IS ORIGINALITY POSSIBLE?

THERE IS NOTHING THAT GOD HATH ESTABLISHED IN A CONSTANT COURSE OF NATURE, AND WHICH THEREFORE IS DONE EVERY DAY, BUT WOULD SEEM A MIRACLE, AND EXERCISE OUR ADMIRATION, IF IT WERE DONE BUT ONCE.   –JOHN DONNE

But we’re bored with nature, John Donne!

Much have we advanced, since you wrote those words in the 17th century, John Donne!  Miracles that are man-made now compete with nature’s miracles, and nature’s apologists are now so numerous and well-funded that, combined with unsettling urban noise and technological advance, unspoiled nature has come to be appreciated as a miracle by the chattering classes, except for Woody Allen, who still prefers New York. There is no need for us to feel the miraculous properties of nature’s God, we are so overwhelmed by it on so many levels.  Many, in  our modern, rat-race, hustle-bustle world, only experience the glories of nature “but once,” so caught up are they in myriad anxieties and responsibilities, John Donne!  Your point is well-taken, but I’m afraid it’s obsolete.  You can’t imagine how Romanticism has undermined your epigraph with its focus on the beauties of nature, children, social outcasts, and the strange.

And if you only knew, John Donne, how Modernism, rejecting the sublime, and fixating on the trivial, has made the obscurity of “but once” it’s religion!

But here’s another question, John Donne: what is the difference between what happens, and what happens to you?  If we knew the answer to this, love and God and the universe would all be explained.

Your “but once,” John Donne, might hold a clue; for we would know the difference between “what happens” and “what happens to you” if it “happened but once.” If it “happened but once,” it would happen to you—otherwise it happens—the hidden miraculous “constant course of nature”—to everybody.

But what is happening “but once?”  The universe, as we know it, our life, as we know it, has unfolded, and is unfolding “but once.”  What part needs to happen “but once” for us to be amazed?  What moment or place needs to be occupied with the “miracle?”  No, John Donne!  You have it all wrong!  It is precisely the never-ending “constant course of nature” which is the miracle!  No “miracle” could occur if it were so far from the context of the “constant course of nature”—that it would happen “but once!”

Originality, then: what is it?

Have we come closer to defining originality, that holy grail of every artist?  If it happens “but once,” is it then yours and it then “seems a miracle” and, hence, it is original, novel, unique?

Or is the very opposite true?  Originality participates in the ongoing “constant course of nature; originality finds its identity in the largest and most fluid possible context in order to exist?

For we must ask, Original what?  What is original?  And, in order to be original, we must ask: how?  How, in a dynamic and far-reaching manner, is it original?  And, most important, how specifically, is it original?

In the same manner, we need to ask what is miraculous?  The sun up in the sky, happening “but once?”  But what is the sun?  Is it in the sky, and what is the sky? What is that bright light?  How do I know it’s miraculous if there’s no context?

Only “in a constant course of nature,” to provide a context, can we have the miraculous, or the original.

The critic, poet, and inventor of detective fiction and science fiction, Edgar Poe, felt that novelty was essential to composition, and  appreciation of novelty was a crucial element of morality.  Insanity obsesses and repeats; originality, like freshness, defines mental health.  Let the body do the same things over and over, the heart beating as steadily as the sun rising every morning.  But let the brain be boiling over with the new!

Many claim originality lacks learning and range.  After all, to the naive, everything seems new.  How do we know if the original is illusory, based entirely on our ignorance? How do we know if something is really new? The original can only be felt by other minds; we’ll never know if a song is new if we only sing it to ourselves alone.  But this all agrees with our former point: originality, to exist, needs learning and range, needs a broad context, needs the “constant course of nature.”

And so originality cannot exist without a public.  The new must come out of the old, since the public—which the original author must appeal to—is both habitual and excitable, old in its very existence, but forever longing for the new.

If the new is healthy, it doesn’t matter if naive members of the public don’t appreciate new forms and ideas as new; the naive merely reap the benefits of that which they are unaware, like a child who eats his greens, not knowing why they are good for him.  The public, by definition, will always be naive to a certain extent, but this shouldn’t stop the artist from seeking to be original in their eyes.

The Modernist avant-garde artist who appeals only to his ‘knowing’ comrades, is, therefore, not original in the highest sense, for if novelty and public mental health (to put it very crudely) are linked, mere license practiced among a few fails to pass the test of true novelty.

As one might expect, the neo-classical age of 18th century England was obsessed with “the original.”

A glance at Edward Young’s “Conjectures on Original Compositions” (1759) quickly finds this comfort: originality can be a matter of degree; the literary accomplishments of the past may overwhelm us so that we moan, “there’s nothing new under the sun!” but being a little original is still meritorious.

Can it be, then, that originality is not the basis of the new work of art, but its adornment?   Then we have a rather wonderful paradox: the original, in art, though crucial, is merely an artificial addition to the fundamental cliche. Further, to strive to be wholly original creates nothing new, but merely chaos.

Kant, it is interesting to note, in his aesthetical focus on ‘the pleasing’ v. ‘the beautiful,’ does not acknowledge the question of originality at all.

Shakespeare’s teeming genius is often attributed to the fact that he didn’t fret over originality, stealing others’ plots for his dramas, for instance.  Following all that fretting about originality in the 18th century, the problem was “solved” in the 19th century—by democracy, as that political idea excited the popular mind.  Even in a delicately, modernist, aesthetic mind like Mallarme’s we see this demonstrated:

A high freedom has been acquired, the newest: I don’t see, and this remains my own intensely felt opinion, that anything that has been beautiful in the past has been eliminated, and I remain convinced that on important occasions we will always conform to the solemn tradition, that owes its prevalence to the fact that it stems from the classical genius; only, when what’s needed is a breath of sentiment or a story, there’s no call to disturb the venerable echoes, so we’ll look to do something else. Every soul is a melody, which needs only to be set in motion; and for that we each have our own flute or viola.

Only a misanthrope would scoff at the idea that every human face is new, and so we embrace Mallarme’s beautiful idea—but perhaps only up to a point, since nature produces a variety of offspring, but in the realm of artifice, some souls are more melodious—or more capable of making melodies—than others.

Originality is one of those profound subjects, like infinity, or the soul, which grows more elusive the more we examine it; yet if we devote ourselves to a certain unhurried speculation on the matter, the result is comfort, both poetic and strange.

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4 Comments

  1. Bill said,

    July 19, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    Well done, you’ve presented a paradox we can live with. Glad to see you quoting Mallarme. He has a small volume of critical-aesthetic writings you would enjoy, if you liked this. Winters mischaracterized him.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 22, 2011 at 1:42 pm

      Bill,

      I never “got” Mallarme’s poetry. Perhaps you have to be fluent in French. As for the prose, I always responded more to Valery. I don’t know if it finally helps poetry to think deeply about it in the way Mallarme does. But that quote I found is a nice one. Thanks.

      It’s a pity Mallarme’s “Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard,” published when Cummings was 3, and W.C. Williams was 13, opened up the door to so much inane, typographical “poetry.”

      Tom

  2. Toby Simmons said,

    August 30, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    Fascinating. A joy to read. Great blog all-round, by the way.
    Let me know what you think of mine . . . http://apieceofcoffee.wordpress.com/
    Keep posting!

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 31, 2011 at 3:40 pm

      Thanks, Toby!

      Your philosophy has a certain scientific moralism which I find pretty mainstream.

      I enjoyed Ed Babinski’s blog, too. Ed has a certain poetic flair.

      I saw your remark about Ayn Rand: Aristotle and Kant. Did you know Rand reviled Kant as “the first hippie?”

      Tom


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