This is Chapter XLIV of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man:
“Quite an original:” A phrase, we fancy, rather oftener used by the young, or the unlearned, or the untraveled, than by the old, or the well-read, or the man who has made the grand tour. Certainly, the sense of originality exists at its highest in an infant, and probably at its lowest in him who has completed the circle of the sciences.
As for original characters in fiction, a grateful reader will, on meeting with one, keep the anniversary of that day. True, we sometimes hear of an author who, at one creation, produces some two or three score such characters; it may be possible. But they can hardly be original in the sense that Hamlet is, or Don Quixote, or Milton’s Satan. That is to say, they are not, in a thorough sense, original at all. They are novel, or singular, or striking, or captivating, or all four at once.
More likely, they are what are called odd characters; but for that, are no more original, than what is called an odd genius, in his way, is. But, if original, whence came they? Or where did the novelist pick them up?
Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his. But in the one fair, new species of quadrupeds are hardly more rare, than in the other are new species of characters—that is, original ones. Their rarity may still the more appear from this, that, while characters, merely singular, imply but singular forms so to speak, original ones, truly so, imply original instincts.
In short, a due conception of what is to be held for this sort of personage in fiction would make him almost as much of a prodigy there, as in real history is a new law-giver, a revolutionizing philosopher, or the founder of a new religion.
In nearly all the original characters, loosely accounted such in works of invention, there is discernible something prevailingly local, or of the age; which circumstance, of itself, would seem to invalidate the claim, judged by the principles here suggested.
Furthermore, if we consider, what is popularly held to entitle characters in fiction to being deemed original, is but something personal—confined to itself. The character sheds not its characteristic on its surroundings, whereas, the original character, essentially such, is like a revolving Drummond light, raying away from itself all round it—everything is lit by it, everything starts up to it (mark how it is with Hamlet), so that, in certain minds, there follows upon the adequate conception of such a character, an effect, in its way, akin to that which in Genesis attends upon the beginning of things.
For much the same reason that there is but one planet to one orbit, so can there be but one such original character to one work of invention. Two would conflict to chaos. In this view, to say that there are more than one to a book, is good presumption there is none at all. But for new, singular, striking, odd, eccentric, and all sorts of entertaining and instructive characters, a good fiction may be full of them. To produce such characters, an author, beside other things, must have seen much, and seen through much: to produce but one original character, he must have had much luck.
There would seem but one point in common between this sort of phenomenon in fiction and all other sorts: it cannot be born in the author’s imagination—it being as true in literature as in zoology, that all life is from the egg.
In the endeavor to show, if possible, the impropriety of the phrase, Quite an Original, as applied by the barber’s friends, we have, at unawares, been led into a dissertation bordering upon the prosy, perhaps upon the smoky. If so, the best use the smoke can be turned to, will be, by retiring under cover of it, in good trim as may be, to the story.
“Hamlet Is a Human Being, but He Is a Son Only” — James Joyce Explains Why Ulysses Is the Most “Complete Man” in Literature
Hamlet is a human being, but he is a son only. Ulysses is son to Laertes, but he is father to Telemachus, husband to Penelope, lover of Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors around Troy and King of Ithaca. He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage came through them all. Don’t forget that he was a war dodger who tried to evade military service by simulating madness. He might never have taken up arms and gone to Troy, but the Greek recruiting sergeant was too clever for him and, while he was ploughing the sands, placed young Telemachus in front of his plough. But once at the war the conscientious objector became a jusqu’auboutist. When the others wanted to abandon the siege he insisted on staying till Troy should fall.
A jusqu’auboutist is one who sticks it out to the end.
“Therefore good and ill are one.” Heraclitus, Fragment 57
“Well, um, you know, something’s neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so, I suppose, as Shakespeare said.” Donald Rumsfeld
Betting odds for the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (our boy Cormac McCarthy is at 8 to 1; Bob Dylan is at 150 to 1).
A son is born to The Biblioklept! To celebrate–and, perhaps to respond to last year’s Father’s Day post, Five Favorite Fictional Fathers–I offer five favorite fictional sons. In the earlier post, I suggested that Western literature holds a certain ambivalence toward fatherhood, one that evinces in one of its most ubiquitous tropes–the hero-as-orphan. These orphan-heroes tend to have father-figures, but their biological dads are usually displaced in some way. So, to set some ground rules for the post, I chose heroes whose narratives are still deeply intertwined with their biological parents–particularly their fathers. Yet in the cases below, parental displacement remains.
1. Telemachus, The Odyssey (Homer)
The original angry young man. And who can blame him, what with dad away (having all the fun, tricking gods and monsters and bagging nymphs) and rude would-be step-dads gobbling up all the goods (and, uh, trying to bang your mom to boot). Although the swineherd Eumaeus was probably more of a dad to Telly-Mack than Odysseus was, there’s something touching about the end of The Odyssey, when the pair slaughter the suitors wholesale.
2. Hamlet, Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
Poor, grieving Hamlet–dad departed–a ghost!–revenge me!–uncle usurping dad’s role (and his promised throne (and banging mom to boot))–wait–I think we’ve hit a theme here. This has to be a theme, right? Kids need guidance, and Hamlet has none. No wonder he goes bonkers.
3. Stephen Dedalus, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses (James Joyce)
OK, we’ve definitely hit a theme. Through the sympathetic yet often repulsive figure of Stephen Dedalus, Joyce reworked Telemachus and Hamlet (and Icarus and everything else (hang on, shouldn’t Jesus be on this list?)). Bloom gets too much credit as a father figure. Reread Portrait–Simon looms large enough.
4. Quentin Compson, The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! (William Faulkner)
The theme is readily conceded. Compson funnels Hamlet’s neuroses and Dedalus’s intellectual acumen through a channel of Southern alienation. Plus, like Stephen, his dad’s a drunk. Like Hamlet, Quentin is ultimately a tragic figure, but he’s nonetheless a hero, a son who attempts to reconcile the traditions of his father’s world against the shifting dimensions of his own time (or something like that).
5. Hal Incandenza, Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace)
A tennis champ with a secret marijuana addiction (or, more accurately, an addiction to secret behaviors) cursed with an eidetic memory, Prince Hal is easily one of DFW’s finest inventions. And yes, yes, yes, his relationship with dad James (again, a drunk) repeats the drama of Hamlet–right down to the ghost-demands-revenge scene and its usurping uncle (although Charles Tavis ain’t so bad). So, unwittingly, the theme finds its summation in Hal, a kid anyone would be proud to call son.