Thursday, October 16, 2008

Influence, Plagiarism, and the All-Too-Human




For P.K. & J.K.



A great book like the DIVINA COMMEDIA is not the isolated or random caprice of an individual; many men and many generations built toward it.
-Borges




Borges is talking about Dante. Dante, for God's sake! One of the undisputed heavyweight champions of the Western Canon. And he is basically repeating what artists have known for quite some time: Artistic creation does not take place in a vacuum, free from influence or contingency. Everybody's dirty little fingerprints are all over everybody else's mirror. And if you read, and understand, Harold Bloom, this isn't a chronological one way street; modern authors influence how we apprehend past authors just as profoundly as the past authors influence the modern. This makes it incredibly difficult to determine the primacy and authority of a given piece, to find the methods for locating and defining originality.

The factors that go into creating a work of art are invariably as mysterious to the creator as they are the viewer. I've read plenty of books about the writing process by plenty of authors who seem to have one common theme; bewilderment at the vital point of explanation. The smarter ones seem to revel in their influences while the less secure seem more likely to get drunk and stab their wives. And, amazingly, the author's knowledge of these things, or lack thereof, has very little to do with the quality of their actual work; the two are simply unrelated.

At the same time we don't let everything pass as original. Kaavya Viswanathan of Harvard wrote a book (I'll omit the details since her name already took me fifteen minutes to type) that was publicly derided as an instance of overt plagiarism. The evidence was strong and the fallout predictable. Many examples from her book were paralleled, in the press, with near duplicate passages from another; Ms. V could not be reached for comment; e-mails went unread; movies deals fell through; the faculty room at Harvard was heavily re-stocked with Johnny Walker Blue.

An after school special is surely in the works.

Mother: Kathy, did you write this book?
Kathy: I did Mom. I swear.
Mother: You know I'll love you even if you didn't.
Kathy: Why do lies hurt so much?


And stoned teenagers everywhere will once again get a big laugh on an otherwise dull Tuesday afternoon.

There are many other examples of outright aesthetic theft. Vanilla Ice lifting the signature bass line from David Bowie's Pressure and then attempting to stutter his way through a denial (I never heard of that song), an explanation (I listen to the radio a lot, maybe it just got in my head), a lie (my part doesn't really sound like his, it's more def), and a non sequitur (word to your mother), before finally admitting that he was full of shit and scampering back to the mean streets of suburban Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Hell, John Fogerty has actually been sued for plagiarizing himself; no small feat, even in a litigation addled and stupefied America. The case was not laughed out of court as one might hope but went on for years before the artist was finally acquitted. Fogerty had to go through his creative process in great, and humiliating, detail before a legal proceeding that was not comprised of our greatest aestheticians and who consequently could have no way of determining the legitimacy of Fogerty's description. Zappa wept.

In all fairness, it may be impossible to tell, in many cases, whether someone is stealing, referencing, adoring, satirizing, or unconsciously adopting the work of another. There is good reason for this. The human brain has evolved into a remarkable pattern interpreter; remarkable, but not perfect. We see patterns everywhere, even where there are none. This can be helpful, as when we notice that the beautiful furry animal by the river has a predilection for human flesh. But it can also contribute to our ongoing and idiotic fascination with things like astrology, numerology, and God.

It also gives critics (everyone interacting with a work of art is a critic, consciously or otherwise) impetus to find signs of plagiarism in the works of artists that they are ambivalent about. This can be problematic, especially in situations where the accuser has some institutional leverage over over the accused. That is when common human motives (envy, narrowness, dislike, or the simple desire to save one's ass) can have disastrous results.

It is a murky business. Vonnegut openly claimed to have stolen from everybody he read. Likewise Twain. Harold Bloom has made himself into a cottage industry with books like The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading. And these are Big Minds eating at the grown up table; how can a typical high school teacher, with a head full of platitudes and thwarted ambition, be expected to navigate such treacherous waters? Well, he can't.

Christopher Hitchens points this very tendency out in his essay In Defense of Plagiarism. He gives many obvious examples of literary theft ( G. Harrison/Chiffons; A.L. Webber/Puccini, etc) and even a less well known, but devastating, charge against Eliot and the Wasteland. But his main theme is captured in a quote by de Quincy and Hitchen's response to it.

"It is undeniable, that thousands of feeble writers are constantly at work, who subsist by plagiarism, more or less covert. It is equally undeniable ... that thousands of feeble critics subsist by detecting plagiarisms as imitations, real or supposed."

Just as writers should beware of joining the first category, so readers should not be too eager to enlist in the second.


Ecclesiastes says that there is nothing new under the sun. Still, part of what is good about human beings is that we pretend that there is. We thrill to an original voice, or at least the potential for one. And if artists politely deferred to their intractable connection with everything that came before, then we would be left with nothing.

The remainder of the Borges quote from above seems a good place to end.

To investigate its precursors is not to subject oneself to the miserable drudgery of legal or detective work; it is to examine the movements, probings, adventures, glimmers, and premonitions of the human spirit.

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