Many writers experience daily frustration with their work. What may have appeared to be clever word-play in the haze of the previous night now looks clumsy; a mastercrafted plot viewed in the cold light of morning appears plodding. The inability to properly convey a grand vision, however, is most heart-breaking for the writer, and whole manuscripts may be destroyed on a funeral pyre of disappointment and anguish.
Typical notions of burning as an associate of destruction precludes an even deeper understanding of its form. In truth, another purpose of burning a failed manuscript is to drop a dead weight previously imbued with high expectations, and hope that upon viewing the flickering glow, the author’s creative capacities would undergo a baptismal-like effect, an almost ritualistic release.
Such was the initial reasoning for Nikolay Gogol, who in 1852, after ten arduous years writing the second part of his acclaimed poem in prose, Dead Souls, burned large sections of the manuscript. Upon casting the work into the fireplace, he later reflected that, “no sooner had the flames consumed the final pages of my book than its contents were suddenly resurrected in a purified and bright form, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, and I suddenly saw how chaotic was everything I had regarded as already having achieved order and harmony”.
This biblical language speaks of Gogol’s descent into insanity, but this common theory that figures from the Orthodox Church forced his hand. Matvey Konstantinovsky – does in part explain the symbolism that a soul had been cleansed. They insisted that it was born of sin, and far too radical to have fulfilled its intended effect on the reader: to paint the fraudster Chichikov, the Church and Russia itself in more favourable, reforming light.
To burn words that had a mere flavour of sacrilege was common cause enough; especially when the cold, dead hands of the writer could not protest. After his death, Blake’s later poetry and manuscripts were destroyed by one Frederick Tatham, who noted that such works incited political and social revolution from the plainest interpretation. ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ alludes to Blake’s criticism of a society built on hypocrisy and questionable morality, “They think they have done me no injury,/ And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,/ Who make up a heaven of our misery”. All were burned and cast into the Dantesque inferno hellscape that Gogol was attempting to emulate in his prose, and Blake was depicting in his engravings.
The motive for Gogol may have been far simpler than a pious act. Perhaps the Dead Souls sequel just was not that good, as his peers were reluctant to tell him so, perhaps knowing that silence was far more comfortable than verbalizing criticism of inferior writing. His own capacities failed to match up with the scope of the grand vision.
But you would not find such evasiveness in Fanny Stevenson, the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson, who was highly disparaging of the first draft of the eventual masterpiece, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. So much so, in fact, that she herself tossed it into the fireplace, later writing to a friend, “he wrote a quire full of utter nonsense”.
upon viewing the flickering glow, the author’s creative capacities would undergo a baptismal-like effect, an almost ritualistic release
As the flames licked thousands, tens of thousands, of words into crumpled ash, the Scot novelist started again. We may think that her judgement was grossly misplaced, yet perhaps the moment of madness offered a point of clarity – it was burned, for she trusted the drug-addled mind of Stevenson to produce a superior version, that concentrated on themes such as the confliction between good and evil in the hearts of man, in a matter of days.
The real test for literary greatness is being brave or foolish (not contradictory terms) enough to destroy one’s own failed labour, thereby being compelled to either start the manuscript again, or give into grief. After the act what may endure is hope that a writer’s self-perceived brilliance – misplaced or not – will be fully transferred to paper. Yet what I know for certain is that book burning is not only for bigots.