A writer asks his best friend to burn all his unpublished papers after he dies young of a lingering illness. The friend refuses. Was he right or wrong?
This is the kernel of a discussion I had with my husband last night, long past when we both should have been asleep. Was Max Brod right to publish Franz Kafka’s works, even though he was the executor of Kafka’s will, and the will said IN-CIN-ER-ATE?
As an historian, I’m on Brod’s side. As a writer, the question gives me the screaming fantods. At what point does a creative work become an independent entity with rights of its own? Am I right or wrong when I decide to destroy my own work, burn my notebooks, delete my drafts?
My husband is an engineer, more or less innocent of the world of literary history. As such, it seems easier for him to take a hard-line policy position on these matters. For instance, I argued that publishing Anne Frank’s diary was worse than publishing Kafka’s papers, because she had no say in the matter, and her work was both personal and private, while Kafka’s work was fictional. Hubby says that when Anne Frank died, her work became a relic and entered the public domain.
But if Anne Frank’s secret diary deserves to join the canon, does that not imply that The Metamorphosis did, too? Well, no, because Kafka stated his intentions toward posterity, but Anne Frank never did.
At this point, the conversation shifted to material objects, and whether different rules apply to our possessions than to our intellectual property. Do we owe stuff the same considerations as IP?
Okay, say that a hypothetical billionaire buys a da Vinci sketch. He stipulates in his will that he has loved this sketch so much that he doesn’t want anyone else to ever see it again. After his death, it is to be burned. Is he right or is he wrong?
Wrong, says my hubby, because that sketch has intrinsic merit and provenance.
At what point, though, does something become art? (Age, he says! Which at that point touches on archaeology and anthropology). Is art anything that was not mass-produced? Even a cruddy painting from a yard sale? Yes, he says, because it’s not always up to contemporary people to recognize the true merit of the work.
Okay, then, if a yard sale painting has intrinsic merit because it was an artistic work, Max Brod was right to save The Castle.
He still says no, while agreeing that this story has an operatic level of dramatic tension. It also feels highly relevant for my people, the accumulators. I want to do a documentary asking these questions of twenty hoarders and listening to them riff on what makes a thing work keeping.
If Kafka wrote today, he might have remained undiscovered, a lonely producer of fanfic or a followerless blogger. So many people are publishing so much, so often, that it would be impossible to know how many unrecognized geniuses are out there. Contrariwise, the vast majority is probably mediocre. The question of whether our output is worth keeping is now somewhat of a moot point, because it’s little more than a few kilobytes of data added to the global bucket o’ terabytes.
Our stuff, though? Where is the line between ‘heirloom’ and ‘junk’?
I have two dreads related to my own mortality. One is that I would somehow be remembered with a roadside memorial made of stuffed animals and helium balloons. (I recognize that this might be incredibly touching to the majority). My other dread is that someone would want to save all my random clutter, paying a storage fee rather than throwing out a bunch of completely useless boxes. The worst thing I can think of is having my earthly existence reduced to a box of books or old clothes. Dude, I’m not a ring or a teacup. Throw that stuff AWAY.
Am I right or wrong, though? What if I put in my will that I had paid a service to come in and donate or throw away all of my personal items? If someone in my life wanted to take one of my old t-shirts in order to feel close to me, who wins? (What if it was... a weird neighbor or stalker??)
When my grandmother passed away, I hoped to choose a piece of her costume jewelry for myself. I was the only granddaughter, and I figured she would probably have an inexpensive trinket from her youth, a little vintage piece or something that my mom and aunties wouldn’t care about. Nana was always very stylish and she loved brooches and rings. I was therefore stunned to discover that everything she had left was modern. I knew she had contemporary stuff prior to the 1980s because it appears in photos. At some point, she must have weeded it all out of her collection. As a minimalist, I respected this, but as a descendant, I was a little disappointed.
Do we make these decisions based on the financial value of the objects?
Do we make them based on their usefulness?
Can the ancestor require that the descendants keep specific things?
Can the descendants demand to receive specific things?
Which descendant? Who gets precedence, the child or the grandchild?
I made a policy decision quite a long time ago that I would not be a reliable caretaker of family memorabilia. This from a person with a history degree! I would be the logical choice as curator of photographs, letters, documents, and anything else that qualifies as an archival legacy. At the same time, I would be the worst possible choice; I don’t have children of my own and my lifestyle is far too nomadic. Who would make that commitment when I’m gone?
What tends to happen is that we are so poleaxed by grief that we are unable to make decisions, usually for many years. It’s really common for people to have multiple generations’ worth of unsorted grief boxes. One generation loses their parents, and, paralyzed by mourning, leaves the boxes for the next generation, whose sorrow then becomes exponential. Meanwhile, the boxes are full of totally mundane, insignificant items. Please don’t cry over my alarm clock or my baking pans, okay? They’re not me.
Pass the buck. That’s the default reaction. We treat our tea towels like some kind of priceless inheritance, even though almost every human being who was ever born has had the fantastic blessing of being ordinary. (Ordinary, better than infamous). What we really should be doing is loving each other harder while we are here in the earthly plane. We should be more present for one another, listening, sharing stories, forgiving, appreciating, caring, trying a little harder. It’s when we realize we have missed our opportunities to love each other extravagantly that we cling to the kettles and casserole pans. Always, always, always, people before things.
Unless those things are the unpublished works of an artistic genius, at which point the ethical dilemmas commence all over again.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.