Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

14 MAY, 2012

1953 Animated Adaptation of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” The First X-Rated Cartoon in Britain

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A beautifully haunting animated adaptation of the Poe classic.

Last week, we marveled at Harry Clarke’s haunting 1919 illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. That same year, Clarke also illustrated Poe’s beloved short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” — but as darkly beautiful as his artwork was, this imaginative 1953 animated adaptation gives Clarke more than a run for his money. Narrated by legendary English actor James Mason, it was the first cartoon to be X-rated in Great Britain under the British Board of Film Censors classification system.

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11 MAY, 2012

Henry Miller on Originality

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“And your way, is it really your way?”

In response to yesterday’s brilliant letter from Mark Twain to Helen Keller, addressing the myth of originality, reader Skip Zilla flags this beautiful passage by Henry Miller, from the anthology Stand Still Like the Hummingbird.

Miller eloquently encapsulates the combinatorial nature of creativity and the constant borrowing and repurposing that takes place as we build upon what came before and recombine existing bits of knowledge and ideas to create what we call “our” ideas.

And your way, is it really your way?

[…]

What, moreover, can you call your own? The house you live in, the food you swallow, the clothes you wear — you neither built the house nor raised the food nor made the clothes.

[…]

The same goes for your ideas. You moved into them ready-made.

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10 MAY, 2012

Mark Twain on Plagiarism and Originality: “All Ideas Are Second-Hand”

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“The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism.”

The combinatorial nature of creativity is something I think about a great deal, so this 1903 letter Mark Twain wrote to his friend Helen Keller, found in Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 2 of 2, makes me nod with the manic indefatigability of a dashboard bobble-head dog. In this excerpt, Twain addresses some plagiarism charges that had been made against Keller some 11 years prior, when her short story “The Frost King” was found to be strikingly similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.”

Keller was acquitted after an investigation, but the incident stuck with Twain and prompted him to pen the following passionate words more than a decade later, which articulate just about everything I believe to be true of combinatorial creativity and the myth of originality:

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that ‘plagiarism’ farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, 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 calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Steve Jobs, of course, knew this when he famously proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things” — and Kirby Ferguson reminds us that Jobs didn’t technically invent any of the things that made him into a cultural icon, he merely perfected them to a point of genius. Still, this fear of unoriginality — and, at its extreme, plagiarism — plagues the creative ego like no other malady. No one has countered this paradox more eloquently and succinctly than Salvador Dalí:

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.

Letters of Note

Top image, ‘Miss Keller and Mark Twain, 1902,’ courtesy of American Foundation for the Blind

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