On Diaries and Death

@AfiaAslam raised a question on twitter whether it is ethical to preserve diaries after the death of their writers. Here are my thoughts on the matter:

While some may say that a diary is, by default, meant to be for author's eyes only, the situation is not entirely so clear in real life, where people attach different degrees of privacy to their diaries. Some may wish to guard them obsessively, others may not be so averse to their being read, especially after they are dead. In situations where the wishes of the author are not known, and in the absence of any clues that may indicate what the author would have preferred, or if such a desire is not evident through the contents of the diary, and the material in the diary is not of a personal and sensitive nature, then I do not see any reason why it should constitute a moral violation.

If the writer had expressed a desire that the contents of the diary be kept private and/or the material in the diary is of a personal and sensitive nature, then the ethical thing would be to honor that wish.

However, if the contents of the diary are of potentially great literary worth (such as Kafka's or Plath's) then it would put the custodian in a utilitarian dilemma, where he would have to weigh respecting the wishes of the deceased against benefitting humanity with the work of a literary genius. If the work is sufficiently valuable, one may treat the wishes of the author as we treat their self-destructive tendencies while they are alive — that is, just as we think it morally justified to attempt to save a man from killing himself, we may consider it morally justified to save a literary masterpiece from destruction.


Blue Wit said…
That was quick! You've raised an interesting analogy here ref. trying to save someone from suicide.

My interest in diaries is of a historical nature. Imagine if Anne Frank's diary had never seen the light of day, for instance (even though its authenticity is contested). What would we know of much of the modern era if we didn't have access to diaries or personal correspondence?

To me, the deciding factor would be who's reading and interpreting the diary. The same material in the hands of an irresponsible or malicious person could cause damage, whereas if treated with discretion and objectivity it could yield a lot of interesting material without harming the diarist.

It is befitting for two diarists to talk about this, no? ;-)
F. said…
'whether it is ethical to preserve diaries after their writers have died': I don't see why not. Whether it is easy to accept what's written in those diaries, though, is another matter entirely.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Blue Wit/ Afia

It is befitting for two diarists to talk about this, no? ;-)

Haha! True that :)
Alec Lindsay said…
The motives for publishing a diary, apart from money, are that it is assumed that the diary will have something useful to impart to people at large. The diary of a nonentity will hardly be of interest, and unless vanity published, will not get past the editors in a publishing house. So the qualms about publishing a diary, in practice, concern diaries of those whose thoughts and actions have been important to society in life.
I shall make a legalistic case that the thoughts and actions of such people have a public interest dimension and that publication ought not to be denied. Any of the relations or connections of the diarist who disagrees with anything revealed in a published diary should have recourse to the courts to prove it untrue, and if it is proved, become entitled to have those sections of the diary glossed, if not suppressed.
If the concern is about protecting the reputation of the diarist, then I would say that publishing becomes almost imperative. If a diary is suppressed for this reason it would be perpetuating a lie.
I don't think wishes expressed for the posthumous disposition of a diary should carry any weight, nor be enshrined, as the disposition of other forms of property are, in law.
Alec Lindsay said…
p.s. I was writing about posthumous publication of a diary. Publication of a diary in the lifetime of the diarist is very different. Any problems, ethical or legal, are entirely the responsiblity, unless mentally incapacitated, of the diarist.