“He burned her letters.”
There could be so many reasons for this, so many explanations. We inevitably imagine long, contemplative afternoons filled with lancing sunlight or impending rain, yet in this particular act of literary immolation, the specifics still elude. We know this much, however: the letters were private. If they were not private—if they belonged to others and not the person doing the burning—there would be a crime here and a crime would force its way to the public’s attention.
One wonders if there’s a crime anyway, whatever the motivation. Somebody, in this case an unnamed “her” from the first sentence, took the time to write letters, presumably by hand (because nobody throws printed emails onto a fire!). Now they’re up in smoke.
Aspects of malfeasance in this act are up for debate. Ask a historian or archaeologist if there’s value in so-called archaic, ordinary letters, and the answer is obvious. But ask someone who’s just broken up with a long time paramour and you’ll get a different answer.
There’s a current debate going on in certain art circles right now about what to do with Michelangelo’s David. One of humanity’s most iconic and extraordinary works of art, David, depicted in imperturbable stone as a hale teenager, is getting old. In fact the travails of age in the granite masterwork risk completely undoing it from the ankles up. Despite his musculature, David risks crumbling. What to do, what to do? How should we, collectively, fix it?
Some have pondered, courageously, if we shouldn’t.
Nothing lasts forever. Performance art, theater, music, sporting events: they’re all gone the moment they’re performed, and we all instinctively understand. A more introspective consideration reveals a global historical record of dust from crumbled cities, proof that even the most august urban spaces will inevitable succumb to inexorable deterioration. Cultures rise, fall, change into something new. Life itself evolves: flagella turning to flippers, flippers to feet, four legs to two, and then it’s on to something else, yet to be determined.
Does the world have rights to the encapsulated, private scribblings of former lovers? If the photographer Harry Callahan and his wife Eleanor had decided to keep their quiet photographic adventures to themselves, a vibrant collection of thoughtful art would have been unavailable to enrich everyone else.
People who create things for a living usually create so they can live at all rather simply make a living. They create because they don’t have a choice. The act of creating to them is like breathing. The act of creating is what keeps them alive.
Be that as it may, however, one wonders if all creative acts ultimately thread into the collective ownership of humanity the moment they come to be. We marvel at decorated grave sites around the world if they’re old enough, declaring them the province of antiquity. People pay to climb ruins at Giza and ruminate on the intricate hieroglyphics. We talk about preservation, about continuity, about future generations. We build libraries to protect and preserve.
And yet we would never seek public permission to burn a private love poem. Before you declare, “Of course not. It’s private!” just remember that everything starts as private before it becomes public. It’s true that not every bit of once-private, creative effort becomes vital, valuable art, even as those two thoughts run in parallel. Most things humanity creates do not rise to the level of fine art.
Yet out of the clamor and clutter of mostly personal, trivial creative enterprise twin questions rise into the air, asked in all the languages of the world at once as if in a singular, clear voice:
What is the natural lifespan of creative work? And (more to the point) what should it be?