artist that he should be original?rnOne way to answer that questionrnwould be to consider what qualificationsrnwould make the demand of artistic originalityrnlook plausible. A musicologistrnonce remarked that the most boring musicrnwas either wholly familiar or whollyrnunfamiliar. That at least lays down somernof the ground rules of the debate.rnWholly familiar music like a classic symphonyrnneeds to be refreshed by new performances,rnor it bores; wholly unfamiliarrnmusic, like Arab music to a Western ear,rnis boring for a reverse reason, being totallyrnmeaningless. In the world of thernhumanities, and perhaps in the world ofrnmoral choices too, an acceptable originalityrnwould belong to the middle rangernof things: new, but not too new; fresh,rnbut familiar too.rnThat makes timidity about total originality,rnlike the timidity of Herodotus orrnLeibniz, seem understandable. Nobodyrnwants to be a crank, after all, and nobodyrnwants to be unintelligible. Audaciousrnauthors have been known to disclaimrnoriginality as an embarrassment: “I bringrnhere no new discoveries,” Montaignernwrote in one of his Essais. “These arerncommon ideas; and having perhapsrnthought of them a hundred times, I fearrn1 may already have set them down.”rnSince the essays, which are mostly aboutrnhimself, represent the first attempt by arnEuropean to publish an extensive accountrnof his own ego, Montaigne’s fearrnof originality is excusable, and the mountainsrnof classical allusions that shore uprnhis arguments confirm an entirely naturalrnanxiety to claim an ancestry for whatrnhe is about. Christian humanists likernMontaigne, Shakespeare, or Johnson believedrnthat everything worth sayingrnabout the human condition, at least inrnbold outline, had already been said: sorndisclaimers of originality are well in orderrnhere.rnThat view conferred upon the commonplacerna dignity which to the presentrncentury may look paradoxical. In hisrnstudy of Thomas Gray, for example,rnJohnson commended Gray’s “Elegy” becausernit “abounds with images whichrnfind a mirror in every mind, and withrnsentiments to which every bosom returnsrnan echo.” The poem is great by beingrncommonplace, though Johnson was toorngood a critic to suppose that the propositionrnis reversible and that everythingrncommonplace is great. It is striking thatrnhis next sentence appears, but onlyrnappears, to contradict what he has justrnimplied:rnThe four stanzas beginning “Yetrneven these bones” are to me original:rnI have never seen the notionrnin any other place; yet he thatrnreads them here persuades himselfrnthat he has always felt them.rnA moment’s reflection, however, showsrnthat this is self-consistent. Johnson isrnnot arguing that the stanzas are originalrnin substance, but merely that he cannotrnrecall a precedent; he commends themrnas a truth already familiar outside literaturernand, in any case, true to life. How,rnafter all, could there be a truth of lifernthat was not already known, even if (byrnsome odd chance) nobody had yet supposedrnit to be worth writing down?rnThe thought is teasing. In the springrnof 1993, a number of British journalsrncommissioned articles by middle-agedrnex-militants to celebrate, or at leastrnto mark, the 25th anniversary of thatrnrevolutionary moment of students inrnthe Western world, the spring of 1968.rnAs might have been expected, a strikingrnand significant pattern of conformityrnemerged. All of them are now in wellpaidrnjobs. All made it clear, as they recalledrntheir years since leaving the collegesrnwhere they had spent their militantrnyouth, that their hatred of private wealthrnhad never been personal. All of themrnhad seized the first opportunity for acquiringrnwealth. All spoke of the impulsernto militancy as being the lack of intellectualrncohesion that had depressed themrnin their freshman year, of an instantrnhunger for a doctrine that, like Marxism,rnappeared to make sense of a confusingrnmultiplicity of facts. The charmrnof militancy was linked to the fear ofrnoriginality; it offered a quick way out ofrnthe rat’s maze of texts and meta-texts, ofrnhistorical revisions and re-revisions, ofrnrival critical interpretations. Its charmrnwas that it was simple and certain. Tornfear originality is to fear that, in the studyrnof detail, one might discover something.rnHow much more comfortable, then, tornsuppose that a 19th-century sage hadrnfound the key already.rnThe point about the profound conservatismrnof Marxism has already beenrnmade, by a philosopher. In The Povertyrnof Historicism (1957) Sir Karl Popper,rnwriting as an ex-Marxist and pointedlyrndedicating his book, which appearedrnshortly after the deaths of Hitler andrnStalin, to their millions of victims, attackedrnthe notion, ancient and modern,rnthat there are immutable laws of historyrnthat make the future predictable. Tornpredict knowledge is to have it, and ifrnone has it then it is not predicted. Hisrnbook ends with an attack on modern historicists,rnor partisans of doctrines of immutablernlaws, that has lost none of itsrnforce over the years:rnTo present such a venerable idearnas bold and revolutionary betraysrn. . . an unconscious conservatism.rnIt may be the historicists who arernafraid of change,rnsince they strive to compensate for thernloss of an unchanging world “by clingingrnto the belief that change can be foreseenrnbecause it is ruled by an unchangingrnlaw.” The deeper impulses of Marxismrnwere conservative, in other words,rnand the real conservatives among us arernthose who swallowed it. They cannotrnbear to believe that the world mightrnchange naturally and of itself rather thanrnby immutable laws, and change in unpredictablernways.rnOriginality is therefore alarming,rnabove all, to revolutionaries. In the arts,rnby contrast, it is little better than incoherentrnor hard to make sense of, not leastrnin an age like the present, which, for thernfirst time in human memory, lacks anrnartistic avant-garde and is suddenly skepticalrnof dogmas claiming to be new andrntrue. Perhaps there is still a word to bernsaid for moral and artistic originality,rneven after two millennia and more ofrnWestern civilization, though by now itrncannot be much of a word. One might,rnafter all, be original without seeking tornbe so. “True originality,” Jean Cocteaurntold the French Academy in 1955 whenrnthey belatedly elected him a member,rn”consists of trying to behave like everybodyrnelse without succeeding.” Thatrnsounds attractive, and what is more itrnhappens. I once cooked myself a deliciousrnand (in my experience) whollyrnunique omelette for lunch, but since Irnwas thinking about something else atrnthe time I still do not know what wentrninto it, though I ate it with awe and admiration.rnColumbus never knew he hadrndiscovered America. Montaigne energeticallyrndenied originality. Shakespeare,rnit seems fair to suppose, had never heardrnof the requirement, and Johnsonrnthought it an objection in a work of art.rnThat leaves moral and artistic originalityrnlooking marginal, at best, and thernMAY 1994/45rnrnrn