EMERGING FEMINISMS, The Myth of the Master

Sophie Alka in The Feminist Wire:

Alka-Sophie_-bio_imageWhether as a lover, mother, daughter, sister, or in religious life, there is a social narrative happening that is telling us that, as women, we can contribute, thrive most in the service of intellect, invention, transcendence, and genius – but as it is embodied in others, not in ourselves. This is our best hope of coming near to inhabiting these spheres, for they are inherently masculine, and therefore preclude us.

This may seem like a dated theme to be needling, yet there are parallels in contemporary popular culture which beg thought. This narrative, “the myth of the master” as Germaine Greer calls it, has its roots in the Enlightenment, and before: the renaissance man, the maverick genius in his ivory tower, the Master, who looks for inspiration and satiety to the feminine Muse. It has passed through many incarnations over the centuries from its origins in the classical Greek concept of the Muses. The Master/Muse narrative is, for example, immanent in the cults of devotion to the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I who was cast by figures such as Raleigh as Muse to the nascent colonial and industrial ambitions of the English. This nationalistic discourse of Queen/country as Muse later reappeared in the language of Victorian Britannia. In this way, the notion of Master/ Muse fueled imperialism’s justification for slavery and frontier violence against First Nations people and lands. The concept of Muse was also employed to describe these lands as “virgin territory” or “terra nullius” – a blank canvas for European colonialists to project the identities and vanities of their utopias upon; as well as embodied in the Other – those who violence was perpetrated against. In this context, the Muse was objectified as a source of raw materials convertible to wealth, the fulfillment of romanticized ideals, and sexual gratification. Another example of this objectification via the Muse was occurring in the salons and studios of 17th to early 20th century Western artists, with the Muse embodied as the Master’s mistress: a source of raw inspiration (rarely remunerated), sexual gratification, and the embodiment of romanticized virtues. So many of our Western cultural icons live out this trope, both historically as creators, and in the literary characters they created, creatures of persistent patriarchy. As the saying goes, look behind every great man, and you shall find a great woman. But why always behind?

Greer writes that “the artistic ego is to most women repulsive for themselves, and compelling in men” (35). Seeing and recognizing single-minded creative and spiritual impulse in another is captivating, especially when one has been unknowingly taught that such light in oneself is not valued by society to the same degree. In her opening to Middlemarch (one of Western literature’s great explorations of the Master/Muse trope) George Eliot quotes the early seventeenth century play The Maid’s Tragedy: “Since I can do no good because a woman, reach constantly at something that is near it” (1).

More here.