Desires dissolvent: how Mina Loy exceeds George Bataille.
among a foliage of mass-production: carnations tossed at a carnal caravan for Carnevale. (2)
Loy employs a floral conceit that returns us repeatedly to the body: "iris" being both plant and centre of the eye, or locus of perception; "carnation" a crown-like flower whose name is associated with "coronation" and "incarnation." "Carnation" thus connotes the revered-becoming sovereign--and one of the most celebrated acts of humility in Western culture: Christ's decision to take up human form. But Loy's poem exhibits no deference to the venerable flower; tossed at a carnal caravan, these carnations are sacrificed to Loy's carnivalesque diction (circus, orgy, carnevale) and syntax, her deliberate repetition of sounds and word play. As Loy writes in a poem on Joyce: "The word made flesh" can "fee[d] on itself." (3) Loy does not associate the deific or sovereign with the act of communication; hers is a self-sufficient, secular view of the word. Loy's writing strives to embody language and explore the language of embodiment; the human subject frequently dissolves in the wake of her struggle with the physicalities of life and language.
I am suggesting that Loy presents us with a dissolute self-a self disunited, unrestrained, and wanton--even as I am aware that there is a tacit, longstanding disagreement among critics as to whether Loy's writing articulates a self entire, one capable of transcendence, or a self mired in and sustained by the vicissitudes of the flesh. (4) My own sense is that Loy's presentation of the subject is fed by her fascination with human passions. This fascination underscores her understanding that the self is innately, endlessly divided--nothing akin to an inviolate whole. As such, Loy's alignment of carnality and the carnivalesque in "Mass Production" is not incidental, but integral to her oeuvre; for Loy, human appetites are often comical, even uproarious. In what follows, I will consider Loy's use of risibility--the desire to laugh--as it accompanies and extends her examinations of other desires such as sexuality and hunger. Like Loy, many modernist philosophers were preoccupied with laughter; its causes and effects earned the attention of Nietzsche, Bergson, and Freud, among others. Their discussion had a notable effect on Loy, and on the work of many of her peers, of which Wyndham Lewis's The Wild Body (1927) serves as a particularly cogent example. Loy can be seen responding to philosophies of laughter in her best-known poem sequence, "Songs to Joannes" (1917), where she portrays risibility and sexuality as conduits to ecstasy. In so doing, Loy foregrounds the precepts of one of Nietzsche's philosophical descendents, namely Georges Bataille.
In the thirties, Loy writes Insel, a novel where her interest in carnality does not abate, but shifts direction. The book is about Mrs Jones, an artist and art dealer living in Paris who attempts to mentor the reclusive and impoverished artist Insel, a figure tangentially associated with the Surrealist movement. (5) The couple are described as clowns who talk, laugh, and eat together. While their attraction is not primarily sexual, nor is it without appetite: gustatory metaphors determine the vast majority of their transactions. Jones and Insel devour one another and this consumption devastates--each ravages, stuns, and overwhelms each in turn. Loy depicts the height of this joint overtaking via hysteria--an uncont rollable laughter that affirms that the self dissolute is the only self there is. In so doing, Loy proves more extreme about the fragmentation of the self than even her most extreme philosophical contemporaries.
The development of evolutionary science, psychoanalysis, and Bergsonian philosophy in the late nineteenth century fuelled the attention paid to laughter and its causes in the early twentieth. What emerges from these philosophical studies is an overwhelming sense that laughter functions as a means of shoring up the individual ego. In The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin argues that laughter reinforces individual superiority and satiates personal needs, as when we laugh in traumatic situations, enabling us to release nervous energy. (6) So focussed is Darwin on the individual laugher that he is perplexed by the noise that accompanies laughing, which is clearly one of its more communicative aspects. By contrast, Henri Bergson's Le Rire (1884) presents the group as fundamental to laughing; he writes that even when we laugh alone, "laughter always implies a kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers, real or imaginary." (7) For Bergson, comedy arises from mechanical and inelastic behaviour; laughter is a corrective to social rigidity. But after laughing the individual "is more assertive and conceited than ever, and is disposed to look upon another person ... as a marionette over whose strings he has control." (8) The mocking group is important in Bergson, but only as a means of affirming the subject.
In Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), Freud is interested in the group dynamics of humour, but like Bergson and Darwin, he considers these dynamics motivated by self-serving desires. He writes: "Laughter is among the highly infectious expressions of psychical states. When I make the other person laugh by telling him my joke, I am actually making use of him to arouse my own laughter." (9) Freud considers this the economy of joking: we joke with others in order to recreate a sense of pleasure familiar to us from childhood; this pleasure is situated within the self, and we exploit others simply to feel it anew. (10) The joy of laughter is the height of these desire-laden phases of joking, its final satiating climax. Freud conflates risibility with sexual longing; the other is part of the equation merely as a catalyst for personal arousal.
Loy's writing clearly emerges from the context of thinkers like Freud, Bergson, and Darwin. The explicit sexual content in her poems was considered shocking, but the shock must have been lessened in intellectual circles immersed in Freud's ability to equate even laughter with sex. Loy's biographer tells us that she met Freud, and that she read Bergson avidly as she developed her own poetic style. (11) These facts merely confirm what is self-evident in a body of writing where words connected to evolution, intuition, and sexual desire are in constant use. And like her forbears, Loy's writing occasionally displays a tendency to use laughter as a form of self validation, a tendency evident in her tract "International Pscyho-Democracy," which was first published in The Little Review in 1921. In this manifesto, Loy argues for the need to establish an "International Psycho-Democratic Party" that will aim for "The Conscious Direction of Evolution." (12) She defines psycho-democracy as freedom of the spirit, a spirit governed by a "creative imagination" that relies on a very Bergsonian intuition. In directing evolution toward revolution, Loy intends to substitute "Creative Inspiration for Force, Laughter for Lethargy, Sociability for Sociology, Human psychology for Tradition." (13) This laughter, like every endeavour she espouses here, is ostensibly collective; nevertheless, the pacifist, post-rational society she endorses is articulated in mock-heroic, but adamantly individualistic terms. In a section of the manifesto entitled "The Aim of Society is the Perfection of Self," she writes: "Man's desire is for Self and "Psycho-Democracy advocates the fulfilment of all Desire." (14) "[I]ntellectual heroism" is the goal, one fed by the loftiness of "beneficent spontaneities" like a powerful, prophetic risibility that recognises that "our social institutions of today will cause future generations to roar with laughter." (15) In its emphases on evolution, psychology, willed transcendence, and mockery, this work underscores not only Loy's allegiances to Freud, Bergson, and Darwin, but also Nietzsche.
No modernist thinker extols the individual's risible triumph quite as exuberantly as Nietzsche. From the outset of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), Nietzsche's protagonist is fully prepared to laugh at himself and his contemporaries, but what pleases Zarathustra most is his ability to inspire laughter in himself. Zarathustra's confidence is undermined by his anxious return to this topic; insisting on mastery, he goes so far as to suggest that he can find ways to tickle himself: "My soul, tickled by sharp breezes as with sparkling wine, sneezes-sneezes and cries to itself: Bless you!" (16) This joyous moment is of course, dependent upon the vagaries of gusts all very much beyond Zarathustra's control. And while Nietzsche believes that laughing by and at one's self is cathartic and imperative, in The Gay Science, he indicates that we must divide ourselves in two to achieve this state:
At times we need to have a rest from ourselves by looking at and down at ourselves and, from an artistic distance, laughing at ourselves or crying at ourselves; we have to discover the hero no less than the fool in our passion for knowledge; we must now and then be pleased about our folly in order to be able to stay pleased about our wisdom ... nothing does us as much good as the fool's cap: we need it against ourselves.... (17)
For Nietzsche, solitary laughter restores egotistical balance, even as it tacitly, inevitably calls attention to the divisiveness that exists within the subject. Nietzsche argues that this fragmentation is positive: his laughter enables ordinary men to see themselves as other, transcend themselves, and become laughing supermen.
Loy, like Nietzsche, is prepared to see the self as a fool; she recognises the cathartic and transcendent aspects of laughter. In one of her later poems, "Hilarious Israel," she describes a "Phoenix of Exodus" as one who has been rewarded for "olden torture" with "gushing premiums / of laughter." (18) Pain--even extreme pain--is folly best overcome by humour. Evidence of late-nineteenth century thinkers' influence on modernist writers is readily available--Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, for instance, privilege risibility in their articulations of the self. (19) But one of the more overt cases of authorship fed by philosophy arises in the writing of Wyndham Lewis, an author often compared to Loy because they share satiric impulses and a concomitant love of complex diction and syntax. (20) In The Wild Body, Lewis's short story collection published in 1927, the central protagonist is Kerr-Orr, a figure who describes himself as "living in a mild and early millennium of mirth"; it is his intention to take this zeitgeist to extremes-Kerr-Orr longs to "provok[e] a series of typhoons in teacups. (21) Aggression affirms his burgeoning, self-conscious power, and laughter is his primary weapon; Kerr-Orr is a soldier who describes himself as transformed from a fighting to a laughing machine, having converted his ferocity into a very bitter and incessant amusement. He states:
My body is large, white and savage. But all the fierceness has been transformed into laughter. It still looks like a visi-gothic fighting-machine, but it is in reality a laughing machine ... when I laugh I gnash my teeth, which is another brutal survival and a thing laughter has taken over from war. Everywhere where formerly I would fly at throats, I now howl with laugher [sic]. That is me. (22)
In creating Kerr-Orr, Lewis extends Bergson's argument that humanity becomes laughable when it inadvertently behaves in a machine-like fashion: for Lewis, the body itself is nothing but a machine, and is therefore always absurd. As such, Kerr-Orr insists: "I am never serious about anything, I convert all into burlesque patterns; I am disposed to forget that people are real." (23) Bergson's influence is tacit, but Freud is directly cited; as Kerr-Orr asserts: "Freud explains everything by sex: I explain everything by laughter." (24) But Lewis then likens one of Kerr-Orr's extended howls of laughter to an orgasm that leaves him weak and breathless. (25) The arousal here is as masturbatory and as self-affirming as Freud's laughter theory.
Nietzsche's ideas also surface in The Wild Body. Two essays included in the book purport to make transparent the theory informing the fiction. In these tracts, Lewis echoes Zarathustra's descriptions of laughter, informing us that "Laughter is the mind sneezing" and "laughter is "the brain-body's snort of exultation ... all that remains physical in the flash of thought, its friction." (26) While Nietzsche is very keen to associate the body with the mind, Lewis strives to keep the essential, intellectual portion of the self distinct from its laughter. Nevertheless, his use of compound nouns such as "brain-body" illustrate a thinker more attached to Nietzschean precepts than he is perhaps wholly aware--his insistence on Cartesian duality falls apart in his discussions of the intellectuality and physicality of laughter. A still more direct Nietzschean influence is discernible when Lewis, citing a number of famous comic types in literature, argues that these figures exemplify "an exuberant hysterical truth. They transcend life and are complete cyphers, but they are monuments of dead imperfection. Their only significance is their egoism." (27) While Lewis denounces the possibility of risibly--driven transcendence, he echoes the pith of Nietzsche's theory of laughter here and through his short stories: namely, its affirmation of the self, and the celebratory truth subjective laughter might portend. As he writes in his catalogue of "the attributes of Laughter": "Laughter is the Wild Body's song of triumph." (28) Also like Nietzsche, Lewis implicitly acknowledges the need for the other in the generation of laughter; the same catalogue suggests that "Laughter is the bark of delight of a gregarious animal at the proximity of its kind." (29) No wild body, no matter how autonomous, exists without interaction with other bodies.
Lewis's severe application of laughter theory is not always in control of its own satirical urges, but his work amply illustrates the sort of aggression and borderline lunacy at the heart of finding everything constantly and personally amusing. Furthermore, in aligning slaughter with laughter, The Wild Body reveals still more reasons for the interest in laughter in the modernist period, in which triumphant, individualistic laughter, like triumph in war, rather understandably begins to lose its appeal. While French philosopher Georges Bataille is assuredly no salve to the period's excesses, his laughter theory builds on modernist philosophy and history and determines to emphasise the communicative aspects of laughter--as well as its playfulness and yielding--in ways that take laughter theory beyond the self. Markedly unlike Darwin, Freud, or Nietzsche, Bataille believes laughter is communication; between individuals he describes it as "compenetration," a reverberation and amplification initiated by the rupture offered by the comic object or perception. (30) This communicative aspect he expressly couches in Freud's own renderings of desire; Bataille's laughter is either sexual--hence "penetrative"--or death-driven: he likens compenetration to contagion, individual transcendental laughter to death, and both to a tickler driving a convulsive ticklee to murder.
Where Freud, following Bergson, suggests that the pleasure of laughter is largely drawn from childhood recollections, in his essay "The Torment," Bataille privileges childhood above all, suggesting that we must recognise childishness "as ... the glory, not the shame of man." (31) He argues that children can laugh even when fully aware that although humanity pursues knowledge, we know nothing; for Bataille, to laugh in the midst of life's anguish is to attain the ecstasy that undermines subjective sovereignty, enabling us to transcend the self. This transcendence is available to adults prepared to valorise childishness; Bataille claims he had this experience as a young man walking through a city late at night:
A space constellated with laughter opened its dark abyss before me. At the sudden crossing of the rue du Four, I became in this 'Nothingness' unknownsuddenly ... I negated these grey walls which enclosed me, I rushed into a sort of rapture. I laughed divinely: the umbrella, having descended on my head, covered me (I expressly covered myself with this black shroud). I laughed as perhaps one had never laughed; the extreme depth of each thing opened itself up-laid bare, as if I were dead. (32)
At this point, Bataille's laughter enables him to transgress the limits of the possible to what he calls the impossible, a kind of metaphysical state which he defines as "what can't be described ... in any way, what we can't reach without dissolving ourselves, what's slavishly called God." (33) This ecstasy Bataille likens to nausea, vertigo, and a loss of self akin to "melt[ing] like sugar in water"; it is a form of intimate communication, a category including erotic rapture, sacrificial anguish, and poetic evocation--all driven by laughter. (34)
In league with his theory of compenetration, the goal of Bataille's risible ecstasy is not solitary triumph. As he argues: "The main thing is the moment ... when life slips from one person to another in a feeling of magical subversion." (35) A literal reading of this quote reveals Bataille's preference for fusing the pleasures of risibility with sexuality. Loy enacts this same fusion in "Songs to Joannes," her thirty-four poem sequence first published in its entirety in 1917. Like Bataille, Loy uses terms of consumption and dissolution to describe ecstasies sexual and risible. Consider poem nine:
When we lifted Our eye-lids on Love A cosmos Of coloured voices And laughing honey And spermatozoa At the core of Nothing In the milk of the Moon (36)
Ecstasy is a Nirvana full of laughing honey--transcendent bliss is achieved and echoed by the fecundity that counters and accompanies what Bataille considers the inevitable unknowability at the heart of things, or "the core of Nothing." In poem twelve, Loy writes: "desire
suspicion man woman / solve in the humid carnage"--her use of the word "solve" implies both solution and dissolving, much as Bataille's ecstasy includes a self both certain of its own uncertainty, and melting like sugar in water, giving way into "magical subversion." The "carnage" that results--yet another variant of carnality--is humid: the phrase insists on registering signs of life, even as it refers to a collection of dead bodies. Loy's speaker then wonders if this act of compenetration is merely a projection of the ego, nothing but a "shallow sound of dissonance / and boom of escaping breath"--a description keenly physical and emulative of laughter. If transcendence is achieved here, it is a transcendence founded on the excess, risibility, sexuality, and death drive Bataille articulates; it differs from Nietzsche and his peers in pitting otherness as central to the experience.
In "Songs to Joannes," abjection often succeeds ecstatic transcendence. The first poem describes "Constellations in an ocean / Whose rivers run no fresher / Than a trickle of saliva"; similarly, in poem fifteen, the speaker moves from the sense that her lover is superhuman, even deific, to an acknowledgement of his "drivelling humanity"--on these twin bases, she concludes with the admission that she "love[s] him most." (37) In insisting that ecstasy includes repugnance, Loy foreshadows Bataille, whose veneration of excess frequently includes mention of mutilation, cannibalism, and bodily waste. Consider, for instance, Bataille's description of love:
An umbrella, a sexagenarian, a seminarian, the smell of rotten eggs, the hollow eyes of judges are the roots that nourish love. A dog devouring the stomach of a goose, a drunken vomiting woman, a sobbing accountant, a jar of mustard represent the confusion that serves as the vehicle of love. (38)
Bataille's mixture of banality (umbrellas, jars of mustard), revered figures, desperation, and abjection compares readily with Loy's twenty-third love poem:
Laughter in solution Stars in a stare Irredeemable pledges Of pubescent consummations Rot To the recurrent moon Bleach To the pure white Wickedness of pain (39)
Bleach, the cosmos, wickedness, pain: Loy's love oscillates as quickly from high to low as Bataille's. Here Loy's laughter is literally "in solution"--both a fusion and a dissolving like the humid carnage of poem twelve-even as the stars overhead are made terrestrial, incorporated into a human stare. While adolescent consummations might be ecstatic, the sudden shift to "rot" insists that putrefaction is part of desire. Similarly, "pure white," wicked pain is fundamental to the starry-eyed romance of risible and sexual ecstasy. American poet Yvor Winters once expressed admiration for Loy's ability to exude "a strange feeling for the most subterranean of human reactions ... [including] a laughter that is curiously physical"--part of the physicality of her laughter is indubitably tied not only to her love of cacophonous phonemes and her observation of variations in the breath, but also to her embrace of abjection. (40) In a manner both carnal and carnivalesque, Loy's heights of passion depend upon an affirmation of the virtues of the base.
In combining the nauseating with the sublime, Loy rarely yields fully to the joys of risibility in her poetry about love and its failure to fully compenetrate or satiate, failures felt particularly keenly throughout "Songs to Joannes." Laughter accompanies sexuality, but in this sequence--as elsewhere in her poetry--we witness glimmers of Loy's extension of carnality to other appetites. Eating and imbibing, for instance, imbue "Songs to Joannes"; as already noted, Loy refers to "laughing honey," and "the milk of the Moon." (41) But in her later work, Loy begins to replace discussions of consummation with an emphasis on consumption, a process arguably foreshadowed in poem twenty-nine of "Songs." Here Loy begins with an apostrophe to "Evolution," and then goes on to contemplate the future development of male and female, advising her muse to:
Give them some way of braying brassily For caressive calling Or to homophonous hiccoughs Transpose the laugh Let them suppose that tears Are snowdrops or molasses Or anything Than human insufficiencies Begging dorsal vertebrae. (42)
"Braying" refers to the emission of loud, harsh sounds; although often associated with an outcry, Loy's adverb "brassily" suggests that confidence and certainty, rather than shock and dismay, attend this noise. The mention of laughter that follows heightens the sense that the braying in question may well be risible; certainly a person who "brays" is considered comic. If so, Loy suggests that "braying brassily" can be a form of "caressive calling"; her supposition notably counters Darwin, who could not understand the evolutionary need for the noises that accompany laughter. Loy then urges her listener to change laughter into "homophonous hiccoughs"--sounds that emerge after a particularly vehement fit of laughter or over-hasty eating; hiccoughs, in other words, are often the signs of a satiated self. Throughout, Loy venerates extremities of emotion: hence tears are also transposed, even disguised by a willing or willed trick of perception ("Let them suppose") into something more material and consumable than mere emotion: flowers or food. Laughter and tears do not have to evolve or "Be[g] dorsal vertabrae"; they are not "human insufficiencies." Instead, they are emotional sustenance, and so Loy aligns them with consumption. Though requisite, this consumption can be uncomfortable, and it is perhaps in this spirit that the poem concludes with an indictment of Bataille-like compenetration, demanding "Differentiation" in lieu of watching "Own-self distortion / Wince in the alien ego". Nevertheless, a re-evaluation of gender, desire, and communicative states like laughter are held up as key to human development; within this transposition will emerge lovers prepared to "clash together / From their incognitoes / In seismic orgasm." (43) Loy's poem is a carnivalesque re-evaluation of human appetites in which the consumption of laughter, tears, and sexuality are foregrounded.
In an extension of the "laughing honey" and molasses tears of "Songs," Loy continues to explore devouring and satiation in her novel Insel; again, risibility is never far from other forms of appetite. So it is that Mrs Jones asks Insel:
'Have you heard about the Hungarian immigrant lost in London?' I inquired as engagingly as I could. 'He wanted to find his consulate and could not understand why the policeman only shrugged his shoulders when he explained he was "Hungry."' Strange how unerringly the unconscious picks its way. I had 'found' Insel for himself again. To the Titan of Hunger--the policeman's shoulders heaved in the shrug of all humanity ignoring Insel. This recognition shook him with the most sophisticated laughter I have ever heard in my life. (44)
The joke is a poor one--an infantile, obvious bit of word play. Nevertheless, it epitomises Loy's interest in consumption throughout this book, and its foundational role in the central relationship. Insel claims his life is modelled after Kafka, and we readily find vestiges of the hunger artist in his concave, gaunt body, commitment to his art, and rejection of social mores and interaction. As Kafka's artist revels in his emaciation, so too does Insel enjoy his impoverishment as tool and vocation; Jones comments at one juncture: "His role was helplessness personified." (45) Insel begs everything from cigarettes, shelter, sympathy, attention, and recognition to food; a typical evening between he and Jones involves the ordering of "consommation" after "consommation"--drinks and snacks-whilst chatting together in a world of their own, blissfully ignorant of time passing. (46)
Food is the major currency of Jones's and Insel's relationship. Jones describes herself as a parasite of Insel's vitality on more than one occasion, and compares him to food throughout. We're told that Insel is a man from whom "all the sweetstuffs of the earth exuded ... He seemed to be sodden with some ineffable satisfaction, as if emerged drenched from some luxuriance requiring little tangible for its consummation." (47) Jones thinks of Insel as a treat appealing and readily digested; even his words are easy to swallow. For, although she initially finds Insel a bit banal, she tells us: "I swallowed his platitudes gratefully. So seldom had I come across anything sufficiently condensed to satisfy my craving for 'potted absolute'." (48) Here Insel is like processed food: a canned, concentrated quick meal. Ultimately, however, Jones finds herself filled with a baffling but "soaring respect ... for a loafer." (49) While the etymology of "loafer" is uncertain, Loy uses the term in a later poem first published in 1950, "Hot Cross Bum." Here, as in the title of the poem, Loy conflates the terminology of food with the experience of destitution in New York's Bowery District:
... nowhere else is Bumhood handled with such gentleness an onfall of somewhat heavenly loaves for your loafing (50)
Loafer Insel is inextricable from the food he craves; the manna from heaven that never appears. Compounding this word play is a short scene in which Insel is described holding "his usual insignia, the heel of pumpernickel, this time one in either hand-extreme oval ends-unbitten-of an absent loaf." (51) Loafers, then, are often defined by the loaves they cannot eat.
In the few articles published about Insel, critics have tended to suggest that Jones is the material, solid counter to Insel's diaphonous, dissolute self. (52) As the above quotes indicate, Jones certainly perceives Insel as substance substantial enough to be consumed; however, she repeatedly suggests that this perception is mutual. And while readers are limited to Jones's point of view, Insel's readiness to use Jones as sustenance is certainly in evidence. Jones is emotional succour for him; it is to her that he confides his childhood memories of a family kitchen filled with the steam of soup. (53) In Insel's presence, Jones "[feels herself] grow to the ruby proportions of a colossal beefsteak" (54); this metaphor recurs in ways that indicate that it is drawn from Insel himself. In public, Insel's favourite food is boneless meat, which he eats because he is toothless. (55) Boneless steak is as appealing to Insel as are sweetstuffs to Jones. And Jones likes her role as Insel's steak, noting: "I did not find it extraordinary that my condition as an undiminishable steak should make me feel almost sublime, or that the man intensely leaning toward me should pray to it." (56) Jones is symbolic food, and labours to satiate Insel's real hunger; she feeds great chunks of meat to Insel when he appears particularly destitute and gaunt. On another occasion, as Insel turns to Jones with violent intent, she defends herself with one word: "'Beefsteak,' I quavered, as if enticing a surly hound." (57) When this utterance doesn't allay his threatening advances, Jones tells her bad joke about the Hungarian; through laughter and implicit sympathy about his endless appetite, Insel becomes conciliatory once more, and their gnawing and gnawed-upon relationship continues afresh.
The laughter Jones and Insel share after the bad joke echoes their desire for one another's company; Loy illustrates their compenetration not by consummated sexuality, but by gustatory metaphors and risibility. The joke highlights how the two appetites are often tacitly combined, as in a moment when Jones mentally compares Insel's face to "stale bread smeared with his private honey." (58) What follows is the surfacing of Insel's extraordinary, Cheshire Cat-like smile, revealing his gruesomely worn and rotten teethhumour, nourishment, and the consequences of hunger bind together this brief sequence. (59) Not all associations of laughter with food are quite so grisly; elsewhere, Jones states:
Our discussions of his tribulations had the light hilarity of conversation between clowns. Our shoulders almost touching, we seemed to come within risible distance of each other. As if our imbecilic mirth were due to an assurance that suffering loses weight when tossed to and fro. (60)
Suffering is the body they toss to and fro, a body that consumes and can be consumed, particularly by the generation of risible distance; the carnal is here echoed by the carnivalesque, in which Jones and Insel play willing clowns. This motif recurs: after Jones feeds Insel meat, he becomes "the clown of an angel"--Loy's tendency to combine the absurd with the sublime is again in evidence. (61) But the carnivalesque is genuinely topsy turvy in Insel, where eating is described in terms usually ascribed to laughing. When all of Insel's attempts to gain weight fail, Jones observes: "the disquieting thing about Insel was that however much food you sunk in him it no more seemed to amalgamate with him than would a concrete mass with a gaseous compound." (62) Here nourishment combines evanescence, levity, air, and body, a mixture more associable with laughter than digestion.
At the novel's climax, laughter supplants food as the most startling evidence that in their mutual consumption, Jones and Insel have indeed achieved Bataille's compenetration. Taking leave after a visit in which Jones feels keenly Insel's appreciation of her for the first time, Jones observes that "to an identical rhythm, Insel and I, on a buoyancy, were danced toward the door bobbing and smiling good-bye in a mutual appreciation." (63) Shortly thereafter, thinking about Insel, Jones finds herself "shaken with a helpless laughter." (64) This hysteria lasts all night long; throughout, Jones describes herself as unexpectedly disintegrating, her body "springing a multiplicity of rifts"; she further contends that "[a] greater dynamism than [her] own rushed in to fill the interstices." (65) Ultimately, she tells us: "I lost contour. I found myself in the 'impossible situation' in which one cannot remain--from which there is no issue". (66) Jones attains Bataille's transcendent impossible, and compares it to "A maddening with desire for a thing I did not know ... A desire of which one was 'dead' and yet still alive." (67) Not only does transcendent Jones fully understand what it is she does not know, she also recognises this state as a form of compenetration, telling us confidently, bluntly: "I cognized this situation as Insel's." Confirmation of her assertion comes the next morning when she realises her face looks as "destroyed" as Insel's; he has taken over her features in spite of her dogged attempts, the previous night, to "weave [her]self together." (68) Soon after, still suffering from bouts of uncontrollable laughter, Jones decides she can no longer maintain their acquaintance as she "could scarcely go further with [Insel] than dissolution." (69) Loy portrays risible compenetration at its most absolute, its most unbearable; in a torture of ecstasy and pain, Jones strives in vain to reorganise and reassert her disintegrating subjectivity.
Bataille's speaker becomes divine in hysteria; Loy's hysterical Jones is dissolved and then re-embodied by another: her self is not improved by laughter, but eradicated. For Bataille, compenetration and transcendence are ephemeral states; in Loy's Insel, dissolution is a permanent condition. Jones is never intact again, and we know this because, in keeping with the theme of consumption that drives the novel, Jones's final separation from Insel is described in edible terms--their devouring compenetration continues until the very last lines of the book. A newfound disgust feeds this continuity. After Jones's hysterical attack, a rift grows between them; in an attempt to "part on good terms" Jones observes:
As we stood face to face with nothing in common, the last people on earth to become acquainted, I saw him force back his loathing, to accept. Our mutual distaste was noxious on the palate. We each had a pressing engagement for dinner ... Even now he was disgusting to the point of revelation. (70)
Disgust is the counterpart of the appetite the two protagonists have shared all along; as counterpart, it is as revelatory as the laughter and consumption that has driven their entire relationship. The comical bathos of a "pressing engagement" in the midst of apocalyptic rejection underscores these associations; here the laughter that emerges from and alongside the discussion of appetite belongs to the reader. By the novel's end, the disgust has dissipated: Jones continues to use food to describe Insel, thinking to herself that his eyes are like "a pair of boiled oysters" and that she has absorbed Insel's "rays" or essence. Jones is still a parasite and still a form of succour; again, in the midst of a silence awkward and profound, she reminds him that he has an appointment for dinner, prompting Insel to gape back at her, his mouth open, at the ready for further consumption. In the end, in response to his smile that has at last, in her view, achieved normality, all Jones says is good-bye. The book closes as follows: "'Good-bye' smiled Insel, his bittersweet stare both dazed and stoic, 'Danke fur alles--Thanks for everything.'" (71) Although bittersweet rather than sweet, Jones nevertheless continues to see Insel as edible; his departing smile similarly continues the risible distance and attraction that exists between these insatiable clowns.
In Lewis's "A Soldier of Humour," Kerr-Orr describes himself as "a forked gut bag" with "large strong teeth which I gash and gnash when I laugh." (72) Here Lewis makes ready, carnal associations between the laughing and the eating mouth. As a forked gut bag, he is surprisingly powerful and in control; he can "operat[e his] body with detachment" and professes a tendency to "snatch his body out of reach when it enrages people, and laugh at them." (73) Lewis's laughter is protection and aggression, an affirmation of the self that emerges from the philosophical theories of laughter that precede his work. By stark contrast, Loy's work engages in, then effectively reverses modernist views on laughter, so that laughter no longer affirms the subject; in Insel the risible self is defined by the comic other, and is in a constant state of compenetration and dissolution. At one point in the novel, Jones decides that her relationship with Insel has "superseded Freud" (74)--while both make use of each other to arouse their appetites in ways akin to Freud's discussion of laughter, their total yielding and mutuality is a reworking of his theories, and indeed, Darwin's, Bergson's, and Nietzsche's also. In fact, Loy's all-consuming risible and gustatory appetites in Insel challenge, to some degree, Tyrus Miller's claim that late modernist writers turn to self-reflexive laughter as a means of re-asserting the subjectivity so threatened and so disintegrated by the work of high modernism; (75) curiously, Miller's reading of Loy's Insel excludes discussion of Jones's extended fit of hysteria. Time and again--in early work and late--Loy's laughter is founded upon subjective discontinuity.
In Food, Poetry, and the Aesthetics of Consumption: Eating the Avant-Garde, Michael Delville writes: "the avant-garde's physiology of taste favours an aesthetic which seeks to encompass the unfinished body in its totality, which includes not only consumption but also the digestion and excretion of edible matter." (76) Delville's book focuses on twentieth-century and contemporary art and writing. But even by the most current standards, Loy is not seeking to encompass the body in anything like a totalising fashion; unlike Eliot, shoring up fragments against his ruins, Loy allows her subjects to free-fall into a dispersion so complete that she foresaw and outdid the extremities of thinkers that came after her, Bataille included. Perpetual, unfinished states of desire-appetites that include sexuality, risibility, and cravings for sustenance--are the means by which she enacts this dispersion. Loy's desiring body is not whole or inviolate; instead, it is frustratingly, comically, ecstatically, and incessantly dependent on bodies beyond itself. Loy's engagement with the carnal involves an impossibly sustained overturning of our presumptions about the self; her work offers us something akin to endless carnival.
Sara Crangle, University of Sussex
(1) The poem in question is entitled "Der Blinde Junge." The page reference is drawn from Mina Loy: The Lost Lunar Baedeker, ed. Roger Conover (Manchester: Carcanet, 1997), p. 83.
(2) Ibid., pp.111-112. In its original usage, "carnival" involves the revelry that precedes Christian Lent, a period of abstention; its etymology is drawn from the symbolic putting away of flesh that follows the extended party in question. Geoff Gilbert offers an excellent reading of this poem in his essay for The Salt Companion to Mina Loy, ed. Rachel Potter and Susanne Hobson (London: Salt Publishing, 2010).
(3) Ibid., p. 89. The full title of the poem is "Joyce's Ulysses."
(4) For critical contrariness on Loy's presentation of the self, see Maeera Shreiber's suggestion that "Loy's ontology does not include a transcendent disembodied version of the self." "Love is a Lyric/of Bodies," p. 99). By contrast, Susan Gilmore contends that in Loy's epic poem, "Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose," protagonist Ova proves capable of more than dissolution-a kind of transcendent expansiveness is described ("Imna, Ova, Mongrel, Spy: Anagram and Imposture in the Work of Mina Loy," p. 300). Both essays are published in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, eds. Maeera Shreiber and Keith Tuma (Maine: The National Poetry Foundation, 1998).
This contrariness continues in the recent Salt Companion to Mina Loy, ed. Rachel Potter and Susanne Hobson (London: Salt Publishing, 2010). Here Alan Marshall reads the pain depicted in Loy's "Parturition" as a conduit to transcendent ecstasy ("The Ecstasy of Mina Loy," p. 173) whilst Andrew Michael Roberts suggests that Loy's presentation of the self refuses any sort of metaphysics ("Rhythm, Self and Jazz in Mina Loy's Poetry," pp. 106-7).
(5) The protagonists are understood to represent Loy, who was acting as an art dealer in Paris at the time the novel was written, and Richard Oelze, a surrealist painter with whom Loy had a protracted and complicated friendship.
(6) Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (London: Julian Friedmann Publishers, 1979), p. 200.
(7) Henri Bergson, "Laughter" in Comedy, ed. Wylie Sypher (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1956), p. 64.
(8) Bergson,p. 189.
(9) Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. and ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1905), p.156.
(10) Freud, pp. 96 and 181.
(11) Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1996) pp. 121-122, pp. 312-13.
(12) Conover, Mina Loy: The Lost Lunar Baedeker, p. 276.
(13) Ibid., p. 277.
(14) Ibid., p. 281.
(15) Ibid., pp. 278-279.
(16) Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 205.
(17) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckoff and Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003), p. 104.
(18) Mina Loy: The Last Lunar Baedeker. ed. Roger Conover. (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1985), p. 207.
(19) I have written more extensively on this topic in my book, Prosaic Desires: Modernist Knowledge, Boredom, Laughter, and Anticipation (Edinburgh UP, 2010).
(20) Comparisons of Loy and Lewis are numerous. See: Marjorie Perloff, "English as a 'Second' Language: Mina Loy's 'Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose.'" Jacket, 5: (1998); Rachel Potter, "Modernism and Democracy: A Reconsideration." Critical Quarterly, (44:2); and David Ayers, "Mina Loy's Insel and its Contexts", The Salt Companion to Mina Loy. Lastly, Peter Nicholls compares their development of difficult, satiric language rooted in the body in "'Arid Clarity': Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, and Jules Laforgue", The Yearbook of English Studies, 32 (2002), p. 63.
(21) Wyndham Lewis, "Bestre," in The Complete Wild Body, ed. Bernard Lafourcade (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1982), p. 80.
(22) Wyndham Lewis, "A Soldier of Humour," The Complete Wild Body, p. 17.
(23) Lewis, p.17.
(24) Ibid., p.18.
(25) Ibid., p. 29.
(26) Wyndham Lewis, "Inferior Religions," The Complete Wild Body, p.152.
(27) Ibid., p. 150.
(28) Ibid., p. 151.
(29) Ibid., p.151.
(30) Georges Bataille, "Laughter," The Bataille Reader, eds. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p. 60.
(31) Georges Bataille, "The Torment, "The Bataille Reader, p. 74.
(32) Bataille, p. 65.
(33) Ibid., p. 59.
(34) Ibid., pp.59-60.
(35) Ibid., p. 61.
(36) Conover, Mina Loy: The Lost Lunar Baedeker, p. 56.
(37) Ibid., pp. 53, 59.
(38) Georges Bataille, "The Solar Anus" in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. and trans. Alan Stoekl et al. (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1985), p. 6.
(39) Conover, Mina Loy: The Lost Lunar Baedeker, p. 62.
(40) Yvor Winters, "Mina Loy," The Dial 80:6 (1926), p. 499.
(41) Conover, Mina Loy: The Lost Lunar Baedeker , p. 56.
(42) Ibid., p. 65.
(43) Ibid., p. 66.
(44) Mina Loy, Insel, ed. Elizabeth Arnold (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1991).
(45) Ibid., p. 38.
(46) Ibid., p. 78.
(47) Ibid., p. 52.
(48) Ibid., p. 58.
(49) Ibid., p. 155.
(50) Conover, Mina Loy: The Lost Lunar Baedeker, p.137.
(51) Loy, Insel, p. 169.
(52) See David Ayers, "Mina Loy's Insel and its Contexts." The Salt Companion to Mina Loy, pp. 221-47, p. 233, and Andrew Gaedtke, "From Transmissions of Madness to Machines of Writing: Mina Loy's Insel as Clinical Fantasy." Journal of Modern Literature (32:1): 2008, pp. 143-62, p. 146.
(53) Loy, Insel, p. 55.
(54) Ibid., p. 53.
(55) Ibid., p. 104.
(56) Ibid., p. 64.
(57) Ibid., p. 112.
(58) Ibid., p. 115.
(59) Ibid., p. 115.
(60) Ibid., p. 67.
(61) Ibid., p. 104.
(62) Ibid., p. 49.
(63) Ibid., p. 150.
(64) Ibid., p. 150.
(65) Ibid., p. 150.
(66) Ibid., p. 150.
(67) Ibid., p. 150.
(68) Ibid., p. 151.
(69) Ibid., p. 156.
(70) Ibid., p. 171.
(71) Ibid., p. 178.
(72) Lewis, "A Soldier of Humour," The Complete Wild Body, pp. 17-18.
(73) Ibid., p. 18.
(74) Loy, Insel, p.166.
(75) Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1999), p. 57.
(76) Michael Delville, Food, Poetry, and the Aesthetics of Consumption: Eating the AvantGarde (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 9.
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|Publication:||Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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