This summer, I began to take pilgrimages throughout New York City. I tramped the salt-soaked boards of Coney Island. I haunted dim open-mic nights in the East Village. I stood on the steps of a university philosophy building. I travelled to New Jersey — for god’s sake — to look at a trailer park.
I walked the city streets, looking for a ghost. I knew she was no longer there. So what was I searching for, exactly?
As Hunter S. Thompson retyped passages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work to find his own rhythm and voice, I suppose I hoped that in retracing my hero’s footsteps, I would round a corner and collide, in one sooty breath, with my own version of the magic and inspiration she had found there.
I don’t want to be her, exactly. Like her, yes. In moments of doubt, I think of her, I listen to her music, and she not only gives me comfort, but also inspires me to action. I write, I explore, I meet new people, try new tastes, push my limits. I walk out of my house every day open to the possibilities of the world. Because of her.
This woman is my muse, but not in the ethereal-Greek-mythology sense or the rock-star-groupie sense. She is not mine alone. She is actually a well-known musician, and I must seek her guiding hand using that great and evil ally: The Internet.
Does this sound bizarre, creepy, obsessive?
But I am not the only one. There has been, in my life, and in the lives of many of my friends, a series of Modern Muses who have engaged our imaginations and inspired our devotion. None of these people knew how much we loved them, how much they influenced us. They were all actors, directors, musicians, or writers. All somewhat famous. And all women.
To put it bluntly: We are women who fall in love with other women whom we don’t even know. We fall in love with their minds, with their art, with what they stand for. We fall in love with the idea of them, most of all.
Before you diagnose us with Celebrity Worship Syndrome (this is a real disorder) and drag us off to the asylum, let me explain.
We are culture lovers. Advanced-degree kind of girls with close-guarded but epic souls, our insides spackled with patchwork vision-boards of art and pop. We are born romantics and bred researchers, raised on novels and Turner Classic Movies, as interested in the creation of a craft as in the result. Like an engineer takes apart a machine to figure out how it works, we look behind the curtains to discover what made a show, a movie, an album possible.
Like musicians who say that hearing an Elvis record inspired them to play the blues, I know girls who loved The West Wing so much they majored in political science. It is through art and culture that we discover more possibilities than we knew existed: possibilities in the world, possibilities in us. Our interests don’t correlate with People Magazine or The Bling Ring. This isn’t about fame, money, or notoriety. This is about dedication to an artist, to their life and work, about belief in their greatness.
To assuage your mounting fears, I must insist that, despite our dedication to these people, we are not moved to become three-name assassins or writers of magazine-lettered notes claiming that they will be ours forever. Because they won’t. We are not delusional or desperate or disturbed.
We do kind of wish we could be their friend though. Maybe have a glass of wine on the back deck and talk about our hectic day at work. Come on, it’s not so strange. People have always had heroes and idols.
How many people visit Graceland every year and stare with hungry, peanut butter eyes into The Jungle Room? In Massachusetts, tweed-coated professors can trace the glass where Hawthorne’s wife carved her name with a diamond ring. We — human beings in general — have had such obsessions from the time we were children. Little kids become fixated upon Elmo or Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz — imitate them, cuddle their likenesses, cannot be without them.
As we grow older, we find real-life people to ape and admire. I recall a particular basketball camp coach that I loved, and a middle school orchestra teacher my friends and I adored. When she announced she was leaving to get married, we only-half-jokingly plotted to bust up the wedding.
Though teenage girls are most often accused of harboring these kinds of strange fixations (I had a friend who held séances to summon Kurt Cobain from the dead, and another who painted “Matthew Paige Damon” across her bedroom wall.), they are not the only ones. Sports fanatics love their team with an undying mania. They know every player’s name, stats, workouts, and hometown, and they show no shame in openly discussing their obsession. Indeed, something called “Fantasy Football” is considered perfectly normal, but I doubt detailing the techniques of an obscure actress would be as well received socially. My friends and I usually only divulge our cultural passions to a few confidantes.
Someone, somewhere, might claim it is religion we need, we idolaters of artists and athletes. In Christian lore, God scrawled across two tablets: Do not to worship other gods or false idols. But, thousands of wartorn years later, a mustachioed philosopher announced to humankind that God was dead, and many of us conceded (as we have wont to do when influential mustaches are involved). So — not yet fearing atmospheric abscesses — we tore God’s body from the sky.
Rudderless, however, without our leader, we — used to comfort and guidance — chose earthly replacements: baseball players and ballet dancers, socialites and playwrights. That’s one way to see it: My love for my muse is just a substitute for God. But I’m not sure I buy my own flight of fancy. My friends and I know that our Modern Muses are not Gods. They are complex human beings: walking this earth, creating art, making mistakes. And that makes us love them all the more.
Discovering a Modern Muse is a bit like falling in love. There is a spark of flint on the soul, a warmth of recognition. As we find out more about them, what inspires them, what they love, we find our own worlds expanding and new interests catching fire. Suddenly, Middle Eastern politics, motorcycle maintenance, or certain hair products become fascinating.
This all sounds strangely like adopting the interests of a boyfriend (except for maybe that hair products thing), which, I realize makes these distant celebrity obsessions seem even more pathetic. But if it is love — a no-holds-barred, head-over-heels love affair with a man — for which we are searching, then why do we latch onto women?
Are female role models so scarce in our society that we cloy desperately to the few we find? Are we (in a psychoanalyst’s wet dream) looking for replacements for our mothers?
My own mother once confessed how much she adored Bruce Springsteen in the early 80s. She still does love him, but not as fiercely and wildly. As she grew older, she explained, other things of more importance began to fill up that space in her life: a job, a husband, kids.
So maybe one day, “bigger” a.k.a. more societally-accepted preoccupations will fill our lives and cover the patchwork holes in our souls with beautiful beige wallpaper. Or maybe not. As Charlie Kaufman and Jenny Lewis have both said: “You are what you love, not what loves you (back).” It’s hard to break away from our Modern Muses in the age of the Internet, when quotes, images, and GIFs of our love can flash before us every second of every day, thanks to sites like Tumblr.
To discover that there are (thousands!) of other people who find my muse just as inspiring can make me sad. It shatters the illusion. She is not my personal muse who taps me on the shoulder and inspires me to write. She is not my friend I can talk to on the back deck. I don’t know her better than any other fan. I don’t understand her more deeply, even though she seems to understand me so well.
That is the sickness of it. To feel so strongly connected to someone I’ve never met. (Except for that one time….They say never meet your heroes. But that’s bullshit. You should meet your hero in the bathroom of the Chateau Marmont, and have her be lovely and amazing and share with you some invaluable life advice.)
I recently read an interview in which my muse spoke of her own fascination with artists of the past. She confessed she talks about and draws inspiration from certain deceased musicians almost daily. Thank god, I thought, upon reading this. I’m not the only weirdo.
Maybe none of us are sick. Maybe this is just how artistic human minds do their Darwinian dance. (I’m pulling us back again, toward the light through the asylum doors.) Perhaps we carry on history and culture through our idols and muses. We are a part of the tumbling-down of influence. As Thompson drew from Fitzgerald, my muse draws from Walt Whitman. Could I, then, a couple steps removed, be carrying on Whitman’s work?
Okay, that sounds stupidly self-important. I’m probably just carrying on Britney Spears’s work instead.
There is an onus in obsessive admiration: we want defend our muses as the YouTube commenters and demonic naysayers of the world tear at their altars. But we have to let the disparagements go or else be consumed by anger.
We must focus instead on the good — the continued existence of inspiration and love in the world — no matter what anyone else says. Besides, we know that our muses are not perfect, god-like beacons. Even we — we who love them beyond reason — don’t always agree with them. And that’s okay. Because really, this obsession, this worship, this love of ours is not even about them.
It’s about us. About what we need at that particular moment in our lives.
I fell for my muse at a time in my life when I most needed her. A time of transition…No, that’s not quite right. She inspired my changes, my divergence. But I was ready. I had always done what was good and right and true, petrified of what would happen if I stepped outside the lines. I had followed all the rules, and they had led me to a place of terrible unhappiness.
All my heroes were artists and rebels. I studied their lives with envy and admiration, my restless soul squirming within my shuttered body.
She set me free. She taught me that I could go out and seek my own adventures, my own creation. I could be my own muse, in a sense. I could leave my Master’s program. I could quit my 9-5. I could travel solo across America, dreaming Whitman-esque dreams. I could care about beauty and not be vain. I could defy the rules and still be right. I could belong to someone and still be free. I could shape myself into the person I wanted to be. Someone a lot more like her, the woman I love. But someone, also, a lot more like me.
Still I listen. Still I change. Still I walk through city streets, wrestling up words and visions, nodding along to the rhythm of the muse in my head.