Saturday, May 28, 2005

Literary Word of the Month


According to the appearance in consciousness of memory images which are not recognized as such but which appear as original creations.

The word cryptomnesia has lately resurfaced in literary circles due to allegations that Vladimir Nabokov plagiarized Lolita. In Berlin, around the time Nabokov was living there (some 30 years before he wrote his most famous book), a short story was written in which a young girl, named Lolita, becomes an older man's object of desire. Though there are a few similarities between Heinz von Lichberg's Lolita and Nabokov's, the differences are too great to accuse Nabokov of plagiarism. (The first Lolita, after all, is only a few pages in length - Nabokov's is a novel over 300.) To explain the coincidences between the two works, and the fact that Nabokov very well might have read this story, having lived in the same Berlin community in which this story was produced, and around the same time, the word cryptomnesia has been employed. In short, it has been suggested that Nabokov did read the early Lolita and simply forgot about it - which is possible, considering it is very short and in addition poorly written - and that the later appearance of Lolita in his mind seemed to him wholly original.

It's a very interesting debate, and a very interesting word. For more, click here.

For the Carolyn Kunin translation of von Lichberg's Lolita, click here.


At 10:16 PM, Anonymous noelle said...

This word, this idea, the entire concept surrounding cryptomnesia is so, so, so incredibly fun and horrible and mind boggling to think and talk about. Yes, I had read about the allegations surrounding Nabokov's writing of Lolita, and, honestly, if individuals are going to attack that text's author, then they are going to have to attack not only every other text out there, but every other single idea out there. Jung talked about cryptomnesia, which would make sense since he was one of the psychologists who dealt with the unconscious. I mean what we are really talking about are the parts of ourselves that we hide not only from the outside world, but from ourselves as well. Our psyches are so adept and can achieve immense internal manipulation while simultaneously tricking itself into "believing" it is being honest. Oh, human beings are so wonderfully complex. The idea behind cryptomnesia goes back much further than Jung, though.

As early as 550 BC Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher and mathematician, was applying this concept in terms of transmigration of the soul. He believed that the only consant was the soul, and that our individual physical lives were merely distinct experiences that helped to construct the soul. Basically, the way I understand it, is that there is birth, death, rebirth, death, rebirth, death, etc... and once our soul "gets it," for lack of a better term, then our souls get to go to their real living places. Cryptomnesia ties into this because within the context of our various physical life forms (that sounds kind of sci fi doesn't it?) we recollect certain events from each previous life. Kind of what I think is behind that deja vu experience.

In any case, I would like to post more about this, but I should probably stop right now because I really could go on and on and on about this. As nutty as it sounds, to me it makes perfect sense. I think sometimes we try to evade these subjects because we think that they can be kind of scary---if we are too steeped in our own illusions than anything that threatens those illusions can be terrifying. I mean, for me, if I get too deep into it I start questioning if I even exist. Oh, my gosh, now that probably sounded odd, but that is how I feel, and when it comes to talking about these sorts of ideas I feel that the only way to be is honest, or the conversations, or in this case the posts, will not be forthright.

Thank you for supplying such an interesting and thought provoking word.

At 12:29 AM, Blogger Jason Alden Williams said...

Here is a very funny quote from the article I linked to. I think it speaks quite well to the worries writers have regarding cryptomnesia:

"I know the specter of cryptomnesia haunts many writers," [Ron Rosenbaum, of the New York Observer] writes. "Whenever I come up with a phrase I’m particularly pleased with, one of my first thoughts is: 'Could I be remembering something someone else wrote that I once read?' In fact, I’ve refused to use many brilliant witticisms for precisely this reason (you’ll just have to take my word for it)."

I am an amateur Nabokovian (if you can't tell from my writing), and the first place I ran across this word was when I was reading into the plagiarism allegations. What a word, and what a concept. I have many times had thoughts that seemed to come from nowhere, only to find later that they had precedent in books I had read, or movies I had seen. I talked about this recently with a colleague of mine (read his latest work, this one an interview with Todd McFarlane and Larry Marder, at:, and he immediately, upon hearing an explanation of the concept, was able to point out several specific instances when he had written lines of original prose, only to find out later they mirrored lines he had read earlier in books.

I wonder: how well would cryptomnesia stand up in court if a writer accused of plagiarism claimed it for his or her defense?


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