Without the Commons, We Write Nothing

Last week, I finished the manuscript of a book (it will be called The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, in case anyone is interested, and it should appear in August). It is caught up in history and historicism, culture and commentary–in what other people have written. While writing, I was surrounded by piles of books, dog-eared, underlined, and lying open every which way.

In other words, I was acting like a typical writer.

Which is why I was so tickled, this morning, to see Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay “We Are What We Quote” in today’s New York Times. Halfway through it, he has this gem:

Quotes are the actual fabric with which the mind weaves: internalizing them, but also turning them inside out, quarreling with them, adding to them, wandering through their architecture as if a single sentence were an expansible labyrinthine space.

The idea of “originality” ignores this reality: everything we say or think is, indeed, a quote or a reaction to a quote. Unless, that is, we see originality the way Ezra Pound meant when he wrote, “Make it new.” “It” already exists. The job of the writer or thinker is to make “it” new, not to create out of thin air. In his great The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom argues that poets develop through imitation and then rebellion. I think it is so, generally.

This is why current copyright laws so depress me. They squeeze the commons, the things we can use as we create, down to almost nothing–and keep it there for a long time. Even “fair use” is parsimonious. Publishers don’t want to push its limits, so keep their writers well from the boundaries.

Real creativity depends on unbridled access to the works of the past–even of the very recent past. And all creators owe the past a great deal–nothing comes from them alone, after all, not even in fiction (we all us common languages, languages we did not create–even if we add to them). Why, then, should they profit from work that is not entirely theirs for so very long? The old idea of a 14-year copyright, renewable by the creator once, seems to me to be completely fair. There’s comparatively little profit in most works after that time, but a great deal to be gained by unlimited access by others.

O’Brien ends his essay with this:

Out of all that mixing, with luck, might come the rarest thing of all, a new thought or fresh insight that can take its place with all those other sentences, a quotation that waited until just this moment to declare itself.

We’ve forgotten that, in our corporate-driven legal structures concerning the ownership of intellectual property.

I hope we can start remembering again–and quoting freely.

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