Saturday, September 22, 2012

Muses and Estellas

Most of us know about muses, even if we can't name all nine of the original Greek muses, or what they were muses of. (Did you know there is a muse for astronomy? Or that there were five different muses in charge of the various aspects of poetry?) Modern muses come in different guises. Some constantly inspire, while others may drive us to attempt things we've never done before. Then there's the kind that mostly sits in the background and kicks ideas in our general direction every once in a while in a resigned effort to remind us that yes, we are creative people.

Okay, that last one may just be mine.

Lots have been written on muses - you don't get to hang around for a few thousand years without people consistently talking about you - and I'm sure I've expounded on that subject once or twice  myself. This, however, is not about muses, but about their counterparts, the Estellas.

Before I get too far, while this is a post about metaphorical, literary-minded Estellas, the concept of an Estella can be applied to actual people as well. So if by the end of this you're wondering whether there is an actual, flesh and blood Estella that might have inspired this, well, isn't there always?

(The wanna-be noir writer in me was tempted to write, "There's always a woman," but it occurs to me that sounds somewhat sexist. Even if I can hear Bogie saying it while he puts on his fedora.)

If you don't know what an Estella is, then you aren't familiar with Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. In which case, go out and rent the 1998 film with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. Do not read the book. Trust me on this. It is not a great film and I won't pretend it is. Good, yes; great, no. However, the film captures all you need to know about the book - for right now - without having to sit through the novel's wordy prose and somewhat absurd machinations and melodrama.

My feelings on Dickens are also a subject on which I have expounded before. Possibly even preached or heresied, depending on where you stand on Dickens.

(My spellchecker is insisting I can't turn heresy into a verb, but I am refusing to acknowledge this.)

By way of quick summary, Estella is the great love of our hero, Pip - Finn in the movie, because who the heck names their kid Pip in this day and age? - and the two of them meet through the manipulations of a cold, malicious spinster who does her best to encourage Pip to love Estella, and Estella to scorn Pip. There are other plot elements, including an escaped criminal and a mysterious fortune, but that's about the gist of it.

I like the movie version in part because it makes Estella's influence on Pip/Finn much more explicit than it is in the book. Pip/Finn is clearly smitten with Estella, and just as clearly knows it's a bad idea. He's an artist, and while she isn't directly his muse in the conventional sense, despite the "draw me like one of your French girls" Titanic-esque scene, I think it's safe to say she inspires him, both directly and indirectly, throughout the film.

Yet she is bad news, and he knows it. And still he chases her anyway. She floats into his life at various moments, wraps him up, discombobulates him, and sends him spinning before cruelly stepping out of reach. Multiple times. Each time she comes to him, he falls back into his enthrallment with her, knowing how it's going to end, and willingly playing it out anyway because he can't help himself. He is, after all, entirely in love with her.

Some ideas are like this. They come to us, we fall for them, we think we're onto something that could be really spectacular. Briefly, it is. There are sparks, there are longing glances and stolen caresses and for a moment, just a moment, we let ourselves ignore the obstacles. Muses do this, too, of course, but where the promise of the muse is ultimately fulfillment of the idea, the promise of the Estella is familiar heartbreak when, once again, it doesn't go anywhere.

And like Estella, these ideas are ones we just can't shake, just can't put down or relegate to that dusty bin where unworkable ideas go to fade away. They come back to us, we dance with them again, knowing deep inside it's not going to work any better this time, and ignoring that inner voice of caution because the idea itself has enough power over us to make us willfully forget. Part of us wants to dance again, after all, wants to cling to the hope that maybe, just maybe, this time it's going to work out, that we're going to figure out that missing element that will let it all come together.

So we go around the floor again, even though we ought to send it packing.

There are two endings to the original novel. The first, the original, was bleak and bitter because hey, it's Dickens, and especially it's late Dickens. He was asked to do a second, slightly more hopeful ending, which no surprise is the one I like much better. The movie uses the second one.

I like that ending better in part because it ends the story in the ruins of that old spinster's estate, and that seems far more poetic to me. I also like it better because, while not precisely hopeful (the movie is a bit vaguer on this than the book), there is the sense that the potential for a better ending is there this time. That this time, with Pip/Finn a little more worldly, a little wiser, and Estella a little less harsh around the edges, they might find a way to make it work.

Or they might not, because it is, after all, Estella.


M.C. Hana said...

Great post. I guess we all have our Estellas. How we fare as writers, both technically and financially, might have more to do with how we deal with our Estrellas - bogged-down stories, internal editors, and poisonous critiques - than how we deal with our Muses.

Our Muses demand obedience, and reward us with creative highs. Our Estellas like to kick us when we're down.

M.C. Hana said...
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