Recycled Words: An Eco-Friendly Alternative to Original Literature

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By Justin Willson

This is a companion piece to the author’s article, “A Meadow that Lifts the Soul: Originality as Anthologizing in the Byzantine Church Interior,” published in the January 2020 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (vol. 81.1).

Literary critics have a knack for wielding double standards — and nowhere more so than in the judgment of originality. In the Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Northrop Frye asserts that “any serious study of literature soon shows that the real difference between the original and the imitative poet is simply that the former is more profoundly imitative” (97). Far from implying an absence of imitation, originality, Frye believes, emerges from its necessity: “The remark of Mr. Eliot that a good poet is more likely to steal than to imitate affords a more balanced view of convention.” Stealing — recycling the style, voice and moves of poets one admires and envies — is the trademark of the good poet. If he can get away with it, and actually create something new in the process, he (and it is often ‘he’ for these critics) may qualify as  what Harold Bloom calls the “strong” poet. For Bloom, who died just this past October (2019), the poet is always wresting his creative power from the titans of the literary canon. Or to put the point in Frye’s more subdued, textually-oriented language: “Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels” (97).

None of this will surprise readers of modernist literature. James Joyce and Ezra Pound, to take but two of the most obvious examples, filled their writings with echoes, citations and parodies, to an extent that blurs the line between imitative use (or reuse) and novelty. This, in the eyes of many critics, was exactly the point. But whereas history has looked with (mostly) favorable eyes on this borrowing and rearranging — the fecund hallmark of the 20th century avant-garde (think, for instance, of Marcel Duchamp’s “found” objects, among them the urinal he ironically christened “Fountain”) — the same cannot be said of medieval art. That is to say, curiously, in the case of medieval art and literature, critics have often hastily dismissed the artistic impulse to revisit and reuse. Works of art that imitate famous models are looked upon as rote recycling, and literary texts that borrow from earlier authors are scorned as mindless copycat.

To be sure, the stakes of copying were vastly higher in a deeply Christian age than they were in post-WWI Europe and America: in medieval Europe, tradition, by and large, was upheld on the evidence of divine revelation, and the artist or intellectual who ventured too far from what the Church taught could be condemned as a heretic. Self-expression, individuality, and originality were not necessarily viewed as the goal of art and life, as they often are today. But they also weren’t entirely foreign to the medieval intellectual. Indeed, a certain kind of originality thrived, and in my contribution to JHI I look at how medieval writers used the metaphor of the anthology as an emblem of their distinctive conception of what it meant to be original.

The word “anthology” comes from two Greek roots: anthos and legein which, together, mean “to gather flowers,” and an anthologia is a bouquet or a garland. The flowers in this metaphor are images or passages from literary works. In typical usage, the English word anthology connotes a book that is just a compilation, which no one would mistake for a work that is a unique literary text. But medieval literature points to the deeper sense of originality that Frye articulates. The anthology — the very embodiment of the derivative — is an emblem of a deeply learned, historically situated originality. Literary culture is borrowed from the past. Every poem is made, more or less, out of earlier poems. Every poet is inevitably indebted to an earlier poet — a dependency that Bloom famously characterized as the “anxiety of influence” which a strong poet tries to overcome. In the original work of art, Frye would say, one expects to find citations and echoes of earlier artworks. Past literature colors new literature through and through. This renders anthologizing a positively creative cultural practice, giving the term a new valence.

Seen this way, the literary and visual canons of art are an ever-evolving anthology, and medieval cultural productions are no exception to this general rule. Medieval writers and visual artists were adept at copying, which is to say they were highly original and inventive. Medieval authors and artists preyed on their predecessors, a pillaging that constituted the lifeline of their tradition. Models, motifs, and turns of phrase borrowed from the past reflected not stagnancy but movement and display. Creativity provided audiences with an opportunity to reappraise the tradition,  presupposing an ability to discern a nuanced recasting of the familiar. Medieval literature and visual art, in other words, could be read as one great ode in praise of copying, to quote a recent title. Cutting and pasting — which the medieval author cherished as much as the modernist — is the signature of a self-reflective art rather than a mark of deficiency.

In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophers abandoned this very medieval (and indeed very classical) way of looking at and appreciating the citational richness of works of literature and visual art. The influential French philosopher Montesquieu castigates les compilateurs,who, in his view, are no better than printers arranging letter blocks on a blank page, or erratic librarians creating new patterns by reshuffling books on a shelf. Like the librarian or the printer, the anthologist, in Montesquieu’s elitist conception, works only with her hands rather than with her mind. But for much of the medieval period the mind that invents and the hand that executes were far less easily divorced than Montesquieu’s dualism implies. Seen in hindsight, it is not the view of Enlightenment philosophers like Montesquieu but that of medieval authors that bears an affinity with our post-modern stance towards the artist. The Byzantine authors I survey: Procopius (6th century), John of Damascus (8th century), and Leo the Wise (9th century) metaphorically describe the artist as an anthologist who taps into the creative potential of a cultural totality that transcends individuality.

The view of the artist as a conduit or channel of a will that collectively exceeds individual agency and subjectivity is held by many artists today. For instance, in The Annotated Reader (2018), Ryan Gander asked a variety of persons (not just artists) to annotate a short passage from any text that had impacted them. Binding their submissions together, Gander made an anthology, a handbook penned by many hands. Leaves that bore the mark of a bygone act of consumption, the Reader could make no claim to be untouched or new to the market. Rather, its value lay precisely in being a rebinding of twice and thrice-told words, a situation that bears relevance for the thick understanding of tradition and reuse that presided over much of art-making in medieval times.

The impulse to anthologize — an ecologically friendly kind of creativity, if you will — is a legacy of the Middle Ages that lives on in postmodernity. If it doesn’t map on to the crystalline seventeenth-century Enlightenment ideals of total originality, anthologizing has an uncanny resonance with the messier, empirically derived insights of nineteenth-century Darwin:  survival of the fittest, most imitable text is the least common denominator of a viable canon. Traces always remain of  what has come before, and, just as in nature, nothing comes from nothing. This medieval view of originality may be able to help us think through the problems that face us today, above all our obsession with art—and other commodities, cultural and industrial—that seems to have been conceived ex nihilo. The myth of total originality is a symptom of a broader obsession with the property, and unrecycled novelty, that has had serious environmental repercussions. Historicizing originality robs the commodity of its deceptive claim to have come from nowhere.

Justin Willson is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art & Archaeology at Princeton University where he works on Byzantine and Slavic art and aesthetics. His publications have appeared in Res: Anthropology & Aesthetics and Studies in Iconography.

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