The "Muse" is an interesting concept. Functioning both as the source of artistic inspiration and as its object, as an explanation for the unique qualities of an individual artist and as the authority for his or her claims to transcendence, the Muse has worked in Western discourse to stabilize the realms of temporal and eternal, local and universal, internal and external, by reifying the mediation between them. The Muse then names the space between the figurative and the literal, between culture and art. Because it can be seen to function in two directions, furthermore, the Muse explains equally well why art creates a reality or mirrors one, why culture produces art or receives it. A double agent operating under nine possible flags, moreover, it potentially serves the interest of any authority one might wish to evoke. The Muse then, I would argue, is the figure of authority itself. Supplementing either the inside or the outside, it is the extrinsic formulation of whatever a given "intrinsic" intrinsically lacks. In this light, considering the role of the Muse in the books at hand helps reveal the authorities to which the respective authors and editors appeal to legitimize their endeavors.
For Jo Brans, author of Listen to the Voices: Conversations with Contemporary Writers, the Muse is the magical power that puts writers (or at least the writers Brans admires) in touch with transcendent verities. In conducting the nine interviews that comprise the collection, Brans explains, she has "listened to startling and, yes, magical things," things, in other words, that confirm her conviction that "in some mysterious but significant fashion, beyond style and craft, the writer and the work are one." In her magical mystery tour of conversations with John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Donald Barthelme, D. M. Thomas, Margaret Atwood, Erskine Caldwell, Iris Murdoch, William Gass, and Margaret Drabble, Brans asks questions about fictional characters almost in a gossipy fashion, as though they were not merely characters, and questions about morality, values, and even religion, of the authors, as though those authors were not merely human. As the makers of magical works from which they themselves are inseparable, writers, Brans seems to believe, are spiritual leaders, forever touched by the spirit, endowed by the Muse. Given her line of questioning, then, and her acknowledged Christian fundamentalist background that helps inform it, it is not surprising that Brans finds, despite the diversity of the writers, "our discussions insistently circle back to two common concerns . . . the creative process [and] the morality of art."
Within this framework, the conversations are often delightful. Brans clearly is an informed and adoring fan, equally at home with the authors and their characters, equally grateful for sage advice and supple anecdotes. She also writes elegant introductions that concisely review each author's works and concerns. But perhaps the most interesting conversation is the one with Margaret Atwood because Atwood is most resistent to Brans' endeavour, a point best illustrated by Atwood's [End Page 251] discussion of her own "political position": "Politics, for me, is everything that involves who gets to do what to whom. . . . Politics really has to do with how people order their societies. . . ." When she further says that "Jane Austen is a political writer for me. She's talking about how to get what you want," Atwood denies not only Brans' idea of politics but also her idea of the Muse.
One might expect to see the implications of Atwood's understanding echoed in Politics and the Muse. In the Introduction to this collection of "Studies in the Politics of Recent American Literature," however, the editor, Adam Sorkin, spends some pages discussing...