26 July 2014

Beach Books: Martin Gumpert and Andre Malraux

“Is there anything sadder than a provincial American Main Street?  Everywhere there are the same shops, the same products, the same posters, everywhere the same uninspired architecture – the undertaker, the grocer, the movie house, the community center. “

“This is the way it is – and yet again, that is not the way it is.  For this dreariness that so frightens us existed over there too.  There were the tenements in the north of Berlin, the worker’s quarters in Essen…slums in Britain and slums in Vienna, there were small towns in Brandenburg that left nothing to be desired in dreariness… But we never thought that we should be at the mercy of this backwater of culture that exists everywhere in the world.  There are no longer situations against which we are protected, agonies against which we are proof.”

“Where did our arrogance get us?  We were suddenly face to face with the silently grown masses of the European continent – an anonymous assemblage of creatures without historical memory, without a traditional picture, for whom the scenery and the way of life of the old continent merely serve as a costume and a backdrop.  To gratify their rightful claim to existence, they had to be educated, fed, clothed.  We thought we were speaking in their name.  But we did not understand them, nor did they understand us.  All that took place in politics, in public life, in the spiritual or religious sphere, was clothed in an unworldly jargon that had meaning for us, but meant only nonsense to them.”

excerpts from in Heil Hunger! Health Under Hitler by Martin Gumpert, New York, Alliance Book Corporation: 1940.

Martin Gumpert (1897-1955) was a German Jewish physician who became an early refugee from Nazi Germany, arriving in New York in 1936. He is remembered today, if at all, as a footnote to the literary career of Thomas Mann with whom he shared information on the course of syphilis that Mann used in writing his novel Doctor Faustus (1947). 
Gumpert's book  Heil Hunger! Health Under Hitler, published in 1940, was an early explication of what a reviewer in New Masses called "the farrago of 'Arayan' science."  In it, Gumpert systematically dismantled Nazi claims to improved public health for the German public under its regimen. Embedded in the text was a message, imperfectly understood at the time, that is still resonant.  Even if you do not agree with Karl Marx that the material conditions of existence determine consciousness, there is reason to be uneasy at the withdrawal of the meritocracy from the rest of us. 
In his woefully under-appreciated volumes The Psychology of Art (1947-49), the French writer Andre Malraux wrestled with the same implied question: is culture a means to transcendence or is it divisive?  (The Twilight of the Absolute by Andre Malraux, translated by Stuart Gilbert, Pantheon Books : 1950).

“We speak of the past as though we planted it in our culture, like an ancient monument in a modern city;…. For a small minority, keenly interested in history, it is fraught with meaning, and its elucidation means a gradually won victory over chaos.  For the vast majority it comes to life only in some large legend…” – excerpt from  The Metamorphism of the Gods by Andre Malraux translated by Stuart Gilbert, Doubleday, New York: 1960.

It seems to me that one thing that happens when we erase certain writers or artists is that their ideas are reused without the gift of remembrance.  How this can happen in a sea of endlessly chaining academic footnotes is hard to understand.  But when Andre Malraux began disappearing from the library shelves I decided I'd better get reading.

1. Kate Traumann Steinitz - Berlin, 1909, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Note:   Kate Traumann Steinitz(1899-1975)  was a German-born artist who was associated with the Bauhaus and worked on various projects with Kurt Schwitters before being banned from working by the National Socialist government in 1936.   She moved to first to New York City and died in Los Angeles.

22 July 2014

Chana Orloff

"So she stands – nude- stretching dully
Two amber combs loll through her hair
A vague molested carpet pitches
Down the dusty length of stair.
She does not see, she does not care
                              It’s always there.

The frail mosaic on her window
Facing starkly toward the street
I scribbled there by tipsy sparrows -
Etched there with their rocking feet.
Is fashioned too, by every beat
                           Of shirt and sheet.

Still her clothing is less risky
Than her body in its prime.
They are chain-stitched and so is she
China-stitched to her soul for time.
Raveling grandly into vice
Dropping crooked into rhyme.
Slipping through the stitch of virtue,
                           Into crime.

Though her lips are vague and fancy
In her youth –
They bloom vivid and repulsive
As the truth.
Even vases in the making
                       Are uncouth".

-       Seen from the ‘L’  by Djuna Barnes, from The Book of Repulsive Women

Hard boiled.   How a term supposedly coined to describe the cynicism of  men fighting organized crime during the Prohibition Era translated so easily into an unflattering sobriquet for 'the new woman' would make a neat subject for a doctoral thesis.  I can see the footnotes clustering already. I hereby offer a few hints. 
 When the New York publisher A.C. Boni issued The Hard-Boiled Virgin by Frances Newman in 1930, the term was already understood to denote a woman who chose - dared even - to remain single.  Newman's previous novel Dead Lovers Are True Lovers had been published in 1928.  The New Georgia Encyclopedia (where you can read about Newman's life and works) describes her "writing within a feminist tradition of southern fiction that has been nearly forgotten."   I'd say obliterated is more like it.  I read both novels in the Arno Reprints series when I was in college and wondered at her determination, as a translator fighting encroaching blindness, as a woman who saw too clearly and too soon the price and who paid it for misogyny, racism, and their deformations of female sexuality.  Newman died at age fifty, too soon.

Somewhere between the forgotten Frances Newman and the celebrated Djuna Barnes is Mina Loy (1882-1966).. Born in London, Loy's life was restlessness personified (where didn't she go?) and her poetry was agreed to be sui generis from the the moment her Lunar Baedecker (sic) was published in 1923. Sardonic about love and also beautiful, Loy managed to offend many avant-gharde male writers and artists but that seems not to have slowed her down one bit.

 “You should have disappeared years ago: -
so disappear
on Third Avenue
To share the heedless incognito

Of shuffling shadow-bodies
animate with frustration

whose silence’s only potence is
preceding the eroded bronze contours
of their other aromas

through thr monstrous air
of this red-lit thoroughfare.

Here and there
set afire
a feature
on their hueless overcast
of down-cast countenances.

For their ornateness
Time, the contortive tailor,
on and off,
clowned with sweat-sculptured cloth
to press

upon these irreparable dummies
an eerie undress
of mummies
half unwound.


Such are the compensations of poverty
to see –

Like an electric fungus
sprung from its own effulgence
of intercircled jewelry
reflected on the pavement

like a reliquary sedan-chair,
out of a legend, dumped there,

before a ten-cent Cinema

a sugar-coated box office
enjail a Goddess
aglitter, in her runt of a tower,
with ritual claustrophobia.

Such are compensations of poverty
to see –

Transient in the dust,
the brilliancy
of a trolley
loaded with luminous busts;

lovely in anonymity
they vanish
with the mirage
of their passage."
- On Third Avenue by Mina Loy from The Lost Lunar Baedeker by Mina Loy, New York, Noonday Press: 1996.

None of this was met with enthusiasm by the male writers, celebrated or otherwise, of the time.   In The Lady Poets With Footnotes (1924) Ernest Hemingway, under the guise of satirizing the style of T.S. Eliot, took aim at six female poets including Edna St. Vincent Millet ("College nymphomaniac"), Sara Teasdale ("Favorite of State University Male Virgins"), and Amy Lowell ("She smoked cigars all right, but her stuff was no good").

The Book of Repulsive Women by Djuna Barnes was published in 1915, at a price fifteen cents, too much of a bargain as it turned out, for the price soon more than tripled as Barnes' sassy, hard-boiled  vision of female sexuality became an underground sensation.
Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) was a literary modernist whose Collected Poems were reprinted by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2005.  The Book of Repulsive Women remains, as always, a difficult to find gem.
It is readable online here, thanks to Johannes Beilharz. 

Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology, edited by Robert Haas & Paul Ebenkamp, Berkeley, Counterpoint Press: 2014.
1. Chana Orloff -  Torso of a woman, 1918, Galerie Anne-Sophie Duval, Paris.
Chana Orloff's Torso of a Naked Woman was purchased from the artist  by the American expatriate painter Romaine Brooks in Paris shortly after it was completed.
2. Chana Orloff -private collection, France.