27 February 1998

Grave robbery

4 comments

Why do we ignore artists’ final wishes?

The author is dead. The Barthesian battle-cry of the 1960s is ever more relevant today. For the notion of the artist as a Romantic individual with sole dominion over his or her own work is unravelling. This month has seen two “completions” of works left unfinished by their creators. Elgar’s Third Symphony, which at the composer’s death existed only as sketches, has been magicked up into a concert score by Anthony Payne, performed last week by the BBCSO with Andrew Davis. And Thrones, Dominions, the last Lord Peter Wimsy mystery which Dorothy L Sayers abandoned (having not yet reached the crime) 21 years before she died, has been “completed” by Jill Paton Walsh and published by Hodder. There is no pretence in either case of this being “the real thing”. But what is odd is that, in the reviews of these hybrid artefacts, no one has confessed to ethical twinges about the appropriation of private artistic work-in-progress, that form of possession which the philosophers of the French Revolution enshrined as the most sacred and the most personal of all property.

When the Devil, going by the name of Woland, visits 1930s Moscow in Mikhail Bulgakov’s beautiful novel The Master And Margarita, he is introduced to an obscure writer known only as the Master. The Master tells Woland of the novel he has written about Pontius Pilate, but explains sadly that he cannot show it to him, for he has thrown it in the stove. “Forgive me, but I don’t believe you,” replies Woland. “That cannot be. Manuscripts don’t burn.” On the eventual, posthumous publication of The Master And Margarita in 1966, that became a celebrated phrase among Soviet artistic dissidents. Bulgakov in fact had known very well that manuscripts do burn: he burned a load of his own in 1930 in despair at the increasing Soviet censorship of his plays and prose satires. But Woland is right, for the full text of the Master’s fiction is miraculously saved, becoming part of Bulgakov’s own novel. You can burn the manuscript, but you cannot destroy the spirit.

It must be a perverted version of this idea — an appeal to a higher authority than the fallible individual — that motivates people who refuse to burn manuscripts even though they are ordered to do so by dying artists. Referring to his sketches for a third symphony, Edward Elgar said to his friend W H Reed: “No one must tinker with them. You had better burn them.” In fact, as Andrew Clements reported in these pages, they were not burned; Reed published some of the sketches within a year of Elgar’s death. The second half of this interdict — remember, no tinkering — was eventually overthrown by Elgar’s descendants when they realised that the end of copyright protection was looming. No self-respecting cynic should be surprised that even in one of the last bastions of honourable behaviour, considerations of money now override moral qualms. The literary trustees of Dorothy Sayers’s son, Anthony Fleming, invited Paton Walsh to produce a “new” Wimsy story arguably for similar reasons of brand-name consolidation.

The great hero of those who hate to see a gold-mine go up in smoke is Max Brod. Franz Kafka instructed his friend to incinerate all his personal correspondence and diaries, and his unpublished novels, including the book which is now his most famous, The Trial. Not a leaf was singed; everything was published. Milan Kundera goes to great and saddened lengths, in the last section of his wonderful critical book Testaments Betrayed, to demonstrate exactly why this makes Brod an unforgivable traitor. Kundera concludes that Kafka, far from being a bitter man who needed to be saved from himself, made a clear-eyed judgment about what was worth preserving: the fiction he wanted destroyed was exactly those “stories and novels he had not, in his judgment, succeeded in bringing off”, and he wanted the personal writings burned to avoid what Kundera calls “the shame of being turned into an object”.

The “saving” of diaries and the like for posterity is even less excusable than – let’s be honest, here – the theft of artistic work. Some writers get lucky with their chosen amanuenses of oblivion: Philip Larkin was lambasted a few years ago for the dodgy views expressed in his letters, so he must be posthumously thankful that his friend and lover Monica Jones obediently shredded all 30 volumes of his journals. The famous case of Lord Byron’s memoirs is somewhat different. He left them to his friend, the Irish-born poetaster Thomas Moore, with a view to publication. Moore, however, burned the manuscript on account of its supposed blasphemy and obscenity, only saving a little of the material for his volume of Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (1830). His pyromania is generally agreed to be a heinous example of literary vandalism.

But it should be clear by now that the misappropriation of what an artist has not intended for public consumption is only the flipside of Moore’s brutish act of censorship. And the sin is not ameliorated simply because you might disagree with the artist’s reasoning. Aubrey Beardsley, for instance, the celebrated décadent illustrator of Wilde and Pope, embraced Catholicism shortly before his untimely death and requested in vain that those works of his he now considered “obscene” be destroyed. Even Byron, no shrinking violet, wrote in an 1821 letter to Moore that: “I by no means recognize a ‘right of search’ into an unpublished production and unavowed poem. The same applies to things published *sans* consent.”

What is true on the level of an artist’s conception of his oeuvre is also true on the level of a single work, and so the same moral censure should fall on spurious “restoration”. Gustav Mahler definitively removed the second movement, “Blumine”, of his First Symphony after its inaugural performance, yet some modern conductors still insist on ramming back in what the composer decided didn’t work. As Kundera writes: “Aesthetic wishes show not only by what an author has written but also by what he has deleted … Publishing what the author deleted is the same act of rape as censoring what he decided to retain.” Any writer would be embarrassed to have made public the contents of his wastepaper basket, but this is the rule, rather than the exception, after death. Kundera tells us that William Faulkner wanted no trace left of his writings except the printed books themselves, but he too fell victim to the very “garbage-can scavengers” he excoriated.

In Faulkner’s case, indeed, as with many other writers, we can read a palimpsest of drafts and notes, so that we can anatomise the corpse of creation in this mania of completism, imagining that only now is the genuine whole available to scrutiny. This is weirdly misguided. Shakespeare, for instance, didn’t take much interest in the publication of his plays, but he certainly revised them in the light of performance. The famous “uncut” script of Hamlet used for Kenneth Branagh’s film is not some mythical “original” text, but a conflation of different and incompatible versions of the play. It is not much more Shakespearean than Nahum Tate’s rewrite of King Lear, in which Lear and Cordelia live happily ever after.

Jill Paton Walsh’s Wimsy and the Jane Austen “sequels” perpetrated by Emma Tennant aside, unfinished musical works – Tchaikovsky’s Seventh, Mahler’s Tenth – fall prey more often to the second-guessers than do novels. Even Schubert’s celebrated “Unfinished Symphony”, the Eighth in B minor, has been “completed” by such confident archaeologists as Brian Newbould. Yet the composer did not find his schemes overtaken by death. After putting the Eighth aside, Schubert lived on for six years, composing piano sonatas, songs, and a string quartet. So one must conjecture that either Schubert simply did not think that what he had done of the Eighth was much good, or contrarily, that he couldn’t conjure up another two appropriate movements that were as good as those he had already orchestrated. In the first case, it seems pointless to “complete” what the composer regarded as second-rate; in the second, it seems comically hubristic to try to do better.

No one has yet tried to complete Mikhail Bulgakov’s unfinished satiric novel on the Stanislavskian theatre, Black Snow, or the groaning behemoth of unfinished literary works, Robert Musil’s 1,800-page The Man Without Qualities. No one has thought to try to make up for the unwitting vandalism of the Person from Porlock and complete Coleridge’s hallucinogenic fragment “Kubla Khan” – indeed, the very thought seems ridiculous. But then why is it not always ridiculous? In our creaking late modernity, moreover, the notion of “finishedness” has a sad air of nostalgia. Most art, in the age of the word-processor, the remix DJ and the smash-and-grab fusions of electronic multimedia, has this peculiar quality: that it is always provisional, always in flux, never definitively finished. Perhaps the actions of the artistic graverobbers can be explained, if not excused, by appeal to a universal need for closure. But if there is such a fundamental human desire, it will not be satisfied by obsessively tying up the loose ends of the past, only by projecting new finishing lines into the future.

  • Also Vergil instructed that his unfinished (and probably unfinishable) Aeneid be burned; but of course Augustus countermanded this. There seems a difference between Augustus recognising (i suppose) the genius of Vergil’s abruptly-stopped epic, and literary scavengers hauling notebooks out of the trash to make their careers in academia.

  • Yes, possibly that is a mitigating difference… Thanks for the lovely example.

  • Ken

    I’ve been trying to find any information about the tendency for artists to destroy their own work, but I couldn’t come up with much except this. The issue is well known, but rarely discussed and it’s hard because this “condition” has no name. From Greek, it would be something like “technoclasm” – art-destruction. I’d like to find psychological studies on this condition.

  • Technoclasm is an excellent coinage, though I fear that it might be misunderstood since these days techno- in English has come to mean more or less exclusively “having to do with technology”. Maybe we should insist on it nonetheless.

    Recently in Slate there was a story about Nabokov’s last, unfinished novel, which he left instructions to have destroyed. Apparently Dmitri is dithering about whether or not to feed it to the “scholars”. My view remains that of the above article.