We're all pervaded by a consciousness that goes beyond while intensifying the personal.—Mina Loy, Letter to Carl Van Vechten
In 1917, a New York Evening Sun reporter interviewed English writer and painter Mina Loy for a piece on the "modern woman." The resulting article characterizes Loy as a representative specimen of this type whose career it is to "express her personality." Loy accomplishes such an expression, the reporter contends, by wearing clothes from the smartest shops and by crystallizing into symbols "the images that fly through her brain" ("Do You Strive"). A few years later, Harriet Monroe reported in Poetry magazine of her 1923 meeting with Loy, "I may never have fallen very hard for this lady's poetry, but her personality is irresistible. . . . Yes, poetry is in this lady whether she writes it or not" (96). Even friend Natalie Barney followed this lead. When introducing Loy's poetry reading at a meeting of her Académie des Femmes in May 1927, she focused at length on Loy's singular "personality" (158), which she analogized to that of a somnambulist who has "gazed upon the Gorgon," and so gained "some perception of the fourth dimension" (160). [End Page 663]
Given such appreciations of Loy's personality over and above her work, it is perhaps unsurprising that she would exhibit a fraught relationship to personality and, in turn, impersonality. What is surprising, though, is that critics have yet to consider that fraught relationship. Rather, Loy scholars have mirrored the broader consensus in modernist studies by defining the impersonal aesthetic simply as a bid for "authorial invisibility"—an effort to transcend the personal—and have categorized Loy's project, by contrast, as one "borne not of cultural transcendence but of cultural disenfranchisement" (Gilmore 271, 276).1 And yet, even the appreciations I have cited already hint at Loy's own formulation of an impersonal aesthetic that presumes a subjectivity in excess of the egoistic personality and that endeavors to visualize the automatic forces within the subject that condition personality.
The Evening Sun reporter, on cue from Loy, weds her personality to automatic mental images, rendering it not an internal, controllable possession, but a product of an unwilled psycho-physiological system. Similarly, Barney's comparison of Loy to a somnambulist draws on the nineteenth-century scientific discourse of dédoublement de la personnalité (doubled personality), which rejected the notion of a persistent identity distinct from memories, images, ideas, and perceptions, and instead defined personality as a collection of present states of consciousness conditioned by forgotten or never consciously known thoughts and material processes.2 Personality is shaped, in other words, by an inherently impersonal or opaque subjectivity. Barney's claim that Loy "gazed upon the Gorgon"—a feat made possible only by a mediated image (that is, a reflection)—highlights the connection between this subjectivity and an embodied and so mediating perceptual system. By visualizing the limits of perception through her explicitly mediated gaze, Loy partially alienates those limits and thereby gains a knowledge that exceeds them: "some perception of the fourth dimension."
Like so many modernists, then, Loy sought to develop an impersonal aesthetic that would resist the Romantic legacy of art as an expression and affirmation of a self-possessed personality, acknowledging instead the fact that "We're all pervaded by a consciousness that goes beyond while intensifying the personal." Just as other modernists theorized this transformed understanding of art and subjectivity in doctrinal and critical texts—such as Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading (1934), T. S. Eliot's The Sacred Wood (1920), and H. D.'s Notes on Thought and Vision (1919)—Loy reflected critically on this problematic in "Feminist Manifesto," "Aphorisms on Futurism," and "Gertrude Stein." What is rarer among the modernists, though, is that Loy also produced Insel, a hybrid theoretical-imaginative [End Page 664] text that offers a novelized reflection on aesthetic impersonality and revisits Loy's initial concerns about, as well as her subsequent and gradual turn toward, the impersonal subject.
Like Insel itself, this essay traces the halting development of Loy's investment in an impersonal aesthetic, a development driven by a career-long critique of dualistic subjectivity and...