to turn tail and run when they do. Torntake a philosophical instance: Leibniz, asrnBertrand Russell tells in his History ofrnWestern Philosophy (1945), did work onrnmathematical logic that “would havernbeen enormously important, if he hadrnpublished it.” But he refrained, out ofrnfear and modesty:rnHe abstained from publishing becausernhe kept on finding evidencernthat Aristotle’s doctrine of the syllogismrnwas wrong on some points;rnrespect for Aristotle made it impossiblernfor him to believe this, sornhe mistakenly supposed that thernerrors must be his own.rnThat sounds amiable, and anyone inrnhigher education at either end of thernscale, whether as a student or as a teacher,rnmust occasionally know how Leibnizrnfelt. Can one really be the first to havernthought of something, or the first to havernnoticed something? “My first instinctrnwhen I have an idea,” a literary colleaguernonce told me, “is to feel sorry for it.” Irnhave seen graduate students with years ofrnresearch behind them look utterly incredulousrnon hearing that somethingrnthey have just said or written is both truernand new. It would be a highly exceptionalrnthesis-writer in the humanitiesrnwho, in his heart of hearts, did not believernthat everything important had alreadyrnbeen said.rnThat, to be sure, is not something tornproclaim. For one thing, it would berndamaging to the status of the subject asrna whole; for another, damaging to thernpretensions of the student. But it is potentrnin the way unspoken assumptionsrnoften are, and one can see why. A glancernat the shelves of books there alreadyrnare on Michelangelo or Shakespeare orrnGeorge Eliot is usually enough to persuaderna beginner—and not only beginners,rnsometimes—that if anything wasrnworth saving it must by now have beenrnsaid. That assumption seems to afflictrnradicals no less than conservatives inrnpractice, and the noisy nonconformistsrnof campus life no less than the intellectuallyrncautious or the temperamentallyrndemure. In fact it has nothing to dornwith politics. Originality, to manyrnminds, is next door to impossible, inrnwhich case anything you think you havernfound must be either familiar or wrong.rnEither it is not what you thought or itrnhas already been said.rnThere is a famous story from the ancientrnworld that illustrates that the fearrnof originality is nothing new. Herodotusrnin his History tells how a shipload ofrnPhoenicians sailed around the southernrntip of Africa, starting in the Red Sea andrntaking two years—putting into land asrnautumn came to sow their crops andrnharvest them in the spring, passing thernCape and returning north and home byrnway of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean.rnBut as they sailed westward in the SouthernrnHemisphere, says Herodotus, theyrnsaid what many believe—though I dornnot—that as they sailed around Africarnthey had the sun on their right hand.rnThe remark now provokes only a smile,rnand Herodotus’s fear of originality mayrnnot have delayed cosmology in the wayrnLeibniz’s delayed mathematical logic.rnBut he refused to accept what othersrnhad seen and reported, because hernthought it too odd to be credited.rnThe dilemma is familiar. On the onernhand, the researcher wants to look original;rnon the other, he does not want tornlook crazy or deviant. The young researcher,rnabove all, can be plagued byrnthat dilemma, and his natural ambitionrnto look original is often nervously boundedrnby peer pressure—^by the thought thatrnif he suggests anything seriously new hernmay lose friends and fail to influencernpeople whose good opinion may count.rnThe cult of originality, in other words, isrna cult of a socially acceptable originality;rnone can be afraid of not being originalrnand afraid of being original at the samerntime; and those who say they are eager torndo research and discover something havernsecretly hedged that aspiration with allrnsorts of unspoken qualifications. New,rnbut not too new; original, but only in arnmanner conformable to the fashion ofrnthe times. The noisiest radical, after all,rnis often a secret conformist, and to be arnneo-Marxist in the 1960’s, a feminist inrnthe 1970’s, or a multiculturalist sincernthen takes hardly any courage at all. Inrnfact, real courage would lie in thinkingrnand declaring something else.rnTo be a successful sage, like Jean-PaulrnSartre in his day or Umberto Eco in ours,rnis to move with the stream even as yournappear to move against it, and no bonesrnwere broken as they preached existentialism,rnin Sartre’s day, or the indeterminacyrnof the text. Like deconstruction,rnor gender studies, these were alwaysrnharmless drawing-room radicalisms.rnThey called for no down-payment, norndamaging change of behavior, and nornexpenditure—none, at least, out of one’srnown funds. Compared with the callingrnof the Apostles, say, or Islamic fundamentalism,rnoriginality in that style wasrnalways comfortable and costless. Evenrnrevolution, in those days, was supposedrnto cause no disruption to the usual flowrnof three meals a day. If Marxism was arnreligion, then on the campuses of thernWestern worid it was religion made easy.rnPerhaps this would be a good momentrnto reexamine the seemingly self-contradictoryrncult of originality. It is notable,rnin academic circles, that to call someonernan original thinker is to bestow the ultimaternaccolade, just as “unoriginal” representsrna curt dismissal. (“Wholly unoriginal”rnwould be the ultimate term ofrndismissal, and it could easily imply thatrnthere was absolutely nothing favorable tornbe said.) But that may be based on a seriesrnof false analogies. If original meansrnunique and right, there are certainlyrnareas of human understanding in whichrnthe cult of originality is sensible. Inrnmathematics and the physical sciences,rnfor example, it is natural to acclaim originalityrnand award it prizes, and the NobelrnCommittee would rightly demandrnnothing less; in morality and the arts,rnhowever, that is not so clear. Shakespearernnever invented a plot, unless the plot ofrnThe Tempest, for which no narrativernsource has ever been found, was his; butrnhe is not usually thought of as lacking inrninventive powers.rnThere are plenty of good stories, afterrnall, and plenty of moral wisdom. In thernsecond Rambler essay (March 24,1750),rnSamuel Johnson remarked that “menrnmore frequently require to be remindedrnthan informed,” and he would probablyrnhave agreed that an original moral intuitionrnwhich is also true would be a wildrnimprobability. The ensuing era tried tornprove him wrong and failed, and thernoriginal moral intuitions of the 19th century,rnsuch as those of Comte, Marx, andrnNietzsche, have worn rather badly, whichrnmight be thought to bear out Johnson’srnpoint. Propositions like “All history isrnclass war,” for example, or Disraeli’s “Allrnis race,” have long since faded for lack ofrnsupporting evidence. Nor has the 20thrncentury, for all its strenuous artisticrnavant-gardism, managed to create andrnsustain a single new literary genre, whichrnshould surely surprise us more than itrndoes. The case for saying that a greatrnartist must be radically original, then,rncannot be made: not, at least, without arnlot of awkward qualifications. Art is notrnlike science. Why, then, do we ask of thern44/CHRONICLESrnrnrn