The Great French Artist Eugène Delacroix on Self-Doubt, Idea-Ambivalence, and the Cure for Procrastination
“I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now.”
By Maria Popova
“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today,” Seneca wrote in contemplating the shortness of life and the art of living with immediacy. Our propensity for procrastination is one particularly acute symptom of this life-draining expectancy — putting off a new project is predicated on the today-thwarting illusion that tomorrow will contain more optimal conditions for beginning it. But what happens all too often is that the more we stall to begin after the initial spark of idea-inception, the more we stifle the force of inspiration until we douse it completely without catalyzing a beginning at all. To overthink an idea is an especially common form of procrastination — something Picasso captured in asserting that “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”
In his youthful diaries, the great French artist Eugène Delacroix (April 26, 1798–August 13, 1863) articulates the psychological underpinnings of this tendency with uncommon clarity and vulnerability. From The Journal of Eugène Delacroix (public library) — which also gave us the celebrated artist on the importance of solitude in creative work and how to avoid social distractions — comes a beautiful meditation on idea-ambivalence, procrastination, and self-doubt.
In an entry from April of 1824, two weeks before his twenty-sixth birthday, Delacroix writes:
How stupid to get into the habit of reserving what one imagines to be the finest subjects for a future occasion!
The absurd mania I have for doing things in which I am not vitally interested, and therefore doing them badly; the more I do such things, the more I find to do. I’m always having excellent ideas, but instead of working on them while they are still fresh in my imagination, I keep telling myself that I will do them later on — but when? Then I forget about them, or worse still, can no longer see anything interesting in ideas that seemed certain to inspire me. The trouble is, that with a roving and impressionable mind like mine, one idea drives another out of my head quicker than the changing wind alters the direction of a windmill’s sails. And when I have a number of different ideas for subjects in mind at once, what am I to do? Am I to keep them in stock, so to speak, quietly waiting their turn? If I do that, no sudden inspiration will quicken them with the touch of Prometheus’s breath. Must I take them out of a drawer when I want to paint a picture? That would mean the death of genius.
Delacroix’s solution to this idea-ambivalence is to turn to the classics as a clarifying force of inspiration:
I believe that when one needs a subject, it is best to hark back to the Classics and to choose something there. For really, what could be more stupid? How am I to choose between all the subjects I have remembered because they once seemed beautiful to me, now that I feel much the same about them all? The vey fact that I am able to hesitate between two of them suggests lack of inspiration… What I must do to find a subject is to open some book capable of giving me inspiration, and then allow myself to be guided by my mood.
Four days later, Delacroix revisits the subject of idea-procrastination and sets out to untangle its psychological root system, self-doubt:
I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now. What I have done cannot be taken from me. And as for this ridiculous fear of doing things that are beneath my full powers…. No, this is the very root of the evil! This is the mistake which I must correct. Vain mortal, can nothing retrain you, neither your bad memory and feeble strength, nor your unsuitable mind that fights against ideas as soon as you receive them? Something at the back of your mind is always saying: “You who are withdrawn from eternity for so short a time, think how precious these moments are. Remember that your life must bring to you everything that other mortals extract from theirs.” But I know what I mean. I think that everyone who has ever lived must have been tortured by this idea to some degree.
Indeed, this psychological malady spares no one, not even those we’ve come to celebrate as geniuses, as most poignantly evident in John Steinbeck’s diaristic dance with self-doubt.
Two centuries later, The Journal of Eugène Delacroix remains not only an invaluable record of the inner life of one of humanity’s greatest artists but a timeless trove of insight into the universal trials and triumphs of the creative life. Complement this particular portion with Van Gogh on fear, taking risks, and how making inspired mistakes moves us forward.
Published November 4, 2015