[Originally published Dec. 23, 2010.]

“Most people are other people,” Oscar Wilde wrote. “Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” You get the feeling, somehow, that he thought this was a bad thing. Seems likelier that it’s just an inevitable fact about a species whose members depend for everything on each other. No single one of us has wings, claws, beaks, or any easy way to make a laptop or a catch a tuna. What we have, instead, is our relationships to other people, through which come laptops, tuna, other necessities—and the sense of connection without which we’re miserable. We create a lot of ourselves by imitating others, then, and that’s not only because we lack enough lifetimes to reinvent all human knowledge. It’s also because imitation makes it easier to communicate information and connect emotionally.

Oh, Oscar. You know, it’s certainly an arresting myth, that of the bold artist storming the heavens, rolling up his sleeves, rudely shouldering aside the gods, and plunging his arms up to the elbows into the raw stuff of creation, fashioning novelties out of sheer willpower and breaking the mold immediately after, but it is still a myth. Ecclesiastes was moaning a long time ago about nothing new under the sun. Old wine is always being passed around in new bottles. Plus ça change. In reality, the context matters as much as the content. The originality and innovation is in the arrangement of the parts in the collage, the particular constellation of elements in a specific time or place. And sometimes, originality is an accidental byproduct of an unskillful attempt to imitate something else. Clever people just draw from a wider range of influences and are better at concealing the obvious roots that betray them.
I recently mentioned a friend of mine who imagines “God” to be something like all the knowledge in the universe, actual and potential. So for her, knowledge is pretty much the equivalent of a person’s soul. “What about all your knowledge?” she asked, after I disavowed any belief in a soul or afterlife. “It was never mine to begin with,” I said. I haven’t ever come up with any breathtakingly original ideas. All I’ve ever done is tinker with ideas that other people passed on to me, applying them to the specific circumstances of my experience, combining them in ways that are only unique to my time and place. Any impression I make on other people will influence them in a way specific to them, and so on it goes. We lay claim to our little treasure-trove of influences for a short while, and then they return to the whole, to be refurbished and brought out again in different guises.