Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
There’s an interesting article by Ron Rosenbaum, in Slate, regarding the fate of Vladmir Nabokov’s final, unfinished manuscript.
Nabokov left a manuscript on index cards, apparently totaling about 30 pages’ worth of text, for an unfinished book titled The Original of Laura. No one outside his family knows what is in the text, or what the title means. Nabokov left unambiguous instructions, at the time of his death, that the manuscript was to be destroyed without publication. This jibes with ideas he expressed elsewhere about refusing to publish imperfect works. His wife, the legendary (infamous?) Vera Nabokov, was his literary executor; she indicated she would follow his wishes but never got around to destroying the cards. When she died in 1991, the cards, and Nabokov’s imprecation, fell to his son Dimitri, who has otherwise actively defended his father’s literary legacy. Dimitri has indicated that he is ambivalent about destroying the work, but is apparently leaning in the direction of carrying out his father’s wishes. Rosenbaum has corresponded with Dimitri over the years, encouraging him to publish the material; in his Slate article, he broadcasts a call for input from readers, promising to forward the best responses to Dimitri, who is apparently finally nearing a decision.
Well. By itself all very interesting, no doubt, and arguably very thinly connected to bioethics by way of Nabokov’s background in biology. (Rosenbaum even tries to link Nabokov’s Laura to Petrarch’s Laura by way of a bird image in the latter and one of Nabokov’s ubiquitous butterfly images in Pale Fire; Dimitri scoffs at this.) But it really doesn’t seem to be an immediate issue in bioethics itself. Or is it?
Rosenbaum and Dimitri Nabokov both seem deeply conflicted by competing obligations of artistry, as it were: respecting Nabokov’s wishes as an artist vs. giving the world its last best look at the scope and breadth of his talent. (Dimitri has upped the ante by suggesting that Laura is simultaneously a “distillation” of Nabokov’s body of work and “a brilliant, original, and potentially totally radical book”.) Dimitri is further conflicted by his feeling that his father’s work has been mistreated by ignorant critics in the past: he thus faces the question whether publishing a partial manuscript his father wanted destroyed would correct or exacerbate that problem; there is also his filial duty to follow instructions. Rosenbaum addresses the question of the artistic standing of Nabokov’s work, and its relevance to this decision, in an insightful passage:
Does it matter what V.N. would feel, since he’s long dead? Do we owe no respect to his last wishes because we greedily want some “key” to his work, or just more of it for our own selfish reasons? Does the lust for aesthetic beauty always allow us to rationalize trampling on the artist’s grave? Does the greatness of an artist diminish his right to dispose of his own unfinished work?
I think this focus on artistic legacy misses the central point, however. The real question, as in so many disputes over conflicting wishes or values, is, I think, the familiar one: “who decides?” And that makes this dispute relevant to bioethics in a vital way. If there is a clear and unambiguous answer to the question of whose decisions should be determinative, and an answer that carries compelling or overwhelming moral force, then the questions of artistic intent and value fall by the wayside. If Nabokov has a moral claim to dispense with his own literary legacy entirely as he sees fit – a claim that is compulsory upon others even after his death – then it doesn’t matter how good this work might be, or how helpful in illuminating Nabokov’s other works. If, on the other hand, one has no moral claims that extend beyond death, or no interests that survive, and can potentially be harmed, after death, then the issue becomes one of prudential decision-making, or perhaps personal obligation, on the part of Nabokov’s executors, and only then does the issue of artistic merit enter into consideration.
Problems such as this arise whenever the handling of controversial legacies comes up (eccentrics who leave a fortune to their cats, for instance), but they are perennial in bioethics, which treats of issues that approach and cross the threshold between life and death. Organ donation, termination of life support, the definition of death, and other such borderland issues often generate conflict between the expressed wishes of the dying or dead and the perceptions and preferences of others left behind to carry out those wishes. While prudential and other values can be conscripted on both sides of such arguments, to the effect that one or the other resolution would be a good thing, autonomy as a trumping power overrides such considerations if autonomy is the controlling value in enacting the wishes of agents who no longer exist as autonomous persons. (That is, it is understood in this discussion that the decisions in question are ones of which the agent’s autonomy would unquestionably be determinative while the agent was alive: you can certainly agree to donate your own [non-vital] organs without interference by others, while you are alive; you can spend as much money as you like on your cats, while you are alive; Nabokov would have had an absolute right to destroy his own manuscript, while he was alive. The question is whether those powers or rights persist beyond death, such that others who agree to accept the responsibility for carrying out one’s wishes after death must thereby agree to carry them out in full and without modification.)
From this perspective, the discussion of Dimitri Nabokov’s dilemma, or of the benefits of either preserving or destroying Vladimir Nabokov’s last work, is premature. It doesn’t matter what Dimitri wants to do, or how valuable that manuscript might be, if Vladimir’s wish that it be destroyed commands the same moral force after his death as that same wish would before his death. That is the question that must be resolved, not only to decide the fate of Nabokov’s Laura, but of so many issues involving the death-transcending desires of the dead and dying.
Often, among the last conscious acts of an elderly or dying person is to “get their affairs in order” – including by expressing their wishes for the disposition of various worldly concerns at the time of or after their deaths. One of the strongest arguments in favor of a persistent interest in the affairs of one’s lifetime, after death, is that much of our lives is shaped by our expectations that those interests will be respected and our postvital wishes will be carried out. Traducing the interests of the living as soon as they are dead may not be a morally-neutral act: though it does not affect the dead directly, it, arguably, retroactively ruins their previous lives by emptying or dismissing the goals and projects that gave those lives purpose, and in some way perhaps steals the products of their lives (whether monetary or otherwise) by diverting them to ends not chosen by the decedent themselves but by others after the fact. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the dead themselves will never know this, and so never be anguished by it. Either way, it is a non-trivial issue, and, as the Nabokov case, and the medical cases, show, one that has considerable practical implications.
I’ll leave the argument at this point. I confess to always having been ambivalent about its resolution. Perhaps my vast readership may have some input?
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