“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
This is a very famous quote by CS Lewis. I am not very original to quote it.
I feel it is one of the truest things that the man said, and he was a man who said a great deal of true things, (in both senses of “great deal”: a great many things; and great truths among them).
I’m not sure it’s necessarily a modern thing to worry and fret about being “original,” but I suspect it is. If it did not arise solely in modern times, it’s certainly being perfected among us today. In the colloquial sense, “originality” these days is usually taken to mean something like quirkiness of dress or a novel twist in usury practices.
Among the intellectual or artistic set, originality of course consists of finding new ways to suck meaning out of arts and letters. The more despairing, ironic, destructive, or offensive an artist is, the more “original.” At the beginning of the 20th Century, originality in literature meant messing with narrative forms, a la Dubliners. By the end of the 20th Century, “original” literature has become so obscure and unreadable that almost no one reads it. (Joyce himself traversed a neat, straight line from readable to unreadable over the course of his four major published works.)
And of course most people are not as blindingly erudite and well-read as James Joyce. Most of us are quite stupid, in our own unique ways. And when we try to be “original” in that desperate, self-glorifying way that’s so common these days, the result is a numbing sameness.
More examples of things people do to separate themselves from the crowd: interesting or unique tattoos; gourmet eating habits; anti-gourmet eating habits; faux old-timey dress; deliberately sloppy dress; using an Apple computer; using a Linux computer; cultivating the reputation of being “obsessed” with one particular topic (being “the coffee guy,” or “the baseball guy,” or “the lady who loves Pavarotti”), when this is exaggerated for public effect. Etc.
Everyone seems the same, with slight variations on the surface, like editions of the same newspaper printed on a slightly off-kilter press. Every copy is blurry and off-center in a different way, but they all say the same thing.
It is only in seeking the truth that we ever get originality. This is what CS Lewis said. The famous quote rarely includes what comes before and after it. Lewis is talking about holiness, actually. A few sentences before, he says: “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints”
A few sentences later: “The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing.”
The scary part about letting go of the petty kind of “originality” is that it can feel like that — whatever it is — is our only identity. Beneath it, the void. But I don’t think it’s a void, I think it’s a very deep light, and the very deep light is what we are supposed to be, what we already are, if we can just bring ourselves to admit it. And it’s not some wishy-washy, airbrushed, featureless nirvana either, but true personality, as Lewis might put it.
Playing clever games with etymology is always dangerous, but I have one more thing to point out about originality. The word “origin,” means beginning or source. For originality it makes sense to go to the source, or at least to try.
Etymologists tell us that the Latin origo (beginning) and the Greek ornynai (to rouse) come from the Proto-Indo-European root *er-/*or-. From this same root descended the Sanskrit rnoti meaning “rises” and arnah meaning “welling stream,” and also the Old English irnan: “to flow.”
So that is the true origin of originality, both in spirit and in philology: rising, welling, flowing, beginning, rousing. If one would be original, one must give up originality and go back to the source. How to do that? Well, another post perhaps. But in the meantime, arnah, “welling stream” I find beautiful and worth contemplating.
I suspect that the desire for originality is evil, or close to evil – since it will soon lead to attacking (often inverting) The Good simply because that is a short road to something new. Thus neophilia is soon evil!
Fashion is almost always evil!
I’m big on calling things evil today! – but it is true – not just because they subvert to be original – but also because originality, neophilia and fashion necessarily displace that which IS Good in order to make way for their novelties.
Looking back on the Arts in the West, the cult of originality was the beginning of the end – even though the first exemplars were often geniuses.
So, a figure like Beethoven in music was clearly first rate in his own right, but in his egotism and deliberate cultivation of originality he was a bad example – and just a couple of generations later – when that example had been fully taken on board – the Western Classical tradition first became esoteric than fell to pieces. Goethe was another example, from literature – and another monster of egotism – while of course being a towering and wide-ranging genius.
I came across this point in Karl Popper’s autobiography which I while a schoolboy – he pointed out that the first rate ‘artist’ is usually the best in a genre – someone who completes an idea, rather than originates the idea.
So Bach was not as original as, say, Telemann – but he was much better. Mozart was not as original as JC or CPE Bach, nor even as Haydn (sons of JS) but he was better. But all this was changed in the early 20th century with modernism – from then on, people were supposedly geniuses *because* they were original and not because they were excellent (or, at least, their good qualities were only apparent to professionals in the field who understood the traditions they were inverting), Picasso being perhaps the most obvious example.
Several days later, reading your comment over again, Bruce, I am put in mind of Mahler, one of my two very favorite composers (along with Brahms).
I wonder where Mahler fits into the schema you lay out (and with which I agree). Mahler came much later than Beethoven, and he wrote in a very “modern” style. And yet when I listen to his music and see the dates of composition, I always have a sense that he’s glorifying something very old, right in the face of the newness all around him.
That is, he is 100% the late-romantic/early-modern that the academic books would pin him as, and yet his music seems to me a beautiful rejection of modernity. Does that make any sense at all? I’m thinking out loud here.
Mahler’s 4th Symphony, for example, is so achingly lovely to me. I listen to it over and over and every time I see in my mind trees, mountains, light, darkness, death, love, and eternity. And yet no one ever accused Mahler of trying to imitate Bach or even, for that matter, Beethoven. He’s thoroughly original, and yet in a humble, classical way he seems to me lovely despite all that. Do you have any comment on this? How does a modern acknowledge his time and yet remain true to the eternal? On Mahler I speak from personal affinity, but even if you are not a big fan of the 4th, or Mahler at all, the question is interesting to me. Do I express myself clearly?
When you can be so taken with a composition by Mahler that it speaks to you as you describe – and that other people go berserk and throw the radio against the wall when his music shows up (I met one such fellow) – just shows that this is not one world. There truly are lots of different kinds of minds and brains to be had. And those brains/minds are malleable, too. I used to ignore Bach and opera singing, they caused my eyes to glaze over, and now am a different person in my late middle age when it comes to these kinds of music.
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