Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Whisper of the Muse

“I want to play the way a cat jumps.”

Claudio Arrau, Chilean pianist


Fortune cookies aren’t always right (though the next-to-the-last one I got--“You are an exciting and inspiring person”—was spot-on). My most recent one read: “The important thing is to express yourself.” The idea of expressing yourself I associate with three types of people—parents of brats, artistic wannabes, and British football (i.e., soccer) commentators.


To take the last first. The football commentators, usually resorting to the third person plural and forgetting that they are talking about a team sport, bemoan any defensive strategy by a manager as not letting the players “express themselves.” It is interesting that in all the years that I have watched ice hockey (which is a parallel sport, only on a different surface), I have never heard a commentator speak of his desire for the players to express themselves. If anyone got down to the essence of team sports it was Freddie Shero, who coached Stanley Cup championship teams in Philadelphia: "If it's pretty skating they want, let 'em go to the Ice Capades."


“Lady Constance's flush deepened. Not for the first time in an association which had lasted some forty years, starting in days when she had worn pigtails and he had risked mob violence by going about in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, she was wishing that her breeding did not prohibit her from bouncing something solid on this man's bald head. There was a paper-weight at her elbow which would have fitted her needs to a nicety. Debarred from physical self-expression by a careful upbringing at the hands of a series of ladylike governesses, she fell back on hauteur.”

P. G. Wodehouse, Service With a Smile

I have most often associated “self-expression” not so much with aristocratic granddames but with bratty children. They not only throw things (as Lady Constance refrained from doing) but scream at the top of their lungs until they get what they want. Their doting parents usually dismiss those antics by explaining that the child was only “expressing him/herself.” What exactly a child’s “self” is—and why it couldn’t be expressed at a lower volume—has never been satisfactorily explained to my philosophically-probing mind.

But it’s not only bratty children and overpaid footballers with bad haircuts who have a desire to “express themselves.” A good number of years ago I was browsing through Bloomingdale’s (in New Jersey; I was never chic enough to be allowed through the doors of the New York store), finally ending up in the stationery department, when my shuffling through greeting cards was interrupted by an intense woman followed by a covey of serious young men and women. The leader of the pack moved quickly to a table and pointed. “I’m not satisfied with that display,” she said. “I wanted to make a statement.” It took all my powers of self-restraint to keep from shouting at her: “Lady, they’re just boxes of goddamn envelopes!”


For many years I have collected quotations by artists in all fields from jazz to ballet about the nature of artistic creation. And I have never once read or heard a serious artist—in any field—speak of his/her need for “self-expression.” Indeed, what those artists have said is the exact opposite—the creation of art is a selfless undertaking. Consider the words of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos: “I create music out of necessity, biological necessity. I write because I cannot help it.” Or those of the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli: “When I improvise and I’m in good form, I’m like somebody half sleeping.” Or those of the poet Elizabeth Bishop: “I really don’t know how poetry gets to be written. There is a mystery and a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work.”


“Sally pinched him. 'Ass,' she said. 'I'm interested. Tell me why a poet doesn't have to be a man who needs a hair­cut.'

'Because,' said Cadogan, uneasily attempting to gauge the length of his own hair with his left hand, 'poetry isn't the outcome of personality. I mean by that that it exists independently of your mind, your habits, your feelings, and everything that goes to make up your personality. The poetic emotion's impersonal: the Greeks were quite right when they called it inspiration. Therefore, what you're like personally doesn't matter a twopenny damn: all that matters is whether you've a good receiving-set for the poetic waves. Poetry's a visitation, coming and going at its own sweet will.'“

Edmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop

What the fictional poet Cadogan says is what so many artists have said; the art seems to have been mysteriously introduced into the artist by some outside force. The art chose the artist.


“I didn’t make a decision to pursue astronomy. Rather, it just grabbed me, and I had no thought of escaping."

Carl Sagan

Just as with artists, so too with scientists. In ancient Greece there were not only Muses for artists like poets and musicians and dancers, there was a Muse of astronomy, Urania, and it was her twentieth-century counterpart who picked out Sagan, who could not escape doing astronomy. Any more than Marina Tsvetaeva could escape writing poetry:

“Why I write”

“Not for the millions, not for some one-and-only, not for myself. I write for the poem alone. The poem, through me, writes itself.”

And when the work is completed, perhaps every true artist utters a version of what novelist Edna O’Brien calls the writer’s prayer:

“Please, God, let me start another.”