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A Musing

July, 2006
By Charles E. Gould, Jr.

I have been retired from teaching now for two years, and naturally from time to time I reflect on what this means. Mainly, I suppose, it means that I don’t teach; and, ironically, of doing that I never (well, almost never) tired; and sometimes I miss doing it—or, to tell the truth, I miss my audience. Somebody recently produced an astonishing statistic (20%? 40%? Doesn’t matter: 83.6% of all statistics are invented on the spur of the moment) regarding kids who drop out of high school as soon as they can. Being a teacher—as opposed to an Educator—I am not terribly disturbed by that. As a nation paying vast lip-service to Education we do not, comparatively, pay much—even lip-service—to teachers; and I used to annoy a lot of colleagues by saying, “Education is not the answer.” They got mad at me without wondering what the question was, but that’s Education for you. (The cliché is that “Education is a Leading Out, not a Putting In,” but you can’t lead ’em out from a place into which nothing yet has been put except the junk today that gets unchallenged into an Open Mind.) What disturbed me about this report was that 83.6% of the drop-outs polled gave boredom as their reason for dropping out. Of the 2339-odd students (some of them very odd indeed) that I taught over a period of thirty-six years, many had names for me—some invented, others misspelled; but I know that fewer than 1.83% came in with “Boring.” It is true that for these students I myself dwelt in the demesne of dead poets, dead languages, and dead ends, but that didn’t bother them at all: they didn’t have to live there. Whenever I asked a class, “How many of you intend to become teachers?” one hand would go up—and that the slender hand of a slightly deaf Asian politely seeking permission to get a drink of water. Still, I feel I owe something to my profession and my former students and colleagues for my willful attempt of decades to convince them that art stopped short with Yeats—except, of course, P.G. Wodehouse, John Updike, and Richard Wilbur; so I here offer an up-date on one of the most boring catalogues of all time.

The Nine Muses, in Greek Mythology, were the illegitimate offspring of Zeus, King of the Gods (his wife was Hera, also his sister: now there’s a gay marriage!) and the goddess Mnemosyne (Memory—and what power she retains to this day, whenever I remember anything!)—the Nine Sister Goddesses of the arts, especially of poetry and music. (My friend Professor David Landman jokes that among them there may have been “Sibilant Rivalry”: The Hissing Sisters.) All of this information comes to you, incidentally, as 100% plagiarism: I swear that I did not make it up myself. The Nine Muses are first named in the works of Hesiod, a Greek poet of the 8th Century B.C.—actually, in a memory as vast as mine, surprisingly late; but Hesiod put Calliope first, for Epic Eloquence and Heroic Poetry. Her name, originally derived from Greek words for “beauty” and “voice,” was later given to the calliope—a pipe organ whose wind is supplied by steam (hot air), known today mainly as an emblem of political rhetoric.

Assigning each Muse a specific area comes even later: Clio for History, Thalia for Comedy, Melpomene for Tragedy, Euterpe for Music, Terpsichore for Dance, Polyhymnia (obviously) for Sacred Song (and there’s a frightening lot of that going about) and Urania (The Heavenly) for Astronomy, anachronistically invoked by Milton in Book VII of Paradise Lost as a Christian deity, for him the true source of celestial inspiration. Erato attended to lyric and love poetry. (Erratum, the God of Typograqphical Errors, is her step-brother.) Most of these associations can be found in my schoolboy copy of Merriam Webster’s Dictionary (Merriam was Noah’s great-grand-nephew), while the OED with pedantic vagueness—or vague pedantry, whichever you prefer—ascribes them to “later mythologists”: the names Sir J.G. Frazer, H.D.R.F. Kitto, and J.G. Kelly spring to mind, along with the name of R.E. DesMarais, Jr.—which is R.E. DesMarais, Jr. (It’s all very well to chalk up the initials after your name, B.A. or A.B. or K.C.B. or Ph.D. or Q.V. or whatever, but it’s the ones before your name that are impressive: Professor Kitto’s, for example, or J.I.M. Stewart’s, or E[ustace] M[andeville] W[ettenhall] Tillyard’s. When, about 1920, Wodehouse changed his name from Pelham Grenville to “P.G.,” sales sky-rocketed.) Again, all here is plagiarized: I don’t know anything, except that we now have—whether we need them or not, like so many other new things—New Muses.

The Nine New Muses, here identified for the first time, are each the wholly legitimate offspring of the tin god Use and the nymphette Mediocrité, whose is the most harmonious of unions. Indeed, we see them flagrantly disporting themselves daily—even nightly—in Malls and the parking lots of WalMart. Legend has it that they were united by the Priest Omphaloskepsis in the Temple of the Naked Navel. Legend and Myth are not to be despised, but there is some latter-day factual evidence to suggest that once upon a time Use and Mediocrité were merely well-meaning, ordinary, non-denominational, lowest-common-denominational, simple non-church-goers at heart…or at navel, as the case may have become. At the ceremony, the Groom wore a Red Sox baseball cap inside out, while the Bride was brave in ribbons and a Liberty of London scarf doubling as a skirt. Their offspring, however, as did the Ancient Nine, re-define our arts and lives and laws. Pegasus, the winged horse whose stamping at the base of Mount Helicon released Hippocrene, the Fount from which the Muses sprang (Keats regarded it as wine, and who’s to say?), now stamps across my lap-top, and here they are.


The Muse of Drivel and Verbosity, Emalia gained her formidable power by strangling each of her elder sisters (Seeya, Callya, and Writecha) who were far too personal and, accordingly, careful, and just had to go. Like the Lernaean Hydra, one of the twelve monsters tackled by Hercules, Emalia has the gift of eternal self-renewal, and is now as such the most powerful monster in the universe, next to her half-brother, Internezzo, who will within my waning lifetime bring life as we know it to an absolute halt. Emalia has also the deadly capacity to reach in an instant, without pause for reflection or revision, an audience of multitudes unimagined by the Ancients. King Lear’s line, “Prithee, undo this button” now assumes newly tragic proportions as a cry at the keyboard of fear, frustration, and futility, while the Roman poet Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis, c. 40-104 A.D.) emerges as amazingly, if gloomily, prophetic with his “Vox missa nescit revertere” (“The voice, once sent, knows not how to return”).


Repetitia, the New Muse of History, repeats herself endlessly…so the syllabus gets longer and longer every year. She snubs the goddess Irene (Peace), for after all Irene would make History irrelevant, wouldn’t it? She therefore comes in between Iraq and a hard place. Historians—or, at least, History teachers—forget to punch “Delete,” so the students’ list of hopelessness grows longer with each passing term, and then there’s an Exam…the odd goal of which is to point up what you don’t know about what happened before you were born.


The New Muse of Eloquence and Wisdom, Colloquia has like enhanced most of our speech in the Nucular Age, especially throughout like an entire day in The White House where everything Continues On as usual according to normal patterns of normality. As do all the Muses, Colloquia has an immortal gift, and nothing can change her ways. She originated the absurd and abusive lie, “Your call is important to us,” and we must live with that forever…into Eternity, which is now defined as the Amount of Time that Our Representatives are Helping Other Customers.


Prettier and cuter if possible than Susan Lucci is Cliché, the Muse of Soap Opera, raising the eternal, age-old questions: “Why do we eat lunch? Or do we?” Emanating from her spirit are such enthralling dramas as The Edge of Hospitals, All My Hospitals, Days of Our Hospitals, Dark Hospitals, As the Hospital Turns, The Young and the Restless Hospitals, and General Ennui (in which the title character, General Ennui, eventually gets promoted to Major). P.G. Wodehouse once wrote in a letter, “How pleasant it is to find one writing of the daylight serial without being supercilious,” but it was a letter to Judy del Ray, not to me.


The word musecomes from the Latin musa and the Greek µ??sa, both words meaning muse, or from the Old French verb muser, meaning to loiter. Thus does Tsanarte, the Muse of Skateboarding, join our Theogony or Musicology, denying that her acrobatic acolytes are criminals and vandals, for their goal is to reproduce the Sistine Chapel Ceiling on a plywood ramp technically known as the Cistern Sealing. Perhaps the least feminine of the Nine—sometimes known as The Femi-Nine—Tsanarte is typically represented as having a boyish hairdo. She possesses the magical ability to turn her head a full 180 degrees in order to baffle her enemies, who are unable to tell whether her head or her hat is on backwards.


Recent scholarship found in a mailbox in Hicksville has demonstrated that the old adage “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is actually a faulty translation of the exclamation of an ancient sage, “I’ve got something in my eye!” Whether it was beauty or not we may never know; but Thistlekillya, the Muse of television sit-coms and certain animations doesn’t care. Unlike her predecessor Thalia, Thistlekillya will say anything to get a laugh: “You’d Thalia old grandmother for thixteen thenth if it would get a laugh” the envious Melpomene once said to her. Under her wing, taste and decorum and political correctness and ordinary decency have, paradoxically, both nestled and flown through the window. What window? Any window! (My friend Seth McFarlane, award-winning creator of the appalling Family Guy, is an alumnus of the school where I taught for almost a third of its century, and if he should read this I wouldn’t for a moment want him to think I was not being supercilious about his genius.)


Urethra is the Muse of Political Science and Economics: many pensions have been pissed away for our failure to worship her, and hers is certainly the stream of conscience in the 21st Century. W.S. Gilbert once wrote a show in which appeared “Scrotum: A Wrinkled Old Retainer.” Rudyard Kipling wrote “When Earth’s last picture is painted/ And the tubes are twisted and dried” with both of these figures in mind, but the siren-song of Urethra is irresistible. Even as the highest in the land lament their tax cuts and the lowliest skate-boarder peels off into the bushes, Urethra sparkles—like “the silver leaf of maple” of which Johnny Cash sang—in the mornin’ dew…or date due. Cash flow is cash flow.


Hernia (such melodic names!), Muse of Dance and Sport and Jogging, is perhaps of all the Super-Sorority least familiar to me. The strains of The Dance have ever been too much for my constitution, while the concept of Sport strikes me as a clear contradiction of itself. I mean, if the object of the game is to score goals and runs and sets and things, why do the rules impose so many obstacles to so doing? In ice hockey, for example, I believe there is a player known as the Goalie whose primary function is to keep the puck out of the net; and since the whole point of the game is to put the puck in the net, “sport” seems to me an exact synonym for “synaesthesia,” or trying to see what somebody is saying. Hear me? As for Jogging, I would just leave a little earlier and walk. Still, the Muse has her charms…if not, by my standards, the right clothes. The story is told on Olympus (not the Mountain in Greece, the Condominium in Kennebunkport) that she was once confronted by her sister Thistlekillya who said, “Who are you, anyway? I never Hernia!” But like so many stories in ancient writ, this one may be apocryphal.


The last—and most powerful, sexy, sedate and seditious, perhaps the most beautiful of all the New Nine Muses—who, if I’ve got my figures right, could form a baseball team, call it the N.Y. Neufs, and go in for nine innings without any Outs—is Idano. Her name is a corruption of the clause, “I don’t know,” sometimes—for me, at least—the three most honest and beautiful words in any lexicon, and I wish they featured more frequently in the lexicons of others. But the Muse Idano (Latin Ædunno), who already has her eye on Internezzo, is the angry and ugly and envious goddess who cannot read or write or speak or spell, who will take over our lives when we can’t either. And when that time comes, she will be welcome to them.

Charles E. Gould, Jr., retired from the English department at Kent School, is an antiquarian bookseller and P.G. Wodehouse specialist. He lives in Kennebunkport, Maine.