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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, January 07, 2008

acknowledging divine aid

I've sat here for a few minutes now, arms folded, staring at the screen, and into the pool of light cast by my old hot-pink desklamp, wondering what to write.

One thought that has moved through my mind in the last couple of days arises from reading The Epic Cosmos, a collection of essays about the epic genre in literature, edited by Larry Allums. One of the recurring features of the great epics of the past is a formal (or at least expressed in the poem) call on the Muse for help in composing the work. The poet makes clear that he need divine aid in order to achieve the task before him, and acknowledges it publicly, so to speak. In some way, too, this might also support the authority of the work: it' s created not just by human hands, but by the gods.

I've never had much patience for this literary conceit of "the Muse"; it puts me in mind of effete, unproductive, writerly types languishing in smoking-jackets and complaining about the difficulties of creative work. Invoked by anyone more recent than John Milton, the Muse seems to be an over-precious and anachronistic image used by certain people who feel a need to shore up their status as "artists".

All right, maybe that's a bit harsh. But for myself, I've never referred to the Muse in anything but a joking way.

But now I'm wondering. The Muse was invoked by epic writers of antiquity because of the superhuman scope of the task. Also, epic itself, as a genre, is specifically about ventures so great that they involve both humanity and the gods. So as humans and gods collaborate in the epic struggle, the poet asks for divine collaboration in the creation of the work.

I think about my strange, determined bonding to this oversized, unreasonable, and inconvenient work. Where does that bonding come from--that motivation? I feel stuck to it, chained to it, in a sense, like Prometheus to his rock in the Caucasus Mountains, having his liver torn out each day. Like that cornball line of the persistent suitor who just won't give up: "It's bigger than both of us, baby."

It dawns on me that this is the Muse. Which Muse? There were nine of them (Robert Graves would say that this number is an intensifier of the number 3, which belonged to the Great Goddess). Calliope was the Muse of heroic and epic poetry. Her name meant "beautiful-voiced"; she was the principal Muse, and specifically the Muse of Homer when he composed the Iliad and the Odyssey.

A daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, Calliope was--and is--immortal, and therefore must be out there (or in here) as much now as she ever was. Her planet was Mercury, guide of souls beyond the temporal sphere. Is she the one urging me on in my heroic task? The one who has made me uncompromising and irrational in my fixation on this unlikely project?

Well, why not? In James Hillman's terms, each of us has an "acorn" or a guardian angel, whose business it is to keep us on the track of our chosen life. For an artist, this guardian would be a Muse, no? Hillman says that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the guardian is uncompromisingness: the guardian angel doesn't cut deals with practicality or with the world. The angel knows that the world and its problems are fleeting, and not worth sacrificing one's cosmic mission--one's reason for being.

Yes, I need divine help, every bit as much as Dante--or, for that matter, Ebenezer Scrooge. It's wonderful to think that it's there, supporting the mission. The work cannot be achieved by either man or goddess alone.

O Muse, help me! Don't desert me now.

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