Motives Behind a Mantra: Revise, Revise, Revise

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Commentator Alain De Botton, who is a philosopher and author, analyzes why artists and writers keep revising their work over time.


Wikipedia, the best-known Wiki site, has been around since 2001. And anyone who's spent any time there knows one of its defining characteristics is that information is constantly being revised.

But as commentator and philosopher Alain De Botton points out, that's not really a new idea.

ALAIN DE BOTTON: One of the reasons we value art is that it endures time. Whereas its creators and audiences decay and die, art functions as a stable repository of valuable insights and perceptions. However, such endurance does set up a particular problem for artists.

For while they, in many cases, welcome the faithful preservation of their ideas, they may on other occasions grow deeply to regret it. Whereas most of us can hide old photos and destroy our jottings, artists are fated to have to live alongside the work that they've placed in the public realm, even when this work creates an awkward clash with their present aspirations.

Art can act like a clawing parent who in a gathering of adult friends can't resist tugging a child back to an earlier incarnation of itself. Yet there is one little-discussed and almost taboo way out of this bind.


Artists, particularly if they're writers, do have the option to pull a creation back into the workshop, amend and update it, and then return it to the public realm, rather as one might remodel a piece of technology. It's a particularly romantic myth that leads us to suppose the artists could never improve what they previously deliver to the world.

If computer companies are allowed to amend their products every few years, isn't it plausible that artists, too, should through time grow more lucid about their work and should hence infuse it with their latest and most mature insights.

The results of revision can be spectacularly good. Take Montaigne's essays. When the book was first published in 1580, it came in two volumes whose quality would not have assured it a place in literary history. It was devoid of much of the charm and digressiveness for which Montaigne is now revered. So it was fortunate that Montaigne published a second, much expanded, personal, wise and funny edition in 1588.

But the results of revision are not always so happy. Harry James, for example, revised all his works for the famous collected New York edition of 1908. The changes were very extensive. The New York edition James is generally regarded by scholars to have introduced a more elaborate, layered, elegant style, but one which could also be faulted for obscurity and tedium. A contemporary reviewer of the New York edition delivered the most withering verdict of all. Let Mr. James respect the classics, even from his own pen.

Though very few writers revise their work directly, a new book is always an attempt to atone for the faults of a previous one. Despite the merits of the occasional rewrite, perhaps the best way to revise any work of art may be just to move on and create something new.

NORRIS: Alain De Botton is a philosopher and the author of "The Architecture of Happiness."

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