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The River Erdman

BY Diane McGhee February 20, 2022

Jean Erdman performing her piece “Ophelia” in 1972. Image by the White Barn Theater.

Jean Marion Erdman (Feb. 20, 1916 – May 4, 2020) was a dancer and avant-garde theatrical artist who was married to Joseph Campbell for 49 years until his death in 1987. In celebration of Erdman’s birthday, we can examine the unfolding and fulfillment of her artistic career. 

Throughout her life, Erdman accessed the collective unconscious and manifested its attitudes, memories, and impulses into stunning new images for the 20th century stage. Her most complex and memorable work was Coach of the Six Insides (1962), an interpretation of James Joyce’s literary masterpiece, Finnegans Wake. While Campbell, with Henry Morton Robinson, opened the treasures of Finnegans Wake for readers with A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, Erdman daringly translated it into a production of total theatre. She returned art to art through a presentation of dramatic action, dance, mime, and multi-layers of Joycean meaning illuminated by the capacities of myth. The main character, danced by Erdman, was Anna Livia Plurabelle. The character transmuted into many forms, most commonly Ireland’s River Liffey, which represented the female psyche and archetypal woman, and we can compare Erdman’s life to this river.

The Genesis of Jean Erdman began in the Garden of Eden on the Island of Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. She was a fifth generation islander. Erdman had a charming personality and retained the distinct family values of humility, honesty, and full commitment to ethical ideals. A sense of adventure was surely in Erdman’s blood, and her passion for the theatrical arts began with her family.

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Romance of the Grail.

A natural spring was significant to Hawaiian mythology and Honolulu’s Punahou School, which Erdman attended as a child. At the school, Erdman received dance instruction in the free and natural modern style of Isadora Duncan. Erdman also studied American tap and centuries-old Japanese odori. At ten, she witnessed a performance of the great classical Chinese dan actor Mei Lan Fang. Jean stated, “I know that experience actually shaped my creative imagination.”(Jean Erdman Papers, New York Public Library, 5:6)

Erdman learned ancient sacred hula, its rituals, and chanted poetic texts (mele). She attended to the prohibitions (kapu) delineated for performers because, it is believed, performers may be possessed by Pele, god spirit and hula patroness. Erdman had association with one of Hawaii’s most noted authorities of ancestral knowledge (kapuna), Mary Kawena Pūku’i. At age 18, Erdman and Pūku’i made two sound recordings of ancient mele of the ‘āla’apapa domain, thereby preserving repertoire of the Kamehameha dynasty. (Stillman, A. K.  Sacred Hula: The Historical Hula ‘Āla’apapa, 63, 70)

From the Punahou bubbling spring, Erdman carried her wisdom and dance expressions to foreign realms. She “took herself” to a New England prep school, where she encountered a puritanical attitude toward the hula. Upon graduation in 1934, Erdman sought the open-minded and welcoming climate of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. Erdman “followed her bliss” by studying theatre, dance, religions, and aesthetics. She also encountered mighty forces that further molded the “river course” of her curiosities. Young Erdman was receptive to advice offered by respected authorities, especially tutor and professor Joseph Campbell and dance pioneer Martha Graham. Erdman flowed through life in a way that mimicked the Liffey traveling between the guardian Wicklow Mountains. 

Erdman left college to tour the world with her parents in 1937-38. At each port, Erdman beheld the authentic dances, which made an indelible impression upon the young artist’s sensibilities. Erdman’s time away from New York proved difficult for Campbell. The lovely Jean charmed him in a way he had not expected. The arrangement of the two lives was soon to be intertwined in a plan that only the universe could contrive. 

Upon her return she married Joseph Campbell, on May 5, 1938. She subsequently edited drafts of his work, and he would often carry her suitcases on performance tours. She was soon dancing professionally with Graham’s group. Graham cast Erdman in roles that utilized Erdman’s unique vocal, acting, and dancing abilities, which were necessary for parts in Every Soul is a Circus (1939) and the 1941 masterpiece Letter to the World

During summers, Erdman studied with modern dance pioneers at the Bennington College School of the Dance in Vermont. There she experienced the strengths and contradictions of various dance training methods. Although Graham strictly stressed contraction and release of the muscles, Erdman also appreciated Hanya Holm’s focus on inner motivation and Doris Humphrey’s “fall and rise” sequences. This was a period of discernment. Instead of a technique invented to honor a personality, Erdman desired to select movements that corresponded to choreographic intent and stirred the senses of the viewer.

During the late 1940s, Erdman joined the New Dance Group, a collective dedicated to social justice. Ultimately, Erdman broke away from both Graham and the New Dance Group with a commitment to create her own work. Erdman’s calling seemed to embrace the prophetic words of poet William Blake: “I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” (Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion)

The River Liffey is iconic to Dublin and likewise Erdman was central to the development of the American modern dance movement. Beginning with her earliest dances, the “River Erdman” carried travelers into streams of pervasive primordial connections, inspirations, and explorations of feminine principles presented with contemporary aesthetic sensibilities, as shown in The Transformations of Medusa (1942), Daughters of the Lonesome Isle (1945), Passage (1946), Hamadryad (1948), and Changing Woman (1954). Solstice (1950) incorporated masks, marking a step toward a total theatre concept. With correspondences to Campbell’s work, Erdman frequently highlighted aspects of the monomythic cycle. She continued to integrate dance and theatre with Pierrot the Moon (1954), using mime and props. Both Twenty Poems of e.e. cummings (1950) and Fearful Symmetry (1957) utilized voice.

In early 1955, Erdman toured as a soloist to Japan and India. Audiences deeply appreciated and understood her art; they were enamored with her. Her artistic diplomacy paved the way for other American artists to follow. Erdman was drawn to the transcendent in dance and life. While in the East, she was spiritually stirred to the extent that Joe suggested to his wife: “We should take a kind of Vow of Bodhisattvahood, which will compel us to live in a world of radiance…” (Larsen, S. and R. A Fire in the Mind, 392)

Erdman dancing the role of Biddy the Hen in The Coach With the Six Insides (1962)

Late in the 1950’s, Erdman conducted tours across the U.S. while maintaining a school in New York City. Her dream-like dances reflected the influences of places and friends throughout the years, from the Swiss Eranos conferences, caves of France, and Native American pueblos to theories of Carl Jung, experimental filmmaking of Maya Deren, and Zen masters Daisetz Suzuki and Alan Watts. The “River Erdman” swirled these philosophies within the intricacies of her mind. Using the entire range of human movement possibilities, she aimed her work to an aesthetic end. With her life and work, Erdman demonstrated a proto-feminist stance, showing us a new mythology for the modern times. 

Erdman remained a dramatic artist of exquisite beauty and brilliant virtuosity throughout the 1960s. Receiving critical acclaim, Coach of the Six Insides twice toured the major cities of the world. Subsequently, she and Campbell founded the experimental Theatre of the Open Eye, encouraging others to be creative. Through the remaining years, Erdman continued to produce shows, including reconstructions of earlier dances. 

Upon the passing of her husband, Erdman served as founding president of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. With a Joycean twist in the final stages of her life, the fluid and feminine “River Erdman” made its final course to the sea, circulating back to her homeland, where she lived out her days near the source of the Punahou spring.

 

Dr. Diane McGhee has taught in higher education since 1976 and for 30 years she dually worked as a professional dancer and choreographer. Her expertise is modern dance and various cultural traditions. She is a noted presenter and founder of dance teacher training programs. McGhee’s research investigates legacies, women’s studies, a priori bodily knowledge, interdisciplinary arts, curriculum, and dance at the intersection of mythology and religion. She is a Coolidge Fellow with A.R.I.L., Columbia University, teaches at the University of South Carolina, and serves as Board President for an international dance company, Movement Migration.

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The Mythology of Love (Audio: Lecture I.6.2)

Our gift to you this month is audio lecture. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

Love is central to all of the world’s mythologies. Why does love—that most transcendent, yet most personal, of emotions—occupy such a primary place in our most fundamental myths? The Greeks saw Eros, the god of love, as both the oldest of the gods and as the infant reborn “fresh and dewy-eyed in every loving heart.” In one Persian myth, love is the reason for Lucifer’s fall he loved God so much he would not bow to God’s creation, Man. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poet has a vision of a strand of love connecting the lowest depths of Hell, through Purgatory and Heaven, to God Himself.

News & Updates

Laylat al-Miʿrāj (“Night of the Ascension”) according to Muslim tradition is observed the 27th day of Rajab, which corresponds in 2022 to the 26th of February. The Prophet, accompanied by the angel Gabriel (Jibrīl, in Arabic) is believed to have ascended to heaven by means of a ladder (miʿrāj) where he was instructed by God that the faithful were to pray 50 times a day. Moses (Mūsā) petitioned for a less rigorous alāt, and the obligation was adjusted to the five daily prayers of current Islamic practice.

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All we really want to do is dance.

-- Joseph Campbell

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Myth Resources

Pagan Meditations: The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis, and Hestia

This book is Paris’s contribution to “imaginative” feminism.

A work of Archetypal Psychology. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to meditate or recollect the Divine in daily life. Also highly recommended for university libraries; theater, speech and communications collections; and for classical and psychological studies.

Reviews for Ginette Paris’ Archetypal Psychology Book

Sheila Cogill
The Small Press Book Review

An appreciation of three Greek Goddesses as values of importance to our twentieth-century collective life: Aphrodite as civilized sexuality and beauty; Artemis as solitude, ecological significance, and a perspective on abortion; and Hestia as warm hearth, security, and stability. As the author’s contribution to imaginative feminism, this book addresses both the meditative interior of each person and the community of culture.

Ginette Paris began her archetypal studies with this book. It has since become a foundation for the study of goddesses and how they imaginatively fit into our lives today.

 

Review By David L. Miller
Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Her truly remarkable work on the mythemes of three Greek religious figures is frankly feminist in perspective, but imaginably feminist and polytheistically so. « We are all Greek, » she writes (3), and she means by this to include the aphroditic, artemisian, and hestian aspects of men as well as women (192).

Paris writes: “There are as many feminisms as goddesses” (199) and she adds: “I do no think of polytheism as superior to monotheism – that would be contradictory” (198). True to these assertions, the text avoids literalisms and nominalisms. …Sensitive to the fact that “it is uninteresting if one only wishes to imitate the Greeks” (172), indeed, was uninteresting as imitatio Christi, Paris’ purpose is to make mythemes available “as a focus for questioning ourselves [individually and socially], for creating images” (172). …

The word “meditations” in the title is apt and should be read in the sense associated with Martin Heidegger and Marcus Aurelius. When Heidegger contrasted meditative with calculative thinking in his “Memorial Address” for Conradin Kreutzer in 1955, he claimed for the former the qualities of an “openness for mystery” and a “releasement toward things,” i.e., a humility in the face of the anxiety for certainty and control which could be correlated to a sensitivity for the body experience, qualities Heidegger thought were lacking in the encroaching sociologizing and scientizing of an-aesthetic life and thought in the academy.

That Paris’ work is meditative in this Heideggerian sense is especially seen in the way she handles the myth/history problematic. “The entanglement of history and myth is only embarrassing, “ she writes, “when we try at all costs to hold to the facts rather than to the spirit” (157). … Such modality leads Paris, and the reader, into a sensus communis that is reminiscent not only of Heidegger’s characterization, but also of the actual quality of text in the case of Marcus’ Meditations.

Like Marcus’ writing, this work is an essay…Indeed to this reviewer that the essay may well represent the mode, more and more, of thinking on the frontier as well as on the margins. One may recall other recent works: Anne Carson’s Eros, an Essay. James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, and Susan Sontag’s, essay on Roland Barthes. These move the marbles. Besides Marcus Aurelius, there are Emerson, Montaigne, and the zuihitsu of the fourteenth-century Japanese writer Kenko … Paris’ book belongs to this company of the scholarly essay… This book is not without passion and body … In fact, this meditative essay, in the view of this reader, demonstrates its author’s saying: “More complexity, fewer complexes.”

 


 

More Reviews of Pagan Meditations: Aphrodite, Hestia, Artemis

« Ginette Paris treats her subject with the utmost respect and seriousness; her prose – like the very concept of « Pagan Meditations » – is lush and extravagant, sometimes frankly erotic, but always thoughtful and thought-provoking, always fresh and surprising.

« In her hands, the myth of Aphrodite becomes « an alternative to both the Judeo-Christian attitude of sexual repression and its corollary, contemporary sexual promiscuity and the insignificance which accompanies it. »

-Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times Review of Books. August 24, 1986

 

« Imaginatively conceived and written, thought-provoking to read, Pagan Meditations offers something new – a vision of multiple feminisms, each as vibrant and varied as the real life situations which engender them. At the same time, Ginette Paris has recovered something old, something ancient – the realm of the pagan goddesses and their celebration of life. The book’s genius lies in its bringing the two together and allowing us to see three of the Greek goddesses as values of extreme importance to our twentieth-century collective life.

« Like Spignesi’s Starving Women, Paris’s book is an essential contribution to feminist psychology. Both authors share a passionate, daring approach to their subjects yet are able to present their discoveries: in very readable, accessible, form. »

-Mary Helen Sullivan
« Ginette Paris’s Pagan Meditations is a gem of feminine wisdom sparkling with the inner light of the author’s own deep convictions as a woman. Her rich personal experience and her wealth of knowledge as a social psychologist give this work an impressive scope. It radiates with a feminine power that reaches into the psychic life and spiritual inner workings of each person as well as the community of culture. She calls her spellbinding approach an « imaginative feminism. » With this she is able to weave together the objective wisdom and spiritual power of the archetypal perspective, as well as the mystery and artistry of the Eternal Feminine into a feminism worn weary by desiccating polemics and poisonous invectives on its political altars.

« This is an important book for both men and women at this pivotal time in cultural history when the Goddess is being reclaimed and invoked by collective effort to help prepare us to meet the New Age and its challenges. At this crucial point Ginette Paris « has sought in our cultural past whatever could be useful in nourishing the new gender identity and a renewed set of values for us to live by » (p. 197). Through tapping ancient sources she has succeeded in resurrecting a world view of the feminine that confronts the very spiritual and philosophical roots of the old patriarchal age and some of our most pressing social issues and problems. »

-Julie Bresciani Excerpted from Quadrant, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), 102-104.

Romance of the Grail

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Romance of the Grail

The Arthurian myths opened the world of comparative mythology to Campbell, turning his attention to the Near and Far Eastern roots of myth. Calling the Arthurian romances the world’s first “secular mythology,” Campbell found metaphors in them for human stages of growth, development, and psychology. The myths exemplify the kind of love Campbell called amor, in which individuals become more fully themselves through connection. Campbell’s infectious delight in his discoveries makes this volume essential for anyone intrigued by the stories we tell—and the stories behind them.

Book Club

“We crave poetic and mythological narratives and the vast, lyrical palette which they offer us. In Joseph Campbell’s Pathways to Bliss, together we’ll explore a joy that can coexist with darkness as we open ourselves up to the transcendent realm and its potential to illuminate and transform us. When we consider the quest to live mythically, we touch into a depth of consciousness that is an inherent, essential tenor of the soul. Both our suffering and bliss can be mirrored back to us in an honest, unvarnished way because the eternal truths expressed in universal myths guide us to unlock the beauty, majesty, mystery, and sacredness in our own personal experiences.”

Kristina Dryža
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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