Originality in science and the arts, a 2010 RLS lecture

3 Aug

I’ve only recently discovered the amazing back catalogue of literary lectures on the RSL website and the first that I have listened to is a talk from 2010, in which Ian McEwan discusses the idea of originality in the sciences and the arts.

I found it hugely thought-provoking; I had never really thought about the fact that originality which we have come to view as a prerequisite or in some cases, even synonymous with quality was not always the case.  Indeed, it is a relatively recent (as in 350 years or so) phenomenon.  Today, we praise a novel that we consider ‘new’ or ‘ambitious’, in some way different and original to the those before it.  But is everything ever really ‘original’?  Or is everything simply a result of past influences and existing structures, whether one is constrained by them or actively rebelling against them?  Here it is worth remembering Newton’s quote: If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

McEwan was well-placed to talk about originality in science as many of his novels have taken science as a subject (Enduring Love was about a science writer; Saturday was about a brain surgeon and global warming was a central theme in his novel, Solar).  He introduced the topic of originality in science by detailing the relationship between Darwin and Wallace, both founders of the theory of natural selection, however it is clear Darwin is the most famous for this.  He has become synonymous with the theory and has gone down in history as a result – but should originality matter in science?  It seems like it shouldn’t as scientific discoveries are essentially finding out truths, more about the world in which we inhabit.  Would it have mattered if someone other than Newton had discovered the laws of gravity?  Objectively, it shouldn’t but there is a need in science, as in the arts, to mark things as one’s own.  Darwin is the name that goes down in history, the first one who is viewed as the thinker of original thought, not poor overlooked Wallace.

Scientific discoveries are all about progress and some would argue that in the arts, this is not the case.  However, McEwan argues that this is the case and each piece of art needs in some way to reveal something new, introduce new standards, ways of thinking.  Just imagine if the novel, a form made popular in the early nineteenth century, was available to Shakespeare – how different would his work be then?

Originality as a concept probably became more prevalent after the Romantic period which focused on the free expression of the artist.  A symptom, therefore, was probably the novel which often documented the feelings and expressions of a protagonist and focused on the individual.  Today, a cult of personality clearly exists with artists; many are revered for their talent and sometimes this interest in the individual overtakes interest in their art.  Past examples of this include artists like Picasso and Byron, whose private lives and characters have fascinated many.

However, in the past, this was not necessarily the case.  Shakespeare, for example, was admired but was not treated any differently for his genius and therefore we actually know very little about his life because no one felt the need to document it.  Bach, the eminent composer, was also treated normally whereas Chopin was a figure of awe and reverence.

It seems then that this quest for originality was not always so, and in some cases it seems rather redundant.  Striving for something that is unique in a world where we are inherently influenced and constrained in some cases by institutional values.  It seems plausible that it could be indicative of the more egotistic society in which we live where we view ourselves as people that can make a difference, despite our relative insignificance in the world.  I found this lecture fascinating and it made me question why I want to write- is it to be able to possess a work of art?  To prove myself as unique and special when I know I’m really not?  Perhaps I’m even influenced by a narcissistic desire to be revered and adored?  Very, very interesting and insightful stuff and still available to listen to on the RSL website.

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