The Curse of Originality

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. – C.S. Lewis

1.

The other day, I bought The Black Keys’ latest album, El Camino. The fourth track, called “Little Black Submarines,” starts off slowly, an abnormal event on this album. Dan Auerbach’s usually grimy, distorted vocals are here replaced by a soft sing-song tone as a finger-picked acoustic guitar plinks along in the background. The melody is startlingly reminiscent of the slower portion of “Stairway to Heaven.” Then, almost exactly at the song’s halfway point, everything goes silent for about two seconds. Auerbach’s crunchy wall of electric fuzz springs out of the nothingness, except… wait a second… isn’t that the riff from Tom Petty’s “Last Dance With Mary Jane?” Yep. At least for a few bars, anyway, it’s almost an exact replica. So, for those of you keeping score at home, in one song, the Black Keys have managed to… how to say this delicately… wantonly filched aspects of two highly recognizable songs from two of rock music’s most heralded artists.

2.

Originality is something of an obsession for creative people. We hear about it all the time and talk about it all the time to other creative people and worry constantly that, out there somewhere, someone is at this very moment working on something that is exactly like (although much, much better, we fear) what we are working on at this moment. Right now, I’m sure someone else is writing a much more insightful, cogent version of this essay. And even if they’re not, it doesn’t matter, because Jonathan Lethem already has (in fact, just stop reading this and click on that link; prepare to be amazed). The great gnawing fear of the creative mind is, of course, that there is nothing new to be said, and that by even trying, we doom ourselves to the inevitable moment of realization in which we are confronted by the work we’ve unknowingly, unfortunately, repeated in one way or another.

The phenomenon, in truth, is not even particular to creative people, but encroaches on anyone tasked with putting their mind to any inventive task (we are all, after all, creative in some capacity or another). Think of naming a child. Have you ever heard someone’s reaction when they hear the name they had chosen for their next child has been bestowed upon a baby by some person they know (but likely haven’t seen or spoken to in several years)? Suddenly, the name is verboten. And why? Well, of course, because it would no longer be “original.” The very concept is foolish, of course. Thousands of people very likely already have the name, so, you know, it isn’t exactly like new ground is truly being broken. Still, something about it doesn’t sit well.

At the root of this concern over being original, is – and I don’t mean to depress you – the fears that come along with knowing we’re all going to die someday. One of the unpleasant side effects of dying (at least it seems so on this side of the Great Divide) is being forgotten. If, we reason, we are “original,” then we will live on forever in the minds of those we leave behind, and our deaths may somehow be less permanent for it. Hogwash. Drivel. Being “original” will no longer stave off our evaporation into the mist of time than plastic surgery will keep our brain, heart, liver, or kidneys from slowly, surely ceasing their functions. Originality is an illusion; it (or the sense of it, anyway) makes us feel better, but can’t do much more.

3.

Lewis’ quote gets us most of the way to understanding the primary paradox at the heart of so-called “originality.” He actually sounds a lot like every baseball coach I’ve ever heard talk about hitting home runs. To a person, they all said the same thing to me when I was learning the game: Don’t try to hit a home run. You’ll over-swing, and either pop it up because you’re trying to lift it over the fence, or, more likely, you’ll miss the ball altogether. Try to hit line drives instead. Keep your head down, keep your hands inside the ball, and swing level. The home runs will come on their own. Trying to be original has the same effect as trying to hit home runs. It’s only by ignoring the very thing you’re trying to accomplish that you’ll get close to it.

This is absolutely true. The best books, music, and films are the ones that respond authentically to what’s already been created, embracing it when appropriate and eschewing it when suitable. Will we end up covering a lot of the same ground? Sure, but we’ll often find that the same territory can be covered in harrowing ways that reflect the truth of a given topic or event in a way that strikes us differently than anything else. Our responses to these works end up being the truly original part of the equation. That’s what matters. Think about it: is The Pianist less of a movie because Schindler’s List cam before? Of course not. Is Harry Potter lesser because of Narnia? Or Narnia because of The Bible? The notion is laughable. Originality is not what matters in art; truth is what matters.

So what do we make of people like The Beatles and William Faulkner and David Lynch? Surely they are the exceptions. It’s absolutely true that these people present seemingly unique visions in their work, but The Beatles openly admitted to cribbing Little Richard  and Bob Dylan tunes for ideas. They turned their own work into something magical because they worried about the relationship between the way they saw the world and the art they sought to create, not because they wanted to be “original.” Yes, Faulkner’s style was eye-opening, but it didn’t appear until he had been rejected by publishers and he set about to write a book without the constraints of expectation and was able to marry his vision and his art harmoniously. Similarly, the failure of Lynch’s big-budget epic Dune forced him to make smaller films over which he had complete control. He told the truth and “originality” followed.

It is no accident that freedom shows up again and again in stories about artists like these. The desperate need to be original creates a fear in us. Fear that unless we break the mold, we cannot make anything truly great. We humans get in our own ways exceedingly often, and this lie concerning originality is an especially insidious example, because it’s couched in the noblest of terms. We assure ourselves that we’re sticking to some unspecified creative code when we shelve a project because we saw something like it somewhere else. But if we loose these chains and give ourselves permission to be derivative – as long as we pursue the truth – we can make some pretty incredible things.

Yes, the Black Keys basically stole from Led Zeppelin and Tom Petty. But you know what? Led Zeppelin stole from Son House and T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters like it was their job. In fact, they kind of made stealing from those guys their actual job. And you know what? It all sounds pretty fantastic to me.

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6 Comments on “The Curse of Originality”

  1. Sean
    July 13, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    Great article, I saw the amazing spider-man last night and I feel like it fits right along the lines of this article. Some of us need to stop worrying about being the first to create something and start worrying about creating our own (better) version.

    • joshacorman
      July 13, 2012 at 11:35 am #

      Thanks! I haven’t seen the new Spider-Man, but I had a similar thought. I do think that the effect of diminishing returns can set in (a great example of this is Braveheart and Gladiator). Both films – especially the latter – have lost their luster a bit in recent years because of the staggering number of lone hero epics that have been made in the intervening years. We somehow see those movies as lesser because of what they begat, but, taken on their own, they’re fantastic. Like you say, worry about being good, not being “first.”

      ________________________________

  2. July 14, 2012 at 9:40 am #

    This is a good article, and so true. It reminds me of my college days when I doodled a character on a calculus assignment. He was a cynical dude with bulging eyes, a high forehead, and an overbite. Convinced he was a spark of true originality, I began to draw a comic strip for the college paper. About that time, though, Bart Simpson hit the scene…someone had done what I did, and thousands of times better. I continued drawing for the paper for three years, but eventually let the idea go, against the wishes and encouragement of many of my friends. Now, though, I own a business and have learned that it is better to imitate genius than to invent mediocrity.

  3. Anonymous
    January 7, 2013 at 6:12 pm #

    this was driving my bf nuts he had me do some research online thanks for the article he’s a musician.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Five Overrated Movies of The 2000s | thethingaboutflying - August 7, 2012

    […] and additions below.  There are several questions that could be brought up including those of originality in movies and to what degree older movies set the standard for newer ones, as well as how […]

  2. #35 Five Overrated Movies of the 2000s | thethingaboutflying - December 7, 2012

    […] and additions below.  There are several questions that could be brought up including those of originality in movies and to what degree older movies set the standard for newer ones, as well as how […]

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