We’ve all heard that “There’s nothing new under the sun.” But that was written (in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes) long before cameras or computers, and any number of other modern marvels, which have already enabled man to reach the moon.
Still, we hunger for novelty. Just think of all the geographical names, starting with our entire hemisphere, which, to the generation of Columbus, was a whole new world (though not to Columbus himself, who thought he’d simply discovered a new route to the old world of Asia – which is why we still mistakenly call Native Americans “Indians”). From New England to New South Wales, from New Brunswick to New Zealand, the whole planet is dappled with such names — and, of course, other languages have their own words and place-names for “new.”
Some of these “new” places are nothing like the places they are named after. New York was never anything like old York in England. Its previous name of New Amsterdam may have been a little less inappropriate — since lower Manhattan Island is at least pretty flat, and water-girt, like old Amsterdam in Holland. But I don’t think any part of New Zealand (also a Dutch name) bears any resemblance to the old Zealand.
But supposed newness comes in many flavors. The word “novel” for a form of storytelling has a long and checkered history. The early 11th century Japanese text called the “Tale of Genji” is sometimes considered the first novel. The author was actually a woman, named Murasaki Shikibu, who may thus (speaking of newness) be called the first female novelist, long before the era of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Our word comes from the Italian “novella,” which goes back to Renaissance Italy and Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” (1353) which actually consists of 100 different stories, each called a “novella.” (Incidentally, the “framework” of that collection is the idea of a group of people getting together outside of Florence, to escape the terrible plague, called the “Black Death,” which was raging in that city.)
And, of course, “novels” by “novelists” are still coming out — but readers and critics get very excited when one of these works does seem really new – as you can verify, if you read the reviews, on first appearance of such works as Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
The newest things eagerly awaited by the public today are not literary, but new versions of, often already existing, technical devices, which are more powerful, and can do more things.
Such changes inevitably prompt the question, where will it all end?
But of course, there’s always what we call “The News,” — about which my own complaint (and I suppose that of many of us) is that, from day to day, so often there is very little in it that is really new. Strangely, this reminds me of the German post-World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, called in English, All Quiet on the Western Front. In the original German, that title is Im Westen Nichts Neues, the last part meaning “nothing new” (instead of “all quiet,” the way British dispatches would probably have put it).
Of course, every now and then something happens which really is news. On September 11, 2001, I happened to be up early, and learned, on radio and TV, what was happening in New York, virtually in real time. I was alone and felt a desperate need to tell somebody. I rushed to the nearby home of some friends and pounded on their door. They were there, but in a far closed room, and somehow didn’t hear. Giving up, I bicycled to a restaurant, where I knew my wife was having breakfast with a group of friends. Of course, I told them all that I knew, and thought they’d immediately rush home to their TVs. But my own excitement didn’t stir them enough, and they just continued eating their breakfast.
So, the one time I had some real news, I couldn’t communicate the gravity of the situation effectively to anybody.
But then, what does it all really matter, anyway? Going back to that strange book of Ecclesiastes (about which, some have questioned whether it really even belongs in the Bible), not only does it proclaim that there’s nothing new under the sun, but it assures us repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, that everything is vanity, or meaninglessness.
A fine cheerful way to end an article!