Chapter One, Section ThreeIt (Prostitution)
Mina Loy’s unpublished play “The Sacred Prostitute,” housed in the Mina Loy Papers of the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, is archived both in a hand-written draft form and a typed manuscript. All citations here will be drawn from the typed manuscript which is presumably the later of these works. Although both manuscripts are undated, “The Sacred Prostitute,” according to both Burke and Kouidis was written concurrently with Loy’s early satires (see Burke “Becoming” 186 and Kouidis 16). Unfortunately, the play is incomplete; seven pages of manuscript are missing between pages 18 and 19 of the 32 surviving pages. Presumably, what is missing is a play within the play, entitled “Man and Woman.” The last gesture on page 18 is a stage direction for the men in the play to arrange their chairs in a circle on the outskirts of the stage in order to watch “Man and Woman.”
The cast of “The Sacred Prostitute” includes the following (in order of appearance): Some Other Man, [A Male] Youth, The Idealist, Another Man, Don Juan, A Man, Tea Table Man, Futurism, Procuress, Women, Dolores, Love, Nature, Reality, Purity, Joy, and World-Flesh-Devil. Relying heavily on exaggerated stereotypes, the first third of the play follows the interactions of the various male characters. As Kouidis writes of “The Sacred Prostitute”: “Set in the ‘World Brothel,’ it satirizes male attitudes towards women: Don Juan and ‘Idealists,’ and ‘Tea-Table-men’ as well as the Futurists” (16). But the play also satirizes the willing domestication of women, as represented by the hermaphroditic character called “Love.” Love, thought by the other women in the brothel to be a hermaphrodite, is relieved to be revealed as a woman by Futurism, who then sets out in a successful conquest of Love, “the most feminine thing” he has ever seen (SP 15). This conquest only occurs after Futurism’s unsuccessful appeal to Nature in hopes that she will alter biological determinism so that men can reproduce amongst themselves free from the temptations of women. After Futurism’s seduction of Love, Love and Futurism proceed to dawn boxing gloves but before they can begin to fully throw punches, the scene dissolves into a romance overhead in fragments by the audience. Although Love and Futurism carry on a conversation for quite some time in the “low, sustained and intense tones of two people who are very much in love” (SP 26), the play ends in Love’s jealous rage directed toward “all the other women” in the world (SP 30) and her knowledge that, although she has been possessed by Futurism, through the relatively-chaste gesture of a kiss, she will never be able to possess him.
Although “prostitution” is named in the “Feminist Manifesto” as a category that woman is reduced to by the social, prostitution is infrequently depicted in Mina Loy’s writings. “The Sacred Prostitute,” like “Magasins du Louvre,” which we shall return to, both offer similar portrayals of the conditions of prostitution. Interestingly, in “The Sacred Prostitute,” the depiction of Love, the sacred prostitute, reveals that women, rather than men, can prove to be women’s greatest enemies, thus bringing a new understanding to both the enmity of sexual difference and the role that women play in each other’s subjugation. In light of this understanding of “The Sacred Prostitute,” the gaze of the narrator in “Magasins du Louvre” can be reconsidered. Although in Virginia Kouidis’ analysis, virgins are the ultimate example of “an otherness awaiting someone’s permission to live” (32), Loy’s depiction of prostitutes reveals that the otherness of prostitutes, whom are made abject by both men and women, might be more extreme. Shifting between use value and exchange value, and thus in an even more unstable relationship to their identity than either virgins or married women, prostitutes are completely dependant on the gaze for recognition. Despite this dependence on the gaze, however, we shall see that Loy refuses to place responsibility for the conditions of prostitution on either women or men.
The first difficulty, and intrigue, that must be addressed when discussing “The Sacred Prostitution” is the composition of prostitution in this play. There is a general chorus of prostitutes, identified as “women,” and a procuress, both of which point to the conventional definition of prostitution, but the sacred prostitute is named to be Love. Differentiating prostitutes from virgins, Irigaray comments on the fact that, “Prostitution amounts to usage that has already been exchanged. Usage that is not merely potential: it has already been realized. The woman’s body is valuable because it has already been used” (186; emphasis in the original). In “The Sacred Prostitute,” however, Futurism expresses desire for Love precisely because Love has not yet been used:
Futurism Do you feel much like a woman?
Love Not much—I don’t think I could. I’m so well watered down with civilization.
Futurism Ah—you have never been galvanized by the force of undiluted masculinity—There isn’t any left in the world except in me. Come here. (Love approaches.) Do you want to know what it’s like?
Love Awfully. (SP 27-28)
This scene, and Futurism’s treatment of Love in general, is staged more as a seduction than a purchase. In what sense, then, can we understand Love to be a prostitute? And how do we account for the conflation of romantic love and prostitution that occurs because of Loy’s decision to name Love as the sacred prostitute? Although it might be conceptually difficult to separate prostitution from the trade of material bodies, it is a bit easier to understand Loy’s metaphor if we consider Irigaray’s definition of prostitution as “usage that has already been exchanged” in relation to romantic love. Romantic love, as depicted in Loy’s writings in particular, is a cultural concept dependant on myth and exchange. Love’s remark that she is so “well watered down with civilization” marks romantic love as a concept that is dependant on both usage and exchange. The interaction between romantic love and civilization is what perpetuates and creates the concept of love. Loy herself reminds us in the last lines of the Love Songs that romantic love is created and sustained by the circulation of cultural myths: “Love — — — the preeminent litterateur” (Lost 68). It seems to be this symbiotic relationship that causes Loy to link prostitution and romantic love.
Thus, the personification of Love in “The Sacred Prostitute” emerges as a prostitution, or circulation, of outdated cultural ideals. During Love’s first scene with Futurism, she functions as a passive receptacle, willing to answer affirmatively to any remark that Futurism makes. She repeats, “Yes dear” five times upon meeting Futurism. She answers in the affirmative to requests to “be atrociously carnal” and to Futurism’s statement that “women are only animals, they have no souls” (SP 12). Like Gina in “The Effectual Marriage,” Love is willing to do whatever is requested of her, with one exception. When asked by Futurism “(very rapidly) will-you-love-me-will-you-love-me-will-you-love-me-love-me-love-me-love-me-me-ME—??? I must have you—You see I have never had you before,” Love sets her conditions, “But I don’t want this sort of love—it’s too quick. I only want love that lasts for ever and ever” (SP 13). Returning to the “Feminist Manifesto,” Loy expresses disgust that women are able to “manoeuve[r] a man into taking the life-long responsibility of her” (Lost 155) without offering anything more than their virginity. In the manifesto, Loy refers to marriage as a “trade” (Lost 155), thus again explaining why “parasitism” and “prostitution” are connected by “&” in the manifesto.
Irigaray comments on the way in which prostitutes increase in value as their subjectivity decreases and their status as a commodity is thus sealed: “In the extreme case, the more it has served, the more it is worth. Not because its natural assets have been put to use this way, but, on the contrary, because its nature has been ‘used up,’ and has become once again mo more than a vehicle for relations among men” (186). Loy’s stage directions reveal that Love is to be depicted as a commodity. While Futurism’s presence on the stage is described thus by Loy, “(whose every gesture propounds vulgarity intensified to Divinity, slaps his bowler hat onto his head, crooked, and struts magnificently)” (SP 10), Love is identified by the following stage directions as she speaks to Futurism: “(smiling whimsically and folding her hands in resignation)” (SP 11), “(calmly)” (SP 12), “(Passively)” (SP 14). Love is open to whatever Futurism desires and however he wishes to treat her. But Love’s status as a commodity is not even the decisive marking that allows Futurism to recognize her. Nor is it her figure, which Futurism later claims that he is able to discern under her “formless roseate garment” (SP 13), as Futurism has “x-ray eyes, and ears of steel—He can see everything without looking at it, and stand any amount of noise” (SP 13). It is Futurism’s perception of Love’s interest in the market that allows Futurism to recognize her right away: “Men Just looking at it makes no deep impression—but it’s hardly seductive. Futurism Love is a feminine concept spelt ‘Greed’ with a capital ‘G’—this is female, all right! (drags off Love’s roseate hood, dislodging a shower of golden curls) ” (SP 10). As in the manifesto, women on the marriage market are engaged primarily in a quest for financial protection, to “strik[e] that advantageous bargain” (Lost 155) that is marriage. Likewise, prostitutes are invested in economic exchange. In “The Sacred Prostitute” Loy draws attention to the similar economic goals, or “greed,” of Love in order to show the way in which the quest for romantic love is often conflated with, or mediated by, a quest for economic security. Women are willing to trade their subjectivity for either economic security or love. While married women have the advantage of securing both in one transaction, prostitutes are forced to continue trading themselves in order to allow them to secure the economic advantages of marriage, and prostitutes admittedly have little chance of pursuing the luxury of romantic love.
In “The Sacred Prostitute,” it is men, namely, Futurism, who are endowed with a sense of the penetrating vision that women lack. It is the male gaze, then, which proves to be essential for the recognition of the prostitute. While this necessity of the male gaze might seem to be an obvious conclusion to reach, we should consider that Loy grants a sense of individuation to only one character in this play, a female figure named “Dolores.” Loy also demonstrates, however, that this figure is unable to see. Despite the fact that Dolores is the only character in “The Sacred Prostitute” who is marked by a non-allegorical name, thus implying that Dolores is the only character with the potential for a developed subjectivity, Dolores is also unable to recognize that Love is female. Love has been living amongst the prostitutes but she is disguised in a “formless roseate garment” (SP 13) as a hermaphrodite. Although Dolores only speaks the following lines in the entirety of the play, her role in “The Sacred Prostitute” is important. Addressing Futurism, Dolores says: “You seem to have successfully plumbed the feminine shallows. Could you tell us anything about this bare-acquaintance of ours of hermaphroditic aspect—it calls itself Love” (SP 10). According to the stage directions, the Procuress then “herds all the women off stage in order to spare them disturbing recollections” and “Dolores draws LOVE forward” (SP 10). There are no stage directions for Dolores to exit the stage, but Loy’s stage directions are spotty, or impractical, at best. We can presume that Dolores exits after Futurism reveals, without hesitation, that Love is female as the subsequent scenes are staged between Love and Futurism alone. Dolores’ true purpose is to betray her own lack of vision. Although her name marks her as individuated, Dolores is unable or unwilling to recognize the subjectivity of Love, as admitting that Love is female could impact her own sense of self.
It is significant that it is Dolores who chooses to out Love. Her appeal to Futurism to discern the status of Love could be read as a movement towards the abjection of Love. An understanding of “The Sacred Prostitute” allows us to reformulate Loy’s understanding of the hostility of sexual difference so that we can realize not only the tension between the sexes, but also the tension bred between members of the same sex. Dolores’ desire to unveil Love reveals that she is threatened by the presence of Love in a brothel and that she wishes to rid the brothel of the possibility of recognizing a “female” characteristic that would move the other prostitutes away from their interest in their current trade. That the other women quickly exit upon realizing that Futurism might reveal the identity of Love signals an unwillingness to realize their own relationship to Love. Love is thus maintained as a non-entity and a stranger to the women of the World Brothel, likely because their trade precludes them from striving for love. Sexual difference, or sexual tension, as happily supplied by Futurism himself, is required to actually decipher the nature of Love’s disguised sex. Recognition in “The Sacred Prostitute” can, thereby, only be achieved by men. This seems to be true not necessarily because men are in control of the conditions of prostitution, but because women are unwilling to experience their own relationship to romantic love, one of the forces that helps to stabilize the marriage market, which in turn creates an underground market of prostitution. In light of this analysis, we can understand the narrator’s gesture in “Magasins du Louvre” not as mere embarrassment for the cocotte’s recognition of themselves in the glass eyes of the dolls, but, rather, as a negation of the cocotte’s identity.
In the second section of this chapter, we examined the narrator’s relationship to the cocottes in “Magasins du Louvre” as one of embarrassment. This gesture can also be seen, however, as one of negation or withdraw. As previously discussed, the cocottes of “Magasins du Louvre” understand their position in the market, unlike the virgins in boxes on shelves. So too we can assume that the prostitutes of “The Sacred Prostitute” understand their relationship to their trade. Given the prostitutes’ unwillingness to recognize Love, however, it is apparent that Loy’s prostitutes are only willing to extend their vision within certain parameters. For their own protection, prostitutes impose limitations on their vision. While such is, perhaps, understandable in a practical sense, the narrator of “Magasins du Louvre” seems to have a conflicted relationship to the imposition of such limitations. Returning to key passages in “Magasins du Louvre,” we see that the narrator’s decision to avert her eyes can be interpreted not only as an empathetic embarrassment for the conditions which prostitution has imposed on these women, but also as a decision to withdraw herself from their situation:
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)
Throughout this stanza, the narrator has appeared to follow the gaze of the cocottes, to trace the movement of their eyes as they look into the eyes of the virgins. At the end of the stanza though, the narrator emphasizes that “while” the cocottes have looked upon the dolls, the narrator’s eyes have been “inextricably entangled with the pattern of the carpet.” The emphasis on “inextricably” calls attention to the narrator’s refusal of this scene. She has seen how the cocottes relationship to the dolls has caused them to revert to a primeval state, and she herself is unwilling to share in this scene. So much so that the narration in the first part of the stanza technically appears to be achieved by someone other than the narrator. Although the stanza proceeds as if the narrator is watching the cocottes as they gaze at the virgins/dolls, the line that begins with “while” emphasizes that the narrator has been staring at the carpet while the exchange between the virgins and the cocottes takes place. Thus, the narrator herself has flatly refused to watch the scene unfold. The narrator clearly wishes to separate herself from the exchange that occurs between unknowing (the virgins/dolls ) and willing (the cocottes) commodities.
“The Sacred Prostitute” further reveals the sense of isolation and competition that is bred amongst women involved in the heterosexual market. Just as the narrator of “Magasins du Louvre” refuses to acknowledge the subjectivity of the passing cocottes, Love, in “The Sacred Prostitute,” reveals that competition amongst women can breed hostility and discontent. In the manifesto, Loy herself has pointed to the enmity and competition of sexual difference: “Men & women are enemies, with the enmity of the exploited for the parasite, the parasite for the exploited—at present they are at the mercy of the advantage that each can take of the others sexual difference—. The only point at which the interests of the sexes merge—is the sexual embrace” (Lost 154). Thus far, however, Loy’s poems, with their focus on sexual difference, have failed to account for relationships amongst and between women. “The Sacred Prostitute,” however, allows Loy to extend her statement in the manifesto in order to examine what occurs between women because of the (hetero)sexual embrace. In “The Sacred Prostitute,” Futurism exploits the supposed parallel consequences of heterosexuality and complicates the aggression between the sexes by extending Loy’s metaphor in the “Feminist Manifesto”: “I am sacrificing my life to make things new—and only succeeding in making them louder. As for this, it’s only the external axiom in waging the sex war—that ‘Man and Woman’ are enemies. But that woman has one greater enemy than man—woman!” (SP 19). Although, unfortunately, the exchange that leads into this statement is part of the missing manuscript, we do have context for what comes after this statement, namely, Futurism’s desire to eradicate the necessity of women’s role in reproduction.
While Futurism’s stake in declaring the hostility of women toward one another might be summarized in relation to his desire to destabilize heterosexual difference in a manner that will allow men to harness complete control over the means of (re)production, Love illustrates the jealousy and competition that occurs between women because of men. Once Love has been kissed by Futurism, her desire for him becomes her sole focus:
Love I never knew how wonderful it is that hearts can beat.
Futurism What do you feel?
Love Very young—very foolish—very warm—very soft—in fact it’s becoming a physical discomfort—the not knowing how to purr.
Futurism Can you remember anything?
Love Nothing whatever.
Futurism Can you realize anything?
Love Nothing but you—.
Futurism Now what about the future?
Love The kitten’s growing to be a panther—I’m sure she’s dangerous—Oh, do shut me up in a harem, it’s the only thing I’m fit for—I shall be jealous. But at least when you die, I shall be burnt alive on your corpse. (SP 29)
Once she has experienced Futurism’s affections, Love can only express a desire for monogamy. The world, including all other women, fall away but also come too sharply into focus:
Love I must just go out and kill all the other women. Until I do, I can’t feel safe.
Futurism You touch the other women, and I’ll strangle you!
Love Any one of them might become the mother of your children!
The competition of heterosexuality, expressed directly by Love’s implicit desire to attempt to claim Futurism through bearing his children, occurs precisely because women are evaluated, and only have value, relationally: “Commodities among themselves are thus not equal, nor alike, nor different. They only become so when they are compared by and for man” (Irigaray 177). Because women are dependant on such relational evaluations, they are also exploited by them. In the case of Love, her initiation into sexuality makes her particularly vulnerable because she knows that Futurism has no intention of retaining her. Hence, romantic love’s linkage to prostitution; romantic love is destined to circulate without stabilizing. In “The Sacred Prostitute,” Love’s initiation into sexuality turns her into a jealous, threatened, and “used” woman with few options. The logic of heterosexual exchange tactics prevents commodities from accessing the system itself: “The economy of exchange—of desire—is man’s business” (Irigaray 177; emphasis in the original). Further complicating Love’s situation, prostitutes can never possess their clients or lovers. Their exchange value, as is the case with virgins, is dependant on their relative value, but this value does not secure their position in the manner that marriage would.
If prostitutes are in danger because of the way in which they are only granted temporary economic protection, they are also a threat to the social order because of this same set of conditions. Irigaray explains the situation of the prostitute thus:Explicitly condemned by the social order, she is implicitly tolerated. No doubt because the break because usage and exchange is, in her case, less clear-cut? In her case, the qualities of woman’s body are ‘useful.’ However, these qualities have ‘value’ only because they have already been appropriated by a man, and because they serve as the locus of relations—hidden ones—between men. (186)
Prostitutes thus threaten the social order in part because they stabilize the network of relations amongst men with no possibility of enhancing, or even creating, a network of women. Irigaray’s statement thus offers an explanation for Love’s sudden hatred of “all the other women” (SP 30). The conditions of prostitution force Love to function in a network in which she can only be temporarily useful and in which her role in this network cannot be stabilized or confirmed. This jealousy can also help us to realize why the narrator of “Magasins du Louvre” averts her gaze from that of the cocottes. To acknowledge the position of the cocottes would also be an acknowledgment of the instability of a woman’s position within heterosexual marriage. Although Gina in “The Effectual Marriage” would like to believe that she inhabits a space composed of both economic security and Miovanni’s love, she can only be certain of either of these by averting her gaze. She wisely busies herself at the pots and pans in order to keep Miovanni happy, and she gazes out the window at falling stars as she wishes for romantic fulfillment. She has no way to ascertain if she actually has continued to be the object of Miovanni’s desire; Gina can only hope and wish.
Interestingly, Loy does not choose to boldly frame the gaze of the prostitute. Amongst her three categories of the feminine, “Parasitism, & Prostitution—or Negation” (Lost 154), it seems most likely that the prostitute would possess the most direct and confrontational gaze. But such is not true of either the cocottes of “Magasins du Louvre” or Love of “The Sacred Prostitute.” Instead, the cocottes are othered by the narrator, and they only manage to meet the gaze of the vacant dolls for sale. Love, the sacred prostitute, engulfs herself in Futurism, only to discover that she has been tricked into becoming an entry in his tome “‘women I have had’” (SP 9). Loy confirms the shady and liminal status of the prostitute in order to meditate on the uncertainty of the heterosexual marriage market. The cocottes and the sacred prostitute both become objects through which Loy can develop an illustration of the uncertainty and instability of the marriage market. Neither the cocottes or Love, particularly Love, are depicted as if they possess a developed subjectivity in their own right. Rather, both are embodied in order to illustrate the instability of the marriage market and, in the case of Love in particular, the instability of romantic love. While the cocottes are avoided, or even negated, by a more developed narrator, Love unsuccessfully attempts to look away from herself and to Futurism for the whole of her satisfaction.
Despite the partial development of Loy’s prostitutes, Loy fails to place blame for the conditions of prostitution on either the prostitutes or the network of men. While in Irigaray’s analysis, it is clear that the “network of men/hom(m)o-sexuality” are at fault for the subjugation of women, as this network creates a system that women cannot access and thereby cannot be faulted for falling victim to, Loy leaves the blame for the creation of prostitution and the market open. Her depiction of Purity and Joy, who proclaim, “What a mess!” and “How very sad!” (SP 31), seems to actually satirize Irigaray’s position. It is not clear in the manuscript if Purity and Joy are responding to the situation of the brothel, and its female inhabitants, in general, or to the fight between Love and Futurism in particular. Either way, Loy uses Purity and Joy to depict the futility of a completely empathetic approach to the situation of women on the market. In Loy’s analysis, she implies that the prostitutes themselves are somehow involved in their own subjugation. The Procuress herself states the following to the “Directors of the World Brothal”: “We haven’t succeeded in balancing accounts yet—You see it is not yet decided whether the demand creates the supply, or the supply the demand” (SP 31). Thus, unlike Irigaray’s analysis, in which the commodity is always coded as female, Loy opens us to the possibility that, in the process of exchange, men also become commodities, subject to their own needs in such transactions.
Loy’s poetic project is hinged upon this notion of “balancing accounts.” The narrator of the manifesto attempts to scorn her audience in order to provoke them into a more developed subjectivity, but, as we have seen, the manifesto’s narrator has not yet reconciled her own subjectivity. In “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” the narrator speaks from within the crowd in order to develop an account of what the subjectivity of virgins would be like if virgins were individuated. The desires of the virgins, however, are at odds with this attempt though, and they cast off the narrator’s portrayal in order to maintain their own marketability. Likewise Gina, in “The Effectual Marriage,” fails to take advantage of the gaze when this opportunity is offered to her by the narrator. The tension in Loy’s poems is thus derived from the pull between the narrator’s subjectivity and that of the women she depicts. Such tension might also account for the way in which Loy’s narrators are often at odds with themselves. Because the subjectivity of Loy’s narrators are unbalanced, these speakers experience further difficulty when attempting to narrate personas whom are not yet fully individuated. The question of supply and demand raised above by the Procuress allows us to question if Loy’s narrators are thrown off-balance because they are positioned relationally to undeveloped personas or if these personas bring the true subjectivity of Loy’s seemingly-developed narrators to light.