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There's Beauty In Limbo

May 13, 2008

Why are human beings so obsessed with completing unfinished artworks? The world's desk drawers must sequester untold numbers of semi-developed plays, novels, paintings and string quartets. Yet for some reason, the idea of the unfinished artwork is a source of unbridled fascination for many of us.

Some of these artistic fragments are masterpieces in their own right. The two existing movements of Franz Schubert's famous 1822 Symphony No. 8 in B minor (popularly known as The Unfinished Symphony) are a case in point, as is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. But more often than not, we're unwilling to accept unfinished works for what they are. We want completion. Luckily for humankind, there's always someone desperate for the chance to add the finishing touches to an unfinished work. But whether these efforts do anything positive for the original creator's posthumous reputation is up for debate.

At their best, these acts of completion capture the spirit of the original fragment while making a special feature of the missing content. A great example is the 1985 musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The Broadway production ran for more than 600 performances, won five Tony Awards including Best Musical and has received many subsequent regional revivals. As cheesy as it sounds, the show's popularity stems from its interactive ending, in which audience members can vote on which of the characters is the murderer.

But some attempts to finish unfinished works are more apt to make us wish that the original material had been left untouched in that desk drawer. More often than not, the fault isn't the founding artist's but the well-intentioned efforts of the people hell-bent on rehabilitating an abandoned artwork. If not handled with utmost sensitivity and creative wizardry, the end result can look as preposterous as Stonehenge might were the ancient monument to be topped off with a shiny red tile roof.

Just before Franz Kafka died in 1924, the author sent his literary executor, Max Brod, the following instructions: "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread." Brod famously ignored his client's wishes, choosing instead to publish as much of Kafka's unfinished writings as he could lay his hands on. The world is grateful to Brod for going against Kafka's desires - if he hadn't, Kafka's great unfinished novel The Castle would have been lost forever.

However, it's possible in a way to speculate why the author may not have wanted his literary fragments sent off to the printers: Doing so would inevitably increase the chances of misrepresentation. In fact, Brod made such extensive changes to Kafka's texts, altering punctuation, word order and chapter divisions, that scholars are no longer willing to accept his version as authentic.

This goes to show that the little control artists have over completed works of art once those artifacts enter the public domain diminishes considerably when the works in question are incomplete. This is particularly the case for artists whose work predates our own era's tight copyright laws.

I'm all for bringing previously hidden, half-finished works into the light. But sometimes it's better to let these creative fragments remain as unfinished sentences rather than making them grind exhausted to a period/full stop.


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