Once, I confessed to a dear friend that I longed for someone in my life like Gustav Mahler’s wife. Her eyes swept to the top of her head, as I recall, and this she followed with a pause as she considered whether I was confessing to a lifestyle. I wasn’t. I was referring to two biographies I’d read, one after the other—the first on Mahler; the second on Freud. Besides being geniuses, what the two men had in common were dutiful spouses. Overriding the needs of their children, these women accommodated their husbands’ work with religious devotion. Even household chores they scheduled to least disrupt the genius who sat behind closed doors and might be disturbed by the fluffing of a pillow.
Noise was these women’s eternal enemy. I might be exaggerating, but not by much, to say that within both households, children emitted giggles only while father was taking his tea. Letters falling through the letter box posed a similar threat. Imagine the cacophony of envelopes landing upon a Persian carpet. Or the horror of hearing someone’s rap upon the front door. The good wives, I suspect, spent much time peering out of windows to prevent such a mishap.
Need I describe more? The Muse dictated the entire workings of the family’s abode.
Who of any sex would eschew a good wife? Not I, though I admit, the servitude offends my feminist sensibilities. Glenn Close plays such a woman in the new film The Wife, and, by report, fares badly because of it. But I leave that injustice for another blog. Here, I ruminate upon the artist’s need. Without someone like Mahler’s wife on duty, the daily hurly-burly threatens inspiration, the way an open clam might feel threatened to find itself wave-tossed upon the shore.
Because the Muse is fickle, people fail to realize how deeply talk of “meeting someone for coffee” feels like a spear thrust through an artist’s heart. Who has the time? And if time is arranged, inevitably, that will be the hour, minute or second when inspiration strikes. With Mahler’s wife as a guardian, she can explain your sudden absence as a “rush of shingles” or pink eye. Anything… to justify cancelling the taking of toast and tea.
To smother an idea in exchange for a chat is unforgivable, tantamount to having an éclair slapped from one’s hand.
Artists, other than writers, can be more agreeable. The sculpture, painter, or photographer works with a medium. Leave the studio and they leave work behind. But a writer’s medium is thought. He or she is always in the studio, always thinking, observing and making mental notes. Inspiration strikes at any time. Even in dreams.
Daphne Merkin observes the only occasion when a writer isn’t writing is when he or she is reading. (“Second Place,” by Daphne Merkin, The New Republic, pg. 55.) But I say, “Au contraire.” A writer writes even while reading. He or she is busy editing some other author’s sentences, substituting one word for another, or tisk-tsking over a flawed image.
As a feminist, I’ve already confessed my crime in wishing to make another woman’s life a drudge. Nonetheless, I must consider an equally valid truth: every writer, male or female, is in need of Mahler’s wife.