I am a painter, and I worry about issues of originality. It’s almost impossible to paint in a style that is completely unique. I wish I could. I spend much of my life and waste half of my canvasses in vain attempts at individuality. Do you have any works of literature that might help?
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.” Your search for uniqueness is both impossible and undesirable. Let’s look at a few books that have inspired imitators, and compare the original to the spin-off.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, written in 1860 and published in serial form, is one of the most drawn-upon novels ever written. Not only has it provided the archetypes of Miss Haversham the Rejected Bride, Stella the Icy Heart-breaker, and Pip the ambitious, misguided Fish out of Water, but countless other novels and art forms have been spawned by its characters. Mister Pip, a novel by Lloyd James takes a teacher on the island of Bougainvillea, who knows the works of Dickens by heart, hence his nickname, and makes him the hero of his bloody and harrowing novel.
In Jack Maggs, Peter Carey follows Magwitch around London while he waits for Pip to come of age, lurking in the shadows and having his own adventures in the grime of the capital. The characters from Dicken’s novel take on a life of their own in both these books – in Carey’s Magwitch is literally followed, while in James’ book, the events are more metaphorically interwoven with the plot of Dickens’ novel. Both books remain wholly original works, even though they were clearly inspired by this most quoted work of Dickens. But even Dickens’ story, of Pip and Stella and Magwitch, is nothing new. As Christopher Booker points out in “The Seven Basic Plots”, his epic book about why we tell stories and what they are, it is impossible to be truly original as all stories have been told before, one way or another. What counts is the way that you tell it.
Having read Dickens and his imitators, now find The Conference of the Birds, a Persian poem of 4500 lines by Farid ud-Din Attar, written in 1177. If you can read this in Persian, I envy you, but if not, read the translation by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis, Penguin Classics. This Sufi classic tells the story of all the birds in the world who gather together to decide which of their number should be King. The wisest bird, the hoopoe, suggests that they should all go in search of the legendary Simorgh, a mythical winged creature that renews itself periodically in flames. On their way to the dwelling place of this being, many of the birds drop out one by one, their failings preventing them from pressing onwards. Eventually, when they reach their destination, all they see is a lake, which acts as a mirror. This poem is a classic of Sufi mysticism, explaining to the reader how the birds pass over seven valleys during which they progress in their understanding of God, and when they reach the lake, they see themselves as one being that is not separate from, but at one with God and the world. This book has been recently re-worked by the acclaimed children’s author, Peter Sis, and is his first adult book. Its lavish and beautiful illustrations make the poem a joy to both read and behold, and with this lovely volume he brings this Sufi classic to a whole new audience. You will be inspired by this to see that though Sis did not create something entirely original from nothing, he used the well-tried and tested story to create something unique and breathtaking.
“Only those with no memory insist on their originality”, said Coco Chanel. With that thought, now discover the works of Jose Saramago, a Portuguese writer of blinding originality, who based much of his work on imitation. His novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is a fictional re-telling of Jesus’ life, showing him as a flawed, complex, all too human being caught in the events in the life of the Jesus we know from the Bible, the son of Joseph, not of God, but God is the one that he grapples with in the desert, not Satan. One of his last books was “Cain”, which describes the adventures of Abel’s brother in a way that surprises the reader at every turn. Cain turns up at all the key events of the Old Testament, forever trying to get his own back on his brother, and on God, preventing God from sacrificing Isaac in the nick of time, seducing Lilith and pitting himself against God whenever possible. Saramago’s Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, another novel, is all about imitation. The hero of this book is a portrait artist trying to be more than a mirror of life, and perhaps a painter with words, mirroring the author’s own major concerns. By reading Saramago you will embrace the fact that originality per se is not something to strive for, but if only you allow your personality to come through, then something unique will be created.
Ella Berthoud is a Bibliotherapist with The School of Life. She will be running our Parent’s Bibliotherapy Workshop as part of the Mumsnet Academy series on Thursday 27 September. For more information and to book click here. You can also catch up on all the previous Dear Bibliotherapist columns in our Library archive. Library Archive
…and of course, don't forget Mark Earls will be speaking on the subject of Copying & Originality at the first of our autumn sermons on Sunday 9 September. Click here for further details.