Monday, February 09, 2009


Followup on Muses

A few weeks ago, I wrote that I was reading and thinking about Francine Prose's book The Lives of the Artists: Nine Muses and the Artists They Inspired. Today my friend Lisa emailed a link to Wired blog post featuring Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray Love fame. On getting rid of muses, and attributing an artist's work to genius instead, Gilbert says:

"Allowing somebody ... to believe that he or she is ... the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, internal mystery is just like a smidge of too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psyche," she said. "It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all of these unnatural expectations about performance. I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years."

In defense of muses:

"If you never happen to believe in the first place that the most extraordinary aspects of your being [were created by you]," she said, you'd be better off. "Maybe if you just believe that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life, which you pass along when you're finished to somebody else," it would change everything.

What's better: being a genius or having a muse?

I suppose that my Protestant work-ethic background/rational humanist self-determination adulthood requires me to think that anything I do is produced by me (genius or not). But like ghosts and vampires, muses are a nifty idea and I'd be delighted to be proven wrong (by a Muse more than a vampire).

I like Francine Prose, but associate her with the cringe-inducing memory of seeing her at the Ann Arbor Book Festival. She was great but not well promoted or introduced, and midway through her lunchtime talk, someone raised her hand and asked "Who are you?" The rest of us made sympathetic faces at her...
Eek! Painful! But then I guess I tend to expect that people won't recognize writers and their work--which is a good and a bad thing. I think there is probably something exhausting about losing privacy in public.

Your comment about the Protestant work-ethic is fascinating--I hadn't quite made the connection where Muses are concerned. And I don't know why, but I was never all that fascinated by vampires, though I know they definitely hold the public imagination. There must be something in my background which just doesn't quite connect to the idea.
My upbringing of hearing Celtic stories of the supernatural and reading Baba Yaga likely prejudiced me towards finding ghosts, witches, etc. interesting (though I haven't believed in them since the age of 5-7, when I was convinced that grandparents' house was haunted). And there was the most wonderous haunted house on display at the library when I was about 8 - a doll house with papered windows and little motors and tracks inside, so various creatures would swoop across one window, run past another, etc. I still love things like that but more for the cleverness of the execution and the "OOOOH" factor than for Halloween imagery.
She's talking about two different muses there, isn't she? One, a human who can't possibly withstand the pressure of the pedestal the artist has erected, the other an "unimaginable force," a source of external influence that seems more aligned with the Greek Muses as goddesses--or with the idea of epiphany, the momentary genius that is granted from God.

At any rate, I'd rather have genius than a muse. I'd rather be a genius than have a muse. I certainly don't care to be a muse. Though I do like to be amused.
Speaking of belief in ghosts and fairies etc., Henry James wrote an amusing "ghost story" about an American who marries an Italian, lives in Italy, and is surprised by husband's response to an unearthed statue of (90% sure of memory here) Hera. Don't have the title offhand, and I'm sure that the story is irksome to Native Etruscans and other descendants of the Romans, but creepily done, and we like creepy. MR James did Brit creepy/supernatural well as well.....eek, getting distracted, back to work.
Yes, yes, we like creepy. We do. Creepy is true and funny and occasionally just plain scary.

I think, Kaytie, she is trying to say that being a genius is a terrible burden for an ordinary mortal, and it's easier to believe that a muse has temporarily lended you her gift, so you don't have to feel that you are the vessel of some great work of art that you have created because to feel that way will cause you to have a breakdown, or fall into the sea like Icarus. Or something.

I don't really have a guilt thing about whether or not I'm responsible for what I do, or don't do. But then, I find what I do to be difficult, so the moments of feeling transcendent or inflated are pretty rare. I imagine for people who taste success and are regularly subjected to accolades--as Gilbert was--would find the whole thing more challenging.

I still like Prose's idea that these days a place is more likely to be a muse than a person.
"I don't really have a guilt thing about whether or not I'm responsible for what I do, or don't do."

Obviously, I was referring to writing. I'm perfectly capable of feeling guilty about many other things. ;-)
Yes, having a human muse is incredibly problematic - and being one (or having such an awful label slapped on one) even more so, I suspect. But I take great comfort in my muse, whom I imagine to be a bit of a noodge, a tough-talking Jewish/Italian granny. She's the one who notices when I haven't been writing, or being too critical of my first drafts, or not critical enough of later drafts, or whatever - and leaves me signs that are meant to (lovingly) kick my butt. I'm not sure what it says about me that my muse is so pedestrian, or that she communicates with me through fortune cookies, parking tickets, etc.

I think having a (self-generated) muse is invaluable for a woman artist. One poet friend discovered hers in a dream - a little girl cupping a handful of beautiful fire. Another sees hers as a Byronic demon lover, complete with cape. I'd highly recommend coming up with your own in whatever way suits you.
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