In progress, please provide feedback!
In the “Feminist Manifesto,” Loy proposes that the possibilities for women’s lives are reduced to, and ordered by, three roles: “As conditions are at present constituted—you have the choice between Parasitism, & Prostitution—or Negation” (Lost 154). As Loy’s configuration of &/or suggests here, negation is a unique position within this list of limited possibilities, one which I will argue corresponds to Loy’s depiction of virginity. In this section, we shall begin to see that Loy’s depictions of the (lack of) subjectivity of virgins, as expressed in particular by her poems “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” and “Magasins du Louvre,” the third section of “Three Moments in Paris,” and the subjectivity of married women, which will be further discussed in the subsequent section, “She (Parasitism),” are similar but also distinct. Luce Irigaray’s description of virgins as exchange value in This Sex Which is Not One will prove useful in demonstrating the characteristics of Loy’s understanding of “virginity,” a key term of women’s subjection according to the “Feminist Manifesto.”
Unlike the situation of the speaker of the “Feminist Manifesto,” we shall see that the speaker of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” experiences far less difficulty as she attempts to mark the boundary between herself and the virgins whom she examines. I argue that this ease comes from the particular characteristics of the subjectivity of these virgins whom Loy addresses in addition to the fact that Loy’s narrator is speaking from within the crowd of virgins, using the pronoun “we,” rather than attempting to delineate boundaries between herself and an other as she does in the “Feminist Manifesto” and in works such as “The Effectual Marriage” and “The Sacred Prostitute,” which will be discussed in subsequent sections. If the speaker of Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto” points outwards without looking inwards, then the virgins of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” and “Magasins du Louvre” have very little vision whatsoever. Both poems can, and have, been read as meditations on vision and consciousness, thus marking Loy’s treatment of the gaze as an important element both in these works and in her poetic project as a whole. The vacancy of the women portrayed in these poems reveals Loy’s awareness of the way in which the gaze both negates the value of women and, further, forces women to participate in their own subjection.
Before proceeding, I would like to briefly state why I have decided, in the case of this particular poem, to once again follow the text of The Lost Lunar Baedeker rather than that of The Last Lunar Baedeker. The manuscript of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” like many of Loy’s early works, including “Giovanni Franchi,” “To You,” and “Babies in the Hospital,” is hand-written in a thick black ink on a thin, lined paper which measures about 6x10. That stanza breaks were important to Loy is demonstrated by the fact that the first two of the three pages of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” neglect to fill the entirety of the page. Loy clearly wished to make her stanza breaks clear. Further, the first six lines were originally written as a single stanza, but Loy wedges the word “space” after the first two lines and then again after the first four. While both the Lost and the Last edition share similar stanza breaks, the Lost edition is the more accurate one; near the end of the poem, the stanza breaks between these two editions do differ in fairly prominent ways.
Further, there are clear typographical errors in the Last edition including “doors” in the second line of the poem which should read “door’s.” This oversight is corrected by Conover in the Lost edition; he admits his error in the endnotes (Lost 181). Also significant is Conover’s decision to standardize Loy’s use of quotation marks in both the Last and the Lost editions. There are two instances of direct speech cited in this poem, first in the second stanza (lines 3-4) and again in stanza six (lines 21-28). According to the manuscript, the third and fourth lines feature single quotation marks, while double quotation marks are used elsewhere in the poem (lines 21-28). In my reading of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” this difference between the manuscript and the printed poems shall emerge as prominent feature of this work. Unfortunately, the quotation mark errors were not fully corrected in the 1996 Lost edition of Loy’s work. In the Lost edition, Conover corrects the quotation marks in the third and fourth line, by using single quotes, but he then chooses to use single quotation marks in stanza six as well, despite Loy’s obvious use of double quotation marks in the manuscript. A restoration of Loy’s original use of quotation marks would allow Loy scholars to more accurately formulate arguments about both Loy’s poems and also her poetics.
Virginity, as depicted in Mina Loy’s poems, represents a universal category, and thus, a universal threat to women. In the “Feminist Manifesto,” Loy refers to “the man made bogey of virtue,” which is constructed through virginity, as “the principal instrument of her [woman’s] subjection.” Loy therefore calls for “the first self-enforced law for the female sex” to be “the unconditional surgical destruction of virginity through-out the female population at puberty—” (Lost 154-155, my emphasis). That Loy calls for this destruction as the first, or fundamental, law suggests the power of cultural myths related to “virtue.” The force with which she attacks virginity is, however, not as shocking as her solution: “the unconditional surgical destruction of virginity.” Most interesting to me in this formation is Loy’s decision to underline every word except “surgical,” the very word which gives this image its force. This decision underscores Loy’s understanding that it is not the biological fact of the hymen that is problematic, but, rather, the way in which culture assigns value to virginity. This argument is supported by modernist scholar Helen Jaskoski’s statement that “Loy recognizes that biology is the fundamental sign in the social/psychological construction of virginity” (358). Thus, as Jaskoski further elaborates, the unconditional destruction of the hymen is an attempt to level the playing field for all women: “Her argument implies an economic model: one may—must—destroy the commodity value of certain women by reducing their peculiar difference to nothing. If no woman retains a hymen, none can be valued or devalued for having or not having one” (Jaskoski 358). As we shall see, however, it is this same economic model, which reduces all virgins to relative commodities, that serves to exploit virgins’ potential for subjectivity. It is precisely because virginity is inescapable for women, and because Loy wishes to demonstrate the universal exploitation of the category of virginity, that the narrator of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” decides to align herself with the virgins in this poem.
“Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” is a difficult poem in that it features several noticeable narratorial shifts, at least one of which remains impossible to attribute to a definite or a particular speaker. Further, although this poem has been read as a polemic against “the marriage market’s valuation of female virginity,” (Gilmore 284, note 16), the way in which Loy distributes the blame for the bleak situation of these virgins, who have been categorized as drastically, and, as we shall see, incorrectly, as “gazing and mute” (Frost 176), suggests that culture is not the sole responsible party for their subjection (see Arnold 110). An examination of the unusual relationship between the narrator and these virgins proves useful for demonstrating the tensions and contradictions both within this poem and between these two parties. While it might be assumed that Loy would side with the seemingly-victimized virgins, as in the readings that Gilmore, Twitchell-Waas (123), and other scholars who gloss this poem offer, the attitude of the narrator towards these virgins proves to be much more complicated and rich. This relationship has been described by prominent Loy scholar Elizabeth Arnold as one of “pity” (109). That the narrator’s position towards these virgins is difficult to determine is implicitly expressed by Arnold’s statement of the way in which Loy’s narrator positions herself in relation to the virgins of this poem:
In ‘Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,’ Loy presents the unfortunate women who cannot afford dowries (‘dots’ is French for ‘dowries,’ punning here with the American slang for money, ‘dough’) as ‘Virgins without dots’ who ‘Stare beyond probability’ (ll. 5-6). In this way she expresses pity for these silly, helpless women while exposing the social conventions that have victimized them. (Arnold 109)
According to Arnold’s formulation, Loy’s narrator demonstrates a dualistic relationship to these virgins, as she both “pities” the virgins, but also finds them “silly.”
Despite the seeming fractures between the virgins and the narrator, Arnold also argues that the way in which the narrator of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” aligns herself with the virgins of this poem suggests a merging of the narrator’s subjectivity with that of the virgins. Arnold remarks upon the intimacy of the second-person plural pronoun that Loy’s narrator chooses in order to address the situation of these virgins, “In the poem’s opening lines, Loy is not afraid to include herself among these unfortunate members of her gender, the ‘we’ is not specified by quotation marks and comes to signify all women” (109). But while Arnold argues that, at first, the narrator does not hesitate to merge her subjectivity with that of the virgins, Arnold also notices that the narrator later enacts a distancing between herself and these virgins, “But later in the poem, she [the narrator] reveals a superior perspective just as she did in ‘Lion’s Jaws’; the speaker of the poem seems more acutely self-aware than the other virgins of the group” (Arnold 109, my emphasis). While I agree that this distancing becomes more radical as the poem progresses, I also argue that such distancing actually occurs throughout the entirety of the poem. Of further importance, although Arnold assumes that the narrator is one of these virgins, I argue that such is not Loy’s intent. Arnold seems to be basing her conclusions about the merged identity of the virgins and the narrator around the pronoun “we,” despite the fact that Arnold herself notes that this “we” is “not specified” and thereby “comes to signify all women.” In light of an understanding of the universality of Loy’s use of “we” in this particular work, there is no reason to cast the narrator as a virgin, or as a figure who is undifferentiated from the crowd of virgins whom she narrates. As a revision to Arnold’s statement of the relationship between the virgins and the narrator, I would like to propose that, despite the use of “we” in this poem, Loy’s narrator never wished to be labeled as a virgin, so much as she desired to voice the plight of these virgins.
The decision to use “we” in this poem is meant to structure an empathetic alignment in which Loy demonstrates her awareness of the universal constraints which virginity forces upon women. Near the conclusion of the poem, Loy writes, “Somebody who was never / a virgin / Has bolted the door / Put curtains at our windows / See the men pass / They are going somewhere” (Lost 22; lines 43-48). The spacing in the concluding line of this stanza, and Loy’s decision to indent the line “a virgin,” draws our attention to the distance between this unnamed “somebody,” the passing men, and the virgins. Presumably, this “somebody” is male, as only a man could be “somebody who was never a virgin.” While “they” are going somewhere, the women of this poem are static, rendered within houses. Through this binaristic emphasis on the split between the “they” and these virgins, Loy thus draws our attention to the way in which the men of the poem, the unnamed and amorphous crowd, are able to wander at will, while women are locked indoors, forced to stay inside. This image of domestic enslavement marks a similarity between the situation of virgins and that of married women, as shall be examined in relation to “The Effectual Marriage” in the subsequent section. In both instances, Loy depicts women’s confinement to houses. Given these observations, the choice of a universal “we” to represent the situation of the virgins seems to be a perfectly natural gesture. But, as in the manifesto, the narrator of this poem soon finds the proximity of her object of study suffocatingly close. The virgins’ romantic yearnings often irritate the narrator, who interjects her commentary on the foolishness of the virgins’ giggling throughout the poem, “Wasting our giggles / for we have no dots” (Lost 22; 27-28). Loy’s narrator is able to see the hopeless situation of the virgins in a manner that the virgins themselves are unable to master. This recasting of the “we” as a strategic alignment of both empathy and also pity allows us to see that this poem is actually enacted on the techniques of distancing and differentiation which, according to Arnold’s reading, occur only as the poem continues towards its conclusion.
The tone of this poem, however, suggests the possibility of a steady demarcation between the voice and subjectivity of the narrator and that of the virgins. The poem begins with a stark statement of fact, “Houses hold virgins / The door’s on the chain” (Lost 21; 1-2). As “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” progresses, however, the tone shifts and introduces the wistful reveries of the narrator speaking from within the crowd of virgins, “See the men pass / Their hats are not ours / We take a walk / They are going somewhere / And they may look everywhere” (Lost 21; 7-11). It is significant that the lines quoted above, which begin at the seventh line of the poem, are the first instance in which the pronoun “we,” in which any pronoun whatsoever, is introduced. The abrupt shift between the narrator’s stark reporting of the situation of these virgins in the first six lines and her decision in line seven to narrate from within the situation of the virgins constitutes a noticeable tonal difference, one which, I argue, reveals an attempt by the narrator to speak for the virgins, and to give voice to what they themselves will not express. The virgins’ own yearning for romantic love and marriage is enacted throughout the poem and is demonstrated in particular by the introduction of direct speech from the virgins themselves:
Virgins may whisper
‘Transparent nightdresses made all of lace’
Virgins may squeak
‘My dear I should faint’
Flutter . . . . . flutter . . . . . flutter . . . . .
. . . . . ‘And then the man—’
Wasting our giggles
For we have no dots (Lost 21-22; 21-28)
While there is an earlier introduction of direct speech introduced into the poem, “‘Plumb streets with hearts’ / ‘Bore curtains with eyes’” (Lost 21; 3-4), that instance, according to the manuscript is sectioned off by single rather than double quotes, so that the speaker of these lines is someone other than either the virgins or the narrator.
Although the restless desires of the “we”/the narrator and the virgins forms the dominant tone of this work, this tone is often tempered by the narrator’s interjections of the reality of the virgins’ situation. The difference between these two instances of direct speech in the poem illustrates a differentiation between the awareness of the virgins and that of the narrator. “‘Plumb streets with hearts’ / ‘Bore curtains with eyes’” echoes the sentiments of the lines, “Somebody who was never / a virgin / Has bolted the door / Put curtains at our windows” (Lost 22; 43-46). Both of these statements, the first voiced by an unidentifiable source, the second by the narrator, reveal an awareness of the enslavement of the virgins. That the “streets with hearts,” the rows of virgins emphasizing romantic love, are responsible for the entanglement of the virgins’ eyes with curtains suggests a condemnation of the virgins’ romantic yearnings. This instance of direct speech has been attributed by Mary E. Galvin to “other outside observers” (69); Galvin also marks the detached narrator of the first six lines as an exterior force as well, at least until in her analysis, the tonal shift of the seventh line, at which time the narrator’s voice becomes inextricably co-mingled with the chorus of virgins. But it seems more accurate to argue that the narrator of this poem, despite, or, as we shall see, because of, her decision to use the pronoun “we” remains both within and also outside of this crowd of virgins throughout the poem. While the source of these fragments of direct speech remains impossible to describe, what is crucial is that Loy’s original use of quotation marks reveal that this first instance of direct speech (‘Plumb streets with hearts’ / ‘Bore curtains with eyes’), both reveals a consciousness lacking in the virgins’ own statements, and, further, cannot be attributed to the virgins themselves. When Loy’s narrator allows the virgins themselves to speak, they reveal how “silly” they are, as in Arnold’s formation, and how invested they are in maintaining their status on the marriage market.
When the virgins themselves speak, as designated by double quotation marks in the original manuscript, they speak of “Transparent nightdresses made all of lace,” fainting, and men. The interjection “Wasting our giggles / For we have no dots” illustrates a clear shift in consciousness when compared to the previous lines in this passage, in which the virgins are depicted giggling and gossiping about men, so that this interjection reflects that the perspective of the narrator is distinct from that of the virgins. The virgins’ own comments reflect no awareness of the reality that they are “wasting” their giggles. When given the opportunity to speak, they choose to limit their language to what they are permitted to speak, as illustrated by: “Virgins may whisper” and to “squeak” (my emphasis). In her study of queer poetics and modernist female authors, Galvin notes that, “Loy’s use of the word ‘may’ here implies not only what the virgins might say, but also what they are permitted to say: words that reinforce the mystique of romanticized love” (69, emphasis in the original). Galvin’s reading raises questions about how literally we should interpret Loy’s use of quotation marks; are the virgins actually speaking or is the narrator simply anticipating what the virgins might say? I find this question unimportant to dwell upon, however, as the quotation marks are clearly meant to suggest the presence of direct speech, and, further, in either instance, the intention of these lines is clearly to provide us with access to the interiority of the virgins. What is most crucial here is that the virgins maintain their subjectivity within the boundaries that culture has delineated for them.
While it is compelling to consider the narrator’s entanglement with the virgins, as Arnold does in her reading of the struggle between the subjectivity of the narrator and that of the “other” virgins, and as Galvin does explicitly, I argue that this poem would cease to be animated if the narrator did not maintain a steady distance from the virgins whom she narrates. In Galvin’s analysis, by the seventh stanza (according to the Lost stanza breaks), “The third-person observer voice is completely merged with the collective first-person voice of the virgins” (70). Galvin thus argues that the narrator “is converting them [the virgins] from passionless and harmless victims to powerfully disruptive elements, the bearers of knowledge that is even more taboo than knowledge of traditional heterosexual activity” (70). It is true that the tone of the poem, and the demands of the “we,” becomes more forceful as the poem continues, but the poem offers no evidence that these virgins are unable to bear knowledge themselves, without the narrator speaking with and through them. The virgins are first depicted offering themselves to the social, “A great deal of ourselves / We offer to the mirror” (Lost 21: 14-15), but, later in the poem, with the aid of the narrator’s consciousness, the “we” begins to formulate inquiries and demands: “Yet where are our coins / for buying a purchaser” (Lost 22; 34-35). This passage, which might seem, on the surface, to reflect the furthered consciousness of the virgins, is interpreted by Eric Murphy Selinger in relation to the context of the poem as a whole. He argues that this passage demonstrates that these virgins gain consciousness as the poem continues, but that they are never able to realize or to maintain this consciousness voiced by the poem’s “we.” Rather, these virgins only maintain their interest in marriage and love: Although they are dismayed to find that the enactment of love in bourgeois marriage is a matter of crass financial exchange (‘Nobody shouts / VIRGINS FOR SALE / Yet where are our coins / For buying a purchaser’), the poem never turns from its critique of such marriage to a demystification of Love It—or Him—self, the god they implicitly continue to worship. (Selinger 22-23)
I would argue that Selinger’s reading reflects that the force behind the critiques of marriage and romantic love presented in this poem belong to the narrator rather than these virgins. The virgins themselves never reveal that they are developing, and the poem concludes with an ambiguous gesture of the virgin’s assertion:
Spread it with gold
And you carry it home
Against your shirt front
To a shaded light
With the door locked
Against virgins who
Might scratch (Lost 23; 56-62)
Loy’s distinct uses of may/might in this poem, as in the Love Songs, is important to consider. In these lines, the narrator alludes to the possibility of virgins scratching, but nothing that the virgins themselves have done makes this possibility seem likely. Rather than an image of the virgins’ newly-found subjectivity or empowerment, Galvin reads these lines as a reflection of the fear that the poem’s men experience: “‘The door’s on the chain’ are designed not so much to protect the virgins or preserve their virtue as to protect men from the virgins, whom they fear” (71).
“Magasins du Louvre,” Shops of the Louvre, a poem that is often read in relation to “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” contains Loy’s most direct statement of the way in which virgins lack both vision and consciousness. “Magasins du Louvre” is the third poem in the sequence “Three Moments in Paris,” the first section of which, entitled “One O’Clock at Night,” shall be closely considered in section five of this chapter. “Magasins du Louvre” comes in the context of a poem that exhibits a female speaker’s pleasure in the total abandon of sex with a male Futurist, followed by a poem that narrates the renouncement of sexuality by an older and seemingly-estranged heterosexual couple. Examining the manuscript, however, we find that “Magasins du Louvre” may not have been originally intended as part of this sequence. The first two poems in this sequence appear on standard size typewriter paper, turned horizontally, with Loy writing nearly the length of the page, while “Magasins du Louvre” appears on a faded piece of green stationary, roughly 7x10, torn in half, and folded eight times. This evidence might indicate that “Magasins du Louvre” was written at a different time than the two previous section. The second section is signed “Mina Loy,” but not dated, as is often her practice. It seems possible that Loy may have intended to stop writing after the second poem in this sequence. Although there are few differences or corrections between the Last and the Lost editions of this work, all citations shall refer to the Lost edition.
“Magasins du Louvre” begins and ends with the refrain “All the virgin eyes in the world are made of glass,” a line which occurs three times in thirty-six lines. The poem first focuses in on a row of dolls on shelves with blank stares, then the perspective shifts to follow two fashionable cocottes as they amble through the store with “solicitous mouth[s]” (Lost 18; 24). The poem’s force and focus is contained in the moment of self-recognition that these cocottes experience as they look onto a shelf into the blank stares of these dolls for sale. The poem thus concludes with the following lines:
They see the dolls
And for a moment their eyes relax
To a flicker of elements unconditionally primeval
And now averted
Seek each other’s surreptitiously
To know if the other has seen
While mine are inextricably entangled with the pattern of the carpet
As eyes are apt to be
In their shame
Having surprised a gesture that is ultimately intimate
All the virgin eyes in the world are made of glass. (Lost 18; 26-36)
Although the gazes of the dolls are static and blind, these dolls are also described in a manner that is nearly animate. “Huddled on shelves” (Lost 17; 6) grants these dolls the seeming material properties of the virgins in “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” who can easily be imagined clustering in a crowd to gossip. Other images in the poem render the dolls desperate and mute: “And composite babies with arms extended / Hang from the ceiling / Beckoning / Smiling / In a profound silence / Which the shop walker left trailing behind him” (Lost 17; 7-12). These “composite babies,” dolls rendered as childlike and helpless, are clearly linked to the cocottes, whom, like the dolls, are also trying to attract the attention of passing buyers. Once their gaze meets that of the virgins/dolls, the cocottes turn to each other, but only “surreptitiously,” in order to acknowledge the insight that their situation is like that of these blank dolls on the shelf. Once implicated by the insight that they are like these dolls, neither wishes to fully acknowledge just how similar her situation is to that of the “composite babies,” dolls reduced to an agglomeration of parts, lacking distinction as a whole. Further, the poem’s refrain alerts us that the situation of the dolls on the shelf for sale can be read in relation to the situation of virgins, who, unlike the cocottes, are unable to realize their situation. This poem thus demonstrates both that virgins are lacking subjectivity, or vision, and also that the situation of these virgins/dolls is embarrassingly close to that of other categories of women. The most important difference between these categories, however, is that the cocottes experience some recognition of their situation, while these virgins are rendered as completely blind.
It is important to consider why exactly this scene causes the narrator to experience “shame.” According to Kouidis, a central feature of this poem is the narrator’s resultant shame, which, according to her analysis, comes from looking at these dolls: “The narrator’s embarrassed understanding acknowledges her sisterhood with these demirep dolls” (33). But a careful examination of the last few lines in “Magasins du Louvre,” as quoted above, reveals that the narrator’s shame comes from: “Having surprised a gesture that is ultimately intimate” (Lost 18; 35). The narrator does not experience shame because of the dolls themselves, or by an understanding of her situation in relation to that of the dolls; she is embarrassed instead by the intimacy expressed by the cocottes towards these dolls. Like the narrator of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” the narrator of “Magasins du Louvre” is able to differentiate herself from the sheer blindness encapsulated within virginity. Because virgins fail to express subjectivity, this role, separated from “parasitism” and “prostitution” by “or” in the “Feminist Manifesto,” remains unique. Further elaborating on the unique status of virginity/negation, Loy writes of these virgins in “Magasins du Louvre”: “They alone have the effrontery to / Stare through the human soul / Seeing nothing / Between parted fringes” (Lost 17; 16-19). These parted fringes, the eyelids and eyelashes of the dolls, recall the curtains of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots.” Virginia M. Kouidis draws this conclusion as well, arguing, in a statement which we shall return to, that, in “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots”: “The eyes of the virgins (the curtained windows of the house), however, ‘look out’: an otherness awaiting someone’s permission to live” (32). In both poems, these virgins are depicted waiting for a purchaser, a masculine figure who can bring them into consciousness and into the social. Unlike the blind virgins though, the cocottes, in “Magasins du Louvre,” according to Kouidis’ analysis, are intended to contrast to the blank stare of the unindividuated dolls: “Mina Loy contrasts the blindness of the dolls to the knowledge of real women who must offer themselves in the sexual marketplace” (33). Likewise, in “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” the narrator, although speaking from within the crowd of virgins, is intended to provide a contrast to the virgins’ own investment in their marketability.
Because of the virgins’ lack of vision in “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” and in Loy’s formation of virginity as a whole, the narrator herself must remain differentiated in order to be able to portray the situations of these virgins. Left to their own devices, as the instance of the virgin’s direct speech reflects, these virgins choose to giggle. Their decision to giggle reveals their complicity in the marriage market. This complicity is a feature of Luce Irigaray’s analysis of the marriage market in This Sex Which is Not One. My analysis of the relationship between Irigaray’s classification of virginity and that of Mina Loy will stem in particular from chapter eight of Irigaray’s text: “Women on the Market.” In this chapter, Irigaray, like Loy, offers three possible categories available to women: “Mother, virgin, prostitute: these are the social roles imposed upon women” (186, emphasis in the original). Although the presence of the “mother” in Irigaray’s configuration seems to be a clear departure from Loy’s formation, which leaves maternity off the list of restrictive roles for women because, as Loy argues in “Parturition,” which we shall discuss at length in section five, maternity is radical precisely because of the way in which it is able to exceed the social, Irigaray’s conception of motherhood can actually be read in relation to Loy’s depiction of the “parasitism” of heterosexual married women, the category of the feminine which we shall explore in the subsequent section. In relationship to virginity, Irigaray argues that in order for the marriage market to be maintained, women, the objects traded amongst men, must themselves be invested in maintaining the market. Irigaray’s description of the speech of commodities matches the language that the virgins use in “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots”: “So commodities speak. To be sure, mostly dialects and patois, language hard for ‘subjects’ to understand. The important thing is that they be preoccupied with their respective value, that their remarks confirm the exchangers’ plans for them” (179, emphasis in the original). Irigaray’s remarks on the difficulty of “subjects” truly understanding the language of commodities could help to illuminate why the direct speech of these virgins, as overheard by Loy’s narrator, is so broken, full of ellipses, trailing off, and filled with the sound of a fluttering heartbeat, symbolizing both the frailty of these virgins and their unfaltering emphasis on romantic love.
As commodities, according to Irigaray, Loy’s virgins exist as “exchange value,” and are thus unable to differentiate amongst themselves, such can only be accomplished by men. Explaining that commodities must be arranged relationally, Irigaray argues that, “In order to have a relative value, a commodity has to be confronted with another commodity that serves as its equivalent. Its value is never found to lie within itself” (176). This emphasis on the way in which virgins are viewed in terms of relative value might help to explain why Loy would choose “we” in order to narrate the situation of these virgins. Loy’s poem, a clear critique on the economics of marriage (see Burke “Becoming” 191-192 and Kouidis 31-32 for further discussion of Loy’s critique of economics in this poem), chooses to situate the exploitation of virgins in relationship to their relative and exchange value. This choice of “we” depicts the lack of individuation that occurs within commodities, thus explaining once again, why Loy’s narrator would be forced to speak from within the crowd, and ultimately, why she would be forced to speak for them: “Commodities among themselves are thus not equal, not alike, nor different. They only become so when they are compared by and for men” (177). Unable to differentiate amongst themselves, the first person plural seems to be the only likely pronoun choice. In an analysis that relates directly to both “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” and to the blank virgins/dolls of “Magasins du Louvre,” Irigaray contrasts the virgin and the married woman thus, “The virginal woman, on the other hand, is pure exchange value. She is nothing but the possibility, the place, the sign of relations among men. In and of herself, she does not exist: she is a simple envelope veiling what is really at stake in the social exchange” (186). What is at stake in the marriage market, according to Irigaray’s analysis, is the maintenance of a cultural network of men.
This network of men is referenced directly in “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots.” In “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” men are invoked in a binary that serves to establish two oppositional ways of existing in the world:
See the men pass
Their hats are not ours
We take a walk
They are going somewhere
And they may look everywhere
Men’s eyes look into things
Our eyes look out (Lost 21; 7-13)
The spacing here is significant. Loy purposefully leaves gaps after pronouns and gender-specific descriptions of vision in order to further draw attention to the differences in freedom and vision enacted by gender. Virginia M. Kouidis has famously glossed this passage thus: “The two sets of eyes introduce Loy’s major theme—the necessity of vision for self-realization” (32). Kouidis elaborates on the action of this passage by noting that the men in these lines “have freedom, choice, purpose, vitality, and, most important, penetrating vision. Their eyes ‘look into’ life, permitting them the attainment of selfhood, of ‘infinity.’ The eyes of the virgins (the curtained windows of the house), however, ‘look out’: an otherness awaiting someone’s permission to live” (32). But drawing upon this passage in relation to “Magasins du Louvre,” Kouidis also claims that, “Woman, in her extreme deprivation, denied the vision of her own physical reality, is emblematic of the blindness, in one form or another, that afflicts most of humanity” (32). These two readings seem to be in conflict, as Kouidis first implies that the men presented in “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” demonstrate “penetrating vision” and the “attainment of selfhood,” but she then concludes that women, virgins in particular, are “emblematic of the blindness…that afflicts most of humanity.” Presumably, “most of humanity” would include men as well as women.
There is no evidence in “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” however, that the men of the poem are any more individuated than these virgins whom Loy narrates. Thus, Kouidis’ interpretation of these poems might overdetermine the freedom of these men. As Galvin’s reading of the fear expressed by men in the last lines of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” alludes to, this poem enacts a radical fissure between men and women. This fracture is expressed in the poem as well, according to Galvin’s analysis:
As the unmarriageable virgins look out from their cloistered lives onto the vitality of the street teeming with (male-dominated) human activity, they rely on a language based on categorical gender distinctions which is ready to hand, to express their observations. They utilize an us/them framework, which serves to emphasize the vast distance between their own lives and those of the men who, as “So much flesh in the world / Wanders at will.” (69)
As we have seen, the virgins of this poem attempt to express their subjectivity only in relation to men. “Leave off looking to men to find out what you are not—seek within yourself to find out what you are” (Lost 154), Mina Loy writes in the “Feminist Manifesto.” This passage serves as a warning against binaristic self-definition. These virgins thus violate one of the mandates in Loy’s most radical statement on subjectivity. While many of the us/them statements in “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” function, as Galvin explains, to elaborate the unfair enactment of sexual difference, many of the virgins’ own statements reveal their desire to be defined in relation to the marriage market, as constructed by men. This relational format of us/them is similar to the one which the speaker of the “Feminist Manifesto,” attempting to differentiate herself from her audience by pointing outwards, falls prey to as well. While the virgins of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” seek to collapse the gap between the us/them, through the initiation of marriage, the speaker of the manifesto seeks to push her audience into a state of shame that will widen the somewhat narrow gap between herself and the other. Further, this formation of us/them is what the speaker of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” working from within, or one could even argue, working as the crowd, manages to avoid. Because these virgins await their initiation into subjectivity, and, as Kouidis notes, into sexuality (33), an important component of experience according to the manifesto, Loy’s narrator, already a subject, is able to differentiate herself from these virgins. Thus, the blank and blind virgins do not constitute a threat to her own subjectivity.
The gaze serves to animate the actions of the virgins in “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” as well as “Magasins du Louvre.” “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” in particular is staged upon the narrator’s ability to speak as/for these virgins in order to express a level of consciousness which would be otherwise impossible given the virgins’ lack of subjectivity and their interest in the marriage market. Loy also chooses to narrate from within the crowd of virgins in order to mark the limitations that they themselves embrace in order to maintain their marketability. Far from Frost’s reading of the virgins of “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” as “gazing and mute” (176), these virgins speak, but they speak as commodities. It is only when Loy’s narrator intercedes and mingles with them that the longing and restless desire of virginity, which we shall examine in chapter two, is revealed. As we shall see in the subsequent section, Loy builds the gaze into her poems in order to attempt to structure how the female personas that she narrates view both others and themselves. This is ultimately a futile gesture in the case of the virgins though, because they are unable, or unwilling, to see regardless. While the virgins are able to be controlled by the narrator because of their utter lack of vision, we shall see in subsequent sections that the gaze often provides Loy’s narrators with an illusion of control, but that the (limited) consciousness of the female personas whom ML’s narrators’ examine actually dictate how the narrator is able to see them. The gaze is thus structured by the objects/personas it examines. This point will be further elaborated on in relation to Gina in “The Effectual Marriage,” as will be discussed at length in the subsequent session. In the “Feminist Manifesto,” we have seen how the gaze of the narrator experiences the most resistance when it feels the most pressure to conform. In relation to these virgins, who fail to have either a gaze or consciousness, there is very little risk for the narrator, and so she is able to speak from within the crowd while maintaining distance from them.