This, I absorbed from “The Mirror and the Palette” by Jennifer Higgie: originality is overrated; to make something richly meaningful, don’t reinvent the wheel, just draw from the body of legendary wheels.
Yes, this is the second time I’m referencing the book “The Mirror and the Palette.” We will probably get at least five episodes out of this book, because it inspires in me so many different directions.
So. This is a book about female self-portraiture. And as an extension of the previous episode, I thought about the fact that referencing existing work is not only easier, but also more effective.
Once again, the artist at the center of the discussion will be Judith Leyster. As mentioned in the previous episode, she used a distinctive monogram. It was J, followed by an l, with a little star next to it. “Jl*.”
But this monogram wasn’t just important due to its function as a clear brand. It was doubly important because of the cultural references it drew from. According to the book, this monogram was, quote, “a play on her surname: ‘leidstar’ ”… or ‘leidstar’? I’m not sure. Whatever the correct Dutch pronunciation is, this word, “translates as lodestar – like the one that shone so brightly over Bethlehem – a star that guides.”
Making something richly meaningful—it is an act that is easier said than done. And so, ancient mythology, biblical stories, and historical references can act as excellent tools for adding meaning. They do things that so-called “completely original” stories cannot possibly do, which is, pulling from pre-existing stories that add layers and depth without any overt explanation by the user of those myths and legends.
Consider Judith Leyster’s lodestar reference. Now that I’ve heard that story in conjunction with her monogram, I cannot separate her from the image of a visionary. A star seer. A star guide. How cool is that?
Imagine how powerful that must have been, in a timeplace in which a lot of people were familiar with this religious reference. Also imagine how difficult it might have been for Judith Leyster, if she’d instead tried to invent a whole new story to surround herself with.
By using the lodestar reference and literally embedding it into her work in the form of the monogram, Judith put herself as part of a map, a vast map of stories. She is but one star in the sky, but by no means lonely and by no means detached. She is at once alone and together. This is brilliant.
When you consider the fact that there is no such thing as total originality anyway, her strategy is even more brilliant. Everything draws from something. Nothing is born out of nothing.
Originality is overrated. Sometimes, the people who chase so-called originality never get anything done, because, well, a human tends to have a history. So far, at least, with the technology available to us, humans have what’s called a place they come from, called a mother’s womb. So, to deny that every person inevitably comes from a source, and to attempt to become something that one cannot possibly be, is… I think it is a way to spend efforts on a futile task.
To make something richly meaningful, don’t reinvent the wheel, just draw from the body of legendary wheels.
Here are some other examples.
In the modern world, this ease of simply using an existing wheel is also why specific wardrobe choices can be useful, depending on what field you’re in. There used to be a time when I thought that spending money on clothes was a waste. But now I don’t think so anymore. I think it can save a lot of time, depending on what you do.
I work from home, so maybe it’s a waste of time for me to “dress like a power lawyer,” but if you’re a power lawyer, or you wanna be a power lawyer, then damn well you gotta dress like a power lawyer.
There must have been hundreds of other power lawyers. And thousands of power people in other fields. It saves a lot of resources to follow their pattern, than, say, trying to be the first ever lawyer dressed like a punk rock band drummer. If you were to do such a thing, you’d be fighting a totally unnecessary uphill battle where you’re trying to convince people that lawyering abilities have nothing to do with your dress code. Which may be true. Or, some people could make the valid point that part of being a good lawyer is to blend in instead of making a fashion statement in court.
Book covers are like this too. There is definitely a code that can be applied to book covers, depending on country and genre. It doesn’t matter if people who don’t read in that specific country in that genre think that a given book cover is ugly. So long as it conveys the necessary meanings to the potential buyers, the cover is doing its job.
Yes, people do judge the book by its cover. They really do.
The last example is my name. Ithaka is a pen name. It is the island that features in Homer’s Odyseey. But more specifically, I got this name from the poem “Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy. See, so it’s a double reference. And I specifically like the image that C.P. Cavafy evokes in the poem, and not as much the entirety of the story in Homer’s Odyseey. C.P. Cavafy’s poem is, partly because it’s a poem, more vibrant and precise.
Anybody who knows this poem will know what I am trying to represent. Ithaka started out as a mindset. My website name is still Ithaka On My Mind. Ithaka was very much on my mind, more so than in my mind. I was preoccupied with the idea of finding my own Ithaka, or at the very least beginning to take the journey toward it. And I wanted to work around that theme, and within that theme.
And I don’t mind if Ithaka means something slightly different for everyone. That’s part of the appeal of referencing an entire story, instead of one word that aims to have a dictionary definition, which… you know, dictionaries have so many definitions and there are so many dictionaries because definitions are subjective.
Whereas, stories, of course they are subjective, but from the beginning they never attempt to define something. Maybe some people do, but stories themselves? I don’t think so.
If someone writes a story and the reader takes from it what the writer didn’t intend, it doesn’t matter. Both ways. And I am hoping to only attract people who know this. I am very tired of false correctness, political or otherwise. Take what you will, don’t take what you won’t. It doesn’t matter.
Ithaka is there. It has been there before me, before all of us who are alive today. That is something that no amount of originality can produce.
And so, after making the website, I used Ithaka On My Mind as the imprint name for publishing.
And more recently, I killed my old pen name and now Ithaka is who I am.
From death there is rebirth.
I think about destiny and destinations. The horizon is limitless and the sun blazes on my skin. I can taste the saltiness on my tongue. The moist air fills my lungs. And I look forward to hearing the coming of Ithaka. The waves will sound different with its approach.
But until then, I hope the journey will be long.
And it will be long. Because I’ll always be seeking. The journey is the goal.
- The Mirror and the Palette” by Jennifer Higgie: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Mirror-and-the-Palette/Jennifer-Higgie/9781643138039
- Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51296/ithaka-56d22eef917ec
Sailing in Big Waves – Michele Nobler (licensed through Artlist)
Everything I do is organized here:
© 2022 Ithaka O.