Books, First World War

The Mysterious Arthur Cravan

“The Mysterious Arthur Cravan the world’s shortest-haired poet, boxer, hotel-rat, muleteer, snake-charmer, chauffeur, ailurophile, gold-prospector, grandson of the Queen’s Chancellor, nephew of Oscar Wilde…”

was the bellowed recital of accomplishments from the mouth of the English poet-pugilist, Arthur Cravan, as he entered the ring before his boxing bouts in Paris between 1910 and 1914. This mythologizing pedigree may have over-compensated for his underwhelming boxing prowess, but it obeyed one psychological truth: only the exaggerations were true. A macho-aesthete he was a poet amongst boxers, a boxer amongst poets, a fraud and an imposter. André Breton said of him that his life was the best barometer for measuring the impact of the avant-garde between 1912 and 1917. He wrote, edited and distributed editions of a literary magazine which, as prototype Dada, was internationally influential, before dying in 1918 at the age of 31 whilst sailing a boat off the coast of Mexico.

He was born Fabian Lloyd, to English parents, in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1887. His aunt was Constance the wife of Oscar Wilde. His grandfather was Horace Lloyd QC the distinguished jurist and privy councillor during Queen Victoria’s reign. After the scandal of Wilde’s trials and imprisonment in 1895, the family changed its name to Holland. Fabian retired his name for good and chose the nom de guerre Arthur Cravan in 1910 whilst living in Paris. Physically imposing and with a sense of his own brute erotic power he trained as a boxer and became the amateur middle weight champion of France. In the pre-war craze for boxing in Paris Cravan made his name not merely by his sporting exploits, but by the crazed verbal performances that accompanied them.

His prose and poetry was peppered with the jabbing techniques of the pugilist; “le style terre-a-terre” as he called it. The English poet Mina Loy, love of his life and later his wife, said that his combative prose style was dominated by a ‘knock-out’ critique. His sentences were strenuous and heavily hyphenated – and he used punctuation eccentrically. Cravan wrote only in French, usually in a staccato style, and once wrote: ‘Toute la literature, c’est: ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta.’ His chief literary influences were Arthur Rimbaud and Alfred Jarry.

The content of his criticism sought to knock-out his chosen opponents; his was a “critique brutale”. He presented an incendiary lecture about modern art on the 6th March 1914 during the Exposition des Independents, Paris. He was savage about the artists who were displaying, and the quality of their work. Such was his dismissiveness of the painter Marie Laurencin, expressed in such obscene language, that her lover Apollinaire sent seconds to challenge Cravan to a duel. Cravan adroitly avoided a dawn bout; he had a different use for seconds. The advert for his lecture had, on this occasion, been relatively understated:

At Les Noctambules
On Friday 6th March 1914 at 9 o’clock
In the evening
Arthur Cravan will lecture, dance and box

Cravan’s lectures were often advertised in sensational terms and became provocative performances in ways designed to shock the paying Parisian audience. He claimed, before one, that he would commit suicide by drinking a carafe of absinthe in front of the crowd whilst wearing only a jock-strap “for the benefit of the ladies”, and delivered his pre-suicide récit with his testicles draped on the table. In another he brandished a loaded shotgun and threatened the audience with his suicide, then chastised them for making a social event of death. In a third he threw a heavy attaché case full of papers into the crowd. Loy called them his “pantomimic atrocities”, his way of taking revenge on a world that exploited the artist. He was most content if he went too far; “Je mangerais ma merde” he proudly claimed. He arrived at the Société des Savantes in tights and fired his pistol into the air. He made a lasting impression on his contemporaries who never tired of describing his personality, appearance or behaviour. Picabia said of these performances that Cravan “never tried to shock others: he tried to shock himself, which is a much harder thing to do.”

Between 1912 and 1915 he produced his polemical literary magazine, Maintenant, which ran to five issues. He used it to publish his poems, vent his wrath on the public, advertise his friend’s cafés and ventures and bring down artists reputations; he showed no regard for fair play. Cravan wrote the entire contents (under his name and other pseudonyms Robert Miradique, Marie Lowitska etc.), drew the illustrations, invented spoof advertisements, printed the journal and then pushed copies around town in a wheelbarrow selling them outside the venue of the event he was abusing. In an edition on 2nd July 1913, that achieved notoriety, he printed a spoof interview with the idolised Andre Gide full of taunts; part prank, part abuse. Gide obtained a novelists revenge a year later: Cravan was reproduced as an amoralist and conman in Les Caves du Vatican.

In another edition published on 3rd October 1913 he included a contemporary Parisian conversation with his uncle Oscar Wilde (dead 13 years), under the title, “Oscar Wilde est Vivant” that oscillated between adulation and insult. Wilde is described as an old man with a white beard, a bloated visage and diseased with rotten teeth and scrofulous; he and Cravan share a bottle of cherry brandy. Cravan, unlike the rest of his family, was proud of his uncle and was partial to a Wildean paradox “the ephemeral has deep roots in me”; Cravan too saved his genius for his life. The irony of this encounter was lost on a po-faced editor at the New York Times who assigned a reporter to Paris to investigate. The wild goose chase was reported under the thrilling headline on 9th December 1913 “No one Found Who Saw Wilde Dead”.

War was declared in August 1914, and Cravan at 28 was required to fight. But anticipating another rhyming boxer avoiding the draft (in Vietnam in 1967, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,”) Cravan objected to this battle “On ne me fait pas marcher, moi”. He was determined not to serve in the armed forces of any country, but to choose his own allies and enemies instead. He sought confrontation all his life but refused to bear arms. He was an internationalist, of English stock, Swiss birth, domiciled in France, a citizen of many cities across the world; he fluently spoke English, French and German: “I have twenty countries in my memory, and I drag the colours of a hundred towns in my soul”. Cravan had no part in the prosaic quarrel between the Kaiser and his cousins and sought to avoid their pitiless police. As an accomplished traverser of borders he slipped past the authorities and into neutral Spain and onto Barcelona. He was not alone as a fugitive from conscription, many of the artists and writers who went on to embody the Dada movement were similarly seeking refuge from the madness.

Dada grew out of the cultural crisis produced by the First World War. It was a rebellious upsurge of rage from artists, philosophers and writers opposed to the stupidity and absurdity of an imbecilic conflict. Dada was an attack on the foundations of the civilization responsible for the conditions that brought about war. It was an attack on speech, syntax, logic, literature, painting. Logical, argumentative prose was regarded as an insufficient technique to rupture the old society and its culture. Instead this anti-art art movement went beyond the limits of aesthetics, it grew venomous and became a subversive, disruptive protest against hierarchy, authority, order and structure. Dada was a radical negation, invalidating meaning and expressing a Nietzschean ‘joyful wisdom.’ These artists understood that the language of propaganda expressed by the mass media had become a betrayal of humanity, as slaughter increased and the warring countries clung to the idea of national dignity and glory. The Dada protagonists, starting in 1916, produced work in the cities of non-belligerent countries such as Zurich, Barcelona and New York where these anti-war protestors found refuge from conscription. They were men and women, German, French, Hungarian, Dutch, Czech and more. Their techniques were photo-montage, ready-mades, provocative performances, arbitrary signs and syntax-jarring prose poems. They wrote and produced low cost magazines for the dissemination of ideas and techniques between these cities.

Arthur Cravan’s cultural critique, between 1912 and 1914, was a forerunner of Dada, and they acclaimed him a pioneer. He was a chaotic audience-abusing performance artist, a writer of wayward prose-poems, a proud anti-art artist, a quarrelsome exhibitionist and most influentially a producer of single-handedly written, low-cost provocative magazines. Following Maintenant (1913), Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roché produced two editions of The Blind Man (1917), Picabia produced several of 391 in Barcelona (1918), and George Grosz and John Hartfield Die Pleit (1919), amongst others.

In Barcelona, Cravan lived with his brother Otho Lloyd and his wife Olga Sakharoff and other friends, including the Picabias and Marie Laurencin (the obscenities forgiven), before deciding to travel to the United States. To earn his passage across the Atlantic he arranged to share the purse with another boxer hiding in the city. The formidable Jack Johnson, the black American former world heavyweight champion was there having escaped a trumped-up prosecution under the Mann Act (probably for a liaison with a white girl). The purse to be shared was 50,000 pesetas and the fight, amid much fanfare, occurred at Plaza de Toros the largest bull fighting ring in Barcelona on 23rd April 1916. Cravan weighing in at 16 ½ stone lasted five three-minute rounds being felled in the sixth. He can be resurrected on You-Tube in a thirty second scratchy film showing footage of the preparation for the fight. All other rumours of his resurrection are greatly exaggerated.

He crossed the Atlantic in early 1917 from Cadiz to New York on a steam ship with Leon Trotsky (both men heading to their eventual early deaths in Mexico). Trotsky noting in his journal that the ship was full of deserters “among them a boxer and part-time writer, a cousin of Oscar Wilde, who frankly declared that he would rather smash a Yankee’s face in the noble art of boxing than be done in by a German”. In New York Cravan fell in love with Mina Loy, and spent time spreading Cravanesque scandal in artistic circles. He discussed and helped plan the forthcoming 391 with Duchamp, Roché and Picabia. Mina said of their love affair that spring “tenderness awakened in him, and tenderness in a strong man is always a deluge”. But by the summer the prospect of his conscription by the United States authorities grew acute and Cravan left once again, on forged identity papers (from a painter called A.B. Frost who had died in his presence of a tubercular haemorrhage during an orgy of alcohol) and headed north in a thick overcoat, with a fur collar, to Newfoundland where he boarded a Danish fishing boat to Mexico intending to re-join the now pregnant Mina who had gone south. The couple married in Mexico on 25th January 1918 (“we left the town hall walking with great strides like conquering giants”) and lived together as newlyweds in poverty and destitution. Still on the run from the draft they decided to head for Argentina after a few money-raising bouts against a Mexican heavyweight on 9th August 1918 (lost on points) and Jim ‘Black Diamond’ Smith on 15th September 1918 (lost by a K.O. in the second round after blows to the thorax and jaw). Mina took the last berth on a Japanese hospital ship sailing south. Cravan was last known to have sailed a small schooner along the coast of Mexico in late October 1918, a time when severe winds can blow without warning. He was lost at sea and his body never found. He must have died by 3rd November 1918 because Mina was writing from Buenos Aires asking if there was news of him. Had the armistice (declared on 11th November 1918) been two weeks earlier the couple would have been free to return to New York or Paris, or anywhere. His itinerant, brief and stormy career was now over and Mina was left widowed, pregnant and penniless in Buenos Aires.

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