The Paris Review

Arthur Cravan, the Original Troll

Arthur Cravan, the Dadaist poet-boxer, was neither a good poet nor a good boxer, but he was a legendary provocateur.  

Hemingway, Mailer, and Scorsese: much great American art has been inspired by boxing. George Bellows’s may be the best. Between 1907 and 1909, Bellows created three paintings—Club Night, Stag at Sharkey’sBoth Members of This Club—that captured boxing’s glories and indignities. The sport provided a powerfully visceral metaphor for the American experience of the twentieth century.

But boxing also transfixed artists beyond American shores. Around the time Bellows created his triptych, a tranche of Europeans created sublime, radical work inspired by the sport. One of them was the Swiss enigma Arthur Cravan. Described by one critic as “a world tramp … a traverser of borders and resister of orders,” Cravan traveled the globe in the early 1900s by forging documents and assuming false identities, preening, harassing, and haranguing, as he went. He was hailed by André Breton as a pivotal precursor of Dadaism, and belonged to that category of floating prewar avant-gardists whose legacy resides more in their mode of living than their artistic creations. Indeed, he declared himself anti-art and avowed boxing to be the ultimate creative expression of the modern, American-tinged age. He’s often referred to as a “poet-boxer,” though he wasn’t especially accomplished as either; his real talent appears to have been making a spectacle of himself, in every sense. 

Cravan’s real name was Fabian Avenarius Lloyd; he adopted myriad pseudonyms and aliases during his short life. He was born in Switzerland, in 1887, to Irish and British

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