Monday, December 18, 2006

Legacy and bequest - some musings

I have begun to ponder the nature of legacies in order to contemplate what can be derived from a writer whose work I have begun to study. His identity is unimportant, in many ways, but the question of what can be considered his legacy is significant. Here are some preliminary thoughts.

In some definitions, notably the legal concepts, there is no distinction to make between the idea of a legacy and that of a bequest. If I make a bequest to someone in my will, they get a legacy from me. No bequest, in suitable legal form, no legacy.

And yet this legal definition presents a very limited compass. When someone or something is lost to us, we can still draw a legacy, still take something which remains despite the ending of our involvement with that person or objects’ life. Sometimes this will be something quite unintended, indeed perhaps in contradiction with what was intended.

A short but not too sentimental illustration comes from my sister and her regard for objects that belonged to others. I sometimes think that she will need to acquire a warehouse, indeed bequeath this and its contents to my nephew and niece, in order to accommodate items of furniture and effects that belonged to various members of her and her husband’s family. My late great-aunt died in 1999 at the age of 94, and left various pieces of furniture and ornaments to my sisters and myself. We divided these between ourselves, reasonably amicably, but my eldest sister’s parting shot was “Of course, we must keep these items of Aunt’s for ever”. Along with, it seems, pieces that belonged to two or three aunts and uncles of her husbands, books that belonged to my grandmother, and so on. These, it seems, are their legacies to my sister. Nothing else, either. My father has been gone for 20 years, and for most of those 20 years my sister has rarely spoken his name, to the extent that her daughter, herself 20, seems to be very uncertain who he was. There is thus no legacy of the man himself to his grand-daughter.

I derived a quite different legacy from my aunt. I have not seen her furniture as an essential legacy which would represent my feelings for her. We had very different views on politics – she was very proud to have spoken on the same platform as Churchill in 1948 – but I would have liked to have known more about the world she came from, even if I would condemn much of it. Very late in her life, I had intended to tape some of her memories, and these, capturing her voice and her feelings, and especially memories of my father, her nephew, would have been a much better legacy. Sadly, the opportunity to record my aunt never finally arose. Undoubtedly, she saw her direct bequest to me as her legacy, something by which she would be remembered. Ironically, she felt that these items, which had belonged to her father and mother, would somehow stay in a family which will, in reality, die out with me, as I have no children. What I could draw from my experience of her, and my feelings about her life, would present a quite different inheritance.

Thus, a distinction can be developed between a bequest, which is intended to pass on something to someone, and a legacy, which is what we draw from that person (or thing). A writer may well intend his or her readers to derive something specific from his or her writings. Some literary critics would see it as their task to determine the precise nature of that intentional literary bequest. Others would draw something quite different, in investigating and evaluating the personal life of the author, sometimes stressing the divergences between that life and the author’s work. In a way, this could be to draw out a set of meanings that are not what the author intended to bequeath, but these can be seen as one legacy. The postmodernists, declaring the death of the author (whether or not the person whose name is on the book cover is actually still in this world), might see no reason to investigate the life or the writer’s intention, but to draw a quite different set of meanings. In a way, when other writers are influenced by a book, their own writings may draw on a legacy that is independent of the original author, so it is the book as a thing that influences. In that sense the postmodernists, with their insistence on the validity of the text, are correct.

The multiple interpretations of texts have occupied small armies of people, sometimes concerned to justify their support for actions on the basis that they are fulfilling a legacy. The examples of Marx and Freud as writers, or the Bible or the Koran, come to mind. Attempts to understand these writings is not just a matter for semantic literary criticism or the development of an academic career, but for very real insights into what the legacy of these writings should be, and what has been done in their name. The bizarre competing industries seeking to claim the late C S Lewis (of Narnia) for their own illustrate what can happen when wishful thinking takes over from the readings of actual texts and biographical rigour.

To return to my original question, what of the writer whose legacy I am considering? It does seem appropriate to know more about his life, to determine what inspired his writing and indeed those whom he influenced directly. It is valid to consider his books and articles, what they conveyed and how these have influenced others who did not know the man himself. And, without subscribing too far to postmodernist obscurity, it is possible to set his work in context, to consider the range of meanings therein which may well diverge wildly from his intentions, and probably to derive from the influence exerted by him and by his work, conclusions of which he might disapprove. Ultimately, unless enforceable conditions are attached or accepted, a legacy is ours to do with as we will.

15-10-06 amended 19-11-06, 24-11-06, and 18-12-06