A few days ago, I chanced upon some intriguing thoughts about how books make it possible for a writer’s works to last “as long as the sun and moon”—although not any longer, and about how what we write may actually hang around longer than we might like, when we consider the fate of our immortal souls. Oddly enough, I found these thoughts about the persistence of writing from a Catholic point of view in an essay titled “Durability of Writing – Anecdote of an Atheistical Author,” by an eighteenth century English Protestant.
At first it was difficult for me to find out who the essay’s author actually was. I had come across the essay in a collection of British essays, and it was not attributed to any source except Spectator, so I couldn’t tell whether it was written by Joseph Addison or Richard Steele, who both founded The Spectator, or whether the piece, as it often happened, was the result of a collaboration between the two of them. Then I got my answer when I found the same essay included in Volume V The Spectator, in the collected works of Joseph Addison. As I discovered, it was Addison, who was a politician and a writer, who had published the essay originally in The Spectator of London more than three hundred years ago, on September 10, 1711.
The first thing that resonated with me from the 306 year old essay is a quote from a poem by Abraham Cowley, who had been one of the most famous poets of the seventeenth century from the time he was fifteen. The poem is called “The Resurrection,” and it includes these lines about what will happen at the destruction of the world.
Now all the wide extended sky,
And all th’harmonious worlds on high,
And Virgil’s sacred work, shall die.”
That stirred up a memory for me of when I was a nineteen-year-old-fallen-away-Catholic famous-writer-wannabe. One night, during a foolishly-dangerous-LSD trip* some of my friends and I took one night at the Newport Folk Festival, my mind started racing. I came to see that even though I had rejected the immortality of the soul, I continued to long for it. I realized also that I subconsciously was harboring the hope I could achieve immortality by writing. Following my speeded-up thoughts, I followed all of my assumptions about writerly immortality pell-mell one after the other to their logical conclusions, until at the end I suddenly was struck by a similar realization to the one in those lines quoted from the Cowley poem: like the works of Virgil, even the works of Shakespeare will be destroyed at the end of the world.
I didn’t believe in life after death, or personal judgment, or the final judgment after the second coming of Christ back then, since I had thrown away those beliefs along with the rest of my cradle-Catholic faith. All I could foresee then was that the world was going to end some day when our sun dies and the temporary immortality of even the most famous writers of all time would end when there were no more humans alive to remember any writer’s not-so-deathless words.
While reading the Spectator essay, I was also jarred by another sobering thought.
“If writings are thus durable, and may pass from age to age throughout the whole course of time, how careful should an author be of committing any thing to print that may corrupt posterity, and poison the minds of men with vice and error!”
Nowadays we know that what we publish online also persists, and it is capable of spreading further than anything that is printed.
Joseph Addison continued on with a related idea that expressed the point of view of some Catholic writers of the time:
“I have seen some Roman Catholic authors who tell us that vicious writers continue in purgatory so long as the influence of their writings continues upon posterity: ‘for purgatory,’ say they, ‘is nothing else by a cleansing of our sins, with cannot be said to be done away with, so long as they continue to operate, and corrupt mankind. The vicious author, say they, ‘sins after death; and so long as he continues to sin, so long must he expect to be punished.'”
In spite of Addison’s view that purgatory is a ridiculous idea, there is quite probably more than a bit of truth in what those Catholic authors thought.
If we put out “vicious” writings that continue to lead others to sin after we die, can we escape purgation until the end of the world, until our sin-provoking ideas no longer are able to corrupt anyone?
Thinking about how our published thoughts may linger long after we have changed our minds jogged another related memory from my younger days as a fallen-away-Catholic trying out the values the world had to offer in the 1960s. The established writers of my era, mostly men, wrote about their sexual exploits, the kind of writing some call phallocentric. A few contemporary women, such as Anais Nin, who published her diaries with some fame, were shameless enough to follow the men’s lead. I could tell you stories of my own foolishness and the miseries I and many of us experienced when trying to live out the false promises of sexual freedom. In any case, perhaps thinking I could one day follow Nin’s method of grabbing the brass ring of fame, I kept a journal. Besides, isn’t journal-keeping part of what writers are supposed to do?
I thought then that writers have to live sensational lives.
As it happened, during that time I was studying at Brandeis University and sharing an off-campus apartment with some other women students. At the end of the school year, I took off to the lower East Side of New York City on an impulse and left my journals and most of my other belongings behind. When I came back at the end of the summer, I found new students, a couple of young men, had taken over the apartment, and my roommates were gone. Most of my stuff was in a box under the stairs, but my journals were nowhere to be found. My face still burns when I wonder if any of those guys read what I had written. And I still thank God that I hadn’t managed to get my journals or anything else published back then.
On the same topic: in the 1990s, I used to follow the engaging writings of a well-established California woman writer, who is a converted Christian still living by worldly moral values. I stopped reading her when in one book she wrote about how she dropped a decent man who treated her well and had much in common with her, because her friends told her he wasn’t enthusiastic about a certain sexual practice. I cringed when I thought that man who she dumped probably read that book. Her son will probably read that book one day. Everyone who reads her now, and if her fame endures, others in years to come will read and know that less-than-edifying fact about her too.
There is one consolation for us lesser-known writers: even if we have published things that would be harmful to readers or bad for our reputations, only a few of us will actually be in any danger of having our work live on after us long enough to poison the minds of future generations, as illustrated in this humorous story that ended the Spectator essay on a lighter note.
As the story went, an atheist author who was dangerously ill called for a neighboring curate. The author, acting out a change of heart, confessed to the curate “with great contrition, that nothing sat more heavy at his heart than the sense of his having seduced the age by his writings, and that their evil influence was likely to continue after his death.” The curate was not able to console the dying man by telling him his repentance was enough. When the writer continue to express his despairing belief that there was no grounds for hope for him, the curate must have gotten exasperated. He finally explained to the writer there really was no danger at all of his writing causing any harm. Why, the curate told the dying man, nobody besides the man’s closest friends had ever read his work while he was alive, and no one was likely to pick up and read it after his death.
The dying writer immediately asked his friends where had they picked up such a blockhead cleric.
Whether from spite or not, it’s hard to tell, the writer recovered and went on to write several more pernicious pieces of writing. Fortunately no one ever read any of them either.
* LSD is dangerous. It is a poison that induces a psychotic state. Many people who’ve taken “acid trips” have never returned. On the trip I described, I had two out of body experiences, which make me wonder if I actually had died twice and came back twice from the extremely strong doses of LSD my friends and I had bought from a stranger that night. Thanks be to God, I lived through that and many other risky experiences long enough to be converted and repent the sins of my youth, and I’m still around to tell the cautionary tale.