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The assumption that modernization in the early 20th century precluded stable belief systems has been so often repeated as to become a trope. According to this line of thinking, modernization and belief could not co-exist; religion could be reworked into metaphor and satire but never could it hold the thinking person’s

Mina Loy

spirit in the same way. In the face of emerging scientific discovery, technology, and warfare, the sprawling and often incompatible movements that made up Anglo-European Modernism sought to forge various alternative directions. Manifestos took the place of religious doctrine and offered a way of charting existence without the need to rely on faith; art, perhaps, could be a godless religion. Some of this is indeed true, but it is far from absolute. As this paper will show, Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes are two modernist artists who sought to combine belief and artistic practice in ways that differ but address the same essential question: How best to live with the need for belief in an era that undermines traditional religion? Coupled with this concern is a grappling with identity politics that places both authors outside normative communities, religious and otherwise. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper, my hunch is that their work speaks to a larger trend among writers in the 20th century.

Recent scholarship has attempted remedy this cultural myth in several useful ways. In his book on the subject, Pericles Lewis (2010) asserts that the modernist period is replete with authors attempting to explain religious experience in non-religious terms. In doing so, the usual modernists suspects—Proust, Kafka, and Joyce—are rewritten as trying to “erect structures that will contain new sacred communities in place of the vanishing congregations of the lonely churches” (22). Similarly, Louis L. Martz (1998) argues that authors like Joyce and Lawrence assumed the role of prophets in their time, a role vacated by religious figures.

Less conservative approaches (and, I think, more useful) consider literature beyond a replacement for religion, especially in the work of traditionally marginalized figures. In exploring what she terms “a highly creative, idiosyncratic mysticism” in HD’s poetry, Elizabeth Anderson (2013) attempts to show that writers such as HD provided a “third way” as an alternative to art subjected to the role of religious dogma—in contrast to such authors as T.S. Eliot (3). Similarly, Lara Vetter (2010) views what she terms “religio-scientific discourse” as a way to overcome bodily crises “that women writers and writers of color experienced… particularly acutely” (1). Helen Sword (2002) helpfully assesses the role of spiritualism in crafting modernist discourse, ultimately concluding that “spiritualism continued to flourish well into the twentieth century, both as a method and a metaphor, not in spite of the modernist Zeitgeist but because of it.” This is particularly useful in thinking of Barnes and Loy, both of whom had experience with spiritualism as a way to “embrace both authority and iconoclasm, both tradition and innovation” (x). Taken together, such works allow us a way to imagine art not simply as a replacement for religion—as Matthew Arnold famously predicted at the turn of the century—but rather as an exploration of it.

The lives and works of Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes bear the mark of such modernist thought and both writers experienced non-normative upbringings that led them to contemplate such themes in their fiction. While Barnes was raised by a spiritualist grandmother and a polyamorous father, Loy was born to a Christian mother ashamed of her husband’s Jewish background. As evidenced in both their biographies, these factors continued to haunt each author throughout their lives. In Barnes’ masterpiece Nightwood, as we shall see, themes of religious ritual and sexual deviance merge with the inescapable inheritance of the past. The novel’s culmination, which I insist must be allowed a certain inexplicable quality, is best read as a yearning for a system of belief—a yearning that ultimately remains unfulfilled. In contrast, Mina Loy’s Goy Israels manuscripts—currently unpublished and housed in The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University—reveal an increasing desire to render the main character, Goy Israels, as a prophet of humankind’s spiritual evolution.

Ultimately, I have sought to illuminate aspects of Barnes and Loy work by way of comparison not simply because the two were good friends and colleagues, but because I believe that looking at one in tandem with the other provides more understand than would a study of one author alone. In placing Barnes’ work up against Loy’s, I believe that what is unique to each finds resonance in the other while still remaining singular, for comparison is never simply a mere categorization of similarities and differences. It is, as W.J.T. Mitchell notes in “Comparisons Are Odious,” “the dialectic between similarity and difference, the process of finding differences between things that appear to be similar, and of finding similarities between things that appear to be different” (321-322). This process has been one of challenging my assumptions about what belief in each text does or does not “mean,” as a similarity here or difference there only serves to open up another passage of the labyrinth of meaning. My hope is that one text will help to illuminate the other and, subsequently, help to illuminate this dark corner of modernist belief between the wars.


An Anatomy of the Night

First published in 1934 and intermittently ignored for years, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is finally getting the treatment it deserves. Following on the heels of the feminist recovery efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, Nightwood has enjoyed a steady stream of critical attention focusing, mostly, on the role of women in the text. As Georgette Fleischer chronicles in her article “Djuna Barnes and T.S. Eliot: The Politics and Poetics of Nightwood,” early scholars focused on Barnes’ marginalization as an author and that “blame for human misery in Nightwood has been focalized in the feminist readings on patriarchy, which ignore the pervasive struggles the characters engage in with their selves” (421). While I agree that one type of reading (in this case, feminist) can never account for the complexity of a text like Nightwood, Fleischer’s concluding assertion that “Judeo-Christianity is the cultural phenomenon that troubled Barnes most” strikes me as equally reductive (427). [1]  As I will show, Barnes owes more to heterodox systems of belief such as spiritualism and, importantly, the text longs for a system it cannot find. It is this longing that threads its way through the text; lacking definitive answers, Barnes offers us instead an anatomy of absence.

The text of Nightwood is so rife with metaphors of religion that to give a list of them seems redundant; what I am interested in instead is an understanding of Nightwood on its own terms. This is, it seems to me, what Fleischer’s article attempts to get at: imposing an external system of understanding on Nightwood does not do the text justice. A map of the text reveals that Robin Vote—the love interest that the text is ostensibly centered around—is present relatively infrequently. Instead, it is the Dr. Matthew O’Connor whose prophetic speech takes up more than half of the novel.[2] As such, I find the most coherent philosophical underpinnings of the text—somewhat paradoxically, perhaps, as his words are often opaque and difficult—in his words and will confine the majority of my argument to a discussion of his character.

To my mind, the text is uniquely concerned with religious inheritance, which is a theme mirrored in Barnes’ letters to her friend Emily Holmes Coleman. As G.C. Guirl-Stearley notes in his introduction to excerpts of the letters published in The Missouri Review, Barnes was open with Coleman in way she was not with anyone else; read thusly, the letters give us a unique insight into a writer whose spirituality is anything but absent. Despite her reclusive lifestyle and suffering, in a 1936 letter Barnes declared herself to be “only interested in beauty, art and religion” (136). Her expression of these terms as a series suggests a certain conflation of interests and, indeed, at one point Barnes suggests that Coleman’s actions may reflect “something missing in [her] relation to God” (144). Barnes does not shy away from discussions of God’s place in the world and suggests that something “missing” spiritually can spell trouble for one’s personal life. Moreover, she allows for uncertainty in humankind’s relation to God. “We condemn God, saying why has he planted evil in the world, if he is all powerful and all perfection,” she muses, “but what do we know of his design?” Although Barnes and Coleman were remarkably close, their friendship was split when Coleman underwent a religious conversion to Catholicism (107).  It seems that Barnes preferred to leave something of the mystery in God.

Dr. O’Connor, too, seems to allow for the ineffable in spite of his prophetic certainty. In the chapter “Watchman, What of the Night?” Nora admits that she was wrong about sleep being an empty space where one’s identity is sheltered. Instead, she says, “the night does something to a person’s identity, even while asleep.” The doctor agrees:

Let a man lay himself down in the Great Bed and his ‘identity’ is no longer his own, his ‘trust’ is not with him, and his ‘willingness’ is turned over and is of another permission. His distress is wild and anonymous. He sleeps in a Town of Darkness, member of a secret brotherhood. He neither knows himself nor his outsiders; he berserks a fearful dimension and dismounts, miraculously, in bed! (87)

Critical discussion about the symbolism of the night in this text will perhaps never end; however, I’d like to suggest that it is more useful to think of the night as the hyperbolic liminal space not corresponding to any solid signifier. Less representational than even the slipping signifier, the night is, quite simply, the night. It is a godless place filled with mystical connection, where the “Great Bed” of eternity cradles anonymous identities of a “secret brotherhood” that mix and meld as if interchangeable.

In this way, the spiritualist dimension of Barnes’ text becomes apparent. O’Connor presents the human as a wanderer capable of moving back and forth from the spiritual realm to the realm of the living. Although there is little overt discussion of spirits or spiritual communication, the language of haunting is present throughout. All humans, in fact, are rewritten as spirits themselves. Dr. O’Connor’s worldview suggests an eternal return (borrowing from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Benjamin) where time is a spiral and we are destined, like the eternal Jew, to wander the world filled with memories of another past.[3] O’Connor, for example, notes that he was “possibly a girl in Marseilles thumping the dock with a sailor, and perhaps it’s that memory that haunts me” (97). Towards the end of the novel, when Nora asks what will become of herself and Robin, he answers, “Nothing…as always. We all go down in battle, but we all come home” (137). So what can we make of a world in which we are eternally seeking, destined to remain repeating variations on the same theme? Barnes, for her part, does not give us any easy answers. Perhaps there is a purpose in this spiral, a sort of eternal becoming. Can anything be won in such a world? It is with this in mind that we turn our attention to the enigmatic artist Mina Loy.


A Wanderer Infinitely More Haunted

With the exception of a recent monograph (Parmar 2012), little critical attention has been paid to Mina’s Loy’s semi-autobiographical prose works, which she began working on in the 1920s and continued revising until her death in 1966. Discussions of religion and hybridity, such as that which appears in Vetter’s book on “religio-scientific discourse,” are mainly confined to her long poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,” which explores similar themes. However, Loy’s autobiographical work presents us with a unique spiritual trajectory, one that posits the individual consciousness—particularly that of the hybrid—as uniquely capable of inducing the evolution of humankind. Not only is Loy’s focus on her hybrid identity crucial in developing her philosophical system, she also borrows heavily from Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. As Vetter notes, critics have been hesitant to discuss Loy’s involvement with the movement, “perhaps because it seems such an embarrassment” despite the fact that it “provides the theoretical basis for her meditations on race and evolution”(122). I agree that one cannot discuss one element of religion in Loy’s work without the other and will consider each in turn.

As has been noted, and perhaps even overstated, Loy’s views on Jews are anything but evolved.[4] Frequently tied to or described as contemplating money, Loy presents Jews as a race for whom success is the antidote to persecution. And, as in Barnes’s characterization of the Baron’s passing as non-Jew, the Jew comes to symbolize the eternal outsider for Loy. In a draft of Goy Israels, she muses:

What is the view-point of a race that is pursued and ousted, assassinated spurned; whose very God had sworn to bring all calamity upon it- -‘and worse things than these will I do unto you because ye believed on me’- – – And continuing in this worship it this race survives, for the sole reason that this race once it has got an idea into it’s [sic] head that idea is im-poss-i-ble to dislodge. (Box 1, Folder 28, Folio 39)

There is something of the infinite in the Jewish for Loy, but her autobiographical main character cannot be said to possess this inheritance entirely. She is, instead,  “a wanderer infinitely more haunted than the eternal jew: a bi-spirited entity; to wander in opposite directions at once” (Folio 41). Like Barnes, the past is a haunted landscape that cannot be forgotten.  Although Mr. Israels “had brought nothing out of the holy land or so he thought thinks: only a pedigree trailing back into the past for over three thousand years” he has actually carried the seed of salvation, for Jews are a race of reinvention:

Being of this breed of which every now and then, at some time or other, each man must begin again for himself; all over from the beginning, Israels cannot refrain from this hobby of building up; right in the hymenal [sic] clutches of a nation whose wisdom it is to ‘muddle along through.’ (Folio 41)

Here we see Loy’s understanding of the Jew as emblematic of that which is equal parts invention and inheritance—a concern with the eternal return that is ultimately posited as evolutionarily advantageous.

Combing through Loy’s manuscripts of Goy Israels reveals an author who was constantly editing, evolving, and reevaluating her work. Loy probably began writing Goy Israels in the mid-to-late1920s in Paris and continued her work on the manuscript—which, as Parmar rightly observes, evolved into the later manuscript The Child and The Parent—after moving to New York in 1936. Only one copy of the manuscript is dated and it is the only complete one. Goy Israels: A Play of Consciousness, a handwritten 38 page draft housed in the miscellaneous manuscripts collection at the Beineke,contains a title page signed “Mina Loy 1932.” This text varies greatly from early manuscripts in its movement toward the universal. The racial conflict that animates earlier versions of Goy Israels is largely absent, except in references to a “memory of primeval ancestors” and “primeval magic” (group 606 item F-1, Folio 13-14). Instead, Loy was interested in the emerging consciousness of the child—she is called “it” for a while and only twice referred to as “Goy”—as emblematic of an emerging consciousness of humankind. The text ends with Goy’s emergence as an adolescent showing off, her genius child-consciousness gone and now “nothing more than an actor on our stage.” But, Loy notes:

…had we, while she was still nebulous and absolute, been able to into touch with the child microcosm, we might have found in this seedling of all evolution not only the refloresence [sic] of the past but also a germinator of the ultimate blossom of consciousness and that in the cyclic manner of secret things in which the end is the beginning, that it starts its unfoldment [sic] right under our unparticipatory [sic][5] eyes in a flashing synopsis of the eventual illumination of man, as if Will were the urge of evolution to arrive through a patient voyage of elucidation, at the point of departure, only this time by light of our own reason. (Folio 37)

This increasing universalization of Loy’s individual childhood points to the influence of Christian Science’s belief in the Divine Mind. This term denotes a collection of mass consciousness (not unlike the optimistic flip side of Doctor O’Connor’s “Town of Darkness”) that is, for the movement’s followers, God. Like many spiritualist-influenced movements in that arose at the turn of the century, Christian Science purported to give followers a new way to connect with life beyond the corporeal realm. In this movement, as Vetter hints, Loy found a way to merge her Jewish intellectualism with the materialism of Christianity. In looking towards to the future, Loy hopes for a dawning age of “elucidation” built in the universal consciousness of the childlike spirit. This is Loy’s own interpretation of the Christian Scientist philosophy, and it also echoes the movement’s concern with history’s cyclical nature. As the movement’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy puts it in an explication of Genesis:

The infinite has no beginning. The word beginning is employed to signify the only,–that is, the eternal verity of unity and man, including the universe. The creative Principle—Life, Truth, and Love—is God. The universe reflects God. There is but one creator and one creation. This creation consists of the unfolding of spiritual ideas and their identities which are embraced in the infinite Mind and forever reflected. These ideas range from the infenitesmal to infinity, and the highest ideas are the sons and daughters of God. (502-503)

For Loy, echoing the founding principles of Christian Science, the notion of an eternal return holds promise. For in this return there is also progression.


Toward An Ethics of Belief

Barnes seems to yearn for a totalizing theory while Loy seeks to create one; both authors confront the same question of belief and identity in the age of the new woman, but their approach and conclusions vary wildly. How can we make sense of this tangle of impressions? One element that threads its way through both authors’ work—and which is vastly underexplored in both—is ethical concern. Like spirituality, the politics of modernism are often bracketed off, unless it is the requisite mention of anti-Semitism in the likes of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Windham Lewis. From their writing and letters we can see that Barnes and Loy, though, were definitely shaken by 1930s political instability. As Barnes relates to Emily Coleman:

Probably it [her depression] is a reaction from all the trouble now in the world, the coming war, apparently war all over the place, the smell of death is already hanging in the clothes of the nations, and why, what sort of people would we all be if not depressed, and a strong sense of futility over every impulse to create. Create, what for? A schoolteacher said the other day that she could barely get through her hours for depression, she could not take any pleasure in teaching children who were destined for cannon fodder. Can you blame her? (126)

This concern over what art’s role in such a tumultuous political landscape is a germane one.  As Dr. O’Connor notes in Nightwood, “No man needs curing of his individual sickness; his universal malady is what he should look to” (35). This universal malady is addressed, for Barnes and Loy, through art.

In his own crazy way, Dr. O’Connor presents a third alternative to religious and emotional engagement that retains the essence of each. He helps Nora to realize that “We can hope for nothing greater, except hope” (160). There is power in this statement; absent of any underlying system of faith or belief, a mystical alternative allows for connection between past and present. The doctor knows what “none of us know until we have died” which is, simply, that there is “a mystery eternally moving outward and on” that is not our own (161). And although this revelation does not remedy Nora’s heartbreak over Robin, it presents her with a way of thinking that Robin was “richer in her heart because I touched it” (160). Robin will descend all the same, but this touch—this connection between two human beings living the universal malady—has meaning.

Creativity, then, can be a kind of world-building. Very early in her career, Mina Loy penned a pamphlet entitled “Psycho-Democracy: A movement to focus human reason on the conscious direction of evolution (to replace the cataclysmic factor in social evolution WAR. An absolute, constructive and liberating ideal put to the will of mankind for acceptance or rejection).”[6] This was meant to be a radical evaluation of evolutionary politics; in it, she proposes that we experience politics creatively and use our active imagination to rework the idea of the citizen and undo the “criminal lunacy” of war. In contrast to the war-mongering capitalist, the Psycho-Democrat is “Man, Woman, or Child of good sense and with imagination, having a normal love of Life and a sympathic [sic] indifference to their neighbors [sic] obligations.” (3) For Loy, it is the work of the artist to instruct in the ways of imaginative politics; put simply, art and politics are a joint effort both born in creativity.

Is there a way that we can review these authors engaged with ethics on a spiritual level? Although time permits me from considering this fully, I think that close analysis of their works merit such a reading. As I hope to have shown, Loy and Barnes both work to address the “universal malady” of suffering through spiritual philosophies of a cyclical history influenced by spiritualist belief. This, in turn, connects each wanderer with the next. Not coincidentally, both authors are concerned with love and connection as the guiding force in this ethical reevaluation of the role of the human. “If one gave birth to a heart on a plate” Dr. O’Connor muses, “it would say ‘Love’ and twitch like the lopped leg of a frog” (30). And in this love blooms empathy—in this empathy, perhaps, we can write a new world.


[1] Moreover, the model of “Judeo-Christianity” that she cites is equally troubling, as it reflects a uniquely American conflation of Judaism and Christianity not present in Barnes’ text. See, for example, Shalom Goldman’s assertion that “Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism” in “What Do We Mean By ‘Judeo-Christian’?” (Religion Dispatches Magazine Online, January 21, 2011).

[2] And this is, remarkably, after Barnes and Eliot cut a significant portion of the doctor’s speech. See Fleischer’s article.

[3] For an excellent explication of the image of the spiral in the modernist period, see Nico Israel’s On Spirals: Metamorphosis of a Twentieth Century Image, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

[4] See, for example, Amy Feinstein’s “Goy Interrupted: Mina Loy’s Unfinished Novel And Mongrel Jewish Fiction” in which she locates Loy’s texts at the intersection of racial science and ethnology. I find it telling, though, that Loy insists: “Even as man may be distinguished from the more circumspect animals, he is observed to be vastly varied ‘among himself’ in ranging from such as are incongruous in structure and detail, to that which is so ‘well done’ that it surpasses in complexity of beauty all other phenomena in Nature. So is every race at long distance uniform as distinct from other races; yet in every race at close-up there is infinite variety among itself” (Mina Loy Papers, Box 1, Folder 28, Folio 40).

[5] (I can’t decide if these are neologisms or just misspellings, so I’m hesitant to read too much into them. Loy was a terrible speller…)

[6] The librarians at the Beinecke and I had a good time making fun of this title.