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Nobel Laureate André Gide on What It Really Means to Be Original and Goethe’s Paradoxical Model of Creativity

“If one does not absorb everything, one loses oneself completely. The mind must be greater than the world and contain it…”

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own,” Montaigne wrote in pondering the illusion of originality half a millennium before our contemporary theories of how creativity works. Mark Twain was equally derisive of the conceit that anything we create is truly original, while Henry Miller bluntly asked, “And your way, is it really your way?” And yet there exists in the human spirit a strange and immutable impulse to answer with a wholehearted, indignant “YES!” as we continue holding the nebulous notion of creative originality as one of our highest ideals.

That nebulous notion is what the great French writer André Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951), who received the Nobel Prize for his “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight,” explores with precisely such keen psychological insight throughout The Journals of André Gide (public library) — the most cherished of young Susan Sontag’s favorite books, and the same indispensable volume that gave us Gide on the vital balance of freedom and restraint and what it really means to be yourself.

Gide was one of history’s many celebrators of the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but what makes his journals particularly compelling is his dedicated discourse with the nature of the mind itself, constantly contemplating the inner workings of our highest human faculties — originality, the imagination, and the machinery of the creative process.

In a diary entry from September of 1893, under the heading “Rule of Conduct,” 24-year-old Gide writes:


Originality; first degree.

I omit the lower degree, which is mere banality; in which man is merely gregarious (he constitutes the crowd).

Therefore: originality consists in depriving oneself of certain things. Personality asserts itself by its limitations.

But, above this, there is still a higher state, to which Goethe achieves, the Olympian. He understands that originality limits, that by being personal he is simply anyone. And by letting himself live in things, like Pan, everywhere, he thrusts aside all limits until he no longer has any but those of the world itself. He becomes banal, but in a superior way.

It is dangerous to achieve too early that superior banality. If one does not absorb everything, one loses oneself completely. The mind must be greater than the world and contain it, or else it is pitifully dissolved and is no longer even original.

Whence the two states: first the state of struggle, in which the world is a temptation; one must not yield to things. Then the superior state … which Goethe entered at once and hence, refusing himself nothing, could write: I felt myself god enough to descent to the daughters of men.

Complement this particular passage from the wholly excellent The Journals of André Gide with legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks on the curious psychology of originality and poet Mark Strand on the heartbeat of creativity.

Published August 4, 2015




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