The muse: a femme fatale

Last month I attended a public lecture given by a local painter. Toward the end of his talk, he began to speak of the muse. Since ancient Greece, artists and creative people spoke of the Muses as spirits who guided them in their work. This painter did not have kind words for his muse. As well as I can remember, this is what he said: “The muse cares about the art, not about the artist. She will use him to produce art until he drops dead from exhaustion, and she does not care. At any whim she can cast him off and abandon him without a second thought. The muse is not the artist’s friend, because the artist is the tool of the muse.”

I may be embellishing his words a bit, but I have captured the essence of what he said. Few creative people are in love with their muse. Writers do not write because it’s fun to write—writers are driven to write. Painters and sculptors and others involved in the visual arts feel the same way. Musicians perform music, not as a hobby but as a compulsion. I have known many musicians. I have noticed that their feelings about people who dabble in music vary between amusement and scorn. If music is just a hobby—if music is not the only reason to go on living—then that amateur performer is not considered a true musician.

Every art is populated by starving artists. Only a few in each field reach the heights of fame and wealth. Most take on another job to support themselves while their hearts remain dedicated to their art. One of my musician friends made contact with the drummer who performed with Santana at Woodstock. The man still drums in small clubs for a pittance. With his immense talent and his minutes of fame, today he is a classic image of the starving artist.

Creative people often seem to have emotional problems of one kind or another. From severe mental illness to deep depression, artists seem prone to live unhappy lives. The suicide of an Ernest Hemingway or a Robin Williams reminds the rest of the world of the pain many artists carry inside themselves day and night. Who is to blame? Is it the fault of the muse that artists suffer? Can only those afflicted by pain supply the rest of the world with entertainment and with awe?

Soren Kierkegaard compared poets to the victims in ancient Sicily who were roasted to death in a hollow bull a king commanded an artist to devise. The screams of pain generated from within the bull by the victim sounded like music passing through the contraption. Reportedly, the designer of the Sicilian bull was the first victim to be tested in its flames.

Aristotle said something to the effect of “there is no great genius without a touch of madness.” He may have been thinking of Socrates, who was often considered to be mad. Socrates claimed to be inspired by a semi-divine spirit (the actual Greek word is “demon”) and would sometimes stop and stare into space, even in the middle of a conversation. Other wise people have compared the link between genius and madness to the link between roses and thorns.

Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, felt that creativity comes from being an outsider. He said that the mentally ill, along with Jews and homosexuals and other outsiders, are forced to see the world in a different way because they were made outsiders. When they describe the world which they see, they are discovered to be creative.

All this seems to say that the muse is a cruel mistress, a femme fatale, who uses the artist for her own ends without regard for the artist’s happiness, comfort, or even survival. Perhaps in a perfect world art can be produced painlessly, but we do not live in a perfect world. The burden of the artist, the driving force of the muse, is part of the reality of existence in this world. In the movie A League of Their Own, the manager is talking about baseball when he says, “Of course it’s not easy! If it were easy, everyone would do it.” What is true of baseball is true of art as well. J.

Ten books on a deserted island

A question is sometimes asked of celebrities, or among friends having a conversation. The question is, “If you were to spend the rest of your life alone on an island, what ten books would you want to have with you?” Since no one has actually asked me that question, I am free to change the rules. I will allow myself twelve books on my deserted island, because the Holy Bible and the hymnal are such obvious selections that they need no explanation. The following ten books are listed alphabetically by author.

  • Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights. I have been enchanted by this book from the first time I read it, which was a winter weekend while I was still in school. One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it contains not a single likeable character. Each of them, even the minor characters, is deeply flawed. Even the narrator of the story has more flaws than virtues in his weak yet self-centered approach to others. What is enjoyable about reading about flawed people? One tires of endless nobility and generosity in so many other books of this genre. Wuthering Heights is the truest novel of its time and setting of any I have yet discovered. Yet it also far surpasses all the later attempts to write novels of fiction that contained only believable storylines with no fantasy or mystery.
  • Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, fortunately printed in the same volume. This is one of eight books I read faithfully every summer of my childhood. (Perhaps someday I will blog about all eight.) In contrast to Wuthering Heights, the Alice stories depict a whimsical world of nonsense that is not quite nonsense, because it possesses its own inner sense. I would be sorry to spend the rest of my days without one childlike pleasure in my collection.
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot. Some years ago I began reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky because I thought I should, and this novel stood out as the gem of the collection. The title character is a simple-minded prince who wanders into the treacherous world of polite and refined society, yet survives all its traps, at least for a while. Many readers have tried to present the prince as a Christ-like character. I’m not sure that is true, but the story possesses a delightful view of Russian noble life in the nineteenth century that blends well with the world of the Brontes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Lewis Carroll.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Not one of my favorites the first time I read it, this novel has grown on me with repeated readings. It truly deserves to be considered “the Great American Novel,” because it depicts both sides of life in the America of its time, while also presenting timeless messages about wealth and about finding meaning in life (or failing to do so). I find it completely appropriate that Andy Kaufman chose to read this particular novel to his audiences at one point in his career, because so much of the novel reveals the difference between surface impressions and deeper realities.
  • Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls. If I was allowed to choose only Hemingway or only Fitzgerald for my library, I would go with Hemingway without hesitation. This is, no doubt, his greatest novel. I remember reading it late at night during a hot summer when I came home from work after midnight, not yet sleepy. The characters and settings of this book are as vivid and as believable as any I can remember from literature in general.
  • A Kierkegaard Anthology, edited by Robert Bretall. I could not spend the rest of my days without some Kierkegaard, and if I cannot have the complete collection with me, Bretall’s anthology is second-best. Kierkegaard is a thoughtful writer and surprisingly relevant to present-day topics. He is not easy to read, and is often misunderstood, but I find time spent reading his writing worth the effort.
  • Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind. If I’m to spend the rest of my life on this island, I want to have at least one book I have never read before. Ever since I read Moby Dick a few years ago, Gone With the Wind has been the “most important book I never read.” I’ve seen the movie a time or two, and other members of my family have read the book and enjoyed it, so I think I will include it in my collection.
  • Vladimir Nabakov, Pale Fire. Hemingway and Fitzgerald write well, but Nabakov paints with words; his artistry surpasses all other authors who write in English. This sublime writing is particularly amazing, because English was Nabakov’s third language, after Russian and French. Although he is most famous for writing Lolita, Nabakov’s best work is Pale Fire. He weaves several stories together by having one character write a thousand-line poem and having another write the Foreword and Commentary on the poem. The misunderstandings shown by the second character are both farcical and elegant. Nabakov creates a multi-layered work which remains readable and entertaining, unlike the cubist writing of James Joyce. “Chapman’s Homer” indeed!
  • Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book also works on several levels (Spoilers coming!!) as it combines a story of a father and son traveling cross-country by motorcycle, memories of a nervous breakdown, a history of western philosophy, and elements of eastern philosophy. Pirsig’s ability to weave these disparate elements into a satisfying novel not only make me want to read the novel again and again but also to study the philosophers he mentioned.
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five. If I had to choose between these masterpieces, I would go with Cat’s Cradle. Fortunately, a publisher has recently produced a several-volume set of Vonnegut’s novels, and these two works are in the same volume. Vonnegut’s work has been described as “dark humor.” He writes with a light touch, but he conveys deep thoughts. His style is perfect to lift the heaviness of some of the other works I have chosen.

I hope I am never stranded anywhere without my complete library—my follow-up list of honorable mentions would be longer than some of these books. But if I had to limit myself to just a few books, these are the ones I would choose. J.

Why does he do it?

Soren Kierkegaard describes a man who lived in a quiet neighborhood of Copenhagen. This man, a bookkeeper, was respected and well-lived, for he was kind, educated, generous, and particularly benevolent toward children. This man had one peculiar habit. Every day, between eleven o’clock and noon, he would pace the same path in the city streets. Any other hour of the day he would greet people and talk with them, but no one could interrupt his daily hour of pacing. Back and forth he would walk, an intent look in his eye, but completely unaware of the world around him. No one in his neighborhood knew how this habit began, but they tolerated it in him because he was so good to them the rest of the day.
A man like this lives in my neighborhood. Every Saturday, unless the weather is cold or raining, he paces back and forth in his yard. Like that man Kierkegaard describes, he walks back and forth without purpose for about an hour. Like Kierkegaard’s bookkeeper, he is courteous and kind the rest of the week. For this one hour, though, this man seems controlled by some thought no one else can know. No one dares to interrupt him as he paces. He moves back and forth, an intent look on his face, until the hour is over and he returns to normal.
I wonder about this man. I wonder what sort of obsession or compulsion causes him to pace in this way. Please understand, I am in no way mocking Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I have considerable sympathy for all who struggle with that problem, and I would not wish it on anyone. It seems possible to me that this man is dealing with that kind of issue in his life.
Otherwise, I wonder if that man is engaged in some religious pursuit. Once again, I have the highest respect for religion and would never mock it. It occurs to me that this man may be entranced in some sort of mediation that is meant to bring him closer to God or lift him to a higher level of consciousness.
It seems likely, though, that his meditation might be disturbed by the noisy lawnmower this man pushes in front of him as he paces.
Some reader might say, “OK, I see what you did there, J. Very funny to set us up with compulsive pacing and then tell us he is just mowing his lawn.” Before you assume that I wrote all this for the sake of a joke, consider that I am very serious about my question: Why does he do it? Why this obsession with a patch of grass that sends this poor man outside, week after week, to toil and labor in service of his lawn?
Yes, I cut my grass when it has gotten long enough to need cutting. I do not treat it as a religious ceremony, though, because I just try to get it done as quickly as possible, leaving time for more important things. If this man’s lawn maintenance is part of his religion, I envy his zeal. I wish I could serve my Lord as faithfully as he serves his lawn. If I could bring to my Christian living the kind of energy and determination shown by this man and others like him, I could truly be numbered among the saints.
If, however, this behavior is obsession or compulsion, I feel sorry for this man. To be in the chains of a habit that sends him out, every Saturday morning, to mow and trim and fertilize and tend his lawn, when he could be doing more important things, must be misery. I try to be kind to him whenever our paths cross, hoping my kindness can somehow compensate for this man’s unfortunate slavery to a patch of grass.
J.

Fame, creativity, and depression

One of the most shocking news items of 2014 was the suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams. How could a man so talented, so seemly full of laughter and joy, choose to end his life? It seemed that Robin Williams had it all: fame, money, and the love of millions of people. Yet Robin Williams was terribly sad. He spoke openly about his battles with depression. People in his life believed him and tried to help him. Health professionals took care of him. Somehow, one night, it was not enough. Depression won, and the world lost Robin Williams.

Many famous people publicly acknowledge their battles with depression. Are famous people more likely than the rest of us to be depressed? Probably not—we just hear more about their struggles because they are famous. The prevalence of depression among the famous is most likely about the same as its prevalence among the general population. Maybe famous people feel safer talking about problems that the rest of us prefer to keep hidden.

On the other hand, some observers have noticed a correlation between creativity and depression. Not that depression makes people creative—just the other way around; depression saps the ability to create and to communicate. But people who see themselves as outsiders, members of minority groups and others at the edge of society, frequently produce more art (music, literature, etc.) than the general population. These people often have a stronger sense of humor, which again seems to be fed by their perception of themselves as outsiders. If creativity and humor are evoked by estrangement from the world, by a sense of alienation, then a correlation between depression and creativity does not come as a surprise.

Soren Kierkegaard, in writings such as The Concept of Anxiety (also translated as The Concept of Dread) and The Sickness unto Death, seemed to suggest that depression is a normal reaction to the way things are in this world. By “the way things are,” I do not so much mean wars and poverty and crime, but rather the individual experience of sensing the difference between who I truly am and who I could be and ought to be. Satisfaction with that difference, Kierkegaard indicated, is worse than being depressed over the difference. Yet the chasm between who I am and who I should be is unbridgeable. The only sensible response to becoming aware of that difference, it would seem, is despair.

Of course, neither you nor I can experience another person’s emotions or can tell how another person truly feels inside. I do not know if my depression is like that of others or is unique. All I can do is to describe how I feel in the midst of an emotional trough. I wake up in the morning, and getting out of bed is a chore. Brushing my teeth is a chore. Taking a shower is a chore. I push myself to accomplish these chores, even though I cannot think of a good reason to do them. I drive to work, but I am not interested in the things I will do at work. The family might plan some entertainment together—a movie or a baseball game—and I go along to be a good sport, but I would rather sit alone at home. Worst of all, when I am driving, I imagine what it would be like to drive the car off the side of the bridge into the river. I can find no good reason not to do it. I am not looking forward to anything in the near future, or in the distant future. If a doctor told me that I had an advanced case of cancer and I could not be saved, I would take that as good news, not as bad news.

That is how I feel when I am depressed. I assume the feeling is similar for other people. But what causes this feeling of dismal despair? Depression, as far as I understand it, is a symptom with various causes. For that reason, the same solution is not effective for all people facing depression.

It seems that there is a genetic predisposition to depression; people from some families are more likely to experience depression than people from other families. Depression can be the result of chemical balances in the human body. It can be a response to current, on-going stresses; or it can be a response to events from long ago—sometimes events that are remembered, and sometimes events that are forgotten.

Some people can find relief from depression by getting proper nutrition, accompanied with enough sleep each night and enough exercise each day. Others take medicines that help to relieve depression. Others need therapy to discuss their current stresses and past problems with a therapist. Still others, including Kierkegaard, find solace in religion. Often several of these sources of relief are needed in combination. What works for one person does not work for the next person. Just because I swallowed a certain pill or attended a certain church and started feeling better, I cannot conclude that every person with depression should take that pill or go to that church.

Well-meaning people try to help. “Cheer up,” they say, “Things can’t be so bad.” They encourage the victim of depression to be busy doing other things, especially things that help other people. “Then you won’t have time to be depressed,” they say. Still another solution—one I tried for many years, until I accepted that it was not working—is to ignore the feelings of depression, do the right thing in spite of those feelings, and pay them no mind.

We all have bad days now and then. Depression is like a string of bad days. It is like a bad cloud that will not go away. It is like a trap with no hope of escape. Depression is a most dangerous symptom precisely because it robs its victims of hope, convincing them that things will never improve no matter what they do.

If you know these feelings, I hope you are finding help. If you have not looked for help—if, like me, you tried to fight your way through on your own—please take the next step. See a family doctor, to find out if your depression is a symptom of some physical problem. See a counselor to talk through your feelings and to track them back to their origin. Reach out for help, call out for help, and keep looking until you find help. You are worth it. And you can be happy again.

If you know someone who appears to be under that cloud, talk to that person. Listen to that person. Encourage that person to get professional help. He or she is worth it. And he or she can be happy again.

Thank you for reading.

J.