The James Luther Adams Papers
The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993
Part 10: Originality
The drifting of the individual with the tide of the group has always been accompanied by the struggle of each against all. Human nature has followed and revolted against conventions ever since people became gregarious. The types radical and conservative are perennial, and both seem to make for advance. In general, we assume that the great changes in the world have taken place because of the reformers and revolters. We have heard so much about the dependence of the world’s progress upon revolt that we, at least theoretically, look with some interest and even favor upon the insurgents, though their interests may conflict with our own. We may feel that the revolter is a painful necessity.
It is easy to find the reason for this admiration of the nonconformist. We are proud to be the inheritors of a great tradition of individualism that comes down to us from the early days of colonial America. We also look back to Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne as great prophets, and feel a certain kinship with them and their ideals. Individualism is one of the distinctive characteristics of the American. We strive for originality. This is not a purely local ideal, of course, but our tradition is one that has stressed it as a philosophy of life.
Emerson wrote in his Journal: “Societies, parties are only incipient stages, tadpole states of man, as caterpillars are social, but the butterfly not. The true and finished man is ever alone…. Alone is wisdom. Alone is heaven.” For Emerson imitation is suicide. What another announces I must find true in me, or wholly reject. I can accept nothing else. The only right is what is after my own constitution; the only wrong is what is against it. So is everything that tends to limit us—creeds, parties, accepted ideals, teachers, books, and our own past even.
In actual practice, Thoreau was a more thorough going individualist then Emerson. For instance, he refused to pay even his poll tax. He was put in jail once on this account, for one night. As he stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, he said: “I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand on the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditation, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes; and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.”
Undoubtedly this old ideal of individualism has had something to do with our present straining for originality. Not only in the arts, but also in personal and social relations, the cry is made continuously, “Be original,” “Be original.”
What does it mean to be original?
Probably the first thought that comes to our minds is that it means to be different. It is something unusual, something strange, something rare, unfamiliar, unique. We are always fascinated by tales of new lands, new peoples, the unparalleled, the unprecedented. “What is news?”is our daily inquiry, and whoever can answer it will get our ear. This yearning for the exotic is not a new thing by any means. In fact, it is very characteristic of much of the thinking of the last century with respect to originality. Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French Romanticist, struck the note that has been heard repeatedly down to the present day. In almost the opening sentence of his Confessions, he said “If I am not better than others, at least I am different.”
It was only a few years until Byron became the idol of Europe, the leader of the new originality cult. Numerous followers of the cult imposed upon themselves a painful discipline in order to appear abnormal. We are told that some of them even succeeded, after a trying ordeal, in giving themselves consumption. This failure to discriminate between the odd and the original has persisted. I remember hearing a disillusioned admirer of Carl Sandburg saying, “Why, he looks just like an ordinary business man.”
The ideal of originality received much of its impetus in the last century from such writers as Emerson, Mill, and Carlyle. “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist. What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? No law can be sacred to me but that of my own nature. I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency.” Such was Emerson’s Declaration of Independence, and as such, one cannot deny that it had great value; but we should remember that Emerson did not think that this policy of non-conformity was the whole story. He himself said, “It is the fault of our rhetoric that we cannot strongly state one fact without seeming to belie some other.” It was simply, as he said, that one cannot spend the whole day in explanation. The drastic quality of such counsel for independence called for some modification, and Emerson suggests it in the same essay, Self-Reliance, when he says that there is nevertheless a law that abides. “If anyone imagines this law is lax, let him keep its commandments for one day.” Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to this sentence as Emerson’s way of guarding his proclamation of self-reliance as our guide.
If originality is not simply being different, if it is not mere novelty nor pronouncement of independence or non-conformity, what is it?
We have heard many times that human nature is old and unchanging. There is little that is new about religious experience, or love, or friendship, war, danger or death. These are at the core of human experience. Nevertheless, we can compare our age with any age in the past and find ourselves infinitely superior in inventions, in material civilization, in accumulated knowledge; but compare any modern thinker with Aristotle or any modern mystic with Augustine, and the result is totally different. It is not that we have fallen below the standards of those ages, but we are not definitely above them.
Nevertheless, when someone comes who shows us again what life can be, we hail him or her as great, as original. Originality is excellence, the excellence of the oldest experiences. Originality is a playing upon the old themes—a living of life at its center. Examples of this originality which consists in the remolding of the old are legion in both the arts and in the history of humanity. The story of Romeo and Juliet was told many times before the seventeenth century when Shakespeare transformed it into an immortal drama. There were many attempts to portray the American Indian before Cooper; nevertheless, The Last of the Mohicans found its place in the affections of people near and far.
One of the most persistent attempts in the history of music to remold the old to perfection is found in the work of Johannes Brahms. Probably no young composer ever received such hearty welcome into the musical world as did young Brahms at the age of 20. Schumann, one of the leaders in the musical world at the time, proclaimed the advent of a “genius in whom the spirit of the age should find its consummation and its fulfillment; a master by whose teaching the broken phrases would grow articulate, and the vague aspirations gather into form and substance.” At last a leader had arisen who should direct the art into new paths and carry it a stage nearer to its appointed place. Brahms now found himself suddenly famous. He was discussed everywhere. His pieces were readily accepted by publishers, and his new compositions were awaited with great interest. He was expected to go on producing; he was almost under obligation to justify his impressive introduction. When we consider the temptation it must have been to him to continue these easy triumphs, when we imagine the inward enthusiasm of creation which must have fired him, we are ready to appreciate the next event in the drama. That event was withdrawal from the musical world and the initiation of a long course of the severest study. Thus in spite of world-wide recognition, Brahms, when a little over 21, imposed upon himself some five years of arduous training and self-discipline. He commanded himself to forego for a while the eloquent but ill-controlled expression hitherto his, in order to acquire his broad firm style, which we love today. Brahms was not so much interested in striking out new paths as he was in knowing and using anew the old forms to perfection.
Let us consider the founder of our religion, Jesus. We often think of him as a person who brought much that is new into the world. One of the most astounding truths which modern scholarship discovered is that practically all of the teaching of Jesus can be found in the literature of Judaism of the preceding two centuries. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, the historian of Christian thought who was President of Union Theological Seminary, concluded: “Summing it all up, we may say that Jesus’ idea of God was wholly Jewish. At no point, so far as we can judge from the Synoptic Gospels, did he go beyond his people’s thought about God. His uniqueness, so far as his teaching goes, lay not in the novelty of it but in the insight and unerring instinct with which he made his own the best in the thought of his countrymen. His piety seems to have been nourished particularly on Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and Isaiah; and it is the ideas of God found in those writings that are chiefly reflected in his words.”
However, Jesus stamped his personality upon those teachings so securely that, in spite of innumerable theological makeshifts, his immutable spirit has survived. It cannot be said that his great value for us consisted in giving us something new, but he was original in the highest sense of that word. It is because of him that we know the highest meaning of love and courage and fellowship with God.
A sequence of such original people interpreting life is like a succession of virtuosi playing the music of Mozart and Beethoven. Their renderings will be different, but the music is the same, and we know it by heart. The player who calls our attention to the most beauty in it will be original and unique in the only way that life or art permits. Life is music already composed. It has been there a long time, and it had already become ancient history when the first heroes began to play it. In the concert hall, the amateurs listen spellbound when the master plays to perfection a piece with which they have struggled. This is more to them than the loveliest of new sonatas, for it is their own world in a new light. It is because the subject is not new that the audience can decide how well it is portrayed.
The great and original people of history have brought upon the stage the old procession of sorrows, passions, and delights. They loved life for its own sake and sought to live life at its best. Consider Dante’s expression at the end of The New Life: “A wonderful vision appeared to me, in which I saw things which made me resolve to speak no more of this blessed one (Beatrice) until I could more worthily treat of her. To attain this I study to the utmost of my power, as she truly knows. If it shall please God through whom all things live that my life be prolonged for some years, I hope to say of her what was never said of any women.” Dante did not set out to write a new kind of book, for women had been praised before, as he implied, and there had been poems of vision and pilgrimages through hell. His hope was to excel. Originality is not so much the creation of something wholly new but the revival of something old. We are most truly individual when we build upon what is common to us and to our kind. Our purpose is not that we should express ourselves but that life should be expressed through us. We must lose ourselves in a greater, higher life. That is what religion means.