Fictional Letter from Marcel Jonhandeau about Caryathis (1920)

Dear Mother,

I’m writing this evening to share with you some of my concerns about Elise and the environments in which she seems to be finding herself. Having only recently wed her (mostly as a result of encouragement by my friends Marie and Jean)[1] I am only now discovering some of her problematic tendencies. She seems enthralled with the society life that her dancing has brought her. Elise does not contribute anything substantial to the musical repertory through her art and she only serves as a supporter of frivolous and naïve high-society culture.

It appears, to me, that Elise began to engage in the society life when she became friends with Jean Cocteau. Jean liked her from the start. He expressed to me that he liked her fantasy and her wildness.[2] This is not surprising, as many whom I have encountered have described her as fierce, sexual and passionate, a sentiment which attracted me as well.

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Cocteau is deeply involved in the society group and offered to help her to make a good first impression for her first dance recital. He suggested that Elise host a grand masked-ball and Jean would assist by bringing the finest names in Paris to her home. [3] I believe that this was Elise’s first step into obsession with the frolicsome life of social-gatherings and entertainment.

Elise is beginning to become more well-known for her parties than for her artistic work.[4] In fact, in a conversation Elise had recently with Satie, he needed to remind her to focus on the importance of her art instead of being depressed by her personal affairs. He spoke to her about what a mistake it was to “prefer oneself to one’s art. You should serve it with self-denial”. [5] This conversation shows Elise’s naïvity about what her artistic aspirations should be. I further see Elise’s lack of seriousness in regards to her art when I examine the carelessness with which she entered the profession. She ran away from home as a teenager and decided to become a dancer, following in the footsteps of a friend with which she was living.[6] This does not seem to indicate any artistic tact and shows her inability to take it seriously. Even Satie, who offered Elise some good observations about art, is enraptured by her, calling her “Belle Dame”. He is so amused by her masked balls and has contributed some of his own ideas to them. This shows that even an artist like Satie is unable to avoid the allure of frivolity in high society.[7]

Satie’s new work for Caryathis is called “La Belle Excentrique”. We see through this piece that lack of seriousness with which Satie writes his works. The whole work is very parodistic. In “Vaise Mysterieux Baiser dans l’Oeil” he writes the instruction “very exaggerated” and it is clearly a play on the music hall numbers that are popular now. In the waltz, there are exaggerated “swoops” and elsewhere in the piece we hear a nursery rhyme tune.[8] It is comic, with ragtime rhythms, waltz tunes, a cancan and music-hall character.[9] Below is an excerpt from the piano reduction of the “Waltz of the Mysterious Kiss Within the Eye” that shows the dramatic “swooping’ nature of the music:


 The confusion of so many comedic elements suggests that Satie has made a parody of art. He has been able to trick the listener into thinking he is genuine, with his innocence and the nostalgia that is evoked in this piece. However, the way Satie composes suggests that he does not understand true art and is, too, caught up in the social status that his art grants him.

We can further see Satie’s confusion of art when examining his Sports and Divertissements. In these pieces, he integrates high art with the music of dance halls, folk songs and operettas. The product is form, structure, clarity and simplicity mixed with contemporary entertainments. Satie’s use of parody and the way he combines incongruent elements shows his ingenuity. Even the topics of the piece are mainly concerned with activities that are fashionable and elite.[10] Satie is clearly only interested in his social status and not with creating true art.

To return to my concerns of Elise, her choreography reflects some of her confusion and how she has been swept up in high culture. Elise seems to be a puppet to the whims of these men and women in the arts. She attempts to choreograph based on what these artists want, but even that is unclear. In “La Belle Excentrique” it was clear that Elise did not know whether she should be evoking a Parisien or a black American dancer influenced by jazz.[11] She seems to dance according to both Satie’s and Cocteau’s wishes in this dance. Cocteau’s wild sense of African American jazz and Satie’s idea of the “Parisienne de Paris” are both present.[12] Elise’s ambiguity of intention indicates that she is somewhat lost as a performer and was really a part of the artistic scene to gain from the social contacts and to get enjoyment from her parties. Furthermore, Elise, as a teacher, caters to those who are figure-conscious and care to be fashionable, rather than creating truly valuable art. Her clientele is indicative of the way she felt about dance as more of a class-based enterprise as opposed to an art-form.[13]

Despite my opinions of Elise’s shortcomings, there are those that appreciate the work she does outside of her social gatherings. Le Semaine a Paris expressed appreciation for Elise’s dancing in Satie’s La Belle Excentrique: “She seems to possess the gift of parody. She is a caricaturist in space”.[14] So, despite my skepticisms, it is necessary that I recognize the value others see in the art she is creating.

Yet, this is difficult because it seems obvious to me that Elise would rather engage in society social-gatherings than create more valuable artwork. I hope she will someday see the value of my own work as a teacher of literature and realize where she got lost in the excitement of parties and well-known elites. I hope this letter finds you in good spirits.

Your son,

Marcel Jonhandeau


Works Cited

Carter, Alexandra. The Routledge Dance Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Davis, M. E. “Modernity a La Mode: Popular Culture and Avant-Gardism in Erik Satie’s Sports

Et Divertissements.” The Musical Quarterly 83.3 (1999): 430-73. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.1 Nov. 2015.

Garafola, Lynn. Legacies of Twentieth-century Dance. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2005.Print.

Gillmor, Alan M. Erik Satie. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Print.

Harding, James. Erik Satie. New York: Praeger, 1975. Print.

“Mimes Et Danses.” La Semaine a Paris 09 Jan. 1925: 35. Print.

Satie, Erik, and Ornella Volta. Satie Seen through His Letters. London: M. Boyars, 1989. Print.

Whiting, Steven Moore. Satie the Bohemian: From Cabaret to Concert Hall. Oxford: OxfordUP, 1999. Print.

Wilkins, Nigel. “Erik Satie’s Letters to Milhaud and Others.” Musical Quarterly The Musical Quarterly LXVI.3 (1980): 404-28. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.

[1] James Harding. Erik Satie. New York: Praeger, (1975), 192. Caryathis was most likely introduced to Marcel by artist Marie Laurencin. Laurencin and Jean Cocteau had a habit of managing the lives of their friends and pushed the two into marriage.

[2] James Harding, Erik Satie, 191.

[3] Erik Satie and Ornella Volta. Satie Seen through His Letters. London: M. Boyars, 1989.

[4] Nigel Wilkins. “Erik Satie’s Letters to Milhaud and Others.” Musical Quarterly The Musical Quarterly LXVI.3 (1980), 420.

[5] James Harding, Erik Satie, 193.

[6] Lynn Garafola. Legacies of Twentieth-century Dance. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, (2005), 88.

[7] James Harding, Erik Satie, 193.

[8] James Harding, Erik Satie, 194.

[9] Gillmor, Alan M. Erik Satie. Boston: Twayne, (1998) 230.

[10] Mary Davis. “Modernity a La Mode: Popular Culture and Avant-Gardism in Erik Satie’s Sports Et Divertissements.” The Musical Quarterly 83.3 (1999): 433.

[11] Lynn Garafola. Legacies of Twentieth-century Dance, 89.

[12] Stephen Whiting. Satie the Bohemian: From Cabaret to Concert Hall. Oxford: Oxford UP, (1999) 506. There is actually no video footage from Elise’s performance to indicate how she actually danced, so it is impossible to know the specific way these artists influenced her.

[13] Alexandra Carter. The Routledge Dance Studies Reader. London: Routledge, (1998), 220.

[14] “Mimes Et Danses.” La Semaine à Paris 09 Jan. 1925: 35.  « Elle semble posseder le don de la parodie. Elle est une caricaturiste dans l’espace ».