The Lives of the Muses:
Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired
by Francine Prose, HarperCollins (2002)
Homer called on them. Milton, too. "What in me is dark illumine, what is low raise and support," pleaded Milton in his invocation of the muses, those wily figures of Greek mythology, endowed with the nectar of that coveted elixir—inspiration. The nine muses certainly came to Milton's aid, but what of the muse in relation to other artists of different eras and epochs, or the muse in the modern and even in our post-postmodern era?
In Francine Prose's latest work of non-fiction, The Lives of the Muses, she examines the elusive nature of "musedom" by way of the artist-muse relationship and subsequently attempts to provide a clue about the origins of artistic inspiration itself. In nine chapters—one, figuratively, for each of the fabled muses— Prose looks at some of the Western world's most revered artists and intellectuals, focusing on the women who inspired them: Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll; Lou Andreas-Salomé and Nietzsche; Rilke and Freud; Yoko Ono and John Lennon; and Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine, among others. Here, Prose has paid particular attention to the women in order to glean from their lives the qualifications, the "job description," so to speak, of the muse. Among other qualities, she has identified: elusive, intelligent, alluring, and, most important, unattainable.
But the very term "muse" is anachronistic. To use it today is to resort to the highest degree of irony, for with all its mythic connotations, it is far too lofty a status to impart on a person with any amount of sincerity. Prose, in fact, concedes this in her introduction. Then why were these particular women—even in their respective eras—deemed muses at all? The answer, as Prose presents it, has to do with the fact that these women loved and were loved by their respective artists. And this brings us to the strongest part of this study tracing the muse—and thereby the origins of inspiration, from the ethereal to the corporeal, from the mythic and divine to the secular, from goddess to flesh-and-blood woman. Discussing the mystery of inspiration, Prose explains that "since falling in love is the closest most people come to transcendence, to the feeling of being inhabited by unwilled, unruly forces, passion becomes the model for understanding inspiration."
All this is well and good, but what is, overall, so problematic in this work is that referring to the muse at all borders on the anti-feminist, what with its connotations of female passivity—men placing women on a pedestal to be adored and worshiped, quintessentially objectifying them as a "source of inspiration." Prose acknowledges this when she writes that the idea of woman-as-muse "reinforce[s] the destructive stereotype of the creative, productive, active male and the passive female." And while she also proposes that, instead of the male-artist, female-muse configuration, more "choices" should be offered, allowing men and women "equal opportunity to be either artist or muse," she ultimately places all this to the side. As such, she disappointingly foregoes or eschews any sort of feminist critique, and simply and matter-of-factly proclaims that "whether we like it our not, the distribution of power [between the male-artist and female-muse] is simply different." This allows her—unfortunately—to dip headlong, unfettered by any feminist obligations, into an exploration of several woman-as-muse figures throughout history.
Prose begins this study with Alice Liddell (once the young child who inspired Carroll to write Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) at 80 years old as she receives her "doctorate in musedom" from Columbia University. From here Prose spans centuries, choosing artists and muses representative of certain ages and arts. There is Hester Thrale and Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose lively conversations and unconventional "marriage of intellect" subverted societal mores. There is Elizabeth Siddal and the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti who recreated Siddal in several renditions of that penultimate woman-turned-muse Beatrice. Also present is Lou Andreas-Salomé, who Prose deems the "serial muse" due to her relationships with Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud, respectively, and Gala Dalí, the muse who also served as publicist for her surrealist painter, Salvador Dalí. What is clear as one reads through these biographical chapters—a compilation of such primary sources as diary entries, articles, letters, autobiographies—is that each muse, while situated within her respective cultural moment, had artistic talents and intellectual acumen of her own.
Indeed, the women presented in this study of the muse incarnate are anything but passive. Intelligent, passionate, intense, decisive, exacting, sometimes cruel, and ambitious? Yes. But passive? Far from it. They shared intellectual and artistic affinities with their respective artists and intellectuals, so it is surprising that the question that does not surface, or is not asked forcefully enough, is why society in general, and the male artist in particular, resorts to subjecting woman to the status of muse all in the name of art? In short, Prose does not take the term of "muse" to task with the virulent force such a construct warrants. At one point, she even faults some of these women for not pursuing further their own artistic abilities, and even for not capitalizing on their proximity to a great artist by absorbing and learning artistic skills. What is missing here is a true discussion of what proscriptions society levied on women with any kind of artistic inclination, and how those very proscriptions inhibited their ascent to becoming great artists in their own right.
By far the most compelling chapters here are the ones in which the women do emerge as more of an artist than muse. The shift begins with Lee Miller, Man Ray's "muse," who moved to New York, away from Ray, opening her own studio, and eventually becoming a WWII photojournalist. Then there is Yoko Ono, the avant-garde artist who captivated John Lennon and was forced by our culture into "a place from which she ha[d] to scream twice as loudly as anyone else, simply to be heard."
Likewise, one of the most surprising and intriguing chapters focuses on the enigmatic and puzzling relationship between Suzanne Farrell, the legendary ballerina, and George Balanchine, the neo-classical choreographer. Here Prose notes that that their relationship was far more than a love story. It was also, and most importantly, a great artistic collaboration—symbiotic, even. Balanchine could not have created some of his most famous works without the athletic and daring Farrell, while Farrell herself might not have danced as well with another artist's choreography. Prose also presents us with a clear portrait of Farrell and fittingly classifies her as an artist in her own right, suggesting that the choreographer was just as much Farrell's muse as she was his—a refreshing notion and all the more surprising due to the misogynistic tendencies that plague the ballet world.
The Lives of the Muses contains a bevy of primary source material, from which Prose gathers her ideas and makes her points. But along with this comes chapters overburdened with quotes. Oftentimes the quotes are strung together for what can at times be a clunky read. The nature of this material also borders on the confessional memoir and the tell-all biography. To read about necrophilia, pedophilia, anorexia, sadomasochism, masturbation, drug addiction, and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder makes for titillating, if indulgently prurient, reading. One begins to realize that for a woman to be deemed a muse—God forbid—she also must come equipped with the requisite neurosis. And this is nothing to say of the male-artists themselves. On the other hand, such biographical details—these accounts of suffering and mental and psychic trials and tribulations—point to how both these men and women served art at the expense of an otherwise normal, healthy life.
The Lives of the Muses remains a fascinating read, if only because it brings such larger-then-life figures together in the pages of one book. But, lest we forget, the book focuses on nine real women thus forcing the reader to look beyond their "musedom" to set them deservedly in their own light, not solely in the light and ardor their inspired artists shed upon them. It would do this study of musedom well to question more critically the construct of its subject. For, if one purpose of the muse is to pinpoint or understand the origins of artistic inspiration, why not, then, also examine what, or who, inspired such female artists and thinkers as Artemisia Gentileschi, Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, Camille Claudel, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, or Sylvia Plath? And what kind of society made the companions—male or female, romantic or platonic—of these female artists more akin to that of "psychiatric nurse," as Prose defines them, than muse? But that is a different book.
VANESSA MANKO was the former Dance Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.