1. At sunset, tonight [September 24, 2014 on the solar calendar] the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah began.
2. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the new year 5775.
3. According to Wikipedia tonight “is believed to be the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of humanity’s role in God‘s world.”
3. Here is The Jewish Publication Society’s translation from the book of Genesis. “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They [sic] shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth. And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female. He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.'” The creation of Adam and Eve took place on Friday, the sixth day of creation.
4. “Chabad, also known as Habad, Lubavitch, and Chabad-Lubavitch, is an Orthodox Jewish, Hasidic movement,” explains Wikipedia. According to Chabad, whose Orthodox movement inspired the first eight years of my elementary school education: “Rosh Hashanah…emphasizes the special relationship between G‑d and humanity: our dependence upon G‑d as our creator and sustainer, and G‑d’s dependence upon us as the ones who make His presence known and felt in His world. Each year on Rosh Hashanah, ‘all inhabitants of the world pass before G‑d like a flock of sheep,’ and it is decreed in the heavenly court ‘who shall live, and who shall die . . . who shall be impoverished, and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise.’ But this is also the day we proclaim G‑d King of the Universe. The Kabbalists teach that the continued existence of the universe is dependent upon the renewal of the divine desire for a world when we accept G‑d’s kingship each year on Rosh Hashanah.”
5. A note on the spelling of God’s name. When I was a student at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami, (when founding Rabbi Alexander S. Gross was principal), I wrote God’s name thusly, “G-d.” To be more precise, I followed standard practice of altering the spelling of God’s name in Hebrew. The teaching was in keeping with the Commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain. One did not say the name correctly or spell it out in English or Hebrew.
6. Subsequently, I became a member of Conservative and Reform synagogues where observance is not taken as literally as my elementary schooling.
7. I am currently a member of State College PA’s Brit Shalom, a congregation that combines Conservative and Reform practice. My rabbi is David Ostrich, a wonderful man.
8. Rabbi Ostrich has just written a special prayer-book for Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays. It is called the machzor.
9. Wikipedia: “The mahzor…is the prayer book used by Jews on the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur….The prayer-book is a specialized form of the siddur, which is generally intended for use in weekday and Shabbat services.The word mahzor means ‘cycle’ (the root … means ‘to return’). It is applied to the festival prayer book because the festivals recur annually.”
10. Brit Shalom exclusive: Rabbi Ostrich’s mahzor has just been published this Rosh Hashana.
11. Here is a section Rabbi Ostrich emailed me yesterday from the mahzor:
12. QUESTIONS AND MYSTERIES WITH WHICH WE STRUGGLE
“As much as we are masters of our own fates—making decisions and living with the consequences, there are also times when greater powers toss us around like small boats on a stormy sea.
“Whether the “storm” is caused deliberately by God—as a punishment or a test—or by the vagaries of the natural world, we find ourselves victims or objects of the slings and arrows of fortune. Are events pre-determined, or do we have free will?
“This ominous prayer, Un’taneh Tokef, has for some 1500 years represented our people’s grappling with this question.
“We know that many of our decisions make a difference, but we also know that greater powers impact our lives in significant ways.
“We pray that the greatest of powers eases our way and makes our challenges manageable, and we pray that the decisions we make will be good ones.”
A live recording from the Vocalise Festival on November 23, 2010 in Potsdam, Germany.
Cantor Azi Schwartz and the RIAS Kammerchor, conducted by Ud Joffe. This setting of Un’tane Tokef (from the High Holy Days liturgy) by Raymond Goldstein.
I Joel wish you my readers a sweet and happy New Year. May you be recorded in the Book of Life.
“Yellowstone National Park is located primarily in the U.S. state of Wyoming, although it also extends into Montana and Idaho. It was established by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872
“Yellowstone, widely held to be the first national park in the world, is known for its wildlife and its many geothermal features, especially Old Faithful Geyser, one of the most popular features in the park. It has many types of ecosystems, but the subalpine forest is most abundant. It is part of the South Central Rockies forests ecoregion.
“Native Americans have lived in the Yellowstone region for at least 11,000 years. The region was bypassed during the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 19th century. Aside from visits by mountain men during the early-to-mid-19th century, organized exploration did not begin until the late 1860s. The U.S. Army was commissioned to oversee the park just after its establishment. In 1917, administration of the park was transferred to the National Park Service, which had been created the previous year.”
“The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park is the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world, after Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand and Boiling Lake in Dominica. It is located in the Midway Geyser Basin.
“Grand Prismatic Spring was noted by geologists working in the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, and named by them for its striking coloration. Its colors match the rainbow dispersion of white light by an optical prism: red, orange, yellow, green, and blue.”
As my mother had divorced my father when I was a baby in arms, I had never seen him. Once, when I asked one of my aunts whether I had ever had a father, she replied, “Your father was a demon who ruined your mother’s life.” After that I always imagined him as a demon in a picture book, with horns and a tail, and when other children at school spoke of their fathers, I kept silent.
When I was seven years old, we were living in two very bare rooms on the third floor, and one day I heard the front door bell ring and, on going out into the hall to answer it, I saw a very good-looking gentleman in a top hat who said:
“Can you direct me to Mrs. Duncan’s apartment?”
“I am Mrs. Duncan’s little girl,” I replied.
“Is this my Princess Pug?” said the strange gentleman. (That had been his name for me when I was a baby.)
And suddenly he took me in his arms and covered me with tears and kisses. I was very much astonished at this proceeding and asked him who he was. To which he replied with tears, “I am your father.”
I was delighted at this piece of news and rushed in to tell the family.
“There is a man there who says he is my father.”
My mother rose, very white and agitated, and, going into the next room, locked the door behind her. One of my brothers hid under the bed and the other retired to a cupboard, while my sister had a violent fit of hysterics.
“Tell him to go away, tell him to go away,” they cried.
I was much amazed, but being a very polite little girl, I went into the hall and said:
“The family are rather indisposed, and cannot receive to-day,” at which the stranger took me by the hand and asked me to come for a walk with him.
We descended the stairs into the street, I trotting by his side in a state of bewildered enchantment to think that this handsome gentleman was my father, and that he had not got horns and a tail, as I had always pictured him.
He took me to an ice-cream parlour and stuffed me with ice-cream and cakes. I returned to the family in a state of the wildest excitement and found them in a terribly depressed condition.
“He is a perfectly charming man and he is coming to-morrow to give me more ice-cream,” I told them.
But the family refused to see him, and after a time he returned to his other family at Los Angeles.
After this I did not see my father for some years, when he suddenly appeared again. This time my mother relented sufficiently to see him, and he presented us with a beautiful house which had large dancing rooms, a tennis court, a barn and a windmill. This was due to the fact that he had made a fourth fortune. In his life he had made three fortunes and lost them all. This fourth fortune also collapsed in course of time and with it the house, etc., disappeared. But for a few years we lived in it and it was a harbour of refuge between two stormy voyages.
Before the collapse I saw my father from time to time, and learned to know that he was a poet, and to appreciate him. Among other poems of his was one which was in a way a prophecy of my entire career.
I am relating something of the history of my father because these early impressions had a tremendous effect on my after life. On the one hand I was feeding my mind with sentimental novels, while on the other I had a very practical example of marriage before my eyes. All my childhood seemed to be under the black shadow of this mysterious father of whom no one would speak, and the terrible word divorce was imprinted upon the sensitive plate of my mind. As I could not ask any one for the explanation of these things I tried to reason them out for myself. Most of the novels I read ended in marriage and a blissfully happy state of which there was no more reason to write. But in some of these books, notably George Eliot’s “Adam Bede,” there is a girl who does not marry, a child that comes unwanted, and the terrible disgrace which falls upon the poor mother.
I was deeply impressed by the injustice of this state of things for women, and putting it together with the story of my father and mother, I decided, then and there, that I would live to fight against marriage and for the emancipation of women and for the right for every woman to have a child or children as it pleased her, and to uphold her right and her virtue.
These may seem strange ideas for a little girl of twelve years old to reason out, but the circumstances of my life had made me very precocious. I enquired into the marriage laws and was indignant to learn of the slavish condition of women. I began to look enquiringly at the faces of the married women friends of my mother, and I felt that on each was the mark of the green-eyed monster and the stigmata of the slave.
I made a vow then and there that I would never lower myself to this degrading state. This vow I always kept, even when it cost me the estrangement of my mother and the miscomprehension of the world. One of the fine things the Soviet Government has done is the abolishment of marriage. With them two people sign their names in a book and under the signature is printed: “This signature involves no responsibility whatever on the part of either party, and can be annulled at the pleasure of either party.” Such a marriage is the only convention to which any free-minded woman could consent, and is the only form of marriage to which I have ever subscribed.
At the present time I believe my ideas are more or less those of every free-spirited woman, but twenty years ago my refusal to marry and my example in my own person of the right of the woman to bear children without marriage, created a considerable misunderstanding.
Things have changed and there has been so great a revolution in our ideas that I think to-day every intelligent woman will agree with me that the ethics of the marriage code are an impossible proposition for a free-spirited woman to accede to. If in spite of this, intelligent women continue to marry, it is simply because they have not the courage to stand up for their convictions, and if you will read through a list of the divorces of the last ten years you will realise that what I say is true.
Many women to whom I have preached the doctrine of freedom have weakly replied, “But who is to support the children”? It seems to me that if the marriage ceremony is needed as a protection to insure the enforced support of children, then you are marrying a man who, you suspect, would under certain conditions, refuse to support his children, and it is a pretty low-down proposition. For you are marrying a man whom you already suspect of being a villain. But I have not so poor an opinion of men that I believe the greater percentage of them to be such low specimens of humanity.
It was owing to my mother that, as children, our entire lives were permeated with music and poetry. In the evenings she would sit at the piano and play for hours, and there were no set times for rising or going to bed, nor any discipline in our lives. On the contrary, I think my mother quite forgot about us, lost in her music or declaiming poetry, oblivious of all around her.
One of her sisters, too, our aunt Augusta, was remarkably talented. She often visited us and would have performances of private theatricals. She was very beautiful, with black eyes and coal black hair, and I remember her dressed in black velvet “shorts” as Hamlet. She had a beautiful voice and might have had a great career as a singer, had it not been that everything relating to the theatre was looked upon by her father and mother as pertaining to the Devil.
I realise now how her whole life was ruined by what would be difficult to explain nowadays—the Puritan spirit of America. The early settlers in America brought with them a psychic sense which has never been lost entirely. And their strength of character imposed itself upon the wild country, taming the wild men, the Indians, and the wild animals in a remarkable manner. But they were always trying to tame themselves as well, with disastrous results artistically!
From her earliest childhood my aunt Augusta had been crushed by this Puritan spirit. Her beauty, her spontaneity, her glorious voice were all annihilated. What was it that made men at that time exclaim, “I would rather see my daughter dead than on the stage”? It is almost impossible to understand this feeling nowadays, when great actors and actresses are admitted to the most exclusive circles.
I suppose it was due to our Irish blood that we children were always in revolt against this Puritanical tyranny.
One of the first effects of our removal to the large house my father gave us, was the opening of my brother Augustin’s theatre in the barn. I remember he cut a piece out of the fur rug in the parlour to use as a beard for Rip Van Winkle, whom he impersonated in so realistic a manner that I burst into tears, as I watched him from a cracker box in the audience. We were all very emotional and refused to be repressed.
The little theatre grew and became quite celebrated in the neighbourhood. Later on this gave us the idea of making a tournée on the coast.
I danced, Augustin recited poems, and afterwards we acted a comedy in which Elizabeth and Raymond also took part. Although I was only twelve years old at the time and the others still in their teens, these tournées down the coast at Santa Clara, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and so forth, were very successful.
The dominant note of my childhood was the constant spirit of revolt against the narrowness of the society in which we lived, against the limitations of life and a growing desire to fly eastward to something I imagined might be broader. How often I remember haranguing the family and my relations, and always ending with, “We must leave this place, we shall never be able to accomplish anything here.”
Of all the family I was the most courageous, and when there was absolutely nothing to eat in the house, I was the volunteer who went to the butcher and through my wiles induced him to give me mutton chops without payment.
I was the one sent to the baker, to entice him to continue credit. I took a real adventurous pleasure in these excursions, especially when I was successful, as I generally was. I used to dance all the way home with joy, bearing the spoils and feeling like a highwayman. This was a very good education, for from learning to wheedle ferocious butchers, I gained the technique which enabled me afterwards to face ferocious managers.
I remember once, when I was quite a baby, finding my mother weeping over some things which she had knitted for a shop and which had been refused. I took the basket from her, and putting one of the knitted caps on my head and a pair of knitted mittens on my hands, I went from door to door and peddled them. I sold everything and brought home twice the money mother would have received from the shop.
When I hear fathers of families saying they are working to leave a lot of money for their children, I wonder if they realise that by so doing they are taking all the spirit of adventure from the lives of those children. For every dollar they leave them makes them so much the weaker. The finest inheritance you can give to a child is to allow it to make its own way, completely on its own feet.
Our teaching led my sister and me into the richest houses in San Francisco. I did not envy these rich children; on the contrary, I pitied them. I was amazed at the smallness and stupidity of their lives, and, in comparison to these children of millionaires, I seemed to be a thousand times richer in everything that made life worth while.
Our fame as teachers increased. We called it a new system of dancing, but in reality there was no system. I followed my fantasy and improvised, teaching any pretty thing that came into my head.
One of my first dances was Longfellow’s poem, “I shot an arrow into the air.” I used to recite the poem and teach the children to follow its meaning in gesture and movement. In the evenings my mother played to us while I composed dances.
A dear old lady friend who came to spend the evening with us very often, and who had lived in Vienna, said I reminded her of Fanny Elssler, and she would recount to us the triumphs of Fanny Elssler. “Isadora will be a second Fanny Elssler,” she would say, and this incited me to ambitious dreams.
She told my mother to take me to a famous ballet teacher in San Francisco, but his lessons did not please me. When the teacher told me to stand on my toes I asked him why, and when he replied “Because it is beautiful,” I said that it was ugly and against nature and after the third lesson I left his class, never to return.
This stiff and commonplace gymnastics which he called dancing only disturbed my dream. I dreamed of a different dance. I did not know just what it would be, but I was feeling out towards an invisible world into which I divined I might enter if I found the key. My art was already in me when I was a little girl, and it was owing to the heroic and adventurous spirit of my mother that it was not stifled.
I believe that whatever the child is going to do in life should be begun when it is very young. I wonder how many parents realise that by the so-called education they are giving their children, they are only driving them into the commonplace, and depriving them of any chance of doing anything beautiful or original. But I suppose this must be so, or who would supply us with the thousands of shop and bank clerks, etc., who seem to be necessary for organised civilised life.
My mother had four children. Perhaps by a system of coercion and education she might have turned us into practical citizens, and sometimes she lamented, “Why must all four be artists and not one practical?” But it was her own beautiful and restless spirit that made us artists. My mother cared nothing for material things and she taught us a fine scorn and contempt for all such possessions as houses, furniture, belongings of all kinds. It was owing to her example that I have never worn a jewel in my life. She taught us that such things were trammels.
After I left school I became a great reader. There was a public library in Oakland, where we then lived, but no matter how many miles we were from it, I ran or danced or skipped there and back.
The librarian was a very wonderful and beautiful woman, a poetess of California, Ina Coolbrith. She encouraged my reading and I thought she always looked pleased when I asked for fine books. She had very beautiful eyes that glowed with burning fire and passion. Afterwards I learnt that at one time my father had been very much in love with her. She was evidently the great passion of his life and it was probably by the invisible thread of circumstance that I was drawn to her.
At that time I read all the works of Dickens, Thackeray, Shakespeare, and thousands of novels besides, good and bad, inspired books and trash—I devoured everything. I used to sit up at night, reading until dawn by the light of candles’ ends which I had collected during the day.
I also started to write a novel, and at this time I edited a newspaper, all of which I wrote myself, editorials, local news and short stories. In addition I kept a journal, for which I invented a secret language, for at this time I had a great secret. I was in love.
Besides the classes of children, my sister and I had taken some older pupils to whom she taught what was then called “Society dancing,” the valse, mazurka, polka, and so forth, and among these pupils were two young men.
One was a young doctor and the other a chemist. The chemist was amazingly beautiful and had a lovely name—Vernon. I was eleven years old at the time, but looked older as I had my hair up and my dresses long. Like the heroine of Rita, I wrote in my journal that I was madly, passionately in love, and I believe that I was. Whether Vernon was conscious of it or not, I do not know. At that age I was too shy to declare my passion. We went to balls and dances where he danced almost every dance with me and afterwards I sat up until the small hours recounting to my journal the terrifying thrills which I felt, “floating,” as I put it, “in his arms.”
During the day he worked in a drug store in the main street and I walked miles just to pass the drug store once. Sometimes I mustered up enough courage to go in and say, “How do you do?” I also found out the house where he lodged, and I used to run away from home in the evening to watch the light in his window. This passion lasted two years and I believed that I suffered quite intensely. At the end of the two years he announced his approaching marriage to a young girl in Oakland society. I confined my agonised despair to my journal and I remember the day of the wedding and what I felt as I saw him walking down the aisle with a plain girl in a white veil. After that I never saw him.
The last time I danced in San Francisco, there came into my dressing-room a man with snow-white hair, but looking quite young and extremely beautiful. I recognised him at once. It was Vernon. I thought that after all these years I might tell him of the passion of my youth. I thought he would be amused, but he was extremely frightened and talked about his wife, the plain girl, who it seems is still alive, and from whom his affections have never deviated. How simple some people’s lives can be!
That was my first love. I was madly in love, and I believe that since then I have never ceased to be madly in love. At the present time I am convalescing from the last attack, which seems to have been violent and disastrous. I am, so to speak, in a convalescent entr’acte before the final act, or can it be that the show is over? I might publish my photograph and ask the readers what they think.
Joel’s lengthy note followed by Isadora Duncan’s autobiography:
Isadora Duncan entered my life in the late 1990s. This was a period of significant change. I lost the ability to run; then walk, as a result of spinal damage caused by radiation treatment that cured me of cancer. While my physicians were deciding on a form of treatment (that did not work), I tripped over my feet and fell against the sofa dislocating my right shoulder. At the same time, the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina, where I lived, suddenly moved from prosperity to dearth, and I could not find work as a technical writer.
Planning on a temporary California stay to earn enough to pay the mortgage on my family’s North Carolina home, I took up my friend David Phillips’s offer to stay with him in San Francisco. I quickly found work in the Silicon Valley writing a manual on a new KLA-Tancor’s product. The product analyzed silicon wafers as they were being manufactured and identified and destroying damaged wafers. The work was intellectually challenging and my co-workers cheerfully helped me understand the emerging technology. The pay was good. I was able even to purchase my first mobility device—a small yellow Amigo scooter which changed my life by its ability to cross boundaries hitherto limited by my disability.
Previously, I could not go from my desk to the cafeteria. Frequently, I fell because the cane I used could not support me. When I first arrived at work with my scooter, my co-workers (appreciative of technology to solve problems) applauded. [The video below of an Amigo travel school gives an indication of the freedom, maneuverability, and lightness of weight of the scooter my co-workers applauded.]
At the same time, I became a special student at the San Francisco Isadora Duncan School of Dance where Rosario my teacher had a gifted eye for movement. My experiences with the military-style approach of standard rehabilitation were drudgery compared to the joy I felt as a dance student. My teacher encouraged my fledgling efforts to make use of the motion available to me in the aftermath of sudden and frightening paraplegia.
On Saturday mornings I would arrive at the reconverted former Sears Roebuck building on Army Street, near the Mission District. As I moved on the mat, I was surrounded by beautiful women who moved gracefully. Without any sense of self-consciousness, my fellow students showed nude bodies as they changed to dancing attire in the dressing room.
Since then, I have been fortunate with friends, rehabilitation therapists, and others who have encouraged in me a joy of motion I have come to increasingly appreciate. A year ago this month, I had major abdominal surgery. The surgery removed kidney cancer as a threat to my life. It also required a six month recovery period. I am now emerging from this period which reduced my ability to move and reinforced a tendency toward laziness. O.K. I admit it. I am lazy.
As I write this, I have conscientiously resumed moving again concentrating on four critical areas: 1. Standing. I can stand but not without holding on to something. Now, as I hold on to grab bars, the foot board of my bed, the kitchen table, I am increasing my endurance. 2. Lifting my arms above my head. I have a series of exercises for doing so including an iPromise app. This is therapeutic for my right arm, damaged by the long-ago dislocation and now making it easier to dress myself. 3. Breathing. Breathing is good for all mammals. 4. Crawling in private. Crawling is good for me, but it freaks people out on the rare occasions I do so in public.
I am currently writing my next column for e-architect-uk addressed to architects on the housing requirements of the elderly and disabled, focusing primarily on the retiring Baby Boomers. The Baby Boom generation is the largest in U.S. history and based on money spent, the best educated. Yet, over 90 percent of the housing stock is NOT wheel chair accessible. Massive construction is required during a period when major demographic shifts are taking place. Especially worth noting is most of the U.S. population lives in suburbs. Automobile-dependent suburban life is inappropriate for an aging population for whom driving becomes contraindicated.
The solution to the aging U.S. population increasingly at risk of developing disabilities is for society to recognize the value of our talent. All too often, elderly and disabled individuals are regarded as a drain on resources as commentators focus on the cost of Medicare and Social Security. When our talents are recognized encouraged, and employed, we will become contributors rather than a drag on economic development.
The ongoing research on the brain indicates a major contributor to productivity as we age is to use our bodies. Smart architects will design housing where motion is safe for the disabled and elderly and encouraged. I have been writing about how to improve our communities and indeed to plan for the development of new cities. My last two columns have focused on developing a new city in Wyoming.
In area, Wyoming is the tenth largest state in the U.S. In population, it is the smallest of the 50 states. There is plenty of room in Wyoming for a new city of three million people. Three million is the size of the best known of new cities created in my lifetime: Brasilia.
Readers have asked, “What do you plan to call the new city? Naturally, it should be called Isadora. A new city should reflect the needs of its citizens. Our citizens need a city which encourages us to move our bodies as we improve our minds. Isadora Duncan was instrumental in making motion joyous. Let there be dancing. Let there be dancing in the streets ofIsadora.
If my virtue be a dancer’s virtue, and if I have often sprung with both feet into golden-emerald rapture, and if it be my Alpha and Omega that everything heavy shall become light, everybody a dancer and every spirit a bird: verily, that is my Alpha and Omega.
Published by: HORACE LIVERIGHT, NEW YORK, 1927; Horace Liveright’s Foreword:
The manuscript of this extraordinary book was completed by Isadora Duncan some months before her tragic death, which occurred through an automobile accident in Nice on September 14th, 1927. The details of this accident were printed in American newspapers on the following day.
For many years Miss Isadora Duncan had planned to write this autobiography, and she completed the work in the early summer of 1927. Anyone who has ever been in correspondence with her will recognize her characteristic style. When she died the manuscript was not in type so she had no opportunity to read proof or make corrections, but the work as it is now presented to the public is essentially as she wrote it.
This work ends with Isadora Duncan’s departure for Russia in 1921. She had planned a second book “My Two Years in Bolshevik Russia,” from which America would have learned that great as was her admiration and sympathy for this struggling country, she had no political interests or affiliations; in fact, with the exception of Lunacharsky, Minister of Education, she never met any of the great leaders, and her activities there were confined to educational work.
I confess that when it was first proposed to me I had a terror of writing this book. Not that my life has not been more interesting than any novel and more adventurous than any cinema and, if really well written, would not be an epoch-making recital, but there’s the rub—the writing of it!
It has taken me years of struggle, hard work and research to learn to make one simple gesture, and I know enough about the Art of writing to realize that it would take me again just so many years of concentrated effort to write one simple, beautiful sentence. How often have I contended that although one man might toil to the Equator and have tremendous exploits with lions and tigers, and try to write about it, yet fail, whereas another, who never left his verandah, might write of the killing of tigers in their jungles in a way to make his readers feel that he was actually there, until they can suffer his agony and apprehension, smell lions and hear the fearful approach of the rattle-snake. Nothing seems to exist save in the imagination, and all the marvelous things that have happened to me may lose their savor because I do not possess the pen of a Cervantes or even of a Casanova.
Then another thing. How can we write the truth about ourselves? Do we even know it? There is the vision our friends have of us; the vision we have of ourselves, and the vision our lover has of us. Also the vision our enemies have of us—and all these visions are different. I have good reason to know this, because I have had served to me with my morning coffee newspaper criticisms that declared I was beautiful as a goddess, and that I was a genius, and hardly had I finished smiling contentedly over this, than I picked up the next paper and read that I was without any talent, badly shaped and a perfect harpy.
I soon gave up reading criticisms of my work. I could not stipulate that I should only be given the good ones, and the bad were too depressing and provocatively homicidal. There was a critic in Berlin who pursued me with insults. Among other things he said that I was profoundly unmusical. One day I wrote imploring him to come and see me and I would convince him of his errors. He came and as he sat there, across the tea-table, I harangued him for an hour and a half about my theories of visional movement created from music. I noticed that he seemed most prosaic and stolid, but what was my uproarious dismay when he produced from his pocket a deafaphone and informed me he was quite deaf and even with his instrument could hardly hear the orchestra; although he sat in the first row of the stalls! This was the man whose views on myself had kept me awake at night!
So, if at each point of view others see in us a different person how are we to find in ourselves yet another personality of whom to write in this book? Is it to be the Chaste Madonna, or the Messalina, or the Magdalen, or the Blue Stocking? Where can I find the woman of all these adventures? It seems to me there was not one, but hundreds—and my soul soaring aloft, not really affected by any of them.
It has been well said that the first essential in writing about anything is that the writer should have no experience of the matter. To write of what one has actually experienced in words, is to find that they become most evasive. Memories are less tangible than dreams. Indeed, many dreams I have had seem more vivid than my actual memories. Life is a dream, and it is well that it is so, or who could survive some of its experiences? Such, for instance, as the sinking of the Lusitania. An experience like that should leave forever an expression of horror upon the faces of the men and women who went through it, whereas we meet them everywhere smiling and happy. It is only in romances that people undergo a sudden metamorphosis. In real life, even after the most terrible experiences, the main character remains exactly the same. Witness the number of Russian princes who, after losing everything they possessed, can be seen any evening at Montmartre supping as gaily as ever with chorus girls, just as they did before the war.
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. Walt Whitman gave his truth to America. At one time his book was forbidden to the mails as an “immoral book.” This term seems absurd to us now. No woman has ever told the whole truth of her life. The autobiographies of most famous women are a series of accounts of the outward existence, of petty details and anecdotes which give no realization of their real life. For the great moments of joy or agony they remain strangely silent.
My Art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement. It has taken me long years to find even one absolutely true movement. Words have a different meaning. Before the public which has thronged my representations I have had no hesitation. I have given them the most secret impulses of my soul. From the first I have only danced my life. As a child I danced the spontaneous joy of growing things. As an adolescent, I danced with joy turning to apprehension of the first realization of tragic undercurrents; apprehension of the pitiless brutality and crushing progress of life.
When I was sixteen I danced before an audience without music. At the end someone suddenly cried from the audience, “It is Death and the Maiden,” and the dance was always afterwards called “Death and the Maiden.” But that was not my intention; I was only endeavoring to express my first knowledge of the underlying tragedy in all seemingly joyous manifestation. The dance, according to my comprehension, should have been called “Life and the Maiden.”
Later on I danced my struggle with this same life, which the audience had called death, and my wresting from it its ephemeral joys.
Nothing is further from the actual truth of a personality than the hero or heroine of the average cinema play or novel. Endowed generally with all the virtues, it would be impossible for them to commit a wrong action. Nobility, courage, fortitude, etc. … etc. …; for him. Purity, sweet temper, etc. … for her. All the meaner qualities and sins for the villain of the plot and for the “Bad Woman,” whereas in reality we know that no one is either good or bad. We may not all break the Ten Commandments, but we are certainly all capable of it. Within us lurks the breaker of all laws, ready to spring out at the first real opportunity. Virtuous people are simply those who have either not been tempted sufficiently, because they live in a vegetative state, or because their purposes are so concentrated in one direction that they have not had the leisure to glance around them.
I once saw a wonderful film called “The Rail.” The theme was that the lives of human beings are all as the engine running on a set track. And if the engine jumps the track or finds an insurmountable object in its way, there comes disaster. Happy those drivers who, seeing a steep descent before them, are not inspired with a diabolical impulse to take off all brakes and dash to destruction.
I have sometimes been asked whether I consider love higher than art, and I have replied that I cannot separate them, for the artist is the only lover, he alone has the pure vision of beauty, and love is the vision of the soul when it is permitted to gaze upon immortal beauty.
Perhaps one of the most wonderful personalities of our times is Gabriel D’Annunzio, and yet he is small and, except when his face lights up, can hardly be called beautiful. But when he talks to one he loves, he is transformed to the likeness of Phoebus Apollo himself, and he has won the love of some of the greatest and most beautiful women of the day. When D’Annunzio loves a woman, he lifts her spirit from this earth to the divine region where Beatrice moves and shines. In turn he transforms each woman to a part of the divine essence; he carries her aloft until she believes herself really with Beatrice, of whom Dante has sung in immortal strophes. There was an epoch in Paris when the cult of D’Annunzio rose to such a height that he was loved by all the most famous beauties. At that time he flung over each favorite in turn a shining veil. She rose above the heads of ordinary mortals and walked surrounded by a strange radiance. But when the caprice of the poet ended, this veil vanished, the radiance was eclipsed, and the woman turned again to common clay. She herself did not know what had happened to her, but she was conscious of a sudden descent to earth, and looking back to the transformation of herself when adored by D’Annunzio, she realized that in all her life she would never again find this genius of love. Lamenting her fate, she became more and more desolate, until people, looking at her, said, “How could D’Annunzio love this commonplace and red-eyed woman?” So great a lover was Gabriel D’Annunzio that he could transform the most commonplace mortal to the momentary appearance of a celestial being.
Only one woman in the life of the poet withstood this test. She was the re-incarnation of the divine Beatrice herself, and over her D’Annunzio needed to throw no veil. For I have always believed that Eleanora Duse was the actual Beatrice of Dante re-incarnated in our days, and so before her D’Annunzio could only fall upon his knees in adoration, which was the unique and beatific experience of his life. In all other women he found the material which he himself transmitted; only Eleanora soared above him, revealing to him the divine inspiration.
How little do people know of the power of subtle flattery! To hear oneself praised with that magic peculiar to D’Annunzio is, I imagine, something like the experience of Eve when she heard the voice of the serpent in Paradise. D’Annunzio can make any woman feel that she is the center of the universe.
I remember a wonderful walk I had with him in the Forêt. We stopped in our walk and there was silence. Then D’Annunzio exclaimed, “Oh, Isadora, it is only possible to be alone with you in Nature. All other women destroy the landscape, you alone become part of it.” (Could any woman resist such homage?) “You are part of the trees, the sky; you are the dominating goddess of Nature.”
That was the genius of D’Annunzio. He made each woman feel she was a goddess in a different domain.
Lying here on my bed at the Negresco, I try to analyze this thing that they call memory. I feel the heat of the sun of the Midi. I hear the voices of children playing in a neighboring park. I feel the warmth of my own body. I look down on my bare legs—stretching them out. The softness of my breasts, my arms that are never still but continually waving about in soft undulations, and I realize that for twelve years I have been weary, this breast has harbored a never-ending ache, these hands before me have been marked with sorrow, and when I am alone these eyes are seldom dry. The tears have flowed for twelve years, since that day, twelve years ago, when, lying on another couch, I was suddenly awakened by a great cry and, turning, saw L. like a man wounded: “The children have been killed.”
I remember a strange illness came upon me, only in my throat I felt a burning as if I had swallowed some live coals. But I could not understand. I spoke to him very softly; I tried to calm him; I told him it could not be true. Then other people came, but I could not conceive what had happened. Then entered a man with a dark beard. I was told he was a Doctor. “It is not true,” he said, “I will save them.”
I believed him. I wanted to go with him but people held me back. I know since that this was because they did not wish me to know that there was indeed no hope. They feared the shock would make me insane, but I was, at that time, lifted to a state of exaltation. I saw every one about me weeping, but I did not weep. On the contrary I felt an immense desire to console every one. Looking back, it is difficult for me to understand my strange state of mind. 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 lived 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?
MY LIFE CHAPTER ONE
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.”
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. And in fact from the moment I was born it seemed that I began to agitate my arms and legs in such a fury that my mother cried, “You see I was quite right, the child is a maniac!” But later on, placed in a baby jumper in the center of the table I was the amusement of the entire family and friends, dancing to any music that was played.
My first memory is of a fire. I remember being thrown into the arms of a policeman from an upper window. I must have been about two or three years old, but I distinctly remember the comforting feeling, among all the excitement—the screams and the flames—of the security of the policeman and my little arms round his neck. He must have been an Irishman. I hear my mother cry in frenzy, “My boys, my boys,” and see her held back by the crowd from entering the building in which she imagined my two brothers had been left. Afterwards I remember finding the two boys sitting on the floor of a bar-room, putting on their shoes and stockings, and then the inside of a carriage, and then sitting on a counter drinking hot chocolate.
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. 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 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.
I believe, too, that it must make a great difference to a child’s life whether it is born by the sea or in the mountains. 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 an impression of being a prisoner to the earth. Looking up at their tops, I do not feel the admiration of the general tourist, but only a desire to leap over them and escape. My life and my art were born of the sea.
I have to be thankful that when we were young my mother was poor. She could not afford servants or governesses for her children, and it is to this fact that I owe the spontaneous life which I had the opportunity to express as a child and never lost. My mother was a musician and taught music for a living and as she gave her lessons at the houses of her pupils she was away from home all day and for many hours in the evening. When I could escape from the prison of school, I was free. I could wander alone by the sea and follow my own fantasies. How I pity the children I see constantly attended by nurses and governesses, constantly protected and taken care of and smartly dressed. What chance of life have they? My mother was too busy to think of any dangers which might befall her children, and therefore my two brothers and I were free to follow our own vagabond impulses, which sometimes led us into adventures which, had our mother known of them, would have driven her wild with anxiety. Fortunately she 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. I was never subjected to the continual “don’ts” which it seems to me make children’s lives a misery.
I went to the public school at the early age of five. I think my mother prevaricated about my age. It was necessary to have some place to leave me. I believe that whatever one is to do in one’s after life is clearly expressed as a baby. I was already a dancer and a revolutionist. My mother, who had been baptized and raised in an Irish Catholic family, was a devout Catholic up to the time when she discovered that my father was not that model of perfection she had always thought him to be. She divorced him and left with her four children to face the world. From that time her faith in the Catholic religion revolted violently to definite atheism, and she became a follower of Bob Ingersoll, whose works she used to read to us.
Among other things, she decided that all sentimentality was nonsense, and when I was quite a baby she revealed to us the secret of Santa Claus, with the result that at a school festival for Christmas, when the teacher was distributing candies and cakes and said, “See, children, what Santa Claus has brought you,” I rose and solemnly replied, “I don’t believe you, there is no such thing as Santa Claus.” The teacher was considerably ruffled. “Candies are only for little girls who believe in Santa Claus,” she said. “Then I don’t want your candy,” said I. The teacher unwisely flew into a temper and, to make an example of me, ordered me to come forward and sit on the floor. I came forward, and, turning to the class, I made the first of my famous speeches. “I don’t believe lies,” I shouted. “My mother told me she is too poor to be Santa Claus; it is only the rich mothers who can pretend to be Santa Claus and give presents.”
At this the teacher caught hold of me and endeavored to sit me down upon the floor, but I stiffened my legs and held on to her, and she only succeeded in hitting my heels against the parquet. After failing in this, she stood me in the corner, but although I stood there, I turned my head over my shoulder and shouted, “There is no Santa Claus, there is no Santa Claus,” until finally she was forced to send me home. I went home shouting all the way, “There is no Santa Claus,” but I never got over the feeling of the injustice with which I had been treated, deprived of candy and punished for telling the truth. When I recounted this to my mother, saying, “Wasn’t I right? There is no Santa Claus, is there?” she replied, “There is no Santa Claus and there is no God, only your own spirit to help you.” And that night, as I sat upon the rug at her feet, she read us the lectures of Bob Ingersoll.
It seems to me that the general education a child receives at school is absolutely useless. I remember that in the classroom I was either considered amazingly intelligent and at the head of my class, or quite hopelessly stupid and at the bottom of the class. It all depended on a trick of memory and whether I had taken the trouble to memorize the subject we were given to learn. And I really had not the slightest idea what it was about. Whether I was at the head or the foot of the class, it was all to me a weary time in which I watched the clock until the hand pointed to three, and we were free. My real education came during the evenings when my mother played to us Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Mozart, Chopin or read aloud to us from Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats or Burns. These hours were to us enchanted. My mother recited most of the poetry by heart and I, in imitation of her, one day at a school festival, at the age of six, electrified my audience by reciting William Lytle’s “Antony to Cleopatra”:
“I am dying, Egypt, dying!
Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast.”
On another occasion when the teacher required of each pupil to write the history of their lives, my story ran somewhat in this wise:
“When I was five we had a cottage on 23rd Street. Failing to pay the rent, we could not remain there but moved to 17th Street, and in a short time, as funds were low, the landlord objected, so we moved to 22nd Street, where we were not allowed to live peacefully but were moved to 10th Street.”
The history continued in this way, with an infinite number of removals. When I rose to read it to the school, the teacher became very angry. She thought I was playing a bad joke, and I was sent to the principal, who sent for my mother. When my poor mother read the paper she burst into tears and vowed that it was only too true. Such was our nomadic existence.
I hope that schools have changed since I was a little girl. My memory of the teaching of the public schools is that it showed a brutal incomprehension of children. I also remember the misery of trying to sit still on a hard bench with an empty stomach, or cold feet in wet shoes. The teacher appeared to me to be an inhuman monster who was there to torture us. And of these sufferings children will never speak.
I can never remember suffering from our poverty at home, where we took it as a matter of course; it was only at school that I suffered. To a proud and sensitive child the public school system, as I remember it, was as humiliating as a penitentiary. I was always in revolt against it.
When I was about six years old, my mother came home one day and found that I had collected half a dozen babies of the neighborhood—all of them too young to walk—and had them sitting before me on the floor while I was teaching them to wave their arms. When she asked the explanation of this, I informed her that it was my school of the dance. She was amused, and placing herself at the piano, she began to play for me. This school continued and became very popular. Later on, little girls of the neighborhood came and their parents paid me a small sum to teach them. This was the beginning of what afterwards proved a very lucrative occupation.
When I was ten years old the classes were so large that I informed my mother that it was useless for me to go to school any more, as it was only a waste of time when I could be making money, which I considered far more important. I put up my hair on the top of my head and said that I was sixteen. As I was very tall for my age every one believed me. My sister Elizabeth, who was brought up by our grandmother, afterwards came to live with us and joined in the teaching of these classes. We became in great demand and taught in many houses of the wealthiest people in San Francisco.
1927 Cover of Isadora Duncan’s autobiography
Note: I will be publishing Chapter Two of Isadora Duncan’s beautiful autobiography. Until then, please dance.