In ancient times, there were nine muses (or four, or three, depending on the source), divine creatures that served as inspiration for knowledge of the arts. According to some, the word “muse” comes from the same root word as the Greek “Mnemosyne” from which comes “mind,” “mental” and “memory” and the Sanskrit “mantra.” From “muse” we receive the words “music,” “amuse,” “museum,” and, of course, “to muse upon” – to consider, to think about.
But all that aside, our modern sense of what – or who – constitutes a “muse” has become so much more sensual, even sexual, as modern day artists seem insistent on twining muse with mistress, or wife (or lover, or husband, as the case may be). Think of Picasso’s Marie-Thérèse Walter and later Dora Maar, Salvador Dali’s Gala Diakonova, Andrew Wyeth’s secretive Helga Testorf, or the very public Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, the exquisite relationship of Lee Miller and Man Ray, Pattie Boyd with both George Harrison and Eric Clapton, Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Robert Graves and Margot Callas, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda, Shakespeare and his “fair youth” and Dark Lady… And those are just a few.
But to be a muse carries weight. Anyone can inspire, on par with any situation, any randomly recalled experience or strong sensorial memory. To be a muse must surely go beyond mere inspiration, else we would find them in every coffee shop and street corner, and the claim of “you are my muse” used for the most banal of pick up lines (even more so than it already is).
Young adult author Maggie Stiefvater (of Shiver fame) has a great quote that addresses this blithe assignment of creativity to the muses:
The biggest mistake you can make is assuming that creativity will hit you all at once and the muse will carry you to the end of the book on feather wings while ‘Foster the People’ plays gently in the background. Storytelling is work. Pleasurable work, usually, but it is work.
So while she is speaking about “the muse” in a more mythical sense, it still applies to flesh and blood inspiration. Most of what we do as artists (regardless of whether we achieve fame or fortune, slave away due to an insistent personal calling, or simply scribble a weekly essay for a literary website) comes from within ourselves, from our own musing, as it were, and not from some internal creative goading brought on by being in the presence of another. And this is a good thing, this is a strong thing, this is a thing that is necessary and wonderful and not to be discounted.
Yet, it still begs the question of my musing: where does the non-metaphysical, flesh and blood incarnation of the muse come from? How does one woman, or one man, pass beyond inspiration to become a muse?
I found it very touching in Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Glamourist Histories” (to date, Shades of Milk and Honey, Glamour in Glass, and Without a Summer, with – lucky for us – more to come) that the pet name given by fiery, acclaimed glamour artiste David Vincent for his plain yet talented (and sensitive, and intelligent, and by the rest of the world, often discounted) wife Jane is Muse. When I first read this, it felt so very intimate and personal – almost too much so – perhaps because the word indeed evoked so much more than simple “inspiration.”
Yet, I could never really put my finger on what exactly a muse was, beyond that being which gave spark to the artistic process. I certainly did not want it to be merely sexuality, or beauty (even that which was in the eye of the beholder) or even the great equalizer, passion. But what was it? What made one person an inspiration, and another one a muse?
Then suddenly, out of the blue, I read this passage in Kathleen Tessaro’s extraordinary book, The Perfume Collector*, and the difference became clear.
Grace sat forward, eager to hear more. “A muse? So, was she beautiful?”
“Not when I first met her. Then she was just a girl – awkward, unformed.”
Madame smiled indulgently. “Most people assume that a muse is a creature of perfect beauty, poise and grace. Like the creatures from Greek mythology. They’re wrong. In fact, there should be a marked absence of perfection in a muse – a gaping hole between what she is and what she might be. The ideal muse is a woman whose rough edges and contradictions drive you to fill in the blanks of her character. She is the irritant to your creativity. A remarkable possibility, waiting to be formed.”
A remarkable possibility, waiting to be formed. Yes. A potential, that a true artist is compelled to uncover, to unlock, to usher into that which might be, that will be, that which is. Something that perhaps can only be seen by that artist’s eye, that is only heard by that artist’s heart, that lies covered deep in common obscurity and yet holds so much promise for those who can see it, taste it, smell it – and above all, express it. Not just the one who evokes the image, who suggests the song, but one who holds within herself, himself, the cauldron of creation, the kernel from which the singular vision can spring if cared for, if nurtured, if gleaned, if brought to life. Yet, one that could not come from the artist alone. One that must be a symbiosis of the artist and his/her muse. The spur, the spark, the that which otherwise and in no other way would be.
How hard, then, it must be to be a muse! To have such value, such worth, to be given only to another’s vision. To maintain a sense of self – which must be part of the inspiration, too, I would guess (I would hope!) – so as not to be obliterated by only giving to one outside of oneself, no matter how gifted, how talented, how driven the other must be. (Hmmm… perhaps this is why French writer Alfred de Vigney callously wrote, ” “The loveliest Muse in the world does not feed her owner; these girls make fine mistresses but terrible wives” – that once they assert themselves as an aspect of reality rather than ideal, it is time for the artist to move on… )
But perhaps that is a “musing” for another day.
* Look for my review of Kathleen Tessaro’s The Perfume Collector on LitStack, coming soon!