Giving “Birth to a Butterfly”: Assagioli’s Feminist Patient

Wall painting by Mina Loy, Peggy Guggenheim’s Villa, Pramousquier, 1923

In 1913, Mina Loy (1882-1966) was living in a rented villa in Florence when she found herself in a torpor and depressed. Her photographer husband had just set sail for Australia, abandoning her with their two children. A painter herself, she was artistically stalled and still mourning over the death of her first child who had died in infancy six years earlier.

Enter Dr. Roberto Assagioli!

Yes, Mina Loy – feminist, bohemian, poet, and playwright – was one of Roberto Assagioli’s first clients.

Over the course of her lifetime, Loy acted, wrote feminist and utopian tracts, created lampshades, and painted – including a lost portrait of Assagioli. Loy was born in London. Her mother was British and Christian while her father was a Hungarian Jewish tailor who had escaped Budapest’s antisemitism. Loy would end up having two husbands, four children, and several complicated love affairs. (More on two of these later…)

Mina Loy

In 1913, women with psychological problems were usually diagnosed with ‘hysteria,’ but Assagioli was remarkably different. According to Loy’s biographer, the 31-year-old artist found Assagioli (who was six years younger than herself)  “particularly sensitive to the spiritual concerns of women.” A Christian Scientist, she also felt that Assagioli was perhaps the only man in Italy interested in Christian Science, meditation, and theosophy.

To help cure Loy’s bouts of depression, Assagioli prescribed “daily rest in a dark room and vapor baths followed by cold compresses.” Loy found Assagioli to be a “reassuring friend and counselor.” Assagioli helped Loy become aware of the will and to visualize what she hoped to change. His belief in spiritual evolution was also “a possibility that Mina found reassuring.” But perhaps the most interesting detail about the young psychoanalyst’s gift was that Loy found “his presence itself soothing.”

Soon after seeing Assagioli for treatment, Loy published her first poems and exhibited her paintings with the Futurists in Rome. (Her poetry was admired by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein and others.)  In 1914, World War II broke out alongside Loy’s affairs with both Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944) and Giovanni Papini (1881-1956), two major figures in the Futurists movement.

Papini, like Loy, was also a poet, novelist and a friend of Assagioli. Papini and Assagioli participated in the Florentine group called Leonardo, which was formed to “emphatically interpret the need for radical change in the cultural outlook of Italian society.” In 1903, Papini and Giuseppe Prezzolini (1882-1982) founded the magazine Il Leonardo and would go to publish La Voce. Assagioli contributed articles on psychoanalysis and psychology as well as provided financial assistance to both magazines.

Marinetti was the founder of the Futurist movement. He is best known as the author of the Futurist Manifesto, which was read and debated all over Europe upon its publication in 1909. Futurism was an artistic and social movement that emphasized speed, technology, youth, and violence, and objects such as the car, the airplane, and the industrial city. Fundamentally, an intellectual movement, it was spurred by young people’s disillusionment with the liberal Italian state. Although it was largely an Italian phenomenon, there were parallel movements in Russia, England, Belgium and elsewhere.

In response to Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto and the debates within Futurism on the issue of the Futurist woman, Loy wrote her own Feminist Manifesto at the same time that she was meeting with Assagioli. This work, which was published posthumously in 1982 (!), begins with a direct call on women in no uncertain terms, even for today:

“Women if you want to realize yourselves—you are on the eve of a devastating psychological upheaval—all your pet illusions must be unmasked—the lies of centuries have got to go—are you prepared for the Wrench—? There is no half-measure—NO scratching on the surface of the rubbish heap of tradition, will bring about Reform, the only method is Absolute Demolition. Cease to place your confidence in economic legislation, vice-crusades & uniform education—you are glossing over Reality.”

As for Papini, he would inspire one of her most famous works. Published in 1915, “Love Songs,” otherwise known as “Songs to Joannes,” consists of thirty-four poems related to her failed relationship with Papini. Her writing at the time was influenced by the bloody accounts of World War I and her feeling that sexual love was yet another casualty. Here is an excerpt:

We might have coupled
In the bed-ridden monopoly of a moment
Or broken flesh with one another
At the profane communion table
Where wine is spilled on promiscuous lips

We might have given birth to a butterfly
With the daily news
Printed in blood on its wings.

One has to wonder how Assagioli managed to fit himself into all this intrigue!

Excerpt from Mina Loy’s letter where she talks about the superconscious.

We have some evidence from Loy’s letters to her friend Mable Dodge Luhan (1879-1962). In one note, Loy writes that the ‘inward dimension’ is the ‘fifth dimension’, an idea she most likely got from Assagioli. Like Assagioli, Loy thought that this dimension was the source of great art and literature and where genius resides. In another letter, she refers to the superconscious.

After a long and turbulent life, Loy died in relative obscurity in Colorado at the age of 83. At her funeral, a reading was chosen from her papers that echoed Assagioli’s emphasis on higher consciousness and how psychosynthesis is not just limited to “the basement of the human being”:

“We are but a ramshackle edifice around an external exaltation, a building in which the moralities are a flight of stairs whose bases dissolve in the wake of our ascension.”


Happy International Women’s Day!


References

Beauchamp, T.A. (2014). Enemies of the Unconscious: Modernists Resistances to Psychoanalysis. Dissertation for a PhD in Philosophy in Comparative Literature from the University of California Irvine.

Burke, C. (1996). Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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