In Defence of the Muse
Self-Portrait with Cupid and Death, Hans Thoma, 1875
by D. Joyce-Ahearne
Federico García Lorca writes in his Play and the Theory of the Duende that the Muse is “distant and so tired that you’d think her heart half marble”. He defines it as an inspiring force that occasionally visits from an unknown that is “outside us”. The Muse “stirs the intellect”, which he says is “often poetry’s enemy”, and when “Muse poets hear voices and don’t know where they’re from” they are hearing the voice of the Muse.
If duende, the source of inspiration that Lorca sets out to champion in his essay at the expense of the Muse, is “in sum, the spirit of the earth”, a force linking body and soil through a struggle akin to death, then the Muse is a force that speaks to the head and inspires art that is, in the words’ most negative senses, cerebral and high-minded.
Lorca creates an image of the Muse poet as a lofty scholar who lives in marble halls of thoughts and who is so removed from their own body that death is not a real life concern. The Muse poet will naturally hear the Muse’s voice in their head because, for Lorca, that is where Muse poets lives out their life, removed from any real sense of life or death or duende.
It is in the head, the seat of intellect the enemy, that the Muse “dictates” to the poet and inspires a specific type of poetry: intellectual poetry. Poetry that is bookish and devoid of real feeling. Poetry that is full of ideas strangled to death with words, thoughts and other ideas. Poetry that is duendeless.
The Muse appeals to the intellect which, for Lorca, “lifts the poet into the bondage of aristocratic fineness.” The Muse brings form, that is rules and limits, rather than truly inspiring content. From its marble heart to the landscape of columns and the taste of laurel that it inspires, Lorca defines the Muse as the source of inspiration for those scholarly poets of the ivory tower.
But Lorca’s outline of the Muse is marked by a notable absence of both a term and a concept, one that he seems to be content to cover entirely by using the word “intellect” once. There is not one mention of the Mind in Lorca’s essay, though that is what he would appear to be discussing when he writes of the Muse, both in what it influences and how it appears to us.
Instead and in broad strokes, Lorca reduces the Mind to the “intellect” and dismisses it as something brutally academic and learned. He portrays the Mind as an inaccessible rarefied place, removed from the body, disconnected from both living and death. To Lorca the Mind is a luxury enjoyed by those who can afford it, a commodity to be exercised by the entitled, and the Muse is something that only affects those who enjoy that privilege. The Mind is Rimbaud’s palace at dawn and the Muse is an unknown, well-heeled intruder who infrequently runs through it screaming. But to speak of the Mind exclusively in terms of the rich, leisured and formally educated is a disservice to anyone who has one. Lorca doesn’t know what the Mind is and so he cannot know what the Muse is if, as he asserts, it exists only in the realm above the shoulders.
Lorca doesn’t know what the Mind is but this is not a shortcoming unique to him. None of us do. Obviously it is not a construct of book learning or private tutoring but neither is it a bodily function like breathing or sweating. Our sense of self is not something to be equated with either “intellect” or the physical brain. Our consciousness comes from somewhere we do not truly know. We do not know the Mind and so we cannot know the Muse.
For Lorca, the Muse is a source of inspiration that comes from somewhere outside the natural world and that isn’t religious or spiritual (this force, he writes, is the Angel). It is, according to him, an unknown voice in our head. If this is true, then can we claim to know anything else about it? And what does this even tell us? Knowing as little as we do about the nature of the Mind, what can we know about a voice that visits from the unknown to inspire it?
An unknown voice in our heads is as good a working definition for the Mind as any. Taking this definition then, can we even make the distinction between Muse and Mind? Can we differentiate between two unknown voices in our heads? If the Muse comes from an unknown to visit the Mind, is it really arriving anywhere less unknown to us? The difference between the two would appear to be a line dividing one unknown in two.
Who, or what, then conducts the process of inspiration and creation within our heads? The Mind or the Muse? Can we still say the Muse descends to inspire the poet? Would it not be more correct to say that the Mind inspires the poet? Are they then not the same?
In terms of offering some way of defining the voices in our heads as a creative force I offer this: the Muse is the Mind’s efforts to know itself. In that sense then, they are the same thing. The Muse is a process of the Mind. An unknown process of an unknown entity.
With a definition like this it might equally work the other way round. The Mind might just be a moment of inspiration, the Muse’s gift. Rather than being a process of the Mind, the Muse might well be the unknown from which the Mind has come. The Mind might just be a good idea.
It is the same thing either way, different aspects of the one unknown. There is no dialogue between the Mind and the Muse. Instead there is just an internal monologue, one way or the other. The Muse is the Mind speaking to itself. The Mind is the Muse asking itself “What am I?” “Who is this?” “Where have I come from?”
The voice in our heads, whether Mind or Muse, inspires through this constant questioning. This voice inspires by asking from where within ourselves have we come from; or, did we come from outside ourselves, as Lorca suggests? The voice, this muse, inspires by asking: is there anything beyond the limitlessness of what we can think?
The Muse doesn’t inspire the poet’s Mind. The Muse is the Mind. They are the same unknown or they might only exist as they grapple together eternally, like duende and death, forever asking themselves and each other, “Who are you and what am I?” This is what inspires the Muse poet.
The Mind is our own piece of the collective unknown and we say someone has been visited by the Muse when we recognise this unknown as a piece of ourselves in their work. The skilled Muse poet crafts art that can successfully show us what they do not know and allow us see in it our own Minds and what we do not know either.
The pursuit, or at least the questioning, of the unknown is neither a clinical academic day job nor is it an idle pastime for the rich. The championing of the Muse shouldn’t invoke talk of laurels because the Mind is neither a privilege nor an exercise in “intellect”. The continued attempts to know ourselves are what make us human. Our Mind, the Muse, unique to each of us, is the pursuit of the unknown that unites us.
An Appendix on Suicide as Muse
A separate, though in a way linked and in equal need of defence, slight of Lorca’s against the Muse is that it fears death. He writes in the same essay that “when the Muse sees death appear she closes the door.” He believes the Muse is guilty of making us forget about death and removing it from our consciousness. This is Lorca’s gravest misunderstanding of the nature of the Muse and the Mind.
Lorca discusses duende and Muse (I think it fair to use Muse and Mind interchangeably at this point) in the context of a crude dichotomy. Duende is natural, in the sense of being both of the human body (“the duende has to be roused from the furthest habitations of the blood”) and of nature in a broader sense (“All Spanish art is rooted in our soil”). The Muse, to Lorca, is intellectual.
Having outlined above the need to consider the Muse as the Mind rather than the “intellect” I would still agree loosely with Lorca that the Muse is not of nature, even of human nature, in the way that he has defined duende as being.
The Mind is supernatural. The Mind exists beyond nature, as an unknown within ourselves. It is a concept like the unknown before birth and the unknown after death. If we exist naturally (that is to say, in nature) through the body, then through the Mind we exist supernaturally.
The Mind does not exist by the rules of nature that govern the body. Whereas the body will pull back automatically from the heat of flames, or go unconscious to avoid physical pain, the Mind will follow its own pain down a rabbit hole and may well chase it until it destroys itself. Lorca was correct when he said the Muse sometimes “make her meal” of those it inspires. The Mind, rather than making us forget death, can drive itself to its own destruction in a way the body never will. Insanity, the loss of the Mind, to the Muse, is just other aspects of the unknown. And the Mind, knowing itself as an unknown, does not fear death in the way the body does. Unlike duende, which “won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death” the Muse doesn’t need death to be sparked because death is nothing to the Mind. The Mind, for all it truly knows, might live forever.
The Muse does not flee death. It questions it and plays with it because, unlike the body, the Muse can say to death “You cannot kill me because you do not know what I am.” John Donne’s Death be not proud, though arguably inspired by the Angel, might equally be the Muse speaking. The Muse is unconcerned with the death the body will know, the possibility of which duende demands before appearing.
The Muse does not need the impetus of death to inspire the poet because it is always something it can bring itself. It is the Mind that commits suicide, not the body. If after death the body is united with the soil it came from, the Mind returns to the unknown, or rather continues to be the unknown. The Muse does not fear death because death is only another unknown to it, as it already is to itself.
It is the human Mind that separates us from other animals. And one way we are different, one way our Mind flies in the face of what nature expects, is our ability to sometimes know that death is the best option for us. The Muse can inspire death. Just as the Muse can drive the Mind insane it can go one step further and, by suicide, destroy the body too. The body never wants to die.
The Muse is the existential voice. Despair is when the Muse cries out at its own unknown, at the limits of knowing itself. When the efforts to know itself become too much, the Mind goes all in and gambles. Death might be more of the same unknown or it might be something new.
In this way, the Muse never makes us forget that we might die, by ants, falling arsenical lobster or otherwise, because death is always present to the Mind as another side of itself, another aspect of the unknown. The willingness to go to such lengths as suicide to know the unknown is what makes us human rather than animal. At the same time, as an action of the Mind, it is what makes us supernatural. The Muse does not fear death. It can, and often does, demand it of itself.
About the Author:
D. Joyce-Ahearne is an Irish writer. He is Chair of Trinity Publications and Contributing Editor at Trinity News. He tweets @.