Sunday, July 1, 2007

Another Brief Conversation with Nisi Shawl

Timmi: Nisi, you wrote in a comment on my conversation with Anna Tambour:

I don't think that analogizing the woman artist/muse relationship from the man artist/muse relationship works. As a writer, I see it more as a process of identification, or rejection of identification, than one of romantic desire. More about a mirror than a kiss. For women artists, our muses are our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, as well as our lovers. Our babysitters. Our deepest and/or highest selves.

At least, that's been my experience.

This raises all sorts of interesting questions for me. About 30 years ago the received idea about male and female psychology was that while “normal, healthy” men desired women (the assumption was that men who desired men were sick and aberrant), women only desired to be desired. At the same time, though, psychologists saw “normal, healthy” girls as learning to identify with their mothers and other adult women (whom they would themselves become as adults). As it happens, I've just had the pleasure of watching Sally Potter’s film Orlando again, and was struck by the scene where Orlando, now a woman wearing a huge hoop skirt in a salon in 1750, listens to Mr. Pope, Mr. Swift, and Mr. Addison make generalizations about women. Mr. Pope looks at her and remarks that she looks angry. All the men look at her and wait to see what she has to say. And she replies something to the effect that though all these poets take women as their muse, they despise women. Though the men protest this characterization of their attitude, they say that women ought to be led by their fathers and husbands. What if they have no father or husband, Orlando asks. Why then they are lost, the men reply. Also apropos to our conversation is that the significance of male desire is played out throughout the film. Near the beginning, when Orlando is a man, he tells Sasha, the woman he is in love with, that she belongs to him simply because he desires her. (She rebuffs him.) Near the end, the Archduke Harry proposes to Orlando and tells her that she belongs to him because he desires her. (She rebuffs him.) Sally Potter is, of course, showing us the modern gendered (albeit pre-1990s) view of desire.

Does the drive to write (the muse function) work differently in men and women? (I’m not implying any sort of essentialist reduction of male and female here: I’m talking instead about most men and most women who make art in our culture without reference to biology. Nurture obviously plays a role.) I ask this question, Nisi, because I have no idea! But I’m certainly interested in exploring it. (And “explore” is probably the correct word, since I’ve long had the sense that desire [though not of a sexual object per se] is the motor of my own drive to create, though since I’ve never thought much about it I’m not at all sure what exactly the nature of that desire is.)

Moreover, although received attitudes about women and desire have recently changed (at least partly, I believe, because lesbians have become considerably more visible and less pathologized), I’m curious as to whether this has had an effect on how younger women conceptualize their drive to write. Are you aware of any changes? Or is it your impression that younger women continue to find identification or a refusal of identification more powerful in their drive to create than sexual desire.

Second, for me first as a young girl and then as an adolescent, identifying with women I admired (whom we called “role models” back then) constituted the most powerful emotional relationships of those years, and such relationships continued to be important to me through my mid-twenties. So when you say that for women artists, our muses are “our deepest and/or highest selves,” I find this a seductive and appealing idea. Your mentioning the “rejection of identification” is equally fascinating. I have an idea of what you mean, but I’d be interested in your elaboration of it.

Third, you say “at least that’s been my experience.” I’d love to hear more specific details of your experience.

Nisi: Oh, there's so much here. So much in your questions, and so much in the mind I draw my answers from.

The first question you ask is whether the muse function, the drive to write (or to create using other arts) works differently for men and women. Perhaps the drive itself is the same. My thought is that women's relationships to that drive are different from those of men. Say, everyone creative wants to create, but the ways we discover and express that desire, how we accommodate it in our lives and recognize it, and what we expect from it, are different.

The identification of arts and civilization with the feminine goes on in many societies, Western and non-. For instance in my African-based spiritual tradition, Ifa, Oshun is the goddess of sexual love, culture, and money. So if the creative drive is feminine, and I perceive myself as feminine, obviously I'm going to have a different relationship with creativity than someone who perceives that they are other than feminine.

The case could be made that the traditional male artist's relationship with the Muse, mapping itself along the lines of romantic and sexual relationships between men and women, is a mere shadow of the more intensely intimate relationships women can achieve.

As a budding writer in the 1970s I was offered the longstanding muse model at the same time that a wave of feminist thought challenged my understanding of sexual roles. I could have done many things in response to the contradiction between my vision of myself as a creative person and the dominant vision of women as inspirational rather than productive. I did do many things, some of them simultaneously, some of them at odds with one another. I played as best I could the muse role to certain men; I chose a woman I loved as my muse; I chose men ditto; I created art that I meant to function as a muse does, causing my audience to create their own art.

Desire played a part in all I did in this regard, of course. Desire is integral to creation. And for me, desire is integral to everything, really; I tend to equate sexual and romantic desire with many other sorts, so that it's easy for me to slip aside from the consideration of the muse as babysitter to that of the muse as crush. I did indeed say that for women the relationship could be likened more to "a mirror than a kiss." That's because the former has been more fruitful to me than the latter. Also, though I didn't say this then, there are so many other paradigms for the muse/female artist relationship that I believe the kiss to be outnumbered: in addition to the lover who gives or withholds that kiss there are the mother, the daughter, the sister, the rival, the teacher, the goddess, the grandmother, the healer.

Here is the one poem I wrote for the woman I wanted for a romantic-model muse, Barbara Drubel:

I Saw Her

I saw her burning flowers
As if death were a gift,
A benison.

She has nothing to make anything out of
But she creates, anyway,
A certain

I've written many, many stories, and two novels, which owe their existence in some sense to the mirror. (Though maybe a better analogy would be a window, one made of Bob Shaw's "slow glass," as in "The Light of Other Days.") In these, my muse is a young girl. She appears as Anniette in "The Rainses'," Ousmani in "The Pragmatical Princess," Mo Kree in "Matched" and The Blazing World, and so on. I love her very much. I court her, and I also try to protect her, and to provide a place for her to have adventures in. In some sense she is my daughter, as I'm older than her and protective of her. In some sense she's my mother, as I have come to be the woman I am through her.

Those "role models" you mention, the women we admire, I call flashlights. Or torches or candles. Stars or moons. We want to burn like them. They show us the way. The only example of my doing this that I can come up with from my finished work at the moment is another poem, "Good Job." It's too long to quote here, I think. It's about my godmother, the Ifa priest Luisah Teish. (I'm working on another story right now that is inspired by Sandy Denny and, in a very roundabout way, by Octavia E. Butler. It probably qualifies also.)

Deep communication with divine creativity is available through possession. Oshun, Ifa goddess of desire and the arts, has spoken directly to me at ceremonies. I have danced with her.

As I've said, the most productive model for me so far has been the mirror. The muse as a version of the self. As I've also said, while part of what happens with this model is the incorporation of the characteristics of whomever or whatever is being cast as mirror, another part is the rejection of or differentiation from them. We do both these things with our mothers, of course; I'm betting there are psychology courses covering that. This is also what friends are for, especially during adolescence. How do I know I'm fat? Because you're thin, and we're different. How do I know I'm a lily? Well, you're a rose, so I most definitely am not. I'm something else.

It's too late to ask Alice Sheldon if that's what went on with her and her mother. It could have. "You're a writer? I must be a painter, then." And perhaps assuming a masculine persona helped her to accept authorhood because it rejected another characteristic of her mother's: her feminine identity.

My mother gave birth to three children. I have none. She had a career as a high-level manager in a government bureaucracy. I freelance. My refusal to follow her example has shaped my whole life, including my life as a writer. I learned in recent years that my mother is afraid to write! It's like climbing on a roof in platform heels for her. How could I not have known that? If I knew it, and at some level I must have, I rejected that fear, would not allow it to become my own.

In your questions you bring up the denigration of women's romantic and sexual desires by the literary and psychological establishments. As I've mentioned, those desires are strong in me, and I believe they're important. I have these kinds of feelings for men as well as other women. I've tried to use various men as inspiration and have gotten the occasional song out of it. That tactic has been a little more successful in terms of quantity than my attempt to do the same thing with Barbara Drubel, but rightly or wrongly, I view the work I've done in this vein as less worthwhile, less significant than my other accomplishments. It's certainly smaller in scope.

Here's what I've mostly seen happening as far as desire and the idealized masculine: groups of young women bonding through their shared attraction to the same male figure (I can't say "the same man" because it often turns out that what they're attracted to bears the same relationship to a human man that the White Goddess bears to Robert Graves's Laura Riding). Desire and idealization are there in these interactions, but they never seem to lead to the creation of great art, unless you count Harry Potter fanfic.

But perhaps this is different for younger women writing. I don't know. Do they even think about muses?

I do feel sexual arousal when writing well. This has nothing to do with what I'm writing. It is all about the act itself. The words turn me on, the shaping and placing of them. The balance and fill of them. The hum. The thrum. The thinking thought, the choices chosen. I'm pleasing myself.

Rather than desiring to be desired, I desire to feel desire, and to be satisfied.

When I write now (and for some time this has been true; I am a bit fuzzy when it comes to dating this sort of stuff) I invoke for a whole boatload of helpers. I invoke my ancestors. I invoke the Trickster, Exu Elegba, who is almost always personified as male. Still, I don't view Exu as my muse in any traditional sense; Exu opens the way but does not necessarily lead me to or along any particular path. In other words, he *enables* my creativity, but that's not the same as compelling, inspiring, or rewarding it. I offer my three Exus honey, sacred to Oshun, and I eat honey myself also. There are other Orisas, spiritual entities, whose aid I ask depending on the story I'm writing. If it's about business, or death and transformation, I invoke Oya; political and social tension and resolution, Yemaya; justice and defending children, Chango; and so on.

The stories themselves come from and through my head. In Ifa cosmology, your Head is venerated as a source of wisdom and a connection to the divine. Your highest and/or deepest self. Your best self. Your true self. Your you.

I hope what I've written here makes sense. It does to me.

Timmi: Thanks, Nisi. You've given me even more to think about. I'd be interested in hearing more about this from other writers, especially younger writers. The muse, after all, is not a subject likely to come up in science fiction writing workshops...


Vandana Singh said...

Hi Timmi and Nisi:
Thanks for sharing this fascinating conversation. It reminds me of an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin in her collection "The Language of the Night" which I've unfortunately lent out so I can't quote from it directly. But anyway she contrasts the relationship between the writer and the writing process in the case of men and women. Her example for women is Louisa May Alcott through Jo in Little Women. She described how the process of writing is for Jo an immersion, a falling into a vortex. She quotes other female writers who wrote against the background of home and domesticity, and who acknowledge that their writing is in a sense not theirs alone but arises from the community of women, whether it is the mother who brings tea or the sister who takes care of the kid for a while. (I'm probably interpolating some of this since I don't have the text handy). Then she quotes Joseph Conrad describing how for him his creative work is wrested from the Lord, and he speaks of how he needs his isolation and how he is not even aware of what goes on in the house, and even refers to his wife impersonally as the presence who deposits food in front of him while he is abstracted and lost in his creative struggle. There is no sense of the writing process being participatory, or acknowledgement of the role of other people. I don't know to what extent these writers are representative of their gender but certainly for me the creative process is a lot more like the experiences of the women writers described. I don't have a personified Muse although I'm aware of the inner presence of Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, knowledge and the arts, driving me.

Thanks again,

Anna Tambour said...

Hi Timmi, Nisi, and Vandana,
I've enjoyed your conversation very much, even where I can't relate to parts of it, as in your statement, Nisi: "For women artists, our muses are our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, as well as our lovers. Our babysitters." You go on to say, however, something that I feel to the depths of my soul: "Our deepest and/or highest selves." - even if I would also add: our lowest.

As to the "the community of women", there are so many - inspiring, comforting, complacent, destructive - so that "community" doesn't work for me as a muse either, especially since my own observations lead me to the conclusion that the sisters/daughters/mothers ... goodness and supportiveness as default is a wopping myth. Rather, speaking completely seriously, the muse for me isn't those people who are encouraging. A writer should not be encouraged and stroked, I don't think, as much as pricked. A muse then in that case, is the often discomforting truths that one finds in life that bring the best out of us, and that muse can be a fossilised bird's beak, a mite, an ad, article in a newspaper, blog comment, or a splendidly multifaceted declaration by an Egyptian official the other day, speaking against the (pseudo)populist Seven New Wonders: "History was not written by the masses."
A muse can be a picture that shines with unintended facets, a sound, a singing cicada with a deformed wing. I've always felt more a person than a female, but am very aware that I am lucky to be able to feel this, living in a country and at a time that allows me this freedom. In many places in the world, this freedom is going backwards. (I don't know how to link, so see NPR: Jerusalem's 'Rosa Parks' Fights 'Modesty Patrols') and against that direction, I wish the community of women everywhere (and especially where we have the luxury to muse on muses) were more passionately not amused.

But this is a diversion from your conversation and its historical roots. I didn't know huge wads of what you had to say, so you opened my eyes, even to Joseph Conrad's inspiration (No wonder I thought Heart of Darkness an interminable, mixed-up bore. The Lord doesn't go in for logical thought. Jo would have cleaned up his thought patterns no end.)

Susanna J. Sturgis said...

A book that just about every lesbian writer I knew in the 1970s and early 1980s read (including me!) was May Sarton's Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. Many of us had already figured out that women writers and artists can have women muses, and it was no small relief to learn that someone from the generation preceding ours not only knew this but had published a novel about it in (I think) 1964. The big question was whether muses can be (requited) lovers. I proved to my own satisfaction [g] that this was unlikely, but in general my best work grows from unanswered questions and restless terrain so YMMV.