Don’t burn it

by on February 16, 2008 at 1:49 am in Books | Permalink

Tom Stoppard weighs in on the burn it/don’t burn it debate about Nabokov’s unfinished work: "It’s perfectly straightforward: Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it."

That is from Bookslut, but Stoppard is wrong.  Dead people don’t count in the social welfare function. (If they did, how many of them would prefer non-democratic or racist outcomes?  And would we count that?  We shoudn’t and we don’t.)

Don’t destroy the output.  Nor is there an incentive problem.  If we release Nabokov’s papers as a book, maybe the next Nabokov will burn the manuscript in the first place.  We’re no worse off, compared to not releasing such manuscripts.  Kafka told Max Brod to burn his works, but we’re all glad Brod didn’t.  Think of the current generation as a player in the multiple selves game of the author (he could have burnt it himself long ago) and then the right answer is obvious.

guest@none.none February 16, 2008 at 2:59 am

Think of the current generation as a player in the multiple selves game of the author (he could have burnt it himself long ago) and then the right answer is obvious.

Is it really? The right question is if authors really need this sort of commitment – presumably as a sort of credible signaling? Perhaps taking this possibility away will result in fewer really innovative works being written.

swg February 16, 2008 at 3:13 am

Not sure the dead racists is a good analogy. Certainly they had no property interest in “racism” like Nabokov had in his book. Maybe a better analogy is someone who intends to set up a charity but dies before it can be formally established. If society establishes it on that person’s behalf, shouldn’t the person’s wishes about the charity be taken into account in the social welfare function? Might that create good incentives for someone to lay the workings of a charity even if he’s not completely certain about the direction he wants it to take?

Erik February 16, 2008 at 4:54 am

I think you are overreacting, Shane. This is a perfectly viable view for someone who views property rights and other libertarian values as vehicles to achieve good outcomes. I never got the impression that Cowen was part of the naive natural rights group of libertarians who base their stances on religious conviction.

Seer February 16, 2008 at 6:50 am

Very good Shane!

odograph February 16, 2008 at 8:25 am

“Dead people don’t count in the social welfare function.”

I might be slow to count them as well, but much of our intellectual property laws (and those in Europe more so) are about honoring “author’s intent.”

I’d prefer short copyright, but to give the author full control in that copyright span. After that, if he doesn’t burn them, it is a moral puzzle for heirs, no one else.

Rue Des Quatre Vents February 16, 2008 at 9:03 am

I agree with Stoppard and Shane above. Burn it. His family made a promise and they should honor it. Incidentally,Tyler, I disagree with your appeal to Parfit. You’re grasping at straws here. The information about Nabokov’s mind is too meagre to warrant any kind of counterfactual reasoning. Didn’t Hanson just have a post on this?

Slocum February 16, 2008 at 9:26 am

Death is not a certain, planned event. The next Nabokov could conceivably change his mind about burning the papers and release them willingly had he not had to burn them first for fear of their release after his death.

That problem has been solved — a present or future Nabokov could protect his works with strong encryption and not disclose the key. As long as he lives, remains possible for him to change his mind and reveal the key.

msun641 February 16, 2008 at 9:57 am

That problem has been solved — a present or future Nabokov could protect his works with strong encryption and not disclose the key. As long as he lives, remains possible for him to change his mind and reveal the key.

Like a super-strong password, no? Presumably, Nabokov did not keep it in this form, and that’s what I was alluding to with this: If you respond by saying that the next Nabokov would keep some way to potentially resurrect the manuscript, then the problem evaporates. Everyone would simply write his manuscripts in his brain, if possible.

So I would definitely urge any author with manuscript-burning thoughts to use a “private medium,” but if the works are scribbled on the back of napkins, not allowing the author a reliable way to dispose of the pages will lead to a few unintended consequences.

infopractical February 16, 2008 at 11:07 am

There is still an incentive problem. You just don’t want to look for it. To go against the wishes of the creative artist may be to insult him gravely, which is different merely than to discourage future unpublished works by other artists. It may be to discourage the artists themselves. Isn’t that why we ask somebody like Tom Stoppard to begin with?

Or, there may be a mixed result going on. We don’t know Nabokov’s true thoughts. Perhaps he wanted the work published, but didn’t want to be responsible for the “intellectual result”. After all, that Nabokov’s work would be controversial only fits reality! So, he avoids historical responsibility with the request, “Burn it!”

Naturally, we must assign probabilities and weights to these outcomes. Good luck!

ad February 16, 2008 at 11:25 am

I’ll be careful not to entrust Tyler with my dying wish. After all, I know with certainty that he will ignore it.

Jacob February 16, 2008 at 12:49 pm

Virgin wanted the Aeneid burned. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Don’t burn it.

Adam Hyland February 16, 2008 at 1:06 pm

Dead people don’t count in the social welfare function. True. But presumably we give some credence to wishes that will no longer change and respond to incentives when we consider estates and trusts. To me I echo the concerns of another commenter. I loved Tom Shadyac when he did Ace Ventura. once I saw Patch Adams, I have forever stricken his works from my list of viewable films. I won’t see anything new of his–ever. Here we have a moment to ponder whether or not Nabakov had more information about whether or not this work would impact negatively in terms of social welfare, while his heirs might only be thinking of the publishing windfall from “the lost manuscript of Nabakov”.

Jason Bullman February 16, 2008 at 2:33 pm

Is it just me, or do most of us enter into a multitude of legally binding contracts that are enforceable post mortem (life insurance, pre-paid burial plots, etc.) I have a crematorium just a couple of miles down the road that would be perfectly willing to contract for the incineration of my body after my death. I can’t imagine that it would be that difficult to do the same for my manuscript. Nabakov’s problem is that he wasn’t particularly careful with whom and how he entered into this particular contract. Later Nabakovs will likely be more careful.

John Goes February 16, 2008 at 3:09 pm

[i]“I’ll respect your dying wish unless it violates Paretian optimality! A simple question to ask yourself is whether you would respect the wish of a parent to have a million dollar funeral, out of your money. The book manuscript is worth much more than that.”[/i]

The book manuscript didn’t belong to the family, did it? Per Nabokov’s oral will, it belonged to the fireplace. It is possibly debatable what should be done, but most competently debated by the family, who have a more acute awareness of their own obligations to Vladimir Nabokov, himself. The refusal to acknowledge such an instrinsic obligation, not to the memory of Nabokov but to the man himself, across time if you wish, is boorish.

Xan February 16, 2008 at 4:27 pm

Maybe there IS an incentive problem. Zoom out. People alive today are better off if they think there is a high probability their dying wishes will be granted. When a high profile wish doesn’t get granted, maybe it has a serious effect on the perception of that probability. And dying wishes aren’t always things the dyers could have accomplished themselves.

Steve Sailer February 16, 2008 at 7:53 pm

Why bother to make up detailed plans for your estate? The dead don’t count, so who knows what the living will do, so spend it now on strippers and blow.

Anyway, Nabokov, who didn’t lack self-esteem, must have known it wasn’t up to his standards. His previous book Look at the Harlequins was nothing special. There’s a point about halfway through “Ada” where Nabokov goes from the greatest writer in the world to not the greatest.

Christopher Rasch February 16, 2008 at 10:13 pm

A simple question to ask yourself is whether you would respect the wish of a parent to have a million dollar funeral, out of your money. The book manuscript is worth much more than that.

Hell yes! The children of many cryonics patients regard cryonics as nothing more than an expensive funeral. Should the children of cryonics patients be allowed to unthaw their parents so they can inherit the money instead? Such disputes have cost cryonics organizations a lot of money and pain.

Moreover, disregarding Nabokov’s wishes also erodes social norms of keeping one’s word, and respecting another’s property rights. Eroding such norms leads to societies whose members find it difficult to trust and cooperate with each other over the long term. While I would mourn the loss of Nabokov’s work, I would mourn the damage to those norms even more.

Morality aside, Nabokov’s mistake was in entrusting the destruction of his works to someone who had little financial incentive to honor his wishes.

What he should’ve done is give his works to an accounting firm that would’ve only got paid when his papers were destroyed. The accounting firm would’ve had the incentive to do so because a) they get paid for destroying it b) they want to maintain their reputation for honoring contracts with future clients.

Robin Hanson February 17, 2008 at 9:25 am

There are huge gains from trade possible in deals across distant generations. We should encourage such deals by enforcing their terms.

Cyrus February 17, 2008 at 1:45 pm

The issue of what rights the dead have doesn’t even have to enter into this. Suppose a friend asks me to go into his office, find some papers located in a certain place, and destroy them. Perhaps I find the request morally repugnant. Perhaps I find it perfectly normal. It doesn’t really matter: whether I am obliged to carry out the request largely depends on whether I agree to carry it out.

James K February 18, 2008 at 2:16 am

Dan Klein: I thought of Smith as soon as I read this post. Actually, that was makes me lean toward saving it. In the unlikely event I ever get access to time travel technology I am so going back the the 18th cnetury to get a copy of Smith’s draft for his lost 3rd book.

Actually, there’s a thought. Perhaps we should just invente time travel adn moot the whole issue ;)

holly hoffman February 18, 2008 at 11:47 am

Jane Austen asked her sister Cassandra to burn all of her letters after her death, and she did. Can you imagine what insights were lost?

The point: Dead people don’t embarass.

Anon February 18, 2008 at 5:04 pm

“Can you imagine what insights were lost?”

We don’t have a right to those insights.

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