Thoughts on the Concept of Originality

I attended the PSU Bookstore Book Signing today for the book Searching for Fire. I am very grateful for all the hard work that was put into organizing the event. I had some great conversations today and one with a mechanical engineering student which left me pondering something philosophical. He asked, “How do you create a work that is original?”

I understand this perspective. As an avid Netflix fan, I am often going through trailer after trailer after trailer of shows that sometimes seem to have similar story lines or characters and ideas. It seems so repetitive, even tiring. Sometimes I wonder if originality in art is dying. All that has been done will be done again and it repeats over and over and over again. Sometimes I feel jaded and I think this seems meaningless or pointless. Sometimes I think maybe we should give up and not produce anymore art. It’s all been done or copyrighted. There’s nothing left to do or create or invent…..meaninglessness.

But then, I think of a world without art – without stories, without songs, without poems, without movies, without the very things that lift us up and entertain us and give us hope and make us think and feel deeply.

And I ask myself… does one become a true originator of art in this civilized world?

Originality of thinking – When one ponders these words, perhaps they consider an inventor such as Thomas Edison. 

Edison was born in the Midwest and did not attend much school.  There is a story on Facebook of a letter written to his mother when he was a child. 

Edison went on in life to invent many great things like the first industrial laboratory at Menlo Park, phenol chemical plants where he also produced other chemical products such as benzene, aniline dyes, xylene, shellac, pyrax, and salicylic acid used in making aspirin.  Using the Edison Ore Mining Company, he discovered ways to make cement.  Edison held the patent also for the first moving picture camera called a kinetoscope.  Edison owned a film studio that made over 1,000 short films.  Edison invented the stock ticker broadcast system and the two-way telegraph.  Many of his inventions were fundamental to the development of infrared and x ray technology as well.  His most famous inventions were probably the phonograph and his work in the field of electric light. 

Edison had many interesting notions on life including the idea that Nature is the Supreme Intelligence rather than a theological God. Edison also viewed this Nature as neither merciful, loving, nor kind but rather malevolent. Edison was a vegetarian as well due to his beliefs about “do the least harm to others.” Edison also believed that the United States needed monetary reform and he argued against the Gold Standard, debt-based money, and the Federal Reserve System.

Where did Edison get all these ideas? He is considered an original thinker, a pioneer of new ideas. I think the answer lies in this equation:

Education + Imagination = Originality

Edison was largely self-educated and spent all his time on jobs and at home reading science books, any books he could get his hands on. In fact, he got fired from a few jobs due to his over-focus on science and conducting experiments while at work.

The point is Edison is considered an original thinker but what he was doing, is what is mentioned in these quotes here:

All society, all thought, all idea…….everything civilized, every civilization is built on past constructions. There is no originality, in and of itself, without first knowledge of what has come before. And this continued progression of construction mixed with our own imagination based on our own life experience and knowledge is crucial in opposition to wild Nature which seeks to decompose the constructions of mankind.

Have you ever lived in the wilderness? In the country? I have worked on a farmhouse for two years and at first romanticized communing with nature as if I was on Walden Pond with Henry David Thoreau. I thought of nature as amazing and beautiful and benevolent. But I quickly realized the same conclusion Edison did that nature can be terrifying. Nature is constantly breaking down things we build and encroaching on our tamed and controlled lands. Animals that live in nature are survival of the fittest and nature’s realities of life and death are harsh and cruel lessons. While I do enjoy nature, I understand that life in the wilderness is a harder reality than I want for myself or my children. I prefer the companionship and security of human community.

The author of Ecclesiastes speaks of the opposition between man and nature when he says,

The quote speaks of wind. Wind is nature’s master of erosion, of decomposition. Wind is featured in the poem Ozymandias:

So, in conclusion, I think art is very important to this world. Art is a creation and with its presence more art grows and expands out into the world. Just like friendship, love, compassion…..these are man-made creations and as we work towards them, they expand infinitely in the face of Nature’s cruel decomposition. These types of human connection are essential to life and the advancement of civilization…..of peace, prosperity, and security for more and more humans.

So writers, painters, poets, sculptors…….roll up your sleeves and get to work. Don’t ponder whether your work is original enough. Ponder how you can create or build more human connection.