Cryptomnesia: Originality, thy name is plagiarism

For the past several years I’ve used the Footprints poem in my literary theory class to discuss theories evaluation and aesthetic quality. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Footprints poem, I want to say first, “What planet have you been living on?” There is, after all, no more popular item of American religious kitsch than the Footprints poem. My very conservative guess is that is has been shellacked to about 14 million pieces of 1X4 plank board pieces at Vacation Bible Schools across the country.–For those of you unfamiliar with Vacation Bible School…well…bear with me. This may be a my culture/your culture sort of thing. In any case, just enter Footprints poem in any search engine and prepare to be inundated.)

As I was saying, I’ve used this “poem”–in some versions it’s kind of more of a paragraph–to talk about theories of aesthetic distinction. My very good English majors are often aghast that there could be a serious debate about the aesthetic qualities of such a piece of tripe. On the other hand, they are often very chary of the notion that someone could tell them that some things are better than others. Good Americans all, their instincts tell them that it is elitist in a sad and undemocratic fashion to assert that Wagner is “better” muscially than Eminem, or that some things are just inherently better than other things. Brought home to them through Sunday School poetry, however, we deal with the question of why they believe that the Footprints poem is inferior. If it is inferior, what justification to we use for saying that some things are better than other things. Is making this claim an objective claim or is it merely a subjective preference they’ve developed through their years of being elitist English majors. If Hopkins really is better than the Footprints poem, should we take it upon ourselves to teach people that love the Footprints poem that they are really rotting their aesthetic brains and ought to be reading Gerard Manley Hopkins. And if we really believe people would be better off reading Hopkins, why is it such a leap to believe that Wagner really is better than LL Cool J, or that in general everyone would be better off listening to opera than to Country and Western or Rock and Roll.

Found out today that I can now use the Footprints poem to also teach about the philosophy and history of authorship, another main topic of the course. Hank Stuever over at the Washington Post has written a great piece on the contested authorship of the Footprints poem. Turns out that lawsuits abound, and that no less than 3 people are claiming ownership over the text, though one of them also claims to have written the words to a famous Beatles tune when she was a pre-teen. There are claims and counterclaims, with drafts and manuscripts and other forensic evidence.

And we only thought Shakespeare worthy of this attention.

One academic has even traced the basic essence of the poem back to a sermon in the 1880s and has asserted that it’s possible that nobody actually wrote the poem. Says Stuever:

Last fall, in an online article for the Poetry Foundation, a Brooklyn journalist and literary sleuth named Rachel Aviv traced elements of “Footprints” to a sermon delivered in 1880, and raised the tantalizing possibility that nobody really wrote “Footprints in the Sand.” Those who have claimed to, Aviv noted, may be suffering from the collective “accidental plagiarism” that Carl Jung explored in his paper “Cryptomnesia” more than a century ago.

Everyone knows a cryptomnesiast, of one sort or another. It’s your cousin who stood up at Peepaw’s funeral and tried to pass off the “Do not cry, I did not die” poem as his own; or those crafty tykes who keep submitting bits of Shel Silverstein as original verse to The Post’s kids’ poetry contest. It’s the woman who sends you a sympathy card after your dog dies, with her handwritten version of the (also disputed) fable about dogs waiting for their masters in Heaven. It’s your church pastor or corporate motivational speaker who keeps coming up with those amazing “I-recently-met-a-man-who” anecdotes to illustrate his point.

Something can be so profound, so true, (so “duh”) that the cryptomnesiast is sure she thought it up herself. There is very little you can buy at a crafts fair or in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble that doesn’t have a whiff of the unattributed.

This happens to me ALL the time. I’m always running across published stuff out there on the internet that I KNOW I came up with first. My brain is the great unacknowledged source of most of the intellectual creativity out there in the last couple of decades.

Ok, seriously though, I do have this experience of feverishly working out an idea only to discover someone else has already done it, and much better than I could even if given world enough and time. Cryptomnesia is apparently a specific form of memory in which you recall what you don’t know that you’ve forgotten and don’t remember ever learning or reading.

A new explanation for Borgeses story about the rewritten version of the Don Quixote.

I find, in fact, as I get older that I do this all the time. I was reading in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier today, and ran across a blog about an aging professor who talks about how he downloaded an article and wrote feverish and exalted notes about it, thrilled at these new ideas and contributions to his own work until he discovered somewhat later that he had already read the article, and had written feverish and exalted notes about it thrilled at these new ideas and contributions to his own work.

Okay, I really have done this. And at 48 I don’t really consider myself aged. I’m reading Dicken’s Hard Times at the moment, and I keep having the nagging suspicion that I’ve read it before, but I can’t remember enough to know what is going to happen next. Does this count as a memory?

Although it’s laughable on one level to think of the many people wanting to claim ownership of the Footprints poem, I wonder if there’s not some more serious relationship between cryptomnesia and creativity. It’s not an original thing to say that creativity is primarily a matter of rearrangement, of finding creative connections between the many things that are rather than a discovery or manufacture of the absolutely new. There are people out there with absolutely unerring memories, who remember the details of their lives from many years ago–what they had for breakfast, how long it took to eat, whether they burped or sniffled after downing the last bit of egg. I suspect, though I cannot know, that such people would find it intensely difficult to be “original.” They would experience themselves self-consciously plagiarizing or replicating experiences all the time. If I could not forget that I had read something, I would find myself less free to combine it anew with other things that I have forgotten that I learned. Recombination is made possible by dislocation, by tearing something away from it’s original context. My guess is that Crypotmnesia makes that possible.

In the same fashion, we imagine ourselves as unique and original individuals until we awake in our forties to discover that we like the same kind of socks as our fathers, that we scratch our noses in the same way between sentences, that our lower lips protrude while thinking just like his, and that we roll our thumbs around one another in precisely the same annoying way that he rolled his thumbs when we were teenagers.

Not that any of that has ever happened to me. But I’m sure if we had to live in a constant awareness of all the ways our lives are imitative, we would never be able to allow ourselves to invent new contexts and meanings for all the things we’ve plagiarized from others.

But I’m sure that someone already said this better.

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2 thoughts on “Cryptomnesia: Originality, thy name is plagiarism

  1. Pingback: Cryptomnesia revisited (is this even possible?) « Read, Write, Now

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