“Virgil left instructions at his death that the Aeneid, still unfinished, be destroyed. For he thought it needed three more years of licking into shape, time spent, perhaps, in harmonizing the voices he had sounded out. Or was he simply driven by his perfectionism as a poet? It is impossible to say, but fortunately, as we know, Augustus countermanded Virgil’s ‘final orders’ and preserved the Aeneid as we have it now.”
—Robert Fagles, The Aeneid, “Translator’s Postscript”
We have heard similar stories before. Kafka, too, asked that his works be destroyed after death; but instead his friend had them published.
There is a scene in The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, (which I read three decades ago, so I hope I am remembering this correctly) (if so, spoiler alert) where the great architect has his building blown up because it wasn’t built exactly as he wanted. I remember thinking that this was going a bit far, seeing as so many materials and so much human effort were expended in its creation, and additionally, it was going to have functions other than pure art.
In any case—a true artist, it seems, will stand for nothing but perfection.
As a writer-artist myself, I have to say that I am quite the perfectionist when it comes to my creative writing. I am a slave to perfection, for better or worse.
I will also say that since writing well takes such a loooong time, and soooo much effort must be expended to do it well—it is entirely possible that works won’t be finished upon the death of a writer. Especially when the writer’s life is cut tragically short by illness, as in the case of Virgil and Kafka.
Which is better, to leave behind an imperfect work of art, or to leave behind nothing at all?