I shy away from the word “inspiration”. As a writer I do not trust it. For me hopeful reliance on “inspiration” is to remove from originality the riches of memory and of self, to depersonalize the writer, and to make his creativeness dependent on some higher power.
Sometimes one speaks of inspiration as divine influence. For centuries theologians have discussed the supernatural influence of God on the chroniclers of the Holy Scriptures: until the 15th century dissenters from that dogma risked the stake.
At some point also secular writers assimilated the word. One came to believe that the divine descends magically from somewhere between earth and heaven and lays its wand on one or the other waiting writer. Not the writer utters then the intelligent words, but the Great Spirit. As if the thus blessed artist had some shamanistic power! It is not the writer’s “I”, but some other power is speaking through him.
Inspiration is a convenient explanation of the mysterious source of ideas and the originality which the writer employs in his creations. Traditionally one likes to imagine the poet sitting around waiting for the arrival of his specific Muse bearing mystical inspirations. One feels comforted by the image of the surrealist in a Parisian café adding another saucer to the stack to count the absinthes he has consumed while searching in its depths for his inspiration.
If inspiration exists, then what is it? Where does it come from? At first, the common word, inspiration, would seem to refer merely to an idea - the brief flash of an image that arrives like a bolt of lightening from the blue. Perhaps inspiration is a blurry apparition in an old mirror, chipped and cracked, and marked by time, which appears as the miraculous reflection of those sought-after images and ideas deriving from a once heard music or a distant moment of solitude – or from melancholy and pain, nature, lost love, and life and death - images of which emerge briefly from the niches of our memory.
It often happens that a writer rereads words he wrote earlier with considerable surprise. He asks himself it he really wrote them. Though they are familiar, they seem to belong to someone else. He recognizes that he could never write the same again. He would never be able to recapture those same images because he could never re-evoke exactly the same feeling that stands behind them. The feeling of that one specific moment in time has vanished, returned back into memory, which is always an uncertain affair with its own inexplicable rules.
Every writer experiences the sensation of another writer living inside that old text – the story, the poem, the essay. For the truth is that someone else did write the earlier text. The same core self wrote it, but it was someone else. The creator was the someone else of the moment of the original creation who recorded those particular ideas and images – ideas and images in turn provoked by a certain music, by solitude, by desperation, or by chance or, as some prefer, mysteriously by God.
For a moment the writer even fears for what he is presently writing: If his new text were lost, how could he ever replace it? For in our memory images and ideas, words and sentences, structures, stories, plots, and even endings are elusive. They even elude the writer during the interval between the budding of an idea in his brain and the time it takes to transform it to words and record them.
The writer spends a lot of time walking around the room and looking out windows. He watches films with a special eye. He listens to music and talk with an attentive ear. He is alert to the caprices of chance. He hopes to retain the mad images of a prophetic dream that can arrive in his nocturnal encounter with death. The writer is always on the qui vive for that image, that idea, or for the resurfacing from memory of a forgotten missing element.
I do not believe that the result of the search for a story line, a plot, and an end, merits the highfalutin definition of “inspiration.” As a writer friend said, inspiration can be seen as a function of practice – the more you practice, the easier it comes. For in writing “inspirationally”, patience, persistence and purposefulness are required.
Nor do fantasy and imagination seem synonymous with inspiration. The result of divine inspiration in the form of fantasy and imagination may be merely evanescent, banal, hollow, useless, boring – and also deceptive and treacherous, counterfeit and mendacious. And if not a lie, then mere vanity.
In his short poem, La Luna, Borges captures the image of the man who tries to summarize the universe in a book; at the moment he declaims his last verse and raises his eyes toward the heavens in thanks he sees the burnished disk in the air and realizes with horror that he has forgotten the moon.
Inspiration - or the idea and the image - do not derive from fashion and fad. Nor is it born in alcohol or drugs a la Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Nor in earthly terms, is it a gift from God. Ultimately inspiration must come from within oneself.
I prefer to call inspiration simply one’s art. That flash of intuition is not inspiration; it is art. Art in turn, I believe, must arrive from memory – memory of only a moment earlier, or memory of the distant past. Memory, too, of the future. Borges writes in Arte Poética that art is the mirror that reveals to us our own face. That is, our self.
In general we are more familiar with the past as the fount of our art. For memory lies there. Yet, I believe, art - or suspicious inspiration - comes also from change, that is, from the present and the future.
Art arriving from the fixed and stationary is by definition limited, for life and history do not stand still. Concepts of station, status, state, statistic, status quo, static are unrelated to creativeness, which is the bringing into being from nothing.
The art of creating is mutation from the state of nothingness to existence. Therefore, in my opinion, the maxim that History develops, Art stands still, holds only limited truth. Art changes slowly, but it changes as man’s consciousness of self changes.
A creative person who lives alone in a desert and who knows nothing of the world can write about his own self, the nature around him, and his feelings about it. Later, he can recall those former feelings and speculate on them. That is memory. If a second person arrives, his environment doubles: he can write about all aspects of his relations with the other, how he feels about him, and can describe the other’s actions and reactions and imagine the other’s feelings toward their shared environment.
Contrary to the old myth, I believe human nature changes. All writers today are linked by multiple cultural-social-economic-political common denominators. Five centuries ago the dissolution of the feudal system, the growth of cities, and the diminished power of the Church resulted ultimately in mass society. Slowly art adapted to the new form of society.
In another century that base will again have changed and the universal spirit will have followed. Political society and religions will always resist change but circumstances will change anyway and culture will follow its lead. I believe in the development of humanity toward something better. To survive we must believe in progress.
This is not to claim that art changes the course of history. The reality is that politics still comes first - art can then change accordingly. Environment conditions art, not the contrary.
Inspiration would seem to lie in the manner in which the creative artist reacts to his immediate environment and, today, differently than a century ago, to universal society.
Paradoxically, the poet Wordsworth devoted the greater part of his life to political and social questions and Marx a great part of his to the study of poetry. The French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution were supreme facts for both.
For purposes of this essay, the case of Wordsworth is primary; poverty, freedom and social justice were the cornerstone of his work. Harold Bloom writes in The Western Canon that the result of Wordsworth’s inspiration in the poem “The Old Cumberland Beggar” was the “exquisitely controlled pathos and aesthetic dignity in representing human suffering…. The entire poem is secular revelation, an uncovering of last things … an epiphany because it intimates to Wordsworth, and to us, a supreme value….”
The poem of the Bloom quotation constitutes a rare case of divine inspiration. Despite my continuing antipathy for its everyday use, the word “inspiration” here hangs heavy over us terrestrials as significant, sacred and canonical: the early Wordsworth, Bloom sums up, sings that human dignity is indestructible, the will endures, and the eye of Nature is on you from life to death.
I believe the reflection of true inspiration is to be found waiting deep inside the core and essence of a poem or story. Inspiration itself waits inside the potential strangeness and the otherness. It lives inside the otherness Bloom finds in “The Old Cumberland Beggar.” Inspiration does not arrive on call, but it bides its time and waits to be discovered and extracted by the creator with joy and wonder.
If he is lucky the artist might find that inspiration was there all the time – concealed inside his search for originality. I like to think that elusive inspiration is the will to be different. To be different from what I am. The will to be somewhere else. Also the will to be part of the divine.
© 2002 Gaither Stewart
Gaither Stewart is an American journalist who lives in Rome and now dedicates his writing life mostly to fiction. His articles and fiction have appeared in many international publications. Two of his e-books are available from Southern Cross Review. See our E-book Library. Email: [email protected]