The Paris and New York Diaries of Ned Rorem Critical Essays

Ned Rorem


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1118 words.)