Of the Destruction of a Writer’s Words: an Analysis

In a recent interview by Nick Higham, of the BBC’s Meet the Author slot, Rick Gekoski asks why some writers don’t just destroy their own work themselves, rather than rely on the actions of trusted others after their own deaths. It’s a question he repeats in reference to different writers, and it leaves me wondering on certain aspects of the writer’s psyche.

In talking about the release of his book, Lost, Stolen, or Shredded, Gekoski refers to both Franz Kafka and the diarist Philip Larkin in this way. The book, as I understand it, is concerned with various works of art which have or may have fallen to the titular outcome. Gekoski cites Kafka’s request to his friend, Max Brod, asking that his writings be destroyed after his death. Brod didn’t adhere to this request, evidently concluding that the literary worth of Kafka’s writings should supersede the writer’s own desires. Gekoski also tells the story of Larkin’s request to have his extensive, and potentially damning, diaries destroyed after his death.

Kafka and Larkin could both have destroyed their own work themselves, but they didn’t, Gekoski says. He wonders why this could be.

The following is purely speculative. In the first instance, a writer may fall into the camp of having been so immersed in his writing, so touched by it, so affected in any given way, that to destroy his own words is tantamount to heresy. It is the cardinal sin because it is the destruction of creation. There are writers who don’t fall into this camp, of course. These are the writers who see little worth in their scribblings, rough drafts, musings, and on towards their final polished pieces. These writers might see their works as a means to an end: that they keep the rent paid, food on the table, etc., is a mindset that can be found if delving into the body of literature at our disposal.

That a writer is unable to destroy his own work is, of course, more complex than this though. If Freudian models of the human psyche are to believed, varying degrees of impurity can be poured into the general mix (this mix, up till now, being the altruistic purity that’s about ‘the creation and giving of words’): the ego becomes embroiled in the process, the super-ego niggles away, the id is let loose amongst it all.

The ego is the mask that we wear. If Kafka and Larkin asked that their writings be destroyed (when they could have done this themselves), what masks after death are they asking to be fitted with? I wish to be presented as noble? I wish to be seen, despite face value, as a great writer after all (knowing the double bluff is in operation and my work won’t be destroyed)?

The super-ego is the referee. If we wish our work to be destroyed, though our egos say otherwise, what fights are going on internally? That we can genuinely see if our writing is less than fit is a reflective skill; yet the ego is a powerful demon in us (if we believe in ego at all, that is; though that’s another story). Perhaps we all fall foul of this internal struggle in which the demon mask so often trumps the little accountant of our writerly soul: it may be weak writing, but publish anyway because there is a need to be read.

The id is the impulsive instinctive. Perhaps Kafka and Larkin, as with all of us who write, genuinely did feel that their words should be returned to their constituent parts. Larkin, perhaps, had different motivations: his diaries were, by Gekoski’s account, not likely to present the author in a terribly good light. Kafka may have felt similarly, but with other emphasis. Either way, the writer’s fight or flight mechanism may have a strong part to play here. Run away from potential writerly immortality: let it all go. Maybe, even after death, the writer’s ego pervades: let it all go and the disembodied ego is not so bruised.

Of course, when all is said and done, it’s not so simple to place the reasons why a writer doesn’t destroy his own work and then requests another to do this for him. If there are concerns at the heresy of destroying a creation, the egotistical desire to remain after death, the desire to flee the possibility of being an intrinsic part of the body of literature, then there are also internal squabblings and spiteful self-deceits at play.

We can’t always help the dynamics of these internal actions: we can only be aware that they are there. The writer who does not wish to destroy his own words, but then asks that another does this for him after his death, should perhaps have some honest conversation with himself as to the reasons why he requests what he does. It may be prudent for him to write these reasons down. At least his followers will then know; though what he writes could, of course, cause further questioning of his noble self, or otherwise, his ego and other manifestations of his psyche.

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