One Friday in a Georgetown hotel bar, where the waiters saber champagne bottles on the patio, a former book editor held nothing back in his disparagement of my idea that a muse inspired me. In my periods of creativity, I’ve always had a muse of love—both unrequited and real. Since my youth I’ve embraced Dante’s vision of a “love which moves the sun and the other stars,” and in a similar fashion, I’ve been shaken by a fleeting vision of idealized love which inspires me with the desire both to transcend myself and to become something greater than myself. Yet the book editor was unmoved.
“I’ve spoken to hundreds of writers,” he said. “All of them think they have a muse.”
He rambled on about how there is no such thing.
Now, I consider myself a student of the Muse. One of my prized coffee table books is on muses. As I drink my morning cup of coffee, I pick a muse to read about and gather inspiration for the day. From Dante’s Beatrice to Lou von Salome—the woman who broke Nietzsche’s heart—the Muse appears in art, philosophy, and literature throughout history.
My understanding (which I didn’t get to share that Friday at the hotel) is that the Muse is best understood within the borders of time. Just as there is timing in love, there is timing in creativity.
The Muse is Real
I’m not alone in this belief. I once had a discussion on these concepts with an American playwright at a philosophy conference years ago.
In the lobby of a Philadelphia hotel, I recognized a playwright I had met a year ago that spring at a conference in Indiana. He had directed a creative writing workshop at the 2012 Prindle Institute for Ethics Symposium. The theme was relationships and family. I submitted a short “moral tale” set in medieval Aix-en-Provence about a woman who has an emotional affair with a flame from her youth through letters. He remembered my story, and, more distinctly, a conversation we had about the different conceptions of time in ancient Greek: kairos and chronos. Chronos, refers to linear, quantitative time—the time of past, present, and future. Kairos refers to a moment in time, a qualitative sense of time, much like the moment at which Christ enters the world as an infant, the kairos during which he dies, and the moment that He enters the mass during the consecration of the Eucharist. Kairos is a powerful idea.
Maybe I served as a kind of Muse to the playwright, because he later told me, “I should attribute more of our class discussions to you. Our discussion changed the way I teach my class on writing and time.”
The point of the muse is not only her creative capacity. Sometimes you’re not even aware that you’re being affected by one. Other times, you’re not aware that you are serving as a Muse. Maybe the idea of the Muse is the embodiment of the human propensity for idealization, the tendency to project perfection, greatness, or godliness onto someone else. To see the other in his or her ideal form. The Greeks admired Helen of Troy as the supreme Muse of literature, the embodiment of male idealization par excellence. We Americans have our own modern-day muses.
A Kind of Eros
Another uncommon fact is that many muses are artists in their own right. The power of the muse lies in the cosmic collision of creativity: that creative moment, the kairos, when life inspires your art. Talent doesn’t rely exclusively on a muse, and it’s not handed over like a gift. It wells up from a profound source hidden within you. For a mystic poet, it might be seen as a treasure hidden deep within a chamber of her interior castle. Sometimes it takes an encounter with another person to unlock the doors of her creative potential. The muse merely awakens the language writer whose voice has been sleeping all these years.
As Roger Scruton once said to me at a conference, the love between the writer and her muse is perhaps more akin to the love affair between Paulo and Francesca. As passionate as your relationship with your muse may be, it’s not born of love but of the creative lust, aroused by a spark of fire, as in Dante’s Inferno, born of a quickened pulse and fading into obscurity as quickly as it is found. As a writer, I am creatively attuned to the seasons in the manner of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” the book says. “A time to love, and a time to hate…A time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”
Maybe the writer is waiting, in the language of The Heart, to be presented with a kairos—a moment of creative opportunity that she might never have again. If you are attuned to the seasons, you might just be able to recognize kairos in the silence of your heart, and when the time comes, you will be prepared to speak.