Reading Pressfield’s The War of Art (pt. 3: Invoking the Muse)

To me, part three of Pressfield’s book is where things really start to get interesting. Part one looked at overcoming Resistance in our approach to work; part two looked at the idea of “turning pro”; part three is where things get theological. This section, which Pressfield entitles “Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm” is all about invoking the muse.

Now, Pressfield seems to mean this quite literally. He relates that before he sits down to work, it is his practice to “take a minute and show respect to this unseen Power [the Muse, the daughter of Zeus] who can make or break me” (118). As he shares in the preface, this is how he begins his writing day:

I’ve got my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece Meredith gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for only eight bucks in francs, and my lucky LARGO nametag that came from a dream I once had. I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend Bob Versandi gave me from Morro Castle, Cuba. I point it toward my chair, so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, which my dear mate Paul Rink gave me and which sits near my shelf with the cuff links that belonged to my father and my lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. It’s about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in.

There are a couple of interesting things here, the first of which is Pressfield’s collection of lucky objects. I wonder if there is a correlation between working in the creative fields and the use of, or belief in, luck and totems and the like? When I was in grad school I kept a number of objects on the shelf of my library carrel: a fist-sized rock from my childhood summer camp, a toy wooden horse (inside the drawer in its side: a tiny seashell, a marble, an unusually shiny penny), and a few other knick-knacks of sentimental and/or aesthetic value. I didn’t think of them as “lucky” — really, I didn’t think of them at all except as decoration. Nevertheless I liked having them present and arranged just so while I worked. Make of that what you will!

Overall, though, all of this has made me wonder whether it’s possible to discern what, exactly, Pressfield’s theology is. As part of his working day, Pressfield prays to the daughter of Zeus — quite sincerely as far as I can tell (see pp. 116-21 for more on this). He has some vaguely Kabbalistic beliefs about angels and their role in our lives:

Angels work for God. It’s their job to help us. Wake us up. Bump us along.

Angels are agents of evolution. The Kabbalah describes angels as bundles of light, meaning intelligence, consciousness. Kabbalists believe that above every blade of grass is an angel crying “Grow! Grow!” I’ll go further. I believe that above the entire human race is one super-angel, crying “Evolve! Evolve!”

Angels are like muses. They know stuff we don’t. They want to help us. They’re on the other side of a pane of glass, shouting to get our attention… (123)

Note the reference to “God” in the first line; Pressfield is clearly not talking about YHWH — possibly he is talking about Zeus. But a later passage clarifies his thinking about the nature of (the) deity:

Everything that is, is God in one form or another. God, the divine ground, is that in which we live and move and have our being. Infinite planes of reality exist, all created by, sustained by and infused by the spirit of God. (138)

“In which we live and move and have our being” is, of course, a quotation from St. Paul in Acts 17, who is himself quoting (most likely) the Greek poet Epimenides of Crete. To further confuse the issue, here is a snippet from Pressfield’s “about” page on his website:

I believe in previous lives and the Muse—and that books and music exist before they are written and that they are propelled into material being by their own imperative to be born, via the offices of those willing servants of discipline, imagination and inspiration, whom we call artists. My conception of the artist’s role is a combination of reverence for the unknowable nature of “where it all comes from” and a no-nonsense, blue-collar demystification of the process by which this mystery is approached. In other words, a paradox.

So, to sum up: reincarnation, Kabbalah, pantheism, the Greek pantheon,the pre-existence and self-inception (for lack of a better term) of the arts, and a sort of Jungian view of the Ego and the Self (which I haven’t touched on but you can find for yourself on pp. 132-41). It’s quite the hodge-podge! But despite the — dare I say it? — complete incoherence of Pressfield’s theology, what makes this section really fascinating for me is how he still manages to put his finger on something really important. He’s so close. Look at this passage (bolded emphasis mine):

… when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication.  She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.

Just as Resistance has its seat in hell, so Creation has its home in heaven. And it’s not just a witness, but an eager and active ally. (108)

This is the point at which I would like to change tracks a little bit, and see if we can put Steven Pressfield in dialogue with Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers is most often remembered for the Lord Peter Wimsey novels she authored in the 1920s and 30s, but in her own day she was a fairly prominent lay theologian with a particular interest in work and creativity. In The Mind of the Maker, her seminal work on creativity and the nature of the Trinity, she traces mankind’s creative ability back to the Genesis account of being made in the image of God:

How then can he be said to resemble God? It is his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things. (Sayers, 22)

Like Pressfield, Sayers turns to the mind of the creative writer as a means by which to examine work and creativity in general, and specifically its relation to the divine. But rather than turning to the Jungian Self or the Greek Muses, Sayers finds a pattern in the act of human creation which she ties analogically to the nature of the godhead as expressed in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Mind of the Maker is her treatise on the subject, but it was “previewed” in the closing doxology of her play The Zeal of Thy House, which had been written a few years prior to the publication of The Mind of the Maker. This is the final speech of the play, given by the archangel Michael and quoted in full in The Mind of the Maker (the bracketed additions are Sayers’s):

For every work [or act] of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, [not in time, but merely in order of enumeration] there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy [or Activity] begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.

And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other: and this is the image of the Trinity. (Sayers, 37-8)

Does this not sound, to some extent, like what Pressfield is moving towards? I think Sayers would agree with Pressfield wholeheartedly when it comes to the lived experience of the creative artist, from the need to be diligent to the curious phenomenon of ideas that seemingly arrive from somewhere Out There. And though her vocabulary is different, her view on “turning pro” and the attitude necessary to do work well is similar to his; she wrote extensively on the idea of “serving the work,” in which she calls the artist to mastery of his or her craft and, above all, integrity and excellence in its pursuit. This pursuit of the craft will breed a new set of values in the artist, “… which are not purely economic; he beholds the end of the work. As a common-or-business man, he requires payment for his work, and is often pretty stiff in his demands; but as an artist, he retains so much of the image of God that he is in love with his creation for its own sake” (Sayers, 221). Here, again, Sayers and Pressfield find themselves in agreement.

Here are two different writers, working from two vastly different theological frameworks, and yet they are each hitting on the same essential kernel of truth — and I do believe that it is truth — about the makeup of the creative artist and the nature of creative work. The War of Art is well worth a read; bringing Sayers alongside can make it even more valuable. I commend them both to you.

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  1. Pingback: Reading Round-Up: September 2017 | In this Ordinary Time

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