Art with the Proper Stranger

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Author: Terry Castle
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,390 words

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[(essay date 14 October 2002) In the essay below, Castle presents a detailed overview of The Lives of the Muses, praising Prose's narrative skill, but questioning the ideological premise of the work.]

Back when I was a college student, in the early 1970s--at a tiny school in Tacoma, Washington--one of my fellow English majors was a lady named Tina. Tina was older than the rest of us: a married woman in her thirties who had come back to school to finish her B.A. She was rosy, bodacious, slightly dim-witted, and the first full-blown nymphomaniac of my acquaintance. Whenever we studied a new author, her favorite post-lecture question--leeringly posed when our little all-female klatch of majors met for coffee after class--was inevitably: what do you think X would have been like to sleep with? No matter how unalluring (or unavailable) the writer in question might seem to be--we hit on everybody from the Beowulf poet to Truman Capote--Tina insisted that we put our minds to the subject. She was eager for our views. Sometimes, in a dire refinement of concupiscence, she would pose the question as a stark Kierkegaardian either/or: whom would you rather sleep with, Donne or Marvell? Byron or Keats? Arnold or Swinburne? Henry James or Henry Miller?

Though chaste at the time--and already tending to eccentricity--I would try to play along. Do the author and I get to "do it" at my place or his? If I choose Keats, will he already be suffering from T.B.? (Coughing up blood: a definite turn-off.) Can I ask Arnold to trim those hideous sideburns and stop parting his hair in the middle? Tina was our expert. But there was also a certain pathos about her. She wanted some Great Writer under her erotic sway; it didn't matter if he had been dead for four hundred years. She yearned to be a femme fatale, even if only via the pages of the Norton Anthology. She ended up having an affair with one of our professors--a brawny young Joyce scholar with a black beard and hippie hair who turned out, she wistfully confided to us, to be impotent with any woman other than his wife. The poor man (ahem, ahem, ghastly stage whisper) had been molested as a little boy by a Catholic priest! So that explained it. Though this was the first time--our knowing looks notwithstanding--we had ever heard of that.

I thought of Tina, stalker of men, while reading Francine Prose's new book about muses [The Lives of the Muses]. As her brazenly post-feminist subtitle--Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired--suggests, Prose is magnetized by what it means to be a muse: a woman who by some unique combination of personal charms--physical beauty, emotional receptivity, intellectual passion, or sheer knock-'em-dead charisma--inspires a man of genius. What is the curious alchemy, Prose asks, between an artist and his muse? What strange psychic powers do certain larger-than-life females exert over brilliant and gifted men? In search of answers, she...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100075313