Cryptomnesia  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Cryptomnesia, or inadvertent plagiarism, is a memory bias whereby a person falsely recalls generating a thought, an idea, a song, or a joke, when the thought was actually generated by someone else. In these cases, the person is not deliberately engaging in plagiarism, but is rather experiencing a memory as if it were a new inspiration.

The term cryptomnesia was first put forward by Carl Jung as concealed recollection recollection in Man and His Symbols.

Jorge Luis Borges's story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," is a meta-fictive enactment of cryptomnesia. This work is written in the form of a review or literary critical piece about (the non-existent) Pierre Menard. It begins with a brief introduction and a listing of all of Menard's work:

Borges's "review" describes this 20th century French writer (Menard) who has made an effort to go further than mere "translation" of Don Quixote, but to immerse himself so thoroughly as to be able to actually "re-create" it, line for line, in the original 16th century Spanish. Thus, Pierre Menard is often used to raise questions and discussion about the nature of accurate translation. Or, in this case, the hermeneutics of cryptomnesia.

Cases of Cryptomnesia

As explained by Carl Jung, in Man and His Symbols,

"An author may be writing steadily to a preconceived plan, working out an argument or developing the line of a story, when he suddenly runs off at a tangent. Perhaps a fresh idea has occurred to him, or a different image, or a whole new sub-plot. If you ask him what prompted the digression, he will not be able to tell you. He may not even have noticed the change, though he has now produced material that is entirely fresh and apparently unknown to him before. Yet it can sometimes be shown convincingly that what he has written bears a striking similarity to the work of another author — a work that he believes he has never seen."

Jung goes on to list more specific examples. Friedrich Nietzsche's book Thus Spoke Zarathustra includes an almost word for word account of an incident also included in a book published about 1835, half a century before Nietzsche wrote. This is neither considered to be purposeful plagiarism nor pure coincidence. Nietzsche's sister confirmed that he had indeed read the original account when he was 11 years old.

In some cases, the line between cryptomnesia and zeitgeist may be somewhat hazy. Readers of Lord Byron's closet drama Manfred noted a strong resemblance to Johann von Goethe's Faustus. In a review published in 1820, Goethe wrote, "Byron's tragedy, Manfred, was to me a wonderful phenomenon, and one that closely touched me. This singular intellectual poet has taken my Faustus to himself, and extracted from it the strangest nourishment for his hypochondriac humour. He has made use of the impelling principles in his own way, for his own purposes, so that no one of them remains the same; and it is particularly on this account that I cannot enough admire his genius." Byron was apparently thankful for the compliment; however, he claimed that he had never read Faustus.

Helen Keller seriously compromised her and her teacher's credibility with an incident of cryptomnesia which was misapprehended as plagiarism. The Frost King, which Keller wrote out of buried memories of a fairytale read to her four years previously, left Keller a nervous wreck, and unable to write fiction for the rest of her life.

Cryptomnesia may be the result of some memories becoming forcibly unconscious, due to lack of reinforcement through use. There may be enough of the memory left to recall it but not its origin. Therefore it does not always take the shape of plagiarism, as it would in writing, as well as musical compositions, and other art forms, but can also be the basis of philosophy.

"The ability to reach a rich vein of such material [of the unconscious] and to translate it effectively into philosophy, literature, music or scientific discovery is one of the hallmarks of what is commonly called genius." — Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols.
"We can find clear proof of this fact in the history of science itself. For example, the French mathematician Poincaré and the chemist Kekulé owed important scientific discoveries (as they themselves admit) to sudden pictorial 'revelations' from the unconscious. The so-called 'mystical' experience of the French philosopher Descartes involved a similar sudden revelation in which he saw in a flash the 'order of all sciences.' The British author Robert Louis Stevenson had spent years looking for a story that would fit his 'strong sense of man's double being,' when the plot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was suddenly revealed to him in a dream."Carl Jung Man and His Symbols

The mention of Kekulé is most interesting. While researching benzene, the German chemist dreamed of a snake with its tail in its mouth. Kekulé interpreted the snake as a representation of the closed-carbon ring of benzene, but the symbol of the snake with its tail in its mouth is an ancient one known as the Ouroboros. It can be found in Greek manuscripts from as long ago as the third century BC. This snake can also symbolize reversible chemical reactions.

Robert Louis Stevenson refers to an incident of cryptomnesia that took place during the writing of Treasure Island, and that he discovered to his embarrassment several years afterward:

I am now upon a painful chapter. No doubt the parrot once belonged to Robinson Crusoe. No doubt the skeleton is conveyed from Poe. I think little of these, they are trifles and details; and no man can hope to have a monopoly of skeletons or make a corner in talking birds. The stockade, I am told, is from Masterman Ready. It may be, I care not a jot. These useful writers had fulfilled the poet’s saying: departing, they had left behind them Footprints on the sands of time, Footprints which perhaps another — and I was the other! It is my debt to Washington Irving that exercises my conscience, and justly so, for I believe plagiarism was rarely carried farther. I chanced to pick up the Tales of a Traveller some years ago with a view to an anthology of prose narrative, and the book flew up and struck me: Billy Bones, his chest, the company in the parlour, the whole inner spirit, and a good deal of the material detail of my first chapters — all were there, all were the property of Washington Irving. But I had no guess of it then as I sat writing by the fireside, in what seemed the spring-tides of a somewhat pedestrian inspiration; nor yet day by day, after lunch, as I read aloud my morning’s work to the family. It seemed to me original as sin; it seemed to belong to me like my right eye. --The Art of Writing

Jorge Luis Borges's story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," is a meta-fictive enactment of cryptomnesia. This work is written in the form of a review or literary critical piece about (the non-existent) Pierre Menard. It begins with a brief introduction and a listing of all of Menard's work:

Borges's "review" describes this 20th century French writer (Menard) who has made an effort to go further than mere "translation" of Don Quixote, but to immerse himself so thoroughly as to be able to actually "re-create" it, line for line, in the original 16th century Spanish. Thus, Pierre Menard is often used to raise questions and discussion about the nature of accurate translation. Or, in this case, the hermeneutics of cryptomnesia.

Sentences in scientific papers that are identical to sentences from some of the references used to write the paper often stems from cryptomnesia.

See also

rediscovery, déjà vu, memory failure, false memory syndrome, confabulation, automatic writing, memory bias, memoir, collective unconscious




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Cryptomnesia" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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