Newspaper article International New York Times

What Explains the Attempted Reincarnation of Various Literary Characters?

Newspaper article International New York Times

What Explains the Attempted Reincarnation of Various Literary Characters?

Article excerpt

Are we doomed to reboots of reboots of "Columbo."

James Parker

Not to get too portentous about it, but this question for me points like a flaming golden arrow to a much larger question, which has to do with the health of our collective imagination. That is, are we caught in a diminishing loop of derivative creativity, some kind of stranglehold of the secondhand? Have we wandered deeper into Eliot's Waste Land -- the fragmented panoramas, the "heap of broken images," only now with more zombies -- than the poet himself could have foreseen? Can it be that our highest form of cultural expression is the YouTube mash-up?

"The originators, the exuberant men, are extinct," Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1957, "and in their place subsists and modestly flourishes a generation notable for elegance and variety of contrivance."

We do not have J.R.R. Tolkien, in other words: We have J.J. Abrams. Or Steven Moffat, lead writer of "Doctor Who" since 2009 and co-creator (if that's the right word) of the new BBC/Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes. Nothing against Mr. Abrams and Mr. Moffat; they're both clearly brilliant -- zanily gifted reorganizers and rewirers of material. "Elegance and variety of contrivance," yes indeed, by the bucketload.

My point is that the material, for the most part, is not theirs. They work in tropes, memes, brands, jingles, known quantities, canned reactions, market-tested flavors, whatever you want to call them. The cultural critic Simon Reynolds has named this phenomenon "retromania": He published a fascinating book about it in 2011.

Tolkien, too, was of course drawing on his sources, his own scholarly vaults of inspiration, his Kalevalas and Nibelungenlieds and all that. But he was closer to the root, to the first fictive impulse. Which makes "The Lord of the Rings" a rather juicier and more self-sustaining "subcreation" -- to use Tolkien's terminology - - than, say, "Star Trek Into Darkness. …

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