Muse n.1 (Muse) Gk& Rom. Mythol.any of the goddesses who presided over the arts and sciences. They were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, traditionally nine in number (Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Terpsichore, Erato, Melpomene, Thalia, Polyhymnia, and Urania), though their functions and names vary considerably between different sources. 2 (usu. prec. by the) a a poet’s inspiring goddess or woman. b a poet’s genius or characteristic style.
I was – heh- musing on the subject of muses the other day. On a long drive down to the longhall my re-enactment society is building in Kent, I switched on the radio to discover a presenter interviewing a famous soprano.
My knowledge of opera is such that I had never heard of her and immediately forgot her name. However, the programme went on to explain that she had a composer whose music was written specifically for her to sing. This composer was invariably inspired by her voice – inspired to the extent that in a long career almost every piece of his work had been written specially with her voice in mind.
The presenter was evidently slightly awestruck and charmed by the idea that he was meeting a living muse. The soprano on the other hand did not like to think of herself that way, and preferred to think of it as a partnership in which the work of each of them inspired the other.
I come from a writing tradition where ‘the muses’ is used to mean the voices of the characters – usually the one character from whose POV the story is told. We speak of ‘our muses’ wanting us to tell one story or another, wanting us to illustrate their good points or their bad. Sometimes demanding that they be given more of a starring role, at other times stopping us in our tracks while they force us to write down a story it feels as though they’re dictating to us.
Although this doesn’t initially fit with either of the above dictionary definitions, I wonder if this is the modern interpretation of the voice of the goddess or the muse in sense 1.
We get to know our characters so much that they begin to lead a shadowy sort of independent life in our heads. I have, once or twice, had the experience of a character telling me ‘I am going to do this…’ and me going ‘no! No way! There’s no way you can get away with that!’ I have actually been shocked with what they come up with.
It’s a strange experience, to have characters you know you have created yourself suddenly start answering you back and refusing to obey you. When it happens, most writers rejoice. Like Dr. Frankenstein, watching the lightning crawl over his creation stitched together from a thousand corpses – watching it stir, begin to breathe, open its eyes – we cry ‘it’s alive!’ Possibly with the addition of a slightly manic laugh that makes the rest of the world sidle away, doubting our sanity.
In fact it’s an apt metaphor. We have stitched together this character from scraps – a model’s fine eyes, the nice things our husbands do on a good day, the annoying-but-funny habit from that woman we speak to on the train in the morning – and at some point the breath of life has mysteriously entered into this motley collection, fusing it into a real person.
Nowadays, post Freud and psychoanalysis, it is easy to accept that this almost miraculous coming to life is a product of our own subconscious. Having got enough dead details, our 90% unused hindbrain steps in, fits the pieces together, extrapolates what a person like this would behave like in other situations, and presents it – live and argumentative – to the surface of our minds. A wonderful feeling, but not in any way supernatural.
But now imagine what that would feel like if you had no concept of the subconscious. Pre-Freud. You’re a writer, an artist, a lyric poet, and you struggle with the words just as modern writers do. But every so often something – a breath of something mystical, unexplainable – brings your characters to life, whispers into your head thoughts higher and more complex than your own thoughts, presents fully made solutions to problems you had thought were insuperable.
No wonder they thought it was divine!
We are lucky – modern writers – when our words dry up and writer’s block comes on us, at least we have the comfort of knowing that everything we need for writing is within us and is unlikely to have suddenly left us. It must have been a thousand times worse for the writers of the past who believed they really were writers merely at the whim of a sometimes capricious goddess. We can do exercises to stimulate our minds, with the hope of dragging out our creativity from where it has gone to ground. They could not count on the goddess to stay, nor coax her back if she had decided to go. And every time she did abandon them, they must have felt ‘this could be the time she never returns.’
The thought of being at the mercy of genuinely supernatural forces for your creative inspiration reminds me of the debate I’ve been having with Ann Herendeen, over how much self-reflection/self knowledge the people of the past could have achieved without the apparatus of psychology. Imagine that you do not have a concept of the subconscious, and now picture those occasional berserker rages you can get when you feel lifted out of yourself or – if you’re not as violent as me – those moments where fear or joy seemed to come on you from the outside and overwhelm you.
Surely for the ancient pagan these must have been the voices of the gods – Woden, the god of rage and poetry, Hermes, the messenger, telling them something, acting through them. To a certain extent for them the more inspired they were, the less they themselves were acting. Something else worked through them, taking them up into the supernatural world, absolving them of personal responsibility. No wonder Homer’s battlefield was full of gods and goddesses. There too, in the exhaustion and stress of the battle, the warrior’s mental state would have been exalted, open to possession and inspiration.
As for the muse in sense 2: a poet’s inspiring goddess or woman, I will admit that it amuses me no end that yet again our language assumes that men are the only people in the world.
I say this because I have had several muses in sense two over the years, and they have been, without fail, men. Presumably the dictionary writer did not suspect that poets (or writers) could be women? Or that a woman could be inspired, by the mere existence of a particular man, to create art or literature.
Or perhaps it’s just that I’m weird?
Before I realized that my muse was in fact a muse, I would have had every sympathy with the soprano I was talking about earlier. I would have thought there was something slightly sordid about it. After all, so many of the great painters’ muses were also their mistresses, and there’s something so… incestuous about that.
And here I am, a straight woman, being inspired by young men? It doesn’t seem unlikely that there’s a sexual component in that. But what I can say is that that’s not what it feels like from the inside.
My current muse is an actor who is pleasant looking, but would never find his way onto the cover of a romance novel. What makes him a muse, for me, is the fact that he does not seem to be able to act a role that doesn’t light the ‘must tell a story!’ blue touch paper in my head. There are undoubtedly better looking men out there. There are possibly better actors. But I don’t know of anyone else who can act a minor role in a soap opera in such a way that I suddenly need to write a book.
I have no desire to get to know this bloke at all. On a personal level I would prefer him to remain a complete stranger, but something about him triggers my creativity. And this is – to me – much more of a mystery than the way the characters come alive, or the plots shake themselves and suddenly make sense. That’s all inside my head, but this, this free gift of inspiration, or dependency, depending on how you look at it, isn’t. I am as enthralled – literally in thrall – as Dante to his Beatrice, and I don’t know whether to accept it gratefully or resent the fact that I’m not complete unto myself. (Not that I’m comparing the quality of my output to Dante! If only!)
Of course, there is always the possibility that I am simply weird. This article in the New York Times certainly seems to proceed from the idea that muses are always female:
But although I write about a time when that might have been true, I’m also a modern, feminist, female writer of gay love stories. I believe in equality between the sexes. Surely it’s entirely appropriate in that case to stand the tradition on its head and to have a male muse? Can inspiration really only come in one gender? Am I honestly the only one?