In 2013, the concept of the muse seems quite passé. The idea conjuring images of an inspirational female beauty acting as passive vessel, cipher or tabula rasa onto which the great male artist can project his desires and ideologies, well it was the Ancient Greeks that thought that one up. The nine muses were created to explain away the mysteries surrounding the formation of great art and of discovery. There was a goddess for each form of creativity: comedy, tragedy, three types of poetry, music and dance – as well as astronomy and history. But it was poet Robert Graves in 1948 who made popular the better-known, modern concept of the muse as artist’s mate inspiring with what he refers to as a ‘silent…womanly presence’.
In a similarly offensive vein, in 1953 French philosopher Etienne Gilson writing on why there had as yet been no female to equal Mozart, came up with the conclusion that: ‘the very emotions of women seem to need male musicians to express them’. Virginia Woolf offered a more considered answer to this question of genius and gender in A Room of One’s Own. Positioning women as inspirational fodder rather than inspired beings themselves, Woolf considers that: ‘Feminism has made us rethink musedom as a career choice’.
In The Lives of the Muses, Francine Prose details the lives of nine fascinating women who each inspired an writer/musician/artist – or number of artists in the case of the ‘serial muse’. There’s Hester Thrale who nursed mentally-ill dictionary scribe Samuel Johnson, and the real Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, Alice Liddell. Or how about the Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, Lizzie Sidall? And more recently, we’ve Salvador’s wife, Gala and – of course – John Lennon’s Yoko Ono.
Prose successfully divorces the concept of the muse as static, symbolic fantasy from the flesh and blood, idiosyncratic women she describes. Many of the muses described excelled independently of the artists they inspired. As well as assisting Man Ray, Lee Miller was a photographer for Vogue and worked as photojournalist during World War Two, bucking the idea of the woman as object of art but not artist. Likewise Hester Thrale, Lou-Andreas-Salome, and Suzanne Farrell all had great personal successes as author, psychoanalyst and prima ballerina respectively, while Gala Dali excelled as a businesswoman.
These relationships can even become mutually-beneficial creative working alliance, as in the case of choreographer George Balanchine and ballerina Suzanne Farrell. Prose claims that the Farrell and Balanchine’s situation was an uncommon one ‘in which the artist and muse were genuine partners, true collaborators’, that Balanchine inspired Farrell as much as she him. Each ballet described and derived its power from the various stages in their relationship. However, Balanchine actually married four of the ballerinas from his company, all younger than himself. And arguably Farrell only managed to sustain her position as long-term muse for Balanchine by refusing him – their relationship was never consummated and so she remained ideal in her distance and abstraction.
Prose seems to struggle after 374 pages and nine fascinating biographies to describe the characteristics that make a muse beyond stating that what all these women shared was beauty. Although The Lives of the Muses concentrates on their talent, energy, intelligence and individual creativity, Prose seems to conclude that their appeal is physical.
The second connection between these muses is that they ‘loved and were loved by their artists’. These two common and non-gender-specific attributes – physical beauty and the ability to produce feeling of love – begs the question: what of the male muses? And despite the biological essentialism of the muse ideology there are a number of equally obvious, equally inspirational male muses that instantly spring to mind; Ted Hughes for Sylvia Plath, Neal Cassady for Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Lord Alfred Douglas for Oscar Wilde.
Contemporary PEN/Faulkner award-winning novelist Kate Christensen states that she wrote her first novel in grade eight ‘for the boy she liked’ and that when he ‘laughed at and loved’ her writing she began to feel ‘the erotic surge’ of her ‘own power’. Christensen even says that she has ‘written for and about and to and because of men’. These days the muse seems just as likely to be a he as much as a she – or better still in the case of creative pairs, an imaginative, reciprocal back and forth.