Is Originality Impossible?

Picasso allegedly said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” I believe I understand what he is trying to say in the first part of this quote. I think he is saying, when someone intentionally imitates someone else’s style, it can be quite obvious what they have done, even though it takes a great deal of skill to pull it off. You have to be a very talented painter to create something that clearly replicates another artist’s flair. The second part, however, about great artists stealing, gave me pause. I knew it sounded profound and witty, and I knew I wanted to use it in this post, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. I don’t know much about art, to be honest, but I wanted to sound clever by quoting Picasso. So, I did some googling and found someone far smarter than me who could explain it.

Michelle Gaugy, Art gallery owner, author, and art consultant said on that Picasso was trying to say that a great artist will not just see great art and try to imitate it, but instead, they absorb everything that other artists have done before them and make it part of themselves. They literally take it without permission, internalise it and use it to feed their own creativity and transform it into something completely new and original.

I liked this explanation a lot. I especially liked how it indicated that art could become a part of you and not just something hanging on a wall. It can literally change who you are. I am going to try and appreciate things with this in mind from on. 

It is also interesting to know that there is some controversy about whether Picasso was even the first to say this. Some people attribute the quote to T.S Elliot before him. Although he phrased it less concisely than Picasso did to be fair.


I have been thinking a lot about originality recently and whether it is even possible to create something truly unique anymore. Everything is inspired by what came before in some way and perhaps all we can do is just repackage and re-contextualise it for new audiences.

This all started after I recently stumbled upon one of my favourite ever internet oddities. Even better than, Nyan Cat, if you can imagine such a thing! It’s called the library of Babel and it has completely turned my concept of originality on its head. Basically it is a virtual recreation of Jorge Luis Borges’ vision of a universe in the form of a vast library containing every possible book. The idea comes from his short story, La Biblioteca de Babel, which he wrote in 1941. He envisioned this unimaginably large repository of 410-page books organised onto shelves, against four walls of potentially limitless interconnected hexagonal rooms. The books contained within this great library would contain every possible combination of 26 lowercase letters, spaces, commas, and full stops. These uncountable volumes would, therefore, contain the entirety of all human knowledge and everything else that was still yet to be known!



Of course, the vast majority of these books would contain complete nonsensical gibberish. It would be extremely unlikely for you to come across any prose that made grammatical sense purely by chance. You would be lucky to even find a single English word longer than five letters if you read for the rest of your life. If you did somehow defy the astronomical odds and locate an entire legible sentence, it would most likely not say anything relevant to you.

But in spite of this, the library would indeed still contain everything that has ever been written, would ever be written or could ever be written. If only you could find it!

The internet is full of amazing people who are willing to put incredible amounts of time and effort into creating things that they then offer to the world, completely free of charge. This altruism for the betterment of humanity has always inspired me and is definitely my favourite part of the modern world we live in. Jonathan Basile is one such person. He is the primary creator of the online virtual library of Babel, and it is an absolutely incredible accomplishment.

I have been totally obsessed with this thing all week, although I have yet to think of a practical use for it, beyond proving to myself that I am incapable of any originality whatsoever. At this stage of the project, you can type in any 3200 character block of text (containing lowercase letters, spaces, commas, and full stops) and the search algorithm will locate the volume, shelf, wall, and hexagonal room in which your phrase is located. You can then view it in its entirety, exactly as you typed it, nestled in amongst the random nonsense contained on the rest of the page.

Library of Babel text.PNG

Above is a screenshot of the first 3200 characters of this post contained within the library, word for word exactly as I wrote it. As though it was just accidentally typed by an infinite number of monkeys bashing on an infinite number of typewriters somewhere.

I hope I am doing a sufficient job in explaining what this thing means. I hope that I have managed to convey to you the excitement and wonder that the Library of Babel can produce when you start thinking about what it is. It becomes really addictive once you start playing with it. You can’t help but believe you can somehow retrieve some truth from it in some way. I keep thinking about how that somewhere in there is the name of the woman I will one day marry and the date and location of our wedding. The first words of my first born child are in those volumes somewhere and the exact details of my eventual death! All the answers to the mysteries of the universe could be mine if there was only some way to filter through all the nonsense. To me, this is completely mesmerising.

I was wondering if this is a bit like how God sees the universe. All this limitless potential laid out for humanity, but down which path will our free will lead us? If God truly knows everything, does that mean he knows all that isn’t true as well as all that is? After all, the Library of Babel surly contains more lies than truth. Does God know in advance what we are going to do or is He just capable of holding all possibilities in his mind simultaneously? These are the questions that keep me up at night. Not out of worry or existential dread, but out of wonder and fascination. It can be really fun to ponder on something you can never truly understand.

Perhaps ‘lie’ was the wrong word to use back there. Man, may have come up with the mathematical formula to create the Library of Babel, but there is no intent or meaning behind anything inside it. Jonathan says about it this. “Imagine a demiurge were to create the shoreline of earth’s continents, not with the coarse tools we use in constructing artificial beaches, but with enough resolution to know each grain of sand by name and recall its exact location when asked for it. The pages of rational text which this algorithm can locate are rarer than a single grain of sand in that collection, yet intrinsically no more meaningful.”

It’s just maths and probability at the end of the day. Nothing more than that. Although, as much as I try and tell myself this fact, my wonder, awe, and reverence never cease.