Where does inspiration come from?
“O Muse, recount to me the causes …" begins the Aeneid, a Latin epic poem written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC. It was common for the poets of the ancient world to invoke the muse when seeking artistic inspiration; creativity was considered something external to themselves, a well that could be drawn from. Today, most people in the West believe inspiration comes from within.
Reading the journals of artists and writers, it seems the source of artistic inspiration is still difficult to pin down. Creativity is often portrayed as a deeply mysterious process. In pursuit of the elusive ingredients necessary to produce a masterpiece, some actively seek—or sought—external sources of inspiration through occult means. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes consulted a spirit guide, Pan, using a homemade ouija board. These strange conversations resulted in some of Plath’s finest works. Artistic inspiration came naturally to Picasso, who said: “I don't seek, I find.” Some hint at divine provenance without attempts to locate it; after Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016, Leonard Cohen said this: “I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow.” Divine or not, finding the source seems the ultimate cure for creative block. Artists and writers have been in contact with this strange realm—or entity—at least since ancient times.
Jhumpa Lahiri, author of The Namesake, spoke about the mysterious nature of creativity in an interview with The New Yorker:
“All writing, all art is just a wild leap off a cliff because there’s nothing to support you. You’re creating something out of nothing, really. No one’s telling you to do it. It comes from within, and it’s a very mysterious process, at least for me. I still don’t understand how I write a story or a book. I don’t understand how it happens. I mean, I know it takes time, I know it takes effort, I know it takes lots and lots of drafts and hours, but I still really don’t understand the internal mechanism of how it really happens.”
Cormac McCarthy wrote about this internal mechanism in an essay titled “The Kekulé Problem” (Nautilus, 2017), using a more scientific lexicon: “to put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.” Put like this, it sounds like the author, best known for novels including The Road and Blood Meridian, adopts a machine reductionist stance. But McCarthy still seems to regard the unconscious mind—and the dreams and metaphors it produces—an enigma worthy of our attention: “we don’t know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be.” He poses questions but provides few answers: “and is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy?”
In an interview with Oprah, McCarthy said: “you can’t plot things out. You just have to trust in wherever it comes from.” Oprah asked him if he believes in God. "It would depend on what day you ask me. Sometimes I think it’s good to pray. You don’t have to have a good idea of what or who god is to pray. You could even be quite doubtful about the whole business.” The author doesn’t understand the source, but this openness to experience means he can draw from it.
McCarthy is also a respected senior fellow at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI). To introduce McCarthy’s essay, David Krakauer, president of the Santa Fe Institute described him as a research colleague, thought of in complementary terms, an aficionado on topics including quantum mechanics, and the nature of the conscious and unconscious mind. “At SFI we have been searching for the expression of these scientific interests in his novels and we maintain a furtive tally of their covert manifestations and demonstrations in his prose.”
Evident here is the potential reciprocity of art and science when dealing with things we don’t yet understand. We still know little about the unconscious mind, the muse, the divine, or whatever name we want to use for that which defies being known. But one thing seems clear for artists in search of inspiration: we need to be receptive to the voices that come to us from the great unknown.
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