II. The Muse

Sam Shepard said he began writing plays because he "had a sense that a voice existed that needed expression, that there was a voice that wasn't being voiced." He said, "There were so many voices that I didn't know where to start. I felt kind of like a weird stenographer. . . . There were definitely things there, and I was just putting them down. I was fascinated by how they structured themselves." Ursula La Quinn said the same thing. When Bill Moyers asked her where she found her character George in The Lathe of Heaven, she said, "I didn't find him, he found me."

Jung wrote that those who deny the existence of an unconscious psyche "argue naively that such an assumption implies the existence of two 'subjects,' or … two personalities within the same individual. But this is exactly what it does imply -- quite correctly."


Caravaggio, St. Matthew
& the Angel


Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel

Caravaggio, The Inspiration
of St. Matthew

Remember the story of St. Matthew as stenographer of the angel? The same is said of Mohammed. My favorite painting of this is Caravaggio's first version, which was rejected by the priests. According to Caravaggio's early biographer, the critic Giovanni Bellori (1672), "...the priests took it down, saying that the figure with its legs crossed and its feet rudely exposed to the public had neither the decorum nor the appearance of a saint." So he painted "The Inspiration of St. Matthew" to replace it. They liked that one.

I like the first one better, because Matthew seems have no idea what's going on. The angel seems to be guiding his hand, as though he's forgotten even how to write. As a painter, Caravaggio would know this feeling.

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate.
................................................T. S. Eliot, from "East Coker"

And it's the same with painting. But Rembrandt's version is the most profound and archetypal. It's the universal image of the artist and his muse.

 
Rembrandt, St. Matthew & the Angel


Warren Criswell, The Departure
of the Muse

 
This is my version--The Departure of the Muse. My friend the singer-songwriter Steve Whiteaker says she doesn't go away, she just stops singing, like Prufrock's mermaids. The silent treatment. Some say there are ways to seduce her but they don't work for me.

So you can see the parallel between Aristotle's Anagnorisis, the Delphic voices through the membrane, the shaman's visions, the stroke victim's euphoria, and the creative act.

Plato says in the Ion that the artist at work is "out of his mind," that he is merely the instrument of some god, and that his work is due not to skill but to inspiration. Although some think he was being sarcastic because of his other seemingly contrary views on art in the Republic, I think he believed it and that this was precisely why he

thought art was dangerous to a well-regulated society. The "philosopher kings" of the Soviet Union believed it too, and tried to harness its power for the state.

Jung also agreed with Plato, and he called the god the Shadow. He thought that "in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness--or perhaps because of this--the shadow is the seat of creativity."

My own experience in painting is that I become one with the painting. I have to use a mirror to break free of the work and get my objectivity back. Stephen Sondheim compared the writing of a song to swimming underwater, coming up for air, and then going back under. In this case the surface of the water is the membrane. Coming up for air is looking in the mirror.

But people have different reactions to this state of right-brain oneness. Gautama was enlightened, while Roquentin was nauseated. Both penetrated the membrane that defined them as individual entities. They lost themselves. It can be joyous or terrifying. Both can be heard in Mahler's 8th symphony. Mahler had been wanting to do something with Goethe's Faust Part 2, where Faust is redeemed by the Eternal Feminine, but it wasn't working. Then one day at the memorial service for a friend he heard the Gregorian chant Veni Creator Spiritus, and whole plan of the symphony came to him in a flash.

 

 

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.8, 1st movement. National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, 2002 BBC Proms. I hope Mahler would forgive me for superimposing my own animated Creative Spirit, inspired by a music drama by Mahler's friend Arnold Schoenberg, Die glückliche Hand. The muse comes in many forms.



 I always liked primordial soup, but new research suggests that life didn't originate in the sunlit surface of the primordial sea after all but in its darkest depths. Michael J. Russell, a biochemist, did a study on deep sea hydrothermal vents, and he found that the alkaline ones "produce chemical gradients very similar to those used by almost all living organisms today - a gradient of protons over a membrane." The process is called chemiosmosis, in which the proton gradient generates ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the universal conduit of bioenergy transfer from a donor to an acceptor.


The first donor was hydrogen and the first acceptor was CO2. "Modern living cells have inherited the same size of proton gradient, and, crucially, the same orientation - positive outside and negative inside - as the inorganic vesicles from which they arose." Does this sound familiar?... Maybe we're looking here at the chemical roots of the archetypes. Maybe as we access our unconscious during the creative act, we're recapitulating the very origins of life on Earth.


The work of art is generated through an osmosis of images or sounds from our dark negative inside to our bright positive outside through a membrane -- the cave wall, the corpus callosum, or whatever you want to call that which separates our conscious, verbal, analytic mind from our unconscious, nonverbal, intuitive mind.


This analogy also demonstrates that "create" is the wrong word for what we do. Nothing comes from nothing. Just as life originated from a new way of combining existing chemicals, so the "original" work of art is the result of a new way of combining things artists have done before -- a synergistic recycling, in which the result is more than the sum of its parts. As both Picasso and Stravinsky said, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." (Actually, they both stole that line from T.S. Eliot.) Einstein stole from Poincaré and Lorentz for his theory of special relativity, but his genius was in distilling their work into a simple principle that was greater than the sum of its parts.

However, a kind of forgetting is necessary -- not just what other artists have done but what you have done as well.

 

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