May 24, 2004

Cool Word of the Day: Cryptomnesia

Posted by Ed

In yesterday's New York Times Sunday Magazine, Christopher Caldwell discusses the recent controversy over whether Vladimir Nabokov got the idea for Lolita from a 1916 story by an obscure German writer; that story, also named "Lolita," describes the male narrator's obsession with a young girl. I didn't find Caldwell's article terribly interesting (the same issues have been dealt with more compellingly by other writers), but it did introduce me to a delightful new word: cryptomnesia.

Here's how Caldwell discusses the controversy:

Earlier this spring, Michael Maar, a literary scholar, speculated that the name Lolita may have been similarly interwound with Nabokov himself. In Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and in The Times Literary Supplement, Maar alerted readers to a 1916 short story called ''Lolita,'' by an obscure Berlin writer, Heinz von Lichberg. That von Lichberg later served on the editorial board of a notorious Nazi publication heightened the frisson of scandal.

In the earlier work, as in the later, a first-person male narrator describes an obsession with a young girl named Lolita that entails long travels and ends in death. Maar finds the coincidence of plot, narrative and name ''striking.'' He does not accuse Nabokov of plagiarism, since ''he was a genius on his own.'' (As some are too rich to steal, apparently, others are too smart to crib.) Maar prefers the word ''cryptomnesia,'' a process by which things are learned, forgotten and then mistaken for original inspirations when recalled. Since Nabokov lived in Berlin from 1922 to 1937, Maar asks, could he have been under the ''stimulus'' of von Lichberg's story? If so, what does that tell us about one of the last half-century's most famous -- and notorious -- works of fiction?

Ron Rosenbaum discusses these issues in more depth in a New York Observer article, a fascinating piece that was marred (I believe) by Rosenbaum's suggestion of an implausible theory on the origins of Nabokov's novel Pale Fire. Like me, Rosenbaum is fascinated by the word, and he discusses the usefulness of the concept in an especially interesting section. "I know the specter of cryptomnesia haunts many writers," he 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)."

Cryptomnesia, then, is a fascinating concept. (One writer defines it as a phenomenon "in which one remembers the content of something to which one had been exposed without remembering the event of reading or seeing it before, so it seems that one is thinking of it for the first time.") Until reading Rosenbaum's article, I wasn't sure whether "cryptomnesia" was an already existing term or a neologism coined by Maar; for all I knew, it might fall under the category of words that don't exist, but should. (Barbara Wallraff writes a "word fugitives" column on this subject for The Atlantic Monthly.) I'm sure I've been a victim of cryptomnesia at one point or another (perhaps even on this blog), and I agree with Rosenbaum that the concept should have a lot of appeal for anyone interested in words and writing. It's also common in business, and I believe there's even a Seinfeld episode where Elaine unintentionally plagiarizes a Ziggy cartoon. My curiosity piqued, I decided to investigate further. It seems that the term has a lively history, connected not only with allegations of plagiarism but with Jungian psychology and investigations of the paranormal.

My first stop was The Oxford English Dictionary, which features the following passage in its section of "representative quotations":

a1901 MYERS Hum. Pers. (1903) I. p. xvi, Cryptomnesia, submerged or subliminal memory of events forgotten by the supraliminal self. Ibid. II. 136 ‘Cryptomnesia’ (as Professor Flournoy calls submerged memory). Ibid. 140 This cryptomnesic automatism. 1916 C. E. LONG tr. Jung's Coll. Papers Analyt. Psychol. 91 The rudimentary glossolalia of our case has not any title to be a classical instance of cryptomnesia. Ibid., The cryptomnesic image arrives at consciousness through the senses. 1961 W. H. SALTER Zoar x. 138 Latent memory (cryptomnesia) is therefore left as an alternative explanation to sheer chance-coincidence.

Next I ran some web searches for the word "cryptomnesia." The most interesting site that I found was this entry in The Skeptic's Dictionary:

Cryptomnesia is, literally, hidden memory. The term is used to explain the origin of experiences that people believe to be original but which are actually based on memories of events they've forgotten. It seems likely that most so-called past life regressions induced through hypnosis are confabulations fed by cryptomnesia. For example, Virginia Tighe's hypnotic recollections of Bridey Murphy of Cork, Ireland (Bridie Murphey Corkell), if not deliberately fraudulent, are most likely recollections of events that happened in this life but which she had forgotten.

Cryptomnesia may also explain how the apparent plagiarism of such people as Helen Keller or George Harrison of the Beatles might actually be cases of hidden memory. Harrison didn't intend to plagiarize the Chiffon's "He's So Fine" in "My Sweet Lord." Nor did Keller intend to plagiarize Margaret Canby's "The Frost Fairies" when she wrote "The Frost King." Both may simply be cases of not having a conscious memory of their experiences of the works in question.

Another site, an entry in an encyclopedia of the mystical, expanded on these themes:

The first incidence of cryptomnesia was recorded in 1874, involving an English medium William Stanton Moses. In a seance Moses said he contacted the spirits of two young brothers who had recently died in India. The deaths were quickly verified by a check of the records. But, further research showed that the obituary ran in a newspaper six days before the seance and all information in the obituary was given in the seance and nothing more was added.

A good indication of cryptonesia [sic] is when a person given information containing known errors that have been printed elsewhere. Such an incidence occurred in 1977 when a past-life regressionist hypnotized a 23 year old woman, Jan, on British television. The woman told of Joan Waterhouse, a famous witch of Chelmsford who had been tried and set free in 1566. She gave the date of 1556. Experts were quick to dismiss the recall as cryptomnesia because Jan gave the incorrect date. The date of 1556 was published in a Victorian reprint, of which there were only two copies, one was displayed in the British Museum. It was possible that Jan had seen it. Although she only had a grade school education, her other accounts of the major characters and details of the trial were accurate.

The concept of cryptomnesia also played a key role in the psychology of Carl Jung--which is, of course, famous for its theories of the unconcious. Jung was the author of a 1905 article called "Cryptomnesia," in which he argued that Friedrich Nietzsche had unintentionally plagiarized an article he read in his youth; Jung argued that cryptomnesia was a common phenomenon, and more recent writers have even suggested that he suffered from it himself. Most fascinatingly, the case of Jung combines the elements of cryptomnesia that have to do with plagiarism and the supernatural, since many scholars have discussed the role of pagan symbolism, mysticism, and visionary experiences in the formation of Jung's theories of the unconscious. I wish I knew enough about psychology and early 20th-century psychotherapy to discuss these concepts in more depth...

Ultimately, though, there's one language authority whose opinion of cryptomnesia would really interest me. He's dead, unfortunately, but he was a writer whose works showed a remarkable love of language and wordplay, and whose corpus was remarkably learned (though more than a little pedantic); most importantly of all, he now has a personal stake in the question. I'm referring, of course, to Vladimir Nabokov. If he were alive today, I'm sure he'd have something fascinating to say on the subject...

Posted by Ed at May 24, 2004 08:41 PM

"I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it," President Bush said in his first news briefing since winning re-election. Bush outlined his second-term agenda, saying it would focus on economic recovery, fixing the tax code, Social Security and building on education. best spam filter

Posted by: spam filter at November 8, 2004 12:31 AM

learning online

Posted by: learning online at December 12, 2004 02:58 AM

4a0361f1ee8c102661215959c4301527 2f1825d77e6199dc299e34587.

Posted by: 2551e0c109e0b8b285 at March 15, 2005 12:06 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?