Representation & Imagination: Does Originality Exist?

A PechaKucha Summary by Melanie Radford

Possession is a text that deals heavily with representation and imagination. A series of scholars are studying the imaginative minds of a couple of dead Victorian poets – through the textual evidence that remains from their lives. The assumption is that the texts’ they produced are a representation of the minds of R.H. Ash and Christabel LaMotte. By tracing their lives so closely, the various scholars seem to feel that they might actually be able to trace the thoughts that led to the poets’ great works.

In the book there is a feeling of reverence surrounding these “great minds”, which should not be unfamiliar to us in our own lives. Many great artists are revered for creating masterworks and treated as superior with a sort of hero-worship. This may not go as far as one wanting to sit in the places they sat and hang about their grave the way that a few characters in the books do, but whatever form it takes I wonder if it is really appropriate. With a masterwork of any sort of human production ““ has the creator  really done anything truly unique and groundbreaking, or have they only continued to build on the ideas of all those that have come before?

“There were times when Blackadder allowed himself to see that he would end his…conscious thinking life, in this task, that all his thoughts would have been another man’s thoughts, all his work another man’s work.” (Possession 29)

In Possession we follow a series of characters who have made it their life’s work to study the lives and works of others. They have immersed themselves so deeply in trying to decipher another’s thought patterns, that they lose track of some of their own.

On page 29 of Possession, Blackadder sees a naturalist dissecting owl pellets, thinks of an analogy to his own work, and decides to write a poem about it, all before realizing that R.H. Ash already has. “Then Blackadder could not think whether he had noticed…because his mind was primed with Ash’s image, or whether it had worked independently.” (Possession 29)

Whether or not we notice such an obvious overlap with the thoughts of another in our daily lives, how often does it really occur? In our society there is frequently an apparent recycling of ideas in books, movies, art, architecture, fashion, and other media. The other day we discussed phosphenes and how those universal images were translated into art without artists knowing about them.

Is it possible that everything we think is actually derivative and uninspired? How do we separate our own essential consciousness from all our memories and experiences with the ideas of others?

Can you say anything that truly represents only your ideas and no one else’s? Even if we try to relate original feelings, we are constrained by an unoriginal language ““ a series of words and codes that we did not create and already possess certain meanings from all the ways they have been used before.

Perhaps, like Blackadder, what we think comes from ourselves is actually a subconscious reprocessing of something we have already encountered ““ does this mean that all of humanity merely continues to represent the same ideas in new ways?

Mark Twain certainly seems to think so, and I leave you with his words:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

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