Why We Must Honor the Muses

In our modern post-Cartesian culture, originality has often been resisted as a form of insubstantial idiosyncrasy. According to the common cultural prejudice, new ideas lack substance and weight. Born in an empty, subjective dream world, original notions require the hard test of experience, or at least popular acceptance, before they can be considered valid.

The more boisterous and colorful sectors of modernism explored (and perhaps exploited) this cultural condition to create, self-consciously and intentionally, an art of personality. In exploring the question of what art is, some modernists answered that art is the artist — a naked self-assertion of the ego.

Duchamp’s provocative work Fountain has long scandalized conservatives for its apparent decadence, yet signing a toilet bowl and calling it art is an act of distortion which reframes the question of aesthetic authorship and legitimacy.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968
Fountain (1917, replica 1964) by Marcel Duchamp

The joke is actually on the traditionalists. What does it say about the over-sized role of Great Names in art that the imprinting of an autograph upon pedestrian industrial materials can suddenly grant them momentary plausibility as works of culture?

After modernism, the galleries of New York pressed this controversy further. Andy Warhol’s personal presence in the art world was considerable enough to turn prints of Campbell’s soup cans into a gallery attraction.

Warhol Campbell Soup
Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) by Andy Warhol

Whatever may be one’s opinion of these developments in twentieth century art, there is one clear problem these artists are drawing to our attention — the romantic nineteenth century notion of the artist as a unique, gifted genius has decayed into an empty assertion of individuality as such, spreading its name over industrial products like the desperate scrawling of graffiti on the doors of indifferent government buildings.

In technical and professionalized settings, we use the same paradigm of hollow self-assertion towards a more direct and pragmatic end. This brand of “originality” is a kind of legal exercise guarding against rival claims of originality, as the author must carefully cite every previously articulated component of their original idea in copious footnotes and bibliography. The ultimate mark of original achievement becomes the copyright, an essentially economic instrument.

As far as we wish to profit from our ideas, we need to certify that they are somehow our ‘intellectual property’. Since such intellectual property often consists of papers which themselves cite hundreds of authors, a weaker term like ‘intellectual contribution’ would be a more honest term than ‘intellectual property’.

Thus modern culture finds itself in a catch-22. It needs to believe in the originality of its achievements and assert them as proprietary tools of capitalist profit, yet this process has been demonstrated to be a hollow and self-referential exercise. For every budding and self-confident bestseller hyping its apparently original and unique ideas for riches, there is an equally profitable cynic, perhaps an Andy Warhol, putting his name on objects that have simply fallen out of the environment.

If originality is just a personal stamp, it is nothing at all.

What is to be done? We can throw our hands up and continue to live in a world of remake films. Or we can encourage a rebirth of genuine originality and reward it in the creative and economic processes. While I obviously favor the latter option, it will only be possible if we first look backwards to the ancient model of originality, governed by the Muses.

Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso,
quidve dolens, regina deum tot volvere casus
insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores 
impulerit. Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?

Muse, tell me the reasons, through what injury, or in what despair, did the queen of the gods drive this man marked for his dutifulness to undergo so many misfortunes, to endure so many tests? Is there really such wrath in heavenly souls?

Aeneid, 1.8-11

Vergil’s invocation of the Muse at the start of the Aeneid lays out the central challenge of the work at the hands of a power greater than, or at least external to, himself. Why should a devout hero suffer due to a mere divine whim? Are the gods actually malevolent agents? Should we expect divine justice, or must we attempt, surely in vain, to impose human justice on the gods?

Let’s consider an alternative formulation of the same idea.

Aeneas was a just man, devoted to his people and fair in his leadership, and yet the goddess Juno did everything within her power to destroy him. Why? What could explain the goddess’ rage? Are not even the gods above blessed and at peace?

I, Publius Vergilius Maro, will try in this story to answer these questions as best as I can.

This sort of approach would, very roughly, bring Vergil into the style of a modern author with a unified Cartesian ego. What the work would lose in this approach is quite obvious — the notion that it is a real, immediate exploration of these cosmic forces (divine wrath, divine justice, divine injustice) and not one author’s set of random prejudices. Vergil could then claim the ideas as his own, but they would be that and nothing more. The poetic illusion would dissolve just as it was first being asserted.

This apparently insignificant difference has large implications. If we take classical culture on its own terms, and take seriously the notion of the Muse, we would have to believe that, if pressed for an answer to questions of authorship, classical authors would ultimately attribute their work to the Muses — to imaginary people.

If this is true, the conventional modern mentality would have to conclude that the cultural moment of antiquity was based on a kind of extended psychotic breakdown, in which figures widely regarded as the leaders of culture claimed that external beings inspired their works of genius.

Julian Jaynes explored this possibility in his provocative work on the evolution of consciousness, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. While I applaud his audacity in attempting to reconstruct an ancient mentality that has been so often understood in modern terms, his account is also (unintentionally) dismissive of this mentality.

For Jaynes, the presence of these external voices reduces the mentality of the ancients to something less than ‘consciousness’, to a form of proto-consciousness in which a dominant right brain externalizes itself as a god over the obeying and listening left-brain.

Jaynes clearly had a great deal of respect for literary sources as a form of evidence for his theory, and he analyzed the invocations to the Muse in Homer in Origin. Yet while he was correct to draw attention to the basically schizoid role of the Muse, he likely generalized too far to claim that this state of external inspiration was somehow the exclusive or even dominant ancient mode of consciousness. 

After all, there was only one Homer and one Vergil, and they were uniquely talented artists describing a dream world richly imbued with fantastic imagery, in which the Muse naturally participates in the larger metaphorical construction of the work.

I think that the truth is at once simpler and more complex than Jaynes imagined. Simply put, the Muses did signify a state of externalized inspiration, but one that was specific to the artist, the unique originator, who must come into contact with a distant, fantastical, yet still real world if their creation is to be anything more than an empty artifact.

Or, to put it as a paradox, the ancient artist temporarily silenced their ego so that they may gain the world. When Heidegger spoke of subjectivity as a state of being in the world as much as a state of being in an individualized ego, it was a sort of demystified recognition of the Muse. Those mysterious moments of ‘inspiration’ we still experience were externalized and anthropomorphized in a culture that believed in the penetration of divine voices within the individual psyche. The most substantial flights of creativity were the not the ideas that could be attributed to some momentary cleverness, but the stories that somehow had forever resided outside the self, in the very fabric of the cosmic structure.

We are more familiar with this model of divine inspiration in the monotheistic religions, and while that phenomenon was doubtlessly comparable, there are certain essential differences. The first difference can be found in the generally supernatural character of monotheistic revelations, in which the imprint of the divine voice is, itself, the distinguishing feature of the work. The work of Homer emerges from a naturalistic worldview, which the Muse only articulates in a particularly sublime fashion. This cannot be said about the Book of Genesis, the Gospel of Mark, or the Koran, which quickly lose their coherence if the divine inspiration of the author is stripped away.

The second point, a corollary of the first, is that the authors of these books themselves are uniquely and personally close to their singular God. Moses, who had Yahweh as his Muse, is the traditional author of the Torah. The Christian Gospels have apostolic authors, who relate their direct experience of the incarnated Christ. The Koran has Muhammad himself as its author, who claimed direct revelation from Allah.

As exulted as Homer’s role in Greek culture was, there is clearly a class difference between his culturally binding poetry and the Holy Books mentioned above. Homer was not the spokesperson for a single and final God. Even if the Greeks had decided to honor him as a god (and surely he assumed that persona at times), he would be just that — a singular god, alongside other heroic personae. When Vergil rewrites Homer, it is a celebration of the same surrender to the Muse, who will sing a fresh song for the emerging Roman world. It is not an angry schism seeking to deface and overthrow the Greek Holy Book. (Nor was anybody concerned about potential copyright violations.)

This general religious truth observation loops back into our question of authorship and originality. If a culture is based around a Holy Book, authorship will become a very egotistic, competitive process, as borrowing from another tradition becomes an act of heresy. Likewise, imitation is no longer a form of flattery, since so much depends on exclusive conformity to the Holy Book. In more religious times, an alternative Holy Book could threaten the cohesion and social stability of your community; today, the mark of copyright gives one sole access to a commodified Truth. As for the consequences of this paradigm — there is little need to rehash the millennium of senseless religious warfare and the century of commercial strangulation of art we have endured.

What, then, would a culture inspired by the Muses look like? The Muses are more generous than those who inspired the Holy Books, and, if they were to return, they would again abandon authors who take their bounty and claim it as a sole, final, unique possession. As the Muses fly about, out in the world, such a statement would be as hollow as claiming ownership of the air. So, on a superficial level, the Muses will demand a certain humility from authors. By recognizing the general and universally accessible power of the Muse, the narcissism of even obviously inspired authors is severely curtailed.

Our relationship with the Muse, then, may be said to be an extended metaphor for our sensitivity and openness to experience. The Muse has been accessed before and will be called upon again. She makes real and immediate both our forgotten memories of the past and our fanciful projections of the future. The Muse makes us small even as our art expands.

But if we place our rigid, narrow ego over the grasping wonder of authentic experience, we live without the Muse, and end up with an art devoid of experience. And so the experience of winning over the Muse is essentially active, an act of self-regulation. Genius does exist, not as a purely personal idiosyncrasy, but for those especially open to the Muses, which is to say, to interpretations of their own experience so richly metaphorical they no longer belong to us, but to the eternal imagery of all poets and creators.

Rather than than the vertical imagery of a prophet receiving revelation from on high, we can find the Muses in our own horizontal expansion of the self, through following  divergent trains of thought in familiar conversations, ‘hearing’ the voices most actively suppress. 

The unexpected and original is never a solid nugget of brilliance, handed down as a fully realized revelation. Heraclitus could have been describing our true relationship to the Muses when he wrote:

ἐὰν μὴ ἔλπηται ἀνέλπιστον οὐκ ἐξευρήσει, ἀνεξερεύνητον ἐὸν καὶ ἄπορον

If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to be sought out and difficult. 

— Fragment 18

Vergil and Muses Mosaic
3rd century Vergil mosiac with Clio and Melpomene, the Muses of history and tragedy

The unexpected must be expected and welcomed, but it cannot be forced. The Muses’ presence cannot be mandated by higher standards or policed by stricter enforcement. There is no process, no ten-step plan.

To put it more graphically, we will never be able to kick the Muse around like some pack animal. In refusing an award from MTV, the artist Nick Cave wrote,



It is a bromide to conclude by suggesting that true greatness requires humility, but the Muses teach us that lesson and much more. Their gifts will not arrive if we merely assert ourselves, but they will just as quickly disappear if we lose all will and are open to any influence. What ancient societies saw in terms of externalized divine forces, we can adapt into modern psychodynamics — the Muse is most sensitive layer of the psyche, the natural, unedited voice within us we must be humble enough to hear, but courageous enough to follow. 

Please also see the In Our Time episodes on “Originality” and “The Muses“.

One thought on “Why We Must Honor the Muses

  1. Yes, yes, yes!
    The shamanic world offers an interesting perspective on this. Channeling energies and interacting with these spiritual archetypes are common occurrences in the shamanic world. Whether we perceive these entities as actual spirits or components of our mind or parts of one divine mind or all of the above, the answer is the same.
    Mind open, heart open, head low. Humbleness does not mean that we are not worthy to receive these gifts. It means that we are in right relationship with all that is, holding enough of that pure presence that lies beneath the ego-mind to be able to receive teachings, guidance, inspiration and beauty. To be an open vessel for the creative force. To be an instrument for the muses.
    Thank you for sharing this. It’s helping me put the pieces together.


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