My Present Opinions on Originality

What makes degenerative diseases so hateful is that they take away our selves. We forget our friends’ names and faces, we cannot recall our own favourites among books and TV shows, we become ghosts of our former selves: living beings who have drunk the waters of the Lethe. This is much of the reason for which history must be recorded and preserved. The wisdom of bygone ages informs our present actions even as a man learns from his boyhood memories. This is equally true of literature. If my memory serves me – mine is not a faithful servant, I admit – T. S. Eliot said that a poet must know his place in the tradition of poesy. No work of art comes from the primary imagination of Coleridge, as we must admit today. I daresay the average young adult novel, possibly penned by one who is unfamiliar with any ‘classic’ texts other than Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby, might make unwitting references to, say, something written in an 18th century picaresque novel.

The question of originality has been on my mind often for years. What is originality? What is an original work of art? Is something more original than something else, or do I have a completely different story if I change two characters’ names in a book? When does something unoriginal become unique?

As I recall, the very concept of originality was different in other times. The ancients did not chase after ‘new-ness’. Originality lay in changing the order of events in a play when the story is already known to the audience – I mean in the time of Sophocles and Euripides. All an audience needed to see changed was when a token of recognition would be found, or in what order an act of hubris and anagnorisis would be depicted. Take Hamlet. The Mousetrap is shown as a small skit before being enacted in full – the audience doesn’t mind, because everyone wants to see how things go, despite knowing the ending. It didn’t matter if they’d seen it done twenty times before. Is Jeremy Brett’s  Sherlock Holmes original? Most people would be quick to say that that isn’t the point: it’s how the story was shown that mattered.

The point I’m moving towards is something already in popular currency, but often forgotten. Is Throne of Blood or Sherlock original? Is Polanski’s Macbeth? They certainly are. Our familiarity with the previous depictions of the narrative is taken advantage of – we see familiar things in an unfamiliar light, or we are shown a pleasing likeness to the original, or we perceive a delightful juxtaposition of the original and the new, or we see something which must be appreciated fully by studying what came before. The people saying that The Force Awakens is a copy of A New Hope are incomprehensible to me. What these fools hope for I do not know. I would like to ask them to write an original story that does not have parallels to any other of the same genre, even unintentionally. Can they? Can they write an Aeneid or a Meghnadbodhkabyo without alluding to Homer, even accidentally? Can a history of the Third Crusade be written without considering, even implicitly or parenthetically, the First? Mr. Abrams has proved himself well versed in popular culture. The references to the Original Trilogy (in itself hardly ‘original’, in this sense, as most concede) are evidently deliberate. Moreover, just as Tasso could not escape parallels to Boiardo if he wanted, or Nolan to Burton, Abrams uses the stock situations of a century-old genre. It is inevitable that entire scenes may appear in this or later works that recall those of the Barsoom novels, or Buck Rogers. The finer points of my argument – why Rey is like Luke, why Kylo has bottomless rage, and so on – have either been explained on social media, or should be evident when my opinion is agreed with. Originality does not consist in an infant’s idea of novelty. One has only to see the modern action movie to confirm this: will the real hero be the muscular man, like in Predator, or the strong feminine lead, such as in Alien? We have seen enough of both to reasonably expect either.

In the young days of the world, we did not think the world was small. The trees, the rivers and the stones of the earth were endless. We see the world very differently today. We are running out of coal to burn, space to live, and air to breathe. Things are not quite as abundant as we believed in our infancy. It’s the same with stories. Either deliberately or without knowing, we tell stories that have been told before. When we recycle culture and ideas, sometimes a fresh insight into old things is won – such as the Dark Knight trilogy, or the Spurdo Spärde meme, or Goya’s painting of Saturn eating (I would advise younger readers not to Google those). That originality cannot be defined like ore in mines, but must be found in renewable energy, is something audiences must accept. Only then can we truly appreciate what we like to consume, and creators continue to cater to our fancies forever.


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