How Every Writer Writes Herself

Marguerite Yourcenar, 1903-87

Short sayings like "Every Painter Paints Himself" are liable to shallow interpretation. How many, for instance, on first hearing those four words will recognize a whole philosophy? I didn’t and still haven’t plumbed its full depth and meaning. It grows and grows. You need time - and lots of it - which is why, in my opinion, you should not make a judgement on the validity of the proposed paradigm based on reading a few explanations. That could be very misleading. As with all subjects worth learning about, you must see and read as much as possible and perservere. EPPH can whet your appetite but not fully satisfy you.

Over the weekend I devoured with pleasure Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian (1951). The Nobel Laureate expresses in beautiful prose the thoughts of a Roman emperor nearly 2,000 years ago. Yet Hadrian's imagined musings to his young successor, Marcus Aurelius, are relevant in any age, suggesting that Hadrian's "creator" is not just describing an historical character but all of us. In addition, many passages seem to imply that Hadrian with his love of literature is the writer herself. Yet in an appendix written to explain her compositional method, Yourcenar bristles at the idea.

"The utter fatuity of those who say to you, "By 'Hadrian' you mean yourself!" Almost as unsubtle as those who wonder why one should choose a subject so remote in time and in space."

Yet a few lines further on she writes: "Every being who has gone through the adversity of living is myself." [Her italics.] And then on recommending that other novelists assiduously revise and re-make their text, she cites the poet Yeats: "It is myself that I remake."

What's going on here? Is she or is she not painting herself? The issue, I think, is a bit like a reader of EPPH who is only interested in the entries under, say, Portraiture or one or two particular artists but not others. You might be left with the impression that self-representation is a game, or unintentional, or a specific practice of a favored artist. Its meaning then might indeed be fatuous. However, only by looking long and hard at works of art, and by reading great literature and scripture too, can you truly appreciate the depth of meaning contained in the phrase Every Painter Paints Himself. It is not short-hand for a senseless game but a beautiful expression of the unity in creation's diversity.

Posted 05 Jul 2015: BooksTheory

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