No but really, What is a Muse?

In an interview on the Call Her Daddy podcast, actress Julia Fox, was asked if she was a muse and what a muse is. Her response was that she considered herself to be the writer/director Josh Safdie’s muse for the film Uncut Gems. The internet, instead of picking up on what an incredible assertion this is and that there could be a discussion of the prelapsarian concept of inspiration on a podcast called Call Her Daddy, decided it was her pronunciation of the word ‘Gems’ that was to get the meme treatment. This meme coated the internet not long before another, similar one, arrived, involving an interview with former Nickelodeon child star Miranda Cosgrove on Whitney Cummings’ podcast where she is baited into saying the word “fuck” by the host for no doubt what was assumed (correctly it turned out) to be a viral moment of a former child star cussing for the world to hear. That moment went viral too but, again, the internet missed the far more interesting moment told in the same podcast where Cosgrove tells the story of how she was forced to move house thanks to a stalker and a dead body being found on her property. As usual the algorithm latches onto the lowest hanging fruit. Now, we COULD talk about how both these examples reveal the contempt with which women are still held in popular culture, whereby women seen to speak in ways deemed unacceptable by Victorian patriarchs but, y’know, apparently also people today it seems (I thought we were a bit beyond making fun of women for having different accents or swearing at this point in history for fuck sake), or we could talk about how the nature of virality is almost explicitly as marketing and that there is rarely anything innately creative or original about a meme’s source, or that TikTok’s (where this meme originated) foundation is based upon the iterative process of memes and we could ask whether that classifies as theft, is it inherently derogatory or is it just lazy ‘content production’ that the platform utilises to harvest data and accrue wealth. But I’m not going to ask any of those questions because, frankly, no one seems to give a shit and are content to perpetuate misogyny while providing our marketing data to gigantic global mega corporations. I am merely a lowly writer and poet, however, so instead I want to focus on what is still a really interesting question that has been lost in the piss-taking: What is a Muse?

The Muses (for there was more than one) were Godesses of Greek Mythology that were said to be the source of knowledge, inspiring artists, writers, philosophers and scientists. The Muses started out as a trio but then multiplied into nine in the classical era and even ended up individually representing certain branches of creativity. Calliope was the muse of great poetry, Clio the muse of history, Euterpe the muse of music, Thalia the muse of comedy, Melpomene tragedy, Terpsichore dance, Erato the muse to poets of love and lyricism, Polyhymnia the muse of sacred poetry and Urania the muse of Astronomy. Depending who you believe, they were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, Ouranos and Gaia, or Apollo, and would get into a variety of mythological scrapes, eventually getting their own cult with shrines and temples dedicated to them. What’s so fascinating about them is that, like everything in Greek mythology, inspiration required personification or a point of origin. In the broad strokes, no matter what part of mythology you read, the muses didn’t really seem to do a lot, it’s only much later that they took on their significance amongst artists and writers in particular.

“Sing Heav’nly Muse” asked Milton in Paradise Lost, “Tell me, O muse,” begged Homer in the Odyssey, “O Muse” wept Virgil in the Dryden translation of the Aeneid. The Muses got around. Be it in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Chaucer’s Troilus & Cresside, Shakespeare’s Henry V or Dante’s Inferno, writers loved to invoke them so that they might lend power and inspiration to their works. This became such an intrinsic part of creativity and artistic creation that any sense an artist created a great work was deferred to the muse, it was their fault the work was so great. ‘The muse has struck’ or ‘the muse came to me’ would be how someone composed a great lyric or song, not simply that they were inspired. It’s also worth noting that in most of these cases it is the definite article of ‘The muse’ not the indefinite ‘a muse’. I’m not sure when it switched — but I’m going to say the Romantic period because it feels like their fault — but the idea of one of The Muses descending from the heavens to bless you with inspiration dwindled and became the idea that the muse was then personified into a singular person, ‘A muse’ if you will. Thus we have Julia Fox, inspiring musicians, writers and directors to great artistic heights by embodying this Grecian archetype, somehow gifting them with the clarity and energy to act upon their ideas. But that’s not really what we’re talking about here is it? Nebulous concepts such as inspiration? No. What we’re talking about is fucking.

In an early issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic book series titled Calliope after one of the classical muses, a fictional writer, Richard Madoc, is having trouble coming up with ideas for a follow up to his most successful book, so he makes a deal with fellow author Erasmus Fry to take possession of the muse Calliope herself whom Fry had held captive and repeatedly raped which apparently provided inspiration for his own novels. Madoc does the same and, sure enough, inspiration starts to flow. As grotesque and awful as this is it is one of the few truly explicit ways in which a muse’s utility is explored or explained in anyway. Since antiquity the muse’s mere presence seemed to be enough to inspire but as the myth of the muse has progressed through history it has solidified into a pretty misogynistic concept. This is largely because muses are, and have always been, women and, more often than not, young and beautiful. They have also, almost exclusively, inspired men. While some may argue that this has not always been or is not always the case, those would be outliers, historically, canonically and contemporarily the muse is feminine, while those they inspire are masculine. And with that comes all the endless baggage of centuries of patriarchal bullshit we’re still trying to unpick centuries later because a muse is only a muse, it seems, if you can fuck it and this is what Julia Fox has hit upon, and what got lost in the slew of derogatory memes that buried the original question.

Fox’s response in its entirety implicitly addresses the assumptions behind being ‘a muse’ without outright stating them, though she comes close. Per Fox “I think people make it seem more dramatic than it is … it’s not like Van Gogh … he just, he wants to dress me right now”. I do not know the extent of Fox and Safdie’s relationship but we do know that her and Kanye’s would definitely have been sexual in nature but even without the relationship involving intercourse it is telling that the form Fox’s inspiration takes is being dressed by a man. She also mentions Van Gogh, a deeply problematic figure whose relationships with women are often presented as being ‘muse-like’ inspirations for his work but equally became obsessive, with one of the women he proposed to, Margaretha Begemann, attempting suicide. Given that Fox and Kanye’s relationship was over before the meme was, it is safe to assume that a muse’s purpose is also short lived. We see this in the way Madoc and Fry treat Calliope with utilitarian efficacy in that issue of Sandman. Muses are disposable, it seems, existing only to drift in and out of The Great Artist’s life, inspiring them with little more than their physical beauty. This is sometimes depicted as the muse being ‘flighty’ or ‘capricious’ rather than as being a well that can be dipped into as needed. Given how we see and appreciate (or unappreciate) a muse it seems safe to say the life of one is short and almost solely based on physical attraction and the purpose they serve.

This does not mean there are not better examples of men and women in healthy relationships offering each other inspiration. One of my favourite artists of the 20th century, Tom Waits’ constant collaborator is his wife Kathleen Brennan who is a credited co-writer on almost all of his material, but the key word there is collaborator. Waits and Brennan work together and I doubt Waits has ever referred to his wife as a muse. Women are often the unsung (and unpaid) labourers behind a lot of great artists in other ways purely by dint of being the one placed in the position of looking after the daily admin of being a human in society, cleaning, cooking, catering to the childish whims of an indulged prima donna, etc. But most of the women put in this position or forced to take on these roles are not often called ‘muse’. They may have been once, when a relationship began and sexual juices were flowing but they are not seen or deemed as such once that initial ‘honeymoon’ period fades. How long would Fox have stayed Kanye’s muse if the relationship had lasted? Did she only serve as Safdie’s muse due to a short production schedule, allowing her to inspire then be gone? Fox expresses how she believes she has ‘worked her way onto the table’ amongst celebrities and yet, in the same breath, agrees that she was a subservient totem to a man’s creativity. Despite what the YouTube comments say below that video, I don’t doubt Fox does work hard and has goals in mind but that is not what she was used as by these men and, consequently, not why she inspired a slew of derogatory memes for saying so.

The very concept of inspiration is difficult to grasp. We don’t know the source of our own consciousness or where what we classify as ‘intelligence’ developed in the first place so understanding the source of inspiration is close to impossible. The reason a lot of (explicitly straight) men throughout history personified it in the bodies of nubile young women is because, to put it bluntly, they are horny. Either through sexual satisfaction or unrequited desire, the muse elicits excitement and energy, a source of hyperfocus that frees a mind from distraction. Many different people are inspired in all kinds of ways from all different sources, not just straight men by sexy young women and yet our personification of it revolves entirely around that image of a young, manic pixie dream girl, that floats into The Artist’s life, a whirl of chaos that upsets things and offers them a new perspective. It’s kind of gross and needs shifting as a mindset. For myself, one of my favourite quotes, attributed to Picasso (another problematic figure who went through ‘muses’ like tissue paper) is “Inspiration exists, but it must find you working” and I largely subscribe to this idea. Sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike, much like sitting around and waiting for a gorgeous young thing to have sex with you, is time wasted. We create our own inspiration and it grows from all kinds of varied stimulus as we live our lives. If that stimulus remains the same it stultifies and stagnates, it is uninspiring but when something or someone new enters our life those things are appraised anew and seen fresh as we forced into changing our surroundings and doing new things. My favourite example of this is in the much derided movie Dead Poets Society where a newly arrived English teacher at an American boarding school disrupts the lives of a group of boys beaten into conformity by a rigid and unforgiving system. Robin William’s character Keating offers them new perspectives on life and literature, telling them to seize the day and, sure enough, they test their boundaries and all find new vigour to life away from the drab halls of their school. Keating is very much a muse in this respect and equally, tragically, is disposed of in the same muse-like fashion we often see in real life.

So what is a muse? Far from being the nine goddesses of Greek myth that grace artists with inspiration for their magnum opus, a muse has become a consumable item to be unwrapped then thrown away by Great Artists whose most pressing concern is creating their next great work. Inspiration can be found anywhere but you have to find it yourself and not expect it to be brought to you by someone you have objectified into a resource for creativity. In that respect Julia Fox IS a muse, and she correctly identifies the trappings of the concept, warts and all, but we were in too big a rush to mock her for saying a word strangely to take any notice. Which, in and of itself, is pretty muse-like. Inspiring really.

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

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Peripatetic Writer. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.