Robert MacFarlane

Perfectly Unborrowed

listerm33pic1.jpg In the introduction to his detailed academic study, Robert Macfarlane invokes the name of the arch-critic George Steiner, who, in his Grammars of Creation, expounds the very fundamental differences between ‘creating’ and ‘inventing’ as applied to literary works. To create ‘intuitively suggests a making out of nothing.’ To invent ‘implies a coming upon what is already there, and its subsequent rearrangement.’ Adding that ‘Western grammars of literary creation have tended to migrate between these two poles of making’, Macfarlane confronts the question of ‘originality’, citing Renaissance theories of authorship, the poetics of imitation of the eighteenth-century, and in particular draws on one so-called ‘Romantic’ concept of literary creation, where, ‘what are called original thoughts…are underived, indeed original…the imagination creates its ideas…from nothing!’ This quality of what Macfarlane calls ‘pure origination’ is thus linked to a single, God-like, autonomous creator, whose creations are ‘perfectly unborrowed and [the maker's] own.’ Deriving from such a theory of literary creation, Macfarlane points out, are the twin issues of literary property (the ownership of words) and literary propriety (how to behave with regard to the words of others), as well as the highly problematic question of ‘unoriginality’ perceived to exist in such modes of writing as pastiche, parody, and literary works that are allusive in nature. ‘Literary resemblance’, he writes, is ‘held to be suggestive of unorginality, and unoriginality reveals in the writer both an intellectual servility and an imaginative infertility.’ This theory of ‘pure origination’, Macfarlane argues, poses its own problems, not least the philosophical question: how can something come of nothing?

At the other end of the spectrum, and inimical to the creatio or ex nihilo theory, is the ‘inventorial’ or ‘recombinative’ theory of inventio in which the notions of influences, borrowings and indebtedness figure strongly, and where the writer is ‘an assimilator and transformer, a rearranger of bits and pieces, and an administrator rather than a producer.’ This is also where Macfarlane’s discussion surrounding ‘plagiarism’ begins to emerge, but it must be noted that he uses this term more in relation to the aesthetic and creative sin than any ethical, quasi-legal infringement. Original Copy is not a study on literary theft.

What Macfarlane offers in Original Copy then is a reappraisal of literary creation and originality in the last four decades of Victorian Britain, when ‘received notions of originality came under increasingly sceptical scrutiny…and writers and thinkers began to speak out against the overvaluation of originality as difference, and against the excessive animus which existed towards literary resemblance.’ His book ‘commutes towards the conclusion that, over the course of the second half of the Victorian period, indebtedness, borrowedness, textual messiness and overlap became more to be perceived not as qualities furtively to be hidden or disguised, but as distinguished features of a literary work, to be emphasised, explored, and in various ways commemorated.’ Indeed, what Macfarlane proposes is that from the middle of the nineteenth century, ‘unoriginality’ ceases to be the pre-eminent literary sin and, that the ‘inventive reuse of the words of others’ begins to be understood as ‘an authentic form of creativity.’ (Interestingly, only a few generations later, ‘unoriginality’ was to be seen as one of the defining characteristics of modernist writing and even more dramatically of postmodern literature.). Yet Macfarlane does not argue that the inventorial or recombinative theories obliterated the ex nihilo. Rather he writes, ‘the two narratives of originality can best be thought of as becoming interestingly enmeshed during these decades, or existing in a kind of helical wrap: each requiring the other for its support, counter-definition, and continued existence.’ In his reappraisal of the literary culture of post-1860 Victorian Britain, Macfarlane concentrates on the work of six writers – Dickens, Eliot, Charles Reade, Pater, Wilde and Lionel Johnson, but does not claim that they had ‘a fully resolved relationship with the idea of originality as inventio but that each was ‘attracted by certain aspects of the narrative of creatio‘. Macfarlane’s discussion of Dickens is ingenious. Here he focuses on Our Mutual Friend which ‘condemns the meaningless worship of originality and strongly endorses both a poetics and politics of reclamation. It is filled with characters who profitably reuse refuse: taxidermists, mudlarks, dredgermen, philanthropists, dustmen, dollmakers. Nothing in Our Mutual Friend comes of nothing.’ As Dickens’ ‘greatest recycling initiative’, both in terms of the plot and its subject-matter, and in relation to the considerable borrowings from his own writings that Dickens made within this book, Our Mutual Friend is very much a novel for our own time.

Original Copy is neither a bed-time nor a bath-book. A decidedly theoretical study, in its own way it makes an original contribution to nineteen-century literary studies and to what is now called the ‘history of ideas’.

© Michael Lister

Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature by Robert Macfarlane. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199296507. £30