I was at a social gathering last month, talking with a friend. We were having a scintillating conversation about life when he suddenly remarked that he had this particular question that was piquing him: does original thought—original creativity—truly exist? Or are all of our ideas taken, consciously or subconsciously, from external sources?
It was a great conversation, which was why I immediately forgot all about it when I left. However, after watching Inception for the second time the other day, it came back to me in a flash.
"Your dad really does love you, which is why you should destroy the company he poured his life into."
To explore the concept of original thought, let's first look at how lack of creativity has affected you and me (and Christopher Paolini, who took the plot of Star Wars, put it slap-bang in the middle of New Zealand, and added telepathic dragons).
The implications of original thought come into play when considering literature and film. Joseph Campbell, a famous mythologist, delved into the template with which myths are made in his famous work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. To crudely paraphrase the concept, all literary and/or mythical heroes go through similar experiences (see: monomyth) in each of their individual tales. In other words, these authors create—be it unconsciously or not—a certain basic formula that the main character follow, and that formula, in its simplest form, is universal to stories with archetypal heroes—which are numerous. Star Wars is undoubtedly the most cited and applicable example. However, The Matrix also follows this pattern, as does The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
In those cases, certain elements of the story may be different, but the story at the core is the same. No variety there.
You say, "Justin! You're dashingly handsome and clever as ever, but isn't that wrong when you say 'Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are similar'? Just because Michael Gambon looks like Ian McKellen in their respective roles . . . "
Hold on; let me defend myself. To say that any of the above works is not unique would be a downright lie. The Lord of the Rings is holistically unique; in fact, it has come to define a genre. But what was J.R.R. Tolkein influenced by? Among other things, the Kalevala, Norse and Germanic mythology, and Beowulf (to a certain extent). And then other people drew ideas from him; elements from his work are clearly evident in the Shannara series, Eragon, and pretty much any high fantasy universe now in existence.
Likewise, Harry Potter is singular in its existence. But again, from what sources did J.K. Rowling find her inspiration? Well, from everywhere, apparently. Maybe she saw a very hairy potter and was inspired.
One of Johann Baptist Strauss' favorite pastimes was making pots. He also owned five villas in the south of France, sky-dived, and lived to be 183 years old.
Inspiration. It is this act that creates, when originality springs out of something banal and hackneyed. Even though we may take assorted themes, formulas, and devices from different places and people, the composition we create from them is our own. It is unique. And, maybe someday in the future, our descendants will look to that work as a source of inspiration—or as a way to ride another person's success.
So, does original thought exist? Maybe, even if it is a curious paradox. It is like a chain: looking at other's works, being inspired, and creating your own project, only for another to be inspired by that. A glorious chain of paradigms, knock-offs, and genuinely creative links.
Thanks for reading.
Renninson, Keith E. "Original Thought." Seeker Magazine, 1998. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.
Posted by Justin Smith at 9:41 AM