Imitation and Creation Wednesday Workshop
Martes y trece, mal día / Tuesday the 13th, bad day.
In our age of instant and spontaneous creativity, imitation is almost always bad. And yet, as John pointed out to me on Tuesday evening at our weekly meeting, imitation is the best form of flattery. We flatter other writers when we borrow from them and imitate their styles. I don’t mean wholesale plundering and plagiarism, but a nod here and there surely does no harm.
We also discussed the idea of imitatio / imitation, in ancient and medieval (and later) rhetorical texts.
Imitatio: the ideal of the good man, of the blessed spot, of the Golden Age — in rhetoric not all imitation is bad. Moreover, imitation can be doubly good when the “remake” is more original than, and betters, the original production.
From imitation we moved to orality: how much do we see and hear and overhear and then repeat? And, by extension, how accurately do we repeat what we hear?
If we go back to Roman times, the marching songs of the Imperium spread throughout the Roman Empire (Holy or not), and catchy songs, tunes, and words they were with thousands marching to them and singing them in taverns and on the road.
Think the Re-conquest of Spain (la Reconquista) and the romances noticieros, the news ballads, songs that circulated orally and were transmitted throughout the Iberian Peninsula. It is hard to imagine a society with little writing, no newspapers, no radio, no television, and everything transmitted by foot, horseback, and word of mouth. Yet that describes the situation in Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries. News was sung, and imitated, and circulated by song and word of mouth.
Ramón Menéndez Pidal coined the phrase el poeta pueblo / the poet as people, a concept that suggested an anonymous series of authors and contributors, many nameless, speaking and revising, remembering and re-polishing, verses and songs. This leads to a true oral authenticity of authorship where everyone joins in to create and re-create and we end up with a literary process of natural selection (oh yes, we discussed Darwin, and Wilberforce, and Huxley, and Mendel, and Marx, and many other things and people as well, we don’t do things by halves on Tuesday nights).
Think now of the literate, those who had letters and could write and read, and the illiterate, those who could neither read nor print their names. For us, the illiterate come down to us as crosses or ticks or thumbprints in history or as a stonemason’s mark on a cathedral, perhaps. But nevertheless, the illiterate heard, they memorized, they repeated, and they spoke. And no, in spite of all our assumptions, they were NOT stupid.
Think Napoleonic Wars and the songs that were sung on board ship in the various navies and don’t forget the marching armies. Many of these songs, words changed, are still with us. The words change, the tunes change, the rhythms change, but so many, oh so many, are recognizable when we go to their roots and examine them.
Orality and Literacy
Now think of a society in which some people can read and some can’t. Cervantes presents us with a world in which the literate and the illiterate mingle in a changing society. He shows us how they interact in his novel Don Quixote. The closest we can come today is to a world in which some are computer literate and some aren’t; some can text and some can’t; some are totally at home in social media, and some aren’t. Often this is a case of education and money. It can also be a question of privilege. But wealth and circumstance enter into the equation as well.
Now think of how this world of ours is expanding exponentially with its many forms of instant media and also how it is contracting exponentially as it becomes, in the words of the Spanish, a pocket handkerchief / el mundo es un pañuelo.
Into this mixture we must now throw originality: how creative are we? How original are we? What does it mean to be original, to be creative? I was always horrified when I heard students and professors repeating the “best” adverts they had heard on television the night before. Alas, I can still sing many of the early ads I heard on black and white television in the fifties. How much room is there in the human brain? How original is the mind that regurgitates the tv ads of so long ago and how, just how, do we incorporate them into our own version of creativity? Is creativity then warped tradition and reconditioned memory? Then think jokes, re-cycled jokes, with an ever -changing victim subjected to a never changing punchline: I don’t want to go there.
Let us think Atlantic Canada: how do we deal with Milton Acorn’s Jackpine Sonnets? Are they failed sonnets with fewer lines and falsified rhymes and rhythms? Or are they true poetic creations that reflect the True North Strong and Free that is the Jack Pine growing frivolous and free in Atlantic Canada? I will never forget my first encounter with Milton Acorn. He borrowed my photocopier code and photocopied himself, literally, on the department photocopier, limb by limb. Now is that original or not? I still remember him carrying his photocopied features across campus …
Imitation and Creation, from my computer, our Wednesday Workshop, a day late … so Euro-Centric, for that is my background, and I do apologize. For I am well aware of the influence of the tales that spread from China and India and the Arabian Peninsula into Greece and then Rome and then places further west. A small world ours, a veritable handkerchief, a literary handkerchief with repercussions across time and space, repercussions that have breadth and depth and that may come to us in so many different ways.
Imitation? Originality? Creativity? Talk to us about them, next Tuesday, at our regular weekly meeting.