Hilda BronsteinMina Loy's Insel as Caustic Critique of the Surrealist Paradox

by Hilda Bronstein


In 1991, Elizabeth Arnold, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, discovered the typescript manuscript of Mina Loy's novel Insel at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and was responsible for its publication by Black Sparrow Press. The work had never been published during her lifetime. In the chronology which accompanies the 1991 text 1 , Arnold writes:"1936 [Mina Loy] moves to New York: lives in the Bowery; friendship with Joseph Cornell; begins revising prose works begun in Paris, including Insel, presumably."(p.194). The work provides a unique view of Surrealism from the perspective of a female experimentalist, who was both attracted and repelled by a movement from which, as Susan Suleiman has demonstrated, female participants were actively excluded. She writes:

  Historically, this is the significant fact: between 1924 and 1933, during the most dynamic and "ascendant" period of the movement, not a single woman was included as an official member. 2

Loy who lived in Paris from 1923-36, was inevitably drawn to the hub of innovative artistic activity. In particular, her role as agent for the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, furnished the opportunity for contact with many of those active within Surrealism. Roger Conover's 'Time Table' contains the following entry:

  In 1931, the Julien Levy Gallery opens in New York. Levy visits Paris for acquisition purposes, stays with M.L., is introduced to her contacts in the art world. Before leaving he appoints M.L. his Paris "representante." For the next six years, M.L. will actively monitor the Paris painting front, send reports and recommendations to new York, handle commissions and shipments for artists, buy from dealers, and perform agent functions for European and American artists resident in Paris, among them Eugene and Leonid Berman, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Georges Braque, Massimo Capigli, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Juan Gris, Alberto Giacometti, Arshile Gorky, Rene Magritte, Pavlik Tchelitchew, Toulouse-Lautrec. 3

It was Loy's experience at this time that formed the basis of her parodic narrative in Insel, a work which engages with some of the central tenets of Surrealism, even as it satirizes them, and provides a unique critique of Surrealism from the perspective of a woman close to its centre. It chronicles the struggle of a female narrator for artistic self-determination, in the face of the appropriation of her psyche by a Surrealist artist, who is able to induce in her, states of delusion and hallucination. This strange encounter involves the narrator in a journey into the world of the unconscious, which she describes as "a wilful descent into a forbidden psychology."(p.99) Her words echo those of Andre Breton in the First Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, where he writes of "la promentade perpetuelle en pleine zone interdite." Breton's reference is to the quest for access to the "forbidden zones" of dreams and the imagination, where, liberated from the constraints of reason and reality, the creative potential of the unconscious mind of the Surrealist might be harnessed in the name of social revolution.

Insel questions the subject position of women in Surrealism and challenges the tendency to what Dawn Ades has referred as "a movement toward the dissolution rather than affirmation of [women's] identity."4 It addresses the problematic for women artists and writers in relationship to Surrealism, which has been described by Ades as follows:

  The male Surrealists' probings of identity implicated women in ways that seem to militate against any independent explorations of their own. The very importance of woman in the Surrealist lexicon and of the female body in Surrealist iconography…threatens to squeeze out any possibility for women in the Surrealist orbit to see them selves as other than the object or complement of male desire.5

That women were represented in Surrealist paintings and written texts, as the inspiration and passive vehicles of men's self representation, complicated the opportunities for women writers and artists as producers in their own right. For the male Surrealist, woman was the medium through which self-definition might be achieved. Andre Breton's Nadja (1928), provides the paradigmatic example of this process, of which Rudolph E.Kuenzli writes:

  Surrealist art and poetry are addressed to men; women are only the means to bring about these works. Woman is seen by the male Surrealists only in terms of what she can do for them. She is their muse … Nadja is illustrative: Nadja's mental distress is used by Breton as a way to the unconscious. She is a visionary; she can answer his questions, tell him who he is.6

It is Nadja who become's Breton's guide into the realm of the unconscious. It is here that he seeks the answer to the question "Qui suis-je?" with which his narrative begins. Similarly, in Insel, Loy's female narrator is the medium, albeit an unwilling one, who makes possible Insel's hallucinatory materializations. He affirms: "You tell me exactly what I am thinking."(p.77) Like Nadja, she is instrumental in the process of self-revelation for the male artist. However, while Nadja's clairvoyance, her dependence on Breton and her mental instability ultimately destroy her, Loy's narrator finally resists the role of participant in the shared hallucinations to which she is initially compelled, and which drive her to near insanity. She reverses the Surrealist paradigm, by parting from Insel and moving towards self-definition in the writing of her own text. Susan Suleiman has suggested that:

  Irigaray's notion of "mimicry," the playful or ironic counterpart of the masquerade, might provide a useful analytical category in approaching individual [Surrealist] works. In mimicry, a woman 'repeats' the male - in this case, the male Surrealist - version of "woman," but she does so in a self - conscious way that points up the citational, often ironic status of the repetition.7

In Insel it is the female narrator, who asserts her artistry in the very production of the satire in which the male Surrealist is imaged as a dematerialising creature, at one moment an 'invisible will 'o the wisp', at another an elusive deceiver, who weaves his own "history" out of dissimulation and disguise. "You atrocious fake - you have no life to write - you're acting Kafka!"(p.35) The text of Insel embodies the dialectic between the struggling creativity of the female narrator and those protagonists in the Surrealist endeavour, who depended on woman as "the means to bring about" their own artistic and theoretical realisations. In this engagement with Surrealism, as in her earlier encounters with Futurism and Dada, Loy displays what has been referred to by Susan Suleiman as a 'double allegiance', a concept Suleiman applies to postmodernist women writers, "who were drawn both to the formal experimentation and cultural radicalism of the historical male avant-gardes and to the later feminist critique of dominant sexual ideologies including the ideologies of those very same avant-gardes."8

In Insel, the dreamlike delusions and hallucinations of the narrator are conveyed to the reader in terms of the visual ambiguities and irrationalities of a Surrealist painting. In an interaction between the notion of text as painted canvass and as written word, Loy invites the reader to share her own visions of a surreal world. In her multi-layered writing there is an imbrication of ideas concerning identity and insanity, sexuality and gender, reality and surreality, which is redolent of the strangely disturbing dream-logic of paintings by Rene Magritte or Richard Oelze,9 or in the grotesque images conjured by Salvador Dali or Max Ernst. 10 That Insel will parody the mystical and occultist elements in Surrealist thought, which sought to tap the mysterious forces of the unconscious mind, is signalled early on, when, referring to Surrealism as "something fundamentally black-magicky," (p.21) the narrator describes how the mere presence of a Surrealist in the same room transformed her perceptions, reducing her to a state of delirium. In a letter to a friend she draws grotesquely distorted verbal sketches of Andre Breton and Max Ernst:

  It's funny how people who get mixed up with black magic do suddenly look like death's heads - they will grin and there is nothing but a skull peering at you…Sex [sic - should probably read Max (Ernst)] is an exception. He is permanently a skull with ligaments attached, having the false eyes of an angel, and, at the back of them his cranium full of intellectual dust. Often they look like a goat's. While Moto [Breton] has the expression of an outrageous ram…In fact, they are very, in their fantastic ways, expressive of their art, which after all takes on such shapes as would seethe from a cauldron overcast by some wizard's tortuous will.(pp.21-22)

Loy's satirical intent is declared at the outset, and it is clear from the first sentence, that the reader will not be moving in the relatively stable and rational world of traditional narrative:

  The first I heard of Insel was the story of a madman, a more or less surrealist painter, who, although he had nothing to eat, was hoping to sell a picture to buy a set of false teeth. He wanted, he said, to go to the bordel but feared to disgust a prostitute with a mouthful of roots. The first I saw of this pathetically maimed celebrity were the tiny fireworks he let off in his eyes when offered a ham sandwich. (p.19)

In Loy's parody, the multiplicity of oddly juxtaposed ideas which combine in these opening words, establish some of the central concerns of the work. Firstly, a connection is established between mental instability and surrealism through the description of the protagonist as both a "more or less surrealist painter", and a putative "madman." This reference to insanity is the first of many which litter Loy's text. For example, in a trance-like state of delusion the narrator will ponder: "If this is madness…madness is something very beautiful," and later reacting to Insel's paranoid declaration, having taken up residence in her apartment, that " 'I am a prisoner here' ", she responds, "It did not recur to me that his classic complaint is an echo in the corridors of asylums." (p.111) The narrative weaves a path between the external world of Paris streets and cafes, and the interiority of the "forbidden zone" of the unconscious mind. Events take place in a dangerous and paradoxical psychic borderland between sanity and insanity, beauty and horror, a region to which the narrator refers as "the unexplored frontiers of consciousness." (p.117)

The Problematic of Women and Surrealism
In her essay "A Double Margin" Susan Suleiman discusses a 1924 text by Louis Aragon, where he describes a meeting of the La Centrale Surrealiste, a "rallying point" for early participants in the Surrealist project, where men would meet under a life-size reclining nude figure, suspended from the ceiling. Here, Aragon reports, they would "every day receive visits from anxious men bearing heavy secrets. "11 Of the nude figure, Suleiman writes:

  Her function was evidently to inspire the "anxious men" who came to unburden themselves of their secrets. Did any anxious women come to unburden themselves of theirs? How might the floating lady have functioned for them.12

The text of Insel might be considered as the "unburdening" by Loy of a "secret" anxiety concerning the problematic of women and surrealism, in particular it affects woman's creativity. For example the state of chaotic irrationalism, which is induced in Loy's narrator by Insel's psychic impositions, was considered by the Surrealist as a condition to which woman was naturally vulnerable, like the infantile, primitive or neurotic minds of the child, the savage, or the madman, who were the objects of Breton's early research. Whitney Chadwick writes of the positioning of women in Surrealism:

  The image of ethereal and disruptive womanhood which enters Breton's poetry of the 1920's owes much to Apollinaire's imbrications of erotic and poetic emotion, his reliance on Symbolist polarities to express the duality of female nature, and his presentation of Laurencin as muse and eternal child. But the Surrealist woman was also born out of Freud's ambivalent and dualistic positioning of woman at the center of creative and subversive powers of the love instinct, in her incompatible roles as mother and bearer of life and destroyer of man.13

In Breton's Nadja and L'amour fou (1937) it is the disturbing effect of the female, as object of romantic love and erotic desire, and as mysterious muse with her facility for clairvoyance, which makes her the ideal medium, whereby male Surrealist may achieve the required release from the manacles of reason and self-control. For example, in Nadja Breton asks:

  I mean, is the real Nadja this always inspired and inspiring creature who enjoyed being nowhere but in the streets, the only region of valid experience for her, in the street, accessible to interrogation from any human being launched upon some great chimera, or (why not admit it) the one who sometimes fell, since, after all, others had felt authorized to speak to her, had been able to see in her only the most wretched of women, and the least protected?14

As a creature of the streets, Nadja is available to any form of chance occurance or sexual adventure that might befall. Her vulnerability is the archetypal condition of woman in Surrealism . Earlier, in the First Manifesto Breton had identified the potential of woman for invoking the realm the unconscious. Referring to the return to a waking state, following a night of dreams, he writes:

  Not only does the mind show a strange tendency to disorientation under these conditions (this is the clue to slips of the tongue and lapses of all kinds whose secret is just beginning to be surrendered to us), but when functioning normally the mind still seems to obey none other than those suggestions which rise form that deep night I am commending. Sound as it may be, its equilibrium is relative. The mind hardly dares express itself and, when it does, is limited to stating that this idea or that woman has an effect on it. What effect it cannot say; thus it gives the measure of its subjectivism and nothing more. The idea, the woman, disturbs it, disposes it to less severity. Their role is to isolate one second of its disappearance and remove it to the sky in that glorious acceleration that it can be, that it is.15

Gwen Raaberg writes of the resultant problem position of women writers and artists in relation to the predominantly male group of Surrealist artists and writers at this time:

  The Surrealists conceived of woman as man's mediator with nature and the unconscious, femme-enfant, muse, source and object of man's desire, embodiment of amour fou, and emblem of revolution. The concept of "woman" objectified by male needs was in direct conflict with the individual woman's subjective need for definition and free artistic expression.16

The struggle of the narrator in Insel to assert her own subjectivity represents the conflict which Raaberg describes. Initially drawn to Insel "as if by a magnet", she becomes increasingly held in thrall to his hypnotic power in "his Edenic region of unreasoning bliss to sway among immaterial algae," (p.69) her psyche increasingly entangled with his.17 Early on in the novel, when she feels compelled to relinquish her apartment to him, she clears a space by sewing all of her "scribbles" into the "corpse-like sack" (p.40) of an old overall. In this symbolic gesture, at the moment of surrendering her home and her mind to Insel, she significantly erases all visible reference to her own creativity, by an interment of her texts within a surrogate corpse.

This effacement of her creative self by the first person narrator is similarly enacted in the text, by her near anonymity. She is named only twice, on each occasion so incidentally, as to render the reference unremarkable. 18 The commonplace nature of the name "Mrs. Jones", suggests that it is a mask adopted in a spirit of self-mockery by the notorious "pseudonymist" Loy.19 The combination of the formal "Mrs." with the patronym "Jones", signifies the narrator's lack of autonomy and independence from the masculine, which she seeks as an artist. In Insel, she is merely the fertile ground in which the Surrealist's mind is able to "mature" or ripen.

  He suffered, it would seem, from the incredible handicap of only being able to mature in the imagination of another. His empty obsession somehow taking form in obsessing the furnished mind of a spectator. (p.156)

The tension between Insel's psychic magnetism and the narrator's resistance to the "accidental clairvoyance" with which she finds herself endowed, stands as a metaphor for her struggle to find the means to assert her own subject position through her painting or writing. The text of Insel is itself the enactment of this struggle, and exemplifies the process described by Susan Suleiman, when she writes:

  A woman Surrealist…cannot simply assume a subject position and take over a stock of images elaborated by the male imaginary. In order to innovate she has to invent her own position as subject and elaborate her own set of images - different from the image of the exposed female body, yet as empowering as that image is, with its endless potential for manipulation, disarticulation and rearticulation, fantasizing and projection, for her male colleagues. 20

It is in the "fantasizing and projection" of the hallucinatory images, which she conjures in defiance of male models, and in the invention of a "disarticulated" language with which to do so, that the narrator reaches maturity as a writer. The book itself becomes the means of exorcising Insel. Towards its conclusion she writes of their final meeting:

  'Sehen Sie, Insel," I explained, "Man muss reif sein - one must be ripe."
'I felt Insel crack as if he had been shot alert.
"Can she possibly mean it," I could "hear" him ask himself as he wheeled towards me, noticing me for the first time; and then convinced, as I stood a little exalted on the corner of the street, decide, "Here is a woman with whom there is absolutely nothing to be done." (p.177).

Loy emphasises typographically, by the use of italics, not only the narrator's artistic and intellectual "ripening", but Insel's ultimate awareness of her as artistic producer in her own right rather than as a foil for his own imagination. Nina Auerbach has written of feminist ideology that it is "inseparable from the lived knowledge of subordination, just as reading and writing are part of our continual self-authorisation and self-authentication."21 This is the point at which Loy co-incides with her narrator, for whom the writing of Insel is just such a form of "self-authorisation and self-authentication".

Indeed, it is only in his imagination that Insel is artistically productive. Despite the narrator's encouragement and financial advances, he finds it almost impossible to bring his work to completion. Only die Irma, a three-quarter portrait of a woman, appears to be close to such a state, but even this painting appears to be the subject of a shared hallucination:

  The magnetic bond uniting her painted body to his emaciated stature - as if she were of an ectoplasm proceeding from him - was so apparent one felt as if one were surprising an insane liaison at almost too intimate a moment. (p.131)

The painting is described, not in terms of its representation of the woman who is its subject, but of die Irma as an expression of the artist's desire, and thus as a reflection of himself:

  a transparent mask of horizontal shadow was penetrated by the eyes of an hypnosis: flat disks of smoked mirror, having the selfsame semblance of looking into and out oneself as her creator…the great thin uninscribed coins of her gunmetal pupils, returning his fascinated gaze, were tilted at such an angle as to give a dimly illuminated reflection of an inner and outer darkness. (pp.131-2).

The pellucid eyes of die Irma render her available to the penetrating gaze of her creator, to whom she is in thrall "by the eyes of an hypnosis." The eyes of 'smoked mirror', which create the illusion of having a capacity like his, for both inner and outer contemplation, reflect only the 'fascinated gaze' of her creator, and so deny her access to her own self. An atmosphere of claustrophobia and decay hangs about this image, which is described in terms of the artist's sexualised attraction to her:

  He hung over die Irma like a tall insect and outside the window in the rotten rose of an asphyxiated sunset the skeleton phallus of the Eiffel Tower reared in the distance as slim as himself. (p.132)

Insel's portrait of die Irma parodies the treatment of women in the work of male Surrealists, as sexual fetishes in the service of the creativity of the male. The works of Surrealist artists, such as Breton, Dali and Ernst, are dominated by a mythical image of woman onto whom their romantic, sexual, and erotic desire is projected, while at the same time, the female body has been metaphorically assaulted, fragmented and transformed into the paradigmatic Surrealist signifier.22 In a pornographic reference redolent of the transgressive Love Songs, the sexuality of the woman die Irma is satirically imbricated with the process of painting itself:

  Die Irma ist nass."
"She isn't, she's bone dry. I felt her."
"I assure you underneath -"
"Every time I've come to Paris you've said the same thing. Pull yourself together Insel, you've got to finish this for the museum. For you it's work or death. Can't you figure it out?" I urged helpfully -
"When you have money and can eat you paint a picture so as to have more money - when you haven't any more money."
"It's more complicated than that," he objected again, "die Irma is wet -"
I was getting exasperated - When the balls of our eyes caught each other, we both began to laugh. (pp.133-4).

" For the Surrealist's "sexually obsessed consciousness", 23 the painting of die Irma has become a form of pornographic activity. While a generation of younger women Surrealists such as Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini, would assert their alienation and independence from a male dominated Surrealism, by means of what Whitney Chadwick refers to as a replacement of "the male surrealist's love of hallucination and erotic violence, with the art of magical fantasy and narrative flow", 24 for Loy, it was through a caustic critique of the sexual fantasies of Surrealist artists like Dali, that her own artistry as woman writer and satirist demonstrated itself. She was able to see beyond the innovative possibilities of Surrealism, to the problematic for women of entering the restrictive Surrealist arena, and she confronted it within an experimental text of her own. In Insel, it is an unproductive male artist whose paranoia and hallucinatory conjurations provide the material for her own literary production. The polyvalency of her text, her use of quirky vocabulary and polysyllabic words, combined in convoluted or only partially punctuated sentences, and in illogical or paradoxical juxtapostions ( "asphyxiated sunset", "skeleton phallus"), the employment of pun and double entendre, all make persistent demands on her readers, and serve to underline both her critique of Surrealism, and her embrace of its possibilities.



1 Mina Loy, Insel (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1991). Pagination in the text refers to that edition. [back to text]

2 Susan Rubin Suleiman, Subversive Intent (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), p.30. [back to text]

Roger Conover, The Last Lunar Baedeker, (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1985), pp.lxxiv-lxxxv. [back to text]

4 Dawn Ades, ' 'Orbits of the Savage Moon', Surrealism and the Representation of the female subject in Mexico and Postwar Paris', in Mirror Images:Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation, ed.Whitney Chadwick (Cambridge, Mass.: Institute of Technology, 1998), p.107. [back to text]

5 Ibid., p.107. [back to text]

6 Rudolph E.Kuenzli, 'Surrealism and Misogyny', Dada/Surrealism No.18 (1990), 19. [back to text]

7 Luce Irigaray, 'This Sex which is Not One,' trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca:Cornell University Press, 1985), quoted in Suleiman, 1990, p.27. [back to text]

8 Susan Rubin Suleiman, 'Dialogue and double allegiance: Some Contemporary Women Artists and the Historical Avant-garde', in Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, ed. Whitney Chadwick (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985), p.129. [back to text]

9 See Rene Magritte's Reproduction Prohibited (1937) and Richard Oelze's Expectation (1935-1936), which, according to Carolyn Burke, was stored by Loy in her apartment, while it was awaiting shipping to New York. Carolyn Burke, 'Loy-alism: Julien Levy's Kinship with Mina Loy', in Julien Levy: Portait of a Gallery, eds. Ingrid Schaffner and Lisa Jacobs (Cambridge, Mass.:The MIT Press, 1998), p.74. [back to text]

10 Since her encounter with the Futurists in 1913, Loys work had intermittently explored the conceptual space between written page and painted canvas. This interweaving of the writerly with the painterly situates her in a tradition which runs from William Blake, through Gertrude Stein and the work of later poets such as Frank O'Hara, Barbara Guest and Kathleen Fraser. [back to text]

11 Louis Aragon, 'Essay on the Centre des Recherches Surrealistes', 1924, quoted in Maurice Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, trans. Richard Howard (Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 1989), p.92., and quoted in Suleiman, 1990. p.20. [back to text]

12 Suleiman, 1990, p.21. [back to text]

13 Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), pp.291. [back to text]

14 Andre Breton, Nadja (New York, Grove Press, 1960), p.113. First published Paris: Librarie Gallimard, 1928. [back to text]

15 First Surrealist Manifesto 1924, in Patrick Waldberg, Surrealism (London:Thames and Hudson, 1970), p.68. [back to text]

16 Gwen Raaberg, 'The Problematics of Women and Surrealism', in Dada/Surrealism No.18 (1990), l. [back to text]

17 This is one of several metaphorical allusions to lichen or algae by which Loy describes the intertwining of the narrator's psyche with the visions of the Surrealist. These images may have been suggested by those paintings of Max Ernst, in which the use of frottage has resulted in the replication on canvas of what appears to be a tangled jungle of fronds and foliage. See for example 'Forest and Dove' (1927), in which a line drawing of a caged bird, a well-used metaphor for female entrapment, is superimposed onto background consisting of just such a dense forestation of 'lichen'. [back to text]

18 See Insel, p.43.and p.99 [back to text]

19 Loy had, early on, published a poem in the women's issue of Others, Vol.III No.3., September 1916, p.64, under the thinly veiled pseudonym 'Muna Lee'. She also employed various names in autobiographical works, including 'Ova', in Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose, 'Goy Israels', in the unpublished text of that name, and 'Nima Lyo alias/Anim Yol alias/Imna Oly/(secret agent buffoon to the Woman's Cause)', in the poem 'Lion's Jaws', ca.1919, LLB, p.60. [back to text]

20 Suleiman, 1990, p.26. [back to text]

21 Nina Auerbach, 'Engorging the Patriarchy', in Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, ed.Shari Benstock, (Bloomington:University of Indiana Press, 1987), quoted in Kathleen Fraser, Translating the Unspeakable (Tuscaloosa:University of Alabama Press, 2000), p.37. [back to text]

22 See, for example, the various images of female mutilation in the Magritte collages entitled, Une Semaine de Bonte, 1934, and Salvador Dali's Gadget and Hand, 1927, in which a red hand mounted on a plinth, (probably that of the guilty masturbator) is surrounded by the components of the artist's erotic fantasies, including the dismembered torso of a woman, and a classical nude statue. [back to text]

23 The words are those of Susan Sontag, 'The Pornographic Imagination', in Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye by Lord Auch, trans. Joachim Neugroschal (Harmondsworth:Penguin, 1987), p.93. [back to text]

24 Chadwick, 1990, pp.292. [back to text]

BIO: Hilda Bronstein lives in Berkshire, England. She works within various programmes for adult learners at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College. The above extracts are from her PhD thesis (in progress) on the writing of Mina Loy and women of the avant-garde. She has been supported in her research by Royal Holloway College, University of London, the University of London Central Research Fund, and the Arts and Humanities Research Board.


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