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Esprit and Eros
Ambrosial Is the Muse’s Kiss
“Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide …” – this is the invocation with which Homer (ca 700 BC) begins his Odyssey. The blind singer was clearly not totally blind to female allure, or at least not to feminine esprit.
The first female to succumb to an artistic affection was the poet Sappho (ca 630 to 570 BC), who is still regarded as one of the most brilliant female poets of all time, and who Plato described as the “tenth muse.” Those not so well-read mostly know her as the originator of lesbian love, although legend has it that she threw herself to her death from atop the Leucadian cliffs due to her unrequited passion for the handsome ferryman Phaon. Like many highly erotic women, Sappho was probably bisexual, a suggestion backed up by some of her verse. A disposition well worth imitating, since bisexuality (as Woody Allen remarked) doubles one’s chances of a date.
In the 21st century, we have the luxury of being able to book muses, rather than having to worship them. Men and women on business who want to use their scarce free time to relax creatively can allow a muse to accompany them to the theater, a concert, or dinner: with the possibility of an erotic revelation. But more about that later.*
Dante’s Muse Was a Minor
Dante Alighieri (1265 to 1321), Italy’s greatest poet and creator of The Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia), discovered in his own experiment what Sigmund Freud (1856 to 1939) groundbreakingly lauded as sublimation: the human ability to turn its most powerful motivation, the sex drive, into artistic or scientific performance. Dante fell in love with the eight-year-old Beatrice Portinari the moment he set eyes on her. And when the object of his adoration died at the age of 24, he made her immortal in his work. Dante never had physical contact with her; he never even spoke to her. The motives of a mathematics tutor at Christ Church College in Oxford by the name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832 to 1898), who became world famous as Lewis Carroll, had less to do with courtly love. He chose the daughter of the deacon of Christ Church as his muse, and, while on a boat trip with picnic, the 13-year-old Alice Liddell inspired him to tell wonderful stories that later appeared in book form as Alice in Wonderland. Honi soit qui mal y pense!
“To call Charles Dodgson a pedophile is not only to misapprehend and diminish the nature of his relationship with Alice Liddell but to deny its complexity, its depth, and its essential singularity,” claims Francine Prose in The Lives of the Muses (2004). However, some of the photos of his child muse that Lewis Carroll presents to us indicate a less twisted state of affairs. They certainly seem to show a young seductress, and perhaps also one who has been seduced (which does not mean that the writer and muse allowed more than fanciful imaginings to develop). Let’s call it platonic love.
Chaplin’s Muse Gave Birth at 15
“Platonic” is not a word you could use to describe the love between Lillita McMurray and Charlie Chaplin. The “King of Comedy” married his young muse in 1924, informing the press that she was 19. In fact, she was only 16, and 15 when she gave birth. Chaplin met Lillita when she was 12 years old, and intended to turn her into a movie star named “Lita Grey.” But rather than making an impression with cinematic performances, she bore Charlie two sons. Even when the second was born, she was still underage, and the brilliant father already 35. Lillita = Lolita? It’s no great leap to suggest who may have been the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s drily humorous novel Lolita.
Since his amorous adventure with Lillita cost “The Tramp” a million dollars in compensation and endangered his career, Chaplin was more careful of timing when choosing his next partner. On May 14, 1943, at the age of 54, Chaplin married Oona, the beautiful daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888 to 1953) and former muse of writer Jerome David Salinger (1919 to 2010), author of the best-selling The Catcher in the Rye. Oona O’Neill celebrated her birthday on the day of her marriage to Chaplin – she had just turned 18.
Virginia Eliza Clemm was just 13 when she married the 27-year-old Edgar Allan Poe (1809 to 1849), inventor of the horror story, on March 16, 1836. Her muse’s kiss was a gift typical of his genre for her husband, as she passed away aged 24: enlivened by grief and posthumous desire, Poe wrote his two best poems – “Annabell Lee” and “The Raven.” To quote the latter: “’Tell this soul with sorrow laden if … It shall … Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels name Lenore?’ Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’”
Muses Wither in the Cage of Marriage
One of the maxims of Pablo Picasso (1881 to 1973) was, “Behind every great man is a loving woman, and there is a lot of truth in the saying that a man cannot be greater than the woman he loves and who allows him to be great.” He remained faithful to it, but not to his women. Fernande Olivier (1881 to 1966) was already a mother and once-married when she met the genius in Paris in 1904. She inspired him as a nude model and muse until Picasso married the ballet dancer Olga Koklowa in 1918. Marie-Therese Walter, who became his lover in 1927, probably fascinated Picasso primarily because she was his female counterpart: a powerful, hammer-nosed example of the era of his neoclassic oeuvre. At the same time, he was married to the photographer and painter Dora Maar (1907 to 1997), whose artistic development he jealously impeded. Frequent marital quarrels ended the relationship – and inspired Picasso to create his best works: the Weeping Woman portraits, including his monumental memorial Guernica (1937), which, alongside Desmoiselles d’Avignon (1907), is considered his magnum opus.
Françoise Gilot was Picasso’s muse for ten years from 1943. Gilot summed up this period of her life by saying that, like the “Maid of Orléans,” she had to “wear her armor day and night” in order to hold her own. He let her know that for him it was “really more fun to go to a brothel.” Why didn’t she kick him out there and then? According to Gilot, “In the long run, you can’t reject someone like Picasso; a woman is powerless against Picasso.” Which makes sense, given that the maestro liked to paint himself as a powerful Minotaur or fighting bull. In 1961, at 80 years old, Pablo fell in love again, and married the beautiful 46 years younger Jacqueline Roque (1927 to 1986). Like Marie-Therese Walter, she endured the love life of the legendary macho figure, but not his death. Both muses paid posthumous homage to him through suicide. “There are only two kinds of women,” scoffed the man made immortal by his art, “goddesses and doormats.” Muses who marry are often not spared this metamorphosis.
That is something that Alma Mahler-Werfel (1879 to 1964) also experienced, after she married the 41-year-old conductor and composer of the century Gustav Mahler at the age of 22. The music student sensed that the vertically challenged and unhealthy Mahler was a titan in musical terms earlier than the contemporary Viennese cultural scene did. But he would not tolerate foreign gods alongside him – and certainly not a goddess. “How do you imagine a married couple of composers to work?” he blustered in a letter from 1901. “Do you have any idea how absurd such a peculiar rivalry must become, and how detrimental it will be to us later?” Shortly before their marriage, Alma had inspired the great Gustav to an orchestral work that would accelerate the composer’s path to international renown with its use as the Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony in 1901 and the film music for Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice in 1976. However, in the role of Mahler’s spouse, the muse Alma was assigned a crib rather than a piano with which to find self-fulfillment.
When Alma married the Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius in 1915 and then the poet Franz Werfel in 1929, she was both older and smarter than her husbands, who were grateful for her muse’s kisses. In 1912, shortly after Mahler’s passing, she began a stormy affair with Oskar Kokoschka. The sensual Alma promised the cloddish, but artistically and sexually extremely impressive, expressionist “I will marry you as soon as you paint a genuine masterpiece.” Kokoschka bought a canvas larger than a queen-sized bed and, in 1914, did in fact create the best work of his life: The Bride of the Wind. But Alma had no intention of allowing herself to be tied down in marriage to this savage beast, who was enraged with jealousy, who brought a drama called Murderer, the Hope of Women to the stage, and who declared his belief in the phrase (admittedly intended purely as a provocation): “Either be God or a criminal!”
But when Alma’s daughter Manon Gropius died of polio in 1935, her muse’s kisses, though drowned in tears, brought about another creative miracle: Franz Werfel honored the seventeen-year-old’s memory in literature, while Alban Berg did so in music. With his violin concerto, he succeeded in producing the most beautiful and poignant work yet spawned by the twelve-tone technique.
Cosima Wagner (1837 to 1930), the daughter of composer and Mephisto pianist Franz Liszt, seemed to Richard Wagner (1813 to 1883) to be the embodiment of the muse he had long sought: highly musical, more intelligent than most men and women of her time, self-confident, and energetic. An incarnation of the holy Elisabeth (from Tannhäuser) and Isolde (from Tristan and Isolde) with the passion of Venus – if such a thing is possible. But Cosima did not develop into Aphrodite, not by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, she turned out to be an anti-Semite and a precursor to Hitler, whom she wrongly believed to be a new God-like figure. This also set the reputation of Richard Wagner, the most intellectual of all composers, on the worst course imaginable.
In comparison, the muse’s kisses of Mathilde Wesendonck (1828 to 1902) were of great benefit to Wagner’s self-fulfillment. She was a poet, who appreciated Wagner’s daring compositions and his passionate lover’s oaths. Richard dedicated the Wesendonck Lieder to her, the most beautiful of which (with the catchy title “In the Greenhouse”) the deeply-in-love composer chose as the leitmotif of his opera Tristan and Isolde (first performed in 1865). Wagner’s avowal of love for Mathilde reaches its climax in “Isoldes Liebestod” (Isolde’s love death), the first musical representation of an orgasm.
As fate would have it, Elizabeth Siddal (1829 to 1862) was chosen by the English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a man talented and meditative in equal measure, to be the muse of the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of artists who followed the example of the early Renaissance period. “Lizzie” was a milliner with a working-class background. But, inspired by her porcelain-white skin, waist-length titian hair, and elegiac grace, the Pre-Raphaelites transformed the chaste girl into a sophisticated beauty of glorious bygone days. For them, “Lizzie” was at times Shakespeare’s Ophelia, at others Beatrice, who died young but was the lover of Dante, with whom Rossetti (a man averse to modesty) gladly identified himself.
They married when she was 17 and he 22, but soon realized that illusion does not make a good basis for a happy marriage in reality. Consequently, he drowned his sorrows in alcohol, she hers in laudanum, a tincture of opium, which killed her aged 33. Rossetti, who was also a good businessman, had his muse buried along with his sonnets and spread word that she appeared to him at night. In 1869, he ordered his agent Charles Howell to secretly dig up the grave, save his manuscripts, and spread the rumor that the beautiful Elizabeth’s corpse had not yet decayed and that her hair had continued to grow and filled the entire coffin. He then went even further and created a new masterpiece, Beata Beatrix (1863–1870), again romanticizing his beloved as Dante’s Beatrice.
Do Intelligent Muses Kiss Better?
Can we consider Frida Kahlo (1907 to 1954) to be the muse of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1886 to 1957)? Or did the creative impulse work the other way round?
In their lifetimes, Rivera was considered Latin America’s most important painter, very much on a par with Pablo Picasso. But when he is spoken of today, it is mostly as the husband of Frida Kahlo. When they married in 1929, she was a 22-year-old medical student and he (twice her age) was already Mexico’s living national treasure. Due to a tram accident, in which a rail gouged Frida’s abdomen, she was unable to ever have children. But Diego taught her to be fertile in other ways: as an artist. In return, Frida, a committed communist, motivated Diego to create monumental murals in the name of Mexico, freedom, and The Party.
In public, she appeared as the delicate “dove,” and he as the “elephant,” who threatened to crush her and betrayed her with other women at every opportunity – even with Frida’s sister Christina. For her part, Frida, who herself was certainly no chastity belt–wearer, also let her passions run free. Her lovers were always older men bent on immortality, such as the poets André Breton and Pablo Neruda, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, the cinematic genius Sergei Eisenstein, art collector Heinz Berggruen, and Josef Stalin’s adversary Leo Trotsky (“A tempestuous woman!”).
Vaginal sex was, of course, out of the question for Frida. But, when reproduction is not necessarily the aim of the activity, there are plenty of ingenious ways to play with sensuality. In this vein, Frida also enjoyed lovemaking with women, including the film stars Dolores del Rio and Paulette Goddard, as well as the beautiful Tina Modotti, muse of the famous photographic artist Edward Weston and a woman who was a notable photographic reporter in her own right. You may well remember the captivating scene in Julie Taylor’s film Frida (2002), in which Salma Hayek (as Frida Kahlo) and Ashley Judd (as Tina Modotti) dance the most erotic tango in cinematic history.
“We are just lumps of clay compared to her. She is the greatest painter of this era,” said Diego Rivera in summary. Without doubt, the fragile girl in Tehuana dress was in fact a very, very strong woman.
“Lou is as sharp as an eagle, as brave as a lion, and in the end still a very girlish child.” This is how Friedrich Nietzsche described the young writer Lou Andreas-Salomé, whom he met in Rome in 1882. Like his fellow philosopher and friend Paul Rée (1849 to 1901), Nietzsche (1844 to 1900) was initially impressed, then intoxicated, and finally completely befuddled by the 21-year-old Russian-German-Danish beauty. Lou, a bewitching Circe, well-educated and charming as she was, knew how to turn the heads of intelligent men and bring them to the point of despair. “Tonight I will take so much opium that I will lose all reason,” groaned the love-stricken Nietzsche. An emancipated woman, who is not seducible, but rather seduces, was a shocking thing to experience at the end of the 19th century. It was a feeling that, until that point, men had only had to endure at the opera, in George Bizet’s Carmen (first performed in 1875 in Paris).
“This bony, dirty, stinking she-ape with her false breasts – a disaster!” ranted Nietzsche, against his better judgment and desire. At about the same time, he admitted to his friend Rée: “We are friends, and I will keep this girl and her trust in me sacred. – In any event, she has an incredibly sure and pure character.” Lou had, after all, inspired Nietzsche to write Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1885), which included the lines, “You go to women? Do not forget the whip!” A photograph from the time, however, shows that Lou was the one who cracked the whip.
When Lou, then aged 36, met the 21-year-old René Maria Rilke, whom she called Rainer, in Munich, she wooed the “shy boy with the beautiful eyes” with both her words and her actions. Rilke was still a virgin at the time, but that soon changed. Lou improved the style of Rilke’s early writings and encouraged him to learn Russian so that he could read Tolstoy and Turgenev in their original form. At the turn of the century, they went on two trips to Russia. “I want to see the world through you: for then I will see not the world but always and only you, you, you!” he wrote. With so much love, Lou had soon had her fill of Rainer, not least as he became more and more clingy, and bothered his beloved with crying fits and “anxiety attacks and physical seizures” that made her worry about his mental health, as she noted in her memoirs.
Concerning herself with the minds of others proved to be the greatest talent of Lou Andreas-Salomé. In 1911, she enjoyed an intense amorous adventure in Sweden with neurologist Poul Bjerre, who was 15 years her junior. He introduced her to Sigmund Freud (1856 to 1939). Freud, five years older than Lou (1861 to 1937) and still in his best years, sublimated the sexual attractiveness that Lou still exerted into professional interest – which saved him a great deal of heartache and brought him valuable insight: “The last 25 years of this extraordinary woman’s life belonged to psychoanalysis, to which she contributed valuable scientific works and which she herself also practiced. It’s not going too far to admit that we all considered it an honor when she joined our ranks of colleagues and fellow combatants …”
In the case of the beautiful Lou, he even mercifully overlooked the fact that his muse also made eyes at the theories of his rivals, C.G. Jung and Alfred Adler (a deadly sin from a Freudian point of view).
Sense and Sensuality of Modern Muses
Anaïs Nin (1903 to 1977) became world famous through her diaries and their erotic revelations. To her posthumous chagrin, she still would not be described as a great writer – but she was a great muse. Together with her husband, the banker and art patron Hugh “Hugo” Guiler, the young sophisticate, who spent her youth in Havana, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Barcelona, and New York, met the ambitious but as yet unknown American writer Henry Miller (1891 to 1980) and his wife June in Paris in 1931. The most rakish amorous escapade in the history of literature thus far developed from the spontaneous ménage à trois involving June, Henry, and Anaïs.
They were both enthusiastic readers of the novels of D.H. Lawrence (including Lady Chatterley’s Lover), which advocated his theory that only uninhibited sexuality could blast open societal constraints. With Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer (1934), the maestro and his two muses proved that they were the better blasters. The novel was immediately banned in the USA and the United Kingdom due to its obscene content, which catapulted it to a long-term spot on the best-seller list.
Above all, Anaïs gave wings to the career of the increasingly successful author not through her orgiastic revelations, but by helping him bring his brazen stories to the page. She discussed each passage with him, proofread, wrote a foreword, lent him her typewriter, and paid printing costs. Miller, intoxicated by sex and success, carried on writing: Black Spring (1936) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939) are works in which the phallic and the philosophical complement one another. In Quiet Days in Clichy (1956), he depicts an adventure that may have seemed to him like the first conquering of the mons veneris. He states: “Sex is one of the nine reasons for reincarnation. The other eight are unimportant.”
The experiences of Anaïs Nin are spread throughout her 15 diaries (1914 to 1974), primarily in Henry and June: From the Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin (1931 to 1932). She certainly wasn’t a writer of the same rank as Marguerite Duras, who brought out the autobiographical novel The Lover. With intelligent self-effacement, she herself admitted that “the role of the muse in mythology was always that of inspiration.”
The 23-year-old American Lee Miller was unerring in her path to the Parisian Bateau Ivre to offer her professional services to Man Ray in 1929. “No, thank you,” was the reply – he didn’t need an apprentice and was about to go traveling. The beautiful Lee looked deep into the bulging eyes of her future mentor, and sassily replied, “OK, then I’ll come with you.” They remained a couple for three years. She served her compatriot, 17 years her elder, as an assistant, model, muse, and lover. He, originally a painter, benefited not least from the technical accomplishment of the photography student: when Man Ray accidentally let light shine on undeveloped negatives in his darkroom, Lee experimented with him until the initial mishap had been transformed into a muse’s kiss. The idea of the “Rayograph,” which made Man Ray’s photos unmistakable, was born. The elite of Montparnasse – from Marcel Duchamp to Pablo Picasso – soon included Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitsky) in their circle. He was the first photographer whose work was truly judged to be art.
But the insatiable Man Ray also accepted the kisses of other muses and models, such as the androgynous artist Meret Oppenheim (1913 to 1985) and the lively “Kiki de Montparnasse” (Alice Prin, 1901 to 1953). Both models helped him to create more effective images (Le Violon d’Ingres with Kiki became Man Ray’s most expensive work), as Lee Miller’s beauty was already so complete that art barely had anything to add. One exception is a double portrait showing Lee sitting like a young girl in the lap of her grimly frowning father (whose sexual victim she became at the age of seven). But even before she got to know Man Ray, Lee was an in-demand fashion model for Vogue and Vanity Fair. And after they separated, she developed into a coveted fashion photographer and photographic artist. She played the female lead in Jean Cocteau’s film The Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d’un Poète). However, she reached the peak of her career as a photo reporter during the Second World War, which, among other aspects, included harrowing documentation of events at the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau.
In 1947, having married the surrealist artist, art historian, and publicist Sir Roland Penrose (1900 to 1984),Lee Miller moved to an English farm with him, became a mother, and renounced her artistic activity. Lee, who in her later years developed as an excellent chef and food author, then inspired their artist guests (who included Max Ernst, Paul and Nusch Éluard, Kurt Schwitters, Antoni Tàpies, and last, but not least, Man Ray) with gourmet pleasures.
Yoko Ono (*February 18, 1933, in Tokyo) is suspected to be responsible for two significant acts – had she never delighted John Lennon (1940 to 1980) as a muse, he would probably: 1) never have become immortal as an artist; and 2) not been murdered on December 8, 1980. Because Yoko’s muse kisses gave wings to the works of her Beatle, and changed them to such a degree that the popular but trite pop bard became a critic, preacher, and agitator.
Shortly after their wedding on March 20, 1969, Yoko and John staged their first “bed-in,” a PR campaign for peace. John said, “We knew our honeymoon was going to be public anyway, so we decided to use it to make a statement. We sat in bed and talked to reporters.” At the second bed-in, in May 1969, they also recorded their single “Give Peace a Chance.” And at Christmas, the committed couple organized a poster campaign – “War is over – if you want it!” Encouraged by the theory of the psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich (1897 to 1957) that sex and uninhibited love could lead to altruism and world peace – even to global revolution – the couple supported numerous liberal and radical movements: campaigning for, among other things, the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, civil rights of black Americans and American Indians, and the Black Panthers.
Yoko even inspired – or practically indoctrinated – John musically. Her influence could be seen as early as The White Album, released in 1968. And the legendary “Imagine” is unmistakably the brainchild of both. According to Paul McCartney, he didn’t blame Yoko for The Beatles breaking up (1971). In fact, John was no longer fulfilled by the collaboration. His existential crisis initially manifested itself in drug taking, then turning spiritually to a charlatan Indian guru. His Beatles era had brought him fame and fortune, but had not sated his hunger for relevance. Being “more popular than Jesus,” was no longer an attractive aim for him, as he recognized the triviality of his actions: “I resent performing for … idiots who won’t know – who don’t know – anything.”
One of those idiots, by the name of Mark David Chapman, had John sign a record in front of the New York Dakota Building (where Yoko Ono still lives), and then shot him.
Long-lasting happiness can never really blossom alongside geniuses, supermen, and egomaniacs – especially not that of a sensitive muse. That is why muses’ kisses are fleeting, their marriages unstable. When the Brit Jane Birkin (*1946) met the happy-go-lucky writer Serge Gainsbourg (Lucien Ginsburg, 1928 to 1991), an amour en passant illuminated by ephemeral joy developed.
The liaison began with a song that Gainsbourg had written for his lost lover Brigitte Bardot. But the sex idol, at the time already married to Gunther Sachs and on the way to a life of leisure among the upper classes, took offense at Gainsbourg’s innuendos. “Je t’aime … moi non plus” (“I love you … me neither”) portrayed, charmingly but shamelessly, the loving whispers of a couple having sex. Jane, more like a high school student than a sex bomb, lent her little-girl voice to the track. The frivolous spark spread like wildfire: flames of enthusiasm among the educated youth, who were tired of hearing beat music and brainless bum-bum-bum tunes, and the hellfire of fanaticism among the self-proclaimed righteous and godly, for whom the idea of sex was apparently even more abhorrent than the Holocaust.
The Vatican excommunicated the record producer and numerous radio stations refused to play it. But “Je t’aime” sold over a million copies regardless, and Jane and Serge were suddenly famous. In 1975, Gainsbourg and Birkin made a film with the same title for all those who wanted to watch as well as listen. The couple became the darlings of the Saint-Germain intellectuals, and soon of a worldwide jeunesse dorée that lusted after airiness without shallowness.
The duo continued their successful frivolity with “La Décadanse.” In the same year, the first concert album followed in the shape of Histoire de Melody Nelson. Further success was restricted to France, and included “Baby Alone in Babylone,” “Les Dessous Chics,” and “Fuir Le Bonheur.”
After splitting from Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin played movie roles that brought admiration from cineasts: under the direction of names such as Agnès Varda, Jacques Rivette, and her future husband Jacques Doillon. After Serge’s death in 1991, Jane sang a song in the Casino de Paris that evoked memories of their love, beginning “Amour cruel – comme en duel” (“Cruel love – like a duel”).
Nota bene: Your faithful muse will fulfill many of your desires – just not that of marriage.
Except quotations marked by “quotation marks,” this text does not include any verbatim reproductions of other publications.
The following further reading is recommended:
Francine Prose, The Lives of the Muses, © 2004 Nagel & Kimsche from Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich and Vienna
Annette and Luc Vezin, The 20th Century Muse (Egérie dans l’ombre des créateurs) 2002 Édition de La Martiniére, www.knesebeck-verlag.de
Farid Abdelouahab, Muses: Women Who Inspire, © 2012 Flammarion – amazon
* Twelve equally charming and sensitive modern-day muses can be found at: www.greta-brentano.de and www.greta-brentano.com.