When There's Nothing Left To Burn, You Have To Set Your Work On Fire

Burn, Baby, Burn

Image: Rowan Saunders

As a young, aspiring artist (métier TBD) I was drawn, as many young, aspiring artists are, to grand acts of self-destruction. Because I was an angsty girl, most objects of my affection were also angsty girls: Sylvia Plath slipping into the crawl space of her mother’s house; drunk, bathrobe-clad Tuesday Weld on daytime television; Camille Claudel, seething over the specter of Rodin in the grim halls of the Asile de Montdevergues. You get the idea.

In an attempt to correct the folly of youth, I now go out of my way to avoid falling in love with masochism. I have a baby on the way, after all, and a pile of student loan debt and a thousand other reasons why sober steadiness might be my best path in life. But there is one practice that still sends my heart aflutter, and that is hearing of an artist who burnt his or her work.

In contrast to my previous paramours, the perpetrators of these acts of immolation are mostly male, according to my informally collected data, which makes me wonder if in the case of men, creating a work of art shouldn’t be compared to giving birth, as it is to the point of cliché, but instead to marriage, and the burning of a piece to the now-abolished Hindu practice of sati. (Fine, so in sati, a widow burns herself on the pyre, and of course a manuscript doesn’t have the agency of even browbeaten wife, let alone the limb motility, but as far as metaphors go, it’s decent at least.)

There are a few reasons this practice is so beguiling to me. First, all humans have a deep love-fear relationship with fire (see: Jerry Seinfeld’s astute observation that perhaps we love cigarettes so much because we consider it almost superhuman to be in control of a tiny, continuously burning flame.) I do enjoy hearing of writers and artists who destroyed their work in other ways — Monet stabbed and slashed many of his paintings, and Flaubert buried some of his personal papers in the ground, though it appears he always intended to dig up the trove later — but nothing is as romantic as fire, that multi-tongued beast, that melodramatic harridan. Second, the act of burning one’s work is deliciously anti-historical, and stands in stark contrast to the bulletproof posterity promoted by Facebook and Twitter and The Way Back Machine. It’s nigh impossible to imagine, in a world where a single politically incorrect Tweet can bring down a career, being able to truly erase an utterance, let alone a whole book.

But more than a big fuck you to history, the act is giant renunciation of the ego. It’s twisted Buddhism in that it proves that the writer isn’t attached to what we all assume must be most precious. Most of us are too afraid to allow a moment to pass undocumented, let alone vaporize years of toil, but the burn artist knows that both his life and his work are ultimately ashes. I imagine it must be a great sense of relief, to rid yourself of an unwieldy monument to your own ambition. If I were in the business of making puns, I’d call it an act of enlightenment. But I’m not nearly so corny. (In this same vein, I’ve often wondered about writers who go to great lengths to preserve their work. What does it say about theater critic Kenneth Tynan’s personality that he was so convinced his second wife would destroy his diaries that he left them to his children for safekeeping and, presumably, publication? What was it he felt the rest of us so urgently needed to see? Evidence of his urolagnia?)

If I had to give medals for manuscript burning, the top awards would go to Franz Kafka (obviously) and Nikolai Gogol. Even armchair Kafka enthusiasts know that while dying of tuberculosis, Kafka entrusted his work and assorted ephemera to his best pal Max Brod, stipulating that Brod burn it.

Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me (in my bookcase, linen-cupboard, and my desk both at home and in the office, or anywhere else where anything may have got to and meets your eye), in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, to be burned unread.

Brod didn’t oblige. Though this is probably a heretical admission, I had always considered Kafka’s asking Brod to light the match a pussy move. (Or maybe it’s not that outrageous a reaction: Rivka Galchen, writing in the London Review of Books, said she, too, found Kafka’s last request “childish.”)

But Galchen and I misjudged Kafka, it would seem. Apparently he’d always been a burner. According to Rodger Kamenetz, author of Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka, “Altogether, [Kafka] burned thirty-four hundred pages, or about 90 percent of everything he ever wrote.”[1] Kafka, it turns out, had been locked in a Sisyphean struggle of his own making his entire creative life, feverishly writing and then dropping the papers, still wet with ink, straight into the fire. His lover, Dora Diamant, who confessed to burning things on his behalf, said that for Kafka, burning his work was an act of “self-liberation.” “The element of fire,” Kamenetz posits, “is destructive and transformative.” One wonders if he didn’t, then, write as much for the product than for the sake of burning as an end to itself.

Gogol isn’t a less admired literary figure than Kafka, although his life has certainly not been documented with the same feverish enthusiasm as the latter’s has. In fact, the most recent comprehensive biography of Gogol was published in 1975 in French (unless you count a fascinating 1977 investigation into his love life entitled The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, which is probably worth buying just so people can see it on your coffee table.)

But what’s important to know about Gogol’s literary auto da fe you can pick up through a cursory Google: on the evening of February 24, 1852, possibly going insane and also under the influence of a proto-Rasputin religious zealot, Gogol burned many of his papers, including a majority of the manuscript for what was intended to be part two of his masterpiece Dead Souls, which he had labored over for about a decade. After you let that sink in, read what Gogol wrote about the experience in a letter: “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.”

From this description, it sounds like an incredible catharsis, or, in rock star-ese, a huge fucking rush. Curious, I decided that in order to have a last destructive hurrah before the birth of my child, after which I will certainly turn into a boring ur-domestic, I should engage in some targeted pyromania. For a second I wonder to myself if it isn’t a little disturbing that in my final days of freedom, I’m choosing to emulate Gogol instead of, say, someone with a sweeter reputation, like the protagonist of David Ives’s hilarious one-act play Degas, C’est Moi, who decides to become the famous ballerina lover for a day. Why be a Ukrainian hysteric when you can be lecherous Frenchman? But my mind has been made up, and Gogol it shall be.

First, I needed something worthy of burning. It had to be a piece of work I’d been mulling over for a long time — something of significant length, but not necessarily Dead Souls-long (ain’t nobody got time for that) and something not even the notes for which I had ever committed to Microsoft Word. Instinct told me that fiction was a better burnt offering than a well-crafted think piece, which was a bit disappointing for me as my fiction is uniformly maudlin and thus probably not much of a loss for anyone. There were, however, a few ideas that I’d had on file for a while, and so I picked one of the oldest, most beloved of that bunch, and forged ahead.

One very cramped hand and thirty-odd pages later, I completed what I was sure was a bona fide masterpiece. Or possibly a masterpiece. Eh, maybe just likely to be viewed by some, like my father and my pet cactus, as a masterpiece.[2] No matter. It isn’t the product being destroyed that gives the act its gravitas, but rather the act of destruction itself, I reasoned. After all, Gogol couldn’t have been sure he was writing his magnum opus when he was writing Dead Souls redux. The mere act of holding paper that I had written on with my very hand was novel; most often, of course, a work is just a tiny icon on a screen, and its destruction as easy as dragging said icon to the digital garbage (that is, of course, if you can be sure some other electronic copy isn’t languishing on an old USB drive somewhere).

Wee manuscript in tow, I gathered together the other necessary supplies: matches, small metal trashcan, and a container of lighter fluid, just in case. My kit was not terribly heavy, but, being nine months pregnant, I wasn’t exactly in the mood to schlep it far. Plus, I needed to find a location where I was unlikely to get arrested. As it happens, I live on a Notting Hill-style square in London, which affords me some privacy. To my disadvantage, though, is the fact that my neighbors are almost uniformly elderly and posh — the posted rules in the garden stipulate that we should avoid bringing bread products in, lest the crumbs attract the “wrong sort of birds,” which presumably are pigeons that didn’t follow the traditional Eton-Oxbridge path. If one of these stodgy local characters catches me with a miniature rubbish bin fire, I’ll certainly become the Square pariah.

Thankfully, no one is out and about when I arrive, despite it being a rare sunny afternoon. The weather doesn’t seem quite ideal for this activity — I feel it ought to be done in the still-dark morning hours, my face flushed from the heat rising off the Franklin stove, or maybe dusk in a clearing in a wood, the fruits of my labor meeting their demise in a bonfire threatening to break free of its enclosure any minute and swallow up the entire forest. The sun, the chirping well-bred birds, the freshly cut grass: it’s altogether too cheerful a day for an exorcism, but when I light the match and drop it into the bin, I feel my heart rate spike, and my soul clench and then growl. One by one, the edges of the pages curl, and the flames get larger, licking the side of the metal cylinder.

The whole thing takes probably ten minutes, but I’m mesmerized for every second of it. Mixed in with the high is a tinge of sadness. I had liked the story, actually. I had thought about it for ages before I determined it would be my literary sacrificial lamb. I suppose this is to be expected — maybe even Gerard Manley Hopkins wept over the poems he burnt before donning the frock — but there is no going back now.

Just as the fire is dying down, I hear the garden door clang shut, and see my ancient downstairs neighbor, who is literally a countess, being wheeled toward me by one of her aides. She looks mildly befuddled (which is British for “outraged”) and mumbles something that sounds like, “On a Sunday?” Careful not to grasp the still-searing bottom of the bucket, I surreptitiously dump the ashes of my masterpiece into the nearest bush and hightail it out of there. I scurry up the front steps of my building and then up to my apartment, slamming the door behind me. My husband has, in the interim, arrived home. He appears British-outraged; surveying his panting, wild-eyed wife, he sniffs the air before asking, “Why do you smell like matches?”

Gogol, c’est moi.

[1] Nachman of Bratslav was a Hasidic Jewish rebbe who routinely burnt his work in front of his devotees, simultaneously taunting them that the destroyed pages contained works of unimaginable mystic insight.

[2] For obvious reasons I cannot describe the plot here.