My Muses: Thalia and the Mona Lisa

As the Greek muse of comedy, Thalia is among my favorite of the fair affecters. She sparks a willingness to smile, and knows that a perfectly timed practical joke is worth a more than a picture and its thousand words. At least, that’s what my muse of comedy, Mona Lisa, could tell you!

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On August 21st, of 1911, Mona Lisa was stolen from the Grand Gallery of the Louvre by an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Perugia. Most people recognized this as a tragic blow to the art-world, but has anyone ever entertained the possibility of Mona Lisa just needing a little holiday?? I mean, just consider the famed “Mona Lisa smile.” I know that look all too well. That expression means give me a damn break! I’ve been entertaining crowds in the Louvre since 1804, and before that I had to hang about in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom in the Tuileries, for da Vinci’s sake! I need to get away!

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Here’s what I believe happened. The winsome Mona presented to Perugia her most beguiling smile, and eventually (through her considerable charms) coerced him to take her away to see the sights. She decided to summer on the Riviera, and after getting quite a sun burn, insisted that she retreat to the Alps for some tranquil reflection. Her much needed respite ended in 1914, but reliable sources claim that she’s planning on another vacation, soon! Oh, Mona Lisa, you little minx!

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My Muses: Erato and Anais Nin

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Erato. The muse of love poetry. If I were to assign a mortal woman to Erato’s position, I can’t think of any gal more suited to inspire romance than Anais Nin—writer of erotica, memoirist of passion. Born in France to Cuban parents in 1903, Anais began her life amid the peaceful haze of the Belle Epoch (between the tumult of the Franco Prussian War and the First World War), but the modernization of post WWI west would sweep her away into a world of desire and liberation for women.

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Anais was not one for conformity. She left school at age sixteen and later became an artist’s model, thumbing her nose at “lady-like” behavior. It was at this time that she also left the Catholic Church in the dust, drawn instead, perhaps, to the temple of love! However, Nin did not cultivate her sense for amore until she happened upon a tantalizing collection of French erotica, belonging to an American man (living in France). While she and her family rented this American man’s apartment for the summer, Nin could pore over steamy sentences of his naughty book collection. The fates had thrown Anais and “smutty” novels together. She would never be the same.

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Beyond reading fiction, Nin cultivated a sense of her own sexuality through her various high-profile romances. She was the lover of Henry Miller, and wrote of her desire for his wife, June, in her diary. Clearly, the scope of passion and love were ever growing in Nin, as was her sense of self-possession. Anais Nin had also been keeping a diary since she was eleven years old, and would continue to keep it for over sixty years. Her penchant for writing came in handy when she was strapped for cash during the 1940’s. It was at this time that Nin, Henry Miller and her band of merry writer friends began writing erotica, for an anonymous collector, at a dollar a page. Decades later, Nin published these lust-filled narratives in two books: Delta of Venus and Little Birds.

 

Here are a few selected excerpts from her erotic novels:

 

“He was in that state of fire that she loved. She wanted to be burnt.” – Delta of Venus

 

“He had not touched me. He did not need to. His presence had affected me in such a way that I felt as if he had caressed me for a long time.” – Delta of Venus

 

“With her eyes alone she could give this response, the absolutely erotic response, as if febrile waves were trembling there, pools of madness…something devouring that could lick a man all over like a flame, annihilate him, with pleasure never before known.” – The Little Birds

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Significantly, Anais Nin became the first woman to publish true, fleshy, lusty erotica in the west. As a pioneer of boundless female love in fiction, I honor her as my muse of love poetry. She is the perfect flesh and blood well-spring for inspiration in the bedroom and beyond. Causing readers to stir with lust and leave them dripping with wet anticipation, Anais Nin would make Erato proud.

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My Muses: Euterpe and Sappho

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Euterpe is the Greek muse of lyric poetry, and while she’s really great and all, she is made of mythic material. Sappho, on the other hand, was a real flesh and blood (well, now, soil and worms) gal who wrote honest to goodness lyric poems. Sappho was born around 630 BC, on the Isle of Lesbos. She was a Greek lyricist, and one of only a handful of female poets known to the ancient world. Supposedly, Solon (Athenian lawmaker and poet) was so moved by her work that he desired to be taught a song by Sappho “so that I may learn it and then die.” Now, Solon is either prone to emotional outbursts, or Sappho was one sweet lyricist.

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Unfortunately, we may never know which of Sappho’s lyrical poems had whipped Solon into a frenzy of drama, because much of her work has been lost through neglect.  Medieval Byzantium dropped her works from their standard curriculum in the process of modernization, and copies of her poems ceased to be reproduced by scribes. As if her work hadn’t suffered enough, in an act of textual terror, copies of her poetry had been destroyed in the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Gasp!  

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Here’s a lovely adaptation of a poem by Sappho, as translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

One Girl
 I 
Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough, 
Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, — 
Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now. 
    II 
Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found, 
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound, 
Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.

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In modern times, Sappho is known less for her written work, and more for her image as a symbol of female homosexuality. Her romantic poetry, involving female subjects, has made her the darling of lesbian circles. The English words “sapphic” and “lesbian” both refer to Sappho, thus, preserving her in writing, after all. Her ability to morph herself centuries after her death into words which exist in the English language is almost as astounding as her poetry. Truly, Sappho is one inspiring babe, and she has been operating as a muse for many a year.

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My Muses: Clio and Anna Comnena

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I’ve already mentioned that my ability to enjoy relaxation is limited. So, in an attempt to dampen the sunny fun of my vacation, I’ve created a small project for myself. For the nine days that I’m on holiday, I will assign a real-life, honest-to-goodness lady to an appropriate Greek Muse. So far, I’ve managed to feature Bessie Stringfield as a flesh and blood version of Calliope. Today, I will be looking at the life of Anna Comnena, widely recognized as the first female historian. Appropriately, she will serve as my real-life Clio. My muse of history.

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Anna was “born and bred in the purple,” as she puts it in her historical masterpiece, the Alexiad. She came into the world on December 1st, of 1083, and grew up in the Imperial Palace of Constantinople. Anna’s mention of the luxurious color purple is a nod to her position as a Byzantine princess (her father was emperor Alexios I). In the medieval ages, the color purple was generally reserved for royalty and nobility under sumptuary law. But, even if a poor-old peasant wanted to break the law and don the color purple, the dye-stuff was too expensive and rare for a “commoner” to obtain. The reason: one of the major sources for purple dye at the time were murex snails, which populated the Mediterranean Sea. Divers were required to harvest the sea snail, and then the snail shell had to be cracked open and the hypobranchial gland removed, which secreted the blue tinted chemical, dibromo-indigotin. 10-12,000 murex snails were required to make one gram of Tyrian or royal purple dye, so you can imagine the dye was costly, at the expense of both humans and snails. (Thanks for joining me on this tangent about murex snails!)

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Back at the royal palace, Anna was receiving an exemplary education, as she was prepped for rule. She studied astrology, mathematics, philosophy, literature, geography, Greek language, medicine rhetoric and…yes…history. She was a tailor-made royal. She had brains. She had ambition. But, what she didn’t have were balls. You can imagine that she was pretty peeved when her younger brother, John II, was offered the throne. She was preparing to place the royal diadem on her brow and the brow of her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios. And, because she could not tolerate B.S., she formed a conspiracy to murder and overthrow her brother. However, the plot was uncovered and poor Anna was booted out of court.

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After her plot to take over the throne was thwarted, and her husband died in 1137, Anna lived out the rest of her days in the seclusion of the convent. This might sound like a grim existence, but any writer knows that living like a hermit in a cloister-like setting is ideal for producing prose. It was during Anna’s time at the convent that she finished the history of her father, Alexios I, known as the Alexiad, which her husband had started before he croaked. Beyond the document’s importance as the first known history written by a woman, the Alexiad contains rare accounts of the First Crusade from the point of view of the Byzantines. Anna’s brilliant mind and brimming ambition could not be suppressed, and the Alexiad is a testament to her glowing talent. Amongst the mortals, she is my Clio. My muse.

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My Muses: Calliope and Bessie Stringfield

I’m sitting in a beach-house in Lauderdale by the Sea. It’s my break from school, and I’m having a difficult time slathering sunscreen (SPF 30) and joining my merry holiday party on the beach. Too much relaxation generally scares me, and on this trip I’m terrified. With no papers due or readings to debate, I feel as if I have been unmoored—bobbing about aimlessly in a sea of relaxation and sloth. Ah, well enough about my troubles. To remedy my fear of having fun, I decided to create a project of vacation-size proportions for myself, assigning real-life, honest to Zeus women to the nine Greek Muses: Calliope, Clio (my personal favorite), Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania. Today, I begin with Calliope:

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Calliope is the Greek Muse of epic poetry. Surely, if one wants to be inspired in an epic way, the bad-ass Bessie Stringfield fits the bill. Now, any epic saga should have a hero born out of strife, and Bessie was certainly met with some hard-times. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1911, her parents moved the family to Boston when she was very young, and after their unfortunate passing, Bessie was adopted by an Irish woman when she was five. She found herself an orphaned black girl, lodged in the societally sticky early 1900s. And though she was met with quite a bit of resistance from patriarchal, white-washed America, Bessie didn’t give a damn. She was a spirited lady with a motorbike.

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When Bessie turned nineteen, she got herself a 1928 Indian Scout motorcycle and made several cross-country trips, funding her travels by performing motorcycle stunts in carnival shows. It might seem as if Bessie had found freedom on the open road, but she was often denied accommodations at motels because of her skin color, and had to sleep out in the open, on her motorcycle at filling stations. Because she was a female, she was many times denied the prizes that she won in flat-track races.

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But, such circumstances did not keep Bessie and her motorcycle down. During WWII, she became the only woman to serve as a dispatch rider for the United States Army, delivering documents to domestic Army bases atop her breezy blue Harley Davidson. It was a grueling and dangerous job—one which bad-ass Bessie was perfectly suited for.

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After the beaches of Normandy had been stormed, and WWII passed into the annals of history, Bessie’s job as a courier for the U.S. Army ended. She moved to Miami, Florida: land of sunshine and racism. Bessie was repeatedly pulled over and harassed by the Miami police. Apparently, black women weren’t allowed to ride motorcycles. But, apparently, they had never met Bessie Stringfield before.

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Bessie went on down to the police station, and met with the police captain to discuss the issue of her driving her motorcycle. They convened in a nearby empty lot, where Bessie could show off her riding prowess; whereafter, the police chief gave her his approval to ride whenever she pleased, and the police never bothered her again. Decades later, I’m sitting here and wondering what exactly Bessie did to change to police chief’s mind. She must have put on one hell of a show to sway the minds of people living in an area rife with racism and sexism and sink-holes. In that moment, she broke ground for both women and African Americans who wanted to ride their motorcycles in freedom. Known as the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami,” Bessie Stringfield is an epic muse. She rode her motorcycle until the day she died.

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Colette…Fantasy into flesh

On January 28th, 1873 Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born. Who would have imagined that in twenty years time she would start a revolution with her bare breast, provoke the minds of Europe with her pen and wake up the conscience of society with a kiss?

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Colette was a writer, a dancer, a stage-performer and a woman. Defining herself as all of these elements in the transient haze between the Victorian era and the Roaring Twenties could prove a daunting task for any gal. It would have been easy for her to slip into calm waters of social propriety, but Colette chose to raise a storm in the Belle Epoch and sail right through the middle of civil turbulence. Desire was her compass as she plotted her course.

Her Odyssey began when she was just a child. Under the influence of her unconventional mother, Sidonie-Gabrielle shed her identity as an innocent school girl by adopting a custom usually embraced by school boys; she had her school chums refer to her by her last name, Colette. This seems innocent enough, but Colette was already testing the waters of assigned gender roles. The corset and the smelling salts seemed like an ill fit for “Sido”, so she did what any self-respecting malcontent might do…she practiced the art of provocation.

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She sharpened her skills as a provoker while appearing in Parisian drawing rooms, dressed as a salty sailor (an act that was punishable under law….cross dressing was strictly prohibited, apart from the stage) But upsetting the order of things with androgynous outfits was just the start for Colette. She would explore the uncharted limits of sexuality with her writing. Her first book, Claudine at School (1900), was penned under the name of her rakish first husband, Gauthier-Villars. The book chronicled the account of a young school girl’s lust for the alluring assistant mistress, Aimée. The story of lesbian love was a sensation, and Gauthier-Villars would exploit his wife’s desirous imagination for his own financial gain, until they divorced in 1904. Thereafter, Colette published books under her own name; her most famous work being Gigi (which was made into a fantastic feature length film in 1958.)

Writing about the taboo was just a one dimensional approach to provoking consciences… Colette was just warming up! She became a master of titillation while performing on stage in pre-World War Paris, 1906; a time when it was scandalous to flash a bit of ankle in public. Colette, being her sensible self, decided it was too easy to incense the audience with a peek of cheek or a glimpse of gam. She went for the big guns and revealed her breast to the crowd while she was on stage. Later, she immortalized this pose by modeling her bare, left breast for the camera. This rocked the conventions of turn-of-the-century-Europe. Hearing the news, matrons would undoubtedly hold their gloved hands over their satin swathed hearts and gentlemen’s monocles would pop away from their shocked eyes.

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Breasts had existed for ages, but in the twentieth-century they had been tucked away, and they certainly were not up for discussion. Colette inadvertently questioned society’s tendency to hide, augment and contort the female form and she would fight to uphold women’s honor. Instead of throwing down the gauntlet, Colette had cast down her breast. It was a challenge to European society and it need only accept.

There were those traditionalists who attacked Colette’s attempt at loosening the societal shackles which defined womanhood, at the turn of the nineteenth-century, but there were also those who admired her for her scandalous bravery. Colette offered the world, and particularly women of the world, the fantasy of living out ones heart’s desire. In her most shocking embodiment of fantasy, Colette appeared on the stage of the Moulin Rouge with her lover (and financial backer), daughter of the Duc de Morny, Mathilde. Mathilde, who went by the name of Missy, dressed as a male archeologist, and Colette had herself bound in gauze to resemble a mummy. In a fifteen minute scene, which was later censored by authorities, Missy discovers a mummy, unwraps the bandages and reveals the ravishing Colette underneath. In an act which caused a riot, Missy kisses the mummy and brings Colette to life.

If the deeper symbolism of this scene was lost on the audience, they were certainly roused by the forbidden kiss.Colette had worked very hard to get under the skins of any moral champion, and her lesbian lip-lock forced them to look at that kiss for what it was; a token of love. Now, that Colette had tested the limits of love, was it up to theological debate to decide where the boundaries of love might lie, or if there were really any boundaries to love, after all?

One thing is certain. Sidonie-Gabrielle had agitated the hearts and minds of Europe and beyond, and this would be her legacy. She was a writer, dancer and an actress too, but Colette’s true talent lie in dissolving fantasy into flesh.

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Colette…Fantasy dissolves into flesh

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