The Cult of Originality

January 14, 2010

Much is made of originality in our arts and literature. It was not ever thus. Until what scholarship calls the Modern Era, originality was a vice. Legitimate literature was loaded with quotations “from authority” and was often just a patchwork of such snippets. If you were writing about poetry or music and kept referring to number-symbolism, it wasn’t because that bee was particularly resident in your bonnet. It was because Augustine did it — as did the authorities that the overachieving Bishop of Hippo was using himself. Your book was good if it cogently marshaled the arguments available from the acknowledged writers of the past. To be original was to be wrong.

All the arts paid tribute to precedent. How a painter or architect used the practices of his predecessors marked him as good or bad. Or would have marked him if we even knew his or her name — since it took a long time for it to occur to artists to sign their work or for people to honor them as individual creators. Not until Guillaume de Machaut do we have a composer whose name is attached to a purposeful collection of his works. About six manuscripts of his music exist (one of them just a few blocks from me as I type, in the Gallery Wildenstein), in which he sets his own poetry to music. Machaut was not an innovator so much as a brilliant craftsman in fixed forms, and I have no doubt that that’s exactly how he wanted it.

The occasion for these thoughts (which are not even remotely original) is an article that has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, which starts out with a passage calculated to scare the living daylights out of anybody who publishes in this day of mad plagiarism-detectors. These people, and they are legion, can sully or end careers over a suspicion or insinuation of unacknowledged quotation, or even alleged influence:

Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator—marked by her forever—remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.

The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.

As for Guillaume de Machaut, it was not excessive self-regard that made him collect his wonderful works. An admirer as far away as Chaucer speaks of him as a master to be emulated. In fact, Chaucer is known to have modeled his Book of the Duchess on Machaut’s work. Ol’ Geoffrey (as we used to call him in the medieval-studies seminar) had better never try to get tenure in a university or run for political office without calling a press conference and apologizing. And the more tears he can produce, the better.

The illustration above is from a Machaut MS. in the Bibliothèque Nationale. It has long been assumed to portray the composer-poet in the figure to the right.

I thank Annasue McCleave Wilson for drawing my attention to the Jonathan Lethem article.

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