On legacy

Last summer, in a post titled “Leftover words“, I considered what happens or may happen to the unpublished works that an author leaves behind them when they pass. The works might have been left unpublished because they were unfinished, or they might have been deemed not quite good enough by their creator, or they might have been considered too explosive or too inflammatory for public consumption, or they might have simply been thought too personal. One other possibility, though, is that the author left them quietly in the dark for reasons connected to preferences regarding their legacy, to how the form they wished their legacy to take might be affected by them. “Best to leave that unsaid, I think,” the drawer slides shut and the lock clicks.

The idea of legacy or reputation is an interesting one. It has been suggested by some contemporary philosophers to be the only real harm that might possibly come to one after death, the only way that some aspect of life can reach out to hurt the dead. Epicurus would have called such balderdash and I largely agree with him (scroll down to “Living while dying: Reflections on death’s harm, finitude, meaning, and uncertainty” here if for some unfathomable reason you’re interested in my studies on death), but there are undoubtedly writers who focus on the legacy they wish to have when crafting their works. You might think that this only really applies to those authors who become well-known in life and therefore have cause for such a concern, but the odd thing about books is that no one can ever really tell what will become of them. If we do decide that our postmortem reputation is something that is important or motivating to us then we must face an additional question: Write with our legacy in mind for whom? How can we predict or picture a future audience, how can we esteem what it is that we wish them to know of us if we can only guess at how they might view the world and understand our work? Will they seek to place our book in its historical and socioculutural context and interpret it that way or will they pull it off the shelf – so to speak – of its creation and appreciate it as a standalone commentary on the human, disconnected from the local concerns prevalent when it was produced? Another, more disturbing, question now comes to mind: Why should they care? How presumptuous it is for any of us to think our books will matter!

Yet they do and will matter, most certainly to yourself and most likely to those close to you. To write a book is to pour the very essence of who you are into (nowadays) bytes of zeros and ones, strings of words that may not even be legible tomorrow if some errant calamity were to wipe out literacy somehow or the language in which you write were to vanish from the methods of human communication. It is to take your entire biological being and make of it a tangible, yet quite possibly transient, object. Remain or disappear, an eternal storage in the digital cloud or a vanish into the ether of accidentally deleted files, today as we write our books matter; and as we cannot help but be future-oriented due to the type of creatures that we are our books matter the day after tomorrow too. We can see that time now in our mind’s eye and it holds meaning and value for us, real meaning and real value. It is an entirely genuine concern; we should care about our legacy no matter what it is that we create and even if we create nothing in physical terms. A person’s legacy is the only mark of a life lived that any of us are capable of making, and legacies are as diverse and varied as the people who produce them. I find no presumption in that; instead I see only the very human quality of caring about the life one happened into through no fault of one’s own. We are all born despite not asking for it and we have all had no choice in the matter but to make the most of it. What we determine to leave behind of ourselves on this fair earth is a large part of our making the most of it. It is perhaps not the most important part for all of us, and for others of us it perhaps is – no matter. We live and we die, and just as the detritus of archaeological sites tells us today how they lived then so does our own personally decided “debris” tell the world who we were and what we thought, how we felt, who we loved. All things very much worth considering.

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