Isadora Duncan’s ‘My Life’

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Isadora Duncan’s My Life

As you can see, we had a terrific time celebrating Isadora’s birthday at BookWoman bookstore.

BTW, if you’re looking for some trashy beach reading, Isadora’s memoir, My Life, is still in print. Here’s an article I wrote about the book, published in the New York Times on 20 December 1998:

Earlier this year, a conference of dance scholars retired from a long day’s meeting to an oyster house, where the oyster lovers set out to seduce the skeptics into sampling the delicacy. A quotation from the modern dancer Isadora Duncan’s autobiography, My Life, persuaded the final holdout. “You know what Isadora wrote, don’t you?” said a clever historian. “That she began to dance in her mother’s womb, in response to her mother’s diet of oysters and Champagne, the food of Aphrodite.”

My Life turns 71 this month, a lifetime much longer than that of its author. While 71 isn’t a silver or gold anniversary, the longevity of the book is testament to the importance of what Duncan had to say. Sweeping episodically through her adventures and misadventures up until 1921, when Duncan was invited to create a dance school in the Soviet Union, the book is still quoted in oyster houses and classrooms, still a rite of initiation for aspiring dancers, and still a source of voyeuristic fascination. Since December 1927, when it began a run of seven printings in six months, My Life has been re-issued at least 13 times and translated into as many languages. The Norton English-language paperback sold 2,500 copies last year, and there is no indication that its shelf life nears exhaustion.

The book was completed just months before her death, at age 50, in a bizarre car accident in which she was strangled by her scarf when it became snagged around a wheel as she was driving in Nice on Sept. 14, 1927. Published posthumously, it turned out to be Duncan’s final performance. One of our century’s most significant choreographers, Duncan was never properly captured on film; instead, she was recorded for posterity in the pages of My Life. The New York Times dance critic John Martin remarked that the book had arrived “like an epitaph of her own devising.”

From the moment it was published, My Life was reduced in the popular imagination to the torrid escapades of a female Casanova. The story, after all, does start with oysters and Champagne and proceeds through numerous love affairs and three pregnancies.

But a more subtle reading of My Life, afforded by the explosion in the study of women’s autobiography in the last decade, reclassifies Duncan’s story. Not just another romance, it is a quest for a life lived without compromise, as both a woman and an artist. Quests, however, have been the traditional domain of men, who wrote them as authoritative accounts of heroic battles against worldly and measureable obstacles. Duncan’s quest, however, was internal, and she could find no literary precedent for expressing it. “No woman has ever told the whole truth of her life,” she wrote in her introduction, citing autobiographies that merely reported the events of outward existence. Of their inner experiences, Duncan insisted, women “remain strangely silent.”

Duncan breached the silence with her book’s first words: “I confess.” This was a nod backward toward Rousseau’s “Confessions,” which she admired, and forward, unknowingly, toward the genre of women’s confessional literature that would flourish several generations later. Unafraid of the reality and richness of what others might consider “petty, human feeling,” Duncan tackled just about every taboo topic for a woman’s public discussion — desire, despair, ambition and jealousy. She dealt with abortion, homosexuality and suicide. She directly addressed the onset of middle age, extolling rather than mourning what she saw as “the magnificent and generous gift of the Autumn of Love.”

Most of the book was dictated in a kind of free association that can be felt in its fluid structure and conversational tone. Duncan composed words the same way she did movement — in grand swelling rhythms. Stylistically, My Life duplicated the distinctive tension in her personality, between the sensuousness of the artist and the high-mindedness of the “cerebrale,” which Duncan longed to be.

She delivered the manuscript and was paid in monthly installments, a contractual strategy devised by her American publisher, Boni & Liveright, in order to insure the book’s timely completion. Although Duncan complained of feeling harried and uncertain under such pressured circumstances, she was desperate for the cash to pay her hotel bills. The manuscript was published largely as she drafted it, but before she could further edit it. In the end, the publisher excised a number of passages in which she delved into her experiences (the physical pain of losing her virginity, for example, and the bodily flush of sexual excitement).

The original dust jacket proffered My Life as “probably the most intimate book ever written by a woman.” These memoirs are indeed intimate, but not in the euphemistic sense that the word was being used, to sell sex. It’s not even intimate in the sense that the author was whispering her innermost secrets to the reader. Duncan was not telling us her story; she was murmuring to herself, and allowing us to eavesdrop. My Life recorded the private, often painful process of re-collecting the fragments and contradictions of her tumultuous past.

Here, then, is a portrait of the female artist at middle age. Artistically eclipsed by modernism and denied citizenship by her country, Duncan wrote with a sobering backward glance. It was as if she were sifting through the rubble, reconstructing the ruins of her dreams, much as she was then literally trying to reclaim her once magnificent but long-abandoned home in Neuilly, France.

What strikes me now, rereading My Life, is not the frankness with which she described her love affairs but the frankness with which she observed her failures and follies. She was alert to her “deluded” schemes, kind toward her strident defiance, appreciative of her irrepressible emotions and patient with her extravagances. She knew full well that she was “impractical and untimely and impulsive.”

DUNCAN succeeded in living an extraordinary life only because she was willing to risk excess and self-absorption. But she was a woman, and, as such, her ambition was judged as hubris. The threat posed to the world by her driving desire for autonomy, the persistent theme of her life, was effectively neutralized by discounting it as mere sexual precociousness. Always an astute — and outspoken — cultural critic, Duncan reproached the public that, once having glorified her as a goddess, now dismissed her as a matron. Duncan had always battled the institution of marriage. Now, she also attacked the standard of youthful female beauty that disapproved of her thickened figure and proscribed her still-active libido. By writing a woman’s life as sensual as it was idealistic, Duncan rejected the script that she was handed at mid-life.

She wrestled with this impossible task, the fixing of her life in black and white. If only it were easier, she lamented, to dive down within herself “and bring up thought as the diver brings up pearls — precious pearls from the closed oysters of silence in the depths of our subconsciousness!”

She did not consider herself a skilled enough writer to avoid cliches, and feared that the work would turn out an awful mess. Better to capture the truth of her life through fiction (“twenty novels or so”), she argued, than through fact.

Duncan understood that an autobiography is just a story, and that an identity is at best a moving target. She embraced her many metamorphoses — “the Chaste Madonna, or the Messalina, or the Magdalen, or the Blue Stocking” — but resisted the autobiographical imperative to choose one. “How can we write the truth about ourselves?” she agonized in her introduction. “Do we even know it?”

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