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10 Writers and Artists Who Wanted Their Work Destroyed

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Whether from a lack of confidence, concerns over sensitive contents, a change of direction, or simply a fit of pique, a number of artists and writers have either destroyed their own work or asked for it to be destroyed—leaving the public wondering what treasures might have been lost. Below is a list of 10 artists and writers who have attempted to destroy their own work, with varying success:

1. FRANZ KAFKA

Max Brod. Image credit: Getty Images

During his lifetime Kafka only published a handful of shorter works, which gained modest critical attention. Plagued by self-doubt, Kafka burned a huge amount of his own writing and, aware that his fragile health was failing, he asked his good friend Max Brod, who was to be his literary executor, to destroy any unfinished manuscripts on his death, unread.

Kafka died from tuberculosis at the age of 41 in 1924, and Brod, feeling that Kafka’s writings deserved to be shared, went against his wishes. Thanks to Brod, Kafka’s most important works were published, including The Trial in 1925, The Castle in 1926, and Amerika in 1927.

Brod escaped Nazi-controlled Prague in 1939 and settled in Israel, where he later gave about two-thirds of Kafka’s papers to Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The remaining papers passed to his secretary Esther Hoffe, and then on to her daughters, and have been subject to a long-running legal challenge by the National Library of Israel, which wanted to lay claim to Kafka’s papers for the nation. In 2015 a Tel Aviv court finally granted the National Library of Israel the right to Kafka’s remaining papers, unlocking a further treasure trove for Kafka scholars.

2. JOHN BALDESSARI

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Conceptual artist John Baldessari took the destruction of his work to the extreme and made that very act art in itself. In 1970 Baldessari decided that in order to move into a new phase of his artistic life he would destroy all his early paintings from the period 1953–66. Baldessari called this act The Cremation Project, and he enlisted some students from the University of California to assist him cutting up his canvasses and loading his work into the incinerator at a California crematorium. The process of destruction was filmed and photographed to become part of the art work. Once all the work had been destroyed, Baldessari collected the ashes and put them into an urn; he also had a plaque made with his name and the dates May 1953–March 1966, much like a grave marker.

3. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

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It was long thought that when Robert Louis Stevenson showed the first draft of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to his wife Fanny, her harsh criticism of the work drove him to burn it. Stevenson had been partly inspired to write his horror story by a vivid dream he had while dosed up on medical cocaine. At this point in his life, Stevenson was wildly in debt and living as an invalid after a hemorrhage. Despite his seeming frailty, he was so inspired that he feverishly composed the first draft over the course of just three days.

In recent years, a letter has come to light in which Fanny Stevenson reveals that she thinks the story is “a quire full of utter nonsense” and says she's going to burn it herself. Robert Louis Stevenson was not be thwarted, however, and rewrote the 30,000-word story by hand. It was published to great success just a few weeks later.

4. VLADIMIR NABOKOV

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Before his death in 1977, Vladimir Nabokov left the fragments of a novel entitled The Original of Laura to his wife Vera, with instructions that it should be destroyed after he passed away. Vera felt unable to carry out her husband’s wishes, perhaps paralyzed by the fear of destroying his art. On Vera’s death, the writer’s papers were passed on to his only son, Dmitri, who again felt unable to destroy or publish, and so for many years kept the fragmentary novel to himself.

Finally, in 2008, the now-aged Dmitri decided it was time to publish his father’s unseen work. He pieced together the novel from the many index cards Nabokov had sketched the story upon. Unfortunately, the long wait for the much-anticipated work was an anti-climax according to critics, who generally argued that perhaps the work should indeed have been destroyed as Nabokov had wished.

5. NIKOLAI GOGOL

The success of his comic novel Dead Souls (1842) helped establish Gogol as the father of Russian realism. The highly religious Gogol felt it was his destiny to write two more sequels to his most celebrated work, furthering his aim to communicate how to live a more righteous life. Unfortunately, it was at this point that his creativity began to decline and he labored for many years on parts two and three, only to find his work unsatisfactory. Gogol began to think his lack of progress was a sign that God did not approve of his work and he lost his purpose. Looking for spiritual guidance, he came under the power of a fanatical priest, Father Matvey Konstantinovsky, who convinced Gogol in 1852 that his work was not good enough and encouraged him to burn the manuscript of Dead Souls, part 2. Ten days later Gogol died aged just 42.

6. DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI

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When the pre-Raphaelite poet’s beloved wife Lizzie Siddal died from a drug overdose, Rossetti was distraught. As her coffin was being sealed to be taken away and buried at London's Highgate Cemetery, he secretly placed a notebook with all his most recent poetry into her casket. Six years later, after his initial grief had passed, Rossetti tried to remember the poems he had lost but was unable to recall them in sufficient detail. Frustrated, Rossetti hired some men to steal into Highgate Cemetery and exhume his wife’s casket in order to retrieve the precious poems. The macabre scheme was a success, and despite the manuscript being badly damaged, Rossetti went on to publish the lost poems to great acclaim.

7. CLAUDE MONET

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In 1908, right before he was due to exhibit a large number of new water garden paintings in Paris, impressionist master Claude Monet destroyed them all. The paintings had taken three years to create and the exhibition had already been advertised and curated, but when Monet reviewed his handiwork he felt it was wanting. Grabbing a knife and a paint brush, he attacked the canvases, ruining at least 15 large paintings.

This was not the only time Monet took such drastic action. A perfectionist by nature, as death approached Monet enlisted the help of his step-daughter Blanche and destroyed up to 60 canvases that he had stored in his studio, and which he did not want to represent his legacy.

8. GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS

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Gerard Manley Hopkins was one of the most innovative Victorian poets, but his greatest success came after his death. Unfortunately Hopkins’s earliest works were forever lost after the poet burned them in 1868 upon becoming a Jesuit, wishing to devote his energies to religion rather than art. For seven years he turned his back on writing, until in 1875 Hopkins was inspired by the shipwreck of the Deutschland, during which five nuns were drowned. As a result he composed one of his most (posthumously) famous poems, The Wreck of the Deutschland, and returned to writing.

9. AUBREY BEARDSLEY

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Aubrey Beardsley was a talented Art Nouveau illustrator who is perhaps best known for his illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (1894). Beardsley’s innovative adaption of the style of art used in traditional Japanese woodcuts earned him many admirers, but he was equally criticized for his use of the grotesque and his links with the Decadent art movement. Plagued by tuberculosis, Beardsley was consumed by his work and went on to edit four editions of the quarterly arts journal The Yellow Book.

Unfortunately for Beardsley, after Oscar Wilde’s trial for indecency the public was gripped by a moral panic and, in part due to his association with Wilde, he was sacked from The Yellow Book. Beardsley moved to France for his health but succumbed to tuberculosis aged just 25. Before he died, Beardsley wrote to his publisher Leonard Smithers begging him to destroy his erotic drawings on his death. Fortunately Smithers ignored the request and Beardsley’s wonderful art survived.

10. FRANCIS BACON

Francis Bacon was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His work was challenging, often playing with religious imagery and pushing the boundaries of acceptability. In 1944 Bacon destroyed many of his early surrealist works, believing that they did not express his worldview. This started a theme of destruction whereby Bacon was unafraid of destroying any work he did not feel matched up to his expectations. (In his later years he did express some regret at the loss of some of his work, which in retrospect he felt did have some merit.) Fortunately Bacon was a very prolific artist and although he ruined countless works, many more survived. When he died in 1992 it is said that over 100 ruined works of art were found in his studio.

 

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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