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  • Begetting the New: The Marrow of Originality as Discovered from the Making of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
    Part 1. Retracing the Antecedents
  • Armen E. Petrosyan (bio)

To the memory of my mother Erna

Introduction: The Riddle of Originality

The axis on which art creativity revolves is originality. Any genuine piece of art must be original; otherwise, it boils down to a mere replication or imitation and is of little worth. A work is thought to be the more original the newer it is. But what exactly should be new in it and to what extent for it to get sufficient ground to claim originality still remain a riddle.

What is meant by the new? Usually, it is construed as what has not existed before and is just brought into the world. In other words, novelty should have no immediate precursor in the past. But such a treatment holds a serious inner contradiction. Where does the new come from if it does not grow out of the old? It cannot, after all, dart out like a bat out of hell.

To be identified as new, a thing should be somehow perceived and comprehended. But humans are able to make sense of experience only by molding it on available conceptual patterns.1 And it is not so easy to draw a boundary between the new and the old. Novelty is learned, mastered, and adopted only through the existent, and any attempt to detach the one from the other unavoidably distorts reality and hinders us from discerning the marrow of what is original. [End Page 101]

Many are acquainted with Gibbon’s remark that history is something more than a register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of humankind. However, it strongly resembles Voltaire’s phrase that history is barely a description of crimes and calamities. May one say that Gibbon has simply reproduced the latter’s thought without adding anything new?

Nowise. Sure, Gibbon was familiar with Voltaire’s formulation and even made an immediate start from it. Moreover, he almost wholly built Voltaire’s words into his own maxim. However, the latter cannot be reduced to its primary source.

What did Voltaire imply? When he uttered his idea in a letter to the naval officer Vaudreville (1765), general history was portrayed as a “picture of calamities which kings, ministers, and peoples incur by their errors.”2 But later the philosopher made an important refinement. To the hero of “The Ingenuous” despondent over the stories he read, “the world around seems to be too malicious and too miserable.” No wonder: in reality, history is nothing but a picture of “crimes and calamities,” while “characters are merely ambitious perverts.”3 Therefore, to the forefront come folly, evil, and misfortune, which shade all the rest—first and foremost, “simple-hearted and meek people” disappearing from the scene.

Gibbon framed his aphorism in connection with the reign of Titus Antoninus Pius. As distinct from Numa who prevented “a few neighboring villages from plundering each other’s harvests,” he “diffused order and tranquility over the greatest part of the earth.” His reign, according to Gibbon, “is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history.” And just for that, the latter is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”4 Both reasonable deeds and farsighted plans, as well as periods of relatively peaceful life and prosperity, are found in Gibbon, the importance of which for ordinary people do not yield to and, maybe, even excel the events and happenings of the opposite nature that Voltaire makes the cornerstone.

Furthermore, with the aid of the ironical addition “little more,” Gibbon emphasizes the self-contained meaning of history that towers above the “fabric” of phenomena. He hints that the accounts register only the tip of iceberg: behind them lies something more significant that constitutes the quintessence of history. One scarcely can grasp it, wandering on the surface of events. Consequently, though basing his words on Voltaire, Gibbon does not imitate him but opposes the latter’s witty formulation with a new one that expresses another—and perhaps by far more exact—idea.

What is, then, the new (original...


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pp. 101-118
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