Emerson notes in “Quotation and Originality” that pure originality can’t exist anymore. We can’t help but quote because our whole lives are informed by the past. Our, customs, laws and even chairs are influenced by previous customs, laws and chairs. Originality does have value; we just aren’t in a position to be original.
Naturally, this extends into stories and writing. Every talker helps a story by repeating it. Some stories, like fables, are repeated so often in different languages that they’re viewed as being original to each.
“There are many fables which, as they are found in every language, and betray no sign of being borrowed, are said to be agreeable to the human mind.”
A good story can cross all frontiers. It’s our analysis and understanding of such stories, books and words that truly defines us. Interpretation is modern novelty.
Originality, Emerson argues, is being oneself and accurately reporting what we see and are. As he notes in “Experience,” we must be aware at all times, ready to absorb what the world has to offer.
He touches upon this again in “Quotation and Originality,” arguing that genius is the capacity of receiving impressions from the external world and coordinating them into thought.
“If to this the sentiment of piety be added, if the thinker feels that the thought most strictly his own is not his own, and recognizes the perpetual suggestion of the Supreme Intellect, the oldest thoughts become new and fertile whilst he speaks them.”
While this seems contradictory to what he states in “Self-Reliance,” the two essays marry together if one gives them enough thought. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson notes that we have to trust ourselves because most people’s “every truth is not quite true.”
That’s why we must build upon what others think. Originality is not a requirement, but shaping work is to fit our beliefs is. We have to trust in ourselves to be correct and take the past where we want it to go. We have to adapt the writing of the ancients into essays that are applicable for modern times. Emerson does this often, quoting Greek and Latin passages that are still applicable to his arguments.
Didion falls into this same pattern, noting that her journals don’t necessarily reflect truth or facts. Sometimes, she tells “lies.” But her keeping a notebook isn’t about the reality of a situation—it’s about how things feel to her. The world is supposed to be about others, but the common denominator of all we see is “I.” She merely adapts what the world hands her to suit her own story.
And while Orwell would presumably find fault with Emerson’s frequent use of Latin and Greek, I doubt he would argue his original principal. Orwell’s issue seems to be not with the fact that we repeat one another, but that we repeat one another’s faults. Just as the bad usage of language can spread, though, I think that he would agree good language can spread, too. And if we were to simplify our words, we could spread thought.
“One can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase […] into the dustbin, where it belongs.”
We have the power, he notes, to change the course of the English language. As long as we can get others to imitate us.