If I could time-travel back to the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, I would console Khakheperresenb with the familiar paraphrase of Walt Whitman: “Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself.” Or André Gide’s comforting remark, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” Originality, after all, includes not only saying something for the first time, but re-saying (in a worthy new way) the already said: rearranging an old tune in a different key, to a different rhythm, perhaps on a different instrument. Has that been said before? No matter: on with the story!
Postmodernism held sway during the last few decades of the twentieth century and is the end of the Romantic emphasis on medium rather than content, the notion that outside of words there is nothing. Postmodernism is characterized by a fin de (vingtième) siècle weariness: all has been said, all done; we are merely adding footnotes to footnotes. Pastiche, as in the works of Walter Benjamin, was held to be the most profound artistic expression; doing literature in the voices of others (espoused by the Russian theorist Bahktin and exemplified in the ingenious fables of postmodernism’s patron saint, Jorge Luis Borges) was all we had left. Some of the postmodernists, to be sure, give the sense they’d like to be direct and fresh again, but can’t forget what they know: so academics tried unsuccessfully to blow up the walls of their ivory tower through the Marxist “cultural studies” of the 80s and 90s, focusing on Barbie and Princess Di instead of Tolstoy and King Lear. Yet making Barbie academic just brought Barbie inside the ivory tower and displaced the things already there, classics of art and literature (written, it was pointed out as if this were the deal-breaker, by dead white males); the meat changed but the smothering sauce of academic jargon, the lingua franca of the educated classes, made it all taste the same as before.
I wonder how much of our modern angst over originality in art is related to our conceptions of individuality, as in the individual personality, the one-and-only author, being responsible for this particular thought. Without that perceived importance of specific credit being acknowledged, does it matter how derivative a song or story is? It will still be new to someone.