In Defence of Unoriginality

Ian McEwan had a long piece in The Guardian yesterday, in which he saw similarities between originality in science and in literature. As you may expect, Obooki feels there is no such similiarity.

This all comes down to the view of art (like science) as progress, which should perhaps itself be broken down into two ideas:

  • That literature has continually improved throughout the ages – an idea which an idle reflection of the breadth of human literary production should quickly dispose of
  • That we have, through the ages, added to the techniques of literature

It seems to be this latter than is meant (by McEwan, and generally) when we speak of originality in literature. McEwan gives examples (though, one may well note the hedging of the vocabulary – Obooki’s boldnesses):

I’ve mentioned indirect free style, first deployed in extended form by Jane Austen. Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa was perhaps the first to describe in exacting detail and at length the qualities of a subjective mental state. Nineteenth-century novelists bequeathed penetrating and sophisticated means for delineating character. A long time had to pass before a novelist troubled to inhabit the mind of a child. In Ulysses, Joyce made a new poetry out of the minutiae of the every day. And he and modernists like Virginia Woolf found new means of representing the flow of consciousness that now are common, even in children’s books. But Richardson, Austen, Joyce and Woolf were inheritors in their turn. They sat on the shoulders of giants too.

Now, Obooki is in general prepared to accept that “the stream of consciousness” is indeed a technique that has been developed over the last 150 years. (Examination of subjective states, one feels obliged to note, has been the mainstay of human poetry oh since humans began writing poetry. That they didn’t go on about it for 1300 pages is more a relief than a lack of insight). But it is also to Obooki’s mind a great demonstration of why originality is of no consequence whatever (or at least of very little consequence) in the question of literary merit. Because of course, like Hilbert and Spencer before him, Joyce was quite happy to admit, say, Dorothy Richardson’s priority in the pioneering of “the stream of consciousness” in the English language. This doesn’t seem to me something you can really argue with: it’s there in her work; her work was definitely written before that of Joyce. Obooki would strongly suggest that there are other reasons why Joyce is better remembered and admired than Richardson, which have nothing to do with “the stream of consciousness” technique. And that isn’t of course to mention the seemingly true originator of “the stream of consciousness”, the immensely famous French writer, Édouard Dujardin.

Here, as an example, is a piece of “the stream of consciousness” technique I read this year in a novel tragically written in 1871:

Various images passed in a feverish file before him, quickly succeeding each other in his mind. “Lise, Lise,” he thought, “and with her ce Maurice … Strange people … but what was that strange fire there, and what were they talking about, and who were murdered? I expect Stasie has not yet had time to find out and is still waiting for me with my coffee … At cards? Did I really lose men at cards? Well – in Russia during the so-called period of serfdom … Dear me, and Fedka?”

He gave a violent start with terror and looked round him: “What if that Fedka is crouching somewhere behind those bushes? They say he has a whole band of robbers on the highway. Oh dear, I shall then – I shall then tell him the whole truth – I shall tell him that I was to blame and – and that I was greatly distressed for ten years on his account, much more than he was as a soldier and – and I shall give him my purse. H.m! j’ai en tout quarante roubles; il prendra les roubles et il me tuera tout de même.”

In his panic he shut his umbrella for some unknown reason and  put it down beside him. A cart appeared in the distance on the road from the town; he began watching it in dismay.

“Grâce à Dieu, it’s a cart, and it’s coming slowly. That can’t be dangerous. Those are local foundered horses. I always said that breed – It was Peter Ilyich, though, who talked at the club about horse-breeding and I mulcted him, et puis, but there is something behind that cart and – yes, I believe there’s a peasant woman in it. A peasant woman and a peasant – cela commence à être rassurant. The woman behind and the peasant in front, c’est rassurant au plus haut degré.”

(I highlight “for some unknown reason” as another good example of a c19th omniscient narrator.)

A slightly more insightful essay – or series of essays – I read recently on the same subject, Nathalie Sarraute’s The Age of Suspicion – does indeed take Dostoevsky as the jumping off point for these psychological developments (though laments Dostoevsky’s problems deriving from his lack of later technique – still, he does seem to have a fair stab at it with his primitive cave-scrawling). Sarraute seems much less concerned with who was first, but certainly still believes wholeheartedly in the idea of technical progress in the novel, and that further development of the techniques is the domain in which any novelist aspiring towards art should be exercising his efforts and imagination.

I am not convinced of the necessity of this, other than to suggest, It is certainly interesting to examine what goes on in one’s own mind and I’d expect any worthwhile artist to have this level of awareness.

Here’s an except from Obooki’s alter-ego’s worthless “forthcoming” work-in-progress, which he imagines has some insight into this area and which he insists I append to this post. Decide for yourself:

“A lot of the skill in painting,” I told her, as we stood before one of Canaletto’s images of Venice – “at least before photography came along and ruined it all, was in the technique; in working out and applying ways of rendering a three-dimensional reality onto a two-dimensional surface. What you should try and look at in paintings are things like how the artist has used perspective and tone to give the picture depth – how he’s come to represent the texture of things. Like this painting for instance: see how Canaletto’s represented these great crowds with all these splotches of paint; – and the water, of course – how he’s used the much-loved squiggly line to show a rippling motion in the water. – This is in fact why Canaletto’s so important in the history of art: he was the first to use the squiggly-line as a way of representing water – and it’s for this reason and this reason alone his paintings are thought to be of any worth and hang in this gallery today.”


10 thoughts on “In Defence of Unoriginality

  1. Given the crappy viewing experiences I’ve had watching film adapations of at least two of McEwan’s novels, may I suggest he concentrate on his prose and leave the theorizing to others? I have no interest in reading this clown, but I’ll make an exception for this article of his later to see if I indeed read that the key “good” quality about Don Quixote was its “originality” and not anything else.

  2. Newton’s physics superseded that of Aristotle, and Einstein’s physics broadened the scope of Newton’s: no argument there. But in literature, no work has superseded The Iliad, or has broadened the scope of The Book of Job. This very obvious observation should make us wary, at the very least, of looking for parallels between the sciences and the arts.

    I read through Ian McEwan’s long article, but beyond discovering that McEwan reads popular science books with care, I couldn’t quite discern the point of it. Having compared literature and science, what precisely is it that he concludes? He stops short of claiming that literature progresses over time: the very existence of The Iliad or of The Book of Job tells us otherwise. But if this isn’t his point, then what is?

  3. Sorry, I wasn’t reading carefully enough: McEwan does claim that the concept of progress is valid in literature. Dear me!

  4. I think McEwan does hint at a progress in technique, if not necessarily in quality. He offers examples: stream of consciousness, the free indirect style, examination of the subjective state, a child’s point of view. One may take issue with any or all of these; but what I feel is perhaps more important is that the accretion is very slight.

    I read Aeschylus’ Agamemnon some time last year, for the first time in fifteen years or so. I had always thought of it, for some reason, as an archaic, primitive piece of art. I was impressed reading, how it was no such thing: that it is an incredibly sophisticated piece of theatre, using pretty much the full gamut of dramatic techniques.

    He claims Cervantes’ originality was in writing Don Quixote first, thus why we acclaim him more than Pierre Menard (and so I understood it). (Did Menard have no acquaintance with Don Quixote? I wanted to look it up, but couldn’t find my copy).

  5. There are certainly *changes* in technique, yes, but to describe that as “progress” is misleading: that implies that works written in newer techniques are more “advanced” than previous works which weren’t. (Although in what sense they may be more “advanced” McEwan does not specify: if he does not mean in terms of literary quality, then what?) So I am not even sure that we’re talking about “accretion”. New techniques simply lead to *different* means of depiction – not better, not more advanced.

    Reading different translations of the Oresteia is something of a hobby of mine. The scene in “Agamemnon” in which Cassandra before the palace of Argos foresees her own doom possesses an elemental tragic power that, to my mind, has onlly been matched (though not surpassed) by the scenes of Lear on the heath. I agree with you about its theatrical sophistication: I saw Agamemnon at the National Theatre many years ago, and, given that most of it is actually narration, it held the stage superbly. The dramatic technique is tremendously sophisticated.

  6. Yes, the changes in technique aren’t much, I suppose.

    I remember reading something a while ago about how it was impossible these days to write an epic. You could probably get away with a mock epic, but a real proper serious epic – and have it taken seriously.

    Joyce allowed us to write about everyday triviality, but prevented us any longer writing about kings. (At least Callimachus let us do both!). Hence the utter lack of sensation from literary fiction.

  7. Nothing is new. I remember reading in Swift, that back in his time there was a craze among the avant-garde to use the most absurd spellings they could justifiably think of for words. We have cast aside such useful literary possibilities and instead like to hit such foolish people over the head with our dictionaries.

  8. Sir, I believe you are referring to dickshonarees, and your suggestion that Mr McEwan may have a connexion with the avant-garde is fanciful in the extreme.

  9. There is, in McEwan’s article, a certain alignment – I felt – with a fellow called Tom McCarthy (and in general the avant-garde). After all, the avant-garde must more or less necessarily believe in the “progress of literature” because otherwise there wouldn’t be all that much glamour or kudos to be found in being in the van.

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