The Narcissism of “Read Me”

There is a particular edge to art, to creation, an aggressiveness almost. It is after all a matter of some chutzpah to think that anyone would or even should care about this little bit of X that you have brought into the world. The attitude perhaps best expresses itself in phrases like “we [artists] are the gods, distributors/sellers/producers hangers-on”, and similar sentiments. It might be that such thoughts stem from an internalized association with the capital “C” creator – if such there be, in whatever sense -, but in that case the bequeathed universe came replete with its own appreciative audience: namely us. Merely mortal artists have no such luck and need to go begging for listens or views or usages or reads. Need to go begging – now that rubs an ego the wrong way. Yet there we have it, our central paradox and our psychic hiccup: the first shall be last and the last first, all power lies with the audience. Ouch.

I recently read a review of a book by Rachel Lyon wherein a young would-be professional photographer moves to New York and, while working various part-time jobs to make rent, embarks on a series of self-portraits. In one of these her camera’s shutter closes at the exact moment when a young boy who lived in her building happened to be falling past her window. Tragically falling, falling from the roof to his death below. The blur of the moving boy created the perfect balance for the photo, we are told, and as a result it signified a career-making – or rather a career-establishing – work of art. This she could sell, and from there the sky would be the limit. Should she profit from her neighbor’s tragedy? As ethical dilemmas go this one is intriguing, but of course we already know the answer. She naturally exhibits the picture, it does garner recognition, and she goes on to a highly successful and tortured entry into the professional art world. A happy ending? A fictitious one anyway. Buy the book and read it to judge the story’s merit, there’s a purchase link in the review page given above.

I can suggest picking up Lyon’s book quite easily, with nary an emotional twitch coursing through my limbic system, but I certainly cannot do that for my own books. Why is that? What is this? Nervousness? Reticence? Self-doubt? Self-confidence? I think anyone who makes anything must feel a mix of all of those. Now, I am quite proud of my books and consider each of them well worth reading, even beneficial reading. They are not for everyone, but then what is? And that which tries to be usually ends up being crap. What strikes me in all this is the phenomenology of it: I can toss off a “you should try Twilight of the Idols or The Human Condition” without batting an eye but when it comes to my works I get all sheepish. Weirdly confidently sheepish. I know my books’ strengths and weaknesses, I know them inside out, but I can know the same for anything by anyone and it doesn’t affect how I personally feel. What is at stake is of course that very ego, and the challenge we face as writers, as creators, is not letting the one be dependent upon the other. Can we?

It is the effort, I think, that reflects on who we are. I am not my books, but I am what I put into them. My books show a piece of me, yes, but not the whole of me. The process of writing them though, the whole agonizing, painful, drawn-out, exhilarating, joyous, driving, devastating process of writing reflects my personhood in a myriad of ways. I am a writer and I relate to the world through writing. That identitarian tidbit is the kernel that lies at the root of all those conflicting feelings I experience when speaking in person about my own work. Silence it? Get rid of it? Ignore it? Impossible. I am only a man and we are not built with the requisite solidity – blame it on testosterone, blame it on the Y chromosome. I suspect the same for women but I’ll have to ask Ms. Lyon after this post contributes to making her novel a bestseller.

If we’re going to be artists then I say we be as fully artistic as we can, and that means exquisite and arrogant self-expression, results be damned. Would I have sold the photo with the falling boy in the background? No, but that’s why I’m no household name. Do I believe in the quality of my own work, as presumptive as that might be? Yes, but where that puts me on the whole “art spectrum” I have no idea. Life – it’s all a work in progress anyway. I leave you, as a capper and a non sequiter to all these jumbled thoughts, with Caravaggio’s wonderful Narcissus (1597-99), letting that speak its thousand words.


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