top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoseph Patrick Pascale

Cryptomnesia in Literature

Updated: Jun 30, 2018

Imagine the long hours spent crafting the perfect novel - revising each sentence to perfection, fleshing out each character, and tying the plot into a cohesive whole - only to discover that the novel already exists. Another author wrote it a long time ago. At some point in the distant past, you read it and then forgot all about it. When the memory came back to you, you mistook it for your own original idea. That, in essence, is cryptomnesia. While it may sound like something out of the Twilight Zone, there is evidence to suggest that this is a very real phenomenon. For some time, I feared the idea of unknowingly plagiarizing in my own writing. Do you know how many short stories I powered through as assigned reading in college that I can’t even remember the titles or authors of anymore? All these things could be bouncing around in my faulty memories, just waiting to come out as bursts of “inspiration.”

Nabokov and the Tale of the Two Lolitas

I first came upon the term cryptomnesia in connection to the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Evidently, an 18-page short story dealing with a similar plot involving a girl named "Lolita" (for whom the story is named) was published in Germany 40 years before Nabokov’s novel. As far as I can tell, Nabokov never acknowledged the existence of a connection to this other story, and discussion of the connection only began back in 2004, when Michael Maar published an article drawing a connection between the 1916 short story by German author Heinz von Lichberg titled “Lolita” and Vladimir Nabokov’s novel also titled Lolita [Maar expanded it into a full book, The Two Lolitas, later]. Maar didn’t accuse Nabokov of plagiarism, but thought it was a case of cryptomnesia, as the book of short stories would have been readily available in Berlin in the 1920s, where Nabokov and von Lichberg both lived.

In Christopher Caldwell’s New York Times report on the alleged case of cryptomnesia, he writes:

“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.”

Reading it now, I found that the Times article came to a similar opinion as I have after contemplating the problem of cryptomnesia over this past decade. Caldwell describes the novel as “a word game sustained across some 300 pages,” and says of Nabokov, “Honing a distinctive literary voice obsessed him.” The writing in Lolita is so rich, the style so artful, that even if the plot and characters come from a misinterpreted memory, it doesn’t dampen the art of the novel at all.

“Human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece” ― Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

For all we know, what happened with Nabokov wasn’t even cryptomnesia, but a purposeful allusion to an obscure short story that had a great impact on him. To reduce the novel to the bare minimum of plot and characters is to lose most of its significance. Writers and artists draw inspiration from past works and create their own versions all the time. There’s nothing inherently immoral or plagiarist about this. In fact, perhaps it’s our culture’s idea of plagiarism that is in the wrong here.

Creativity and Pure Originality

Back in college I took an Advertising Copywriting class, and the professor always liked to say that creativity wasn’t about being totally unique or original it was about finding a new combination of old ideas. I had a professor with a similar mentality when I took a medieval literature class in graduate school. He said that originality was overrated in our current society.

Purposeful “Cryptomnesia” Throughout the History of Literature

As a point of comparison, let’s jump back to the 14th Century and examine "The Father of English Literature." Geoffrey Chaucer didn’t think it was sagacious to admit to purely inventing stories. Even when he was making up a new story, he would claim it was a translation from another language to add more authenticity to it. This is a very different mindset than the prevailing attitude in our society that artists must be “original” and “unique” in order to be creative. Look at what many consider to be Chaucer’s best work (no, not The Canterbury Tales, which is more famous, but incomplete), the poem Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1385). The story is set during the siege of Troy, with characters from ancient Greek literature. Chaucer’s source for this poem was Boccaccio's Il Filostrato (ca. 1335-1340), and Boccaccio had based his on a French poem called Le Roman deTroie (The Romance of Troy, ca. 1155-1160) by Benoît deSainte-Maure, which is itself a retelling of the Trojan War, probably largely based on Homer’s poems (ca. 1260-1240 BC). That’s the history of the poem working backward from Chaucer, but moving forward from Chaucer, some 200 years later we find Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida (ca. 1602), which was inspired by Chaucer’s poem. An interesting fact the Wikipedia entry notes is:

“The story was a popular one for dramatists in the early 17th century and Shakespeare may have been inspired by contemporary plays. Thomas Heywood's two-part play The Iron Age also depicts the Trojan war and the story of Troilus and Cressida, but it is not certain whether his or Shakespeare's play was written first.”

So there could have been a lot of versions of this story going around at the turn of the 17th century. I’m sure if you looked into it, you could find additional modern retellings of this story dating to our age.

But my point in tracing all these different versions of Troilus is to show that originality was never a requirement for writers throughout history. The fact that Shakespeare’s version essentially shares the same plot he took from Chaucer’s doesn’t invalidate Shakespeare’s as a masterpiece in its own right. To boil it down to just the threadbare plot and characters is to lose so much of what people celebrate in Shakespeare. Would it be any different if Shakespeare had indeed read the poem or seen another play version of it, but forgot and thought the play was entirely his own creation?

Cryptomnesia: Total Recall - The Case of Friedrich Nietzsche

Everything I’ve considered thus far assumes that the cryptomnesiac’s later version of the work is distinctly different from the original, subconsciously remembered version. Even though they share similarities, the new version is decidedly different. But what do you make of the case of Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher - or anti-philosopher (as may be more appropriate)? Or in this case we could simply call him a novelist, since we’re discussing Thus Spoke Zarathustra. According to Shell of Man:

“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.”

The fact that it is “almost word for word” is what makes this case of cryptomnesia seem different to me. It was Carl Jung who discovered the duplication of the earlier story and declared it cryptomnesia. According to Frances Oppel in Nietzsche on Gender:

"The piece of text 'secretly crept up and reproduced itself' [quote from Jung] in "Of Great Events" (Z 2). Jung recognized the story about seamen stopping on an island to hunt rabbits, having read it in his grandfather's library. He wrote Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, who confirmed that she and Nietzsche had read the same book in their grandfather's library, when Nietzsche was eleven. This, Jung informed his Zarathustra seminar, 'shows how the unconscious layers of the mind work.'"

The case of Nietzsche is particularly fascinating, since there’s the tragic downward spiral of his descent into madness late in life. Could it be that at a young age his genius mind had near total recall of memories, but as he aged and his brain faltered, whole chunks of intact memories came back to him with the sources missing?

From the point of view of one phobic of cryptomnesia, the near-perfect reproduction of a text can add no new value to the art - to argue that, one would enter the farcical territory of Borges, with his Pierre Menard who perfectly reproduced Don Quixote to the adulations of critics who could now apply contemporary literary theory to the “new” work.

But even in Nietzsche’s case, his one section of cryptomnesiac text is only four pages of a work over 300 pages long. It’s the sort of book where a passage from another text wouldn’t be out of place, even purposefully inserted, since it’s full of allusions and often features Nietzsche’s subversive interpretations of extant ideas. All that said, it’s another case of cryptomnesia with virtually no harm done.

Cryptomnesia and Plagiarism in Our World

It seems to me that when Jung was looking into cryptomnesia, it was because of a Freudian fascination with the subconscious. However, when people talk about it today, it’s connected with a cultural fear of plagiarism - in this case, a plagiarism so treacherous that you don’t know you’re doing it. This fits into a conversation where college students are frequently told that you should never “plagiarize yourself,” by which instructors mean not to reuse papers from previous courses. It’s evident that there can be serious concerns of actually plagiarizing word-for-word, stealing content, and falsifying sources, but it seems to be something growing beyond these arenas.

Our society has developed an uncomfortable relationship with plagiarism and copyright infringement. However, they seem to be foolish fears. Fear of plagiarism related to school is rooted in cheating. School has been slow to adapt to the Information Age, with its abundance of that which used to be scarce, and the extreme fear of plagiarism shows a slowness to adapt. Instructors drill the fear of plagiarism into students so much that students think they can’t write a paper without citing every line because they’re writing on topics they’re just learning, and obviously they had to learn that information from somewhere, like their textbook. I suspect that something similar is going on with the battles that extend copyright well beyond its original intention - a slowness, an inability, and a fear to catch up with the fast pace of technology and the way people are using it to change the world. These realms stand in stark contrast to the blogosphere, where content and links are freely exchanged. There’s a great essay on this topic by Jonathan Lethem called “The Ecstasy of Influence”- although it’s not technically an essay - he subtitles it, “A plagiarism.” He patched the whole thing together together from other sources, turning it into a completely new work. Toward the end of the essay, he claims:

“Any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The citations that go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read; they are quotations without inverted commas. The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism.”

Although, actually, while Lethem clearly is claiming this, he’s using the words of Roland Barthes and Mark Twain mashed together into this one quote. Fear of plagiarism is permeating our culture to the point that people are forgetting that we learn by absorbing the ideas of others and appropriating them to our own uses.

Cryptomnesia: A Writer’s Greatest Enemy?

So, do you have to fear that your greatest ideas were subconsciously stolen? Do you think writers, artists, or anyone should be worried about cryptomnesia? Do you think it’s fine that the same stories have been repeated so often throughout the history of literature, or were hacks like Chaucer just being unoriginal? And where does plagiarism and copyright law fit into this conversation?


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page