"The Truth of My Being in Gesture and Movement": The Ego and the Body in Modernist Writing on Dance in Isadora Duncan’s My Life

by Esther Sanchez-Pardo

October 3, 2006


The paper examines Isadora Duncan's revolutionary dance style in the context of modernism's backlash against the machine age. Duncan reached back to the Greek chorus and Greek mythology for a way of harmonizing the individual and society. Her autobiography, My Life, explores the narcissistic origin of her aesthetic and her struggle to reconcile identity and fusion with the maternal sources of identity and sexuality.


[I]t is certainly to this wild, untrammeled life of my childhood that I owe the inspiration of the dance I created, which was but the expression of freedom (My Life, 19)
My Art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement (11)
Dance in my own view, has as its aim the expression of the most noble and profound feelings of the human soul: those that arise from the gods within ourselves, Apollo, Pan, Bacchus, Aphrodite (The Art of the Dance, 101)

In his 1929 review for The New Masses, "The Loves of Isadora," American writer Michael Gold, inflamed with revolutionary rhetoric, praised Duncan as the creator of a new dance , placing particular emphasis on her impulse to democratize dancing and so making it open to the people. "She was a new primitive," wrote Gold. "She discovered the motor of the savage dance. She created a new dance. She was a genius / She did what Walt Whitman had done for poetry. She ripped off all the corsets. She let herself go. She denied the rights of private property in the dance. She made it free for everyone" (Franko, 110).

     In The Art of the Dance, Isadora Duncan (1878-1927) claimed that she followed the advice of ancient Greek philosophers who wrote, "O Woman ... come in simple tunics, letting us see the line and harmony of the body beneath" (73). In her dance, Duncan liberates herself from the rules of ballet, which are to dance what syntax is to language. Duncan was a social and artistic revolutionary. A Marxist who was accused of being a feminist, she became, in the space of only a few years, the icon of the female modern dancer, a figure who represented the rising importance of women in culture. The majority of the critics, however, found a feminist interpretation for modern female dance to be too threatening.

     At the turn of the nineteenth century, there existed a societal trend that glorified the simplicity of the ancient past while viewing the industrialized present with disdain. A backlash against the increasing homogenization of the machine age, this trend ultimately gave rise to movements like Dada and Surrealism. Protests against machines took a variety of forms, amongst them the graceful curvilinear shapes of Art Nouveau and the glorification of all things Greek. Ancient Greece, considered purer than the present, was held in particular esteem. In some circles, paganism—in the sense of honoring a pantheon of ancient deities—became fashionable, no doubt as a sign of artistic sensitivity and social status. In such an atmosphere, Isadora Duncan, as she conquered Paris in her Greek robes, epitomized contemporary ideals of freedom and beauty.

     As Mark Franko (1995) has noted, Duncan’s idea of founding a school of dance did not derive simply from a disinterested belief in education. Rather, the school was destined in Duncan’s mind to produce an essential element of her choreographic vision: the chorus. Duncan was enthusiastic about the possibilities of reconstructing and performing Greek dance. Both her school and the chorus represented community projects where "the merging of the individual with the choral mass absorbed agency into a new, involuntary physical symbol[. . .]It was an experience beyond conscious design in which subject and object, artist and art, merged" (1995, 18).

     Duncan’s planned autobiography proved to be a privileged medium where she would harmonize a more "realistic" project (making a living, maintaining her dance school) with her old dreams (to return her to the Hellad through dance).1 Through the pages of her autobiography she presents us with characters who inhabit the world in which she wishes to live rather than the actual world she was used to. In this sense, it is no accident that her autobiography, My Life, stops in 1921 — even though she finishes writing the text in 1927, the year when she sets off for Russia. It may have been too big an effort to attempt to turn the last six nightmarish years of her life into a dream.

     In My Life, autobiographical writing repeats the origins of narcissism, since for narcissism to exist one needs a unified ego, that is to say an ego as a love object or as a total object, and so the intervention of an adult at the level of the drive — the parents’ narcissism. In other words, since that which provides the necessary totalization comes from outside the individual, in the case of autobiography it is the readers and the author-as-reader who perform this task, whereas in childhood it was the adults who were in charge of taking care of the child.

     The enormous psychic work that autobiographical writing demands from a writer is largely due to the fact that it brings into the open an ego that supposedly represents its internal ego. And if we take autobiography to be an attempt to establish or to restore a more or less definitive ego, its very writing puts the ego—in—progress at risk. The ego must define itself in one single way, or in a variety of ways and, insofar as it addresses itself to another one that is the reader, it must take responsibility for its options before the reader.

     In My Life, Duncan’s identity appears artificially inflated, or idealized. This operation is performed over the domain of a devalued and hesitant ego that is in need of exaggeration to sustain itself. Libidinal investment of love from the other is needed so that the ego may emerge and establish its narcissism. In Duncan’s text, the demand for love by the character—Isadora to the reader is revealed in full dramatic force, and her recourse to the grandiose, to the sublime and the enormous are the more comprehensible since the subject who writes appeals not only to the empathy of the audience but also to their love, to their total acceptance. What is at stake is the very existence of the ego as a totality; the ego attempts to safeguard its integrity and ultimately its sanity.

Approaching Identification

Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is the first goddess from Greek mythology to appear clearly in the autobiography as a figure of identification. In the opening paragraph of the text, Duncan writes "The character of a child is already plain, even in its mother’s womb. Before I was born my mother was in great agony of spirit and in a tragic situation. She could take no food except iced oysters and iced champagne. If people ask me when I began to dance I reply, ‘In my mother’s womb, probably as a result of the oysters and champagne —the food of Aphrodite’." (1927, 17).

     These are the words that Duncan selects to introduce herself to her readers and lead them into her story. With these words, she states that human beings are born with a set of clearly-defined features ("The character of a child is already plain, even in its mother’s womb"), whereby we can infer that there is room for neither creativity on the part of the infant, nor for spontaneous gestures or improvisation. No history, no event that occurs after birth can ever modify what was given. The identity of a subject is forged inside the mother, through the specific psychic maternal circumstances during pregnancy.

     In Duncan’s sentence we can appreciate the ambiguity that is produced in the story when she describes that when her mother was expecting her, she could eat only oysters and champagne, a meal that Isadora calls "Aphrodite’s food." The ambiguity lies in the fact that it is her mother who eats such food and is thus the one who should be associated to Aphrodite, whereas the sentence shows that Duncan herself would like to prove she has been fed in such a way and Aphrodite would be the baby that her mother bears in her womb - in other words, Isadora herself.

     This ambiguity suggests the circulation of a fantasy that positions the mother as a goddess that reproduces herself with the products coming from natural fruits (oysters and grape fruit), products with which she creates within herself her exact double, as though it were some kind of cloning. We observe that "repetition" in the names of the women of the family on her mother’s side (Mary, the grandmother; Mary Isadora, the mother; Mary Elizabeth, the eldest sister, and Angela Isadora, herself) where the name Mary and the root Isa get repeated three times.

     In this way, Duncan tells the reader she did not have the chance to make decisions about her character, but she states this through a generalization that converts her personal experience into something which is common to all human beings. What one gathers from these early sentences could easily be summarized as: there is no room for personal choice. Everything is preordained. Nobody can choose.

     What Duncan tells us next is that she was born under the sign of tragedy,2 a tragedy in which, if we follow the text closely, the food her mother was able to take seems to have had some effect. And so it seems, thanks to the information regarding food, the textual metamorphosis transforms a deranged mother with compulsive vomiting into a goddess that was feeding another within herself.

     In the story, this textual metamorphosis hinders any allusion to the possible rejection of the child by the mother, transforming the symptom of expulsion into its opposite in the act of incorporating the food that the goddess takes in. This operates henceforward as the founding moment of the legend that establishes kinship ties between Isadora and Aphrodite.

     On the other hand, these paragraphs show that Isadora’s text transforms an authentic "tragic situation" into a sign of fate, rather than considering it as the product of the vicissitudes of history and interpersonal relations. In this way Isadora can discharge herself from all responsibility and put the blame on the protagonists of the events that produced her mother’s "spiritual crisis."

     Duncan insists that she is the daughter of Aphrodite, on the influence the goddess exerts upon her, and hesitates as to whether she descends from the goddess or is one herself. One page before she writes:

    I was born by the sea, and I have noticed that all the great events of my life have taken place by the sea. My first idea of movement, of the dance, certainly came from the rhythm of the waves. I was born under the star of Aphrodite, Aphrodite who was also born on the sea, and when her star is in the ascendant, events are always propitious to me. At these epochs life flows lightly and I am able to create. I have also noticed that the disappearance of this star is usually followed by disaster for me (18).

The first sentence points to an analogy with the goddess starting from a common birth at sea, and the third refers to protection from the goddess that certainly alludes to a mother—daughter relation. The last two sentences suggest that Isadora needs the presence of the goddess nearby or inside herself as a precondition for harmonious relations between the world and herself. Detachment or simply separation between mother and daughter has fatal consequences.

     If we take into account that these sentences were written between 1926 and 1927, during the last two years of Isadora’s life, it is not difficult to conclude that this "disaster" to which she refers — a disaster which the ego cannot metabolize - refers to the death of her children.3 Deaths whose representation is unbearable for the ego threaten to destroy the whole system of representation and are thus turned into a scene within the global tragedy of the history of Isadora.

     To convert the unbearable into the tragic suggests a movement toward absolute determinism: tragedy is precisely the place and the time where the hero is not entitled to choose, where everything happens through the force of fate. This absolute determinism plays a crucial role in the text, since it supports an operation of disavowal that absolves all family members from all responsibility.

     Duncan’s autobiography is scattered with innumerable deaths which, almost without exception, are not natural but tragic, ranging from the deaths of her three children to the anonymous deaths caused by war. There are other deaths that have been removed from the text: her father’s death in a shipwreck, the suicide of the only man she had consented to marry, Russian poet Esenin, and the death from tuberculosis of her young disciple Margot.

     The absence of these three deaths from the text makes sense if we take into account that in Duncan’s view, the presence of Aphrodite always had fatal effects on her. On the other hand there is a constant hesitation about Duncan’s identity (either as Aphrodite’s daughter or as Aphrodite herself). This is the reason why, despite her ideology of tragic destiny, Isadora cannot solve the problem of who is responsible for these three deaths. She can only displace such responsibility to some divine characters.

     With this dilemma in mind, we enter fully into the subject of guilt and thus, of the functioning of the superego of the protagonist, which we can see is also divided, since it lays the blame of the deaths of her beloved ones on her whilst at the same time turning these deaths into a well-deserved punishment for her sins. There is a conflict in representation between the construction of an Isadora—goddess—mother—perpetrator and an Isadora—human—daughter—victim. The magnitude of such a conflict cannot be overcome, and she opts for the removal of the deaths of her mother and her ex-husband, erasing from the story the last six years of her life.

     It is true that the "sin" that Isadora keeps attributing to herself — later, due to her libertarian ideology, she will not acknowledge it as a sin— is, as she writes in the first pages of her autobiography, the sin of her love life. An erotic life which her mother constantly opposed, and for which she severely punished her when she was pregnant, in Duncan’s view a moment of maximum psychic vulnerability for a woman,.

     It is the telling of maternal punishment — rather than Isadora’s explicit words — that leads us to the sin that it punishes, namely Duncan’s fleshly desires, their materiality and inner vulnerability. We might say that these are not sins of the flesh, but rather they have to do with the pure flesh and blood of Isadora’s femininity (that is to say with a hidden interior, unknowable and entirely her own) and not with the idea of being a perfect statuesque body, consisting of a visible aesthetic surface (that is, ideal, knowable and liable to be possessed), as the superegoic project associated to her seemed to dictate. In other words, for a superego project that employs cloning as a model — which seeks the exact reproduction of an idealized maternal ego- the feminine body cannot but be the site of evil, since its inner reality escapes the control and surveillance of the authority which imposes such a model.

     In the following sentences, the representation of Aphrodite is clearly associated to those of mother and sea respectively, and both of them simultaneously to the idea of unlimited freedom:

    The sea has always drawn me to it, whereas in the mountains I have a vague feeling of discomfort and a desire to fly. They always give me the impression of being a prisoner to the earth [. . .] Fortunately [my mother] was blissfully unconscious. I say fortunately for me for it is certainly to this wild, untrammeled life of my childhood that I owe the inspiration of the dance I created, which was but the expression of freedom (18-19).

Aphrodite had a body that Duncan had seen in reproductions, especially after she came to Europe and visited museums containing artworks which inspired her in her conception of movement and her creation of dance. The British Museum is one of the most often-visited by the Duncans, particularly the room devoted to Greece. There we find, among other things, one of the largest sculptures in the museum, that of Aphrodite and Thalassa lying together and fused in a tender embrace.4

     A sign underneath the sculpture says it shows Thalassa, the mother, and her daughter Aphrodite, and that the two can either fuse and become one or be exchanged. In fact, the folds of the tunics of both fuse, forming a single garment, and from a distance it is difficult to determine whether the piece shows two bodies or one. Aphrodite suggests the idea of a wave or an inlet, as if it were a fragment of the body of her mother—sea that can be brought back and be fused again tobecome part of the same body.

     This symbiosis that the sculpture presents — and on which Isadora most likely draws, in the construction of her own fantasy of harmonic union - suggests an attempt to resolve the conflict of individuation. This conflict is a tragic one, since what the superego demands from the ego turns out to be both an insurmountable task (to be Aphrodite) that may annihilate the ego (Aphrodite annihilates Isadora) and it may also be a capital punishment (of the ego and of its beloved objects). This symbiosis guarantees peace with the superego, the adjustment to the ideal ego and the alleviation of the sense of guilt, since the surrendering of the ego in the fusion relieves it of any responsibility for its deeds.

    My mother was going through such a tragic experience at this time that she often said, ‘This child that will be born will surely not be normal,’ and she expected a monster (17).

This brief sentence transmits beautifully the logic which states that a tragedy in the life of the parents produces monstrosity in their offspring. It also illustrates the effort that the child’s psychic apparatus must make, when such a logic is implanted and she must convert it into a different logic that allows her to have access to humanity and to depart from the expectation of "monstrosity" that bears down upon her. Following this logic, Duncan’s identification with Aphrodite suggests a radical departure of what was foreseen as monstrosity.

     If we consider the representations that were constructed as a collage made from fragments of stories, readings and experiences of childhood and adulthood, and if we take into account the major influence of the myths and Greek tragedies on Duncan’s upbringing,5 we might offer the interpretation that in these paragraphs there is a silent identification with Hermaphrodite, the monstrous son of Aphrodite and Hermes. This identification would play the same role as the identification with the goddess, that is to say, it would reverse a condition that is imposed upon the ego — the maternal prediction upon its monstrosity — which is incompatible with its self-cathexis.

     The origin of Hermaphroditus double sex varies according to the version we use, but they all have in common the fact that Hermaphroditus is not a synthesis or the product of a union — something which will give birth to one being — but is rather the union itself, the addition of two beings that are fused, an absolute ideal in the current context of Duncan’s life. In her case, this idea was even more significant, because her family on her mother’s side passed on the traumatic splitting of her parents’ divorce. Hermaphroditus represents the ideal of a love that endures the passing of time and individual differences, an ideal that was most likely conceived as a defense against Mrs. Duncan’s experience of dejection when she divorced her husband.

     In such a way, the traumatic divorce of the mother is implanted in her daughter as a tragic representation and comes to be a fantasy of becoming a double but indivisible being, a true combined couple fused in one single body. A double, which is harmonious and dynamic, according to Duncan’s conception of Nature and the cosmos, an idea certainly influenced by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is a combined body in constant movement and transformation , as Aphrodite’s ability to become Thalassa and vice-versa demonstratess.

     This feature of exchangeability, as the reversibility of the vital process — in the sense of emerging from a body and going back to be immersed into the same body— is present generally in Isadora’s thinking. As she writes in the introduction of her autobiography, when she tells us of the terrible moment when she approached her two drowned children, to be born and to die are two aspects of the same movement:

    Was it that I was really in a state of clairvoyance, and that I knew that death does not exist —that those two little cold images of wax were not my children, but merely their cast-off garments? That the souls of my children on in radiance, but always lived? Only twice comes that cry of the mother which one hears as without one’s self —at Birth and at Death— for when I felt in mine those little cold hands that would never again press mine in return I heard my cries —the same cries as I had heard at their births. Why the same —since one is the cry of supreme joy and the other of sorrow? I do not know why, but I know they are the same. Is it that in all the universe there is but one Great Cry containing Sorrow, Joy, Ecstasy, Agony, the Mother Cry of Creation? (15-16).

In this passage one can notice that the ideas of life and death have in common a cry, that can be understood as produced by the act of separation, an act whose more accurate representation is, in Duncan’s text, the tearing apart of the maternal continent, a creative tearing that expels in childbirth, and incorporates in death. The cry signals the moment of metamorphosis, the passage from one stage into the next in life and from one place into another in space. In fact, the birth-cry signals a passage from idea to flesh and from inner to the outer (a child that is born is no longer the inner representation of a child but rather becomes a child in flesh and blood, outside the maternal continent), whereas the cry in death signals the passage from flesh to idea (since a dead child no longer exists outside, in the material world, and comes to live inside, in the inner world, as a psychic representation).

     Here an idea of the individual is posited where the physical and the psychic are not divorced but on the contrary, are a part of the same substance, changing its state. Thus, death does not exist, but is rather the transformation from a material subject that inhabits the world into a thought that inhabits the psyche of those who loved it. The moments of change from one state into another are signaled by the sound of the cry of the mother.

     This peculiar idea of Duncan suggests that what inaugurates psychic space is sound — specifically the voice of the mother and the voice of the first baby cry. The cry thus establishes the first barrier between inside and outside, but it is an outside that may come from within, as is the case with one’s own voice, and also an inside that may come from without, since the cry that is uttered is also a sound that is perceived and thus always already external. The ways through which it reaches the subject are the bodily holes that permit contact with the world.

     As we can see, this idea of a barrier that is established through penetration, and which inaugurates another space, coincides with the psychoanalytic conceptualization of the exogenous origin of psychic space and underlines the importance of the aspect of sound in the origin of psychic representations. This is an aspect that is linked to the talk of the parents with the baby, to the voices of the adults among themselves and in general to all those sounds that come from the world that surround the infant. These are sound signals which, well before they are turned into words, compel the subject to make an effort to encode that leaves a permanent trace in her psychic structure, thereby giving her her singularity. In Duncan, this singularity has to do with her intuition of the foundations of the psyche.

     Following the logic of what we have said, the image of Aphrodite is in the text a superegoic signifier, derived from the relationship between mother and daughter, the axis of her first identifications with her mother. This identification qua infans, subject to maternal projection, was implanted well before the child was equipped with the elements necessary to enable her to reject the proposal. "Aphrodite" comes to be a cathected nucleus for identification, dark and imprecise since it is an extremely archaic signifier in its enunciation. For this reason its psychic metabolization, based on primary resources, establishes it as one of its main superegoic imperatives: "you must be like Aphrodite."

     This superegoic imperative establishes a project for identification which includes, as its first definition, the placement within a gender. In the case of Aphrodite, this is oriented toward the representation of the feminine sex, since it is closely linked to ideas of space, of a maternal container, and to identification with both. However, this orientation is not devoid of conflict: if it is clear that to be Aphrodite presupposes the condition of woman (she appears as a mother in the first allusions to her), then in the text we can also find another trend that associates Aphrodite with a statuary being, an aesthetic being of visible surface. This is a trend drawn by a superego that punishes the practice of the sexual body, free and independent, made out of flesh and holes.

     Finally, Aphrodite exists to deny the idea of death since, as we have said, she represents a conception in which life exists only in its different manifestations, as another way of denying the death of her children in the real world. This Weltanschauung fosters in Duncan the illusion that she can maintain in some space, albeit beyond apprehension, her beloved lost objects. This space corresponds to the psychic representation of the feminine body of Aphrodite.

Enter Narcissus

Narcissus and the Nymphs of water are characters that Duncan performed in her first choreographies, and they are mentioned in her autobiography principally as part of one of her shows. We are never told why she picks up these characters or feels attracted to them. But Narcissus belongs in the same chain of signifiers as Aphrodite in Isadora’s system, as we will attempt to show.

     In Chapter XXIX she writes, "[. . .]I have only reflected and reacted to the people and forces that have seized me and, like the heroines of the Metamorphoses of Ovid, have changed form and character according to the decree of the immortal gods" (340).With these words, Duncan tells her reader about the Narcissus they should think of. Narcissus appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as the son of a Nymph from the water, Leiriope, impregnated by the rape of Cephisus, who was a river. Leiriope is the daughter of Tethys, a marine Titan who personified water in its most fecund aspect, and of Titan Oceanus, and they are parents of the Oceanids, or Nymphs of the sea.

     Narcissus’ appearance in the autobiography has to do with an episode relating to Isadora’s sexual history . What she reports when she refers to Narcissus takes place at the beginning of her career, when she had just arrived in New York, the city where Isadora attempted to make a living though dance and where, until then, she had only worked as an extra, performingminor pantomime roles for an impresario who put on popular plays.6 Duncan was very uncomfortable working with this impresario, since he did not understand her ideal of returning to Greek art through dance. The scene I am particularly interested in is that in which she describes the day when, tired of working on something that alienated her, she burst into tears all alone in one of the boxes in an empty theatre:

    He told me he did not like the Geisha any more than I did, but he had to think of the financial side of the affair. Then, to comfort me, Daly slipped his hand down the back of my dress, but the gesture simply made me angry[. . .]I left all and returned to the studio in Carnegie Hall, and there was very little money, but again I wore my little white tunic and my mother played for me. As we had very little use of the studio during the day, my poor mother often played for me at night, / At that time I was much attracted by the music of Ethelbert Nevin. I composed dances to his ‘Narcissus,’ ‘Ophelia,’ ‘Water—Nymphs,’ and so forth (49).

When Duncan tells this anecdote she fully identified with what Ovid tells of Narcissus in his Metamorphoses:

    For when he reached his sixteenth year, Narcissus —
    who then seemed boy or man — was loved by many:
    both youths and young girls wanted him;
    but he had much called pride within his tender body:
    no youth, no girl could ever touch his heart (1993, Book III 91).

Isadora fears contact with man and flees to take refuge in the aquatic music of her mother. However, in this case, it is not penetration (either visual or genital) that is rejected, but rather touch itself, as is the case with Ovid’s Narcissus. This rejection from mythical Narcissus is justified neither in the legend nor in Duncan’s text. We could say that touch is rejected because it establishes bodily limits, revealing the casing that contains the body, separating it out from the environment in which it lives, and establishing the difference between the inside and the outside and also between the ego and the other, a difference that is experienced as displeasing for the ego.

     On the contrary, the hearing of music, as one gathers from many fragments in the text, fuses the limits between inside and outside and spreads the feeling of the dissolution of the body in the sonorous envelope in which it is wrapped. A further passage where Narcissus is mentioned supports my previous reading that points to the desire for physical and psychic union, and also to the rejection of the perception of the frontiers of the body, of the ego and in general, of difference:

    So must Endymion, when first discovered by the glistening eyes of Diana, in tall, slender, whiteness, so must Hyacinthus, Narcissus, and the bright, brave Perseus have looked. More like an angel of Blake than a mortal youth. Hardly were my eyes ravished by his beauty than I was drawn toward him, entwined, melted. As flame meets flame, we burned in one bright fire. Here at last, was my mate; my love; my self —for we were not two but one, that one amazing being of whom Plato tells in the Phaedrus, two halves of the same soul.This was nor a young man making love to a girl. This was the meeting of twin souls. The light covering of flesh was so transmuted with ecstasy that earthly passion became a heavenly embrace of white, fiery flame.
    There are joys so complete, so all perfect, that one should not survive them" (195-96).

In these paragraphs - they refer to the initial encounter between Duncan and her lover Gordon Craig - we must underline the emphasis placed on eliminating the carnal from the sexual encounter by using words that describe matter in its lightest state in other words, in a gaseous state (flames, fire, soul). I believe this strategy seeks to eliminate any signifier that may suggest physical barriers between two individuals and, in this sense, the lightest states of nature are also the most appropriate to allude to the fusion of elements.

     This undervaluing of bodily matters is evident in the paragraphs she devotes to her approach to the reading of Louys, Ovid and Sappho, in which she writes that she had been unaware of the sensual meaning of the writing of these authors because she had not herself experienced the feelings they described. A little later, Isadora justifies this lack of awareness by saying that America had turned her into a puritan, a mystic, a human being that fights for heroic expression rather than for sensual expression, and that American education tends to play down the importance of the senses. Finally, she admits in a fleeting sentence that her mother, "despite the great love she felt for her children, she seldom stroked them" (109).

     By inverting the original situation which she describes in the previous sentence, Duncan transforms in her writing what in her origins was the desire to be stroked, a desire that remained unconscious and came to be transformed into the preconscious disposition that avoids being touched, as in Ovid’s Narcissus.The simultaneously implanted and defensive role of the rejection of bodily contact are thus revealed. This implanted rejection means that there is a contact function that is not satisfactorily fulfilled or rather that it is deficiently fulfilled, leaving the subject without the possibility of metabolizing it psychically. Consequently, the individual must have recourse to the radical defense of avoiding any approach from outside.

     The representations of Narcissus and that of Aphrodite, both of them children of the water, express the psychic conflict between the desire for dissolution in the original matter where she was born and the desire to fulfill herself as a human being. The horror of bodily contact and its active rejection imaginarily performs two functions: on the one hand, it blurs the limits with the other, fostering the illusion of a fusion with it, and on the other hand, it makes possible the fantasy of an immunity to the inevitable and partly-feared penetration of the other, and thus to the denial of its existence inside the subject.

     Duncan’s writing shows the operations of a maternal psychic mechanism that produces effects within her after having incorporated it (the idea of not touching and of not allowing oneself to be touched). This mechanism will aim to achieve that the separation between the mother and her children, and among the children themselves, are not perceptible. The writing also reveals to the reader that Mrs Duncan was constantly playing for her family, that she united the whole family through the ear in the same sonorous space, breaking down the boundaries between them.

     With her allusion to Narcissus, Duncan shows the reader the drama of her individuation. This is a drama she presents with several resolutions. In fact, whereas her references to Aphrodite show a text that appears to be megalomaniac from the very choice of this grandiose character, the section that is devoted to Narcissus appears to be depressive. The first one tells of financial problems, hunger, disenchantment, and insecurity; however this all happens within the frame of a heroic imagined destiny . The second reference ends with a complaint about the pain of separation — this time not denied — after the illusion of the fusion in the sexual act.

     We must point out that in almost every chapter Duncan describes the conflict in terms of either Love or Art, terms that do not represent univocally either one or the other trend (fusion or individuation). On the contrary, sometimes love represents fusion, and art individuality; at other times it symbolizes the opposite, and love does mark the difference with the other, art involving the dissolution in the aquatic and musical mother. On the other hand, the logic of the opposition between Love and Art is expressed through two opposite positive symbols, contrary to the phallic logic that holds between the one and his negation (phallus—non phallus) that in this case would be stated as love—absence of love, art—absence of art.

     Finally, Duncan’s oppositions represent an ego container, a concave receptacle that either accepts objects or qualities (love or art) or rejects them. This allows us to make reference to the different modalities in the reception of diverse elements into the psyche. These modalities of reaction and admission will determine the constitution and fate of the qualities of the ego of each specific and particular narcissism.

The Ego and the Body in the Sacrificial Ritual of Dance

In Duncan’s autobiography, the body is subjected to the laws of the Spirit. She had been raised by her mother with no religious principles, but came to share with her the idea of the Spirit: "[. . .]there is no God, only your own spirit to help you" (20). Clearly, the spirit lies within the subject and in Duncan’s view, the latter represents some sort of divinity that is incorporated in the psyche of the individual. As Duncan writes in "The Great Source," "Dance, in my own view, has as its aim the expression of the most noble and profound feelings of the human soul: those that arise from the gods within ourselves, Apollo, Pan, Bacchus, Aphrodite" (101).

     The body is made out of the words of myth and fable, is never merely flesh and blood, and is always tributary to the idealized features of personality that the "character" attributes to herself. With a few exceptions, Duncan never speaks about her body as a dancer might be expected to, in terms of physical effort, pain, weight, tiredness, sweat, of rhythmical breathing and of cramps and sprains. On the contrary, in the text the body is not invested with materiality, it is rather in charge of embodying the idealized attributes of the character that I will examine now.

     It is in the first chapter of My Life, devoted to Duncan’s childhood, that we find her theory of human behaviour, a theory that she will develop throughout her autobiography and in her texts on dance. From the very first pages we read, "The character of a child is already plain, even in its mother’s womb" (17), and "whatever one is to do in one’s afterlife is clearly expressed as a baby" (19), describing herself as "a dancer and a revolutionist" (19), "of all the family I was the most courageous" (28). Astonishingly, these three words (dancer, revolutionist and courageous) are used in the text to describe a five year old girl who, at six, started teaching dancing to younger children and at ten left school because it was "useless" and "a waste of time when I could be making money, which I considered far more important" (22). The Duncans had been living in near poverty since Isadora was a small baby when her parents divorced. Her mother, who had to fight hard to give her three children a good start in life, was a musician and taught music for a living.

     In Isadora’s fantasies of her childhood, the personality features she attributes to herself are clearly described as innate, rather than as leanings or tendencies of a subject—in—process. They seem to belong to a personality that is finished, both in the sense of being an adult with a well—defined personality, and in the sense of fostering an immutable ideal, similar to what Freud described as "Familienroman der Neurotiker". In the Familienroman the subject sees herself as though she were the heroine of a story, guided by repressed infantile wishes which in this way find their outlet in a more interesting version of the original situation.

     In Duncan’s description of her childhood, time shows in the external vicissitudes that occur but there is no record of a historicity for the development of the psyche. As the first sentence that opens the text suggests, the psyche and its dynamics are there from the very beginning, and adults are not indispensable for the task of a child’s psychic construction of. However, what does it mean to say that the ‘psychic’ is there from the very beginning? In Duncan’s view, human character and behaviour are not the result of a working through of inter- and intrasubjective relations, they are rather a gift, a legacy that most likely comes from the stars. As we read early on, "The science of astrology has not perhaps the importance today that it had in the time of the ancient Egyptians or of the Chaldeans, but it is certain that our psychic life is under the influence of the planets, and if parents understood this they would study the stars in the creation of more beautiful children" (18).

     As this fragment clearly shows, the qualities of an individual come from outside, from an exteriority, and with this psychic and cultural heritage, she must fight in order to find her own place, "For I have never waited to do as I wished. This has frequently brought me to disaster and calamity, but at least I have had the satisfaction of getting my own way" (65). These words sound contradictory, since there would anyway be very little room left to forge a way for herself given that she believes that everything is already there from the beginning.

     From the first pages of her autobiography, Duncan takes Rousseau as an example of somebody who, in her view, made this "supreme sacrifice" to unveil his soul to others. "Any woman or man who would write the truth of their lives would write a great work. But no one has dared to write the truth of their lives. Jean—Jacques Rousseau made this supreme sacrifice for Humanity —to unveil the truth of his soul, his most intimate actions and thoughts. The result is a great book" (11). This idea of autobiography as a sacrifice gives us a significant insight into the qualities with which Duncan wants to endow her ego, as well as suggesting the qualities of the characters that demand this sacrifice and bringing us closer to the idea of the representation of her own body as an appropriate container for her ego.

     In the text, Duncan clearly speaks of sacrifice when she speaks of the body in an ideological context dominated by Greek mythology. Sacrifice comprises the torture and death of a human body that is offered to a god which claims it as payment for his favors. So, if the actual writing of an autobiography is associated with a sacrifice, we can deduce that the text’s contents function as the body to be offered in sacrifice. If we transfer this to the psychic domain, the body sacrificed in tragedy represents the individual, the ego, that in its origin can be described as a bodily—ego,7 in other words, a container that holds psychic objects as the body holds physical objects. The autobiographical text then represents equally both the ego and the body, but a body whose principal quality would be to be doomed to sacrifice.

     Sacrifice, in the fragment we are analyzing, involves the act of showing, exposing, laying bare, opening the soul or the body. This coincides with the tragic texts in which sacrificial death — generally slitting the victim’s throat — is a wound that tears the skin and opens the body, emptying it of its vital contents. This is an act that is performed by an officiating priest, who supposedly fulfills the desire of some deity. To complete a sacrifice, a relation between two people is needed: an authority and a victim. In the case of the third fundamental term, the role of the performer may as well be carried out by the god himself or by the victim who obeys his command.

     To conceive of autobiography as a sacrifice gives us a good idea of the way the early relations between Duncan and the world were established, and of the way she metabolized what was coming to her from outside.

     The bond that ties the child to the adult leaves an important trace in the infant, one which with the passing of time becomes "a system of certainties in the ego about herself and the world" (Bleichmar 1993, 115). This is what we usually refer to as the subject’s view of the world, and it is always constructed as a weave that integrates what the child receives from the adult and her own investigation,stimulated by the inevitable enigmas with which she comes across through her involvement in relationships.

     In My Life we can discern Duncan’s view of the world. The text shows the body as a piece of exchange between the gods and humanity. It is a bartering in which the gods give their gifts (Fame, Wealth, Love) to humans and the latter pay them back with the contents of their bodies (Blood, Tears and Grief). Each individual body is a representative of humanity that is offered as a payment for the goods received.

     What is interesting here is that humanity comes to be a synonym of "son" — by virtue of its defenselessness. From the sentences quoted above on the creation of sons and daughters and the science of astrology,8 we can infer a theory about the contract between the gods and humanity where parents play the role of mediators and occupy an ambiguous ontological terrain between the human and the divine. In any event, what is most important is that we are made doubtful about the correct performance of the parents’ mediating function, even though their mistakes are later justified since they are not familiar with the "science of astrology."

     And if parents are thought of as priests who mediate between the gods and their children, and the latter are associated with humanity, we may as well conclude that the gods are representatives of the grandparents, the idealized ancestors. However, Duncan is not referring to the parents of the "real" parents with whom she lives, but to those who have disappeared, who supposedly built up the future plans for the family. These are plans the individual does not yet know about but which determine the course of her life.

     As we can gather from a few apparently trivial sentences, the ethical problem of the "should be" and "should know" is posed, and with that the enigma of the desire of the gods (grandparents or parents, all in all, the adults in the subject’s personal history) that determines what the individual is and what she should be. These are decisions she must face in order to learnwhether she wants to fit in with the plan of the gods and be rewarded with what they give (even if it is at a very high cost).

     The question about the meaning of these ancient designs and the answer that Duncan gives to herself are the central motif in her autobiography. The following crucial task is to unravel the main features of the relation between her ego and the psychic agency that in the text is represented by the gods and will guide her through the path that constitutes her existence and the basis of her writing.

     With regard to the interpretation of the complex relations among the different categories in her world-view, we should notice the alternation of the subject positions in which Isadora situates herself in her writing since they are a clear example of the relations among the different agencies we are talking about.

     One night in 1905, I was dancing in Berlin. Although as a rule I never notice the audience when I am dancing —they always seem to me like some great god representing Humanity— this evening I was aware of some personality sitting in the front row.// Now that I looked, or saw, who it was, but I was psychically aware of its presence, and, when the performance was over, there came into my loge a beautiful being. But he was very angry (193).

     If I have suggested above that the individual body that is offered to the gods in sacrifice is the representative of humanity (and this, for its part, of the category of the children), we can infer from this quotation a multiple representation: there is an audience that represents a god, who in his turn represents Humanity, and there is a woman on stage attempting to represent her own human desires, especially her aspiration to be loved by the gods. In order to achieve that, she must become herself a goddess. Duncan reports that she does not look to her audience because they look like a great god, but the sentence, with the usage of the augmentative ("great" god, and Humanity, capitalized) shows that she does not look because she fears to face them. Nevertheless, since Isadora is a dancer and she passionately desires to show herself and to be loved by her audience, it is paradoxical that she is constrained precisely by the pressure of the multiple representations we just mentioned.

     Certainly, as far as she thinks of her audience as a great god—Humanity, which she does not dare look at, Duncan situates herself as a victim (of the look) rather than as an artist (ad—mired, from Latin ad—mirare) and the spectacle develops as an act in which the body is shown on the threshold of the look that is judging it. In this sense, the spectacle (and autobiography as the act of showing the self) is associated, as I suggested before, to some sort of sacrifice. On the other hand, we should notice that Humanity, representative of the category of the children according to Duncan’s world view, now appears elevated to the status of a god whose gaze the subject cannot hold. In a series of paragraphs devoted to the war we can grasp a possible interpretation of the transformation of the children—Humanity into the gods—Humanity:

    Sometimes during the war when I heard the cries of the wounded I thought of the cries of the animals in the slaughter—house, and I felt that, as we torture these poor defenceless creatures, so the gods torture us. Who loves this horrible thing called war? Probably the meat—eaters, having killed, feel the need to kill —kill birds, animals— the tender stricken deer— hunt foxes. The butcher with his bloody apron incites bloodshed, murder. Why not? From cutting the throat of a young calf to cutting the throat of our brothers and sisters is but a step. While we are ourselves the living graves of murdered animals, how can we expect any ideal conditions on the earth? (325-26).

In the above paragraphs, Duncan shares with her readers her theory on human suffering. In her view, the gods torture humans in compliance with the demand of an eye for an eye, thus punishing the way human beings treat those beings they consider inferior and their "weaker" fellow humans. Now there is a reason for the cruelty of the gods: human action deserves to be punished. And what makes humans like "a great god" is their position as spectators and judges of these actions.

     When Duncan is on stage and therefore on display, she wants to ingratiate herself with her audience. Her audience is like a god since it looks at her, and when it looks it grants her certain qualities, guarantees her existence, and if she makes an effort, it will also grant her love. In this sense, she takes the position of the daughter as far as she demands love and recognition from an other who acts as an adult who judges. But if we consider the period when Duncan wrote her autobiography and her terrible previous personal history, we could say that her subjective position is that of a mother—author who submits her work to be judged by her son—audience, a judgment that could be one of a stark severity.

     The paragraph I will quote below is a clear piece of evidence of her fear of the severity with which she might be judged. The following is a digression included in the middle of her trip to South America where that narrator addresses her audience (readers):

    Still here I am, trying to write the truth of all that happened to me, and I greatly fear that it will turn out an awful mess. But there you are — I have begun the impossible task of putting this record of my life on paper, and I will go on with it to the end, although I can already hear the voices of all the so—called good women of the world saying: "A most disgraceful history." "All her misfortunes are only just a requital of her sins." But I am not conscious of having sinned. Nietzsche says, "Woman is a mirror," and I have only reflected and reacted to the people and forces that have seized me and, like the heroines of the Metamorphoses of Ovid, have changed form and character according to the decree of the immortal gods (339-40).

What we find in these sentences is not only fear of an external judgment, but also a statement that holds that the cruelty of the gods is due to human sins, as if Duncan, a champion of atheism in her youth, has now turned into a devout Catholic. In her text, Duncan says it is other women who accuse her of being a sinner, and her sense of guilt only shows in the text through negation ("But I am not conscious of having sinned").

     In this way, Duncan defends herself against the feeling of guilt associated with the deeds she is talking about, and comes to be a passive victim of paternal and divine demands. However, one can also notice in her sentences an underlying note of rebelliousness, a covert reproach addressed to these superior beings who rule over humans, their deeds and even their desires, something that may be expressed as "Finally I have only reflected those of you who have asked me, when you requested that I should represent you."

     Nevertheless, what is most relevant in these paragraphs is the idea of woman as an individual who is obliged by divine law to be a mirror which reflects both the people and the forces that seize her. These words clearly express the task that Duncan was engaged in, the search for love with which to invest her self. These words are crucial, since they show the reader the complexity and the richness of her work of symbolization of her own self. In Duncan’s text we can clearly notice the split between the subject that observes and the observed and judged object.

     The mirror, Simone de Beauvoir noted, is woman’s privileged instrument of narcissistic doubling or splitting, the place where she alienates herself in her imaginary specular double. She will recognize herself in the fantasy self of the mirror. This narcissistic self-alienating doubling will become a split between "male subject and female object" (1952, 630). This act of narcissism whereby she turns herself into her own object of vision, a specular image, can be identified as a general psychic feminine condition.

     As I have attempted to show, in My Life Duncan does much more than tell readers about her life and the origins of her vocation as a dancer. Her exploration of the constitution of identity exhibits an ego—in—process in the complex path that goes from fusion and indifferentiation to autonomy and full individuation. The role of identification with characters of Greek mythology in her artistic project of going back to Greece and the transition from grandiosity and megalomania (Aphrodite) to depression (Narcissus) are crucial components in her narcissistic system. The analogy she develops between the writing of autobiography and sacrifice has been discussed in depth. In the latter, the text represents both the ego and the body, doomed to sacrifice in an act in which it is the body of the dancer as victim of the audience’s gaze that deserves to be severely punished for her sins. This body of the woman dancer —always already a sexual body — as an item of exchange between the gods and humanity may well lead us to a larger reflection upon why it is the body of the woman dancer on the modernist stage, in other words, the woman become spectacle, that must be punished, and why this punishment was at that time putting an extra pressure upon the very few pioneers of female modernist dance, Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Martha Graham. These are questions that have frequently been addressed by feminist critics in the field of literature and the arts. My intention has been to show with recourse to psychoanalysis that in the domain of dance — where the body is placed center stage — even in the case of a revolutionary dancer such as Duncan,a woman who took pride in her freedom, the punishing agency seems to be even more present than in other domains where the body’s importance is not so conspicuous.

     As we know from Freud, the self — the ego — is always a subject, but, he acutely observes, "the ego can take itself as an object, treat itself like other objects, can observe itself. In this, one part of the ego is setting itself over against the rest. So the ego can be split" ([1933] 1953, 22:58) This split between a subject that observes — and Freud notes, "the observing is only a preparation for judging and punishing" ([1933] 1953, 22:61) — and the observed and judged object can be seen as a narcissistic split, in that it implies a specular relation to the self, for it is self—reflexive or self—voyeuristic. The importance of this classical psychoanalytic statement should no doubt be considered as we attempt to elucidate, as audiences of dance and as readers of modernist literature, the well-known lines by W.B. Yeats, "O body swayed to music, o brightening glance / how can we know the dancer from the dance?" (1989, 217).




1 From a very early age Duncan was fascinated by the ancient Greek past. Both Duncan and Martha Graham (1894-1991)—another remarkable woman and revolutionary of modern dance—called an important part of their dancing "Dionysian." It was popular in ancient Greece among women, but very seldom appreciated by elite males. Through such dancing the body revealed itself as free and empowered (See Hanna, 1988).

When Duncan went to Germany, she was introduced to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and soon after began formulating her own philosophy of dance. In 1903 she delivered a speech in Berlin called "The Dance of the Future." In it she argued that the dance of the future would be similar to the dance of the ancient Greeks, natural and free. Duncan accused the ballet of "deforming the beautiful woman’s body" and called for its abolition. She ended her speech by stating that "the dance of the future will have to become again a high religious art as it was with the Greeks. For art which is not religious is not art, is mere merchandise." It was during this period that Duncan began clarifying her theory of natural dance, identifying the source of the body’s natural movement in the solar plexus (Franko 1995, 2)

Duncan danced in London, in Paris, in Berlin, and in other important European cities. But always at the back of her persistent mind was her dream that ome day she would dance in the land of ancient culture where the Athenian maidens had made dance a religion. Isadora went to Athens and took her family with her. And on a green hill that faced the Acropolis, she made a solemn vow that here she would build a temple to art.

In the Athenian hills Isadora gathered a class of small Grecian boys about her. She taught them the dances of ancient Byzantium, as well as Greek choruses and songs. Bare-legged, with sandaled feet and flowing draperies, the Duncans danced from village to village, the world not understanding the personal challenge they were undertaking. A year passed, and unable to make a living through dance, Isadora and her kin returned to modern civilization and Vienna.

2 As Duncan writes in the opening paragraphs of My Life, "My mother was going through such a tragic experience at this time [when she was expecting Isadora] that she often said, ‘This child that will be born will surely not be normal,’ and she expected a monster" (17). Her life was full of many pathetic episodes. Her two children died in a car accident, a third child was born dead in 1914, and tragically Duncan’s life was cut short on an accident in the French Riviera in 1927. As it was reported on the pages of the New York Times (Sep. 15, 1927):

    Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, tonight met a tragic death at Nice on the Riviera. According to dispatches from Nice Miss Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement. As she took her seat in the car neither she nor the driver noticed that one of the loose ends of her scarf fell outside over the side of the car and was caught in the rear wheel of the machine.
    Dragged Bodily From the Car.? The automobile was going at full speed when the scarf of strong silk suddenly began winding around the wheel and with terrific force dragged Miss Duncan, around whom it was securely wrapped, bodily over the side of the car, precipitating her with violence against the cobblestone street. She was dragged for several yards before the chauffeur halted, attracted by her cries in the street. Medical aid immediately was summoned, but it was stated that she had been strangled and killed instantly.
    Isadora Duncan died as dramatically as she had lived. ?Despite her untimely death, on September 14, 1927, her legacy has continued to inspire new dancers.

3 As the New York Times reported: "In 1913 Duncan’s two young children, Deirdre and Patrick, also perished in an automobile tragedy. The car in which they had been left seated started, driverless, down a hill and plunged over a bridge into the Seine River" (Sep. 15, 1927). Duncan did never forgive herself for taking her children to the meeting with her ex-lover, the father of her son, with the idea of bringing about reconciliation many years after living apart - particularly since the children’s babysitter advised against taking them out due to weather conditions: "How often, as in a horrible nightmare, I have heard her warning and cursed my unconsciousness of it. But I thought the meeting with L. would be so much simpler if the children were there" (273).

4 After dancing in New York with the company of Augustin Daly, Duncan made up her mind to go to London. She expected, among other things, to find "intelligent sympathy or help for my ideas" (52), something she had so far not managed to find either in California or in New York. In My Life, Duncan reports the difficulties and hardships she and her family endured when they settled in London. Her passion for art shows in her account of her visits to the British Museum, often with her sister Elizabeth and her brother Raymond:

    "We lived upon penny buns, and yet, such was our amazing vitality, we spent our days in the British Museum—[W]e spent most of our time in the British Museum, where Raymond made sketches of all the Greek vases and bas-reliefs and I tried to express them to whatever music seemed to me to be in harmony with the rhythms of the feet and Dionysiac set of the head, and the tossing of the thyrsis. We also spent hours every day in the British Museum Library, and we lunched in the refreshment room on a penny bun and café au lait" (59, 63)

In the years between 1899 and 1907, Duncan lived and worked in the great cities of Europe. In London in 1900 she met a group of artists and critics - led by the painter Charles Halle and the music critic John Fuller-Maitland - who introduced her to Greek statue art, Italian Renaissance paintings and symphonic music.

5 Duncan was an eager reader from a very early age. As a primary school student in Oakland, Duncan’s reading at school and at the Oakland Public Library took her back to the classical culture of ancient Greece, and the natural, unaffected, spontaneity of Grecian art became her main source of inspiration. (Duncan [1927] 1966, 30-31).

6 Eastern U.S. theatrical managers saw Duncan dance, praised her, told her it was all marvellous. The problem was that hers was not the accepted way to dance. Luckily, in the audience one night a dreamer like herself was sitting: Augustin Daly, the theatrical producer. He saw what none of the others had seen - the vision, the ideal, and the dream behind the girl’s dancing. He cast her as one of Titania’s dancing fairies in his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and gave her small parts in pantomimes. Perhaps she couldn’t force her audience to understand the beauty of simplicity, but at least this gave her the opportunity to dance, and to make a living. Her brothers and sisters were sent for, and the family settled in New York. (Duncan [1927] 1966, 38-49).

7 In The Ego and the Id (1923), Freud wrote, "The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself a projection of a surface" ([1923] 1953, 19: 27).

8 As she states at the beginning of her autobiography, Duncan believed in the influence of the planets on the development of human personality and character: "The science of astrology has not perhaps the importance to-day that it had in the time of the ancient Egyptians or of the Chaldeans, but it is certain that our psyhic life is under the influence of the planets, and if parents understood this they would study the stars in the creation of more beautiful children" (18)

Duncan was persuaded that the disappearance of Venus - Aphrodite, as she calls it in her text - had terrible consequences for her: "I have also noticed that the disappearance of this star is usually followed by disaster for me" (18)



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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Esther Sanchez-Pardo ""The Truth of My Being in Gesture and Movement": The Ego and the Body in Modernist Writing on Dance in Isadora Duncan’s My Life". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/sanchez_pardo-the_truth_of_my_being_in_gesture_and_mov. April 22, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 1, 2006, Published: October 3, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Esther Sanchez-Pardo