Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Public Imagination by Jonathan Lethem

All writing, no matter how avowedly naturalistic or pellucid, consists of artifice, of conjuration, of manipulation of symbols rather than the “opening of a window onto life.” Abstract paintings of a giant octopus are all we have to put on view in my city’s aquarium. We writers aren’t sculpting DNA, or even clay or mud, but words, sentences, paragraphs, syntax, voice; materials issued by tongues or fingertips but which upon release dissolve into the atmosphere, into cloud, confection, specter. Language, as a vehicle, is a lemon, a hot rod painted with thrilling flames but crazily erratic to drive, riddled with bugs like innate self-consciousness, embedded metaphors and symbols, helpless intertextuality, and so forth. Despite being regularly driven on prosaic errands (interoffice memos, supermarket receipts, etc.), it tends to veer on its misaligned chassis into the ditch of abstraction, of dream

None of this disqualifies my sense of passionate urgency at the task of making the giant octopus in my minds eye visible to yours. It doesn’t make the attempt any less fundamentally human, delicate, or crucial. It makes it more so. That’s because another name for the giant octopus I have in mind is negotiating selfhood in a world of other selves – the permanent trouble of being alive. Our language has no choice but to be self-conscious if it is to be conscious in the first place. . . .

[But let’s face it], any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The citations that go to make up a text are largely anonymous, untraceable, yet already read; they are quotations without inverted commas. The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the gardener with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself are stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it in our artworks?

Artists and writers – our advocates, our guilds and agents – too often subscribe to implicit claims of originality that do injury to these truths. And we too often, as hucksters and bean counters in the tiny enterprises of ourselves, act to spite the gift portion of our privileged roles. People live differently who treat a portion of their wealth as a gift. If we devalue and obscure the gift-economy function of our art practices, we turn our works into nothing more than advertisements for themselves. We may console ourselves that our lust for subsidiary rights in virtual perpetuity is some heroic counter to rapacious corporate interests. But the truth is that with artists pulling on one side and corporations pulling on the other, the loser is the collective public imagination from which we are nourished in the first place, and whose existence as the ultimate repository of our offerings makes the work worth doing in the first place.

The Ecstasy of Influence; A Plagiarism [Harpers’s, 2007]
The Ecstasy of Influence; Nonfictions, ETC. by Jonathan Lethem, Doubleday, N.Y. 2011

1 comment:

  1. All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

    No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

    XVII. MEDITATION. By John Donne