manuscripts he left behind set in motion a cerebral newsreel depicting his life as vivid as the terse remarks he had sown in my mind.
The newsreel of my memory — as if to retrace the initial impetus which unaccountably determines a personality from birth — now flashed back to a frame from Colossus’ infancy. [27]


What Loy knows about Colossus is informed by their own personal relationship and by his legacy in print and from rumours before they met. The ‘newsreel’ of Loy’s memory extends back into a past she can only imagine based on Cravan’s stories. The section of ‘Colossus’ in which Loy’s ‘newsreel’ rewinds is a rapid succession of pithy anecdotes and alleged quotes from Cravan. One of his most often repeated phrases, ‘On ne me fait pas marcher, moi!’, registers Cravan’s objections to getting involved in the war. [28] According to Loy, Colossus prophesied:


Your war,” Colossus would hoot, “will be the last war if it never leaves off. But it is going to be over sooner than expected, followed by an inextricable confusion. For one thing the whole world will go bankrupt in consequence, and remember what I say, — not at once, not for at least ten years — probably twenty.”
      He sounded preposterous. An uncultured heretic shooting the farcical arrows of his predictions into the glorious holocaust of heroism. (How I regret having paid so little attention to these predictions). [29]


This incomparable being, whom it is ‘dangerous’ and ‘impossible’ for Loy to remember accurately, becomes ultra modern, a genius prophet who predicts the horrors and aftermath of World War I. In the vein of a seer, Cassandra-like, Cravan’s foresight adds to Loy’s image of Colossus as straddling the present and the future. Ahead of his time, Colossus also prefigures the artistic annihilations of ‘modern’ aesthetics. Loy’s phrase ‘the glorious holocaust of heroism’, or the massive loss of human life in the war, also points to Cravan’s refusal to sacrifice himself for anyone else’s political ideal of the heroic. It is possible that Loy invented Cravan’s ‘predictions’ so that Cravan’s detractors and admirers alike could feel the full weight of loss over his death. What could be more tragic than the prematurely dead and unheeded voice that foretells the first great tragedy of the new century? Loy argues that Cravan saw beyond modernity’s immediate promises of artistic reinvention and of a redefinition of nationhood through war and migration. Throughout ‘Colossus’, Cravan retains his individuality and he exudes an intellectual integrity from the very moment of his birth. Loy writes:


He had a faded photo of himself in an embroidered dress. It gave a surprising impression of the seated baby’s backbone being a rod of iron. He had said, when he showed it to me, “As soon as I could speak, I knew that everything people told me was a lie. All they say — all they do,” he mused disgustedly, “is an attempt to drag me down to their own level.” [30]


‘Colossus’ is a film-like documentation of Colossus’s creation and his being. Loy’s use of the term ‘newsreel’ suggests that these recollections are in one sense factual. The early twentieth-century writer and co-founder of the London Film Society, Iris Barry wrote that ‘News Pictorals’ were a ‘prelude to the real picture-play’. [31] These newsreels, or short, pre-feature films, ‘are apt to contain intriguing bits of information’ ‘about the psychological necessities of modern humanity’. [32] They were often composed of ‘current affairs’, but were not limited to the ‘news’. [33] Barry contends that although audiences are drawn into cinemas to see the ‘fictional’ feature, newsreels can shape cinemagoers’ ideas about how to behave, shop, travel and dress in the ‘modern’ era in a type of covert advertising. [34] Loy’s memories of Cravan, written out as a cerebral ‘newsreel’, support her claims of their factualness. However, if we consider the cinematic experience of selectively coded messages, then Loy’s ‘newsreel’ of Cravan’s life might serve to advertise his iconic ‘modernity’.


Her episodic narrative pieces Cravan together into a specific posthumous myth. Loy’s intimacy with Cravan’s body and with his mind superimposes his memory onto her own. On the surface it might appear that ‘Colossus’ is considerably different from Loy’s other autobiographies. ‘The Child and the Parent’, ‘Goy Israels’ and ‘Islands in the Air’ depict Loy’s youth and centre on her incipient consciousness. However, in ‘Colossus’ Loy is interested in tracing the origin of Cravan’s artistic nature. Much like her studious delineation of her own character, ‘Colossus’ moves from one visual image to the next and each ‘frame’ builds on an existing narrative of Cravan’s psychology. Or, as Conover’s title ‘Arthur Cravan Undressed’ suggests, Loy is stripping off Cravan’s veils and examining the contours of his ‘true’ core. Loy’s unpublished autobiographical writings engage in autohagiography; she casts herself as fated from birth to become a spirit of the modern age. In ‘Colossus’ Loy has similarly produced an image of Cravan as prefiguring modernity in everything he says and does. The process of ‘modernising’ Cravan in ‘Colossus’ is slow; it requires Loy’s recognition of Cravan’s true nature from his antics.


In Loy’s later writing about Cravan the transition is already complete: Cravan as the father of modernity is absolute. It is also important to note that Conover’s selections from ‘Colossus’ do not necessarily reflect the full scope of the original privately held manuscript. Conover chose to end his published version of Loy’s memoir just after the pair exchange wedding vows. According to Loy, after she and Cravan married, Cravan said, ‘“Now I have caught you. I am at ease”‘. [35] It is impossible to know definitively what follows this final section, but the effect of this glowing quotation of Cravan is that it lends credibility to Loy’s claims about their mutual love. It also shores up the reader’s faith in Cravan’s death, and means to dispel rumours (that persist today) of Cravan abandoning Loy and seeking refuge in a faked death and various careful pseudonyms. The reader is left with Conover’s imposed ‘happy ending’ and the image of Cravan as the dutiful lover who is finally charmed away from his nomadic isolation. On the page opposite to this crafted denouement is an undated photograph of Loy with a caption that reads: ‘Mina Loy (Mrs. Arthur Cravan), poet’. [36] Loy sits demurely, her eyes closed, her face downcast and her hands loosely interwoven, as if she were silently and obediently waiting for the return of her lost husband.


Loy’s other writings about Cravan build on ‘Colossus’’s crafted posthumous image. These include the poems ‘Mexican Desert’, ‘Perlun’, ‘The Widow’s Jazz’, ‘Letters of the Unliving’, the ‘Colossus’ section of her autobiographical epic ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’, and poems that meditate on the absent and dead lover, ‘Echo’ and ‘The Dead’. In most of these poems, Loy figures herself as an abandoned widow who is left to converse with an unanswering abyss.


In the editor’s notes to the most recent edition of Loy’s poetry, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (1996; hereafter referred to as LLB96), Conover describes ‘Mexican Desert’ as ‘a collaged recollection of [Loy’s] traverse of the parched Mexican desert in 1918 with her second husband, [Cravan]...’ [37] Although the two manuscript versions of this poem are undated, Conover estimates that ‘Mexican Desert’ was written between 1919 and 1920. It was published in The Dial, issue 70, in June 1921. [38] Newly married, Loy and Cravan would have made their desert crossing from Mexico City to Salina Cruz by train. [39] However, the poem is devoid of the hopefulness one would expect. It begins:


The belching ghost-wail of the locomotive
Trailing her rattling wooden tail
Into the jazz-band sunset. . . .

The mountains in a row
Set pinnacles of ferocious isolation
Under the alien hot heaven [40]


Harbingers of Loy’s eventual widowhood dominate the landscape: the ‘ghost-wail’ and rattling tail extend ominously into an eternal future. The living dead permeate the desert scene and, isolated, they ‘thrust up the parching appeal’ and crack the earth open in their continual afterlife. [41] The endless burning Loy depicts recurs in later poems in which the widow appears as a ‘suttee’. [42] Loy’s references to dryness and death hint at an infertile emptiness, and allude to the theories of Cravan’s body languishing robbed and murdered in the desert. [43] Cravan’s corpse appears to her in the form of their last journey together; she is traversing back over the memory of this crossing haunted by their eventual separation.


‘The Widow’s Jazz’ elaborates on the widow’s symbolic death through the death of her husband. Most likely, it was written in 1927 while Loy was living in Paris and in the process of writing her autobiographies. On May 6th, 1927, Loy read this poem aloud at Natalie Barney’s salon on the rue Jacob after rehearsing with a voice coach. [44] Barney notes in her memoir that Loy trained for her performance much like a boxer would for a fight; she is of course referring to Cravan and equating Loy’s reading to Cravan’s boxing. She also describes Loy as walking ‘as though angels were already nibbling at her heels’. [45] Barney’s comments suggest that Loy’s ‘battle’ is with death, both Cravan’s death and Loy’s own resistance against being drawn into the widow’s premature afterlife. However, the melding together of the two blurs the boundaries of life and death for Cravan and for Loy. Cravan is ‘alive’ through Loy’s poem and her performance, and Loy straddles life and death through her commemorative acts.


‘The Widow’s Jazz’ depicts Loy’s unfulfilled desire; the ‘tangle of pale snakes’ and the ‘lethargic ecstasy’ of the dancers sexualise the poem’s first half. It is not until the lines, ‘Cravan/ colossal absentee/ the substitute dark/ rolls to the incandescent memory’, that the poem’s interest in corporeal desire turns to Loy’s own longing. [46] Once again Cravan represents darkness and emptiness and Loy burns as a ‘rich suttee’ and she is ‘seared by the flames’ of the erotic jazz. [47] She is filled with the ashes of her husband’s ‘murdered laughter’, and is impotent against the backdrop of the music and the swaying dancers. [48] The desert abyss in ‘Mexican Desert’ unravels here again into echoes:


as my desire
to the distance of the dead

the opaque silence
of unpeopled space. [49]


Loy returns to an infertile deathscape and recedes away from the delights of the ‘echoes of the flesh’. [50] Like the Jazz dancers partnering, she is partnered with an unreachable, dead lover. The most striking section of the poem, ‘Husband/ how secretly you cuckold me with death’, is the only line addressed directly to Cravan. [51] Here the traditional meaning of ‘cuckold’ is reversed from the husband fooled by his unfaithful wife to the wife who is deceived by her husband’s affair with death. The mistress death opposes ‘love’s survivor’ (Loy) and the two enter into a relationship without the absent Colossus. To ‘cuckold’ is also ‘to fool’ and, in one sense, Loy is being fooled ‘secretly’ by her ignorance of Cravan’s death and the absence of his corpse. ‘Secretly’ also suggests that Loy is hiding her inner impotence from the vibrant initial setting of the poem — and that her desire is only inwardly absent and not outwardly known. Much like those ‘nibbling angels’, death’s potency is actualised through Loy’s ability to write and thereby to bring the voice and memory of Cravan into the living world. She increasingly figures herself as an otherworldly presence, an image that is also perpetuated by the memoirs of those who knew her in the years after Cravan’s disappearance.


In her recent essay on mourning and jazz music in Loy’s poetry, Tanya Dalziell suggests that Loy’s poems ‘are not elegies, but rather poems that are suspicious of the work of mourning and are consequently concerned to enact their own ethics of mourning’. [52] How Loy ‘enact[s]’ her ‘own ethics of mourning’ is unclear. She also contends that ‘The Widow’s Jazz’, written while ‘many of [Loy’s] contemporaries were increasingly proclaiming jazz itself to be “passing” or “dead”‘, might be an ‘elegy to jazz’. [53] Dalziell’s reading of ‘The Widow’s Jazz’ is problematic because it assumes that Loy’s interest in jazz translates into an awareness of jazz’s roots within African-American culture. In archived notes, Loy wrote that jazz was ‘a stimulus to memory’ [54] and that in ‘old age — listening to exotic music one is reminded of myriad inflections in the pleasure of love’. [55] It appears also from Loy’s poem ‘Negro Dancer’, in which she describes the ‘aboriginal’ woman’s dance as ‘The ancestral smoulder/ of jungle ritual’, that Loy typically associates non-white races with sensuality. [56] To an extent ‘The Widow’s Jazz’ challenges the desexualisation of the widow figure, but the poem’s speaker remains ‘impotent’ when confronted by desire, and her isolation is sharpened in contrast with the sexualised jazz dancers. Dalziell correctly points out that the simultaneity of jazz relies on ‘call and response’ whereas the writer of elegy is traditionally writing alone about one who is absent. [57] Participance, address and a lack of response, are brought into Loy’s elegiac poems about Cravan.


Loy’s conversation with the dead is best exemplified by her 1949 poem ‘Letters of the Unliving’. [58] The poem, written while Loy was living in New York, partly relies on readings from Cravan’s letters that were written to Loy four decades earlier during a brief separation. In these letters, Cravan bemoans her absence and dramatically threatens suicide if she does not join him in Mexico. [59] She refers to his temporary madness, ‘your documented terror of dementia/ due to some merely earthly absence’, and notes the irony of his fear now that they have been divided by death. [60] ‘Letters of the Unliving’ is in one sense an unsent letter, written in response to her letters from Cravan. However, ‘Letters’ is also unsendable; it is written for an audience that excludes an absent Cravan.


Loy’s poem engages with an epistolary tradition of letters sent to dead or absent lovers. Ovid’s Heroides are verse-epistles written from the perspective of Classical heroine figures. These women exhibit a literary and a mythic cachet in being at once chosen and left behind by their hero lovers. Characters such as Helen of Troy and Odysseus’s neglected wife Penelope bemoan their present fates while giving evidence to their romantic claims on their husbands or lovers. In a few of the Heroides, the letters function as a reinstatement of the heroines’ right to the relationship as wife and seduced or abandoned lover. The love letter, as Roland Barthes suggests, is a dialectical, and quite literal, correspondence that requires a response. [61] Loy’s poem ‘Letters’ meditates on a two-fold question: ‘Can whom has ceased to be/ Ever have had existence’, ‘Can one who still has being/ be inexistent?’ [62] In other words, has death erased not only the addresser but also the addressee of these love letters? As in Loy’s earlier poems about Cravan, death and the past inhabit a dry, infertile space and his absent body stirs her longing:


As erst my body and my reason
you left to the drought of your dying:
the longing and the lack
when the racked creature
to an unanswering hiatus
“reunite us”

- - - till slyly- - soporose
patience creeps up on passion. [63]


Loy no longer resists being symbolically reunited with Cravan by death:


I am become
in answer
to your dead language of amor

of life’s imposture
implies no possible retrial
By my so now-while self
Of my cloud-corpse
Beshadowing your shroud

the one I was with you
inhumed in chasms,
craters torn by atomic emotion
among chaos [64]


The widow as suttee becomes complete — not as a grieving sacrifice, but out of Loy’s central argument that her ‘self’ after Cravan’s death can only be companioned by loss. Momentarily, Loy is subsumed into the object of her loss. Her only escape is to forget the past:


O leave me
my final illiteracy
of memory’s languour

my preference
to drift in lenient coma
an older Ophelia
on Lethe [65]


Lethe is an appropriate choice; as one of the mythical rivers of Hades, it represents forgetfulness and is associated with death. Loy’s preference is for memory to die with the dead and not to continuously remind her of what is absent; according to her title, Cravan is not strictly ‘dead’ to Loy, but ‘unliving’, and therefore ever-presently lost.


Loy’s concern with providing proof of her existence in ‘Letters’ also appears in her autobiographical writings, in particular the introductory chapter to ‘Islands in the Air’, entitled ‘Hurry’. [66] In ‘Letters’ she writes:


The present implies presence
unauthorized by the present
these letters are left authorless —
have lost all origin
since the inscribing hand
lost life - - - [67]


Cravan’s letters represent his absent corpse; they are a body without ‘presence’ or ‘origin’ and the only remaining ‘evidence’ of his existence. The author’s death effaces the ‘inscribing hand’. Loy’s own obsessive rewriting of her autobiographies might also be working against her fear that her ‘life evidence’ will one day become authorless with her death. Although she traces back through her own racial and psychological lineage to find her origins, she may have become exasperated with each version for its inability to bring the author into being. What implications might Loy’s premise in ‘Letters’ have for the writing of her own life? If the mortalising force of the Hurry both urges her to prove her existence through the act of writing and simultaneously hurries her through living, then her record speaks of its own eventual end. She is working back through a life that must find its ‘end’ in the present, which is ever-changing.


One could argue that the reality is that Loy is not dead. However, Loy’s assertion in her later poems that she is living in the void left by a symbolic death urges the reader to consider the constant revision of her autobiographies as an attempt to find an origin for that present death. It may be that Loy’s excavation of her past is meant to rework itself into an explanation of what she calls ‘life’s intemperance’. [68] In ‘Letters’ she writes, ‘No creator/ reconstrues scar-tissue/ to shine as birth-star’. [69] In a sense, Loy’s autobiographies are her attempts to return to this ‘birth-star’, or pure origin, through her experience of loss. She assumes the role of creator and, in doing so, she grapples with the impossible task of recounting her own life without the subjectivity of the present. That is not to say that Loy is rewriting the past in order to resurrect herself, or that she gives meaning to her life before Cravan’s death in order to erase the tragedy of her loss. Her elegies for Cravan cannot be equated with her autobiographical project. However, Loy figures herself as his widow and assumes the role of one whose relationship with death is as strong as the bonds of marriage. She, too, is drawn into ‘This package of ago’ that ‘creaks with the horror of echo/ out of void’. [70]


In her poem ‘Echo’, Loy elaborates on her marriage to the unanswering void. Published after her death, ‘Echo’ does not specifically refer to Cravan.


Life is a loitering inquiry
a challenging cry

lashing the earless edifice
of ceaseless mystery

origined in earth
piercing the sky

spurning our anxious ‘Why’
to rebound on us

as echo
only echo

echo is no answer [71]


Loy’s description of life as a ‘loitering inquiry’ and a ‘challenging cry’ seems contradictory. One phrase suggests passivity and the other suggests aggression. The five short stanzas that follow present Man as the victim of an ‘earless’ creator whose questions remain unanswered except by the echo of his own voice. However, this ‘ceaseless mystery’ that is ‘origined in earth’ could also be interpreted as the enigma of Cravan’s disappearance. Here the origin of Cravan’s being makes its full transition from the origin of his death and the location of his body, to the site of Loy’s commemoration of him through writing. The initial imagined conversation between Loy and Cravan in ‘Letters’ and ‘The Widow’s Jazz’ moves towards Loy’s complete isolation; she is in dialogue with an unanswering deity and therefore only hearing her own metaphoric ‘cries’ returned as echoes. Among Loy’s archived poem drafts is a handwritten draft of ‘Echo’ on which Loy has written: ‘ask Greek for this’. [72] Other notes suggest that this was perhaps meant to be part of a sequence of ‘echo sound’ poems. Another page also contains the lines ‘Alabaster albatross/ Breast ablaze/ in Bottomless abyss/ of asbestos all bliss’. [73] It seems plausible that Loy’s poem refers to the Echo of Greek mythology, the jilted and lovesick nymph who could mimic but make no original speech. Ultimately her unrequited love for Narcissus, and the wrath of Hera, transformed her into the sound of an echo. [74] Possibly Loy is commenting on her own reduced state following the death of Cravan and on the dual meaning of echoes: as rhyme within poetic form and poems as ‘echoes’ of loss and death.


The completion of mourning in Loy’s work, from her early poems to ‘Colossus’ and her later elegies, coincided with her involvement in forming Cravan’s posthumous artistic reputation. The cover photograph of LLB96, the most recent published collection of poems, was taken in 1920 by Man Ray. Loy had just returned to New York after Cravan’s disappearance and a brief sojourn in South America and Europe. New York’s artist circles and the media were debating Dada, the new ‘anti-art’ European movement. In Ray’s photograph, Loy wears a darkroom thermometer in her ear. [75] In her biography of Loy, Burke suggests that because the thermometer’s mercury is pictured at zero, the photo might have been a commentary on Loy’s chilled emotional state after the loss of her husband. [76] Loy’s writing associates widowhood with an infertile, parched landscape.


Burke also records some of the impressions of Loy’s friends after her return to New York without Cravan. Williams was initially sympathetic; he listened to Loy’s stories about Cravan’s disappearance and her belief that he was still alive and languishing in a Mexican jail. [77] Marianne Moore’s poem, ‘Those Various Scalpels’, possibly alludes to Loy’s iciness and refers to the well-known mythology of Cravan’s death. [78] The American publisher Robert McAlmon’s roman à clef about Greenwich Village literary life, Post-Adolescence (1923), features a character based on Loy named Gusta Rolph. McAlmon recounts an imagined scene between Loy and Djuna Barnes in which Gusta voices what McAlmon calls her ‘romantic soul’. [79] In this scene Gusta says “‘My mind will keep wondering about that husband of mine [...] whether he’s really drowned or not. If it had only been my first husband,” she adds, “so he couldn’t pester me about the children”’. [80] Later she proclaims that she is ‘finished’: “‘The war, you know,” she explains, “waiting three years for my husband, and coming here expecting to find him only to find that he was drowned”’. [81]


According to Burke, McAlmon found Loy to be so absorbed by Cravan’s death that she was constantly talking and writing about ‘a man who could think with each part of his body’. [82] The writing to which McAlmon and Burke refer is presumably an early draft of ‘Colossus’, which Loy most likely wrote with the same obsession as she recounted the circumstances of his death to her friends. Burke suggests that by 1921 Loy was ‘too unhappy to complete the novel she had begun about Cravan’. [83] It is impossible to access and examine the existing manuscript for evidence of Burke’s claim. Burke was allowed to read Loy’s manuscript, and perhaps her assertion is based on her analysis of the privately held ‘Colossus’ text. However, if Loy did in fact abandon her writing of ‘Colossus’ a year after her arrival in New York in 1920, then her reasons for writing ‘Colossus’ may have extended beyond her need to record her memories of him.


Around the time of Loy’s return to New York, Cravan’s and her own name were being publicized as ‘official adherents’ of the international Dadaist movement. [84] Without Loy’s consent, Cravan’s words and performances were cited as precursory to the formation of Dadaist practice. ‘Colossus’, on the other hand, highlights Cravan’s uniqueness and singles him out as a ‘biological mystic’, or a genius of the body. [85] In ‘Colossus’, Loy creates an artistic plan wholly confined to the thought and manufacture of Cravan’s being. If Cravan was, as Loy argued, an artistic prophet, then his followers could only imitate his original genius. [86] So little of Cravan’s work circulated within New York circles that any knowledge of his ‘genius’ would have to be based on his sensational performances and on his conversation. Burke writes that in the early 1930s Breton was keen to publish Cravan’s surviving manuscripts. Loy apparently worried over the interest in her husband’s legacy on the part of the founders of the surrealist movement:


[Cravan] had “taken on an immortality as an evergrowing myth,” [Loy] wrote, but it was hard to accept those aspects of the myth that escaped her control. When, for example, the story of his disappearance was told in a way that implied his wish to leave her behind, she went into a rage. After Gabi Picabia published a memoir of Cravan that was largely complimentary but expressed doubt about the reasons for his disappearance, Mina cut her dead. [86a]


It is surprising that Loy chose not to publish ‘Colossus’, and that she never completed it, especially if she was so concerned with controlling Cravan’s legacy. Is it possible that Loy was pleased in part by Cravan’s ‘afterlife’? Or might she have chosen not to complete ‘Colossus’ because the Cravan myth had already taken hold so quickly after his disappearance? In the published selections of ‘Colossus’ Loy concentrates on stories and a recounting of their public meetings that would have been familiar to her audience, the New York literati. One comes away from reading the available sections of ‘Colossus’ with the impression that had Loy published it during the 1920s, it would have been too soon to hold the interest of her readership. ‘Colossus’ has a nostalgic sheen, unlike Loy’s other autobiographical writings, and reads more like a memoir. The ‘Enter Colossus’ section of her autobiographical poem, ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’ (1923-1925) borrows some elements of Colossus’s upbringing from the ‘Colossus’ manuscript. She works the description of seeing his baby portrait from ‘Colossus’ into the lines:


And the first time
that he ever sits up
devouring his pap
it is as if a pillar of iron
erects him
in place of a spine [87]


She later elaborates on his infant misbehaviour of ‘throwing the tea-pot’ and ‘pissing into our reverend pastor’s hat’ to justify his ‘sense of fun’ ingrained from the moment of his birth. [88] This is the first and last time Colossus makes an appearance in ‘Anglo-Mongrels’. His personality, which Loy describes as that of a child ‘criminal’, is provided in contrast to Ova (Loy) and to the effete Esau Penfold (Loy’s character based on her first husband, the artist and photographer Stephen Haweis). [89] Colossus’s physical and mental voracity opposes Ova’s reticent naïveté and Esau’s intellectual impotence. However, ‘Anglo-Mongrels’ ends with Ova’s adolescence and we never learn from the poem that Colossus and Esau are her future husbands. Like the other characters in this poem, Colossus features as a racial type. He is ‘the male fruit/ of a Celtic couple’ born in an ‘Alpine’ resort; he is another of Loy’s ‘anglo-mongrels’ and his strength originates in his refusal of social propriety. [90] Colossus’s mother, that ‘gracious little lady-bird/ of a mamma’, is ‘determined she will do/ her best to keep him/ a little gentleman/ like his ancestors/ even/ if he does not live in / London’. [91] The dominant ‘heroes’ of Loy’s epic are those who disavow their ancestral inheritance and move towards a hybrid, modern spirit.


In ‘Enter Colossus’ Loy’s contribution to the Cravan myth is limited by her avoidance of his artistic life. Colossus is an archetype, a mythical construct like the poem’s other protagonists, Ova and Exodus. Antonella Francini and others have suggested that the ‘Colossus’ manuscript was meant to be a part of an ongoing larger autobiographical work that would include ‘Islands in the Air’ and possibly Insel. [92] An examination of Loy’s multiple manuscript drafts of ‘Islands in the Air’ suggests that some kind of unity was planned among these different ‘novels’. It is possible that, like ‘Anglo-Mongrels’, she meant to bring the narrative of her childhood and the lives of those in her adult life together to form one narrative. If this is true, then ‘Colossus’ may not be an attempt to commemorate Cravan. It seems likely that ‘Colossus’ instead functions as a fragment of Loy’s autobiography and that it was never meant to be published separately.


In addition to Conover’s version of ‘Colossus’, published in New York Dada (1986), is another selection from Loy’s original and now privately held ‘Colossus’ manuscript published under the title ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ in The Last Lunar Baedeker (hereafter referred to as LLB82). [93] This excerpt is in a section Conover titled ‘Ready Mades’, alluding to Duchamp’s ‘found’ constructions. In the textual notes to LLB82, Conover describes this selection and the others in the ‘Ready Mades’ section as ‘improvised from unpublished notes, prose fragments, or drafts found in [Loy’s] folders. Titles and arrangements are the editor’s’. [94] No further elaboration about the context of these ‘improvised’ ‘readymade’ documents is offered. Conover modelled his title after one of Cravan’s own essay titles from Maintenant: ‘Oscar Wilde Lives!’ [95] Cravan’s piece narrated a fictitious meeting between himself and his (long since dead) uncle. In the essay, he describes Wilde as a grey-bearded and much diminished man who has chosen to go into hiding and forge his own death. The notorious ‘article’ was picked up shortly after Maintenant published it by the New York Times and it was believed by some to be true. [96] Conover’s naming of excerpts from ‘Colossus’ ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ alludes to the possibility of Cravan faking his own death and living anonymously. It also imagines a kind of reunion between Loy and Cravan within her retold memories of him and suggests that Loy’s eulogizing of Cravan kept his legacy alive. However, Conover’s construction of his ‘Ready Mades’ does not distinguish Loy’s ‘drafts’ from ‘fragments’ or ‘notes’: all are mined equally for ‘found’ art. LLB82’s version of ‘Colossus’ barely acknowledges Loy’s relationship to Cravan.


This version is so heavily excised that the reader does not realize that Loy and Cravan spent time together until the final lines:


Cravan’s truth was his oeuvre — that incipient thing for whose sustenance it appeared he must swallow the ocean and eat up the earth — that tireless tramp of continents, that scissor-like stride of the boxer which for the time that I accompanied him seemed a veritable mastication of space. [97]


Ironically, these lines conclude Conover’s reassembled contribution to Loy’s published oeuvre. How true to Loy’s original draft is this selection? In Conover’s introduction to New York Dada’s excerpts from ‘Colossus’, he states that ‘[n]o portion of Colossus has ever been published before’. [98] ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ was published in 1982, four years before New York Dada. If ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ is not a ‘portion’ of ‘Colossus’ then how can one account for the obvious similarities between the two texts?


Unlike ‘Colossus’, ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ includes no details of Loy and Cravan’s courtship. The LLB82 text also excludes all of ‘Colossus’’s dialogue between Loy and Cravan. ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ is limited to Loy’s observations about Cravan’s character and his guiding aesthetic principles. In a section from ‘Colossus’ that is reminiscent of Cravan’s poem ‘Hie!’, Loy describes her husband’s voracious mental appetite for all things. ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ includes an almost identical passage. There are two omissions, which I have reinserted into the ‘Colossus’ text (reproduced below) in brackets.


It was not only in his proportions that Colossus varied from the average man — but in the telescopic properties of those dimensions. He could push his entire consciousness into a wisp of grass, plunge his whole being through a dish of frost in a wheel rut — for when he halted to observe he seemed to leave his immeasurable carcass on the threshold of his interest. And when [ — cross, hungry, down at hell — ] he had engulfed in his regard every pebble, every wish, every perpendicular of skyscraper, every metallic suspension and every square millimetre of [superficies of] the city he roamed in tenacious idleness — a sort of inquietude would invade his motor centers. [99]


Aside from these two discrepancies between ‘Colossus’ and ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ the wording of these paragraphs is identical. The ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ version continues after ‘motor centers’: ‘He could no longer remain — “God how New York has contracted,” he would say; “Dieu — que l’Amérique se rétrécisse.” “There is no longer room for me.” So putting his Providence in his pocket as others do their traveller’s checks, he was on his way.’ [100] The next paragraph describes Cravan’s modus operandi when he arrived in a new city: ‘he would give it a glance and assess its population — then tramp through every street’. [101] This section was not included in Conover’s selections from ‘Colossus’. Loy often revised prose manuscripts by removing or adding words and sentences. Therefore, it is possible that these two slightly different versions of the same paragraph are from different manuscript drafts of ‘Colossus’.


The decision to remove Cravan’s remarks about New York in the New York Dada version seems obvious. It would be ironic to register Cravan’s feeling of New York having shrunk physically or intellectually in a book meant to celebrate New York’s artist culture. Instead, Conover chose to include the following section, which was omitted from ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’:


Of course at that time I knew almost nothing of Colossus’ life, but when we became lovers he confided to me as nearly as is possible every moment of his experience. He required, it seemed, a witness to his reserve, a companion insofar as a companion served to measure the degree of his aloofness. He sometimes insinuated the impression that rather than accepting companionship, he felt his footsteps were being dogged. New York, as he wandered through it, reduced under his devouring stride to a garbage dump on which the works of man were regenerated in the poetry of his appreciation. [102]


In this excerpt, it is Cravan’s ‘devouring stride’ that ‘reduce[s]’ New York, and not the city in itself that disappoints. Instead New York is a fertile ‘garbage dump’; the city produces and allows Cravan to produce. ‘Colossus’ also mentions specific places in New York City as ‘the greatest’ of Cravan’s ‘pleasures’: ‘the Museum of Natural History, the Aquarium, Central Park, [and] the Hudson River’. [103] These specifics were excluded from ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ Possibly, the editor’s interest in creating a version of ‘Colossus’ for New York Dada was to glorify New York’s importance to Cravan’s oeuvre.


In ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ Loy refers to Cravan by name rather than by his pseudonym. In ‘Colossus’, Loy only breaks from calling him Colossus once:


This I know — that Cravan meant by the “eternal quality” the poet’s obligation to augment through his own knowledge the value of the universal essentials, of which he knew himself to be one exponent and which his entire life was constructed to preserve. [104]


The LLB82 version reads:


This I know — that Cravan coveted glory as a magpie might — because brilliance caused the pupils of his eyes to contract. He had only found with the whole of mankind that brilliance is the touchstone of existence. Thus he meant by the “eternal quality” the poet’s obligation to augment through his own participance the value of the universal essentials. [105]


Which interested Cravan more, ‘glory’ or ‘the value of universal essentials’? If ‘brilliance is the touchstone of existence’ then was Cravan’s interest in the ‘poet’s obligation’ or his own reputation? Each version suggests opposing reasons for Cravan wanting that ‘eternal quality’. The appearance of Cravan’s name instead of Colossus also supports the theory that Loy revised her ‘Colossus’ manuscript with notes originally written about ‘Cravan’. The absence of the ‘Colossus’ manuscript from Loy’s archived papers makes it impossible to know which portions belong to which version. It is similarly difficult to imagine the transformation of Loy’s writings about Cravan from notes into a prose narrative. However, readers can get a sense of the consistency of Loy’s image of Cravan from ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ to ‘Colossus’. If, as Conover states, ‘Colossus’ is ‘Arthur Cravan Undressed’, then ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ is Cravan dressed in the superhumanising garb of the genius.


New York Dada also includes an essay by Willard Bohn entitled ‘Chasing Butterflies with Arthur Cravan’. Bohn, an American scholar of modernism, takes his title from a letter Cravan sent from Barcelona to the art dealer André Level. In that 1916 letter to Level, Cravan tells him of his plans to travel to South America.


What will I do there? I can only reply that I will be going to see the butterflies. Perhaps it is absurd, ridiculous, impractical, but it is stronger than I, and if I have perhaps some worth as a poet, it is precisely because I have irrational passions, excessive needs; I would like to see spring in Peru, to make friends with a giraffe, and when I read in the Petit Larousse that the Amazon is 6,420 kilometers long and has the largest volume in the world, it has such an effect on me that I cannot even express it in prose. [106]


Bohn writes of this letter that it depicts Cravan’s cultivated image of a ‘Promethean individualist who would triumph, not only in spite of society, but by deliberately violating its most cherished rules’. [107] Bohn singles him out as the ‘great precursor of Dada’ because Cravan rejected society’s rules with ‘the same ethical and aesthetic stance’ under which Dadaism operated. [108] Bohn concludes that ‘[d]oubtless [Cravan’s] arrival in New York the following year represented the partial fulfilment of his dream. [109] But even the excitement and freedom of New York seems to have left something to desire. Before long, Cravan found himself on the move again, heading South in search of his elusive butterflies, on a journey he would never finish’. [110] In reality, Cravan headed south to dodge conscription, not in search of butterflies, or for that matter to ‘make friends with a giraffe’. [111] Bohn depicts Cravan as a wistful gypsy whose instabilities embody the aesthetic fancies of Dadaist practice. He calls him ‘an eccentric among eccentrics’ and a ‘legend’ for adopting ‘the ultimate Dada gesture’ before Dada even existed, which was to ‘refuse to distinguish between art and life’. [112]


Alan Young writes in Dada and After: Extremist Modernism and English Literature (1981):


Cravan’s preference for ‘life’ (especially the athletic life) to art, expressed with a certain wild panache, has endeared him to many Dada and post-Dada writers, including André Breton and Hans Richter, and his temperament and life-style attracted Picabia too. This attractiveness seems to have come as much from his colourful personality, and his capacity for living in the way he chose, as from his thorough contempt for most contemporary art and artists. [113]


Young’s unwitting pun, Cravan’s preference for “life” ‘to art’ ‘with a certain wild panache’ plays on Wilde’s anti-critic dictum: ‘It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors’. [114] Cravan’s life would be immortalised by the critic-spectator (Breton and Picabia are obvious examples), who would also translate that life into a kind of ‘art’. Richter himself wrote that ‘because [Cravan] lived wholly according to his nature, wholly without constraint, and paid the full price, which is death, he became a nihilist hero in an age already long beset by nihilism’. [115] What few critics mention are Cravan’s writings and if they are potentially ‘pre-Dada’. Even Loy neglects to discuss his work. Cravan is perceived by contemporary audiences much in the same way as the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Both of these early twentieth-century writers are remembered for their outlandish behaviour, both were remembered as ‘living’ Dada, and both the Baroness’s and Cravan’s writings are difficult to find and very often are obscured by the foregrounded personalities of these ‘eccentric’ authors.


In ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ Loy writes:


At such times as one is profound one regrets him as an irreparable deduction from the sum-total of the universal progression — and at such times as one is proportioned to the common commensuration — one wonders if “oneself” has not invented him out of a boisterous blageur remaining in the superficial memory. [116]


It would be useful to be able to contextualise this fragment. If Loy included the above passage in the ‘Colossus’ manuscript then it reveals her problematising her authorial position and creating distance from herself with the third-person ‘oneself’. From this excerpt, it appears that Loy momentarily doubts her own memory and that she wonders whether she has not ‘invented’ the image she presents of Cravan in ‘Colossus’. Loy deliberates as to whether or not Cravan’s ‘greatness’ results from the distortions of time or if his loss is so keenly and ‘universally’ felt simply because of her own emotional state. However, if this sentence appears in notes or as marginalia then it could provide the reader with an added insight into Loy’s struggle between her own memories and Cravan’s competing mythic legacy.


Clearly in Loy’s writing about Cravan, she places both herself and her husband as central figures within her retold (and perhaps dramatised) memories. Through her writing of ‘Colossus’ Loy is as much accounting for her public relationship with Cravan as she is attempting to document his ‘true’ character. Loy’s possible goal, to control Cravan’s mythology while protecting her own, distorts both figures in proportion to their mythologized relationship. The arc of Loy’s (partly) self-fashioned widowhood and her various elegiac writings about Cravan perhaps mirror Loy’s intentions during the revising of her autobiographies. She seems to be increasingly concerned with providing ‘life evidence’ for the formation of both her and Cravan’s genius and she relies on prophetic moments to illustrate her fate.


In a recent article, Charles Nicholl attempts to shed light on Cravan’s life and disappearance. He argues that ‘[a]t its best, Cravan’s writing has a wayward brilliance, but probably his greatest creation was himself, or at least the deeply dodgy persona he presented to the public’. [117] Sixty years earlier, Breton wrote of Cravan’s posthumously published text ‘Notes’ (1945) that they depict ‘the atmosphere of pure genius, a genius unrefined — à l’ état brut’. [118] Loy carefully released Cravan’s few surviving manuscripts and published them reluctantly. According to Burke, Loy wrote that Cravan would have been ‘enraged’ at being ‘appropriated by the Surrealists’. [119] Breton’s enthusiasm for Cravan’s ‘genius’ arguably fuelled little more than an aesthetic ‘climate’, but evidence of Cravan’s literary legacy is sparse and unsubstantiated.


Antonia Logue’s fictionalised account of Cravan and Loy’s romance, entitled Shadow-Box (1999), builds on the pair’s mythic status. The novel is a series of biographical exchanges between Loy and the American boxer Jack Johnson in the form of imagined epistles (the two in fact never met nor did they ever correspond). Essentially Logue constructs Loy’s ‘letters’ by rewriting Burke’s biography in a first-person narrative. Loy’s ‘voice’ in Shadow-Box is so unconvincing that Logue could not have read Loy’s archived prose manuscripts or many of her letters first-hand. Jack Johnson and Cravan’s characterisations are similarly hackneyed and rely on myths and stereotypes to bring these ‘figures’ into dialogue. Loy writes to Jack Johnson in Shadow-Box:


These days, Jack, they have made Fabian into a fool. Dada this and that, when he would have had no truck with any of it. He despised the hijacking of art into orthodoxy, he thought it all utterly foolish and self-indulgent. Now Marcel has pitched him as a Dadaist hero as though it were the finest epitaph he could have. [...] I have written a lot to try and make sense of his loss. Many poems that begin as ideas and mutate, but they have been gathered now, published as a book. No one has noticed it, no one besides my friends, my family. I don’t mind. I never wanted to be like Bill [Williams], that is for him to enjoy. People read as they choose. If they choose not to read me, it is because they don’t want to, or do not know I exist. Either way, Jack, I am not bothered unduly. [120]


Anyone familiar with Loy’s prose style would immediately take issue with Logue’s use of the phrase ‘he would have had no truck with any of it’ or the word ‘orthodoxy’, which never shows up in Loy’s writing. In addition to Logue’s puppeteering, she accentuates Loy’s relative obscurity compared to Cravan’s conditional fame as the ‘Dadaist hero’ and ‘fool’. Logue inadvertently raises an interesting point through her comparison. It would not be until much later, roughly twenty years, that Loy’s myth would begin to compete with Cravan’s steadily concretised iconicity. Also, Loy’s eventual cult status as a marginalised modernist poet would depend on the reconsideration of her writing, and her influence on the work of poets writing both during and after her lifetime.


In his introduction to 4 Dada Suicides, Conover prefaces a selection of Cravan’s work with a caution:


It is tempting to do this: to consider [Cravan’s] case in the context of other blurred lives, exceptional accidents and alter-artists like Arthur Rimbaud, B. Traven, Ret Marut, Hal Croves, Ambrose Bierce, William Herman Rulofson, Roland Barthes, Thomas Chatterton, Felix-Paul Greve, Stéphane Mallarmé, Jean Genet, Raymond Roussel, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Georges Bataille, Alfred Jarry, Anna [sic] Tsvetaeva, Guy Debord, Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Francesco Colonna, Francois Villon, Gérard de Nerval, Paul Verlaine, Baron Corvo, Frederick William Rolfe, Dominique Aury, Pauline Réage, Comte de Lautréamont, Isidore Ducasse, Charles Lassailly, Jacques Rigaut, Jacques Vaché, and Julien Torma. But this is to give him a home, to fix him a place, and to assimilate his identity into a curriculum. Is this to respect the freedom of this angel-criminal, or to trap him? Canon is the cage he escaped. That is why he is still at large.

Coming suddenly upon a spider spinning an absorbing web around the chrysalis of a butterfly this morning, I watched it. [121]


Conover suggests that publishing Cravan and considering his work alongside, among others, Jacques Rigaut, Julien Torma and Jacques Vaché leads to Cravan being canonised, assimilated into a ‘curriculum’, and ‘trapped’. The ‘canon’ is not the ‘cage [Cravan] escaped’. Although Cravan’s ‘place’ in literary history is not as part of the canon, he has been relegated to a mythic undercurrent and his work has been largely ignored. He is ‘still at large’ because scholars have neglected to account fully for Cravan’s influence on writing and art in the latter half of the twentieth century. Conover places Cravan in an alternative canon, one formed by his own tastes and editorial decisions. There seems no other clear connection between these ‘alter-artists’ than Conover’s desire to create a rebellious counter-canon; his list equates ‘exceptional’ artists with ‘marginal’ figures, and many of the writers listed above could be seen as ‘traditionally’ canonical. In the ‘case’ of Mina Loy’s writing, critics might discern her aesthetic lineage among more contemporary poets, such as E.E. Cummings, Kenneth Rexroth, Denise Levertov, to name only a few. Cravan’s real ‘cage’ is scholars’ inability to consider his writing without mythologizing his life as the ‘angel-criminal’ or as the bound ‘butterfly’.


[1] Arthur Cravan, ‘Hie!’, trans. by Paul Lenti, in 4 Dada Suicides, ed. by Roger L. Conover (London: Atlas Press, 2005), p. 42. Originally published in Maintenant, issue 2 (1913). (Hereafter cited as 4 Dada).
[2] Cravan, ‘Hie!’, 4 Dada, p. 12.
[3] Charles Nicholl, ‘The Wind Comes Up Out of Nowhere’, London Review of Books, 28 (March 2006), 8-13 (p. 8).
[4] Roger L. Conover, ‘Mina Loy’s “Colossus”: Arthur Cravan Undressed’, in New York Dada, ed. by Rudolf E. Kuenzli (New York: Willis Locker & Owens, 1986), pp. 102-104, (p. 103). (Hereafter cited as NYD). I do not take into account a (difficult to find) biography of Cravan written in Spanish by Maria Lluïsa Borràs called Arthur Cravan (1993).
[5] Conover, NYD, p.102, and Nicholl, p. 8.
[6] The Oxford Book of American Poetry, ed. by David Lehman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 273. In addition to mistaking Cravan’s nationality, Lehman also misspells Loy’s original surname ‘Lowy’, as ‘Lowry’.
[7] Cravan, 4 Dada, p. 29. Originally appeared in L’Echo des Sports, 10 June 1909.
[8] Conover, NYD, p. 103. All references to the details of Cravan’s life in this paragraph are from this source.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Nicholl, p. 8 and p. 13.
[11] Nicholl, p. 8.
[12] Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 2.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Nicholl, p. 8.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Conover, NYD, p. 104.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Carolyn Burke, endnotes for ‘Recollecting Dada: Juliette Roche’, in Women in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender, and Identity, ed. by Naomi Sawelson-Gorse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 571-575, (p. 571). Burke’s interviews with Juliette Roche took place in April and August of 1977.
[19] Bob Brown, You Gotta Live (London: Harmsworth, 1932).
[20] William Carlos Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1968), p. 141.
[21] Mina Loy, ‘Colossus’, New York Dada, ed. by Rudolf E. Kuenzli (New York: Willis Locker & Owens, 1986), p. 107. (Hereafter cited as NYD).
[22] Charles Tomlinson, ‘Some American Poets: A Personal Record’, Contemporary Literature (Summer 1977), pp. 300-301. Cited in Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 220.
[23] Williams, p. 141.
[24] Loy, ‘Colossus’, NYD, p. 108.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid., pp. 112-113.
[28] Ibid., p. 12.
[29] Ibid., p. 13.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Iris Barry, ‘The Scope of the Cinema’, in Gender in Modernism, ed. by Bonnie Kime Scott (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), pp. 826-827. Originally published in Vogue (London) 64.4 (August 1924): 65, 76.
[32] Ibid., p. 827.
[33] Oxford English Dictionary Online, <> ‘newsreel’.
[34] Barry, ‘The Scope of Cinema’, p. 827.
[35] Loy, ‘Colossus’, NYD, p. 119.
[36] Ibid., p. 118. (Figure 7). Ironically, Conover has chosen a photo of Loy taken by her first husband in Paris in 1905. The photo’s caption reads ‘Ducy Haweis – Stephen [illegible- ‘wife’?] Mother of Giles’ (Giles was Loy’s son by Haweis who died in 1923).
[37] Roger L. Conover, ‘Notes on the Text’, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), p. 195. (Hereafter cited as LLB96).
[38] Ibid.
[39] Burke, p. 262.
[40] Loy, ‘Mexican Desert’, LLB96, p. 74.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Loy, ‘The Widow’s Jazz’, LLB96, p. 96.
[43] Conover, ‘Notes on the Text’, LLB96, p. 102.
[44] Burke, p. 361.
[45] Conover, ‘Notes on the Text’, LLB96, p. 204.
[46]Loy, ‘The Widow’s Jazz’, LLB96, p. 96.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Ibid.
[49] Ibid., p. 97.
[50] Ibid., p. 96.
[51] Ibid.
[52] Tanya Dalziell, ‘Mourning and Jazz in the Poetry of Mina Loy’, in Modernism and Mourning, ed. by Patricia Rae (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2007), pp. 102-117 (p. 113).
[53] Dalziell, p. 109.
[54] Loy, YCAL MSS 6, box 6, folder 163.
[55] Ibid., box 7, folder 187. On the back of this manuscript page, Loy writes about the ‘soldier’s death on the field of honour’. This might be another example of Loy’s association of death with sensuality and the body, as in ‘The Widow’s Jazz’.
[56] Mina Loy, The Last Lunar Baedeker, ed. by Roger Conover (Highlands: The Jargon Society, 1982), p. 216. (Hereafter cited as LLB82).
[57] Dalziell, p. 103.
[58] Loy, ‘Letters of the Unliving’, LLB96, pp. 129-132.
[59] Nicholl, p. 10. Nicholl does not cite his source, however Cravan’s letters to Loy have been published in French, the language in which they were originally written. See Arthur Cravan, Oeuvres: Poems, Articles, Letters ed. by Jean-Pierre Begot (Paris, Éditions Gérard Lebovici, 1987), pp. 135-183. In a letter from Cravan to Loy written from Mexico City on 30 December 1917, Cravan writes of his dire state of mind: ‘Je n’ai preque plus la force de t’ecrire et si je savais que le fasse en vain, je me suiciderais dans cinq minutes’, (p .181). Oeuvres also contains excerpts of ‘Colossus’ (translated into French) that appear similar to those in NYD, pp. 233-260.
[60] Loy, ‘Letters of the Unliving’, LLB96, p. 130.
[61] Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. by Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), pp. 157-159.
[62] Loy, LLB96, pp. 130-131.
[63] Ibid., pp. 129-130.
[64] Ibid., p. 131.
[65] Ibid., p. 132.
[66] Loy, ‘Hurry’, ‘Islands in the Air’, YCAL MSS 6, box 4, folder 58, pp. 1-7 of typescript. Loy writes about her anxiety to produce proof of her existence on page 6. See Loy’s chapter ‘Hurry’ published in the Italian Poetry Review, 1 (2006) 236-244.
[67] Ibid., p. 129.
[68] Ibid., p. 131.
[69] Ibid.
[70] Ibid., p. 130.
[71] Loy, ‘Echo’, LLB82, p. 240.
[72] Possibly Loy was unaware that ‘Echo’ is a Greek word. Or perhaps Loy meant to replace the English spelling of ‘Echo’ with its equivalent in Greek characters.
[7]73 Loy, YCAL MSS 6, box 5, folder 88.
[74] Ovid, ‘Narcissus and Echo’, Book III of Metamorphoses, trans. by A.D. Melville, introduced by E.J. Kenney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 61-66.
[75] Man Ray, Front Cover Photograph, ‘Mina Loy in New York City, 1920’, LLB96.
[76] Burke, p. 299.
[77] In a letter to the London Review of Books, dated 6 April 2006 (vol. 28, no. 7), James Mishalani argues that the inaccuracies in Williams’ recollections of Cravan’s death suggests that Williams did not hear of it from Loy first-hand. I would suggest instead that Loy, as much as the ‘buzz’ from their circle, mislead sympathisers. Loy’s own writing is the original source of the misconception that Cravan went to sea with Loy pregnant and waving goodbye to him from the shore. (see Burke, p. 457, n. 265 and references to Loy’s account given to Cravan’s mother, Nellie Grandjean)
[78] Conover, ‘Introduction’, LLB96, p. xiv.
[79] Robert McAlmon, Post-Adolescence (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), pp. 14-18 (p. 14). Originally published in 1923 by Contact Editions (Paris).
[80] Ibid., pp. 15-16.
[81] Ibid., p. 62.
[82] Burke, p. 296.
[83] Ibid., p. 297.
[84] Ibid., p. 283.
[85] Loy, ‘unidentified fragments’, YCAL MSS 6, box 4, folder 70.
[86] Most recent work on Cravan’s life and writing seems to be produced in Europe, especially France. See José Pierre’s study, written in French, Arthur Cravan Le Prophète (Paris: Actual, 1992) for an analysis of Cravan as the prophet of Dadaism and Surrealism.
[86a] Burke, p. 381. Loy’s quotation, ‘taken on an immortality as an evergrowing myth’, is from her novel, Insel, ed. by Elizabeth Arnold (Santa Rosa, CA.: Black Sparrow Press, 1991), p. 160. On this page of Insel, Loy complains about Insel’s (the novel’s central character, the Surrealist painter Richard Oelze) fascination with Cravan, a man he claims has ‘ideas identical with his own’.
[87] Loy, ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’, LLB82, p. 150.
[88] Ibid., p.151.
[89] Ibid.
[90] Ibid., p. 150.
[91] Ibid., pp. 150-151.
[92] Antonella Francini, ‘Mina Loy’s Islands in the Air: Chapter I’, Italian Poetry Review, vol. 1 (2006), 221-233.
[93] Loy, ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’, LLB82, pp. 317-322.
[94] Conover, ‘Notes’, LLB82, p. 389.
[95] Cravan, pp. 44-54. Originally published in Maintenant 3 (October 1913).
[96] Burke, p. 234.
[97] Loy, ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’, LLB82, p. 322.
[98] Conover, ‘Mina Loy’s “Colossus”: Arthur Cravan Undressed’, in NYD, p. 104. Correspondence with Conover about the similarities between ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’ and ‘Excerpts from “Colossus”’ proved inconclusive.
[99] Loy, ‘Colossus’, NYD, p. 111. Compare with Loy, ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive’, LLB82, p. 319. The phrase “down at hell” should perhaps read “down at heel”.
[100] Loy, ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’, LLB82, pp. 319-320.
[101] Ibid.
[102] Loy, ‘Colossus’, NYD, p. 111.
[103] Ibid.
[104] Ibid.
[105] Loy, ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’, LLB82 56, p. 320.
[106] Willard Bohn, ‘Chasing Butterflies with Arthur Cravan’, in NYD, pp. 120-123 (p.121).
[107] Ibid., p. 122.
[108] Ibid.
[109] Ibid.
[110] Ibid.
[111] Ibid., p. 121.
[112] Ibid., p. 120.
[113] Alan Young, Dada and After: Extremist Modernism and English Literature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981), p. 10.
[114] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. and introduced by Isobel Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. xxiii.
[115] Hans Richter quoted in Young, p. 11.
[116] Loy, ‘Arthur Cravan is Alive!’, LLB82, p. 318.
[117] Nicholl, p. 8.
[118] Breton, Andre, ‘Introduction to Cravan’s “Notes”, in VVV (June 1942), p. 55, cited in Burke, p. 401.
[119] Burke, p. 401. Burke does not cite a source for this quotation.
[120] Antonia Logue, Shadow-Box (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp. 279-280.
[121] Conover, ‘Arthur Cravan by Roger Lloyd Conover’, in 4 Dada, pp. 12-27 (p. 27).

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