Diverting the river of tradition Alain Mabanckou
Alain Mabanckou

Alain Mabanckou

Stanely Mushava Literature Today
Although Ben Jonson said poets are rarer births than kings, the books written between elections and coronations simply outsize ballot papers.

If Jonson is right, it is only because the majority of books crashing into the literary battlespace every week lack disruptive energy.

To merit his mantle, a writer must import into the public record new expressions for the human condition and generate new knowledge.

It is binding on any writer of moderate ambition to weigh into his work ethic the forces of innovation, subversion and originality.

Disruptive qualities earn the writer a ticket to posterity and spare him misattributed labour in other people’s vineyards.

This explains why poets are allocated a wafer-thin section and outnumbered by hegemons in Jonson’s census.

As Virus puts it in “Three Idiots”, nobody remembers the second man to land on the moon.

It probably shows the elusive nature of originality that this article on originality is by no means original but only a reflective aggregation of original views on originality.

The article is not the columnist’s first attempt to divert the river of tradition and he is not the first to land on the moon, where the subject is concerned.

Originality could be a leap into chaos, or a search for order; a new approach to tradition or madcap riffs on esoterica – once you have a model for it, you have lost it.

But whatever it is, the best writers mostly attain originality through a trenchant study of other writers, not to imitate them but to improve on them or deviate from them.

A long-run inquiry into knowledge cannot justifiably evade Solomon’s many cents on the subject. In one place, the Hebrew hegemon says when clouds are full, they empty themselves on the earth.

This seemingly commonplace observation strikes at the core of the creative process.

If a writer must find new expressions for the human condition and generate knowledge, his workflow will necessarily involve mopping up and breaking down content from the widest expanse possible.

The reading culture, to use a Zimbabwean cliche, must begin with the writer otherwise literary innovation will remain ever so elusive.

As a reviewer, I have run into scenarios where writers recycle banalities and, by merely footing the printer’s bill, assume them to their own.

I remember a conversation on the pitfalls of self-publishing where Shimmer Chinodya called out a young writer who was passing himself as an authority on subject he had barely read.

A few gazebos across at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, Weaver Press editor Njabulo Mbono spoke of university-educated aspiring editors who are quick to name their favourite Zimbabwean authors but slow of speech when asked to name their favourite books by the same authors.

When this sloppiness seizes a generation, there is little hope for innovation. Originality is not isolation from tradition but destruction and regeneration of tradition.

Writers who speak of thinking without the box risk ending up with an outmoded version of the box. Those who reflect on the box even from a safe remove have greater chances of managing something new and different.

To stake a claim on posterity, a writer must trace the great outlines of knowledge, course trenchantly through the intellectual record and fit its core elements into his unique set of experiences and emotional chamber play.

A writer needs to read a whole lot more not just to get along with mandatory routines but to generate something beyond the prevailing canon.

Only one man claims to have touched down from heaven but even he had to rigorously allude to the familiar canon, from Moses to the contemporary, for his audience to relate with him.

Even if you have something new to say or a pipe connecting you to a mystical presence, reading is the essential difference between repeating an opinion and generating knowledge.

Brian Pickings blogger Maria Popova underscores polymath Isaac Newton’s “early and formative understanding of how knowledge builds upon itself, incrementally improving upon existing ideas until the cumulative adds up to the revolutionary”.

One site where Newton transmuted existing knowledge into original ideas was a “commonplace book in which he copied passages from the books he read and supplemented them with extensive notes of his own”.

From this habitual resourcefulness, Newton was able to look further by standing on the shoulders of giants. Popova calls this “the combinatorial nature of creativity”.

Interdisciplinary resourcefulness is also at the centre of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s workflow: “I have been driven to the conviction that an artiste is bound to make himself acquainted down to the smallest detail, not only with the technique of writing, but with everything – current no less than historical events – relating to that reality which he designs to show forth.”

How the accumulated knowledge reenters the public record depends on where the author locates himself in the world. Disruptive innovators like Mario Vargas Llosa and Samuel Beckett create a terrible beauty out of the lowlife and the negligible.

“There is no great art without a measure of folly, since great art expresses the entirety of human experience, where intuition, obsession, madness and fantasy play their part just as ideas do,” says Llosa.

Originality goes beyond stacking up the mind; it equally concerns the heart. 2016 Nobel laureate Bob Dylan suggests that the world needs not so much the artiste’s content but his conscience.

“The world don’t need any more songs … As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it,” he says in 1991 interview.

“Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story. But as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it … Everybody writes a song just like everybody’s got that one great novel in them,” Dylan points out.

And writers of a disruptive command tend to be global-minded, especially since there is something of the human condition to be gleaned from each creative space.

Alain Mabanckou may have passed the originality test by some distance but the avant-garde Franco-Congolese novelist speaks of his work as a convergence of interregional influences.

“I’m not an African writer who is just reading African literature because I don’t like only using what I have. I need to seek something new, something that can shake me in order to write something original, which is not only African.

“I think that the best way to deserve the freedom of writing is to explore new writers, new literature. I still have a lot to read — Arabic literature, Indian literature — so I know that I have a lot to find in order to have a big and diverse family,” he says in an interview with World Literature Today.

His “Broken Glass”, an intertextual feat without a fullstop from start to finish came out of a decision to “put all my books inside one book so that if they all burn, my books will survive . . . But it remains a book about Africa.”

Mabanckou’s madcap progress corresponds to Popova’s idea of combinatorial creativity where “we amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas — that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something ‘new.’

“From this vast and cross-disciplinary mental pool of resources beckons the infrastructure of what we call our ‘own’ ‘original’ ideas,” writes Popova.

In his “Confession”, Tolstoy puts a wet blanket on the idea that any artiste can create and teach out of a moral vacuum. “In order to avoid the obvious question – ‘What do I know and what can I teach?’ – the theory explained that it is not necessary to know anything and that the artist and the poet teach unconsciously.”

For Jonathan Swift in the “Battle of the Books”: “Wit without knowledge” is “a sort of cream, which gathers in a night to the top, and by a skilful hand may be soon whipped into froth; but once scummed away, what appears underneath will be fit for nothing but to be thrown to the hogs.”

Tradition is not the writer’s default enemy. Unwiring modernist exponent T.S. Eliot’s ambigious relationship with tradition, Anders Österlin says: “The word tradition itself implies movement, something which cannot be static, something which is constantly handed on and assimilated.

“The existing monuments of literature form an idealistic order, but this is slightly modified every time a new work is added to the series . . . Just as the old directs the new, this in its turn directs the old, and the poet who realises this must also realise the scope of his difficulties and his responsibility,” Österlin says.

It would be futile to prescribe a model for literary innovation but only fair to suggest that an omnivorous appetite for books and trenchant synthesis of ideas is the beginning of originality.

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