I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Lethem. And I hadn’t gotten round to reading all of his essay in Harper’s until just lately. Here’s a slice. And yes, the writing is this sharp and elegant all the way through:
“The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism” by Jonathan Lethem (Harper’s Magazine)
For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks?
It strikes me that his argument about art and influence is applicable to communities of practice as well. That we all borrow and re-contextualize our tools, ideas, methods.
It also strikes me that language itself works this way. What if, at some point early in civilized human development, as soon as one primitive came up with a name for something, nobody else was allowed to use that very name for that thing, without paying a fee of some kind? The very reason we have a rich language is that it can be fluid — it can grow, morph, and brawl its way through history — and because of that, we have civilization itself.