Presumably, if Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel really existed in the shadows on a cave wall world we call reality, there would be a complete copy of Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood somewhere on its shelves. Logically it would be shelved next to the rest of Boz’s works, but as long as we’re being fanciful, maybe it sits next to Franz Kafka’s The Castle, or Raymond Chandler’s Poodle Springs. Then again, a librarian with a sense of history might place it next to Coleridge’s Kubla Khan; one with a puckish sense of humor might place it next to Robert Louis Stevenson’s first draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The one thing all of these fine books have in common is that they don’t exist, at least as complete works. Stevenson destroyed his first draft…and then rewrote the entire story in less than a week. A visitor interrupted Coleridge as he attempted to capture his opium dreams on paper, and thus thanks to a trivial business matter, the epic poem he had planned to capture the glory of a “stately pleasure-dome” ran a mere 54 lines. All of the other novels mentioned were interrupted by the authors’ deaths, as were many other works, famous and infamous alike (one wonders just how The 120 Days of Sodom might have turned out had the Marquis de Sade lived to finish it). Of course, just because they were unfinished doesn’t mean they weren’t published; most were printed up as is, although in at least one case, another author was brought in to finish the book.
Of the famous works mentioned, Coleridge seems to me the saddest case. Kafka, Dickens and Chandler died before their books were done, so they likely don’t give a rat’s ass; Stevenson completely rewrote his, so he had something complete for his efforts. Poor Coleridge, on the other hand, had lightning in a bottle, and managed to drop it. Some historians and critics don’t believe that Coleridge was actually interrupted by the “visitor from Porlock”: they chalk it up to Coleridge’s problem chasing the dragon. That may be true—drug addicts aren’t usually considered standards of reliability in reportage—but whatever the circumstance, what is true is that Coleridge was left with an incomplete poem that contained some lovely work and far more potential than a few tens of lines could hold. I think “Down to a sunless sea” is, rhythmically and conceptually, one of the best lines ever penned, and every time I imagine Coleridge sitting at a desk, staring at what he’d written and trying in vain to recapture the inspiration that generated the poem, it breaks my heart.
Once, many years ago, I wrote a poem about a friend of mine and the troubled life she was having at the time. I don’t know that the poem itself was all that good, but it had a line that captured my feeling about her and mine and others’ attempts to keep her from self-harm so perfectly that it’s haunted me ever since. At the time, I felt that poem was one of the best things I’d ever written, and maybe would ever write. Unfortunately for me, I wrote it on a word processor that I was not entirely familiar with, and managed to delete the file irretrievably before I could make a printout for myself. I am no Coleridge, and that poem (no matter how much I liked it) was no Kubla Khan, but I have a pretty good idea of how that loss might have felt for Samuel Taylor.
Sure, I make backup copies now, and save religiously, but the point here is not so much an argument for backups as it is a commemoration of loss. I think of that inspiration, so energizing in the act of creation, ruined and turned inside out by a second’s worth of mistake, and while it serves as a cautionary tale, it does damn little to assuage my regret. I think Sam Coleridge, were he alive and kicking today, might share a drink and a rueful grin with me on that particular score.