Sources, Influences and Originality: Issues in Critical Controversies

By Bodunde, Charles Agboola | Kola, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Sources, Influences and Originality: Issues in Critical Controversies


Bodunde, Charles Agboola, Kola


I wrote several parts of "Heavensgate" under the spell of Debussy, Caesar, Frank and Ravel...

Christopher Okigbo. (1)

INTRODUCTION

Rene Wellek and Austin Warren in their Theory of Literature perceive sources and influences as the most obvious relationships between works of art. They locate plagiarism among other things as the least interesting manifestation in literary relationship. (2) Tracing the history of sources and influences, the theorists affirm that recurrent themes and images have been handed down from antiquity through the Latin Middle Ages and permeate all modern literature. Wellek and Warren further establish various authors' approval of common sources as an indication of a common literary practice. They offer that 'no author felt inferior or unoriginal because he used, adopted and modified themes and images inherited from tradition and sanctioned by antiquity.' (3)

However these scholars are quick to point out that the real critical problems arise from the manner in which these sources are used. They argue that artists drawing from well known sources must be able to utilize the materials stock phrases, themes or images, to show their own inventiveness and individuality. If they fail to do this, their works will be mere replication devoid of creativity and originality. What Wellek and Warren seem to suggest is that plagiarism is often the result of inartistic use of literary borrowings. Bu-Buakei Jabbi sees influence as a term that is open to different interpretations, depending on whom we side with when we look at it--the side of the artist being influenced or from the person alleging influence. He observes that some critics claim that literary influence is an 'illicit dependence or passive imitation received by no adaptive originality of usage. (4) However, this conception, in Jabbi's view, may not always be accurate; but where it occurs, he maintains, the influences may be manifested in plagiarism, mere echoes or other forms of replication. He amplifies that:

   A discussion of influence upon a certain work
   or author ... must., ultimately consider to what
   extent the basic influences have been ingested
   into the work or the writer's outlook and also
   how they have been transcended by the writer
   in order to find a distinct originality,
   voice and aesthetic effect. (5)

Critical controversies over sources, influences and originality could be illustrated with reference to three significant African literary texts which have been at the centre of discourse in source tracing. These texts are Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence (1971), Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God (1974) and many of the poems in Christopher Okigbo's Labyrinths.

OUCLOGUEM'S BOUND TO VIOLENCE

Ouologuem's Bound to Violence is an epic fiction which explores the state of African society before white incursion, and the impact of Western values on the existing traditional beliefs and world-view. However, the text, described by most Western critics as exceptional. has been branded with plagiarism by literary source hunters. This allegation has evoked responses from critics of African literature: both Western and African, for instance, in what seems to be a challenge to Ouologuem's originality, the American critic, Eric Sellin questions the creative imagination which produced Bound to Violence:

   We are not dealing with a forgery a la Brother Rowley or a la
   Vermeer but with a reliance on other writers' imaginative powers
   and a mechanical creative process which the author and the book
   itself (including the cover 'blurb') had at first led critics to
   take for a genuine impulse emanating from an individual talent and
   leading expression to the historicethnic heartbeat of a
   misunderstood continent. (6)

To authenticate the charge of plagiarism, Sellin cites Andre Schwarz-Bart's novel, le Dernier des justes as the work from which Bound to Violence derives its structure. …

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