In the New York Times today there is an interesting article about Helene Hegemann whose debut novel, “Axolotl Roadkill,” drew wide praise. You know this story: turns out that the book contains plagiarized passages (plagiarism: check, sales rising: check.) What I find fascinating about the story, however, is not this rehash of a tried and true marketing tactic, but Ms. Hegemann’s defense of herself, summarized in this quote:
“There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.
Why do I love this quote? Well first of all I love her use of the word “authenticity,” by which she certainly means a definition of the word “authentic” along the lines of: “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” In this view of the word, if what you do rings true with others, well then you are legit. But, amusingly, authentic also means “not false or imitation”—a definition the victims of her plagiarism might find a bit off. Even more amusingly the word “authentic” has an etymology from the Greek “authentēs” meaning perpetrator or master. Ah, the forms of language, how I love thee!
But beyond her garbled defense, I also find the quote fascinating because of Ms. Hegemann use of the Ecclesiastes defense:
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun – Ecclesiastes 1:9-14
(Google this passage leads you to such fascinating acts of logic flagellation as “If there is nothing new under the sun, how is it possible for people to keep finding new interpretations of Scripture?”.) I’ve always found this passage, and this view of the world, to be a uniquely human bastardization of what we see going on around us in the universe. Now certainly what Ms. Hegemann means in this sentence is that all literature is—must be—derived from past works: that all the good ideas have already been written about. She might even believe that her version is better (cue Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote)!
But to me what this view of literature shows is a vast narrowness in thinking about originality in the world. It makes me wonder, for example if Ms. Hegemann has ever picked up a copy of the glossy journal “Science”? For example, in the copy of this rag sitting beside me in this coffee shop I find the article Faintest Thrum Heralds Quantum Machines. This New Focus article describes recent work on cooling quantum systems spatial degrees of freedom to their ground state (which apparently the group at UCSB has achieved…no paper yet!) Now I’m not going to argue that today we are faced with a glut of repetitious rehashing of the multitudes of ideas, acts, and creations of the past. But we are also surrounded by a glorious amount of new creation: today scientists have created a large mechanical device which is so cold that it has a single quanta of energy. Baring knowledge of a vast alien civilization among whom this achievement was a past record, this seems to me a singular original act.
Everywhere I look, I see original acts: homomorphic encryption, a field effect transistor in graphene, and the imprint of the Lie Group E8 on an experiment describing a perturbation of the transverse Ising model. Nothing original Ms. Hegemann? I beg to differ.
But Ms. Hegemann probably shouldn’t feel that bad. I mean, she’s got great company in her mistaken view of originality. Quote “Sonnet 59”:
If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child.
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whe’er better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.
Yes, dear Shakespeare, you plagiarized, borrowed, rehashed, and “mixed” Greek tragedies. But you were dead wrong about your not being an original. And today those who can’t see the original in the world, well, perhaps they just need to change their job over from novelist over to today’s more creative work force: scientist.