Originality

In the realm of the literary arts, does anything as pristine and undiluted as originality exist? The word original is most commonly understood to mean not derived from something else. Often a novelist in the process of writing his opus magnum sedulously refuses to read someone else’s novel for fear he will be unconsciously influenced by another writer’s ideas or style. I say “phooey” on that fear. Of course, I am influenced consciously or unconsciously by everything I have ever read. It works like osmosis. I learned to write a complex sentence by patterning my sentence on someone else’s syntax. So what?

Influences play subtly or blatantly in writing. Great novels and poems are replete with literary allusions, references to Greek mythology, and universal symbols that countless other writers have used; yet each writer employs these borrowings from his predecessors in unique ways if his work is considered fresh. I staunchly subscribe to the position that the best way for a writer to improve and to grow in his style and vision is to read widely in the recognized great books of the world and to draw unabashedly upon literary tradition. Good books fertilize the imagination. Cross-pollination can create a brighter, stronger strain of flower. T.S. Eliot wrote about the necessity for the writer to cultivate what he called the historical sense, which “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” This historical sense combines with the writer’s consciousness of his contemporary scene to transcend the merely personal, enabling a fusion of his personal experience with a knowledge of the past. This fusion of past and present, according to T.S. Eliot, is the alchemy that renders the art timeless.

Therefore, it is hardly a slur for a work to be described as derivative or traditional. The study of comparative literature involves the identification of influences and cross-currents among cultures, so that the meaning of originality as complete freedom from outside influence or inspiration is a false construct. Instead of fear that reading other books will cause other writers’ ideas to creep into our “original” work, we should embrace them.  Wide exposure to the literary heritage of the world and a knowledge of history will only enhance the individual artist’s work. Imbued with the past, the individual talent can transmute his personal experience into art that transcends time and place. T.S. Eliot terms this depersonalization–the extinction of personality necessary to present a fresh insight into the universal human condition.

 

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