Brief commentary, new slants, current scholarly finds are invited for our Alerts section. Poets and scholars are equally welcome to comment.
When Mina Loy sat down to write about her childhood, one particularly vivid scene, her "first concrete impression of phenomena," came to mind. Imprinted like a picture on her imagination she could see "a row of glass bottles filled with colored liquids standing behind a fanlight over a door. The afternoon sun shone through the bottles, through the fanlight, firing the drastic reds and yellows in a triple transparency--the blaze exploded in me. I was riddled with splinters of delight." Then, reaching toward "the glitter of those bottles & through a sort of vibrational extension. . . as good as bodily contact with them. . . I distinctly felt something not far away being held in a clamp." The rest of her body was being snatched away from the source of enchantment: "the clamp descended, the fanlight soared. Consciousness constrained to follow in the wake of its body had no chance to determine the agent of its displacement." Trying to understand the memory's visceral impact, she noted that "first impressions being unconditional," they often "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 spatial map nor her related 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 a month before her own second birthday. Once she remembered being carried downstairs to go home, she realized that the doctor's professional grasp had been the clamp that kept her from the dazzling colors: "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."
In adulthood, she returned to this "first concrete impression" because she wanted to understand its meaning for her as an artist: "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." She hypothesized that an infant, "conceiving no distinction between the thing to be known & the knowing of it. . . becomes in turn everything it encounters," and that "the last thing to be located by it is the center from which it diffuses, the body of its pending identity." Her first complete memory seems to condense the developmental stages in which the infant knows herself initially as "everywhere-at-once" and then later, as a separate body positioned in relation to others. This visceral memory of embodiment underlay subsequent attempts to chart the topographies of her inner world.
But the memory also suggests a disturbance in the child's passage from early fusion with her mother to the transitional spaces of creative play. Not only is her mother absent but she has been emotionally unavailable at the moment when the little girl begins to identify as her own "the body of her pending identity." At the onset of self-consciousness, she finds herself not in her mother's arms but in the grip of a stranger, who rather than giving her what she wants, carries her off in the opposite direction. The memory restages embodiment as a psychic shock: she has been sent "out of the way" not once but twice--exiled first from her mother and then from the colored glass. And it also dramatizes the unsettling of her self-awareness by a masculine power, one who is too busy to let her explore the "drastic reds and yellows'' in his haste to return her to the house where she is always "in the way."
The image of the door through which she is carried against her will is charged with ambivalent feelings, since on neither side can she regain the security of her mother's arms. And the glowing colors cause pain as well as enchantment: they explode into the "splinters" that "riddle" her consciousness and bring home her lack of power. "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 little girl reaches for the glittering shapes only to be bundled off in the wrong direction, to the exile of home.
For the very young Mina Loy, then, the confirmation of selfhood was linked not only with enchanting visions of color, light, and form but also with separation from her mother and submission to impersonal masculine authority. Although her yearning for emotional comfort was displaced onto the glowing shapes, this source of consolation proved equally inaccessible and perhaps for that reason, all the more fiercely desired. When as an adult she created ambivalent versions of "home" in poems and paintings, this first "impression" lay beneath them as in a palimpsest or a pentimento, mapping the emotional space in which she first sensed that she had been "cast out" from paradise. She believed that, "far from being fantastic interpretations of half forgotten infantile responses to the commonplace, [such] analyses are as painstaking in their accuracy as a blueprint.
But even though Mina Loy would look back on her childhood as the experience of being "outcasted," she never quite saw that she, in turn, tried to banish "home" from her psyche by replacing it in the different spaces of artistic creation. At first, during her bracing involvement with the Italian Futurists, she seemed to address herself when she asked (in her own version of a Futurist manifesto) "what can you know of expansion who limit yourself to compromise?" or told readers to "forget that you live in houses, that you may live in yourself." However, once this moment of defiance had freed her to look into her "subconscious archives," in poem after poem she evoked the enigmatic image of the doorway as both entrance and barrier to the knowledge of female selfhood.
adapted from Carolyn Burke's biography of Mina Loy, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Carolyn Burke's translation (with Gillian Gill) of Luce Irigaray's The Ethics of Sexual Difference is forthcoming from Cornell University Press, and with Naomi Schor and Margaret Whitford, she is co-editing Engaging with Irigaray, a collection of critical essays, for Columbia University Press.
The social politics whereby a configuration comes to recognize itself and thus present its activities for canonization through activities of inclusion and exclusion still function very differently with regard to male and female writers. The reasons for this range across a full spectrum of concerns, from the way in which the ego formation of women is still largely the activity of rehabilitation and rework rather than a fundamental activity which can be taken for granted (and everything which follows from that in terms of assertion, positioning, claims to authority and self-presentation), to the way in which gender politics play out through interpersonal relations and perceived strategies for power, legitimation and validation. My point here is not to assign blame but to force a description onto the current scene which is less complacently self-congratulatory with respect to its supposed equivalent practices vis-á-vis gender. The ways in which work gets seen, distributed, accorded significance and deemed worthy of critical recognition continues to divide along gender lines.
I guess nothing really pisses me off more at this point than to hear the claims of my male peers and erstwhile colleagues in this regard--making their "but we are so good about women" remarks--as if women were some form of viral nuisance or handicapped younger sibling for whom the prescriptive "being good" is a necessary and sufficient condition for relating. If the legacy of the historical avant-garde is still with us, it is as much with respect to the manner in which issues of gender continue to be represented as those of originality, invention and influence, without any seeming recognition or regard for the social conditions in which living persons constructed conditions for the original and formative works produced. The work, the life, and the circumstances of literary/historical canon formation are all uncomfortably bound up together. If one of the features of the modern avant-garde was to pretend to the autonomy and self-referential value of the work, then one of the most significant projects of the contemporary scene has got to be the undoing of that mythic autonomy in recognition of the complicity of (still male dominated) power relations as they structure the ongoing production of literature as its own critical history. If I am interested in anything with regard to that "legacy," it is with overturning its controlling lineages and traditions, the need to be positioned within a canon which was never mine either in my formation as a writer or in my presentation of my self socially. . . . Unfortunately, the legacy of the avant-garde, such as it is, has been to perpetuate, rather than change, the very terms of canon formation and evaluation so conducive to a male-dominated and masculinist scene--now all the more perversely fashioned as it mistakenly represents itself in the name of the "feminine."
--excerpt from Contemporary Women Writers and the Legacy of the Avant Garde, delivered at the Modern Language Association, December 1990
Bio note : Johanna Drucker's recent publications include Simulant Portrait (1990) published with a grant from Pyramid Atlantic, and History of the/my Wor(l)d (Druckwerk, 1990). She currently teaches Art History and Archaeology at Columbia and is completing work on a scholarly book, The Visible Appearance of the Word.