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Jeff VanderMeer points to a discussion of the proper disposal of Nabokov’s final, unfinished manuscript, The Original of Laura. It’s in a bank vault. Nabokov wanted it burned. Should it be?

I have probed my moral intuitions carefully and, while I have no definite answer, I find that Nabokov’s wishes deserve substantial respect; the wishes of a very recently dead author, say Kurt Vonnegut, would deserve very great respect; and the wishes of any author alive today will, in the sadly inevitable event of his or her death, deserve overwhelming respect.

However, as I go back in time my solicitude for the author declines; so I am only moderately conflicted about the decision of Kafka’s literary agent to override Kafka’s (d. 1924) wishes and posthumously publish his work; I am almost completely indifferent to whether or not Dickens (d. 1870) would have wanted us reading the unfinished Edwin Drood; and I would regard it as laughable to care about whether it’s OK to go through the private notes and manuscripts of, say, the Venerable Bede (d. circa 735), or Catullus (d. circa 54 BC).

My respect for the author’s wishes declines slowly but steadily over the course of the twentieth century, and drops precipitously after 1914, bottoming out at so what? at roughly 1850. People who died prior to 1850 are things, vague phantoms, soil; who cares what they wanted?

So much for time. What do my intuitions say with respect to how far away the author lived from me? I’d probably rather not find out.

12 Responses to “Personhood”

  1. Benedict Says:

    It’d make it easier to free up some central grave space. I reckon they should allow people to have old tombstones sanded down and recarved with the names of new people as well, all that weathered stone is far too nice to waste on people born that long ago.

  2. felix Says:

    Wasn’t there a Tory MP in the 80s who made digging up old graves the centrepiece of her political career? She was a baroness or something, horsey, frightful?

  3. felix Says:

    By the way, does the text appear centred to you? It doesn’t on my computer at home, but it does — I have just discovered — in the office. It’s not meant to be.

  4. Carrie Says:

    The text has always been centered for me. On all computers I use (four, if you include the BlackBerry).

    I find that I am indeed conflicted about the unfinished manuscripts. I cannot imagine not having read Kafka’s The Trial. Nor can I imagine being willing to discard, say, the safety deposit box full of J.D. Salinger manuscripts that is supposedly out there in… New Hampshire, I guess… despite his OBVIOUS desire for privacy. Yet. I can’t imagine being the one to say “yes, this author is SO respected that we should totally ignore his/her wishes for the greater good.” And, by the way, what if the books really did suck?

    All I can conclude is that writers obviously need a backup plan, since apparently (at least in the World o’ Gilman) last wills and testaments have a statute of limitations. We gotta get these remnants burned BEFORE the public finds out, in other words. Felix, in the event that our spouses cannot perform the necessary immolation, would you care to join me in a pact to be responsible for burning each other’s unfinished drafts? Or would you prefer they stay in a bank vault until your work is fully appreciated and the debate can then rage on in your honor?

  5. BT Says:

    Obviously its a judgment call for the heirs of the author. Absent some extraordinary reason — the work is of an extremely poor quality even for a draft or is patently offensive — I think the work should be preserved. Authors are their worst critics and are often tormented by their own insecurity. Further, people on their deathbeds are not able to look at the matter rationally. Most importantly, following his or her passing, the feelings of the author are no longer relevant. The question becomes, in my mind, is the document a valuable addition to either literature (or its respective field) or to history (as an example of the author’s internal life and/or process). In addition to the examples already given, Virgil asked that the Aeneid be burned even though he had worked on it for 11 years. Octavian saved it (for propaganda reasons rather than for any love of literature), and I think humans have benefited from that decision.

  6. Carrie Says:

    Nevertheless, isn’t the wish of an author due some respect, not because authors have good judgment about such things (indeed, they may not) but simply because they are the property owners? Proprietor of the work, by god (to quote Stephen King). If I get to decide who gets my jewelry when I die, hell, if I get to decide who cares for my KID when I die, even if some of my heirs and assigns disagree, shouldn’t I get to decide what happens to my work?

    It is ironic that the more respected the author’s work is, the less respected his or her wishes with regards to that work are likely to be.

  7. Carrie Says:

    Huh. Now the text is left-justified.

  8. felix Says:

    The text has always been centered for me. On all computers I use




    fix it fix it

  9. felix Says:

    i have a serious answer to this question and it’s brilliant but the margins of my free time at work are too small to contain it

  10. BT Says:

    Of course, authors can condition bequests in their will upon the recipient’s destruction of any unfinished work. But I think, in the absence of something specific like that in a will, works should be preserved. For me, the reason for the inverse relationship between the author’s stature and the respect for their wishes is due to the benefit society derives from their work. The “greater” the author, the greater the reason to preserve their work for posterity.

  11. felix Says:

    In the case of The Original of Laura, we’re almost certainly not talking about an Aeneid-class great work, or even really a work at all — as I understand it, it’s a thirty page first draft fragment. (Actually, according to wikipedia, it’s fifty pages of index cards). That’s not just unfinished, that’s hardly even begun. It would be interesting to scholars, but no normal person’s ever going to read it.

  12. Carrie Says:

    Ah. If we’re not talking about cases where the author left instructions in a will, then how do we know the author wanted the partial works destroyed? This makes a difference.

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