I glanced at her and took my glasses
off – they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.
–William Stafford, When I Met my Muse
Vladimir Volegov, Girl Reading
In his masterpiece of a novel, 'An Unnecessary Woman,' Rabih Alameddine writes that ‘there are two kinds of people in this world: people who want to be desired, and people who want to be desired so much that they pretend they don't.’ His heroine is a childless, seventy-two year old Beiruti divorcee who, in a small apartment overrun with books, muses on a lonely, unnecessary life that inspired no one and nothing.
Derived from 12th century Old French, the verb to muse is ‘to reflect, ponder, dream, wonder.’ To be absorbed in thought. At its root, a ‘muse’ is actually a noun. A feminine noun that means divine and artistic inspiration; a protector of creative thoughts.
Once upon an ancient Greek time, Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, had nine daughters; nine muses, patrons of the arts and sciences. The ancient Romans gave them each a specific task: Calliope was poetry; Clio, history; Erato, art; Euterpe, music; Melpomene, tragedy; Polymnia, hymns; Terpsichore, dance; Thalia, comedy; and Urania, astronomy.
Female, beautiful, elusive, the muse came to represent the object of every man’s desires, and the epitome of every woman’s aspirations. ‘The muse is a lovely, slender woman with a deathly pale face, lips red as rowan-berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair…’
In his Divine Comedy, Dante was the first to transform the muse from the spiritual being of antiquity to an actual human; her name was Beatrice Portinari, a young girl he gazed at amorously for years in the streets of Florence. Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century Italian Renaissance artists made the muse even more earthly; Raphael may have painted her as a Madonna, but his model, and lover, was fornarina Margherita Luti, the baker’s daughter.
‘To be a muse is to be a wonder in someone else's eyes, flaws and all.’ To inspire great art, great music, great literature, awe, fear, love, lust. Is that not what every woman wants?
A muse is always silent. She inspires, but herself does not create. And once she has inspired, she becomes unnecessary. Like a lover who, in the dull light of mornings and everydays, loses the luster that once made her more than just human. That is perhaps why most artists marry their art, never their muse. Great works are eternal, muses are not.
I think of the women I cross in the street, far cries from the muses any imagination would conjure up. The giggling schoolgirls, the respectable wives, the flustered mothers. The dinner makers, the bed tuckers, the story readers and the tear wipers. The multi taskers, the quiet sufferers, the tired. The crow’s feet on once doe-eyed faces.
Most women, real women, are not muses. But truthfully, I do not think they aspire to be. To be immortalized in a painting, sculpted onto a pedestal, imagined centuries later by a stranger leafing through a book of poetry would, of course, be nice, but a woman’s wants, my wants, are simpler.
‘I didn’t dream of becoming a star, but I thought I might have a small nonspeaking role in a grand epic, an epic with a touch of artistic credentials. I didn’t dream of becoming a giant—I wasn’t that delusional or arrogant—but I wanted to be more than a speck, maybe a midget. I could have been a midget.’
― Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman
In his study of the ‘Evolution of the Muse,’ UCLA professor David Halle says that the concept of the muse is part of the Romantic tradition, and ours is just no longer a romantic age. A woman does not want to be admired, she wants to be seen. Not immortalized, heard. Not coveted, needed.
Perhaps all a woman really wants, is to be necessary.
To the woman I call every morning, and the woman with whom I once shared a bedroom and a childhood. To the very flawed, very human, very beautiful women who inspire me:
I cannot paint, nor should I ever sing, but I can write. And I am writing this for you. And for a man who, more than two years ago, decided he needed me.