Where there’s a Will…
A Will is an interesting kind of document. It is addressed to other people but in an open-ended or removed way, being ‘to whom it may concern’ as a legally-binding statement of future actions which are secured now by its legal standing, or else has a distanced address to specific people as in ‘I bequeath to my daughters’. It has strong communicative ‘from one to an other or others’ character. In both orientations, a Will has a highly performative character, albeit which performance is necessarily expedited by others. It is usually written or drafted by a third party on behalf of its author and typically has formalised aspects, indeed is sometimes expressed in entirely formalised phrasing. Also while its signatories are centrally the author-not-writer, they also have (by force of law) to include at least two and sometimes more witnesses to this person’s authorship.
It would be fair to conclude that a Will can be seen as ‘a sort of letter, but’, although with the ‘buts’ usually outweighing the ‘sort of’. The strongest buts are two-fold.
Firstly, with a Will there is (usually? almost invariably? perhaps completely invariably?) no direct address to a named person or persons. However, the same is true of public letters of a ‘Dear Editor ‘ kind or those that, like the letters of St Paul in the New Testament, are addressed to a collective body. And so this aspect of a Will is not definitive of a lack of letterness, although it strongly bends it in that direction.
Secondly, a Will is non-dialogical and no response is called for or possible, for it is a statement or testament read in the context of the final and absolute absence of its author. However, it is useful helpful here to consider open letters. These have all the features of letterness except dialogism, for they are statements of a view or position and with any response sought being of a non-epistolary kind. They are like Wills for beneficiaries in this regard, in fact. Think here also about picture postcards, which presume a way-way communication and typically do not give a specific address they are ‘from’, but nonetheless have other aspects of letterness. And of course Wills are responded to, for the contested Will occurs frequently enough for this to be a recognised sub-type. So non-response is not in itself indicative of the absence of letterness either, and response can take forms other than a response to the testator.
These are comments made in abstract, in absentia of the thing itself and the many specific variations raised for consideration by actual Wills. How do these general points shape up when brought as it were face to face with ‘the last will and testament’ of people, including where their Wills are one trace among many other traces of their lives and deaths to be found in the collections worked on for Whites Writing Whiteness research. The discussion in this Blog is continued under the heading of Traces Remaining.
Last updated: 29 August 2015