who’s a muse?

You may have noticed that I sometimes refer to my creative side as my “Muse-mind.”  This is a term I use intentionally and, thus far, without explanation under the assumption that you pretty much get what I mean.  The concept of an artist having a Muse is, of course, well known, though probably regarded as anomalous except in certain Romantic literary and artistic circles.

It is possible to see the trajectory of the Muse concept as one that encompasses both the Greek notion of three, then ultimately, nine goddesses who bestowed gifts of creative output and sentiment on mortals as well as later (mostly European male) artists finding their creative source embodied in actual women (as in Dante Alighieri’s case with Beatrice).

Of course, given the Enlightenment and subsequent eras’ preference for rationality and biologically proven reasons for human actions, these ideas fell out of favor. I doubt, too, that upholders of Christian doctrine approved of something that sounds so like heathen idolatry. Personally I don’t require completely materialistic explanations of everything or adherence to such religious tenets, so I’ve had the pleasure of toying with this idea that’s experiencing a resurgence.

In the past few years of learning more about my creativity, including what works, what doesn’t, how I avoid dealing with it and ways I’ve been conditioned to think about it or value it, I’ve come across an ongoing revitalization of the idea that there might be such things as “muses.”  What’s interesting to me is that the notion has evolved over time and has come to incorporate some of the findings and theories of (mostly Jungian) psychology as well as a willingness to look back to ideas that were shaped by early humans’ recognition of an animate world filled with varieties of sentience and states of consciousness.

By 2009 I had begun to read many writers’ thoughts on inspiration, creativity, the unconscious, and archetypes.  Almost simultaneously, I came across the notion of the useful (and perhaps imperative) concept of a personified Muse from several different sources.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s TEDtalk (embedded below) considers the Greek notion of one’s genius being something not wholly personal or subject to “ownership” but rather something one accesses or is given to use for particular work and it really struck a chord (and still moves me, two years later). Gilbert’s experience and the lesson in How to Think Sideways on personifying one’s Muse gave me a huge sense of relief and tools with which to actively nurture what until that point had felt like an arbitrary burden because of an underlying fear that there might be no way to encourage any flourishing while still feeling the pull of potential.  It felt capricious and mystifying.  In some ways it still does but learning to give (“imaginary”) form to my imagination was the first step in making this a mutual, reciprocal, engagement with the source.

As William Stafford’s poem, “When I Met My Muse,”  indicates, a generally unspoken but widely understood sense that it is one’s unconscious that adopts or receives a conceived form in order to facilitate engagement or communication between the conscious mind and the source of creative generation.  Matt Cardin, whose highly recommended site, Demon Muse, is a great source of detail on this topic, says,  

“In broad terms, everything a writer or any other creative artist needs to know about the psyche can be stated in a pair of linked propositions: First, your psyche — your entire inner world of thoughts, memories, emotions, drives, etc. — is comprised of two major levels, the conscious and unconscious minds, each of which plays its own discrete and proper role in the creative act. Second, your best gambit is to regard the unconscious mind as a separate presence, a personified entity with which you work in collaboration. And that’s it. That’s the whole truth in a nutshell. Everything else is just elaboration.”

(from A Writer’s Guide to the Psyche, Part 1: Muses, Demons and Egos.)

And though it may seem very farfetched when put forth in the form of belief (“Do you really believe in muses?” I can imagine being asked) as though they’re non-corporeal spirits floating about independent of everything, the whole concept is really one that one’s unconscious has to accept or deny, by trying it out imaginatively.  It’s a matter of whether or not it works for a particular artist, a choice of lens with which to understand things, let’s say.  Not everyone needs or wants a muse, many benefit by having the option. Something important, though, is that although the rational mind can justify the process with psychology terminology and awareness of the symbolic nature of the muse, the symbol still has to be treated with respect, with commitment, and with awareness that it simultaneously has a life of its own that wants to be lived. Only then can it find its power, no longer repressed.

The archetypal motifs of the Western religious tradition seem to have lost their effectiveness for the larger portion of civilized humanity or, at best, have been depotentiated to the level of a “merely psychological” reality.                                                                                                                        -Terence & Dennis McKenna (The Invisible Landscape)

Personally, my Muse-mind has a specific form it likes to be envisioned with, a name, and certain character traits (including a preference for Muse-mind rather than “My Muse” when being introduced to people) some of which I may share in a future post. Meanwhile, enjoy the video and Matt’s site to explore the ideas further..

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Posted on May 24, 2011, in How to Think Sideways, Muse and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I just reread this post, having read it shortly after you first published it, and thought I really ought to tell you how much I like it. You’ve done an excellent job of describing your own engagement with the Muse, and in evoking the subtle feel of such a thing in the describing.

  2. Matt, thanks for telling me you liked this.

    I wish my muse felt honored by my having written this – but really it just wants to sit down and play and that’s something I can’t give it at this time, in the midst of a move overseas that’s requiring I run on purely rational logistics-based processes.

    Gah, I’m so looking forward to November for no reason other than that there shouldn’t be any more moving stuff to deal with (providing the shipment of books and life-artifacts arrives in a timely manner). I imagine a heavenly November with local university libraries scouted out and my story idea being given the attention I want to give it.

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