The late Joan Didion’s blend of creative storytelling and philosophical reflection has influenced America’s collective conscience since she began writing in 1956. Didion’s felicity with language and no bullshit approach to writing challenged her readers to consider the strange flower that is our world; to appreciate its beauty and understand its growth.
The blossoming creativity of ambitious writers being crushed by the demanding industry of Hollywood was common in Didion’s time and is the topic of her essay “I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind”. The realization that originality was not what Hollywood fed on left many ambitious writers jaded. These jaded writers, these would be greats of Hollywood, abandoned their creative pursuits for want of a salary.
And who can blame them? Originality is risky. Originality is not a safe approach to achieve success or stability in our society. In contrast, the low risk approach of mimicry, or the perception of mimicry as low risk, is a purportedly safer route to achieving the idyllic American life.
The adoption of mimicry as a mode of existence makes sense because the nature of original thought is wild and unkempt. Original thought can’t make sense of itself on the first, second, or even third attempt. In a world where time is money and existence is predicated on the capitalist trappings of success, originality has become a defunct pursuit. The dissolution of old Hollywood was supposed to be a second coming for the writers of Didion’s era, but when the glitter and glam of the old empire settled, all that stood amongst the rubble was a submissive relationship to our egos. It is a relationship that six generations after Didion’s work, we refuse to leave.
For the writers of Didion’s era, the absence of old Hollywood revealed a desire for formulas, the need for limitations, the comfort of imitation, and the fear of freedom. The lure of stability and comfort that had become common with old Hollywood was too great a temptation for writers to dabble in the taboo realm of original thought. And so, the newly freed writers of old Hollywood carried on in the conservative traditions of the old system, quietly betraying their youthful ambitions and in turn, culture at large. Today, we are too quick to delude ourselves into believing that we are smarter than we used to be. It is a delusion of superiority that is reinforced by our inflated sense of being that modernity has endowed us with and by our participation in a culture of mimicry that is propagated by social media. Just like the writers of Didion’s era, our delusions are born out of our submissive relationship to our egos
Didion’s account of jaded writers in Hollywood resonates with anyone who has ever traded their dreams for dollars. It is a story familiar to us in the social media generation. A generation whose individual dreams never stood a chance against the feats of human greatness that saturate the algorithms of the media we consume.
Mimicry is how we first learn to exist in the world as infants and therefore, is a tried and true method of survival. It is a method of learning and being that is difficult to outgrow given the glut of information on the internet. As long as a socially acceptable model is picked, our mimicry of that model promises a relative amount of stability in life.
We find our role models and we copy them, it is something we have always done as a species.
But an unhealthy dependence on mimicry as a mode of learning late into adulthood can foster an unnatural preoccupation with the past. A preoccupation that breeds in us a melancholic attitude that cripples our future and makes it difficult to realize our potential. Instead of building our future from within, we are more likely to seek a blueprint for our future from outside; a vetted approach from someone who has done the difficult work of becoming already. In Didion’s era the blueprint for success was sought out in the history of old Hollywood. Today, the blueprint for success can be found anywhere online.
With the amount of information bombarding us everyday, it is difficult to understand that what we need to succeed is not a blueprint, but a point of departure.
The pursuit of originality is the point of departure in our development that forces us to confront our incompetencies and inadequacies leads to the cultivation of an authentic self. Of course, to shrug off all external influences and form a truly original thought is impossible. Like Adam and Eve, our capacity for original thought has been limited by the curse of knowledge. Specifically in our present case, our capacity for originality is limited by the wealth of information online.
Mimicry, unlike originality, has no point of departure. The purpose of mimicry is to help us to form a general understanding of our place in the world and, like the writers of Didion’s era, allows us to survive. However, the sustainment of our physical being through mimicry can lead to the decay of our individual self, or soul.
Through mimicry, we become our job, a title, an ideal, or an icon, and so on and so on. Through originality, we simply become.
There is no end to achieve when we pursue originality, which makes the journey frightening. But as history has taught us, the greatest journeys are those with no destination in mind. The unpredictable journey to originality does not lead us anywhere because its purpose is to help us develop a skill. Namely, the skill of extracting meaning from our existence.
As humans, we either make meaning or discover it. To make meaning, we develop habits that (through diligent practice) combat the downward pull of death. In counterpoint to the manufacture of meaning, the discovery of meaning relies on the infinite experiences of life to teach us something about the simultaneous universality and singularity of our existence.
The acts of creating and discovering meaning are vital to our pursuit of originality. They help us understand who we are. When the act of creation is paired with the journey of discovery, a potent type of alchemy occurs which synthesizes, as if from thin air, originality.
The exact quantities of creation and discovery needed for this alchemy are personal and vary in relation to supplemental experiences that occur during the pursuit of originality. Which means that there is no recipe for the magic that brings meaning to life, it is a private magic developed in isolation within the self.
This pursuit of originality, commonly referred to as self-discovery (a term grossly lacking in specificity and depth), is the only way humans can withstand mortality’s greatest enemy, time. However mysterious and undefinable the pursuit of originality may be, the proof of its power is evident in the legacy of humanity’s greatest thinkers.
If we consider any memorable person from the past, the blossoming of their lasting impact on humanity came from a point of departure. It was their pursuit of originality that gave them longevity; that ultimately gave them meaning and subsequently taught us something about our culture.
All greatness needs a point of departure; this point is especially true for the art of living. As creatures with no foretold purpose or significance, a point of departure helps us to begin to answer the questions of “who we are, what we are doing, and why we are here.” The pursuit of originality equips us better than mimicry does to provide meaningful answers to these nebulous questions of life.
I am not saying that our existence as humans is determined by our battle with greatness or time, it is decidedly not. I am saying that our battle is with ourselves. I am saying that there is a tendency to place too much significance on the problems that arise from a society which itself is unsure of its purpose. I am saying that mimicry is a poor substitute for originality.
Similar to the writers of Didion’s era that blamed old Hollywood for their lot in life, we often blame a more powerful being for the lack of fulfillment present in our lives. It is a socially acceptable complaint, but it fails to acknowledge the fact that throughout history, humans have only been the victims of other humans.
As Didion caught on over five decades ago, we are not victims of a higher power, but victims of a greedy desire for comfort, luxury, power, and success that is bred in us by the way we have organized society. Our desire to achieve what capitalist society has made us believe we can achieve with hard work, industry, and a little luck has created a crisis of meaning that we scarcely acknowledge.
Inevitably, the scarcity of idyllic success in capitalism and the estranged relationship to our individuality that arises from our participation in said capitalism, makes us depressed. We are comfortable, yes, but we are unhappy. The belief then sets in that there must be something wrong with us instead of the system.
And perhaps there is something wrong with us. We are so conditioned to copy the blueprints of success pumped out by media, that we fail to recognize the role we play in constructing our own existential hell. We fail to recognize the amount of faith we have unwittingly placed on a gamble. We fail to recognize that by pursuing comfort through the practice of mimicry, we have denied ourselves the chance to develop our originality and ultimately, have masterminded our own unhappiness.
However crushing the depression which characterizes our existential hell is, we are able to bear it because it is a shared experience. We find solace in the fact that our suffering is shared by others. This solidarity allows us to humbly resign ourselves to an ailing system we bought into when we believed that pursuing a life of security equated to wisdom. Here we may accept that life is what it is given to us instead of what we make of it.
For all that’s worth, we may as well be dead.
However difficult the pursuit of originality may be, it is the only journey which promises a new future. It is the only viable approach to answering the existential questions that arise when our reflection stares back at us from our phone screens.
In order to secure our future and preserve our culture, we must destroy our ego of mimicry through the pursuit of originality. From the wreckage of our egos we may harvest a seed of truth which can be sown for the garden of our collective future.
We cannot continue to mimic the past and expect a new future. We must realize that the value in life comes from an engagement with its inherently unknown character, not from the consumption of seductive luxuries.
With this in mind, it is time to shoulder the responsibility of life’s execution. Life is not a cheap performance to be learned, but our finest hour that is to be lived over and over again.
Joan Didion’s essay, “I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind” was published in 1964 by The American Scholar and can be read in full here.
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