You could probably count on one hand the number of novels that have taken up great platonic male-female friendships as their theme. The republication of Mina Loy’s Insel, by Melville House Publishing’s Neversink Library this past May, is a refreshing, challenging, and brilliant addition to this intimate pantheon.
Loy’s only novel, Insel is the portrait of a starving German surrealist, as told by his patron and friend, Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones is the quasi-fictional avatar of Loy herself; Insel, a loose construction drawn from Loy’s strange and euphoric friendship with the German painter Richard Oelze.
A luminary of transatlantic modernisms, Mina Loy worked across as many media as she did cities. Her itinerant artistic career occupied the capitals of the turn of the century’s avant-gardes: from Futurist Florence to Dada New York to Surrealist Paris — with cameos in Weimar Berlin and Freud’s Vienna, among many other places, in between. Insel’s republication, which includes a thoughtful and contextualizing introduction, afterword, and appendices, marks another occasion: to remark on Loy’s indisputable relevance to literary history, and literature’s futures.
Until recently, her reputation as a poet eclipsed greater critical recognition of her plural, sustained, and collaborative practices as a painter, actor, designer, playwright, inventor, and novelist. Then, as still now, her activities as an author and theorist were plagued by the neglect attending women writers, especially those working in experimental modes.
Revisionist histories of modernism’s legacy have since challenged understandings of Loy as a minor, peripheral figure. The republication of her out-of-print written works in the last two decades, along with growing recognition of her visual art, have illuminated her work as a central creative collaborator, contributor, and critic of the pre and postwar art-worlds.
Though her novel is set in the same cafes and flats of the 1930s Paris where it was composed, it was not published before Loy’s death in 1966. Insel did not first appear until 1991, at which point it was rightly compared to Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936) and Andre Breton’s Nadja (1928). Like the acclaimed novels of her contemporaries, Loy’s novel is a byzantine maze of references and allusions to the Parisian surrealist scene, rendered in Latinate, often baroque, prose. Even the simplest of her sentences shines — “At length we arrived at the gleaming water bearing so lightly its lazy barges with their drag of dancing diamonds.”
The book hovers, electrically, at the borders of a Künstlerroman, roman à clef, and modernist prose-poem; its generic indecipherability feels intuitively appealing, given its subject is the inchoate, eclectic form of Insel himself, whose work she at one point describes as “too surrealistic for the surrealists.”
If the novel had a plot it would be Mrs. Jones/Loy’s obsessive and repetitious record of her attempts to capture in words her friend Insel: because is not so much a man as he is a specter, and not so much specter as he is pure light. Given that Insel is, literally and metaphorically, a phosphorescent “man-of-light”, Loy might have had an easier time photographing the sun. But perhaps it is with respect to these ambitions that Insel is, in the end, a love story: the story of Loy’s passionate affair with aureate, visionary language.
While she originally sets out to write a biography of Insel’s life as a starving artist , her efforts are soon derailed by the intensity of his psychic energy, not to mention his basic material needs. She finds his desolate, diaphanous, and manipulative genius totally hypnotizing. This intense power that his aura holds over the sympathies of Mrs. Jones is both the source of the novel’s inspiration, and the impetus for its insistent digressions.
As in “the confusion of uneasy dreams,” the “leaking” of Insel’s surrealist consciousness into Mrs. Jones’ own gives rise to a series of psychic power plays that constitute what would be called the novel’s action. From their encounters emerges a painstaking, at times cryptic, detailing of their relationship’s subtly shifting fields of power.
Its climax (which does not seem like a spoiler when the story is so much in the service of the prose) is simultaneously its denouement: the novel closes with Mrs Jones departure for America and with Insel’s bittersweet goodbye. “Thanks for everything,” he tells her. The story’s energy turns on this refracted recognition of the other: the electrically comatose Insel finally recognizes Mrs. Jones as a fascinating subject in and of herself. But what are we to make of a novel constituted by this moment of recognition — in which a woman sees herself as a man sees her?
For its reversal of the traditional gender roles of the muse-patron dynamic, the novel has been read as a feminist work. It’s worth wondering, though, whether the flipping of polarities around an already problematic axis is little more than a trick or perhaps, even, a game.
Loy’s other feminist works often took the form of pointed satires, directed at the Futurist’s machismo, the misogyny of the Dada-ists, the exclusionary intellectual practices of the modernists, and other artistic communities. She openly identified as a feminist, often remarking on her liminal position as a non-male artist making rigorously experimental work. But her attitudes, as expressed through her more polemical writings, such as the “Feminist Manifesto,” and “Aphorisms on Futurism,” can seem contradictory, and at times, outright offensive or outdated.
In “Feminist Manifesto,” enclosed in an unpublished 1914 letter to a friend, Loy put into dialogue the cultural opposition of masculine impersonality to feminine personality, public invisibility to private visibility. The polemical dialogue borrows from futurism its aggressive fusillade form and typeset but also, at times disturbingly and perhaps unconsciously, its eugenicist, and violent ideals. Traces of these ideas do not disappear in later works like Insel, where her patronizing descriptions of black sex workers remain outwardly racist. In the “Manifesto” she calls, in part provocatively, “for the unconditional surgical destruction of virginity through-out the female population at puberty–.”
It’s hard to know what to do with these positions. Loy, for her part, seems to have wanted to distance herself from some, writing of the manifesto: “There is no truth—anywhere.” But some of her non-truths are historically persistent problems: they can’t just be written off as unfortunate “products of her time,” or fictional constructions.
Some of her provocations, insinuations and views could and did rub against those of her contemporaries’, and even against her own; they still do rub against our own. The hope is that this friction is productive. For this reason it might be useful to read Loy not for her sympathetic political agenda but for her poetic and polemical plasticity: her ability to produce new forms — for thinking, as thinking, instead of thought.
In a fragment appended to the novel called “The Visitation of Insel,” that may or may not be the book’s final ending, Loy herself gives the best working explanation of the novel’s necessarily provisional project. “Now I was engaged with a kind of surrealist man,” she writes, “Constructing, demolishing him kaleidoscopically, hoping to demonstrate how he ‘worked.’” To construct a ghost is always also to dissolve him.
Maybe just as Loy was haunted in her lifetime by Oelze/Insel’s ghostly visitations so too will the legacy of her literary celebrity. If so, this would be a good thing.
Ava Kofman is a freelance journalist. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.