Originality in authorship

On the radio a few moments ago, I heard a discussion of cryptonesia, when a person remembers something from their distant past without realizing that it’s a memory, interpreting it instead as an original idea. (This was in the context of a discussion of Nabokov, and the similarities between Lolita and an earlier work by a German author, the question of whether he had copied intentionally, whether it had been independent creation, or a case of cryptonesia, Nabokov having read the text many years before) The speaker mentioned that, as a writer, he had a real fear of this even before he knew the term, often dropping a phrase from his text because he feared that he had actually heard it from someone else before.

It occured to me that this sort of fear would be very hard to explain to a Medieval writer; one of the vivid characteristics of that era’s text (and, so I’m told, of modern text in other places – China in particular) is a pervasive quotation of others, not in the modern form of “This is a quotation,”1 but as part of the flow of text, using (to take the most common example) Biblical metaphors without citation, assuming that the reader would have read those texts as well. The idea persisted into the eighteenth century in a somewhat reduced form – early American writing is just as full of citations of what were considered to be the “classical” sources. But by the twentieth century, it seems to have vanished.

I think there were two separate things going on here: one is the emergence of the notion of “scholarly credit,” which is a side effect of the professionalization of scholarship and its growth into a field where not everyone knows everyone else, as well as the growth of a publishing industry and the notions of intellectual property. The other is the decline of “classical education,” so that there are fewer and fewer stock phrases a writer can use and be certain that their readers will know the source. (I’ve even stumbled across this in ordinary speech – even a phrase like “de gustibus,” which I remember from elementary school, will sometimes draw quizzical stares. [It’s a shortening of “de gustibus non est disputandum,” “you can’t argue matters of taste” – and if you haven’t heard it before, it’s simply a sign that the educational system is changing2])

Another way to view this is a change in the notion of atomicity of ownership in writing. Words are considered too small to be owned, in normal contexts; the fact that I use the word “phlebotomist” in an essay certainly doesn’t prevent someone else from using it, or give me any claim on them. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there seemed to be a phrase-level granularity, especially with regards to phrases that had become well-known. (“For whom the bell tolls” 3 is a survivor into the modern age) Combine this shrinking of granularity with a cultural obsession with originality – what is not original is not as good – and you get a fear of cryptonesia.

An odd thing is that the speaker who kicked this all off (whose name I didn’t catch, so I can’t cite him) phrased it as a fear that “something [he] was about to write had been written before.” Borges puts an appropriate spin on this in “The Library of Babel:”

From all these incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves contain all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographic symbols (whose number, though vast, is not infinite); that is, everything which can be expressed, in all languages.4

That is, the total number of phrases you can say – the total number of meaningful things you can say in a given language – is large but not infinite, and the odds are that any combination of words you choose has already been said, somewhere, by someone. Our copyright laws and conventions on plagiarism try to put a boundary on this, saying that certain types of speech convey property on the words down to a certain level of granularity (basically, that level which would allow a reader familiar with the earlier text to say “that’s from the essay ‘foo!'”), but these rules by their nature are somewhat arbitrary.

What an author does, in essence, is to string together blocks – preferably blocks smaller than the “atomic size” decreed by custom – to form new ideas. The fear of cryptonesia is because the boundary between a legitimate collation of blocks and an illegitimate one has no underlying basis; it’s purely a matter of convention, and in the case of copyright law, is virtually unsatisfiable by any individual, since how could you possibly tell if a phrase has been used by someone, somewhere before?

It’s difficult to answer this, of course, since in our modern world many things – publishing royalties, academic credit, grants – depend on determining who has been creating “original ideas,” and so we need to have some boundary line drawn defining the smallest thing over which a person can have meaningful authorship. The postmodernists have (on the whole) taken an interesting approach to this: everything is derivative, everything which can be said has already been said, and so all modern writing is simply bricolage. My only objections to this are the suggestion of novelty – was it ever different, were completely novel ideas ever common? – and the pessimism implicit in it, the hint that we are in an iron age and the only valuable thing that scholarship can do is reflect on its own inadequacy.

In my view, at least, the latter idea is nonsense because of the former; ideas have always been born in the context of other ideas, but the thing that a writer can do is to combine preexisting ideas in a novel fashion, and this does not mean that the writer is no good. To some extent, it’s necessary to do this; a good pair of examples (which should make career academics, and in fact almost everyone, scratch their heads) are the modern fairy tales found in books by Gaiman or in Datlow & Windling anthologies, contrasted with some highly cerebral science fiction like the recent “Ghost in the Shell 2.”

The former case is good precisely because it is built out of familiar elements: the characters are, in some way, familiar reflections of ourselves, and when they find themselves in situations they are extricating themselves through a careful following of Fairy Law – the rules of behavior which were established for characters in such stories by generations of other writers. The latter film feels to me like a deep analysis of one of the most pressing social issues of thirty years from now; (issues of the rights to personal integrity of the mind when the boundary between the mind and the computer is increasingly hazy) I find it fascinating because those issues have been on my mind in the past, but I can’t imagine that it would make sense at all to someone who didn’t happen to have been thinking about it. Breadth of appeal comes, ultimately, from the anchoring of a work in a context of ideas familiar to the reader. (Which is why it still makes sense to talk about “universally meaningful” books, why we even bother to keep reading Shakespeare or Sophocles even when the details of the stories are quite a few centuries out-of-date)

So in effect, I think that the recent debates over intellectual property have pushed writers too far into a fear of accidental plagiarism, and too much of a determination to make works “wholly their own.” No man is an island,5 nor should any man attempt to be, or his entire corpus of work would be a window into nothing more than his own soul, a dark room with no corridors leading out.

In which you could then be eaten by a grue.6


1 And here is the obligatory footnote, which prevents legal liability and preserves scholarly credit.
2 A pity, since it makes it harder to present limericks like:

There was an attorney named Rex,
With diminutive organs of sex;
When hauled in for exposure,
He replied with composure:
De minimis non curat lex!

3 Donne, J., Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, XVII: “Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris,” 1623. Can you imagine what writing would look like if people always footnoted this sort of thing? OK, I could be facetious and do this for the whole essay, but I don’t really have the energy.
4 Anthony Kerrigan, tr.; Ficciones, “The Library of Babel,” Grove Press, N.Y., 1962. This is a quote long enough that even an 18th-century author would probably have footnoted it, but not a medieval one.
5 Donne, J., ibid.
6 Infocom, Zork, 1977.

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Published in: on September 18, 2005 at 16:22  Comments (8)  
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8 Comments

  1. I think you are perhaps missing another element. As the publishing world grows and grows, there are so many published works that one cannot reliably assume that one’s audience is familiar with all of those works. So one *has* to give credit, or else run the risk of passing off quoted material as original because one’s audience may not recognize the source. Partly this may be the “decline of the classical education,” but the list of “classics” has also grown quite long — not to mention the numerous other works not considered “classics” which could also be quoted.
    Many artists worry about not being able to create original works — and stifle themselves as a result. I wrote many stories in my teens and early 20s only to see other authors come up with shockingly similar ideas independently. Some ideas are archetypal, whether or not we have been exposed to those archetypes, and others are simply the conclusion one comes to when meandering down a particular cultural, social, or political path. Some of these motifs repeat themselves after centuries or millennia; some emerge cross-culturally in the same time period. I gave up on the idea of “coming up with an original idea,” and mostly accept that I may work with the same ideas as others, but will work with them from my unique perspective, trusting that there has never been another Me. Certainly not another Me in this time and place!

  2. I think you are perhaps missing another element. As the publishing world grows and grows, there are so many published works that one cannot reliably assume that one’s audience is familiar with all of those works. So one *has* to give credit, or else run the risk of passing off quoted material as original because one’s audience may not recognize the source. Partly this may be the “decline of the classical education,” but the list of “classics” has also grown quite long — not to mention the numerous other works not considered “classics” which could also be quoted.
    Many artists worry about not being able to create original works — and stifle themselves as a result. I wrote many stories in my teens and early 20s only to see other authors come up with shockingly similar ideas independently. Some ideas are archetypal, whether or not we have been exposed to those archetypes, and others are simply the conclusion one comes to when meandering down a particular cultural, social, or political path. Some of these motifs repeat themselves after centuries or millennia; some emerge cross-culturally in the same time period. I gave up on the idea of “coming up with an original idea,” and mostly accept that I may work with the same ideas as others, but will work with them from my unique perspective, trusting that there has never been another Me. Certainly not another Me in this time and place!

  3. Interesting little post. First time I heard of cryptonesia was in relation a passage of Nietzsche’s. So much of what I read becomes part of my thought process i can’t conceive of trying to separate out what is original to my mind. As you say, new ideas can only exists as a contrast to old.
    Thou, to be honest none of that is what I will take away with me for a long time to come. What I will remember for far to long is the limerick. Quite honestly that is the first one I have ever heard with a latin punchline.

  4. Interesting little post. First time I heard of cryptonesia was in relation a passage of Nietzsche’s. So much of what I read becomes part of my thought process i can’t conceive of trying to separate out what is original to my mind. As you say, new ideas can only exists as a contrast to old.
    Thou, to be honest none of that is what I will take away with me for a long time to come. What I will remember for far to long is the limerick. Quite honestly that is the first one I have ever heard with a latin punchline.

  5. That’s very true. When I was thinking about uncited reference, I was thinking only in the context of a well-known universe of works; something which was available to medieval theologians, but even then didn’t apply to all works.

  6. That’s very true. When I was thinking about uncited reference, I was thinking only in the context of a well-known universe of works; something which was available to medieval theologians, but even then didn’t apply to all works.

  7. Wahaha! I have corrupted your mind!

  8. Wahaha! I have corrupted your mind!


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