Ah, the sweet catharsis of setting things on fire. Generally speaking, setting fire to any odd object is frowned upon, and this article definitely comes warranted with a ‘don’t try this at home, kids’, but still there’s something about burning something once held dear that offers a cleansing rebirth. We burn bras, old photos, and letters from exes. For many writers the objects of their pyro eye are their very own manuscripts.
No one ever really likes to hear the words ‘book’ and ‘burn’ paired together in a sentence, and when the act of burning books is carried out by a writer it takes on a troubling new weight. The act of burning books aligns itself with a history that evokes painful emotions, especially for writers. It’s the essential dystopic force in Fahrenheit 451 and an operative form of oppression in 1984. In literature and history it signals the destruction of knowledge and the rise of tyranny. Even when the burning is self motivated, in the case of many writers, its hard to sever the history of book burning from the act itself. But if we can look at the act alone it takes on a new meaning, and a powerful one at that.
Nazi book burning in the 30’s (image courtesy of Arizona Library)
After the initial trouble of setting fire to something – find a lighter, find said object to burn, wait for the flame to lick away its existence – there’s the brute of emotions that precedes catharsis. Many writers, like Franz Kafka and James Joyce burned their writing because they were ashamed of what they created. Spurned by publishers or self-conscious of their work, they resigned to a comfortable spot by the fireplace to watch their failures melt away.
In the case of James Joyce, his manuscript for Stephen Hero was the object of his contempt. It was rejected 20 times, after which Joyce said ‘f this’ and tossed it into the fireplace. At the risk of burning herself, his wife leaped at the fire to rescue the manuscript. You can now thank her for saving what eventually became the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Others, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, burned their work out of ascetic drive. Hopkins was a highly disciplined and religious man, and frequently struggled to balance a life of writing with that of prayer. The pulls of his two passions led him to burn all his poetry, refute the life of a writer, and become a priest for several years.
Often times, it’s not the writers themselves that burn their work but lovers and friends. Richard Francis Burton, author of The Scented Garden, had a significant part of his novel burned by his wife. Stuart Mill’s maid accidentally burned a manuscript he’d been reviewing for Thomas Carlyle. Lord Byron’s memoirs were burned a month before his death. And Sylvia Plath had the last few months of her journal burned, an attempt to keep the dark material away from her children.
Excerpt from Plath’s salvaged journal (image courtesy of Rebloggy)
The urge to burn one’s work hinges on what Umberto Eco references as the difference between a good poet (or writer) and a bad one: “later in life good poets burn their early poetry, and bad poets publish it.” Gauging from the list of authors that burn their work (you can add Gogol, Eudora Welty, and Karl Shapiro to the list while we’re at it) it almost seems as though the theatrics of destruction are essential to that of creation; melodrama goes hand in hand with a wild imagination. It’s a way to feel empowered by rejection, kill the nagging call to finish a work you just can’t, and moreover a poetic middle finger to those who criticize your work – which often means yourself.
It’s a valuable anxiety-laden mix of emotions for a writer. For Hopkins, setting fire to his manuscripts, the “slaughter of the innocents” as he called it, did not mark the end of his writing career, but a change in direction. The ashes of his prior work ultimately fuelled the creation of new works that were impassioned, not constricted, by the same struggle to balance writing and religion. A veer towards pyromania can cause just as much ruin as it can rebirth, and in the case of Hopkins, the wreckage can set the stage for an author’s best work. We’re not saying you should set fire to every poem you’ve ever written, but there is something to be said for the release and renewal that comes with letting go.
Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.