Blind Confessions of a Confabulated Cryptomnesiac
Exploring unconscious plagiarism and assimilating creative ideas
It has recently come to my attention that my extreme intellect and capacity for creative conceptualism may not be entirely due to my extreme intellect or capacity for creative conceptualism.
I beg your pardon … Does this make me a fake … a fraudster … a freebooting filibuster … a, dare I even utter the word most heinous to any writer, … a plagiariser? Egad!
Plagiarism is a scary word, but one that should not strike fear into the heart of an honest writer, should it? At least that was my stance until I added a new and potentially incriminating word to my word bank; cryptomnesia. Now that is a scary word, and not only because of its ghoulish etymology (sadly misinterpreted on my part) tolling the impending death and subsequent entombing of any author who suffers this affliction.
So what is this dreadful affliction I hear you ask? Well, to quote directly from the Oxford English Dictionary, cryptomnesia is “the phenomenon of perceiving a latent or subconscious memory as an original thought or idea.” In other words, I can never again enjoy those moments when I find myself astounded at my own brilliance, sitting there in front of my computer, on a midnight dreary, as visions of book signings dance in my head, for suspicion you see always haunts the reflective mind; what if?
What if these profound thoughts are not my own?
Helen Keller knows what I am talking about. In 1892 she published a short story called The Frost King which when identified as plagiarism of The Frost Fairies by Margaret T. Canby turned out to be a classic case of, yup, you guessed it, cryptomnesia.
Helen, who was only eleven at the time — and blind just in case you didn’t know — had no recollection of hearing the original story. Her carer also had no recollection of ever reading it to her. The mystery was eventually, if not entirely resolved when it was discovered that another person who had cared for her four years earlier owned a copy of the story she was accused of plagiarising, and though that carer had no recollection of reading it to her either, it was likely that she did.
Let’s get this in perspective though. Here we have a young blind girl listening, at the impressionable age of seven — via words spelled into her hand — to a story about a character by the name of Jack Frost who, due to his deep-rooted origin in mythology, lives quite squarely in a place known as “the public domain”, a murky place of assimilated knowledge, concepts and ideas.
Helen puts her self-confessed habit of assimilating quite nicely when she wrote about how, after this accusation of plagiarism, she never had the courage to write creatively again;
“I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read becomes the very substance and texture of my mind … Consequently, in nearly all that I write, I produce something which very much resembles crazy patchwork … Likewise, my compositions are made up of crude notions of my own, inlaid with the brighter thoughts and riper opinions of the authors I have read.”
As a writer and avid reader, I question if I am ever stricken with bouts of cryptomnesia myself. Certainly, the works of C. S. Lewis, Enid Blyton, and Roald Dahl have contributed to “the very substance and texture of my mind”. When I share my children’s stories with friends I get a bit chuffed when they say I write like the authors I inadvertently simulate.
Friend, “Oh, Sarah, that’s so Roald Dahl.”
Me, glowing, “Really? Goodness. That’s awfully kind of you.”
But where is the fine line between genre and plagiarism, copyright and cryptomnesia? Was J. R. R. Tolkien trying to enforce his own version of copyright when he claimed that of magical rings there could be only one?
On that, Mark Twain had this to say;
“The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterance — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources…”
Fortunately, copyright does not protect ideas or concepts, if it did then Tolkien’s claim to a myriad of fantasy genre conventions would leave fantasy shelves worldwide pretty empty till at least 2043, the required seventy years after the death of the original author when copyright shifts to the public domain.
But, can copyright protect us from ourselves when it comes to those creative moments we think are our own? Can we ever be astounded at our own originality and brilliance ever again?
Well, that would depend entirely on which side of the courtroom you were sitting on and perhaps how big your word bank is. Damn you, word bank. Damn you.
Ignorance was such bliss.