I was having a conversation with Ramona Grigg recently. You probably know her from one of her blogs Ramona’s Voice and Constant Commoner. Anyway, we were discussing the new book that Harper Lee is publishing. I became substantially less excited when I found out that it wasn’t something new, but rather a novel she had written before To Kill a Mockingbird. Generally, reading that sort of thing is disappointing — just a historical curiosity. But maybe not. We’ll see. Regardless, this led to a discussion of author’s intend.
Grigg mentioned that she had checked out a book of Willa Cather’s short stories, and discovered in the introduction that the author had explicitly said she didn’t want the included stories published. But here they were. Grigg was horrified by this and so didn’t read the book. That shows an admirable level of ethics. After all, Cather is long dead. But it got me thinking about the issue. And fundamentally, I don’t think it is a matter of Cather or any other dead person. But I do think that it is really important to respect the dead — because of the living.
In chapter 13 of the first volume of Don Quixote, this issue is discussed at the funeral of Grisóstomo. He is, from my vantage point in life, a supremely silly young man who killed himself because a young woman he loved, Marcela, didn’t love him back. But before he died, he asked that all his writing be burned with his body. As a result, his friend Ambrosio was set to do just that. But an outsider, Vivaldo, bristled at this idea. And he presented a fairly compelling argument for not following Grisóstomo’s wishes:
Ambrosio won’t budge on this, because he was Grisóstomo’s friend. So Vivaldo grabs some of the papers and Ambrosio allows him to keep and read them, but will not allow more. It is all a set up for Cervantes to insert a rather long poem into the text. Cervantes always considered himself a poet above all else. But no one takes him seriously on this score — including me. Even in Spanish, they seem mediocre to me. In translation, they are usually dreck.
But this argument between Ambrosio and Vivaldo leaves out what I think is the most compelling of arguments in favor of honoring Grisóstomo’s request: the way it affects the feelings of the living about how they will be treated in death. Whether one believes in an after life or not, it can’t be that the dead care about how we treat them. Consider the ending of the Iliad. After killing Hector, Achilles drags his body around from his horse. That greatly distressed Hector’s father, King Priam. But it clearly didn’t distress Hector at that time. The idea of it, however, did greatly distress Hector while he was alive.
That is why I think honoring the wishes of the dead matters. And I suppose that puts me down on the baby side of the “save a baby or the last copy of Shakespeare’s complete works” question. It would be sad if we didn’t have the Aeneid. But I’m afraid that life is for the living. And that is why we honor the dead.
For this article, I used Burton Raffel’s excellent translation of Don Quijote.