Full disclosure: my remarks on this subject have quite possibly been made by me before, in other contexts. When the eminent Italian critic and novelist Umberto Eco visited Johns Hopkins some decades ago, he spoke of the problem, for contemporary writers, of the “already said”: the circumstance that because Homer, for example, spoke so memorably in The Odyssey of the “wine-dark sea” and of “rosy-fingered Dawn,” nearly 3,000 years’ worth of poets and storytellers have had to find other images for sea and sunrise—a task that must become increasingly difficult as the repertory of possibilities is exhausted.
Indeed, Homer may have had an easier time than we comparative latecomers to literature have, but we need to remember that literature didn’t begin with Homer—not even written literature, not to mention the millennia-old oral tradition that preceded writing. Once upon a time, perusing a book about the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, I noted that some twelve centuries before Homer, in about 2000 B.C.E., the scribe Khakheperresenb was already voicing what I like to call Khakheperresenb’s Complaint: “Would I had phrases that are not known,” the scribe laments, “in new language that has not been used not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken.” I used to comfort my students (and myself) with the reflection that for all we know, two or three millennia of sea and sunrise metaphors might be like the first few million stars in our galaxy—a mere drop in the bucket!—while at the same time acknowledging that Khakheperresenb’s feeling of having arrived late to the party is not to be dismissed. That feeling prompted my 1967 essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion” (more accurately, the literature of “felt exhausted possibility”): a feeling that, whether or not it turns out to be mistaken, may nevertheless be a considerable cultural datum—and perhaps even the subject of new work. We often attribute to the Romantics that impulse to “make it new,” in Ezra Pound’s famous formulation—a culture’s felt need to follow Impressionism with Post-Impressionism, Modernism with Post-Modernism—but that impulse much antedates them. In The Aeneid, for example, Virgil famously reorchestrates Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in order to demonstrate the Romans’ worthiness to succeed the Greeks; then Dante, thirteen centuries later, resurrects Virgil to guide him through the first two-thirds of The Divine Comedy, his odyssey through the hereafter (and by so doing, to validate its author as Virgil’s worthy successor). Dark Ages are followed by Medieval, Medieval by Renaissance, Renaissance by Reformation, Baroque, Enlightenment, etc.: the costumes change, but the show goes on.
And originality—“making it new”—has many forms. The mainspring of Somadeva’s epical eleventh-century Sanskrit tale-cycle, Kátha sarit ságara, or “Ocean of the Streams of Story” (longer than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined), is the goddess Parvati’s request that her consort Siva, as her reward for a particularly divine session of love-making, tell her a story that no one has ever heard before or will ever hear again. In fact, however, the multi-volume “Great Tale” that her lord comes up with includes whole cycles of earlier tales, such as the centuries-old Panchatantra (“Five Principles”) and the Vetalapanchavimsati (“Twenty-five Tales of a Vampire”). And Siva’s tale is overheard by one of the house-servants, who repeats it to his wife, who repeats it to Parvati, who is so incensed by the violation of her for-my-ears-only contract that many consequences follow—including, fortunately, the Great Tale’s transcription and its passage down the ages to us.
If I could time-travel back to the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, I would console Khakheperresenb with the familiar paraphrase of Walt Whitman: “Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself.” Or André Gide’s comforting remark, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” Originality, after all, includes not only saying something for the first time, but re-saying (in a worthy new way) the already said: rearranging an old tune in a different key, to a different rhythm, perhaps on a different instrument. Has that been said before? No matter: on with the story!