Learning and Connecting with Lili Elbe

By | November 18, 2020

Guest post by Sabine Meyer

Sometimes, someone that has been incredibly important to you, that has penetrated your very way of thinking and being becomes an indispensable thread of your own fabric, sneaking back into your life, again and again, reminding you of the role they play in your never-ending evolution. To me, Lili Ilse Elvenes (†1931), known as Lili Elbe, is such a person. This may appear odd, given that I was born almost half a century after her death. Through emotionally engaging with the narrative of her life, however, I came to understand and reevaluate my own story and developed a deep-seated feeling of kinship with her. And that emotional connection carried me in my work, made me reflect on the sensible role I take on as a scholarly guardian of her experiences, and furthermore, opened doors to a string of unexpected encounters, learning processes, and collaborations.

One of these collaborations resulted in the comparative scholarly edition of Man into Woman along with its digital companion: The Lili Elbe Digital Archive. This stupendous project was conceived by my co-editor Pamela Caughie, who graciously invited me to collaborate with her in realizing her vision. When we first met in 2015, my own book on Elvenes went into print and I was about to wrap up my work as a research consultant for the movie The Danish Girl. I was ready to cut the cord, but Pamela succeeded in changing my mind.  In true scholarly fashion, our first encounter entailed a trip to an archive in the outskirts of Stockholm. Archives are magical places for me, and reconnecting with the materiality of Elvenes’ story was an infallible way of seducing me back into her spell. But what engaged me beyond that, was the prospect of making Elvenes’ narrative widely accessibly with someone who shared my passion.

That proved to be fertile ground for our work. Even though we reached inevitable impasses in our collaborative writing, we always managed to bring our focus back to the pursuit of honoring the woman we wrote about. And our different entry points heightened our awareness of the complexity Man into Woman presents. As scholars we are often compelled to frame our texts within certain categories. Hence, Elvenes’ life is often surveyed and understood as the experience of a trans* individual. While we capture this categorical thinking in our edition and need to be acutely aware of its impact, the potential for meaningful connectivity with the narrative and the person lies beyond reducing them to one single aspect. In that pursuit, our different approaches to the narrative were invaluable.

Man into Woman conceals as much as it reveals. First published in Denmark, Germany, the UK, and the US in the early 1930s, on the cusp of gargantuan political shifts, it underwent significant editing from one version to the next. To remain intelligible and sellable, it not only needed to be inserted into contemporary discourse, but also balance specific national sensitivities. When unpacking Elvenes’ continuously reimagined life story, Pamela and I explored different paths. My desire to meticulously skim the layers of the edited material was met with her keen modernist eye for how a seemingly conventional text yields experimental techniques of representation.

Lili Elbe in Paris
Image Source: Nikolaj Pors

Man into Woman mirrors a dance between the need to conform and the impulse to break out. It allows a first glimpse into who Lili Elvenes was: Someone with rural Danish roots, pursuing a successful career as a painter and turning in a polyglot bohemian. Someone, whose desire to embody a traditional model of womanhood coexisted with an extraordinary fluidity when it came to marital and extramarital relations–something the narrative never divulged. She explored, she suffered, she rebelled, and in her quest to survive, she made risky and brave choices. Within that complexity resides the value of her narrative and our ongoing engagement with it. By sharing her experiences, Elvenes offered us the opportunity to evaluate her circumstances relative to ours, and she created countless points of commonality that have affected people in unique ways.

In February 2020 we held a symposium in Chicago to celebrate the release of our edition and the launch of the digital archive. It was quite honestly one of the most touching and emotional academic gatherings I ever had the privilege to attend. Many of those who contributed–to the digital archive in particular–spoke about their experiences working on the project, shared their incredibly different personal connections to the narrative, and reveled in the kinship they developed with those they worked most closely with. The room was filled with palpable love, respect, and celebration for the spirit of Lili Elvenes. When one person’s narrative and our scholarly engagement with it creates such a beautiful sense of community as well as a desire to see, to understand, to engage, and to bring forth the humanity and the learning opportunities residing in that narrative, then this is the most wonderful legacy I can imagine.

Sabine Meyer earned her PhD at the Department of Northern European Studies at Humboldt University of Berlin in 2014. She was a research consultant for the 2015 film The Danish Girl and author of the most comprehensive book on Elbe to date, “Wie Lili zu einem richtigen Mädchen wurde” – Lili Elbe: Zur Konstruktion von Geschlecht und Identität zwischen Medialisierung, Regulierung und Subjektivierung (transcript, 2015).

Man into Woman is part of our Modernist Archives series.

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