The ‘Narcissism of the True Artist’ and Reading What One Writes

In his seminal Nietzsche: The Man and his Philosophy, RJ Hollingdale, after noting that Nietzsche made note of some forty-six poems composed between 1855 and 1858, goes on to say:

The sign that he was a born writer, however, is not to be found in them, but in a remark in Aus Meinem Leben [From My Life], where describing his earliest efforts in verse, he says, ‘In any event, it was always my design to write a little book and read it myself’–a childish expression of the narcissism of the true artist, who works because he wants to admire what he has done.

There is one rather mundane way in which one reads what one writes: the infuriatingly necessary re-readings of one’s writings in an effort to get them ‘just right.’ This results–as I have experienced in the closing stages of getting a book manuscript to the publisher–in a peculiar sort of nausea at the sight of one’s ‘beloved.’ At that moment, weary and exhausted by the endless redrafting, polishing and proof-reading, I want only to be done with the damn thing. It’s not as if I’ve considered the ‘product’ then to be complete; rather, it is that I cannot summon up the energy for another painfully close and exacting edit. (Months later, when I look at the submitted version, I’m astonished by how much dross I let get by me.)

Then, there is the ‘narcissistic’ way: going back to read what one has written, perchance to admire and self-congratulate. It doesn’t always quite work out that way: all too often, our reaction to what we have written in the past is horror at the juvenile confusion on display. (I suspect this is by far the most common reaction that most writers have.) The internet, of course, has added a wrinkle to this: what we have written in the past is preserved seemingly forever, for others to search, track down and deploy against us. (I shudder to think of the trail of unmitigated nonsense I have left behind me in my perambulations through internet fora.)

But there are times when we do admire what we have written. And this is productive of a pair of peculiar sensations related to each other. One, I think, is a kind of mystification: Did I really write that? The second, is an acute anxiety: Will I ever be able to repeat that? The sense of wonder, of puzzlement, about the source of the sentence(s) we see before us reminds us that we are often not quite sure of the provenance of a desirable turn of phrase, from whence it came, what prompted it. The worry about our capacity to pull off a repeat is an acknowledgment of the same conundrum: If I don’t quite know how I pulled it off the first time, how am I ever to encore? The endless theorizing about the ‘process’ of writing, the ‘writers’ tips,’ indeed, the entire arsenal of writing instruction, often seems a tacit acknowledgment of this simple fact of writing: we are never quite in control of it all.

6 comments on “The ‘Narcissism of the True Artist’ and Reading What One Writes

  1. David Barry says:

    This looks like a good opportunity to talk about myself for a while.

    I’d been thinking about a similar sort of narcissism recently. I spent a lot of time downloading the all the photos taken by the Voyager space probes, working out how to read the file formats, and stumbling my way to some rudimentary image processing algorithms so that I could re-centre the pictures so that the target planet was always in the centre of the frame. Eventually I got a decent little video made out of Voyager 1’s approach to Jupiter, showing Jupiter rotating, and some of its moons orbiting and casting shadows on the planet’s surface. The video is objectively mediocre – the idea was not original and had already been done with much better-processed images. But I really, really like watching my video. It always lets me re-experience the satisfaction of seeing the just-good-enough results of many hours of work. I wish I could hug that rotating Jupiter.

    On the other hand, your post inspired me to re-read a long rhyming essay I wrote last year. In previous years I’d written some pretty entertaining light verse on various topics in physics (each year the my old uni’s physics students club put on a poetry night and I always had one of the better entries, though perhaps that’s not saying much). I decided to try for something much more ambitious, hoping to describe, in as much technical detail as possible, various rockets and early space missions while keeping a neutral, textbook-style tone, all in perfectly anapaestic rhyming couplets. The project consumed me for a month, and I think I still have my pages of data on chemical formulas and masses of propellant and so on.

    I was really proud of it when I got it finished, but it flopped when I read it out to the physics club. Suitably shamed, I didn’t read it again until just now. As an essay, it reads like something written by a high school student in grade nine or ten. A woefully simplistic history, only occasionally sprinkled with a bit of inspired equation rhyming. I don’t think I’ll re-visit it again for a while.

  2. […] few days ago, I wrote a post on reading (and re-reading) what one writes. Today, I want to put down a few thoughts on the business of re-reading what one has read, […]

  3. […] and will do that to you. (Because a book manuscript completion and submission is at hand, I dread a familiar nausea that awaits me over the next few weeks.) Perhaps, then, I will return and read this post as fair […]

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