Against originality

There is after all no such thing.

There simply cannot be!

This can be proved from first principles.

Words — and therefore sentences, paragraphs, pages, books — acquire what meaning they have, termed an acceptation, by the general consensus of a language community. Words mean what we use them to mean. But we cannot use words arbitrarily, or at least not if we expect to be understood. I may call a lion a blanket but no one will understand “lion” when I say blanket; they will understand “blanket.” Such fatal slippages may occur on the lexical level (malapropisms), the syntactic level (solecisms), or the discourse level (Finnegans Wake, Dada). Originality is the enemy of comprehension. Q., as one likes to say, E. D.

But, a querulous reader might object, you are talking about innovation, not originality.  —Cliche, too, is the enemy of comprehension, this reader might point out. —Boredom is the enemy of comprehension. Titillate us, this reader might exhort, with the new, the never-before-read, the thrill of the unknown!

O hypothetical reader! So logical. So greedy.

Why not be satisfied with reiterations of what you’ve already read? Most people are, you know. Sure, it’s dressed up in fancy new duds, but it’s the same old bones and flesh underneath. Watch it dance!

Well. I concede this much: boredom is the enemy. But the stuff of story is always matter that we’ve seen before, rearranged and repainted in brighter colors. Have you never read Television Tropes & Idioms? In the truly original, in the really, actually never-seen-before, what is there for us to grasp hold of? How could we understand it? “If a lion could talk et cetera.” We should approach the rootlessly new with baby steps.

I’ve nothing against innovation, don’t misunderstand. But the fetishization of originality — “MAKE IT NEW!” — “ÉTONNEZ-MOI!” — is a disease of Modernism (note the capital M) that we need to inoculate ourselves against. It’s a recent fad, and one that we should have long since outgrown. Consider Pope:

Some to conceit alone their taste confine,
And glitt’ring thoughts struck out at ev’ry line;
Pleased with a work where nothing’s just or fit,
One glaring chaos and wild heap of wit.
Poets, like painters, thus, unskilled to trace
The naked nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover every part,
And hide with ornaments their want of art.
True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed;
Something, whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind[.]

But true expression, like th’ unchanging sun,
Clears and improves whate’er it shines upon,
It gilds all objects, but it alters none.
Expression is the dress of thought, and still
Appears more decent as more suitable;

And but so mimic ancient wits at best,
As apes our grandsires, in their doublets dressed.
In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold,
Alike fantastic, if too new, or old;
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.


This is the rational impulse of humanism, refusing to bow to either Apollo or Dionysus, rejecting both extremes. Boredom is indeed the enemy (“We cannot blame indeed — but we may sleep”). Let us chart, then, a middle course, between the Scylla of the artist-as-divinity and the Charybdis of the artist-as-drudge; and let our craft be called Artifice (with its sails of labor filled with the winds of inspiration), and let us navigate across all the infinite seas (because all the seas are one) to another world, a new one, a better one. A little at a time.