Goethe On The Artist’s Supposed ‘Originality’

In Conversations with Goethe With Johann Peter Eckermann, Goethe says,

People are always talking about originality; but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us and goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favor. [p. 115]

Elsewhere, Eckermann makes note of Goethe’s response to Byron‘s critique of Faust that Goethe had ‘found one thing here, the other there’:

The greater part of those fine things cited by Lord Byron,” said Goethe, “I have never even read, much less did I think of them, when I was writing ‘Faust.’ But Lord Byron is only great as a poet; as soon as he reflects, he is a child. He knows not how to help himself against the stupid attacks of the same kind made upon him by his own countrymen. He ought to have expressed himself more strongly against them. ‘What is there is mine,’ he should have said, ‘and whether I got it from a book or from life, is of no consequence; the only point is, whether I have made a right use of it.’ Walter Scott used a scene from my Egmont and he had a right to do so; and because he did it well, he deserves praise. He has also copied the character of Mignon in one of his romances; but whether with equal judgment, is another question. Lord Byron’s transformed Devil is a continuation of Mephistophiles, and quite right too. If, from the whim of originality, he had departed from the model, he would certainly have fared worse. Thus, my Mephistophiles sings a song from Shakspeare, and why should he not? Why should I give myself the trouble of inventing one of my own, when this said just what was wanted. If, too, the prologue to my ‘Faust’ is something like the beginning of Job, that is again quite right, and I am rather to be praised than censured. [pp. 82-83]

Like all truly great artists, Goethe recognizes that ‘genius’ and ‘creativity’ have little to do with ‘originality’–whatever that means. Rather, the artist, as noted by all too many who create, is a magpie, a borrower and stealer and copier and mime and ventriloquist. She takes what she needs for her work and synthesizes them into a new work. It is this genius of synthesis we recognize; it is this vision, the one that picked out what it needed and combined them into a whole only visible to it, that we so admire. Great works of art, like all human productions, do not spring forth, fully formed, like Athena out of the skull of Zeus. They have long gestations, and the raw material that goes into this making is drawn from the world around them, from the creative work of other humans, artists or not. The history of an artwork always includes that of the pieces that went into its making.

As always, Goethe remains relevant; so-called ‘intellectual property‘ acolytes would do well to pay attention to a man who knew a bit about artistic creation.

Lord Byron on the Writerly Compulsion

In Oryx and Crake, Crake quotes Lord Byron

What is it Byron said? Who’d write if they could do otherwise? Something like that.

Who indeed? Byron’s supposed description² of writerly obsession is by now familiar to us: writers write because they have to, they must, they can do little other; their activity is as much compelled as chosen.  It is a description that elevates writing to a calling, the answering to an inner voice that must be heeded, that brooks no interference in finding its realization.

This description of writing lends it the beauty of suffering, of the price paid for playing host to a terrible, demanding, desire. It is, as might be evident, part of the self-mythologizing of the writer, a long and honorable tradition of turning yet another profane human activity into something that partakes of divinity, that flirts with infinity. It sprinkles star dust upon the entirely earthy.

Why do writers describe themselves thus? In part because self-mythologizing is narcissistic and writers are nothing if not afflicted by Narcissus‘ disease (What other race of creatures would imagine that anyone else would be interested in its thoughts, its views, its particular rendering of the commonly experienced?); in part because writers are afflicted by the converse too–they are deeply insecure about what they do, always struck by the absurdity of trying to make concrete the unfathomable, of trying to freeze into the written page, all that swirls about within and without. So writers like descriptions like these of their work, because they seem to capture its difficulty well; they dignify its long fallow periods, its flirtations with disaster and sublimity alike, they make bearable the moments–and they occur often–of self-doubt and loathing.

A description of writing as compulsion also helps in understanding the peculiar misery that overcomes those who are unable or unwilling to write but would consider themselves writers anyway; they are so because their lack of fidelity has exacted its punishment.  It makes bearable the discipline that must be imposed in order to write: subject yourself to this chafing constraint because the alternative is worse.

It is also worth acknowledging the flipside of this description of the writer’s state of being: the writer looks longingly at those who do not write; the writer wishes he were not overcome and helpless; the writer dreams of not writing, of putting down the pen (switching off the machine?). It suggests a vivid, animating fantasy of overcoming: to write to the point of exhaustion, to fully spend all that lies within, to purge and bring forth, and then finally, by that writing out, by that expulsion, to be finally freed, allowed to live life in other ways. So at last, the last page written, the fire dies out, the itching stops, and the writing can end. That could be the animating passion; the promise, the dream, of the end of writing.

Notes:

1. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, Anchor Books, New York, page 167

2. I have not been able to locate the original source for this line. Pointers would be appreciated.