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The process of composing a letter involves several decisions. First, regarding the paper material: Will it be lined notebook paper or a store-bought card? Then there’s the matter of the writing medium: pen, pencil, or crayon? The form of the letter can also go in several directions. Will it be a love letter, structured as a sonnet? Perhaps an argumentative five-paragraph-style essay? Though our options are many, their mere existence creates constraints. We work within a domain of prior invention. Even the most bizarre painting will join the club of all other preexisting paintings, perhaps filed away in a specific group set aside for the avant-garde. The tradition of creation is as old as we are.
Despite our modern insistence on giving credit where credit is due, history doesn’t remember the accurate “first” of much anything. Scores of scientific inventions are attributed to either the wrong individual or only one contributor of many. For instance, not many people remember Elisha Gray, who filed his claim to the telephone patent just a few hours after Alexander Graham Bell on Valentine’s Day, 1876. The first humans to fly—Marquis d’Arlandes and Pilatre de Rozier in a hot-air balloon in 1783—have been cast in shadow by the wings of the Wright brothers; and the first woman to run for President of the United States—Victoria Woodhull in 1872—has been mostly dropped from recollection’s ballot. It’s even more difficult to assign innovative credit in our history of aesthetic expression, which stretches past recorded history. Ownership is a preoccupation of today—the first recorded use of the word “originality” didn’t even occur until 1742—but history engaged with collective oral tradition and the concept of passing down from generation to generation. The oldest known song, derived from musical notation found on ancient Syrian tablets, is believed to be around 3400 years old. A woman by the name of Sappho was penning Greek lyric poetry back in the 5th century BC. And just a decade ago, paintings around 40,000 years old were found in a cave in France.
Even plagiarism itself is not an original action. Credit for the quip “Good poets copy, great artists steal,” which is frequently attributed to T.S. Eliot, has also been given to a dozen other people, from composer Igor Stravinsky (“A good composer does not imitate; he steals”) to satirist Oscar Wilde (“Talent borrows, genius steals”). People can either contribute to the existing canon of “originals,” or they can contribute to the tradition of stolen ideas, but there is no way to avoid contributing to one or the other. In form, even the new is not new.
Do not despair for the lack of the originality. Our available media of expression are not fixed. While it is impossible to recall a time before poetry and pottery, innovations proliferate. A beautiful example is the CD, invented in the 1970s. The very first sound featured on the commercial CD was a 1979 recording of Claudio Arrau performing Chopin Waltzes. Arrau himself was invited to the German plant to press the start button of the first CD. And just like that, Chopin had become reproducible at the press of a button. With every spin of the disc, we can hear hundreds of years of artistry: The team at Philips and Sony, inventor of the CD; Claudio Arrau, inventor of the interpretation. Frédéric Chopin, inventor of the notes; Bartolomeo Cristofori, inventor of the piano; spiraling backwards, on and on.
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