The nine Muses are the offspring of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the Goddess of Memory. Before the invasion of the Olympian gods, the Muses, goddesses or guardian nymphs of springs and groves, tutelary spirits, belonged to a preliterate, oral culture. The original three are the daughters of Mnemosyne, memory, although they were raised by a wetnurse or foster-mother, Eupheme. Even this biographical snippet must be a late revision, since Mnemosyne is said to be the mother of the Muses with Zeus, so is already a literary corruption, the first euphemism. Mnemosyne is a personification: Memory.
When a mythological figure is a personification it’s always suspicious, as is the multiplication of Muses from three, the usual form of the goddess, to nine, representing genres. So too the subordination of the Muses to Apollo when it is obvious they should be autonomous. The earliest Muses would not have been personifications of anything, although from the beginning people must have seen the parallel between the sudden upsurge of a spring (particularly in the arid parts of the world) and the autonomous power of the imagination. These early goddesses may have been prophetesses like the Delphic Pythoness, who seems to have been another erased older myth, a chthonic goddess trapped in a cult of Apollo. She spoke only in hexameters, a talent any poet would covet. What little source material exists attests to their original triune form, parallel to the Graces and the Fates, so it’s probably true that the Muses are among the oldest mythological figures we know of. Some sources name the original three muses Pasithea, Cale, and Euphrosyne, others Melete, Mneme, and Aoede (Meditation, Memory, and Song). The names of the Graces are Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalia. Euphrosyne is a name also given to one of the original three Muses, and Thalia, the Muse of comedy, is one of Hesiod’s nine—but Hesiod was a writer, and his Muses are literary ideas rather than goddesses or nymphs. He poses as a simple shepherd tending his flocks on the slopes of Helicon or Parnassus, but he’s already in the realm of writing. He is no shepherd tending his flocks but a poet trying to herd his words into line on the page. The Muses told him of true things, past, present, and future, and they told him lies. Especially lies.
The Muses officiated at the wedding of Cadmus and Harmony and at the funeral of Achilles. They participated in singing contests, plucking the tailfeathers of their competitors, the Sirens, blinding, flaying alive, or otherwise destroying anyone so bold as to try to best them. They blinded Thamyris, and erased his memory. Marsyas they flayed alive because he tried to outsing Apollo—flaying alive is a literary touch, because a text is a body. But we don’t know of the adventures of the Muses, actual or imaginative, even though they were the owners of the flying horse, Pegasus, on whose wings they rode to ecstatic heights; the only Pegasus story that comes down is of Bellerophon’s borrowing the winged horse to go kill the Chimera. The Chimera is a composite monstrosity, a late myth, another literary invention, whereas the birth of Pegasus from the Gorgon’s blood, after Perseus decapitated her, is in its condensation and dream-like intensity obviously a preliterate myth, combining the Muses and the Gorgons, who were their offspring. All we have of the story is enough to tell us that most of it is gone.
The Muses bore Orpheus, the first poet, competed in song with their daughters the Sirens, and hung around with the fauns and centaurs in a pre-Olympian pastoral world. They were orgiastic. Other children included Hyacinth, the original homosexual, the sirens, the gorgons, and the corybantes (ecstatic dancers). They belong to a culture in which ritual is inseparable from daily life, where when you dance you dance until you drop. Pegasus, born from the blood of the gorgon Medusa, was a gift to the Muses from Athena. The gorgons are mirror-muses, their antitype, who turn to stone what they look on rather than setting the mind on fire, just as the sirens song is a false seduction. A Muse galvanizes the imagination, the gorgons stop it cold. The sphinx was an apprentice to the Muses and learned her riddle from them.
Considering that the idea of inspiration is as old as human memory, our lack of information about the Muses themselves is a mystery. They occupy an ornamental place in literature, a decorative frieze in the visual arts, and receive only a nod even in the oldest written poems. There is something unfair about the way poets and writers called on the Muse but went on to write without further reference to her. She tells the story—through the writer—but she has no story or identity of her own, which is to say little more than that she is a mask or apotheosis of the writer (who also has no story of his own). The role of Muse goes begging today, since women see it as being secretarial, but in their original form they were like goddesses of creation and destruction, primal forces.
One question of interest to anyone is where the Muses live. (So as to go there and win their favor.) Pausanias has many references to places where they were worshiped, often the sites of springs. These locations are far-flung: Pieros, or Pieria, Delphi, Corinth, Beoetia, Sicily, Parnassus, Helicon. The spring of Helicon today is found at Delphi, at the foot of Parnassus: you may wash in its waters, and be cleansed if you’ve committed murder. Inspiration has its mythic source in the well that sprang up when Pegasus angrily pawed the ground on Mt. Helicon, from whose Omega-shaped hoofprint a spring sprang up; beside it a Willow grows (helica) signifying a spiral branching form (the DNA of inspiration) whose tap root draws deep from the spring; the rustling of the willow’s leaves are the whispers of inspiration, for all the Muses are originally hamadryads. By far their most beautiful home is on the dedicatory page of the Greek Anthology, which speaks of a grove where they live but means the book that contains the poems—the oldest example of the durable trope of the anthology as a kind of garden. That this image is beautiful, the way the image of the willow by the springs of Helicon is beautiful, is a reminder that our Muses are Muses of the written word, yet of archaic, preliterate origin.
My Muse lives in the suburbs in Helicon, “a village of Parnassus,” where she drives a steel-gray station wagon with a Pegasus hood ornament. She has children, among them her youngest, Orpheus, a child prodigy. We are not married. Her husband, Arcas, is a native of Arcadia, and they repair there every winter to escape the cold weather, leaving me alone in my garret. The Muse attended the Castalian college, an enterprise that may be operated by Central Casting, where she was trained to be a full-time lyric Muse (the nine are roles or jobs, including Muses of History (Urania), Tragedy (Melpomene), Comedy (Thalia), Dance (Calypso of course), and Epic (Calliope)). Our girl is Erato, "the enrapturer." One of her attributes is a lyre, but it turns out that hers is actually a cithar, an ancestor of the zither, whereas the pure form of lyre (and the origin of the guitar) belongs to Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance. When the Muse first began to show up in my stories she was coming from a night of wild dancing in wild weather. It took years for her to settle into a married life in which most of her waking time was spent delivering her children to soccer matches, music lessons, and Russian Math tutors.
It would be smart for the today’s writers to figure out how to package their work so it will survive into the postliterate age, as Homer packaged the oral poems, but to do so would be to foresee the development of human memory beyond the book, a process which, though it has surely begun, has yet to evolve into something recognizable. The writer today may stand at the end of literacy, but is still a writer, in a literate form. What use has such a writer for a Muse?
It’s tempting to say that my Muse stories were inspired, and tempting fate to say so, but I believe they were, even though inspiration didn’t arrive in one piece or anywhere near all at one time. Inspiration—whatever it is—is the opposite of writer’s block. Although I didn’t set out to write these stories and pieces to remedy anyone’s case of writer’s block, even my own, I grew convinced that writer’s block was an illusion that develops from a mistaken idea of what inspiration is. Serious, professional writers believe—usually without realizing it—that they should be better at writing than everyone else, which also means being better at writing than they are. Since all of us at one time or another have the experience of writing things that come out right the first time, we’re all vulnerable to the suspicion that anything that doesn’t come out that way is not inspired. But that is not so. Writing so thrives on revision that it can’t come fully into being without it. If the mind of the oral poets was metaphorically like a rushing stream or wind, a song sung to and through the poet like the wind in the trees whose branches are the ramifying imagination, the mind of the writer in literate times is like a written (and still later, a printed) page, and writing is seen as transcription of the contents of the mental page. But it is one of the advantages of a page that it gives us something external to look at and revise until we are satisfied, and the process of revising is so important to writing that it should be thought of as part of inspiration, even as the source of inspiration for a writer. As the written page facilitates rereading that enables the reader to understand, so it permits the writer to rewrite to create the possibility of understanding.
One day, when I couldn’t think of what to write, I had the idea of a writer who drives his true Muse away, and I wrote the story called “The Muse.” I continued to write stories about this writer and his Muse, usually when I was stalled on what I thought of as my “real” work, but also because they were fun to write. I had an idea that so-called writer’s block and inspiration were two sides of one coin, in the sense that a truly blocked writer would dream of being rescued by a Muse, unable to rescue himself. It turned out that variations on this theme were fascinating and possibly—it seemed to me—endless. I believed then, and still do, that writing emerges from the unconscious and that the writer needs some kind of link to it. Access to the unconscious, Freud saw in the early days of psychoanalysis, had to be indirect. He used free association, which meant that he got his patients to say “whatever was on their minds,” even without their knowing what was on their minds, and in their random monologues he found a rhetoric perfectly suited to his devious method. The writer must be even more devious in pursuit of inspiration, more inventive and ingenious than Freud. The writer pursues the Muse; she is elusive, although she tells him that her elusiveness, in being constant, is part of her constancy, her fidelity. Her being elusive is the main thing that energizes his inventiveness. His inventiveness discovers more and more about her.
The Muse came into existence very slowly for me. The earliest record I have of her is a note for the beginning of a story: “There was a writer who wondered if he had a Muse.” Another note from around the same time says I woke up with my head full of jumbled sentence fragments, nothing that made sense to me, but a voice in my head said, “Get up and write.” I got up and wrote that down. Then, maybe, I wrote some more. At some point I wrote the first story in which the Muse appeared as a character, and a short time after that another, and then a third. I still didn’t think much about them. The idea seemed cute, but off to the side of my main concerns. Yet the stories piled up. I realized that the advantages of writing over telling were many, for I could go back and change what I had written even if I had written it years before. Writing was superior to memory because it offered the possibility of a permanent record if I wanted one, but if I didn’t like what I’d written, I could change it, erase it, fix it. Of course, the way I worked on these stories, I was almost guaranteed not to publish them for some time. I didn’t think about that at all after a while. The stories had a life of their own. The Muse might seem in the abstract like a way of automating the writing process, but my Muse was not exactly efficient, nor was she abstract. She had definite, particular attributes, beginning with a gossamer gown that was somehow wrapped off a bolt of cloth and held together, not very well, by strategically place safety pins. I learned that gossamer, woven from spider webs, is the strongest fabric known to man, so though it is sheer almost to transparency it is bullet proof, like Kevlar, and presumably keeps the Muse from getting seriously ill. She’s immortal, she says, but she can get a cold. The writer worries about her when she shows up from one of her wild nights with her gown soaking wet.
At first, I saw the Muse stories as light, “mere bagatelles.” Despite claims to the contrary by the Muse that this was my real material, I thought they were “left-hand” stories, or exercises. The fact remained that I was enjoying them more than what I thought of as my real work, although I wrote most of them without thinking about what I was doing. When I started writing them, I was young and naïve. I thought writing—the process, not the product—could be like jazz, improvised, or like Pentecostal fire, glossolalia, speaking in tongues, or like opening a switch and connecting to the other world. Even now the experience of writing feels like an experience of another dimension (the dimension of the page, but it is also the timeless dimension of the mind). I have always called it “The Other Side,” although I have no idea what it is the other side of or where it is. The page I write on is an almost transparent almost membranous interface to—wherever imagination goes. In the stories, the telephone is a line to the other world: it’s as close to another world as we normally get, a direct line to the unconscious.
The question is why a writer would want a Muse. I can think of a number of reasons that seem perfectly healthy—the pleasure of pleasing a woman, even by flattery; the happiness that comes from communicating with someone else, the desire to make someone desire you. But the wish to have the material of your writing supplied by some occult process strikes me as giving up the writer’s essential freedom and autonomy, and suggestive of a belief that a writer’s work has to be authenticated by something other than his own taste (or “genius,” if he has genius—but of course with genius the same problems arise as with the Muse). Why would any self-respecting writer hand over to someone else authority over his work or any part of the responsibility for it?
As I wrote these stories, my idea of inspiration changed from wanting something to arrive already finished, to expecting that I would revise and rewrite, renewing inspiration again and again—a consequence and precondition of writing, I eventually realized, as distinct from telling stories out loud. I sat at my desk and stared at empty sheets of paper. Something came to mind, and I started writing, and the Muse showed up at my elbow, and spoke. I didn’t recognize her at first. To begin with, she was just an anonymous voice in my head—it had probably always been there. This “voice” wasn’t much—it wasn’t much different from the hypnogogic babble that went through my head just as I was drifting off to sleep, to be startled briefly awake sometimes by the voice of my mother calling me in from play to dinner when I was a child. The Muse’s voice, in some way, developed out of that half-conscious babble.
Is the Muse real? Do I believe in her? The question must be asked, but it doesn’t connect to my experience in writing these stories. Are there goddesses, nymphs, and so on? I don’t know. I’m tempted to say, “Yes and no.” Not because I am agnostic on the subject, but because I don’t know and can’t conceive of what kind of world gods and goddesses could exist in, except by distant analogy—yet it seems there was once such a world. But at the same time there are women who one might describe in such terms. Yes, even goddesses. While writing these stories, I was fascinated by the idea that characters in fiction could be at the same time real people and not real people, both human and divine. Eventually, I realized that this double nature is the human predicament. We are physical beings, with bodies, and we have thoughts, which do not. The one fact points us in a temporal, mortal direction, the other in the direction of eternity, “things unseen.” All art is deeply engaged with this fundamental human situation. The more time I spent imagining the Muse, the more present she became—and the best way I can explain what that means is that with time I knew pretty well what was and what wasn’t a Muse story. I thought of the Muse as real, but at the same time a mythical being. If you think this idea is cracked, think of falling in love: suddenly, your beloved is surrounded in light, and seems divine. It doesn’t matter (except in Freudian terms) whether you think it’s just someone’s aura, or more realistically, that you have projected your desires on another. Who cares? The Muse was such a projection. I began to write about her, I can honestly say, out of curiosity about who she’d turn out to be, and the stories, skits, dialogues, and epiphanies piled up, filling in the details as an artist fills in the details of a drawing. Painters start with vague, foggy images that they work up. You work on a drawing or painting long enough, and you see more than you did at the beginning. The details emerge. The growth of these stories was something like that. From shadowy beginnings, the Muse emerged as a definite form, and she had a lot to say, most of it news to me. And as she emerged, so did the character of the writer, and I realized they were a pair, like Humbert and Lolita, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Bottom and Titania, Jacques and Rosalind, Ishmael and Queequeg, Vladimir and Estragon, Laurel and Hardy, or W. C. Fields and Mae West. His Heaviness and Her Lightness. The writer is earthbound, the Muse is lighter than air.
Inspiration is modeled on memory rather than on creation. Among the oldest images of inspiration is the Muses’ spring, beside which grows a willow. The spring, or source, is of immeasurable depth, and the willow sinks its taproot deep to draw the water up and infuse the branches—the branching hierarchy of the mind—with inspiration, which is then exhaled into the atmosphere, the expiration that becomes the writer’s inspiration. The human memory, although its actual source might be boundless, was strictly limited, however, and before writing, knowledge or recollection could not exceed the storage capacity of the mind. (Outraged by Thamyris, the Muses blinded him, depriving him thereby of new experience, and wiped out his memory, making it impossible to store up anything new.) The Muses are the daughters of Memory, but in an oral culture, memory—“storage” memory--is not strictly in the mind (although what the mind can hold is the upper limit of what can be remembered). It is like what some philosophers call experience or culture. The poems of the oral tradition, whether those of Homer or the Vedas (oral in origin, though later written down), are themselves the memory of the whole culture they support and inform. (Which does not mean they are historically true.) That is the reason the song of the Muse is characterized in oral poetry as an external source, represented as the Muse singing through the poet, who is her vessel. (Among moderns, this idea of the artist as a humble vessel is nothing but a mystification, as when Stravinsky said The Rite of Spring just flowed through him.) The words of oral culture belong not to the poet but to the culture he participates in and celebrates.
For a modern writer the idea of a Muse implies that the writer is not original. Originality is an idea that would be alien to an oral poet, whose function is to speak for the culture as a whole, and who therefore has no ideas of his own other than infrequent innovations that survive only if accepted by the culture. The existence of an individual mind with thoughts of its own, worth recording, is a product of literacy. The idea of inspiration is at root in conflict with the idea of the originality of the writer. But interestingly, in the last fifty years or so the idea of the writer’s originality has been challenged from so many different directions that it has begun to seem like a kind of false pride, self-inflation, the kind of thing only men come up with. However, throughout recorded history, or the period of literacy, self-inflation was the name of the game. (It was called “divine afflatus.” Wind.)
The writer in these stories is individualized only as far as absolutely necessary, as far, that is, as was necessary to tell these stories. I have worried about this, and in the end I believe that he should not be so fully specified that we know the ages of his children, the particulars of his divorces, his drinking habits, and so on. (Well, he tells us he doesn’t drink much, but keeps a bottle of Kristal in the fridge for the Muse.)
I would think that any reader of these stories would be interested in reading them because of wanting to be, or being, a writer. So I encourage you to plug yourself in, and I don’t stand in your way.
When I think about the reader of these stories, I think of a lonely, youthful writer, who wonders if inspiration is real, who wants desperately to write but is not yet “a writer,” who is unknown even if somewhat published, and who wonders all the time where the next story is coming from . . . and sometimes where stories come from, and what to do when inspiration fails, and how to finish something that began in a burst of inspiration that for some reason fizzled, and what methods other writers have followed, and what is the relation of life to art, and whether autobiography can ever be fiction, and whether you have to follow genre conventions, and like that. I have opinions about all these things, if not answers.
When I was in school, a teacher who was giving a course on Don Quixote mentioned a book by a German writer, André Jolles, called “Simple Forms.” I never found an English translation of the book, but the idea made an impression on me because I was also interested, at that time, in transformational linguistics and I wondered if stories were not transformations or elaborations of simple patterns just as complex sentences embed simple sentences and “rewrite” them according to so-called translation rules. (Examples of simple forms include: benedictions, bride purchases and bride advertisements, complaint songs, curses, fables and beast fables, fairy tales, family trees, formulaic poetry, hero legends, lie stories, legal proverbs, local curses, legends, mockery verses, restaurant legends, personals, prescriptions, proverbs, treasure legends, sayings, spells, and work songs.)
I started working on writing simple stories in the hope of working out their transformations. I had a cracked idea that the simple stories would “generate” other stories, and that I would write the generated stories. In fact, I thought that first sentences could somehow generate whole stories. What is cracked about this idea is that I thought I was going to write the stories: it was like imagining I could write all the sentences that could be generated from a single simple sentence form. That isn’t something any individual can do—where such transformations are compiled, as in the Indian Ocean of Story, they are the work of innumerable writers and multiple compilers. I had the grandiose fantasy of becoming a one-man story tradition. However, what was not grandiose about the idea was that simple stories could lead to others, and over what turned out to be a very long time I produced the variations I was capable of. By sticking to simple forms I found out everything I was to know about the Muse.
When I first got the idea of the Muse from a voice I heard I was drifting off for a nap that said, “Get up and write!” I was probably taking a nap to escape from writing. Somewhat later, I wrote a story in which the Muse showed up in person and the writer tried to deny that the material she brought was the stuff he was supposed to write. This led to a series of stories built around a dialectic between a writer and his Muse about the material she could supply. The stories interested me because the writer wasn’t exactly me and the Muse was unlike anyone I’d ever met. I thought it was all right to write about a writer if he was someone else, imaginary, and though I had never met anyone like her I was convinced from the start that the Muse was real. Then I met a woman who fit the part perfectly. This was before I realized that Muses are . . . well, not exactly a dime a dozen but numerous, and that they like to hang out in bars, and that they will take charge of your life if you allow it. To put it succinctly, that is what a Muse does with your writing: she takes charge. And it has to be asked, why would a writer want anyone else to be in charge?
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