“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (C.S. Lewis)
It is important to note that this comment is not a part of a sustained theory of originality. Rather, it is a single line, used as an analogy, in a theological work titled Mere Christianity. In examining the problems and paradoxes of ‘originality,’ Lewis’s quotation is immediately suspect, because a single sentence cannot be expected to encompass all the issues surrounding the concept of originality. Lewis was, of course, a literary critic, and the quotation may express a carefully thought out theory about literature, however it may equally be merely an analogy decided upon because it fit with Lewis’s theological argument. In either case, we must out of necessity attach to Lewis’s comment a theory—such as that proposed in this essay—with which it is broadly compatible, while acknowledging that it is unlikely that this is what Lewis had in mind as his own theory of originality, if indeed he had one at all. This essay will first consider the relationship between the canon and a larger literary tradition; I will then examine the extent to which canonical works are such because they express truth, and how familiarity with the canon provides an opportunity to write originally about the truth oneself. The essay will conclude with a consideration of issues not adequately addressed by Lewis’ conception of Originality.
In ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, T.S. Eliot argues for the influence of tradition in producing new literature.  Eliot claims that this ‘tradition’ is not confined to the ‘Great’ writers, or to any particular conception of the canon: “the poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations.” However, restricting the most important influences on the new writer to the canon does not seem far-fetched. Eliot states that to “take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus…is inadmissible,” indicating that we cannot consider all literature as a part of ‘tradition.’ Furthermore, when Eliot invokes “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer,” he calls upon the start of the great Western tradition in literature, the canon. Eliot speaks of “the whole of the literature of Europe,” then, much as Hegel speaks of the importance of knowing ‘all of history.’ Only the key pieces, the pieces that mark an upward trend of getting closer to the truth, count as literature for Eliot, and as history for Hegel. Rather than really rejecting the notion of the canon in favour of all past works being considered an equally influential part of the tradition, Eliot seems merely to be quibbling about which texts should be found in the canon. “The main current” may not consist solely of “the most distinguished reputations,” but the “main current” does nonetheless exist and is the most significant part of Eliot’s ‘tradition.’ This restriction to the canon may be seen as a response to Eliot’s fantasy of the poet who has read everything; which parts of “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer” does Eliot’s hypothetical writer actually have behind them? What have they read, and what have the authors of those texts read? It is these works that form the influential tradition behind the author in question, and the most influential works in such a group will most likely be works that are considered canonical, as they will have been read by the most people and thus have the widest sphere of influence.
There are, of course, a number of possible criteria that can be used when defining a canon. Works may be selected because they are aesthetically superior, or because they are considered ‘representative’ by whichever group is dominant in the selection process. Some works may be considered ‘great’ for various and contradictory reasons. An important factor that determines which texts have a place in the canon, however, is whether or not they express truth. It is noteworthy that the first use of the word ‘canon’ in the sense meant by literary critics is in regard to the Bible, as it became essential to decide which texts provided the truths of Christianity. Like the selection of biblical truths, the inclusion and exclusion of particular authors from the canon makes a statement about which truths matter. Truth, then, has been an important criterion for inclusion since the canon since the beginning of the concept of the canon.
It is significant, that tradition and the canon have often been paramount in considerations of originality. Eliot contends “not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.” In Eliot’s view, the pervasive influence of others is not only compatible with originality, it is what causes a text to seem original. This ties back to the concept of the fantasy of idealised communication: we hope in reading a text to look directly into the mind of the author, but also into the minds of all the authors that came before them. We also like to think of each voice in the ongoing conversation to which all texts contribute as originating singularly in the mind of a particular author. However, the very existence of this conversation prompts our own contributions, and so the conversation is inevitably made up of various conflations and interpretations (or, according to Harold Bloom, misinterpretations) of various contributions to it, and so to be influenced is inescapable. In some cases, particularly canonical authors are attributed with being detached from past influences, or at least more than most. For instance, Bloom names Shakespeare as being an author from “the giant age before the blood, before the anxiety of influence became central to poetic consciousness.” In response to this claim, Thomas McFarland calls upon Greene’s attack on Shakespeare as an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.” Nietzsche also has doubts about the advisability of taking on a large amount of influence: “The scholar who actually does little else than wallow in a sea of books…finally loses completely the ability to think for himself.” Lewis’s comment asks the writer to write the truth, which one might expect to require thinking for oneself. It is, of course, possible to question if taking on ‘too much’ influence from others might dampen our ability to decide what we think the truth is.
It is therefore clear that tradition, in the form of the canon, is an important part of creating truthful, and so by Lewis’s criteria original, texts. Lewis’s comment, however, is less concerned with the canon, which has been our main focus thus far. We therefore turn next to a more subjective form of truth. In Eliot’s view, personality and personal context are not relevant in the production of good literature. Instead, the artist’s mind acts as a catalyst for tradition: “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.” McFarland challenges Eliot thus: “as personality is the experienced entity in which such abstractions as individuality inhere, Eliot is here purchasing his insistence on tradition by sacrificing the paradox [of originality and influence by tradition] whose recognition he sought to renew.” Eliot appears to eradicate the role of personal truth in his eagerness to affirm the importance of the canon. Lewis’s comment leaves room for a dialectical synthesis of personal truth, and the multifarious truths found in the canon.
There is one problem of originality, however, that Lewis’s comment cannot adequately solve. In 2000 BCE, the Egyptian scribe Khakheperresenb left an epigram that reads:
Would I have phrases that are not known, utterances that are strange, in the new language that has not been used, free from repetition, not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken.
Lewis’s comment does not address the concerns of writers who, like Khakheperresenb, fear that there is nothing new left to say and no new way to say it. Bloom sees this tension as paramount: “the covert subject of most poetry for the last three centuries has been the anxiety of influence, each poet’s fear that no proper work remains for him to be done.” Lewis’s comment may seem to address this directly by acknowledging the author’s concern that what they have to say has already been said before; however, given the important input that the influence of the canon has into truth, aiming to “tell the truth…without caring twopence how often it has been told before” is clearly likely to produce unoriginal work much of the time. This is a problem of originality for which Lewis’s comment is inadequate.
Lewis’s comment on originality fits well into a framework that considers not only the possibility, but also the desirability of creating original work informed by the writer’s experience of the canon. A significant reason why some texts are canonical is because they, like the hypothetical original work posited by Lewis, express truth. Influence by the canon, combined with the influence of one’s own experiences and beliefs, allows the writer to produce original work of literary value. While Lewis’s comment is not a comprehensive answer to questions of originality, it does provide a starting point that is compatible with the view outlined above.
Bate, W. Jackson. The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
———. A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Eliot, Thomas Steams. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 47—59. London: Methuen, 1960.
Guillory, John. “Canon.” In Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. http://search.credoreference.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/content/title/uchicagols?tab=overview
Lewis, Clive Staples. Mere Christianity: A Revised and Amplified Edition. San Francisco: HarperColins e-books, 2009. http://ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=279855&site=ehost-live&scope=site
McFarland, Thomas. Originality & Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
Soll, Ivan. “Hegel as a Philosopher of Education,” Educational Theory 22, no. 1 (1972): 26—33. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-5446.1972.tb00541.x
 “Canon” here refers to the core texts which are said to be the best or most important literary products of a given culture.
 T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Methuen, 1960), 47.
 Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,”51
 Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 49.
 Ivan Soll, “Hegel as a Philosopher of Education,” Educational Theory 22, no. 1 (1972): 28, doi: 10.1111/j.1741-5446.1972.tb00541.x
 John Guillory, “Canon,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) http://search.credoreference.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/content/title/uchicagols?tab=overview
 Guillory, “Canon.”
 Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 48.
 Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 3.
 Ibid, The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 11.
 Thomas McFarland, Originality and Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 17.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Werke in drew Bänden, ed. Karl Schlecta, 3 vols (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1954--56), vol II, 1094, quoted in McFarland, Originality and Imagination, 17.
 Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 54.
 McFarland, Originality and Imagination, 10.
 W. Jackson Bate, The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 3.
 Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, 148.