The Paris and New York Diaries of Ned Rorem

by Ned Rorem
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1118

The difference between the two diaries is made explicit at the beginning of The New York Diary, as Rorem announces his intentions for it: “Hopefully it will be at once less frivolous and more outspoken than those Paris diaries.” It is, indeed, less chatty and less concerned with social advancement than the previous installment, and more introspective. Less overtly, however, The New York Diary also shows the author trying—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—to resolve some of the contradictions in his views on art, love, friendship, and especially the self, that make The Paris Diary seem such an immediate portrait of the artist, inconsistencies and all. What The New York Diary may lose in the flavor of day-to-day life as it is being lived, however, it gains in artistic unity.

The Paris Diary suggests a number of different, or even mutually exclusive, views of the self. The diary format allows Rorem to hold them all: Because it is by nature discontinuous, each entry reflecting the thoughts of a different day, the diarist, unlike the essayist, can juggle contradictions within the confines of a single book.

Most important of these attempts at self-definition is the young Rorem’s desire to believe in the self as unchanging, like a work of art, a desire to which, in different forms, the author continually returns throughout the volume: “Each of our cliches becomes new insofar as we expose it to a new person. But we stay the same.” At the same time, he is painfully aware of the passage of time, which is periodically marked by birthdays, lists of the year’s professional accomplishments, and the like, as well as by the implacably changing dates that open each section of the diary.

It thus becomes essential for the author, pursuing the ideal of a changeless self in a constantly changing universe, to identify himself with immortal art, especially with his music. The lists of compositions, even as they suggest the passage of time, thus also represent an unchanging artistic order shored up against it: “The writing of music is not of the present, it is of a domain that has nothing to do with time.” It is also essential that the work of art should refer only to its creator, rather than the performer or the audience; if others find in a work something other than what the creator intended, then even art is subject to change, and that cannot be admitted:If Michelangelo did create for a mass (debatable) his subject matter was the same as that of lesser artists. He was great not because of his material or mass appeal, but because he was Michelangelo. The masses don’t know the difference.

Such an attitude inevitably tends to isolate both art and the self from the rest of humanity, from the masses. Indeed, Rorem finds it annoying that audiences may come to know his music without knowing him: art, in The Paris Diary, is a way of preserving the self, unchanged, through time. Similarly, the act of creation isolates the self. The artist must withdraw from ephemeral, changing human relationships in order to pursue the eternal. Thus Rorem presents himself throughout The Paris Diary as a detached, ironic observer, even in love, despite its constant society gossip: He often recounts such gossip only to express his disgust with it. Paradoxically, if the self is defined in terms of artistic success, success can be measured only in terms of recognition or fame: The artist must define himself according to others’ perceptions of his art. Despite his ironic detachment from society, Rorem thus also needs society’s approval, if the self is to be validated. Artistic immortality can only be conferred by an audience.

Since the young diarist’s identification of himself with art extends even to his physical appearance (in a charming passage, Marie-Laure takes his measurements and finds them “to be according to the classic golden law”), another paradox results. The beauty of human beings, unlike the beauty of art, must pass, as Rorem knows: Toward the end of The Paris Diary, he recognizes that people no longer turn to look at him in the street. This recognition of the reality of change, enforced by advancing age, is strengthened by his return home, in The New York Diary, to scenes of his past life. This volume turns inward, as Rorem searches for a basis for the self which is not dependent on others’ perceptions, either of his talent or of his beauty. He also finds himself rejected in love for the first time, increasing the need for such a basis.

He finds it precisely in the past, which is evoked ever more powerfully on his home ground; memory plays an increasingly important role in The New York Diary. Moving beyond the acute sense of time passing that characterized the previous volume, the diarist moves toward a recognition that time has already passed, and thus toward a more mature, and poignant, view of the self in time: “I . . . no longer believe in my own immortality.” Rather than seeing his work only in terms of himself, he now sees it as a result of his Protestant heritage: Time past, rather than the eternal, now defines the self. An important result of this new concern with the past is that the diary becomes self-reflexive. Earlier passages are now quoted and analyzed, with a recognition of just how much has changed in spite of his youthful desire for eternity: “Did I write that!”

The self, then, has come to be defined as something that changes in time; rather than an eternal, formal work of art, it has become the sum of its still-accumulating past experiences and impressions—more like the diary itself, with all of its random inconsistencies, than it is like an art-song or one of Michelangelo’s statues. Such changes are recorded, and understood, internally, rather than being imposed by others; thus the author can begin to recognize that others, too, have their own independent existence, rather than existing only to validate the self as a work of art, or the work of art as an expression of the self:Why do I keep on, making every gesture in the fear and hope that it will be seen, remembered? Or for what reason can I say that this or that of me I have made indelible, when with a final gulp I, too, have admitted death? . . . If ever I am spoken of in whatever generations may have the funny miracle of being born, it will not be Ned Rorem himself who is remembered.

Though Ned Rorem himself may be forgotten, it seems likely that his diaries, like his music, will be remembered.

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