We admit this for a limited time only. At school and university, squidgy-brained and ready for anything, we were besieged by information in the hope that it might leave its mark. We carefully noted the ideas and actions of others for our personal use: these were to be woven into our arguments and elaborated on to conclude. No one would really dispute that education is a collection of other people’s thoughts ‘made mine.’
But today, when we leave education, the notion that we assemble ourselves out of others seems to disappear and we are left, a distinct ‘individual,’ to get on with being ‘me’. Of course we continue to read when we can, to listen to music and go to the theatre. But aside from ‘cultured,’, or even ‘well-read’ there is nothing in our language which describes the impressions these continue to make on our mental lives. Interestingly, we are only given the licence to be impressionable again when we suffer a mid-life crisis, or a terrible break up – anything which weakens. And then we’ll be expected to plunge back into Doris Lessing and opera while trying new films, plays, and music: all in order to reassemble ourselves through them. But, weirdly, the hope is to come out of all this ‘myself again.’
Why, I wonder, do we attribute such limited periods of life, and particularly our youth, to being impressionable? Don’t we always lean on the ideas and help of others?
The answer to the latter seems to be yes, with a lack of vocabulary to show it. Impressionability has almost exclusively negative connotations today, but in the Middle Ages it was understood quite differently. It is this period that had a thorough formulation for malleability of character, connectedness, and for the composition of ‘self’ through others. Looking here, one finds that to be ‘impressionable’ has nothing to do with weaknesses, but is in fact how we operate as members of a culture.
Our loss of the formulation around the time of Donne’s Meditation is rooted, of course, in the Renaissance. A mountain of eighteenth and nineteenth century scholarship showed that during the fifteenth century, or thereabouts, the ‘self’ became independent, breaking free of others after centuries of being defined by his relationship to the community. By 1550, Vasari was spinning his tale that emerging from the Dark Ages, ‘simple children, roughly brought up in the wilderness, have begun to draw by themselves, impelled by their own natural genius, instructed solely by the example of…nature.’ According to Vasari, humans could produce great art from a vacuum; invention was just as possible in a child raised by a pack of hounds as in fifteenth century Florence. What was fanciful proclamation for him became political necessity in the Enlightenment. For Kant, genius was the ability to ‘create,’ independently arriving at concepts that would normally have to be taught by another person. Wordsworth claimed that he had learned more from nature than from books, and the myth of originality was born. By and large, this notion has stayed with us, and it is one that swept away medieval modes of learning in which community had featured so heavily.
The Roman writer and Senator Cassiodorus, in a statement quoted throughout the Middle Ages, explained this basic idea when he wrote that ‘human judgement if it is not adjusted and restored by things found [in the works of] others, promptly will fall short of its true nature.’
To be made up of different impressions was the very definition of ‘character’ in the medieval period. Today we tend to think of someone’s ‘character’ as their completed ‘self’ – a sort of abstracted, summary image of a person – like characters in Victorian fiction. By contrast, the Greek word ‘kharakter’ means ‘engraved mark’ or ‘imprint on the soul.’ According to Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, everything we perceive impresses us like a seal in wax. As a result, we are always in flux, and a virtuous character is by nature soft rather than hard in substance, able to change according to what touches it. Gregory the Great described this (quite beautifully) in the seventh century, explaining that in reading texts our characters grow: ‘we learn our own ugliness, our own beauty. There we know how much we have gained, there how far we lie from our goal.’
As time went on, the same advice was applied to secular stories, often of personal upset and dilemma. Medieval literary figures frequently disclose their impressionability, so much so that another’s experience is often recollected as their own. The letters of Abelard and his student Heloise tell the story of a romantic relationship: one which spanned a good part of the twelfth century. After a forbidden love affair between the two, Heloise’s father has Abelard castrated, and he is forced to enter a monastery while Heloise is made a nun. In Abelard’s account, Heloise doesn’t express her despair ‘originally’ (for we rarely do,) but instead quotes directly from a fictional character—Cornelia from Lucan’s poem Pharsalia. Abelard writes:
She broke out as best she could through her tears and sobs into Cornelia’s famous lament:
O noble husband,
Too great for me to wed, was it my fate
To bend that lofty head? What prompted me
To marry you and bring about your fall?
To us, quoting a fictional character borders on the pretentious, but eight hundred years ago it was commonplace. Heloise is so impressed by Cornelia’s experience that the reference ‘defines’ rather than ‘overwhelms’ her sense of self.
Similarly, the emotional range of Shakespeare’s plays – the motivation to kill, commit suicide, conceal one’s identity, or die for love – could never have sprung from the experiences of one man. His ‘originality’ is now more correctly understood as an ability to extract, steal and combine outstandingly. The inventor must be impressed in order to invent. Again, the Middle Ages had this clearer—our verb to ‘invent’ and our noun ‘inventory’ both derive from the Latin ‘invenire’ which means ‘to find.’
J K Rowling’s famous anecdote about the appearance of Harry Potter, in all his form, walking like a ghost down the aisle of a delayed train to King’s Cross, is possibly the most depressing story for anyone with creative aspirations. (I think I have actually sat on trains before and thought this might happen to me.) But this is exactly the confusion we have inherited from eighteenth century thought on ‘originality’: it doesn’t exist. Surely, Harry materialised not from nowhere, but from a culmination of various influences on his creator. It’s the combination that’s new.
To take another modern example, The Social Network (2010) frames the foundation of Facebook not by the romanticism of invention, but within issues of intellectual property law. The Winklevoss twins approach Mark Zuckerberg with their idea for a social network at Harvard, before forcing him into a lawsuit having discovered that he has plagiarised their idea. Hollywood’s adaptation prompted rave reviews, but with them one particularly frequent criticism; that the story possessed no hero—or not a clear one at least. Zuckerberg comes closest, cutting the genius figure, but this is insufficient to render him likeable. For his ‘genius’ is not entirely of his own making—it is quite clearly inspired by his experiences, individual and collective. The question of to whom Facebook – the formative idea – ‘belongs’ is shown to be an absurd one. The ensuing court case demonstrates the limits of our modern conception of impressionability.
Having a resource of others’ ideas and experiences in these ways is necessary not only for evaluating how to respond to life’s situations, but for inventing: and so combined, for our character as a whole. Certainly, the freedom that eighteenth century thought gave us via the notion of the ‘individual’ is a gift not worth giving up. And ideas of communal thinking in the Middle Ages bring with them a slightly frightening tie to those around us, and to institutions, that no one since Foucault could envy. But with our doubly privileged culture of enormous preoccupation with ‘self’ on the one hand (an un-endangered species,) and an overwhelming possibility for connectedness on the other, impressionability is under-recognised and undervalued. Modern liberties intact, to be impressionable is not a contradiction of intellectual power, but a requirement of it.