TO LIVE WELL & ENJOY BEAUTY
The Inspiration of the Muses in Daily Life

December 2016By Mitchell Kalpakgian

Mitchell Kalpakgian, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, who has been a visiting professor of literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and at Northeast Catholic College, teaches at Mount Royal Academy in Sunapee, New Hampshire. He is the author of numerous books, including The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, and The Virtues We Need Again: 21 Life Lessons from the Great Books of the West. His newest book, The Virtues That Build Us Up, is now available from Crossroad Publishing (www.crossroadpublishing.com). He writes weekly articles for setonmagazine.com and truthandcharityforum.org.

The ancient Greeks bequeathed to Western civilization the notion of the Muses, the nine goddesses of inspiration who preside over the music, dance, poetry, and drama that enrich ordinary life. Greek composers of epic poetry, for example, invoked the Muses to lift their songs and stories to sublime heights. Thus Homer begins The Odyssey, “The hero of the tale which I beg the Muse to help me tell.” Virgil in The Aeneid also seeks their aid: “I pray for inspiration, to tell how it all began.” Throughout The Odyssey, Homer depicts scenes of giving welcome to travelers. The Muses attend these festive banquets, as the rites of hospitality provide not only food and shelter to the visitor but also an opportunity for conversation, storytelling, song, and dance. In one such scene, Alcinous, the King of Phaeacia, introduces Demodocus, the bard “whom the Muses loved above all others,” to entertain Odysseus with “his heavenly gift of delighting our ears whatever theme he chooses for his song.” As the bard plays his lyre, he is soon accompanied by a “band of expert dancers” who move Odysseus to wonder with the exquisite beauty of their art as “their feet came down to the sacred floor with a scintillating movement.” Odysseus calls these moments of hospitality attended by the Muses “something like perfection” — the supreme moments of life’s sweetness.

The Greek ideal of civilization — the art of living well, to use Aristotle’s phrase — incorporates the aspects of beauty in its many forms to distinguish human life from barbaric existence. In Pericles’s famous funeral oration from Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War, the great statesman defined the Greek way of life as filled with the presence and influence of the Muses: “We have not forgotten to provide for our weary spirits many relaxations from toil; we have regular games and sacrifices throughout the year; our homes are beautiful and elegant; and the delight which we daily feel in all these things helps to banish melancholy.”

The Muses help dispel sadness and offer relief from the toil and tedium of life. As Plato writes in The Laws, without the Muses and the spirit of play, recreation, and leisure they bring to human life, man lives a dehumanized existence: “But the gods, taking pity on human beings — a race born to labor — gave them regularly recurring divine festivals, as a means of refreshment from their fatigue; they gave them the Muses, and Apollo and Dionysius as the leaders of the Muses, to the end that, after refreshing themselves in the company of the gods, they might return to an upright posture.” The Muses illuminate the classical distinction between the servile arts and liberal arts — the difference between the things man does as means to an end, like earning money, and the things he does as ends in themselves, like the enjoyment of recreation. The soul needs nourishment and refreshment as much as the body requires food and sleep.

In The Iliad the shield of Achilles depicts scenes from the daily life of the Greeks: a city at war and a city at peace, the sowing of fields and the harvest, judges working in a court of law to achieve a wise verdict and wedding guests celebrating with dancing, flutes, and harps. In all these instances, play follows work, and the Muses fill the occasions of recreation with the spirit of festivity. These scenes show that man requires the inspiration of the Muses to transcend mere physical existence — to live well and enjoy the beauty of the arts.

As harvesters reap grain, servants and women prepare a feast to renew body and spirit. As the grape-pickers gather the clusters that produce mellow wine, music fills the air as a boy plays a lyre, and “all the rest followed, all together, frisking, singing, shouting, their dancing footsteps beating out the time.” In one of the final scenes on the shield, Homer depicts a circle of youths in “fine-spun tunics” and maidens “crowned with a bloom of fresh garlands” who “danced and danced” in rapturous glee. They dance for pure pleasure and the love of the dance itself. The Muses accompany man in his daily rounds of toil in the field and in the home to alleviate the weariness of repetitious work.

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In Willa Cather’s My Antonia (1918), the narrator, Jim Burden, recalls a turning point in his education at the University of Nebraska when his Latin teacher, Gaston Cleric, explained a line from Virgil’s Georgics that translates as “for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.” The Latin word patria, the professor explained, does not mean “a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born.” Cleric lauded Virgil’s introduction of the Muses to the Roman people as the poet’s greatest accomplishment, even more important than The Aeneid, his epic that remained unfinished at his death. Cleric speculated that Virgil, during his final days, “must have said to himself with the thankfulness of a good man, ‘I was the first to bring the Muse into my own country.’” In other words, Virgil saw the value of the Muses as the birthright of all men, not simply the legacy of a privileged class of educated, wealthy patrons of the arts. From Greece, Virgil brought these goddesses of inspiration not merely to the capital or the palaces but to the small farms, villages, and “to his father’s fields, ‘slopping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.’”

Pondering the wisdom of his Latin professor, Jim soon experiences Virgil’s ideal of the presence of the Muses in the smallest towns and most obscure places. As Jim studies alone in his room, an unexpected visitor knocks at the door: A Muse arrives in the form of the beautiful, vivacious Lena Lingard, the daughter of a Norwegian immigrant and a beloved friend from Jim’s childhood life on the prairie. Lena breathes life into Jim’s lonely existence, transforming his somber mood and infusing the whole atmosphere of the room with passion, energy, and warmth. Jim realizes the power of one person to change prosaic dullness into lively poetry: “If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry.”

As Jim learns, Lena recently moved from the farm to do business as a dressmaker in the town where Jim lives. During this enjoyable time of renewed friendship, Jim compliments Lena on her lovely appearance and elegant style, and he enjoys her delightful, lighthearted reminiscences of their happy childhood. She invites him to attend the theater with her to rekindle their fond relationship from the past. After Lena says good night, Jim notices the rejoicing of his spirit: “Lena had left something warm and friendly in the lamplight. How I loved to hear her laugh again!” Her presence reminded him of all the immigrant girls he played with on the farm who made life joy-filled with their kind hearts and joie de vivre. Gaston Cleric’s lesson on Virgil’s love of the Muses profoundly touched Jim in a personal way: “It came over me, as it had done never before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil.”

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From Homer to Plato to Virgil to Willa Cather, the lesson shines forth that leisure, beauty, friendship, music, and dance keep life balanced and whole. My Antonia especially illuminates the importance of people as a source of inspiration. Whenever Jim thinks of Antonia, an immigrant girl from Bohemia and one of his closest childhood friends, he recalls her vibrant, radiant nature, especially her fun-loving exuberance and robust vitality. She was always glad to see Jim, racing across the prairie to visit him for her reading lesson and reveling in their friendship, running with him to explore the wildlife on the prairie with “eyes big and warm and full of light.” Jim remembers Antonia’s love of family, her fondness for playing with children, and her gracious, hospitable nature.

To Jim Burden, Antonia and the other immigrant girls he knew possessed “a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not overdelicate, but very invigorating” — an embrace of life’s joys and goodness that they expressed in their honest feelings, beautiful appearance, love of dancing, and mirthful natures. Jim always detected in Antonia a natural, uninhibited freedom of movement that she especially exhibited in dancing. Unlike the conventional, prim American girls, the daughters of the merchants who avoided domestic work, Antonia and Lena excelled as cooks and housekeepers and were never embarrassed about working to help their parents earn a livelihood. They put their heart and soul into all they did. Jim noticed that the refined American girls were not graceful dancers or interesting conversationalists (“their bodies never moved inside their clothes; their muscles seemed to ask but one thing — not to be disturbed”), whereas Antonia had “so much spring and variety, and was always putting in new steps and slides.”

After a separation of twenty years, Jim finds an opportunity to pay Antonia a visit as he travels by railroad from the West Coast to New England. Even after two decades of managing a farm with her husband and caring for her ten children, Antonia impresses Jim as a woman whose “inner glow” had not faded: “Whatever else was gone, Antonia had not lost the fire of her life.” Her many children, “a veritable explosion of life,” find their mother as much of a storehouse of delight as Jim did in his childhood. Seeing Antonia in middle age, Jim realizes to an even greater degree that “she was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races” — abundant in the generous giving of herself in all the expressions of love.

Life without the Muses or without the living poetry of beautiful, vivacious women with generous hearts and loving ways soon degenerates into a drab existence in which man lives only to work and accumulate wealth, never seeing the stars, never wondering at the splendor of the world, never learning to dance, sing, play, or love, and never appreciating the riches and depths of goodness in other human beings. Recalling their special friendship in the course of an entire lifetime, Jim fondly says, “You really are a part of me.” Antonia replies, “Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? I’m so glad we had each other when we were little.” Like Lena, Antonia was one of the Muses who brought poetry into Jim’s life.

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James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) also depicts a man of robust energy, lively conversation, and affectionate friendship who fills a room with wit, wisdom, and cheer. A man of passionate temperament renowned for his “intellectual vigour” and “ardent love of literature,” Dr. Johnson enlivened company with his convivial spirit and “clubbable” British affability. Boswell observes that Johnson “had no shyness, real or affected, but was easy of access to all who were properly recommended.” He praises the eminent man of letters for the stimulation he provided: “His conversation was so rich, so animated, and so forcible.” The famous actor David Garrick also relished Johnson’s refreshing, spirited companionship: “He is the first man in the world for sprightly conversation.”

Johnson especially displayed his lively mind when presented with nonsensical ideas and pretentious attitudes, which he ridiculed as “cant.” When Boswell cites the boasts of two of their acquaintances, David Hume and Samuel Foote, testifying to their fearlessness of death, Johnson retorts, “He may tell you, he holds his finger in the flame of a candle, without feeling pain; would you believe him?… Hold a pistol to Foote’s breast, or to Hume’s breast, and threaten to kill them, and you’ll see how they behave.” Johnson’s company was welcomed, savored, and valued by all in his circle of friendship. After his death, one beloved friend paid him the most memorable of tributes: “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best: — there is no body; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

Exerting the influence of a Muse, Johnson breathed life by frequently revitalizing old friendships and welcoming new acquaintances. He cultivated these relationships with weekly visits and frequent correspondence — a habit he explained in famous words of wisdom: “A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.” Johnson’s friendship brought affection, mirth, and kindness to dear friends, especially to Anna Williams, a blind widow for whom Johnson provided lodgings. His conversation made the exchange of ideas an exhilarating experience, as seen in the famous Literary Club that met regularly at the Mitre Inn for dinner and fellowship. Johnson’s example and inspiration also changed lives. Known for his integrity and scrupulous adherence to truthfulness in words and facts, Johnson’s friends prone to exaggeration, caricature, and intemperate language always measured their words in his company. Johnson, Boswell observes, “inculcated upon all his friends the importance of perpetual vigilance against the slightest degree of falsehood; the effect of which, as Sir Joshua Reynolds observed…has been, that all who were of his school are distinguished for a love of truth and accuracy.”

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The Muses acknowledge man’s need for art, beauty, play, and leisure to live well. Man needs the physical and emotional nourishment that the inspiration of the Muses provides to give life to the spirit. Daily life and ordinary work do not have to reduce man to a drab, dreary existence unrelieved by the pleasures of leisure. Work without play dehumanizes man and does not allow for the transcendence, contemplation, and wonder the Muses bring. Women like Antonia and Lena fill life with their exuberance, delight in beauty, and enjoyment of people; Dr. Johnson teaches us how to converse, tell stories, and live abundant lives. Without these, life is tepid and mundane — an impoverished existence Orwell describes so well in 1984: “It struck him that the truly characteristic thing about modern life was not its cruelty or insecurity, but simply its bareness, its dinginess, its listlessness.” The Muses remind us that we don’t have to — we shouldn’t — settle for such an existence.



DOSSIER: Literature





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