With my long-running investigations into the experience of inspired creativity in the mode of the muse, the daimon/daemon, and the genius, I was interested to see this theme getting a big shout-out in the mainstream press in connection with the publication of Tori Amos’s new memoir, Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage.
Here’s Brian Gresko in Literary Hub:
Throughout Resistance runs the idea that the artist exists to serve; not just her audience, but the creative force that speaks through her, The Muses. “There are some people who think that they write their songs, and you know what, maybe they do,” Amos says. “But I don’t. I co-create.”
The Muses gift her with bits and pieces of a song—“usually only eight bars at a time”—and she works with that to develop the whole. Her writing process, as she describes it in the book, involves travel and research, word maps and free association, and most of all, listening, paying close heed to people oppressed, and critical attention to those in power. This too grew out of her time in the piano bar, when she witnessed senators sharing drinks and handshakes with lobbyists, Big Oil, and corporations.
“The Muses are quite something,” she tells me. “They’ve been with me since I was a tiny little girl, and they are real. Even my husband, who is a cynic, and an agonistic [sic; I think the writer means agnostic]—he doesn’t believe in things unless they make sense—has seen it happen. I’ll be ready to record a song that’s written and all of a sudden something I’ve never heard before comes out. For example, “Marianne,” on the album Boys for Pele, was written as you hear it on the record. And I feel I’ve never really learned how to play it properly, because when a song just downloads like that, I’m left thinking, ‘What in the world was that?’”
Under The Muses’s influence, Amos develops a Song Being, a musical form with its own soul and essence. The relationship she forges with that Being is personal and intense. Handing them off to the label, at the end of the recording process, is tough for her, and she marks it with a glass of champagne or, “when I really need it,” tequila, and a few hours alone in the studio.
“It’s not a private conversation once they leave the control room.” The Muses, she says, have made clear to her: she doesn’t own the songs or control what they mean. “What somebody thinks of a song is just as valid as what I think of it. You have to accept that, I think, as an artist.”More: “Tori Amos Is Always Listening to the Muses“
And here’s Amanda Petrusich interviewing Amos in The New Yorker:
The book is, in many ways, also a treatise on the nature of creation—on how to remain open enough to the world that you can document something true about it.
It’s about taking in, and it’s about trusting that the muses will come when they come. They don’t always come on your schedule.
Did the muses operate differently for you with the book, versus the writing of a new album?
They began to operate in a similar way. My work—on songs, as well as the book—is very much based in research. Sometimes the muses would be pushing me to research World War I, and I’d be asking them, Why? Sometimes I don’t know where they’re taking me. . . .
When I was really little, these muses would just come. It always feels bigger than me as a person. I step into my art form, and I serve. You really have to do that. The muses know if you don’t.
When you say the word “serve,” I think of religion, or the idea of serving God. It’s obviously different, what you’re describing, but it still seems to involve humbling yourself before something bigger than you. It also makes me think of your father, who was a pastor.
Yes, but maybe it’s more of an aboriginal or a native perspective. If you’re serving Mother Earth, there’s interconnectivity. You have to get yourself out of the way. Let the muses take over. . . .
You do have to be ready when they show up, and that’s not an easy task. I think it sounds easier than it is. Other artists have talked about it—the idea of pulling aside on the freeway. I know that I’ve had to just stop conversations, because I’m not going to get it if I don’t quickly write it down, or record it. People who know you get that that’s kind of how it is, but people that don’t know you can think it’s kind of dramatic. But I find that if I don’t write it down, then I just can’t remember it, not in the form that it’s being given.More: “Tori Amos Believes the Muses Can Help“
For those who find such thoughts and insights to be interesting — or maybe even, like me, fiercely gripping — be advised that they pair ever so nicely with Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on the genius, Steven Pressfield’s insights into the muses (and their battle with Resistance) in The War of Art, Victoria Nelson’s sage advice on learning to work harmoniously with your unconscious writer’s mind in On Writer’s Block, Dorothea Brande’s sage advice on the very same thing in Becoming a Writer, Ray Bradbury’s “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” in Zen in the Art of Writing, and my own A Course in Demonic Creativity (which is the only one of these titles that you’re likely to find for free outside of a lending library).
Photo by Indolent Dandy / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
I was saddened yesterday to learn of the death of Joe Pulver. Mike Davis, publisher of Lovecraft eZine, tweeted a link to a deeply moving Facebook update from Katrin Pulver, Joe’s wife, in which she had shared the news. Word of his passing has now circulated throughout the fairly close-knit community of horror readers, writers, and publishers. Joe was a singular presence in that community, and especially in the Lovecraftian end of it, where he earned a lasting name for himself as both an author and an editor with a distinct passion for Lovecraftian horror, the weird fiction of Robert W. Chambers, and the work of Thomas Ligotti.
I never met him in person, but we did know each other online, and I did write the introduction to his 2012 fiction collection Portraits of Ruin. And in my infrequent contact with him, he always seemed like the gentlest of souls. Many other people have been sharing similar thoughts and impressions over the past 24 hours.
In retrospect, that intro for Portraits of Ruin feels kind of like my own personal tribute to Joe’s idiosyncratic authorial genius. With the permission of both him and Hippocampus Press, I published the full text of it here some years ago. Now seems like a good time to go back and revisit it.
I began the intro by saying this:
Plato once wrote, “But if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane companions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.” This is a sentence rich with, and in fact threaded and structured along, a succession of deeply striking and evocative phrases and images: “the door of poetry . . . the madness of the Muses . . . sane companions . . . utterly eclipsed . . . the inspired madman.” They’re like a collage of implied spiritual-artistic meaning, a chant whose very intonation is at least as important as, and probably more than, its conceptual content. In other words, they gesture toward something, some transcendent reality they can’t quite articulate. Or at least that’s the way I like to take them, regardless of dear old Plato’s intentions.
And this, I think — both my fixation on this quote, which is talismanic for me, and my preferred way of reading it — is one of the main reasons why I find Joe Pulver’s Portraits of Ruin to be so deeply disquieting. Reading it, I begin to wonder, inadvertently, inexorably, about the name and nature of the particular door that he may have passed through in the pursuit of his art. I wonder about the identity of the particular Muse — dark, wild, daimonic — that may have maddened him. And wondering these things, I’m driven to doubt whether we, his sane companions, can ever really comprehend him, and I suspect that we must instead resign ourselves to having our understanding utterly eclipsed by the performances of this inspired madman.
And I ended it by saying this:
The final word can go to Joe himself. Back when he and I were communicating about the possibility of my writing this introduction, he told me, “I never know what to make of my stuff.”
This, above all, is what you might want to bear in mind as you turn the page and proceed to immerse yourself in what follows. The author himself does not know what to make of these writings. Neither do I. Nor, I daresay, will you. But the very attempt to do so, to “make something” of them — an interpretive activity that the work itself incites because of its native grippingness and stylistic brilliance (that surrealist’s flood of unconscious inspiration is channeled, mind you, through a finely honed and tuned set of conscious literary skills, just like [John] Cage’s pianistic training) — this very attempt at finding some sort of meaning is, in the end, the point. Because the meaning is really and truly there. You can sense it in every line and phrase, grinning darkly at you through the interstices of the words and images. It just happens to be a meaning that you can only “understand” by allowing it to speak to your own deep self, to your — dare I say it? — daimonic Muse.
So don’t ask what Joe is doing; that approach only closes it off. Instead, rely on the coherence of your deep self to understand the coherence of his. In learning to do this, to resonate with this book of impossible imaginings presented in improbable forms, you may well find that you’re being altered and enlightened in ways that are truly transformative.
After all, only an inspired madman can understand an inspired madman.“Horror, the Muse, and Inspired Madmen: My Full Introduction to Joe Pulver’s Portraits of Ruin“
Between that intro and conclusion, I recounted and reflected on my unfolding experience of realizing that Joe’s book, which (like all of his work) is rich with bizarre and surreal imagery, language, and narrative contortions and disruptions, had basically taught me how to read itself. Engaging with those seemingly impenetrable stories in an attempt to figure out how best to introduce them to other readers generated a kind of readerly epiphany about the necessity of sometimes setting aside my rational, linear sense of comprehension, and simply surrendering to the midnight flow. I can’t imagine a more instructive or rewarding literary experience.
That’s how I’ll remember Joe. As a gentle soul and a valued colleague whose “inspired madman” literary voice and vision expanded my private horizon as a reader. I treasure that. And I remain grateful to him.
In 2017 I published an enthusiastic review of Jerry L. Martin’s God: An Autobiography here at The Teeming Brain, and also at Amazon. The book presents Martin’s account of being an atheist who was hit with an unexpected experience of what presented itself as divine communication. Over the course of about a year, he found himself involved in an ongoing dialogue with God (plus a couple of additional spiritual beings at one or two points) in which the nature of God, humans, life, death, and the universe itself were given decidedly unconventional expression. As I said in my review, these things are given added weight by the fact that Martin is no flaky peddler of New Age hype but a real philosopher whose resume gives him serious intellectual credibility. The first paragraph of his biographical entry at Wikipedia serves as handy evidence of this:
Jerry L. Martin is the author of God: An Autobiography, As Told to a Philosopher (godanautobiography.com), coordinator of the Theology Without Walls project at the American Academy of Religion and a contributor to The Good Men Project. From 1988 to 1995, Martin held senior positions at the National Endowment for the Humanities, including acting chairman. From 1967 until 1982, Martin was a tenured professor and chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he also served as the Director of the University’s Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy. He has testified before Congress and appeared on radio and television. Martin is chairman emeritus of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He served as president of ACTA from its founding in 1995 as the National Alumni Forum until 2003, when he was succeeded by Anne D. Neal.
A few months after I wrote my review, Jerry — whom I knew on a first-name basis from having interacted with him online — interviewed me via Skype for one installment in a series of videos that he was putting together to dovetail with the themes in God: An Autobiography. The videos were to present conversations between him and some of the thinkers with whom he had come into contact via the book.
These are now being released. My own interview was published just yesterday. In it, I talk about my religious upbringing in a conservative evangelical church. I recall my early love for fantasy and horror fiction and film, with horror coming to take center stage in my late teens. I describe my sleep paralysis and nocturnal assault experiences and their formative role in darkening my philosophical worldview and emotional outlook and thus catalyzing my birth as a horror writer. I mull over the question of whether darkness or light is more fundamental as the spiritual or metaphysical ground of being. I describe my fascination with the subject of the muse, the daimon, the genius, and experiences of both divine communication and demonic possession. And I relate these things to the subject matter of God: An Autobiography. Along the way, I also recount how I first came into contact with Jerry Martin when the online excerpts from the God book that he shared prior to its publication came to my attention as I was conducting some of my perpetual research into inspired creativity and the experience of anomalous communication from a seemingly spiritual source.
Two necessary notes: First, an apology for the lousy sound quality in the video’s first few minutes. I can’t imagine why I wasn’t using earbuds or headphones. Second, when Jerry asked me at the end of the conversation to suggest a starting place for those who are interested in reading my books, I didn’t name To Rouse Leviathan because it was still in a questionable hyperspace at that time. Presently it’s set for publication next month. If the conversation were recorded today, that’s what I’d name.
A few months ago I discovered that my entire Daemonyx album has been uploaded to YouTube by CD Baby. This is the same album that accompanied my Dark Awakenings collection when people bought it directly from the publisher, Mythos Books.
In case you’d like to hear it:
The whole thing seems strangely alien to me now. Although playing music is still a very important part of my life, the four-year burst of inspiration and creative obsession / possession that resulted in this particular body of music feels, in retrospect, rather like a dream. I regard such an impression as pretty appropriate given the music’s dominant focus on themes of daimonic inspiration and possession, filtered and refracted through multiple musical styles and emotional wavelengths (primarily beauty, sadness, darkness, and sublime exhilaration). I know these same themes are important to many reader of The Teeming Brain, so maybe you’ll find that the music resonates with you.
Back when I was nearing the end of the project, I solicited a few comments and blurbs from friends and colleagues with similar thematic and creative obsessions. Some of you may have read these previously, but in case not:
Like a soundtrack to a fever dream, the music of Daemonyx plumbs an ever-changing world of mystery, mood, and melodic apparitions. Listen with the lights out and your imagination on.
– Brian Hodge
Daemonyx’s compositions conjure up images of eerie strangeness and awesomely alien worlds that nothing can evoke better than music.
– Ramsey Campbell
“There are many haunting and beautiful compositions that complement or completely make horror films — you know the ones — as well as appeal to listeners who are sensitive to the mystery and dread of life. In its debut album Curse of the Daimon, Daemonyx has offered us thirteen works of such quality.”
– Thomas Ligotti
The overall ambience of the music reminds me a little of the electronica of Klaus Schulze. There’s a similar powerful evocation of vast and terrifying soundscapes. In the song “Daimonica,” I very much like the way the haunting and oppressive music blends with the grim signal motif, “Is there someone inside you?” In “The Gates of Deep Darkness” the ominous martial nature of the music provides a real chill, as of some impending apocalypse.
– Mark Samuels
Intricate, haunting and complex pieces of music, richly creative and inspiring.
– Tim Lebbon
Some neat thoughts on inspired creativity drawn from Lewis Hyde and Stephen King, and presented by Terri Windling, whose editorial and authorial contributions to modern fantasy and speculative fiction have been so very valuable:
As Hyde explained in his book, The Gift (1983):
“The task of setting free one’s gifts was a recognized labor in the ancient world. The Romans called a person’s tuletary spirit his genius. In Greece it was called a daemon. Ancient authors tell us that Socrates, for example, had a daemon who would speak up when he was about to do something that did not accord with his true nature. It was believed that each man had his idios daemon, his personal spirit which could be cultivated and developed. . . . According to Apuleius,” he continues, “if a man cultivated his genius through such a sacrifice, it would become a lar, a protective household god, when he died. But if a man ignored his genius, it became a larva or a lemur when he died, a troublesome, restless spook that preys on the living. The genius or daemon comes to us at birth. It carries with us the fullness of our undeveloped powers. These it offers to us as we grow, and we choose whether or not to accept, which means we choose whether or not to labor in its service. For the genius has need of us. . . .
Stephen King takes a more irreverent approach to daemons and muses in “The Writing Life” (2006):
“There is indeed a half-wild beast that lives in the thickets of each writer’s imagination. It gorges on a half-cooked stew of suppositions, superstitions and half-finished stories. It’s drawn by the stink of the image-making stills writers paint in their heads. The place one calls one’s study or writing room is really no more than a clearing in the woods where one trains the beast (insofar as it can be trained) to come. One doesn’t call it; that doesn’t work. One just goes there and picks up the handiest writing implement (or turns it on) and then waits. It usually comes, drawn by the entrancing odor of hopeful ideas. Some days it only comes as far as the edge of the clearing, relieves itself and disappears again. Other days it darts across to the waiting writer, bites him and then turns tail.”
“On the care and feeding of daemons and muses,” October 13, 2015
N.B. I refer to the same sources in A Course in Demonic Creativity, and even include a portion of Hyde’s quoted words above as one of the book’s opening epigraphs.
Dr. James Fadiman
Just published and now available here at The Teeming Brain: my interview/conversation with Dr. James Fadiman, one of the pioneers of transpersonal psychology and modern research into the spiritual and therapeutic applications of psychedelics. This has been a long time in coming, for reasons that I explain in the interview’s introduction.
The interview is ten thousand words, so be prepared to settle in. A lot of what we talk about focuses on the practical and philosophical inadequacies of dogmatic scientific materialism in dealing with things like anomalous and paranormal experiences such as inspiration and perceived communication or encounters with supernatural entities. Here’s a key excerpt:
JAMES FADIMAN: The reductionists eventually paint themselves into a corner. Consider the people who talk about the neurophysiology of dreams. They say, “Look, here’s this little part of the brain that turns on when you’re dreaming, and therefore dreams are psychophysiological in nature.” Then we ask, well, what generates a sex dream, a dream where a dead person appears with information, and a dream where you’re seated before a large pizza? And of course they say, “Why don’t you just go away.”
MATT CARDIN: I think you’re raising the basic question of phenomenology as it relates to ontology.
JAMES FADIMAN: But if you take the position that the brain is the place through which consciousness moves, so that it acts kind of like a radio, then all of those different dreams are much more understandable, because we can say they’re coming from different channels, different stations, different gods, different muses. And that makes much more sense. . . . Science’s fundamental error is a religious sort. Science says, “Certain data (since we know it does not exist) you shall not look upon.” Science holds up the story of the church and Galileo to emphasize how dogmatic the church was in its refusal to look at evidence. But if you say to scientists, “What do you know about telepathy? What do you know about clairvoyance? What do you know about near-death experiences?” they say, “Those don’t exist, and I’ve never spent a moment looking at the evidence, because they can’t exist” . . . . Scientism — science as a religion — and science are quite far apart. You see, I think I’m a scientist. That means that anything that happens, whether subjective, objective, sensory or whatever, I look at it. That may be due to my psychedelic experiences, which reminded me that, “Whatever you think the world is made of, James, you have a very limited view.” My muse chimes in and says, “Obviously, if you look at the size of the universe and contrast it with the size of your brain, the chances of your being able to know everything are statistically almost non-existent.”
Virginia Woolf at age 20
Inspired by a reading of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Joshua Rothman, writing for The New Yorker, offers some rather enchanting reflections on a profoundly important meaning of privacy that cuts much deeper than the word’s contemporary framing in purely political terms:
These days, when we use the word “privacy,” it usually has a political meaning. We’re concerned with other people and how they might affect us. We think about how they could use information about us for their own ends, or interfere with decisions that are rightfully ours. We’re mindful of the lines that divide public life from private life. We have what you might call a citizen’s sense of privacy.
That’s an important way to think about privacy, obviously. But there are other ways.
. . . Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance — and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It’s hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that’s one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life’s mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life’s preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist’s sense of privacy.
. . .[T]he benefits of remaining “impenetrable” can be profound. Clarissa, famously, buys the flowers herself, and that allows her to enjoy the coolness, stillness, and beauty of the flower shop; the same, Woolf suggests, happens in Clarissa’s inner life, where her heightened feelings are allowed to stay pure, untouched. Even Peter, with time, comes to regard himself in this way: “The compensation of growing old,” he thinks, is that “the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light.” By learning to leave your inner life alone, you learn to cultivate and appreciate it.
And you gain another, strangely spiritual power: the power to regard yourself abstractly. Instead of getting lost in the details of your life, you hold onto the feelings, the patterns, the tones. You learn to treasure those aspects of life without communicating them, and without ruining them, for yourself, by analyzing them too much. Woolf suggests that those treasured feelings might be the source of charisma: when Peter, seeing Clarissa at her party, asks himself, “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? … What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?,” the answer might be that it’s Clarissa’s radiance, never seen directly, but burning through. Clarissa, meanwhile, lets her spiritual intuitions lift her a little above the moment. Wandering through her lamp-lit garden, she sees her party guests: “She didn’t know their names, but friends she knew they were, friends without names, songs without words, always the best.” That’s the power of an artist’s privacy. It preserves the melodies otherwise drowned out by words, stories, information.
MORE: “Virginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy“
One is reminded of Lewis Thomas’s thesis in his classic essay “The Attic of the Brain” about the importance of preserving the mystery of one’s own mind:
It has been one of the great errors of our time that to think that by thinking about thinking, and then talking about it, we could possibly straighten out and tidy up our minds. There is no delusion more damaging than to get the idea in your head that you understand the functioning of your own brain. Once you acquire such a notion, you run the danger of moving in to take charge, guiding your thoughts, shepherding your mind from place to place, controlling it, making lists of regulations. The human mind is not meant to be governed, certainly not by any book of rules yet written; it is supposed to run itself, and we are obliged to follow it along, trying to keep up with it as best we can. It is all very well to be aware of your awareness, even proud of it, but never try to operate it. You are not up to the job. . . . Attempting to operate one’s own mind, powered by such a magical instrument as the human brain, strikes me as rather like using the world’s biggest computer to add columns of figures, or towing a Rolls-Royce with a nylon rope. . . . We might, by this way [i.e., by deliberately hiding a portion of our psyches from ourselves], regain the kind of spontaneity and zest for ideas, things popping into the mind, uncontrollable and ungovernable thoughts, the feeling that this notion is somehow connected unaccountably with that one.”
One is also reminded of Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s words in his Journal Intime about the need to protect the mystery of one’s inner self by avoiding a too-quick and too-keen attitude of psychological self-awareness:
Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole soil with the plowshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring, and reserve a nook of shadow for the passing bird; keep a place in your heart for the unexpected guests, an altar for the unknown God. Then if a bird sing among your branches, do not be too eager to tame it. If you are conscious of something new — thought or feeling — wakening in the depths of your being — do not be in a hurry to let in light upon it, to look at it; let the springing germ have the protection of being forgotten, hedge it round with quiet, and do not break in upon its darkness; let it take shape and grow, and not a word of your happiness to any one! Sacred work of nature as it is, all conception should be enwrapped by the triple veil of modesty, silence, and night.
Photo by George Charles Beresford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When I took down the Demon Muse site in 2012, this did away with the couple of interviews that I had conducted for the site. A few weeks ago I republished the one with John Langan here. Now the circle is complete, because here’s the resurrection of my interview/conversation with T. M. Wright:
Many of you surely know Terry as the author of the classic horror novels Strange Seed (1978) and A Manhattan Ghost Story (1984). In this interview he talks about his creative process and his thoughts on the relationship between muse-like inspiration and hard work. Here’s a sample:
Getting in touch with the creative unconscious is probably a tricky thing to do. After all, it’s the “unconscious” for a reason: it doesn’t want to be gotten in touch with. But to find that true creative voice, my advice would be to forget it’s there, and simply write. It doesn’t really matter what you write as long as it’s got some kind of flow, strange or otherwise. How much should you write? As much as you can until it becomes drudgery. When that happens, back away.
In a fascinating article from 2008 at The Daily Grail, Aeolas Kephas (a.k.a. Jason Horsely) reflects at some length on the roles of Whitley Strieber and Carlos Castaneda as literary shamans whose dedication to sharing their paranormal experiences, encounters, visions, and insights brought them much trouble:
Both Castaneda and Strieber were apparently singled out by mysterious parties to undergo an extraordinary initiation process and bring account of it to the world. Without the intervention of don Juan Matus and his party of sorcerers, it’s doubtful we would ever have heard of Castaneda, and the same holds true of Strieber. Although he was already a best-selling author (of horror fiction) before his alien encounter of 1985, it was only with the publication of Communion, in 1986, that Strieber established himself as one of the most puzzling and original writers of our time. In the field he has chosen — or been chosen — to write, that of UFOs and alien visitation, Strieber is probably the current leading exponent.
. . . Caught between a strange and deeply threatening new reality and an old reality that no longer offers comfort or assurance, that seems increasingly hollow and illusory, is it any wonder if both Strieber and Castaneda took refuge in writing, and in the grand gestures of prophet-gurus?. . . The very gift for which they were chosen as conveyers of forbidden knowledge would make Castaneda and Strieber outcasts, both in the world of men, and the realm of sorcerers and “aliens.” Like Mercury, the price of being granted free passage between the realms meant that they belonged to neither. Intellect, like the messenger, like language itself, is a means and not an end; it has no place in the primal realms or the supernal spheres: the one is beneath it, the other beyond it. This is the comedy and tragedy of the word, and why a day comes in the life of every writer when he or she is forced to choose between the illusory control of the written word — being the messenger — and the power and freedom of direct experience: becoming the message. He who lives by the pen, dies by the pen.
But of course such dangers, and the existence of people who willingly court and/or accept them by taking on that literary shamanic role, are nothing new. Case in point: Charles Robert Maturin, author of the towering Gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer, published in 1820. Melmoth is a novel that, with its distinctly Faustian plot of a man who sells his soul to the devil and then spends 150 years trying to undo the deal, has long been recognized as one of the greatest and, as it so happens, appallingly darkest novels of its kind. No less a light than Lovecraft described it as a masterpiece “in which the Gothic tale climbed to altitudes of sheer spiritual fright which it had never known before. . . . No unbiassed reader can doubt that with Melmoth an enormous stride in the evolution of the horror-tale is represented.”
Apropos to Kephas’s words about Castaneda and Strieber above, Maturin’s masterwork gains a resonance that’s all the more riveting when considered in light of the following words from one of his biographers, Robert E. Lougy, who notes that Melmoth arose out of a very real and very deep psychic well of darkness that very nearly undid Maturin when he assented to its opening:
[O]ne has the feeling that Maturin, in writing Melmoth, calls forth a reality that is so powerful, yet so grotesque, so cruel, and so foreign to Maturin’s daily existence, that the dividing line between genius and madness is throughout it very thin. (Indeed, a contemporary account of him during the time he was writing this novel suggests that he was virtually obsessed with his creation.) And Maturin himself frequently alluded to his own creativity in terms of witchcraft — of how he wanted his reader to “sit down by my magic Cauldron, mix my dark ingredients, see the bubbles work, and the spirits rise.” The danger, of course, in evoking spirits is that one can never be certain whether he can control them or of the price they will demand from him. The dangers would appear to be multiplied when one calls upon the spirits in their own territory, as Maturin seems to have done in Melmoth.
For to write such a novel is to probe those areas of knowledge, both “the visions of another world” and the darkest recesses of the human psyche, which strain the endurance of the mind, and to cross, perhaps irrevocably, forbidden boundaries. The writer then becomes isolated from the world around him, having used the incantatory power of the world to bring forth a reality that borders on the irrational and the insane. He is at once the possessor of secrets he will share with those readers who dare to sit down by his “magic Cauldron” and also possessed by those demons whose presence his art will reveal.
For a lengthy excerpt from Lougy’s 1975 monograph that includes this very passage, see the entry on Maturin in Gothic Literature: A Gale Critical Companion.
For more on the same general theme, see “Shirley Jackson: Witchcraft, madness, and the uncanny dangers of writing.”