Paradigm Shift: What causes change in human imagination?

I’ve been reading several books lately about the shifts in sensibility, especially with regards the imagination and sexual ethics, that emerged during the 18th century. They’ve led me to believe that every so often the world of the human imagination actually changes. A single book, a dynamic character, a new medium will suddenly open up fresh possibilities for the artist, even new ways of seeing and interpreting the world.

For example, Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree — later expanded into Trillion Year Spree — persuasively argued that science fiction’s foundational work isn’t Lucian of Samosata’s True History or Cyrano de Bergerac’s State and Empire of the Moon. No, it’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Here the clanking Gothic novel acquired a technological component, as Victor Frankenstein employed electricity and contemporary medical techniques to animate his artificial man. Shelley’s novel showed us the power of the laboratory; it was in effect the first truly scientific romance.

Similarly, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary demonstrated virtually all the narrative techniques and tricks of the modern novel, the Sherlock Holmes stories created the iconic ideal of the Great Detective, and the early cowboy films of Hollywood invested the dusty Old West with epic grandeur. Not least, Rousseau’s Confessions provided the template for all the first-person memoirs and effusions of the Romantic Age—and its influence continues, quite obviously, to this day. Of course, almost no one can write as beautifully as Jean-Jacques.

But these are just a few instances. There are doubtless other works that have revolutionized the way we understood the world, interpreted our experience, or “made it new.” Can members of the Reading Room suggest some other instances, or favorite examples, of such literary paradigm-shifters? Astonish me, as Diaghilev once said to Jean Cocteau. Please share your thoughts.

— Michael Dirda

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