Monday, 19 March 2018

Total Depravity

Originality: it's hard to achieve, tricky to authenticate, but also very overrated. Most celebrated "original" things are actually versions of other less-celebrated things, and most genuine novelties fail to inspire that most sincere tribute, imitation. Innovation, like evolution, is wary of freakish outliers; four legs good, five legs ridiculous. I've lost count of the number of times, writing these blog posts, that I've come up with some amusing expression, some twist on a familiar phrase, that I was sure must be a first. In the main, Google instantly assured me that it wasn't.

Sometimes I do manage something new, for what little it's worth (there's one in the previous paragraph, for example, much to my surprise). You may also recall a post from 2015 (The Song Lines) in which I came up with a number of somewhat creaky coinages to describe "people who don't care about song lyrics" and their counterpart, "people who care rather too much about song lyrics". These included "mondegroid" and "lyriquarian", neither of which, unsurprisingly, has ever been taken up by anyone else. I suppose it is quite nice, though, to have your own private niche in the hyper-populated Google indexes.

Whenever I think of "originality", though, I have a flashback to an upstairs classroom around 1968, where one of my secondary-school English teachers – a gaunt, eccentric, elderly man, a figure from an earlier age and perhaps the very last teacher still to wear an academic gown in a state-school – is striding between our rows of desks, declaiming:

I want to do something original
But I don't know where to begin
For there's nothing original in me
Except an original sin...

Which, as I now discover, is a misremembered (possibly by me, probably by him [1]) but more rhythmical rendering of some occasional verse,  "To a Young Lady, Who Asked Me to Write Something Original for Her Album", composed in 1840 by the now largely-forgotten, but apparently once well-known and influential Scottish poet James Campbell. Why I remember this so vividly I can't now recall, other than the fact that this man was given to random corporal punishment for real or imagined transgressions, and something in his tone, and the way he was whacking his fist into his palm to pound out the metre, implied an ear-clipping for someone was imminent. Frankly, I doubt whether any of us had the faintest idea of what "original sin" might be, though we knew well enough when to shut up and look innocent.

Which in turn – thinking of young ladies and their albums – further reminds me of the incorrigibly sinful originality of a friend from those long-ago schooldays. One afternoon, we found ourselves in the home of another, female friend, and were amusing ourselves by reading her autograph book. This is something I doubt anyone does any more, but it was once a thing: you'd have a special little book, into which friends and relatives would be encouraged to inscribe something suitably inane. We were provoked to hilarity by contributions like "By hook or by crook, I'll be first in your book! Uncle Jim", or "Hey diddle diddle, I'm here in the middle! Auntie Jean". I was working on something amusing to rhyme with "back", when my friend quickly came up with his own deeply inappropriate rhyming couplet, ending "I'm here at the front!", something which I'm afraid to say still makes me snort with suppressed laughter whenever I think of it, nearly 50 years later. Well, we were just kids and my memory is that, luckily, we couldn't find a pen.

By the way, did you know that "total depravity" is a technical theological term, related to the Calvinist version of original sin? Well, now you do. Look it up, if you like. The pointless yet fastidious complexity of competing religious dogmas is, I find, fascinating, but also as baffling as the rules of some elaborate game one is glad never to have to play again (cricket comes to mind), or the legal code of some nightmarish regime one is grateful to have fled. Incredibly, people have persecuted, tortured, and burned each other alive over quite small differences in these speculative projections into the mindset of some imagined, rule-obsessed supreme being. Now that – Calvinist, Catholic, Cathar, or whatever – is truly totally depraved, isn't it?

[1]  An original something, fair maid, you would win me
      To write—but how shall I begin?
      For I fear I have nothing original in me—
      Excepting Original Sin.


Andrew Sharp said...

Five legs ridiculous, unless you're an echinoderm.

Mike C. said...


Very true! But then they *are* ridiculous! I didn't call my imprint "Shepherd's Crown" for nothing...