Perfectionism

In a poem we can hope to get every word exactly right, but it is unreasonable to expect that in a novel. In one book I read recently, a female character is described as having ‘feline’ features. What do we take this to mean – she had an impressive set of whiskers, her face was lightly furred? The author had used ‘feline’ as a lazy tag for her appearance. Nothing wrong with that, though the tag could have been better.

But what if someone is afflicted with a perfectionist streak and feels impelled to revisit what they have written time and again? The end of that line would be that their work is subject to continual revision and so would never be complete. An unpleasant affliction, to say the least.

The French composers Henri Duparc and Paul Dukas show signs of this, but a better documented case would be Jean Sibelius. It is well known that he heavily revised the violin concerto and the fifth symphony, since the originals of both still exist. It is generally agreed that the revised versions of both are better than the originals, but the composer was still unconvinced by the revised version of the fifth symphony, and he had doubts about Tapiola too. It is known that he put a great deal of work into his eighth symphony, going so far as to have the long first movement written out in full by his copyist. But he ended up burning all of it, a small fragment of a theme being all that remains. And after that he lived on for thirty years composing nothing of significance.

Implicated in all this is the question of quality control. Authors and composers do not want less good work associated with their names, they have their reputations to consider. This is understandable, but not the only way of looking at it. When Renoir grew old he was afflicted by arthritis in the hands and fingers, so he could not exercise the control he had done before. Did he stop painting? No. He continued to paint because that’s what he did. He was a painter. Art dealers may not have liked it, but that was their problem, not his.

And this comes back to a previous post on writing, dealing with editing as a process to tighten things up. The revised version of the Sibelius violin concerto is tightened up a great deal, in part by the complete omission of thematic material. So the revised version is more persuasive in structure but less generous in content. (The two versions may be compared in an excellent recording by the Greek violinist, Leonidas Kavakos).

If we are afflicted both by a desire for perfection and a fear of failure, then our best course is not to make the attempt. If we don’t try we can’t fail, and the only price we pay is that we can’t succeed either.

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