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