The Bartleby Syndrome

creativity and inspiration Aug 05, 2021

A term coined by Enrique Vila-Matas and used in his book, Bartleby and co., inspired by one of Herman Melville’s characters, the Bartlebly Syndrome is used to describe authors who hate their works.

This so-called Bartleby Syndrome is different from the idea that there’s beauty in imperfection, the way Michelangelo would often let a small surface of his sculptures unfinished ( for instance David’s top of the head is not polished). This is not some kind of post-modern irony, or the inherent disapproval of classicism inherent in today’s artists, this is a rather nefarious aftermath of crippling self-doubt, listening to an inner voice that becomes a tyrant.

For instance, Nikolai Gogol, the famous Russian writer, was told by a priest to burn the manuscript for the second part of Dead Souls.

Another one, Kafka, told his longtime friend to burn his manuscripts. Or Rimbaud, who stopped writing after the age of twenty, or Stendhal, who threw away multiple of his manuscripts.

Why this profound hatred towards one's own work? Why this sense of feeling inadequate about oneself and one’s work? After all, nothing is perfect in this world. Nothing will ever be, contrary to our desire to perceive everything around us in black and white.

And art can be beautiful, but never perfect. To paraphrase Leonardo da Vinci, art is never finished, it is only abandoned. We let go, knowing full well that nothing can ever be perfect. We let go, for the sake of our own mental health.

The End Game

Most writers, whether aware of it or not, write because they hope their works might someday come true. Those stories will never, ever come true. They’re just words on paper, bits and bytes on a computer drive. There’s magic in that, of course, and some words are known to have changed the world, but the stories never quite become true.

Life and fiction are so close to one another, it’s almost as if they touch each other. But they are never, ever the same thing.

In the world of art, we must walk on a tightrope between triumph and disaster. As creators, we must transform a white screen/page into something worthy of someone else's time. Understandably, we sometimes fail.

But here's where the Bartleby Syndrome shows us a truly sinister aspect of being a creator: we sometimes hate works that everyone else seems to love. More so, we begin to hate them before we even receive a bit of feedback from others.

Understanding the Inner Critic

Born out of a place of fear, the inner critic is often the tyrant that constantly reminds us of the brevity of our own words.

If left unchecked, we will begin to hate our words the moment we fail to recreate the perfection we can imagine.

And this is a crucial factor: nothing will ever be as beautiful as we can imagine.

Being a creator means that you must understand this notion, even internalize it at an emotional level: we fail, over and over again.

This is it.

We're not talking about the prospect of failure, but rather its inevitability. Even if our words inspire millions, even if our words nudge the world a bit.

And we must come to terms with this. We will fail, no matter what.

So, the obvious (and only) question you can ask yourself is this, "So what?"

We must let go of our words the moment we decide to share them with others. Then, our stories become theirs, and they can do with them whatever they please.

That’s it. We life in an imperfect world, and we have to get used to that. We have to create and keep creating, for they will come a time when we won’t be able to do so anymore. Good or bad or simply awful, who cares? Really? If people don’t like it, fine. If people like it, it’s just the same. It’s important that you let go of the idea of perfection, of pleasing everyone, of creating something that is as beautiful in real life as it is inside your head.

This shouldn’t stop us, but rather inspire us. Nothing lasts forever, but we can hope it might.

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