Getting oneself in hot water

I am surprised by all the opposition to my argument for not burning the unpublished Nabokov manuscript.  I say this: we limit all sorts of destructive transactions for the living, so why not every now and then a limitation upon the wishes of the dead?  I was not staking out the extreme (but possibly true) position that the wishes of the dead should count for nothing.

I might add that the status quo is permitting the Nabokov manuscript to
be published and that civil society has not collapsed.  Nor are people panicking that their gravestones will be overturned three years hence and sold to finance the expansion of the EITC.

In any case I propose a thought experiment.  If you disagree with me, you should never have read Kafka or Virgil, nor should you set foot in the British Museum, go to an ancient Egyptian art exhibit, or for that matter visit any ethnographic museum.  Lots of that stuff was taken from graves.  They probably didn’t want "the public" to look at it and yes that includes you.  How many of the nay-sayers will pledge they have behaved this way or even that they are much bothered they didn’t? 

Nor are you allowed to hear Doors tribute bands, remixed or recombined Beatle vocals (would John have approved?) and who knows about late Schubert or Mahler’s 10th?  Better safe than sorry and that goes for unapproved translations and editions as well, or how about any religious compendium that refers to the Hebrew Bible as "The Old Testament"?  Don’t even pick it up.  I do in fact regard Sussmayr’s completion of Mozart’s Requiem as an aesthetic crime but not a moral one; it is better to hear the work unfinished.  The really sad thing is how many people like the revised version.

Comments

And many many pieces by published authors are published posthumously. Although these authors might not have expressed their desire that these manuscripts should be burnt, we may infer that they would not have been happy to know that someone (typically a surviving spouse or heir) published those not-yet-finished pieces.

I think of all the stuff from Borges that appeared after his death. I am happy to read it, but Borges would hate to know that I (as many other readers) have seen the books that deserved, in his view, the fire.

And yet, he would also have smiled thinking that there was a "sequence of steps", which include his negation to publish the book and his widow's disobedience that would allow the book to reach its secret destiny.

JS Mill, in some early unsigned articles, defended grave robbers who dug up corpses for medical research.

More evidence that Mill was shakey, in my view.

All of these other instances you cite are fallacious: Nabokov (apparently) expressly voiced a desire to burn the damed thing.

What about that don't you get?

I agree with Eduardo in that pursuing the refusal to honor contracts with the dead will alter the contracts the living make. Also, if we do not honor the postmortem contracts than it opens the door for preventing transfers of property. Hypothetically, the politician may ask, "Why should Bill Gates be permitted to leave his fortune to his children?" If they start asking those questions, we will see much different behavior from the living that I suspect will be an inferior outcome.

Anon,

Wishful thinking will get you nowhere. Wills are enforced precisely to honor the desires of the dead. It is an agreement based not on what the living want or care about, but on the dead's expressed desire. Some heirs are often slighted despite their expectations, others are happily surprised.

That the living can violate agreements made with the dead is no more arguably rational than theft would be. Agency is agency under ancient custom or modern law. It would make more sense to insurance companies just keep the life insurance benefits, but they can't.

"The really sad thing is how many people like the revised version."

I'd be intrigued to see an economic justification for the claim that it's bad that people should gain pleasure from this...

In re anon and the other Eric:

In Rome (doubtless included in your 2800 years) wills could be invalidated if they didn't distribute property in an adequately equitable way among your heirs -- you couldn't just cut a child out of your will and expect it to withstand legal challenge. So that gives some weight to anon's question; it's not solely the respects of the dead which have always been supported here.

Don't forget to add Emily Dickinson to the "not allowed to read list."

Andromeda, of course contracts are broken all the time. And who better to break them with than people who are literally not there to defend their wishes. But Roman history had a wonderful escape clause you skipped over-- you could simply re-name your heirs. You could write your son out and add a new one, adopted for any number of reasons. Historically, wills were almost never invalidated beneath the level of ceasar/imperatur. Look up the legal history of these agreements and you'll find nothing, no basis at all, for the idea that exists for the claims of the heirs.

"All of these other instances you cite are fallacious: Nabokov (apparently) expressly voiced a desire to burn the damed thing."

Not so. Kafka explicitly asked his executor, Max Brod, to destroy his papers upon his death. Brod ignored his wishes and in his preparations for publishing the works even rearranged chapters. "The Castle" and "The Trial" were both published by Brod posthumously.

Tyler_Cowen:

I was not staking out the extreme (but possibly true) position that the wishes of the dead should count for nothing.

Yes, yes you were:

Dead people don't count in the social welfare function.

By not honouring a promise that you make to a dead person, you don't harm the dead person - they are beyond all such earthly concerns.

You harm yourself. If you promise to do something, and then deliberately do the opposite of that, you have betrayed yourself as someone completely lacking in honour. Why should anyone ever trust you again?

"In Rome (doubtless included in your 2800 years) wills could be invalidated if they didn't distribute property in an adequately equitable way among your heirs -- you couldn't just cut a child out of your will and expect it to withstand legal challenge"
that is the law in every civil law country with a code based on the Napoleon or italian Civil Code

Prof. Cowen,

I think you keep digging yourself deeper on this one. :) I echo Person's comment above: yes you did say that dead people don't count. If you want to retract your original blog post, or clarify, that's fine--I would cringe at a collection of ridiculous blog posts I've made in the last year. But don't deny that you explicitly said dead people's wishes don't count. (Or rather, if not being in the "social welfare function" isn't the same thing as not counting in this context, please clarify what you meant by that.)

I might add that the status quo is permitting the Nabokov manuscript to be published and that civil society has not collapsed.

C'mon, this is just silly. Serial murderers and rapists aren't collapsing society either. And for all you know, all of the pragmatic consequences of violating Nabokov's deathbed desire really are happening. But if there is a genius who is now not going to work on something, for fear that he will die before it's satisfactory (and he can't trust his heirs to burn it), that wouldn't kick in for a while, and we would likely never know about it.

Tyler, you are continuing to avoid the point that Nabokov wasn't some tragic victim of lack of self-esteem. Quite the opposite in fact. Nabokov had very high standards, yet he felt that the 20 or so novels he _had_ published met his standards (including one or two at the end that were a major step down from his peak of Lolita -- Pale Fire -- first half of Ada.) He apparently just felt that his last unfinished manuscript didn't meet his standards.

The two major writers most influenced by Nabokov are John Updike and Tom Stoppard. We've already heard Sir Tom's opinion - burn it. Somebody should ask Updike.

better toss out the carnegie foundation money while we're at it (and all other willed charities)

Mike: So Tyler_Cowen was just being vacuous with the first statement?

The case of Gerard Manley Hopkins comes to mind. From his Wikipedia entry: "Despite Hopkins burning all his poems on entering the Jesuit novitiate, he had already sent some to Bridges who, with a few other friends, was one of the few people to see many of them for some years. After Hopkins' death they were distributed to a wider audience, mostly fellow poets, and in 1918 Bridges, by then poet laureate, published a collected edition..."

We do honor wills, but not arbitrarily. Almost every jurisdiction places limits on how a deceased person may dispose of their property, and provides procedures by which, if an interested party feels the estate is being disposed of improperly, they may legally challenge what is or is not being done is accordance or lack thereof with the will. Which suggests that it is not so much about honoring the wishes of the dead, as preventing and settling disputes among the heirs.

As for Tyler's notion that Nabokov "could have burnt it himself," I would imagine that Nabokov didn't want to burn it while he was alive in case he recovered well enough to do the work necessary bring the manuscript up to his standards. But if he died before he could make it worthy of publication under his name, then he wanted his son to the rough draft.

Enforcement of wills is not a matter of utility for the dead. Not exactly. It is utility for those people who have died, but served while they are still alive. Should we stop honoring wills, that security will cease to be felt. This is the consideration we must take in such a circumstance as this one. That does not mean that I fall necessarily on the side of burning the manuscript. That is to say that I refute the argument that consideration of the author's request is a matter of including dead people in the social welfare function.

I'm not even convinced that it is some mythical general social welfare function we should be considering. My own will do nicely enough, and I'll never give up hope of becoming a historically great author. Or an emu.

"If you disagree with me, you should never have read Kafka...."

If one is talking about a hard and fast rule, sure. But why not a flexible rule? For an author like VN, who was old, and for whom I am unaware of any argument as to why his judgement shouldn't be trusted, I think the manuscript should just be burned. Like Steve Sailer, I am of the belief that there is approximately a 0% chance of VN leaving behind another The Trial or The Castle. Or for that matter another Lolita or Pnin.

Whereas for Kafka, there are reasons to wonder about his judgement (dying young, often suicidal, etc.), and to wonder whether in delegating the job to Brod there wasn't some hope on Kafka's part that Brod wouldn't accomplish exactly what he accomplished. Perhaps Kafka's literary instructions were expressed in the same Kafkaesque (in the true sense of being Talmudic and familiar/unfamiliar wrt human motivations, or something like that, not the popular sense of being Twilight Zone-ish) language as the literature itself.

(Kafka even expressed a desire for the things that had been published to die with him, which I think has suggested to people that the request had a symbolic element to it).

If one must adopt a hard and fast rule, how about to accept the judgement of the person the author left in charge of the burning? If they choose to disregard the will of the author, so be it.

(Apparently this was just a "take out the trash, Dmitri" sort of thing but it would be more fun if it were really a more Nabokovian "hey, Dmitri, here's a little literary chess problem for you to enjoy after I'm gone" sort of thing).

In any case I propose a thought experiment. If you disagree with me, you should never have read Kafka or Virgil, nor should you set foot in the British Museum, go to an ancient Egyptian art exhibit, or for that matter visit any ethnographic museum. Lots of that stuff was taken from graves. They probably didn't want "the public" to look at it and yes that includes you. How many of the nay-sayers will pledge they have behaved this way or even that they are much bothered they didn't?

It seems to me you're conflating two propositions here: (1) that the wishes of the dead with respect to dissemination of their possessions should be honored, and (2) that once this dissemination transpires, we should act as if it hadn't. Unless I'm missing something, these are quite separate matters.

you are so brave to face these people

Did I see this kind article before?

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