The Muses on Their Lunch Hour

The Muses on Their Lunch Hour

The Muses on Their Lunch Hour

The Muses on Their Lunch Hour


As a break from their ordained labors, what might the Muses today do on their lunch hour? This collection of witty, shrewd, and imaginative essays addresses interdisciplinary topics that range widely from Shakespeare, to psychoanalysis, to the practice of higher education today. With the ease born of deep knowledge, Marjorie Garber moves from comical journalistic quirks ("Fig Leaves") to the curious return of myth and ritual in the theories of evolutionary psychologists ("Ovid, Now and Then").

Two themes emerge consistently in Garber's latest exploration of symptoms of culture. The first is that to predict the "next big thing" in literary studies we should look back at ideas and practices set aside by a previous generation of critics. In the past several decades we have seen the reemergence of--for example--textual editing, biography, character criticism, aesthetics, and philology as "hot" new areas for critical intervention. The second theme expands on this observation, making the case for "cultural forgetting" as the way the arts and humanities renew themselves, both within fields and across them. Although she is never represented in traditional paintings or poetry, a missing Muse--we can call her Amnesia--turns out to be a key figure for the creation of theory and criticism in the arts.


Nine essays. Nine musings. On Dasher, on Dancer, on Calliope and Erato. Up then, Melpomene.

What do the Muses do on their lunch hour? Read trash novels? Feed the ducks (or in their case, perhaps, the swans)? Attend what used to be called “improving” lectures and are now called Public Humanities events? These Muses, the ones I’m speaking of, spend some time in— of course— “museums,” and also in libraries, and maybe even these days in book clubs and cultural media. But they are also Ladies Who Lunch. and when they lunch they talk.

There weren’t always nine of them, if we are to believe Pausanias (and who am I to contradict Pausanias?). the first three, the original Muses (a phrase that sounds like the title of a pop group) represented “singing,” “practicing,” and “remembering”—three categories that would function very effectively for today’s literary and performing arts. But the job got bigger (Literature! Dance! Music! Drama! Science! Geography! Philosophy! Mathematics!) and they took on more help. It was only in the late Hellenistic period and in Roman times that the Muses became so closely identified with particular kinds of poetry and art, what we might today more blandly call the humanities.

Renaissance emblem book writers linked the various Muses to props and gadgets that would clearly identify them, making each of the nine as recognizable to Renaissance and Neoclassical readers as one of today’s superheroes, or the costume characters of Disneyworld and Times Square. Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, is pictured with a writing tablet; Clio, the muse of history, with a scroll; Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, with a tragic mask; Thalia, the muse of comedy and pastoral, with a comic mask; Euterpe, the muse of elegiac poetry, with a flute; Terpsichore, the muse of dance, with a lyre; Erato, the muse of lyric poetry, with a cithara; Polyhymnia, the muse of sacred poetry, with a veil; Urania, the muse of astronomy, with a globe and compass. Great for painters and sculptors; useful, too, for poets who invoked them.

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