Her Mad Beauty
The Uncensored Writing of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Edited by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012, 418 pp., $34.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Ana Isabel Keilson
In December 1919, Jane Heap, the co-editor of American literary magazine The Little Review, described contributor Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven as having a madness wrought into artistic perspective. According to Heap, the German poet, performer, and personality was
a woman of brains, of mad beauty and elegantes wesen, who has abandoned sanity: left it cold. She has recognized that if one has the guts and the constitution to abandon sanity one may at all times enjoy an exalted state. Madness is her chosen state of consciousness. It is this consciousness which she works to produce Art.
For Heap and readers of The Little Review, Freytag-Loringhoven’s work afforded a new take on the world. Razor sharp in its execution, her writing was wild and unpredictable.
The life and work of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874 – 1927) is as fascinating and fraught as Heap’s description. She was a contemporary of some of the most famous figures in literary and art history, and her work was recognized by many at the time for its merit. Yet her life and work is little known today. Body Sweats, edited by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo, is the first English-language anthology of work by Freytag-Loringhoven. In many ways a companion volume to Gammel’s lucid biography, The Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernism (2003), Body Sweats does much to bring this fascinating figure into focus.
Born Elsa Plötz in the German town of Swinemünde on the Baltic coast (in present-day Poland), Freytag-Loringhoven lived a socially comfortable and emotionally turbulent childhood. Her mother came from a family marked by depression and suicide—and herself attempted suicide when Freytag-Loringhoven was a teenager—while her father, a successful city councilor, hailed from a family with a history of abuse and alcoholism. At sixteen, Freytag-Loringhoven fled to Berlin, where she enrolled in art school. During this time she developed the sensibilities that were to shape her life and work: her sexual experimentation, her explorations of gender and androgyny, her unconventional use of artistic source materials, and her interest in urban life as creative inspiration. After performing as an erotic dancer, she became part of the artistic circle of writer Stefan George—first as an artists’ model, then as a friend, lover, and colleague to its members.
Berlin was the first of many stops on her path as an artist and writer. From Berlin she moved to Munich, which at the fin de siècle was a hotbed of avant-garde theatrical activity, and became involved in its community of Kosmiker—artists, writers, and actors devoted, in the spirit of Nietzschean philosophy, to the pursuit of eros through art. In 1910, she left Europe for the United States, where she lived for the next thirteen years, predominantly in New York’s Greenwich Village, and predominantly in poverty. She returned to Berlin in 1923 to find the city changed by the war. Unhappy there, she traveled to Paris, where she stayed for a year and a half before her death, most likely suicide, at 52.
Out of all of her homes, New York City was the most important for her literary production. Freytag-Loringhoven moved among its artistic and intellectual circles, befriending, for example, the photographer Berenice Abbot, the poet William Carlos Williams, and the Dada artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. She distinguished herself as a poet, artists’ model, and, through her unconventional lifestyle, as a social curiosity—turning, for example, her daily dress into a performance event. In The Baroness Elsa, Gammel evokes the unusual figure Freytag-Loringhoven cut:
Her head: shaved and occasionally shellacked in striking colors like vermillion red. Her makeup: yellow face powder, black lipstick, and an American stamp on her cheek. Her jewels: utilitarian, mass-produced objects like teaspoons as earrings or large buttons as finger-rings. Her accessories: tomato cans and celluloid rings adorning her body; the hem of her skirt decorated with horse blanket pins. An electric battery taillight decorates the bustle of her black dress in imitation of a car or bicycle … a wooden birdcage around her neck housing a live canary; five dogs on her gilded leash as she promenaded up Fifth Avenue.
For Freytag-Loringhoven, life was a work of art ignited by the everyday act of walking down the street. Clothing was animated into performance, the body transformed into a palette, movement turned into a language, the banal turned into the extraordinary.
It was with this uncompromising attitude that Freytag-Loringhoven took her pen to paper and wrote for The Little Review. For the next several years, Jane Heap served as Freytag-Loringhoven’s publisher and editor, and in turn, Freytag-Loringhoven’s writing served as a focal point for debates among the magazine’s writers and readers. Heap felt Freytag-Loringhoven, with her “brains” and “mad beauty” was a new kind of American Dada, while other writers felt her work resembled a more precedented form of literary modernism. Some, including Ezra Pound, simply celebrated her writing for its nonconformity and candor: “The immense cowardice of advertised literati/ & Elsa Kassandra, “the Barroness”/ von Freytag etc. sd/ several true things/ in the old days/ driven nuts. / Well of course, there was a certain strain/ on the gal in them days in Manhattan / the principle of non-acquiescence / laid a burden” (from Canto 95). And still others saw her status as a woman—as well as her overt sexuality—as problematic: as Gammel notes, debates about Freytag-Loringhoven’s work were undergirded by anxieties among many dadaists about a female artist infringing on their mostly masculine circle.
In 1920, The Little Review serially published James Joyce’s Ulysses, which shocked American audiences and eventually brought the magazine to trial for violating US obscenity laws; shortly before the charges were filed, Freytag-Loringhoven wrote “The Modest Woman,” a poetic defense of Joyce and a scathing critique of American society. She believed that the American public’s scandalized reaction to Ulysses exposed a crucial unwillingness to confront the reality of their own bodies, which for Freytag Loringhoven formed the highest order of art:
To show the hidden beauty of things—there are no limitations! Only artist can do that—
that is is his holy office. Stronger—braver he is—more he will explore into depths.
His eye—ear—finger—nose—tongue—are as keen as yours dull.
Without him—without his help—you would become less than dog—cow—worm.
Like Joyce, Freytag-Loringhoven made it her duty to jolt her readers back into their bodies. And the poems collected in Body Sweats show us just how magnificently she did so.
With Body Sweats, a reference to a 1926 poem by the same title, Gammel and Zelazo have assembled some 150 of Freytag-Loringhoven’s poems, only thirty of which were published during her lifetime. Body Sweats also contains a rich archive of material on Freytag-Loringhoven’s life. Her poetry is accompanied throughout the anthology by full-page, color reproductions of original manuscripts, and images of sculptures, photos, and paintings. The poems are organized into several parts (“poems of love and longing,” “poems of embodiment,” “poems on death and suicide,” “sonic poems,” etc.), each with a short introduction by the editors. The volume also features key biographical and historical information: an appendix with a chronology of Freytag-Loringhoven’s life, reviews of her poetry by peers at The Little Review, extensive notes on the poems themselves, and a typescript of “Spectrum,” an unpublished poem edited by the author Djuna Barnes, who met Freytag-Loringhoven in 1923 and who quickly became a fierce champion of her work.
Freytag-Loringhoven wrote in German and English, and sometimes in a combination of the two. Like her clothing built from colorful and unusual objects, her poems are built from a vibrant reserve of language. Running through her verse are terms like “octopuslovepillow” (“Aphrodite to Mars,” c. 1921-1922); “mossrocking” (“Bloodsoil,” 1911/1925); “icefanged” (“Tryst,” 1922); “orgasmlitter” (“Ultramundanity,” c. 1925-1927); and “limbswish” (“Ostentatious,” 1926-1927). Many lines are only a single word, some poems are simply a nonsense combination of consonants and vowels.
The content of her work ranges widely, a feature highlighted by Gammel and Zelazo’s organization of the anthology. With topics from the minute to the universal, her verse pulls the reader onto a roller coaster of sounds and images. Take her irreverent views on love, sex (and sex-toys):
There’s the vibrator—
Coy flappertoy! I am adult citizen with
Vote—I demand my unstinted share
In roofeden—witchsabbath of our Baby-
(From “A Dozen Cocktails, Please,” c. 1927)
And here is her passionate picture of religion and its Freudian undertones:
Inside my weeping heart
down stares sun—
laughter—thy deep sapphire sky.
our blood tears—our tears blood!
(From “Father!” 1920)
And here, her wry yet somber depiction of death:
There is but one safe charm in life: distance.
How charming safe is death.
(From “Endpoint,” c. 1925)
In all of her writing, Freytag-Loringhoven wrests ideas and emotions from their contexts and unites them in a single, often bizarre, situation. Gammel and Zelazo describe her work as as “corporeal readymades”—the verbal equivalent of the dadaist technique of using found objects for artistic composition. Gammel and Zelazo further argue that the body forms the lens through which to read all of her poetry: “it was her attention to the ability of that body to tell a story, document its own expression, and perpetuate and interpret a language constantly in flux that lends her poems their electrical impulse.”
The decision to organize Freytag-Loringhoven’s corpus around the corporeal is an interesting one, and in general, Gammel and Zelazo’s editorial comments and analytic suggestions are helpful. Reading Freytag-Loringhoven’s poetry, however, one can’t help but be struck by her energy, radicalism, and physicality: her work speaks for itself and, quite frankly, needs little introduction. Thus, at times Gammel and Zelazo's editorial voices are distracting. Their emphasis throughout the volume on the scope of Freytag-Loringhoven’s influence—on everyone from Madonna and Yoko Ono, to Nina Hagen, Laurie Anderson, Andy Warhol, and Marina Abramovic—feels clumsy, ahistorical, and unnecessary.
Yet they point to some interesting questions about how to anthologize female artists who have been excluded from official canons, often because of their embrace of the body. Is canonicity itself inherently patriarchal? To what degree is the act of drawing lines of influence complicit with dominant paradigms that seek to name and order—and thereby control—what we make, write, receive? Perhaps Freytag-Loringhoven’s status as a “peripheral figure” in the history of art and literature may not be such a bad thing after all.
We should take our cues from Djuna Barnes, Freytag-Loringhoven’s most dedicated reader. Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) is a masterpiece of modernist literature, and while it is generally accepted that Robin Vote, the main character in the novel, is modeled after Barnes’s lover Thelma Wood, some believe that Freytag-Loringhoven inspired the character. In one of the novel’s central scenes, Barnes describes Robin as a figure who appears, and then vanishes:
The louder she cried out the farther went the floor below, as if Robin and she, in their extremity, were a pair of opera glasses turned to the wrong end, diminishing in their painful love; a speed that ran away with the two ends of the building, stretching her apart.
Just as Robin is perpetually lost to Barnes’s narrator, so too is Freytag-Loringhoven to us. As tough as it may be, we should read Freytag-Loringhoven’s work in this same spirit: as something physical, passionate, and out of our control.
Ana Isabel Keilson is a PhD student in History at Columbia University, writing on intellectual history and dance in Germany. She is also a choreographer.