On plagiarism, by Jonathan Lethem

I remember the first time I read Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence: I was so impressed I practically copy-pasted the entire essay on Facebook so others would read it and revel too. Of course I wasn’t accounting for stuff like hindsight bias and inferential distance and the plain fact that “interesting” isn’t an intrinsic property of something but rather (being a valuation) an extrinsic property of the thing and the valuer (me) – you might say it’s a two-value, two-variable function accepting as inputs “thing evaluated” and “valuer” and mapping these to “interesting” or “meh” (or you could map them to a continuous range of interest “”intensities” probably quasi-orderable by some measure of dopamine release, or – okay too much nonsense) – but what could I do? It was exciting all the way. Think roller coasters, skydiving, whatever activity gives you a continuous and monotonic increasing high instead of punctuated moments of excitement in an otherwise featureless expanse of muted emotion.

Because here’s the kicker: Lethem cribbed the entire essay.

I already linked to the full text of the essay above (in Harper magazine), but anyway here’s how it begins:

Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator — marked by her forever — remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.

The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Lichberg later became a prominent journalist in the Nazi era, and his youthful works faded from view. Did Nabokov, who remained in Berlin until 1937, adopt Lichberg’s tale consciously? Or did the earlier tale exist for Nabokov as a hidden, unacknowledged memory? The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon, called cryptomnesia. Another hypothesis is that Nabokov, knowing Lichberg’s tale perfectly well, had set himself to that art of quotation that Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called “higher cribbing.” Literature has always been a crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast. Little of what we admire in Nabokov’s Lolita is to be found in its predecessor; the former is in no way deducible from the latter. Still: did Nabokov consciously borrow and quote?

Convinced? No? Read on. Here’s Bob Dylan:

Appropriation has always played a key role in Dylan’s music. The songwriter has grabbed not only from a panoply of vintage Hollywood films but from Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza. He also nabbed the title of Eric Lott’s study of minstrelsy for his 2001 album Love and Theft. One imagines Dylan liked the general resonance of the title, in which emotional misdemeanors stalk the sweetness of love, as they do so often in Dylan’s songs. Lott’s title is, of course, itself a riff on Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, which famously identifies the literary motif of the interdependence of a white man and a dark man, like Huck and Jim or Ishmael and Queequeg — a series of nested references to Dylan’s own appropriating, minstrel-boy self. Dylan’s art offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture, like the Civil War poetry of the Confederate bard Henry Timrod, resuscitated in lyrics on Dylan’s newest record, Modern Times. Dylan’s originality and his appropriations are as one.

Here’s Burroughs and literature. I love the last line:

Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs, author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance. Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.

Blues and jazz:

In 1941, on his front porch, Muddy Waters recorded a song for the folklorist Alan Lomax. After singing the song, which he told Lomax was entitled “Country Blues,” Waters described how he came to write it. “I made it on about the eighth of October ’38,” Waters said. “I was fixin’ a puncture on a car. I had been mistreated by a girl. I just felt blue, and the song fell into my mind and it come to me just like that and I started singing.” Then Lomax, who knew of the Robert Johnson recording called “Walkin’ Blues,” asked Waters if there were any other songs that used the same tune. “There’s been some blues played like that,” Waters replied. “This song comes from the cotton field and a boy once put a record out — Robert Johnson. He put it out as named ‘Walkin’ Blues.’ I heard the tune before I heard it on the record. I learned it from Son House.” In nearly one breath, Waters offers five accounts: his own active authorship: he “made it” on a specific date. Then the “passive” explanation: “it come to me just like that.” After Lomax raises the question of influence, Waters, without shame, misgivings, or trepidation, says that he heard a version by Johnson, but that his mentor, Son House, taught it to him. In the middle of that complex genealogy, Waters declares that “this song comes from the cotton field.”

Blues and jazz musicians have long been enabled by a kind of “open source” culture, in which pre-existing melodic fragments and larger musical frameworks are freely reworked. Technology has only multiplied the possibilities; musicians have gained the power to duplicate sounds literally rather than simply approximate them through allusion. In Seventies Jamaica, King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry deconstructed recorded music, using astonishingly primitive pre-digital hardware, creating what they called “versions.” The recombinant nature of their means of production quickly spread to DJs in New York and London. Today an endless, gloriously impure, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of music.

Gloriously impure: love that one. Most of the twentieth century’s cultural movements in art etc:

Visual, sound, and text collage — which for many centuries were relatively fugitive traditions (a cento here, a folk pastiche there) — became explosively central to a series of movements in the twentieth century: futurism, cubism, Dada, musique concrète, situationism, pop art, and appropriationism. In fact, collage, the common denominator in that list, might be called the art form of the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first. But forget, for the moment, chronologies, schools, or even centuries. As examples accumulate — Igor Stravinsky’s music and Daniel Johnston’s, Francis Bacon’s paintings and Henry Darger’s, the novels of the Oulipo group and of Hannah Crafts (the author who pillaged Dickens’s Bleak House to write The Bondwoman’s Narrative), as well as cherished texts that become troubling to their admirers after the discovery of their “plagiarized” elements, like Richard Condon’s novels or Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons — it becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production.

Again, yes to the last line:

In a courtroom scene from The Simpsons that has since entered into the television canon, an argument over the ownership of the animated characters Itchy and Scratchy rapidly escalates into an existential debate on the very nature of cartoons. “Animation is built on plagiarism!” declares the show’s hot-tempered cartoon-producer-within-a-cartoon, Roger Meyers Jr. “You take away our right to steal ideas, where are they going to come from?” If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones — more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths — The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don’t strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, or Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.

Here’s a good one:

A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense. In this regard, few of us question the contemporary construction of copyright. It is taken as a law, both in the sense of a universally recognizable moral absolute, like the law against murder, and as naturally inherent in our world, like the law of gravity. In fact, it is neither. Rather, copyright is an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in its every incarnation.

Thomas Jefferson, for one, considered copyright a necessary evil: he favored providing just enough incentive to create, nothing more, and thereafter allowing ideas to flow freely, as nature intended. His conception of copyright was enshrined in the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” This was a balancing act between creators and society as a whole; second comers might do a much better job than the originator with the original idea.

But Jefferson’s vision has not fared well, has in fact been steadily eroded by those who view the culture as a market in which everything of value should be owned by someone or other. The distinctive feature of modern American copyright law is its almost limitless bloating — its expansion in both scope and duration. With no registration requirement, every creative act in a tangible medium is now subject to copyright protection: your email to your child or your child’s finger painting, both are automatically protected. The first Congress to grant copyright gave authors an initial term of fourteen years, which could be renewed for another fourteen if the author still lived. The current term is the life of the author plus seventy years. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that each time Mickey Mouse is about to fall into the public domain, the mouse’s copyright term is extended.

Even as the law becomes more restrictive, technology is exposing those restrictions as bizarre and arbitrary. When old laws fixed on reproduction as the compensable (or actionable) unit, it wasn’t because there was anything fundamentally invasive of an author’s rights in the making of a copy. Rather it was because copies were once easy to find and count, so they made a useful benchmark for deciding when an owner’s rights had been invaded. In the contemporary world, though, the act of “copying” is in no meaningful sense equivalent to an infringement — we make a copy every time we accept an emailed text, or send or forward one — and is impossible anymore to regulate or even describe (emphasis mine).

If you’re into futurism: the last line reminds me of copyable uploaded minds, or Robin Hanson’s ems. Which also raises the issue of whether artificial life deserves the same legal and moral rights as “real” ones (e.g. us): or a fascinating short SF story on this see The Lifecycle of Software Objects by the brilliant Ted Chiang, which won the Locus, Hugo and Seiun awards.

I’ll quote more of the essay, but I haven’t even gone through half of it in the quotes above and this post is already running past 2,000 words, so if you’re interested just read the whole thing here.

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