Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. MIT and
For all its flamboyance, the Baroness’ name (a legacy of the last of three ephemeral husbands) may be of only passing familiarity to many scholars of English modernism, perhaps by association with Djuna Barnes, who was her editor and agent. But the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was a force in avant-garde Manhattan, where she lived from 1913 to 1923. Though she learned English only after coming to America in 1910 at age thirty-six, she was for a time the most frequently printed poet in The Little Review, her work appearing alongside instalments of James Joyce’s Ulysses and surpassing it in every sort of provocation. Irene Gammel, who wrote the Baroness’ biography, has now, with Suzanne Zelazo, collected and edited with impressive care the work to accompany the life. The Baroness was not just a poet but a Dadaist performer who “lived life as art” and whose boundary-blurring work, Gammel and Zelazo argue, was thoroughly “embodied.” How then to interpret and present what remains when that body is gone? In response, they have produced a book that aspires to re-embody the writing with its own solidity, artistry, and visual force. This weighty, strikingly designed, richly illustrated volume displays the Baroness’ physicality and multi-modal aesthetics through photographs and film stills of her exuberant, defiant poses, nude and in outrageous costumes of her own design; through images of her Dadaist assemblages; and through dozens of reproductions of the poem manuscripts in her artful, energetic hand, many illustrated in ink or paint.
A hundred and fifty poems and critical pieces appear here, most previously unpublished. Describing the works as “rhizomatic” and “antilinear,” the editors have arranged them not chronologically but in ten loosely thematic sections, from the opening salvo of “Coitus is Paramount” to the penultimate “Art is Shameless.” The explorations of aesthetics, the natural world, or the city are no less “corporeally charged” than the poems of love and the body, but the strategy helpfully reveals the internal range of the work, and allows for separate groupings of the sonic and visual poems. The Baroness is a lean, taut, modernism of explosive energy and frequent wit. The poems are spare and rhythmical, nearly shorn clean of syntax, and marked by occasional rhymes, novel portmanteau words, and an “elastic” dash that marks beats, skewers words, and severs lines.
Pugnacious, satiric, and unabashed, the Baroness’ work helps to restore a sense of the anarchic and liberatory energies of modernism. Here too, however, are hauteur, contempt, personal attacks, and anti-Semitism. The editors deliver as promised the writings “uncensored”— complete with the blasphemies and obscenities that provoked the New York censors, but also with all that is likely to alienate contemporary readers. They propose only that we consider how the prejudices and hatreds are on the one hand anathema to her own “integrative” aesthetics, and on the other hand part of “Dada’s militant arsenal.”
The Baroness lived on the knife-edge of sanity, “driven nuts,” Ezra Pound suggested, by her uncompromising “principle of non-acquiescence.” She spent her last years struggling to survive and died without seeing the collection of her scattered and disorganized work, a task she had entrusted to Barnes and called “desperately necessary.” She embraced the ephemerality of bodily performance, but written words remained her bid for that ultimate defiance, of time, and with this edition she wins
it. She called herself a “future futurist”; a world that has come to understand punk, her editors contend, is finally ready for the woman who walked the streets in 1921 with her head shaved and shellacked vermillion red.