November 18, 2005
from Conjectures on Original Composition
Young, Edward. “from ‘Conjectures on Original Composition’.” Authorship from Plato to the Postmodern: A Reader. Ed. Sean Burke. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1995. 37-42.
Young espouses the traditional belief that originality is to be aspired to, and imitation is creativity of a lesser quality. He makes the interesting distinction, though, between imitation of nature, and imitation of authors. Imitation of nature falls under the category of ‘original,’ while imitation of authors is, well, imitation (37). Originality extends the current field of knowledge, while imitation only gives us more of the same. A worthy imitation does have merit, but never the merit of an original.
While the essay focuses on these two larger issues, he does make an interesting gesture at classical texts:
If it is said, that most of the Latin classics, and all the Greek, except, perhaps, Homer, Pindar, and Anacreon, are in the number of imitators, yet receive our highest applause; our answer is, That they, though not real, are accidental originals; the works they imitated, few excepted are lost; they, on their father’s decease, enter as lawful heirs, on their estates in fame.So if you imitate an original and the original disappears, you are then considered the original by default. Ethically dubious, but historically and pragmatically true. (It is worth noting also that Young never identifies a source for the assertion that Latin and Greek texts are all imitations.) Later, he also asserts that ’the ancients‘ should not receive much merit for being originals, since they had no one to imitate (39). From his earlier statements, we must assume that he must be referring to pre-attic texts. Again, no specifics are mentioned.
Young’s essay is a beautiful rumination on the nature of originality, but it is not much help in considering authorship in antiquity. However, it does give us a glimpse into the early-18th century conception of attic authors.