What am I to do with you? The Taxi metre is ticking, the surrealist’s waiting. Pull yourself together—quick! I’ll take you along.
“However did you get that hole in your trousers, its new—” I demanded, detecting, as we got into the taxi, a perfect round of perforation letting out a tiny light from his thigh. I suspected him of replenishing his beggar’s capital.
“It was there before,” said Insel sanctimoniously, as if referring to a halo earned by excessive martyrdom.
“You might as well come up and see Ussif with me,” I suggested.
“No,” said Insel, “none of the surrealists will have anything to do with me. They know only too well, if they did, I should try to borrow money.”
“I should have thought you’d be worth a little money to a surrealist. He might learn what supereality is about—you are organically surreal—”
“I don’t do it on purpose, said Insel dejected.
“I know you don’t,” I assured him warmly. You only do Kafka on purpose—you’re so much better in the original.
I kept my promise of going to his room on my way back. Strangely—the very name of the street he lived in had the sound of a ghostly exhaustion. His attic was on the seventh storey.
Along the narrow open passage with its bare iron railing the Chambres de Bonnes moved past me as I looked for his name on the doors, when, coming to a closed iron shutter ﬂeeced with dust and cobwebs growing in patches like a moss of soot or hanging in gray festoons about its slits, I felt the liveness of the air decrease, and “Insel” written in the archaic hand of some automatic writings drew up my eyes—. To that darkened crack which outlines the magical versatility of a barrier measuring a yard across and with merely the touch of a hand diminishing to a strip three inches wide. That cover of a living book whose history may come to an end before you can get it open; or cut short your personal adventure by remaining shut; out of this oblong outline of Entrance and Exit there leaked a perceptible seepage of Insel’s torpor.
Noiselessly, indolently, the door vanished. I walked into its chasm and Insel led me to his painting set in the paciﬁc light of a large attic window.
“Das ist die Irma?” he said with the secretive in-looking twinkle that lit up his eyes with recurrent delights. And suddenly it dawned upon me that one thing about this man that made him so different to other people was that contrary to our outrunning holding-up-the-mirror self- consciousness, his was constantly turning its back on the world and tiptoe with expectancy, peeping inquisitively into its own mischievous eyes. Or, in some cerebral acrobatic recoil, that being who is, in us, both outlooker and window, in him, astonishingly, was craning back to look in at the outlooking window of himself, as if there were something there he might forget, some treasure as to whose existence he wished to remain assured, some lovely illusion inside him, he must re-see to insure its continued projection.
“Die Irma,” he repeated lovingly to introduce her to me, and the magnetic bond uniting her painted body to his emaciated stature—as if she were of an ectoplasm proceeding from him—was so apparent one felt as if one were surprising an insane liaison at almost too intimate a moment. He was glittering with a pleasure as dynamically compressed as the carbon of a diamond.
A narrow canvas, nigger-black, whose quality of shining obscurity was the effect of minutely painting in oil on some tempera ground, die Irma stood knee—deep on an easel.
To her livid brow, rounded like a half-moon, clung a peculiarly clammy algaeic or fungoid substitute for hair. Beneath it a transparent mask of horizontal shadow was penetrated by the eyes of an hypnosis; ﬂat disks of smoked mirror, having the selfsame semblance of looking into and out of oneself as her creator.
Perhaps in a superﬁne analysis, this is what all men really do, but as a natural interplay; whereas Insel and his picture were doing it with alternating intent. Indeed the great thin uninscribed coins of her gunmetal pupils, returning his fascinated gaze, were tilted at such an angle as to give a dimly illuminated reﬂection of an inner and outer darkness.
Her hands, as if nailed to her hips like crossed swords, jutted out from her body which seemed to be composed of rippling lava that here and there hardened to indentations like holly leaves growing from her sternum—her male hands that hardly made a pair, for the one had the bones of the back marked all of equal length and the other, one ﬁnger too long with an unmodeled edge which curved like paper against the background.
He hung over die Irma like a tall insect and outside the window in the rotten rose of an asphyxiated sunset the skeleton phallus of the Eiffel Tower reared in the distance as slim as himself.
Beside the picture I noticed that the gutter of his upper lip was interrupted by a seam, a ﬁne thread of ﬂesh running from the base of the nose to his mouth that accentuated the compression of his lips in their continual retention of the one remaining tooth which, so thin as to be atavistic in an adult, was like a stump forgotten in a croquet ground, left over from the Game of Life. An incipience or reparation of harelip? And Irma? In this very same spot she puffed to a swollen convergence.
“But Insel,” I asked, “her upper lip is about to burst with some inavowable disease. You have formed her of pus. Her body has already melted.”
“Exactly,” he answered with mysterious satisfaction. “I don’t care for it,” I decided.
“And I,” said Insel, with the reverent intonement with which he accompanied his tacitly implied admittance of myself to his holy-of-holies, “thought that this picture would be just the one that you would like.”
Time hovered, suspended in the attic air as the powders of life in the noxious mist of the exhausted city below. When suddenly the soporiﬁc lure he sowed in his magnetic ﬁeld—shattered. Insel was snatching at the emptied ﬂesh on his face in the recurrent anxiety inspiring his wilder gestures.
“She ought not to be,” he cried out, “if you don’t like her, I am going to destroy her.”
His cerebral excitement seemed to inﬂate his head, rather as a balloon from which his wasted body hung in slight levitation.
“Come down to the ﬂoor, for God’s sake,” I said peremptorily. “What does my opinion matter? I ’m not the museum.”
“But you’re right,” he insisted. “I have been going in the wrong direction. Die Irmas out.”
“And don’t use me as a sop for your terror of working.”
“It’s really not that—but a technical question. Die Irma ist nass.”
“She isn’t, she’s bone dry. I felt her.”
“I assure you, underneath—”
“Every time I’ve come to Paris you’ve said the same thing. Pull yourself together Insel, you’ve got to ﬁnish this for the museum. For you it’s work or death. Can’t you ﬁgure it out?” I urged helpfully— “When you have money and can eat you paint a picture so as to have more money— when you haven’t any more money.”
“It’s more complicated than that,” he objected again, “die Irma is wet—”
I was getting exasperated— When the balls of our eyes caught each other, we both began to laugh.
“If you had heard the Lesbian’s synopsis of Frank Harris’s confessions, you wouldn’t even trouble to mention it—.”
“I shouldn’t care to read this Lesbian’s confessions—it is a Lesbian who has taken the love of my life away from me.”
“Well now, I wouldn’t mention that either. Of course, it does not matter with me—anybody can tell me anything—you know what I mean—when you surrender your arms, chuck them onto neutral territory. I know it’s a touch that modernizes your romanticism; all the same, I’d advise you never to make that particular conﬁdence to a woman ‘ou connaît ça.’”
But Insel was past advice. With a look of dogged emptiness he recited for the nth time the story of those Mädchen who shut themselves into the house for a fortnight for fear he would shoot them.”
Mostly when speaking of his loves of the past he became quite normal; subnormal really, for his adventures in the actual world had been of an excruciating banality.
As I was also engaged for dinner, I asked the time. Insel who was sitting on a wooden stool stretched out his arm—it reached much further than its actual length would warrant.
Behind the curtain in the corner, carefully secreted under empty boxes, neatly stacked, was his wristwatch. He did not bring it out—his arm seemed in some Einsteinian contraction to shorten the necessary distance for focusing the hands.
It was seven o’clock. I took my leave. Insel, astonished as if this were the ﬁrst break in a timeless conversation, snapped in half; or at least bowed like a poplar in a sudden gale; his dessicated limbs the branches.
Staring vainly towards the door I was opening—he choked in the voice of a Robot, “Morgen komm ich im Gericht. Tomorrow I go to court—I am going mad!”
Then don’t forget your little afternoon,” I reminded him— “I dote on madmen.”
As I was leaving, he seized his palette and dripping an enormous brush into a pile of ebony pigment painted with a heinous neigh of victory, “Die Irma—Out!”
Mina Loy,1882-1966 Insel, 1937. First published October 1st 1991 by Black Sparrow Press
Image: Richard Oelze,1900-1980
A novel that follows an autobiographical relationship between, the character of the Loy narrator, Mrs. Jones, and the painter, Insel, based on the German Surrealist painter Richard Oelze. Mrs. Jones, is a writer in Paris, who also collects art for a New York gallery. The ethereal narrative represents an attempt to create a surrealist non-linear way of seeing the world. “It was the evening outside the Lutetia I experienced its effects. A sort of doubling of space where different selves lived different ways in different dimensions at once. Sitting on the sidewalk—floating in an Atlantic Ocean full of skyscrapers and ethereal cars.” To a background of daily life in the artist’s studio in Paris Mrs. Jones’s attempts to understand and articulate the superreal thought process of the Surrealist mind. “Insel,” I asked puzzled, “how does the world look to you? Like an Aquarium?”