The Provocations of Arthur Cravan
"Every great artist has the sense of provocation"
—Arthur Cravan, Maintenant
Whatever the case, I remember enough to know that my attraction had been instinctive: Cravan seemed to have mastered the weird and wonderful vocabulary that I’d hitherto only mumbled in my dreams. Henceforth I was beguiled by his sense of provocation, by his desire to live a rich and full life, a poetic life, in spite of it all. Cravan quickly became some mythical figure for me, an alter-ego demon, a Mephistopheles who began to patrol my every move, achieving what I’d always wanted to achieve: to be forever on the move and on the run, fleeing institutions and social fetters, fleeing everything and anyone who held him up or who took away his air, including himself. Cravan was happiest, as I’d been happiest, wandering between pages and places: "I have twenty countries in my memory," he said, "and trail in my soul the colors of one hundred cities." It was a beautiful image, an amazing affirmation of the self in the world that often tried to crush the self. Cravan knew how to be thyself better than anyone, perhaps even better than Nietzsche. He could only feel at home, he said, "in voyage; when I stay a long time in the same place, stupidity overwhelms me."
To a certain degree, I knew Cravan was a charlatan as well as a genius. I also knew that beyond his shameless antics, his penchant for pulling down his pants in public, his art of perfecting the insult and peddling advertisements for himself in his one-man enterprise, Maintenant, Cravan did have shame and scruples: he was, after all, ashamed of the state of his world and abhorred war. He knew politicians were corrupt and party politics a crock of shit; and, as Leon Trotsky reported in 1916, "frankly confessed he loved better to smash the jaws of messieurs Yankees in the noble sport than get stabbed in the ribs by a German."
Little wonder Cravan bequeathed an oeuvre slender and never fully realized. He never let himself realize it, of course, and that, to my mind, made his oeuvre worth reading all the more. He was a latter-day Rimbaud eloping to Africa, sailing a drunken boat down an unknown backwater, never to write again; he was a prototypical Dean Moriarty, blasting at breakneck speed on the road, across North and South America, throughout Europe, up and down, back and forth, in dusty forgotten texts. Cravan was the dialectical spirit incarnate: like Turgenev’s Bazarov, Dostoevsky’s underground man, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, and the Hegel of Phenomenology of Mind, Cravan "looked the negative in the face and lived with it." This is probably the sense in which surrealist kingpin André Breton once claimed Cravan’s actions "develop in an atmosphere of absolute irreverence, of provocation and scandal that herald ‘Dada’." Cravan had "accomplished," Breton said, "without compromise, Rimbaud’s desire ‘to be absolutely modern.’"
Born Fabian Lloyd in 1887 in the gentile Swiss town of Lausanne, beside Lake Geneva, Arthur Cravan carried a British passport yet preferred to speak French. A human chameleon, he never identified with any place in particular, and often masqueraded behind forged papers, claiming all the while to be Oscar Wilde’s nephew. (As the son of the notorious scribe’s brother-in-law, this was one piece of bombast actually true.) At two meters and 120 kilos, Cravan was built like the Eiffel Tower and for a brief period even held the European heavyweight title. In 1916, he fought ex-world champion Jack Johnson in Barcelona, in a rigged fight, a spectacular ploy to earn a broke Cravan—and a spent Johnson—sufficient steerage to New York, where the boxer-poet-cum-conscientious objector could avoid military service. Cravan tumbled in the sixth round, amid a delirious and suspecting crowd, simultaneously chanting and booing when he didn’t get up. A riot ensued; Cravan slipped out a side exit and soon set sail on the Montserrat across a storm-tossed ocean, alongside a motley crew of deserters, adventurers and dissidents, as well as a certain Leon Trotsky.
When he arrived in the New World in January 1917, Cravan was dazzled: "New York! New York! I should like to inhabit you!" With giant steps, each day he traversed Manhattan’s streets, imbibing its energy, thrilled by every minor detail of the mighty metropolis. He was an immense physical presence, a statuesque force, either donned in eight-ounce gloves or clenching an inked quill; on the page and in person, Cravan paraded himself as "the poet with the shortest haircut in the world." Before long, he was scribbling verses for a minor literary review called The Soil; but in a land where "science married itself to industry" in "an audacious modernity," poetry was hardly an earner. Penniless most of the time, he drank in dive sports bars in the Bronx and slept rough in Central Park, near the Natural History Museum.
Ever the dandy, though, even a hard-up Cravan managed to hobnob with New York’s literary and artistic smart-set. He’d turn up at Alfred Stieglitz’s photographic salons, at downtown gallery openings and chic art soirées—and proceed to denounce art. In April 1917, Marcel Duchamp invited Cravan to a conference at Grand Central Palace, the Premier Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. His lecture caused a sensation: drunk and undressing, he cussed out an audience who later called the cops, shocking an unshockable Greenwich Village avant-garde.
It was doubtless at one such soirée where Cravan met the love of his life, the English poet Mina Loy, whom he’d marry in 1918 and whom William Carlos Williams considered one of the most important female poets of her generation. By then, he and a pregnant Loy had moved to Mexico City, where Cravan had established a boxing school. Friends said Cravan was different: he’d found his woman, he might even settle now; he was content, they were lovers; Loy was the only one for him, he was about to become a father… Meantime, he and Loy planned a short sojourn in Buenos Aires, but only had enough money for her passage. So Cravan decided to navigate himself with a friend in a small fishing boat; he and Loy would rendezvous later in Valparaíso. One morning, late in 1918, from a small pier, she waved off her thirty-one-year-old husband and watched the craft breeze out into the open sea. It dipped on the horizon and nobody ever saw Cravan again. Loy bore their daughter, Fabienne, in April 1919.
Years later, Loy wrote her aptly titled memoir, Colossus, candidly revealing her tumultuous relationship with Cravan, the joys and the pains, the first sighting, etc., etc., when Loy was nonplussed, even repulsed, by this offensive lout. "It was only at the second glimpse," she admitted, "that I found him handsome." At that point, she saw Cravan, draped in a sheet that looked to have just been snatched off somebody’s bed, as an "animated giant stone statue," a "Greek god" with a "marble face."
Some of Loy and Cravan’s intimate correspondence has been gleaned and embellished more recently by Antonia Logue in her romantic novel Shadow-Box. Set up as a dialogue between Loy and the black American boxer Johnson, it’s certainly worth a read; but the letter format becomes repetitive and self-consciously formulaic after a while, and atomizes a drama that should have been more seamless, a dreamier flow of consciousness. Better to read Logue’s primary source, Carolyn Burke’s Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, which is richer on Cravan, sympathetic too, and Burke has translated hitherto untranslated Cravan poems and letters. In Anthology of Black Humor, meanwhile, André Breton welcomes Cravan into the surrealist fold, and we can peruse a few pages of the latter’s "superior revolt of the mind." And in Sky, Cravan’s one-time drinking buddy and kindred nomadic spirit, Blaise Cendrars, provides a rollicking account of the Colossus in action, describing how he, Cravan, and painter Robert Delaunay publicly tangoed until dawn in their stocking feet, in odd socks, and how Cravan once caught a boat to Mexico from Nova Scotia by slipping the Canadian authorities in drag.
Still, Cravan’s spirit is best evoked by Cravan himself, in the pages of Maintenant, his pesky journal, the centerpiece of the publisher Champ Libre’s handsome Arthur Cravan Oeuvres: Poèmes, Articles, Lettres. (The now-defunct Champ Libre was the brainchild of millionaire French producer and agent, Gérard Lébovici, who, in 1984, was gunned down in an avenue Foch parking lot in a murder never solved.) Only five issues of Maintenant appeared between 1912 and 1915; Cravan was editor-in-chief and sole contributor, often penning diatribes under pseudonyms like W. Cooper, Robert Miradique and Edouard Archinard. Soirées of poetry and boxing instruction were advertised on its cover; inside, we find not only Cravan’s manic poetry, which sizzles on the page, but also hilarious frontals against establishment figures–like André Gide—and hallucinogenic dialogues between Cravan and his late "uncle" Oscar Wilde. "I looked at him in his entirety," said Cravan in "Oscar Wilde is living!" "He was fine. In his armchair he had the air of an elephant; his backside crushed the seat where it was narrowest; in front of those enormous arms and legs I tried, with admiration, to imagine the divine sentiments that inhabited these same limbs… ‘Come on! Have a bloody drink!’ I exclaimed with an American boxer’s accent." "You are a terrible boy," quips an indignant Wilde to Cravan, "my God, have you lost all your dignity!"
Cravan’s stanzas are similarly exuberant and raving: "I would like to be in Vienna and in Calcutta," he wrote in "Hie!" "catching every train and every ship,/ fornicating with every woman and devouring every dish./ Socialite, chemist, whore, drunk, musician, worker, painter, acrobat, actor;/ Old, young, swindler, hoodlum, angel and reveler;/ millionaire, bourgeois, cactus, giraffe or crow;/ Coward, hero, negro, monkey, Don Juan, pimp, lord,/ peasant, hunter, industrialist,/ Fauna and flora:/ I am all things, all men and all animals!" And in "Words," he warned that "You need to dream your life with great care,/ Instead of living it merely as a party." Then, "Weary of searching for the day, you will taste the night." "I have lived in an epoch," Cravan said in "Arthur," "where I could have the drunkenness to think that nobody else was my equal./ An idea!"
What an idea, a drunkenness of thought! Cravan’s superior revolt of the mind, his ability to express in literature both dizzy exuberance and absolute indignation, is the nearly forgotten legacy bequeathed by the poet with the world’s shortest hair. I fear his mad, raving types are needed more than ever these days, if only to pillory the purveyors of the status quo, a status quo in which nonentities and mediocrities not only rise to fame and fortune, but also control some of world’s most powerful governments. For the sake of us all, I hope budding Arthur Cravans are still waiting in the wings, out there somewhere, wearing odd socks, and tangoing till dawn.
Author of Metromarxism (Routledge), Dialectical Urbanism (Monthly Review), and Land of Storms: In Search of Guy Debord (Pluto, forthcoming), Andy Merrifield is a writer based in Haute-Savoie, France.
ANDY MERRIFIELD is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.