“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.