I recently read this remarkable anecdote about Isaac Newton in the refereshingly irreverent A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson:
As a student, frustrated by the limitations of conventional mathematics, he [Newton] invented an entirely new form, the calculus, but then told no one about it for twenty-seven years. In like manner, he did work in optics that transformed our understanding of light and laid the foundation for the science of spectroscopy, and again chose not to share the results for three decades.
Emphasis mine. Twenty-seven years! That’s an incomprehensible level of reticence in an era in which people can’t eat a sandwich, let alone invent Calculus, without tweeting about it. I tweet, therefore I am.
That got me thinking about other creatives who withheld the fruits of their labor from the world at large.
Kafka left his work, both published and unpublished, to his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, with explicit instructions that it should be destroyed on Kafka’s death; Kafka wrote: “Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, is to be burned unread." Brod ignored this request and published the novels and collected works between 1925 and 1935.
No one–no one–would know about Franz Kafka if Max Brod did not defy his dying wishes.
Then there’s Henry Darger:
…an American writer, novelist and artist who worked as a hospital custodian in Chicago, Illinois. He has become famous for his posthumously discovered 15,145-page fantasy novel manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor illustrations for the story.
His work belongs to a category of obscure, and often post-humously discovered, outsider art.
I wonder to what extent instantaneous “publication” has adversely impacted our ability to work on something, in obscurity, for it’s own sake.
What would you create even if no one ever saw it?
That’s an interesting, clarifying question isn’t it?
I’m troubled by my inability to answer it.
Newton, Kafka, and Darger certainly could.