On choosing to acknowledge the Muse
Excellent essay, Alice. In literary academe, I always noticed the strange "double voicedness" of the professoriate, the way in casual conversation and even in the classroom, you'd get unavoidable hints of an aestheticism that understood something more-than-rational had to explain why one thing was qualitatively higher than another, even controlling for the social facts—why Emily Dickinson leaves Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney in the dust—but in their official "peer reviewed" discourse it was all Pierre Bourdieu and Raymond Williams and other such sociologies of literature. (In line with your argument, Bourdieu specifically derides "Hölderlinians," presumably because Hölderlin wrote of the poet as one searching for traces of the gods.)
So nice to have something to read by Alice Gribbin again!
The Muses, like any other ancient deities, have had their ups and downs throughout the centuries: pimps want to make them into whores, prudes want to cover and smother them for crimes against morality, priests want to cast them as demons, and people deaf and blind to their charms get furious that others experience a pleasure they're incapable of, so want to slice out their tongues and gouge out their eyes, like those Russian Nihilists in Dostoevsky.
But when it comes to modern America the greatest threat to the Muses and their gifts are those dreary bureaucrats of the soul and taxidermists of beauty, the academic Theorist. The conquest of beauty by academic Theorists is a palace coup of eunuchs, who instead of using weaponry chloroformed art and artists with an endless guilt trip about oppression combined with a poisonous overdose of soul- and mind-killing jargon, which is to art & thought what napalm is to crops.
The Theorists of course will use any weapon at hand to feel some power (it's no coincidence that they're always babbling about Power) and in our age the path to maximum simultaneous social destruction/career advancement is to climb atop the Egalitarian steamroller and put the pedal to the metal. Thus: there can be no such thing as great art, because who decides, and who's to say Giotto is better than Superman?; there can be no such thing as geniuses, because that's just an oppressive social constuct that harms the self-esteem of non-geniuses; and, most especially, cutting to the heart of the matter: there can be no aristocracy of the soul, no claim that some people see and feel differently, think and create on a higher plane, because that may cause unspecified harms, and is really, in our age of Mass Man & Mass Culture, a modern blasphemy.
The truth is that the blessings of the Muses have only ever been for a rare few, for aristocrats of the spirit who are addicted to creation, imagination and to the bliss of the esthetic, and this has always rubbed every kind of fundamentalist the wrong way; and as ours is first and foremost and Egalitarian age, and our educated class likes to pretend they only get out of bed in the morning to "center the marginalized", the Muses must be scorned and vilified because they only speak in whispers and not through a megaphone.
What a wonderfully articulated and inspiring piece. Thank you!
I wonder what Francis Bacon* might have said about AI and random chance... the line between a machine and an organism in time and space subject to spiritual or "spiritual" influence isn't, per se, all that clear.
(*either of the Francis Bacons, actually)
Wonderful piece; wish I had written it!
Congratulations and may the Muses continue to visit you.
I admire this very much, Alice. I can only imagine the sustained effort writing it took, and even then what I imagine will fall short. Thank you for it.
What Kurt wrote. Was only late this afternoon talking to Thalia about AI’s future impact upon fiction: https://adrianconway.substack.com/p/repurposings
I do wonder why you use "He" in reference to artists and "She" when referring to Muses. As a lifelong painter with an intimate relationship with this art form, I appreciate your take on things but the very word 'Muse' is so swollen with historical meaning that invoking it risks perhaps too easily loading this whole magnificent enterprise into the kind of easy human invention than so many employ daily to find their advantage. Another example would be 'God'. You write well but there is a strong undercurrent of Romanticism that I can and have easily related to. That said, Reality cares little, it at all, how we define it. A lack of muses might not really explain why there is so much good but largely decorative painting these days - mostly by women - but so little Great painting.