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The Ancient Craft of the Beautiful

Isadora Duncan, c.1915. Photo by Arnold Genthe.

In his book The Ecstasy of Being: Mythology and Dance, Joseph Campbell demonstrates not only his insatiable curiosity and wide-ranging, omnivorous mind, but also, in his exploration of mythology and dance, I am reminded that mythology itself was once a thought of as a primary subject, “a master field of the first importance.” (Feldman and Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology: 1680-1860, xxi) The study of myth was undertaken because it was seen as a key to the proper understanding of not only religion, but of language, history, philosophy, and art (including dance). Identifying mythology as a master discipline was a very different understanding than the contemporary assumption which places mythology within the subset of other disciplines. But the power of myth is still robust; myth is read into just about any subject as a way to support or discredit. This plasticity of myth, coupled with its ubiquity, creates a peculiar sort of double vision that studies the fact that myth exists, but it also has more than a little to say about the human psyche that creates such extraordinary and unusual ideas.

The ubiquity, plasticity, and power of myth are rooted in its use of metaphor. Hannah Arendt wrote that “Since Homer the metaphor has borne that element of the poetic which conveys cognition; its use establishes the correspondences between physically most remote things […] Metaphors are the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about.” (Illuminations: Walter Benjamin Essays and Reflections, p. 14) In TheEcstasy of Being, Campbell spends some time on Isadora Duncan and emphasizes her revelation regarding the way in which the Parthenon reflects some fundamental idea of nature itself, “Not in imitation of the outside forms of nature, but in understanding of nature’s great, secret rules.” (110) Metaphor, meaning to transfer, “enables us to give material form to the invisible…and thus to render it capable of being experienced.” (Arendt) This, experiencing the invisible, is a fine way to define ecstasy. Similarly, the philosopher to whom I am most affectionately disposed, Emil Cioran, wrote that ecstasy’s “object is a god without attributes, an essence of god” (The New Gods, 7), and somehow Isadora managed to spend surprisingly large portions of her life in such a state. 

In the March 1, 1936 issue of Esquire magazine, nine years after her death, John Dos Passos published an essay (one which I have loved for a very long time) called, Art and Isadora, in which he captures the “divine dancer as a figure of earth leading a flight from materialism in a flutter of Greek robes and unpaid bills.” Consciously or not Dos Passos, in describing Isadora as a figure of earth, affirms her insistence that great art is not an imitation of nature, but is itself Natura expressing in a material form. At some level Dos Passos understood this and remarked, “Art was whatever Isadora did.”

In Athens Isadora stood, day after day, awe-struck before the Parthenon and:

“…as I stood there my body was as nothing and my soul was scattered; but gradually called by the great inner voice of the Temple, came back the parts of myself to worship it […] and I did not dare move, for I realized that of all the movements my body had made none was worthy to be mad before a Doric Temple. And as I stood thus I realized that I must find a dance whose effort was to be worthy of this Temple—or never dance again” (The Ecstasy of Being, 110).

When the daimon seizes one in this manner, one has no choice but to surrender to it or become deadened to life—one’s own and the life of the collective—and suffer an emotional and mental demise which consigns one to the vestibule of hell alongside those others who refused to commit to something more than themselves.

But simply committing or surrendering to one’s daimon doesn’t ensure happiness or security, and certainly Isadora was such an example. She and her family were often broke, and Dos Passos notes, “They were never more than one jump ahead of the sheriff, they were always wheedling the tradespeople out of bills, jumping the rent, getting handouts from rich Philistines for art.” Isadora drank too much, she didn’t even try to control her sexual appetites, her relationships generally imploded, and she had more than her share of tragedy and loss. But the beatings we receive from life are often a part of the price we pay for bliss, and no matter how hard she fell she remained, as Campbell put it, “a living image of enraptured spontaneity, Greek in it’s inspiration, earthly and physical in its beauty.” (The Ecstasy of Being, 116)

Art was whatever Isadora did, including dying. At the age of 50 she found a handsome, young—of course—mechanic with a sporty car, and one day she artfully threw her long scarf around her neck and bid her friends goodbye saying, “Adieu mes amis je vais à la glorie!” Farewell my friends, I go to glory! They sped away, and Dos Passos describes Isadora’s “heavy trailing scarf caught in a wheel, wound tight. Her head was wrenched against the side of the car. The car stopped instantly, her neck was broken, her nose crushed, Isadora was dead.”

Merci d'avoir lu ceci,


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