Friday, January 23, 2009


Demons, Daemons and Muses

I've started reading Francine Prose's book: The Lives of the Artists: Nine Muses and the Artists They Inspired which examines the relationship between Suzanne Farrell and Balanchine, Lou Salome and Freud, Rilke and Nietschze and other artist/muse combos. Prose's tone suggests she's a bit put off by the notion that a woman would subject herself to a man's creative process; early on she raises the point that a muse today is more likely to be a place--New York City, the wild west, the Sahara--than a person. Still, she notes that the actual genesis of creative material still contains a touch of mystery; it's much easier, for example, to explain how a magic trick is performed than it is to pinpoint from whence a piece of music flows. We can read and read about Alice Lidell and her relationship to Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), but that still doesn't explain how Dodgson took the first step to building his Wonderland--and it doesn't really tell us how others can and will succeed in doing the same.

Once upon a time, Prose says, the muse was actually the Muses (there were nine and each one inspired a different art form).

Homer's The Illiad starts off (as every Columbia grad knows):

"Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy."

Shakespeare starts Henry VI thus:

Chorus: O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

And so on. The Muses have had many contracts throughout history. But, says Prose, when the pagans fell, and Christianity took over, the Muses went away, chased off by the monotheists, and the troubadours had to find something new on which to pin all their creative anxiety. Enter the Perfect Woman. Dante, anyone? Or maybe, the not-so-perfect woman. Writers are always meeting fascinating people, and retelling and refracting these experiences through fiction.

But, asks Prose--and she asks the same thing I did--does a female artist have a Muse? Do we girls go off in search of inspiration and find it in a person? So far she doesn't seem to think so, though I don't see why we wouldn't.

I was thinking about this today, and remembered Robertson Davies's novel "What's Bred in Bone" in which the eccentric painter, Francis Cornish, lives out his life under the observation of a personal daimon and an angel. Daemons are described as many things: demigods whose power has been diluted since the rise of Christianity, intermediaries between the worlds of humans and the gods, and an inspiring spirit (Socrates claimed he had one).

In Davies' novel, the daimon gives the character Francis plenty of hardship along the way, because he believes that difficutly is what forces his subjects to grow. Throw in some personal tragedy and heartbreak and Francis will be an artist, says the daimon. Taken in this light, I'd say that the daimon, as Davies views him, is a kind of Muse, but one that doesn't blow inspiration in a writer's ear, but puts him through some heartbreaking paces. More recently, the term daimon or daemon was used by Philip Pullman in his Dark Materials trilogy. Here, a daemon represents the personality, and the inner life of a character.

Muse or daimon, I don't know which one I would rather have, frankly. A muse sounds like a much more pleasant experience, but a daimon more realistic. Speaking objectively, I'd say that my life has had more daemons than muses, and they've come at critical moments--even if I have not wanted them to be there.

muses are nothing but trouble

don't be fooled

I think writers are worse.
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