In exploring the embodied performances of ?gures such as the Baroness and Cravan, we will, I suggest, not only come to a new understanding of New York Dada but develop a new view of the city and its avant-gardes
movement, or the cultural meanings of a particular time in a city’s history is by tracing the trajectory of artists’ bodies through urban space. Extending my interest in the irrational counterexpressions to the rationalizations of modernity and modernism explored in the ?rst three chapters of this book, here I focus almost exclusively on the Baroness and other creative ?gures who paralleled her mode of peripatetic self-performance, tracing new routes in the material and psychic spaces of World War I-era New York. There are many New Yorks, but it is a rare study that allows the irrational, confusing, transgressive aspects of the city to emerge; that encourages thinking not only about the gridded streets and skyscrapers, city leadership and celebrity luminaries, and the ins and outs of urban planning, but also about the ?gures who lurked at the margins of these rationalized material and conceptual spaces. There are few cultural histories of the city that highlight not the rational New York (the New York that, in Le Corbusier’s words, “lives by its clear checkerboard [such that] millions of beings act simply and easily within it . . . , oriented and [made] sure of [their] . . . course”) but the irrational one (identi?ed succinctly by Thomas Jefferson early on in its history through his description of the city as a “cloacina of all the depravities of human nature”).5 By focusing on those ?gures at its margins (on the irrational, excremental extrusions that muddied the rationalism of the grid), I hope to open the door to a new picture of the city and its avant-gardes from this period. Inspired by the Baroness’s own neurasthenic avant-gardism, this strategy is part of my plan, and key to my attempt to promote a kind of neurasthenic art history-one that acknowledges rather than suppresses the confusing projections and identi?cations through which we art historians give meaning to works of art, movements, and the artists who make and sustain them both. In terms of urban neurasthenia, Cravan provides an interesting complementary case to that of the Baroness, and one worth contemplating at some length to clarify what I mean by the irrational city and its irrational subjects. In many of his anastasiadate-quizzen writings, he speci?cally en?eshes the city.
Street and artistic subject intertwine in an imagery of pulsating urban chaos that ultimately threatens
the integrity of the body itself (in the city, as he wrote in his “Notes,” there is “no body, do you understand, no body”).6 A nomad whose identity refutes the labels accommodated by national boundaries, not to mention ideas about artistic subjectivity, Cravan dragged “the colours of a hundred cities” in his soul: he was active in the 1910s in Paris, Barcelona, and other cities of Europe and then in New York before he disappeared off the coast of Mexico as he prepared to sail to Buenos Aires to meet Mina Loy, his wife, in November 1918-coincidentally or not, the month in which World War I ended. Cravan could be said to have lived his life and practiced his art (the two processes being identical in his case) in such a manner as to reembody the male subject of urban modernity during the early twentieth century (see ?g. 4.3). It is legendary that Cravan not only wrote incendiary prose and poetry, such as the “Notes” cited above, which insisted on visceral bodily metaphors for the increasingly abstracted and rationalized human subject during this period, but also enacted himself violently and ?amboyantly against the grain of either bourgeois, military, or even accepted artistic models of masculine subjectivity. Cravan’s various self-performances in and out of the literary and visual avant-gardes included: ?ghting the legendary Jack Johnson in a banner ?ght in Barcelona in 1916 (he styled himself as “poet and boxer” and, losing badly, he nonetheless earned his passage to the United States, where he landed in January of 1917); claiming, in his journal Maintenant, that Oscar Wilde was still alive (he was, notoriously, Wilde’s nephew), going so far as to provide an extensive description of a meeting with him; and taking on alternative artistic personae under various pseudonyms (the name Arthur Cravan itself was fabricated in 1911; his original name was Fabian Lloyd).7 Most notably, Cravan refused to ?ght in World War I. As his most sensitive biographer, Roger Conover, has noted, Cravan “sought confrontation” but “refused to bear arms. In de?ance of war, he assumed the disguise of a soldier and hitchhiked to neutral ground.”8 Having thus escaped conscription (Cravan had English parents, was born in Switzerland, and used French as his primary language), he lived in New York brie?y during the heyday of what we now call New York Dada and, like the Baroness, was taken by some to embody its premises.9 More to our point, Cravan was, as Conover puts it, “obsess[ed] with his own body”; Conover notes that Cravan himself attributed his agonized struggle with modernity (“what soul disputes my body?”) to what Cravan called his “fatal plurality.”10 Unlike the other male artists associated with New York Dada, who (we have