Wednesday, February 29, 2012

When writers censor themselves

More familiar as a habit of despots, authors themselves quite often make strenuous efforts to suppress their own work

Space Invaders expert Martin Amis. Photograph: Sahm Doherty / Time Life / Getty

The suppression of literature is an ancient tradition that probably started with the invention of writing and which thrives today all over the world. In the west we generally venerate those authors who stand up against acts of silencing by the authorities. But what are we to think when an author suppresses himself?

The easiest form of self-suppression is to have an idea and not write it, and we may well wish that more authors would exercise this prerogative. It gets more complicated once the book exists, however – even in unpublished manuscript form. Since we usually don't know about the successful suppressions, the most famous cases of authorial efforts at self-silencing are those of writers who attempted and failed to quash the publication of works they had written but did not wish to see the light of day.

Consider Virgil, who died during the editing of the Aeneid in 19BC and left instructions for the incomplete work to be destroyed. The Emperor Augustus overruled his wishes, a rare historical instance of an authoritarian leader insisting on the publication rather than suppression of a text. Almost two millennia later and Kafka asked his executor Max Brod to destroy his manuscripts. Brod declined to do so, and the history of 20th-century literature took a radically strange turn as a result.

What lay behind these posthumous orders to kill texts? A frustrated hyper-perfectionism? A desire for deep oblivion? We might also ask how sincere such requests actually were: Kafka had plenty of time to throw his work in the fireplace himself- but he didn't.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), however, did. His poetic talent flourished early, but after joining the Jesuits in 1868 he was unable to reconcile his faith with his creativity and so surrendered all of his literary work to the flames. In 1872, he saw a way forward, but even then he wrote little and most of that was published after his death.
Full piece at The Guardian

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