I am the prophet of a new life.
– Arthur Cravan
With his pregnant wife Mina Loy watching from the shore, bad boy boxer/poet Arthur Cravan sailed from the coast of Mexico in 1918 and was never seen again. We don’t know exactly where or when (or even if) Cravan capitulated to the Pacific, but the mysterious ripples emanating from his (presumed) plunge continue to reach the shores of the present.
The question mark over Cravan’s end soon turned into an ellipsis and it didn’t take long for the first “sightings”; it was said that he was living in New York in the 1920s under the name Dorian Hope, or that he had in fact made it to Argentina which was the ultimate destination of his voyage, and was living there in obscurity with Loy. There were even rumours that Cravan was trying to pass off counterfeit manuscripts purportedly penned by his uncle Oscar Wilde. The underlying assumption to these theories was evidently that Cravan’s “disappearance” was another of his notorious pranks, that death was just another temporary identity for the man born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd and known under a string of aliases of which Arthur Cravan is only the best known. And all the posthumous speculation was nothing if not Cravanesque; in a piece for his magazine Maintenant entitled “Oscar Wilde est vivant!” Cravan claimed to have encountered his famous uncle 13 years after his death in 1900.
Cravan’s insolence, revolt and relentless self-promotion were avant-avant-garde; I’ve already discussed Cravan’s status as the first blogger; there is ample reason to consider him a pioneering performance artist as well. The title Maintenant is highly apposite; Arthur Cravan is in the eternal present, a present which has assimilated his provocations but yearns for more, and keeps summoning him from the wings. Because whatever the outcome of his sea voyage, Cravan never really died, he simply passed into a realm from where we may periodically retrieve him to serve as a prophet of the artistic confrontation and radical showmanship which he more or less invented. Two French novels, for example, are based on the conceit of Arthur Cravan (or a character very much like him) resurfacing after his disappearance – Tony Cartano’s Le bel Arturo (1991) and Philippe Dagen’s Arthur Cravan n’est pas mort noyé (“Arthur Cravan didn’t drown”, 2006).
The remarkably resilient Cravan’s-not-dead meme washed up recently in Berlin in the form of Die unheimliche Rückkehr des Arthur Cravan (“The incredible return of Arthur Cravan”), a stage-and-video piece written and directed by Maria Jamborsky and starring Florian Steffens in what was essentially a one-man show (plus musicians). The flyer promised “ARTHUR CRAVAN – DICHTET! TANZT! BOXT!” (“ARTHUR CRAVAN – VERSIFIES! DANCES! BOXES!”), clearly alluding to Cravan’s promotional material (seen here) for his own “lectures” at which he would undress, threaten suicide, or otherwise taunt the audience.
The first half of the show opened with the drunken put-downs and put-ons of such a “lecture” (the show was sponsored, appropriately enough, by an absinthe seller) and followed Cravan’s fitful boxing career, with a punching bag swinging above the audience’s head. It shadowed Cravan’s extraordinary pre-Dadaist rampage with its credo of scandal for scandal’s sake, a permanent scandal as tumultuous as the permanent revolution espoused by Trotsky (whom Cravan encountered on his 1916 crossing to New York). It pursued his fraught encounters with the New York art world, his marriage to Mina Loy, and finally that fatefully truncated voyage.
The second half comprised a film showing Arthur Cravan arriving in present-day Berlin (much as a recent film purported to depict the return of Weimar dancer Anita Berber). There’s Arthur Cravan at the employment office, Arthur Cravan meeting young artists, Arthur Cravan as a slick, ingratiating life coach. It is this last mode that is somehow the most convincing; Cravan left little behind but the extraordinary facts of his life, and it is a plausible outcome that our age might seek to commoditise that bizarre biography, rendering it both safe and saleable.
The show raised several interesting questions. Why is it that the present seeks to abduct these vivid characters from the past? Does hipster-infested Berlin suffer such a surfeit of self-regard, does it imagines its lure to be so great that even the laws of time cannot hold back the coke-crazed dancer and the pre-Dada prankster? Or is it the infinitely permissive age of “digital Bohème” longing for true Bohème, for a time when it was still possible to wind up the bourgeoisie?
And what to make of Die unheimliche Rückkehr’s striking resemblance to a show which recently ran at the Edinburgh Festival, Tonight Sandy Grierson Will Lecture, Dance and Box (reprising a 2010 show entitled Tonight David Ireland Will Lecture, Dance and Box)?
It takes as its premise that the solo performer is the great-grandson of Cravan (a fiction coincidentally also entertained by French boxer/artist Sébastien Montag), who meets his illustrious ancestor in a Lisbon nightclub. The piece was written by the eponymous Sandy Grierson in collaboration with Lorne Campbell. While the text differs from the more recent Berlin show, the bowler-hatted and boxing-gloved performer, the lecture and the “return” of Arthur Cravan to the present day are common to both.
Counterfeit or coincidence?