Opinion: Posthumous literature is exploitative

When a life’s work outlives its creator

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Andrew Hearst, Opinion Editor

Flora Wild was murdered in cold blood on November 18th, 2009, after over three decades of a miserable, artificially prolonged life. A character in an unfinished manuscript by prolific author Vladimir Nabokov, Flora’s death illustrates a predatory precedent, a blatant disregard for the will of those whose art we consume.

Nabokov’s work was often defined by his borderline neurotic perfectionism. When his health started to decline in the late 1970s, terrified of the fate he feared would befall his work if it found life in a raw unfinished state, Nabokov instructed his wife to destroy any incomplete manuscripts after his death. He wished for the world within the story to die with him, for the paper it was written on never to see the light of day if he did not survive to coax out its perfection. 

This manuscript, which eventually found the title The Original of Laura, lived on after Nabokov’s 1977 death, a half-finished husk. After years of nebulous fate, the manuscript fell into the hands of Nabokov’s son, Dmitri. He eventually decided it was too valuable to be destroyed and published the story in 2009 as 138 index cards of handwritten primordial soup. The final card, number 138, contains only the words “efface,” “expunge,” “erase,” “delete,” “cut out,” “wipe out,” and “obliterate.” While the desired intent of these words is unknown, their effect is a gutting prayer for obliteration.

Art seeks to project human complexities onto canvas, paper, and film, and thus is intimate in a way other cultural expressions are not. This intimacy breeds an air of selfish obsession in the relationship between the audience and the artist, a constant need for more work. But what happens when creators can no longer forcefully stave off or willingly satiate popular appetite?

Dead artists are nothing short of carrion; their art becomes a bubbling, rotting mass of flesh, slowly stripped from bone as their last vestiges of self are devoured. From ceaseless cravings for new art arises posthumous work, work published after death without the consent of the author. 

Often raw, unpolished and unfiltered, posthumous work stands out from what are otherwise painstakingly-curated artistic catalogs. Their unique appeal lies in the thrill of seeing artists and art unmasked, pulling back the curtain of separation that affords artists their intimacy. Despite their widespread acceptance, posthumous novels disprove the pretense of selfless, sacred love between artist and audience.

Franz Kafka is perhaps the most enduring absurdist of his era. An incredibly dark, imaginative satirist, Kafka is best known for his stories of mortal suffering under unjust and illogical systems of power. One such narrative, “The Trial,” has become emblematic of the author’s philosophy, despite his resolved unwillingness to release it.

“The Trial,” tells the story of Josef K., a man arrested for nothing, charged with nothing, convicted of nothing and executed for nothing. Josef is kept almost entirely in the dark as an inscrutable judiciary decides his fate. His desperate pleas and protests, frantic assertions that he is innocent of whatever he has been accused of, fall on deaf ears. Josef’s is a fate decided without his input. 

Kafka succumbed to tuberculosis before “The Trial” could reach completion. In his final days, he communicated mainly through written notes, confined to his bed and unable to utter words or eat. One such message, his last request, instructed his friend and executor, Max Brod, to burn any notes, diaries, sketches and manuscripts which remained in his house after his death. 

Kafka had already undertaken the task of burning his work, determined that his final known work would be “The Hunger Artist, ” a story of a performer who starves himself to death for the sake of an uncaring audience. When he was no longer equipped with the strength to burn the work, Kafka entrusted Brod to carry out his wishes, and Brod blatantly betrayed this trust. After Kafka’s death, Brod saved and published several of his unfinished novels, “The Trial” included. 

Kafka hated the idea that his works would be subject to the harsh light of human scrutiny, believing them too personal, too horrific to be fit as anything other than an exercise is catharsis for the author himself. The idea that what little artistic restraint he could exercise may be wrested from him upon the hour of his death must have terrified Kafka to no end. 

Blinded by a deep reverence for Kafka and his work, Brod’s actions were inhumanly cruel, forcing the tragedy of the story upon Kafka. His deathbed pleas fell upon uncaring compatriots. His death, like Josef’s, was reduced to an animalistic affair, a stab through the heart of his artistic spirit as the audience’s entertainment is prioritized over the artist’s wellbeing.

Posthumous works butcher artistic intent, throwing the integrity and sanctity of the creative spirit to the wind in favor of selfish hedonism. The publishers who widely distribute them see the opportunity to profit off unscrupulous audiences and seize it. 

Audiences enable artists to devote time and effort to their work that they would otherwise not be able to. However, when it is purely and unmistakably exploitative, fanaticism takes on a parasitic tinge. No posthumous masterwork is worth the desecration of which it must have been born.

No matter how artful its prose is or groundbreaking its ideas are, there is no artistry to work violently contorted against its original purpose. Publishing posthumous literature against the author’s will is an act of blatant exploitation, allowed to continue because the exploited authors are rendered voiceless by their deaths.