Mina Loy's posthumously published novel, Insel , narrates an interlude in the personal life of two artists, a poet and a painter, at a transitional moment in the context in which their art would have been produced and received. The two artists kill time together—talking, strolling, sitting in cafés, telling stories to one another—in the Paris of the early 1930s, before their separate departures from the city and passage beyond the French borders and the frontiers of the book as well. Loy's eponymous artist-hero, the half-starved and hallucinated "Insel," derives closely from the German surrealist painter Richard Oelze. Oelze had come to Paris just before the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, and Loy had met him in her talent scouting for her son-in-law Julian Levy's New York art gallery. Insel's foil, the narrator, fellow artist, and purchasing agent, Mrs. Jones, bears a distinct likeness to Mina Loy herself.
Loy's choice of an exiled German protagonist and the political
ferment in and around the surrealist movement in 1930s Paris might lead one to expect more explicit reflection in the novel of the period's social climate. Moreover, her turn at this time to a relatively straightforward prose fiction, a striking choice of genre given Loy's use of fractured lyric and manifesto-like forms in her early works, might suggest an attempt to represent her social context in more comprehensive and discursive fashion. Such expectations, however, are soon dashed by a reading of the novel. Loy, at first glance, appears to have little interest in the world outside the murky idealities and seedy realities of her artist protagonist. The inconsequential encounters of Insel and Mrs. Jones seem confined by the walls of their apartments and of the cards in which they pass the hours, while their "context" extends only as far as a narrow coterie of avant-garde artists, art collectors, and expatriate hangers-on. It would thus seem easy to characterize Loy's book as a historical curiosity at best, a tidbit for modernist anecdote hunters to set on their shelves below Hemingway's A Moveable Feast , somewhere among the memoirs of Jimmy the Barman, Kiki the model, and lack the publisher of banned books.
Viewed through the optic of late modernism that I have developed in this book, however, a different picture of Loy's novel and its relation to its historical and political context may emerge. The figure of the artist in her book constitutes the crucial locus in which this relation may be discerned, for in Insel the protagonist figure literally embodies the predicaments of the artist during this time. Insel's very body, both subject and object of his paintings, has been thoroughly penetrated by a technology of seeing and recording. As "fluoroscope," he sees through the bodies he turns to painting; yet what he "sees through" above all is his own disappearing presence as an artist. In rendering himself as the "fluoroscope" he has become, he at the same time exposes the remains of an avant-garde on the verge of disappearance: a few pale, floating organs rendered luminously visible by the very machinery that has dissolved their organic "context."
Insel should be considered Loy's singular attempt to employ in the 1930s context a particular literary genre, the artist-novel or Kün-stler(in)roman , and as her self-conscious exploration of the pressures that context puts on the typical figure of the artist within that generic tradition. The emergence of the Künstler(in)roman , which came into its own in the eighteenth century, presupposed two specific historical conditions, each of which faced a peculiar challenge in the 1930s. For the artist to become the specific objcct of novelistic depiction and nat-
ration, artwork and the producer of artworks had to appear distinct from other kinds of work and producers. Art, in short, needed a relative autonomy from other social spheres like the state or the immediate market, and artists—rather than, say, patrons or sponsors—had to be seen as the crucial, central factor in the production of art. Second, and moreover, art had to have achieved not only distinction but also privilege among other cultural practices that might supply a novelist with models for characters. Artist-novels presupposed a general mythology about the special status of artists and the making of art, cultural values that these novels in turn served to elaborate, reinforce, and extend.
Modernism, as I have suggested, reasserted and deepened the creative artist's claim to independence from the public's demands, while focusing value judgments about art self-reflexively on the intrinsic qualities of the artwork itself. This emphasis on the aesthetic realm was not so much a repression of ethical and political concerns, however, as a rethinking of them in artistic terms. By ignoring the public and concentrating on the artwork as the touchstone of value, the modernist artist might, they believed, ultimately serve posterity better. Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is, in this respect, an exemplary modernist Künstlerroman; the young artist-hero vows, somewhat ironically, to forge in the spiritual smithy of his art the uncreated conscience of the race. One of Mina Loy's notebook entries strikes a similar chord: "Modernism is a prophet crying in the wilderness that Humanity is wasting its time."
By the late twenties, however, as I have shown, the prophetic role of the modernist artist had been severely challenged by the convergence of several major currents. Modernism itself had aged, and its claims to represent the future had often proven hollow. Its imperative to innovate threatened modernism's adherents with personal and artistic exhaustion, exemplified most poignantly, perhaps, by the suicides of Harry Crosby and Hart Crane. In 1951, in the third part of his autobiography, William Carlos Williams would look back at the truly-great and would-be-great figures of his past and offered a page-and-a-half catalog of deaths, disappearances, long silences, and compromised survivals. Ubi sunt? he asks elegiacally of his comrades in the revolution of the word. I quote only the last paragraph, which ends by mentioning Mina Loy:
Harold Loeb—where?—but back in Wall Street; Ford Madox Ford dead; Henry Miller married and living with his wife and children on a half-
mile-high mountain near Carmel, California, from which he seldom descends. Lola Ridge dead; Djuna Barnes living in poverty somewhere, not, at least writing; Bob Brown, having lost his money, surviving in Brazil; Carl Sandburg turned long since from the poem; Alfred Kreymborg a member of the Institute of Arts and Letters; Mina Loy, Eugene O'Neill—more or less silent.
Contributing to the internal exhaustion of the movement was, of course, the pressure of the depression context and the decade-long geopolitical crisis that followed. Crucial in this process, above all for the American expatriates, were the economic hard times and ensuing currency fluctuations that made short shrift of the community and publication infrastructure of the post-World War I modernist scene. Opportunities to live cheaply in Europe, writing reviews or sponging off the better endowed, publishing in limited circulation journals and with shoestring presses, became ever fewer. When late in 1931 Beckett gave up his teaching post at Trinity and resolved to return to the literary life in Paris, he complained to Thomas MacGreevy of his unpropitious timing: "It's madness really to go away now with the exchange u.s.w but it really is now or never." Henry Miller, who arrived in Paris in 1930, experienced the hardship of the new climate firsthand, both in his personal life and in his literary career. Tropic of Cancer suffered two years of delays after Jack Kahane's original acceptance of it for publication by the Obelisk Press in 1932. Eighteen months into the process, Kahane informed Miller that "as long as the world financial crisis lasted he could not publish any books" and that there was no public to buy them. Only in September 1934 did the book appear, and only in 1936 was Kahane willing to take on another of Miller's several completed books, this time his collection of character sketches and New York memories, Black Spring . Mina Loy's artist-novel Insel , begun during this period when she herself had almost ceased writing poetry, registers and reflects on this changed situation for artists—this new context that shook the twin pillars of modernist faith, the autonomy and the privilege of art as such.
As a generic form, the artist-novel is sensitive to current social conceptions of artists and responds to the contexts in which the arts exist. Yet it goes beyond simply representing these conditions; it also represents the artist's struggle in coming to terms with or resisting the given situation. As Herbert Marcuse notes in his 1922 doctoral thesis on the German artist-novel, "It follows that . . . the cultural currents of the
moment exert the most powerful influence on the nature and form of the artist-novel, indeed, that in the absence of great creative personalities they precisely determine the manner and direction of the artist-novel." Loy's Insel unfolds in such a situation, in which the heroic personalities of the previous decades—Picasso, Kandinsky, Stravinsky, Duchamp, Joyce—were already history, while the personalities who had succeeded them were not able to impose their individual stamp on the age. Both Insel and Richard Oelze, his real-life model, were resolutely minor painters. Loy presents Insel, moreover, as talented but erratic, undisciplined, and unrealized. Her narrator tells Insel: "The artist's vindication does not lie in 'what happens to him' but in what shape he comes out" (31). All the more significant, then, are her continual references to his chaos and formlessness, his unproductivity and spiritual drift. At best, Insel is a cipher of the artist's loss of position and defined social Gestalt .
Loy's explicit analysis of the crisis does not go beyond judging Insel's insufficiency of genius and artistic will, and hence she never apparently faces head-on the objective conditions blocking the emergence of that leading personality she desires. Her artist-novel is a tale of two minor artists who fail to give form to themselves in a corpus of works. Insel and Mrs. Jones meet, not as promised, in a mutual converse of genius, but on grounds of their complementary failure. It is notable, in fact, that Loy staked her own artistic "figure" in these later years on her success in giving form to this artist-novel. In a letter, she writes, "I must finish my novel—it is very sad but if I don't finish it I shall be finished myself—how difficult all these years writing alone."
This failure—the failure of the artists represented in Loy's novel and her failure to write the artist-novel that would genuinely come to terms with her situation—should not, however, be understood solely as a negative matter. For as historical testimony it has positive significance. It came not from a lack of genius, of which Loy had more than her share, but from historical pressures on the figure of the artist that had rendered untenable the modernist artist-novel, insofar as it offered a merely aesthetic resolution to the crisis of art. Such a solution had become realizable only at the cost of what Adorno called "extorted reconciliation," in the form of manifest nostalgia or self-delusion. Loy's artistic integrity led her to confront her own desire for a self-deluding solution and satirically to hollow out from within that false consolation held out by her artist-hero and the artist-novel that bore his name.