It has been claimed that there are only 7 stories- every novel, play, film, even life- is, at heart, a manifestation of one of these 7 basic frameworks. Whether it be ‘The Quest’, ‘The Monster’, ‘Rags to Riches’ or one of the other 4, which I can’t remember, strip away the detail and you have one of these eternal archetypes. Where does this leave our much desired, much sought after quality of originality?
Let me start by considering the description ‘much desired’. Is this really how we think of originality? In some spheres, chiefly the arts, it is seen as a positive, if not essential quality. There is nothing worse than to have one’s creation dismissed as ‘derivative’ or ‘unoriginal’. Even poor execution is more acceptable than a poor idea behind the execution. In many aspects of life, however, the words of Antonio Porchia hold true: “They will say you are on the wrong road, if it is your own”
The overwhelming majority of people are very uncomfortable with the idea of originality, of being different to the rest of the society they belong to. Conformity is one of the basic tenets of ‘belonging’ in the first place; if I am thinking and saying different things to those around me, adopting different sets of values, I separate myself from them. The typical release for the tension this kind of non-conformity creates is for society to declare the original thinker to be ‘abnormal’, ‘weird’, even ‘crazy’. Mental health issues are much better understood today but even now the dividing line between originality and some form of medical problem can be indistinct and narrow.
Why should this be the case? Why do we rail against non-conformity while claiming to value originality? Possibly we just can’t understand where it comes from. If we consider how a typical person in our society is brought up, the idea of thinking something something entirely new is, if not not ruled out, then certainly not encouraged. When the average person leaves school, he or she has probably had few, if any, original thoughts. We are simply pumped full of information from various sources- parents, teachers, the media etc. We are never told to think beyond this information, or to challenge the wisdom or adequacy of these sources (for more on my thoughts in this area see here and here). No wonder originality is so rare, and therefore so prized in the fields that demand it.
The most successful, most influential people throughout history have all had some spark of originality in them to help them rise above the masses but, more often than not, they have had to fight to be accepted, to use the force of their personalities to keep Joe Public onside. It is so alien to us to trust in new ideas and those who have them, in challenges to the comfort of the established order. Originality is, like all powerful tools, admired and feared in equal measure