by Matt Cardin
We all know the old saw, usually attributed to Thomas Edison, that “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
The problem with this ubiquitous speck of folk wisdom is not just that it provides a catchall cliché for scoffing at those who dare to suggest that inspiration plays a crucial role in creative work, but that it plainly and grossly misrepresents the relationship in creative work between inspiration and effort.
So let it be said once and for all:
inspiration and effort are not contradictory but complementary.
Their relationship is mutually enhancing. Each enables and empowers the other.
And (to offend Edison’s ghost still further), the ancient model of creativity that views inspiration as the experience of being filled with ideas and emotions from an external force — namely, the muse — offers an ideal conceptual vehicle for grasping and using this truth.
It’s also an idea that is right now gaining currency as it recovers from a long historical hibernation.
A species of divine madness
The muse model tells us that creativity can be pictured as an external force or presence that visits a person on its own timetable and inspires him or her — that is, “breathes into” him or her — the idea and motivation to accomplish some sort of creative work.
“It comes from the gods,” says Steven Pressfield.
“It’s a species of divine madness. Socrates called the poetic variety of this condition ‘possession by the Muses’ (and rated it superior to technical mastery), though he could have referred with equal accuracy to seizure by any Olympian deity.”
The problem with this, as those of an Edisonian cast of mind have tended to view it, is that the whole idea is really just an excuse for idleness, and/or it’s a discouragement from the hard work that’s the real secret of successful creativity.
Waiting for inspiration, they say, is just a euphemism for laziness.
But in point of fact, the inspirational model of creativity, far from encouraging laziness, represents the very epitome of proactiveness when rightly used, for it counsels an active approach to waiting that embodies the strictest sort of discipline.
Inspiration and active waiting
The type of waiting that goes with inspiration is analogous to the type of waiting that’s found in religious and spiritual contexts.
In Zen Buddhism, for example, zazen meditation is framed as a method of waiting for enlightenment, which cannot be actively achieved but (usually) must be actively courted.
As Richard Baker Roshi famously said, “Enlightenment is an accident. Meditation makes you more accident-prone.”
Along the same lines, in a section of The Power of Now titled “The esoteric meaning of waiting,” Eckhart Tolle draws attention to “a qualitatively different kind of waiting [than laziness or boredom], one that requires your total alertness.
“Something could happen at any moment, and if you are not absolutely awake, absolutely still, you will miss it.”
He says this in the context of commenting on one of Jesus’ parables in the New Testament about the importance of waiting attentively for divine illumination.
The correspondence with the topic at hand is obvious: the quality of one’s mindstate is crucial when waiting for creative inspiration to spark.
Importantly, this state of stillness infused with alert expectancy can and often should be accompanied by active engagement in any number of concrete pursuits.
A painter practicing brushstrokes. A composer studying music theory.
A scientist conducting primary research and/or studying to gain a comprehensive knowledge of his or her field.
A writer pounding out endless pages in order to refine his or her sheer ability to string words together gracefully and effortlessly.
These and a thousand other activities represent what might be called waiting-as-preparation (or vice versa), waiting as the active attempt to mold oneself into a vessel capable of holding and channeling inspiration productively.
What good is inspiration if you don’t have the technical facility to embody it when it shows up?
“Have you trained yourself so that you can say what you want to say without getting hamstrung?” asks Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing.
“We are working not for work’s sake, producing not for production’s sake. What we are trying to do is to find a way to release the truth that lies in all of us.”
The inner alien
So this all gives the lie to the perspiration-inspiration dichotomy. But a valid question still remains: Why refer to muses, personal geniuses, and personal daimons at all?
The answer is found in the sheer utility of the muse model, both psychologically and artistically.
For the first part, the idea of creative inspiration as a personified external presence gives us a name and concept by which to understand and employ a fundamental truth about human psychology.
As an apparently irreducible phenomenological fact of first-person experience, we are all divided, roughly speaking, into two major selves, the conscious ego and the unconscious mind.
The unconscious feels to the ego like an alien visitor, an “other” within the psyche.
Invoking the concepts of the muse, daimon, and genius in this regard gives us a conceptual hook to hang our hat on, a useful metaphor that’s packed with subtle meanings and benefits.
It also helps to guard against a destructive rationalist-empiricist reductionism when we think and talk about the unconscious.
For the second part, the muse model is artistically useful because it corresponds wonderfully to the truth of the creative process as we have come to understand it in terms of incubation, illumination, and so on.
It also imparts an exotic-electric emotional charge to the whole matter that promises to stimulate creativity in general, as witnessed by, among other things, the widespread expressions of fascination and delight that greeted Gilbert’s 1998 TED talk.
And then there’s the rather epic “high” value of the concept, as argued by Herbert Read in 1964 in “The Poet and His Muse” (The British Journal of Aesthetics 4.2):
“[T]he myth or image of the Muse in art personifies certain stratagems of the creative imagination that enable the artist to endow his work with universal significance.”
Rehabilitating the muse
If the muse, genius, and daimon are so life-giving and useful, then how did the perspiration-inspiration dichotomy ever get so entrenched in common thought?
The answer lies beyond the scope of this essay, but it can be summarized in four words: Enlightenment rationalism and scientistic reductionism.
Today, however, the tables are turning.
After having fallen into semi-official disrepute among the mainstream Western literati and intelligentsia for a century or three, the muse/genius/daimon was resurrected and rehabilitated for a new era beginning roughly in the 1990s.
Yes, Jung and the entire field of analytical psychology had valiantly championed the idea of the objectivity of the psyche throughout the 20th century, and this had kept the muse/genius/daimon somewhere within earshot.
But the Jungian tradition officially remained a kind of quirky backdoor phenomenon, great to be used as fodder for conversations at high-end cocktail parties, or to be mined for talking points by Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth, but finally and firmly divorced from the really respectable discourse that embodied the collective common sense of the era’s high intellectual culture.
The end result was that even Jung couldn’t keep the muse and her kin from falling into disrepute.
But then James Hillman managed to get on the best-seller lists with a thoroughly daimon-based exploration of creativity and life calling in The Soul’s Code (1997).
Stephen Diamond charted similar territory in Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic (1996) and even got a regular column about related matters in Psychology Today.
Philip Pullman achieved best-seller-dom with His Dark Materials, a trilogy of young adult fantasy novel, launched in 1995, that centered on the idea of personal daemons.
A decade later Elizabeth Gilbert fairly shook the world with her talk about muses and geniuses at the 2008 installment of the zeitgeist-gauging TED Conference.
Anthony Peake, author of the celebrated Is There Life after Death: The Extraordinary Science of What Happens after We Die, explicated a fascinating daimonic model of consciousness, complete with an analysis of muse-based creativity, in a sequel titled The Daemon: A Guide to Your Extraordinary Self (2008).
Lee Siegel raised awareness of the ancient goddesses in 2009 by asking the readers of The Wall Street Journal, “Where Have All the Muses Gone?” The essay was written partly in response to an exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion.”
And so on.
Daimons and doomers
The return of the muse circa the turn of the 21st century was accompanied, interestingly, by a wave of apocalyptic sentiment that swept through the developed world.
“Doomerism” was transformed from a fringe phenomenon into a mainstream one as peak oil, economic collapse, catastrophic climate change, and other dire scenarios that were formerly fringe obsessions moved center stage began to play on the minds and lips of ordinary people.
Jung thought, apparently correctly, that the personal psychic upheaval he experienced after his break with Freud in 1913 was a premonition of the outbreak of World War I.
Seventy-six years later, in October 2009, his fabled “Red Book” or Liber Novus, which had its origin in that psychic upheaval, and which served as the literary fons et origo of his developing philosophy of psychic objectivity, finally saw the light of day in a truly historic publishing event.
In appropriately synchronistic fashion, it dropped right into a rich cultural stew whose apocalyptic simmer was just reaching the boiling point.
One can’t help speculating that the muse’s contribution to human life may indeed be bound up with that sense of universal significance which Herbert Read identified in certain works of art — and that this significance may extend into the wider world of life at large.
Learning to wait, in the deep and vibrant sense, on the action of this alien presence in the soul may prove a more necessary and vital discipline than most of us, Edisonians and otherwise, have ever suspected.
This is Chapter One of free book A Course in Demonic Creativity by Matt Cardin.
Matt Cardin is “the author of Dark Awakenings and Divinations of the Deep. He blogs about creativity and consciousness at Demon Muse, and about religion, horror, pop culture, apocalyptic culture, and other issues at The Teeming Brain. He has a master’s degree in religious studies and resides in Texas.” MattCardin.com.
Links and images above added by site author Douglas Eby – plus this material:
Painting at top: “Kiss of the Muse” by Paul Cezanne.
Steven Pressfield – In his book The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle, he writes about a number of challenges we may face as creative people, including our fear that we can transcend the mundane, to “become the person we sense in our hearts we truly are.” See more quotes in my article The fear of being authentic and unique.
Shelley Carson of Harvard University teaches and conducts research on creativity, psychopathology, and resilience. She details seven brain activation patterns or “brainsets” in her book Your Creative Brain – see my article Shelley Carson on developing creativity.
Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel with animal daimon in The Golden Compass (2007) – also used in my article Prodded by our daimon muse to be creative.
Elizabeth Gilbert: See TED video “Your elusive creative genius” in my article Elizabeth Gilbert on fear and creativity and mental health, which also includes links to her book on creativity “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” and her online Creativity Workshop.
Stephen Diamond: See quotes by him, plus links to his book and to our audio interview, in my article Anger and creativity.
One of the books by Philip Pullman in “His Dark Materials” trilogy includes The Golden Compass – the link goes to the movie with Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman and others.
“Would creating a work of art be easier for you if an inspiring spirit were here to guide you? To spark you with endless new ideas?
“And bless you with the divine energy that is at the heart of all creative endeavors?
“Here is a map to the joyful place where your partner in creativity resides.”