THE ANXIETY OF ORIGINALITY
THIS ORIGINAL ESSAY, FOR ALL ITS PRETENTIONS to originality, contains innumerable examples of replication. ‘Pretensions to originality’, which felt natural enough as a phrase, pops up all sorts of hits on Google, the earliest being an 1830 tome by William Hales entitled Chronology and Geography, in which he speculates about ‘the primitive language’:
...the language spoken by the inhabitants of the first districts occupied
by Noah’s family, after the flood, seem to have the fairest pretensions
to originality, or rather of affinity to the primitive language, supposing
all to be altered, more or less, by lapse of time and change of place.
An overlap between myself and Mr. Hales, but certainly not plagiarism, as this was the first I’ve read of him. The sequence of words isn’t long enough, is it? I can’t even confirm that he came up with it—it’s probably original neither to him nor to me.
Overlap, accidental or intentional, is only part of the problem. In literature, we have the reworking of a predecessor (say, King Lear coming after the anonymous Leir play), the reworking of one’s own earlier work (Goethe’s Urfaust becoming Faust), pastiche (portions of Eliot’s The Wasteland), the unattributed excerpt (Moby Dick’s digressions on whaling), the cento, and the postmodern form of the ‘found poem’; not to mention verbal allusion, homage, and echo. Literary practice is hardly so simple as originality and plagiarism, some spectrum with neologism at one end and the cut-and-paste function at the other. It is enough to get you wondering what originality is—maybe even asking the hard question about this concept both readers and critics enshrine as a supreme literary virtue. Like whether or not it exists.
You can approach this idea from more than one perspective. First, the biological one. We—and every living human being—are copies of copies of copies of copies of copies, all the way back to Adam and Eve, or ape and ape. What you think of as your individuality is really a trivial variation in the source code—the DNA string of A’s, C’s, T’s, and G’s—that you plagiarized wholesale from your parents. Vary your genome in any significant way, you don’t go on to join the X-men. Let me quote directly from my source, Jurkovic and Farquharson’s Acute Gynaecology and Early Pregnancy, p.14: ‘It has been estimated that 50−80% of first-trimester losses are associated with a chromosomal abnormality...’ (Full disclosure: I found that quote by typing ‘chromosomal abnormalities miscarriage cause’ into Google Books.) As with the four letters of genetic code, so with the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet: Leaving aside the strict rules of grammar and syntax that sharply limit meaningful word-combinations, all writing, at the most basic level, recombines symbols that date back to the ancient Phoenicians.
An historian would be as unimpressed as a biologist by our notion of literary originality. We would do well to understand, she might point out, how culturally and historically mediated and limited this idea of ‘originality’ is—to know where and how this now-ubiquitous idea, for lack of a better term, originated. There’s a reason you’re unlikely to find much discussion of originality in Aristotle’s Poetics. Aeschylus, after all, called his tragedies ‘crumbs from Homer’s table,’ and few Greek tragedians would have disagreed; Homer himself, as Milman Parry’s 20th century analysis of oral traditions would have it, routinely lifted epithets and stock phrases from his predecessors, and more than once repeated wholesale a line or two of his own. Originality, as we conceive of it, doesn’t occupy much space in any classical Western text of literary criticism, or any text of criticism, in any language until the European Enlightenment.
At that point in history, the anti-clerical Enlightenment deists and atheists dethroned God and elevated the human being. The office of Creator, of the original originator, was left vacant; ‘Man,’ newly installed, took on the duties. ‘Man’ was deemed not just the originator of ‘God’ and the various religions—he was also the originator of his own sui generis poetry, if he were any good. Every time a literary critic says a novelist ‘breathes life’ into characters or an historical setting, it’s an unwitting reference to the Old Testament God blowing the nishmat chayim (the Hebrew ‘Breath of Life’) into the lumpen clay of Adam.
Which brings us to the Literary perspective. You can look at this chronologically, of course, and run Ye Olde Western Canon as an exercise in derivations and reworkings. Homer and the Greek tragedians are only the start of it. Virgil hybridizes Homer’s two epics into the Aeneid, with special attention to Odysseus’s visit to Hades. Dante follows Virgil, literally, figuratively, and literarily, when writing his descent to the Underworld. Chaucer rewrites Boccaccio, while Shakespeare reworks everything he can get his hands on, starting out his dramatic career by turning Plautus’s Menaechmi into The Comedy of Errors. Milton fleshes out Genesis by way of Virgil’s Latin. Goethe takes the Faust myth and splices it to Greek imagery in the second Part. Melville’s prose lapses into runs of Shakespearean blank verse (and, as I noted earlier, repurposes whole passages from whaling manuals). Tennyson rewrites the Arthurian legends of Sir Thomas Malory, who didn’t come up with them in the first place. Eliot reworks Dante in ‘Little Gidding’. Walcott reworks Homer in Omeros. And so on. These are only the obvious examples of style and allusion. Larger, structural principles, common to all narratives, make the same stories (like, say, the Quest story) succeed over and over again.
What is original in these works? What is derivative? Which is it that results in their success—the originality or the derivation? This entire way of looking at the matter might best give way to the more realistic notion, borrowed from genetics and biology, of hybrid vigour. This concept explains an age-old observation regarding the superior hardiness of crossbreeds of any species: The mutt born of two purebreds lives a longer, healthier life than either parent, while offspring that possess the least hybridity—the products of incest—have a drastically increased likelihood of genetic disease. We writers splice and hybridize preexisting stories, word sequences, images, and forms into literary offspring. Sometimes the parentage can be obscure or unknown; the exact lineage is of secondary importance. What matters is literary viability: Has this work taken on life, however short-lived, in its own cultural and historical environment? Has it adapted to the conditions of the moment? Or has it come out stillborn, a miscarriage, like Keats’s tragedy Otho the Great or Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts? This is the question to ask: Not whether a work is original or derivative, but whether it lives. The only truly original poet would have to antedate Noah and the Flood—the first speaker of William Hales’s hypothetical ‘primitive language,’ Adam naming the animals, every sentence a new sequence of neologisms.
We may undermine literary originality using biology, history, and literature itself, but we are still, after all our philosophizing, stuck with the ugly, recalcitrant fact of plagiarism. The classical world didn’t fixate on originality the way we do, but they did have a clear concept of plagiarism—the first use of the word dates back to the Roman epigrammatist Martial.
This issue has become curiously relevant in an age when search engines can turn up overlaps (possibly spurious or coincidental) of phrase or image. A high-profile scandal hit the offices of the New Yorker a few years back when the neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer, until then a darling among science popularizers, was outed for plagiarism—in some cases stealing from the blog posts of none other than...Jonah Lehrer. The weapon used by those who carried out this sting operation: Google. As if having to rephrase and tweak sentences in your source material weren’t enough, now you must rephrase and tweak yourself. Woe to the nonfiction writer who develops or redeploys the point he made six months ago online; woe to the poet who fashions a better setting for his prior collection’s gem of a stanza.
Naturally, most cases of plagiarism involve one writer taking from another. Yet even here, plagiarism can present us with ambiguities that destroy the typical analogy relating plagiarism and theft. The poet C. J. Allen withdrew a poem from consideration for the Forward Prize because, in the past, he had made six poems of his own using another poet’s poems as templates. The case is fascinating and troubling enough to merit a deeper exploration of just what happened. The source poet, Matthew Welton, when making his point on the Carcanet blog, juxtaposed a poem of his called ‘London Sundays’ with Allen’s ‘The Memory of Rain.’ We can assume that this is the best example of Allen’s plagiarism (‘patterning’? ‘derivation’?) that Welton has, as he quotes no other poem pairing in full. If we consider the final stanzas side by side, the process involved shows up clearly enough—the similarities are definitely nonrandom, and Allen himself has since confessed to using Welton’s work. First, the injured party, Welton:
And love never really feels like some craze
that hits like gin, buzzes like benzedrine,
and smells as good as coffee. In some ways
all it has to be is something between
a half-funny joke and some old rumour
from somewhere around, that arrives unrushed
like boredom, wears on like a bad winter,
and which spreads through rooms like sunlight and dust.
Compare the stanza that Allen based on this:
And love was once the very latest craze,
like alcohol, or sex, or Benzedrine,
and kicked-in like all three. On quiet days
you’d watch the old men on the bowling green
and listen to their antiquated banter,
and go for walks and feel a bit nonplussed,
and head for home and think about the winter
in rooms filled up with sunlight and dust.
Allen seems to prefer a more regularly iambic line; he preserves an unusual rhyme word, ‘Benzedrine,’ which, incidentally, is the only appropriate word in his ‘once the very latest craze’ triplet—benzedrine isn’t a popular amphetamine anymore, but alcohol and sex are as popular now as ever. He keeps the sunlight and dust, but decides love doesn’t smell ‘as good as coffee.’ Neither the secondary nor the primary text strike me as particularly inspired—or, for that matter, particularly ‘original.’ That, of course, wasn’t Welton’s point; his objection was that his lines were used like a blank form, where his entries were erased and another’s inserted.
Yes, but is it plagiarism? Not an easy question to answer. A fill-in-the-blank idea of the poetic line—or stanza, or scene—is the basis of poetic convention: ‘Sing, O Muse, the [insert theme here].’ A sense that a given line, mannerism, or episode carries some intrinsic poetic charge has a long history. In the Iliad, Diomedes hurls a stone so large that two present-day men wouldn’t be able to lift it; when Virgil writes the Aeneid, he describes a stone such as twelve men could not lift, but it’s clearly the same stone. Virgil’s epic (which, by the medieval era, had gained a reputation second only to the Bible) is a perfect example of the fill-in-the-blank approach to poetry, mostly on the level of episode: the Descent to the Underworld, the Forging of the Shield, and so on.
We can understand why the Welton-Allen connection bothers us by understanding why the Homer-Virgil one doesn’t. The case of the Aeneid offers some key insights into what differentiates reappropriation from theft. First of all, the earlier work must be known to the audience—or made known to the audience, through an epigraph like ‘after Neruda’ or ‘after Rilke.’ It helps avert the feel of plagiarism if the new work and its model aren’t in the same language, and if the poet in question is very great and very dead. Notice that no Shakespearean-imitation blank verse plays have gained canonical status in English—while Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and Schiller’s Wallenstein, unabashedly deriving their blank verse form and style from Shakespeare’s histories, hold pride of place in the histories of Russian and German drama.
The crucial redeeming factor, though, the one thing that sets apart the Virgils from the C. J. Allens, is whether the new work takes on fresh imaginative power. This is what keeps the is-it-plagiarism question open in the case of Allen: We have to rely on our own, always variable, often mysterious responses to poetry. Because if Allen had transfigured Welton’s okay poem into a great one, his success would have transferred ownership of the pattern. Consider the now-unread poet Michael Finneran’s 1917 poem, ‘The Black Sail,’ originally published in The Dial, whose ending reads:
Finally, its time having come, the black serpent
Slithers into the City and hatches.
The Dial, as we all know, had many prominent contributors and readers, among them a certain W. B. Yeats. In fact, the October 1917 issue, in which ‘The Black Sail’ appeared, carries a short essay by Yeats; so there is a high likelihood he did, in fact, see Finneran’s poem. Just three years later, Yeats would publish ‘The Second Coming,’ whose final lines I believe I can forego quoting here.
Does Yeats deserve to be smeared as a ‘plagiarist’ of Finneran’s work—or praised as a poet of genius who saw the potential in a dud couplet, and did what he alone could do? Reflect, for a moment, on the brillant gamesmanship in not specifying the nature or color of the beast too clearly, but specifying the city instead; and of having the beast slouch instead of slither—slouch referring to something that human beings do, too. Yeats has the beast moving toward the city, a much more chilling preposition, indicative of approaching menace. And we mustn’t neglect the alliteration he introduces—beast, Bethlehem, born. Altering ‘hatches’ was a masterstroke, too, a way of implying thousands of deaths through that ultimate ‘born’.
All right, you got me—Finneran and ‘The Black Sail’ never existed. But a subclause about masterpieces ought to be inserted into every law against plagiarism. If you make your poem work better than the source text, we will be grateful. We may even forgive you. Allen’s poetic sin was not in failing to come up with a new sequence of images or rhymes, much less an ‘original’ mood or setting; there is no way to copyright a poetic structure, just as there is no way to copyright a sentence structure. Nor was it only his failure to attribute his source poem. Allen’s poem is derivative because he used a prior poem as a pattern, attributed or not; his artistic integrity is called into question primarily because he didn’t make Welton’s poem look inept by comparison.
Is plagiarism different when it comes to poets? Particularly contemporary poets, who are, by and large, lyric poets—not as concerned with reworking mythic material, as with constructing a mythology of the self? Many of us, encountering a truly powerful poem, feel it to be something more personal than a memoir, regardless of whether it utilizes a lyric ‘I.’ The true lyric poem transfers the self into language. To steal the poem is to steal the soul, much as some Native Americans used to believe photographs, copying their physical images exactly, captured and bound something distinctly theirs. Regarded from this perspective, Virgil’s re-use of epic episodes and turns of phrase is a minor transgression compared to the modern-day plagiarist victimizing a poet, however minor. In the classical example, the material is collective, the property of the culture, however you define it. That explains away the relative indifference of past generations to this incestuous dynasty we call the Canon. In contemporary practice, the poem is more than personal; it is the person.
Or so we might tell ourselves. The reworking of mythological material can be just as much a reflection and expression of the ‘soul’ as any hushed Confessional lyric.Witness the mythologically-based work of James Joyce and John Milton, who laid hands on ancient, public-domain stories and left us admiring their fingerprints. Of all the contemporary plagiarism examples in this essay, the strongest media reaction was elicited by Lehrer, who plagiarized non-fiction. Notions of this-is-my-soul authenticity never entered that discussion. The schadenfreude of those who outed him probably had to do with quite worldly issues—like exposure, reviews, media adulation, book sales (that is, money), and that elusive, intangible currency of the intellectual world, Prestige.
Depending on how cynical you choose to be, such concerns played into Welton’s grievance as well. ‘At that time [when he first discovered the plagiarism],’ Welton writes, ‘I felt that I wanted to write something about the experience, but didn’t feel any hurry to get it done.’ Welton goes on to give several reasons: He was busy teaching creative writing, and he wanted to ‘take the opportunity to re-evaluate’ his ideas. He notes a couple of other plagiarism scandals (which didn’t involve Allen-like substitutions, but mostly plagiarism of the cut-and-paste sort). At last, Welton gets to the immediate cause, it could be argued, for his essay: ‘I couldn’t have imagined that, between then and now...a poem by C. J. Allen would be on the shortlist for this year’s Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.’ The poem seems to have been a C. J. Allen original, for what that’s worth. An unrelated accolade, not the actual transgression, appears to have prompted Welton to put his ‘re-evaluated’ thoughts online.
Cut-and-paste plagiarism is relatively rare; unoriginality is commonplace. When it comes to the charge of plagiarism, we must be careful not to treat a complex situation—involving the recombination, repurposing, development, dialogue, and endless re-making inherent in this endless making of books—like a simple one. Plagiarism, like pornography, is easily definable only in egregious, obvious circumstances, like if your poem shows up again attributed in its entirety to Christian Ward. Cases like Allen’s—and the probably countless instances of minor living poet directly imitating dead major poet—introduce a great deal of ambiguity. The modern attitude toward plagiarism resembles the Victorian attitude toward references to the sex act in fiction: Hair-trigger outrage and instant repercussions for the transgressor. Yes, you end up jailing and fining pornographers, but you also catch a D. H. Lawrence or a James Joyce in that net. The obscenity trials for Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal made Flaubert and Baudelaire friends for life. These artists were up against a pervasive cultural hypersensitivity among right-thinking people of sound morals. Their prosecutors took very complex things—fiction and poetry—and applied very simplistic criteria to them: Does this poem refer to breasts and screwing (Baudelaire, ‘Metamorphoses of the Vampire’)? Does this novel portray a (transiently) happy adulteress, without clearly stating her behavior is evil?
The so-called transgressions of Flaubert and Baudelaire seem silly to us, but not just because we recognize these writers as true artists. Nor is it because we come after the West’s sexual revolution: The ban on Baudelaire’s six ‘obscene’ poems was lifted in France in 1949, not 1969. Rather it’s because we recognize that some media portraying breasts and screwing are pornographic and morally questionable, while others aren’t. We admit the ambiguity, and we judge as best we can. ‘I know it when I see it,’ wrote the American justice Potter Stewart when deciding a 1964 case on hardcore pornography. What is little known is that Stewart, quite wisely, recanted that sound bite in vain for decades afterward: Even our seemingly instinctive responses, he recognized, can mislead us.
Analogously, our literary culture should probably ease up on the knee-jerk condemnation of verbal overlaps as unforgiveable intellectual mendacity. Plagiarism has become an accusation capable of effectively ending a literary career, as the fates of Jonah Lehrer, C. J. Allen, and Kavya Viswanathan (Google the name) show us. Although the crime-analogy most commonly applied to plagiarism is theft, or ‘lifting,’ shoplifting is a crime that can be expunged from your record. This is manifestly not the case for plagiarism, which follows the offender forever, like a much more serious offense. When Martial made the first recorded reference to the literary practice, he used the Latin word plagiarius, which meant ‘kidnapper’.
For a poet or novelist to be judged by ‘a jury of his peers’ is less effective than we would think: The peers themselves are indoctrinated in the gospel of originality, and hence believe the replication of a line is a cardinal sin. I suspect we all judge plagiarism from the perspective of the writer of the ‘original’ source text: We sympathize reflexively with the victim, not the perpetrator. This practice ensures and reinforces the failure of our objectivity, and above all, the exaggeration of the gravity of the charge. Judges train themselves to avoid precisely these impulses, natural and human though they are.
This essay has been an attempt at objectivity—by someone to whom objectivity comes easily. After all, in spite of the dozens of poems and prose pieces I have published, no one has ever thought even a snippet of my verse or prose worth ripping off. I suspect if someone ever does, I will probably repudiate this essay the way Justice Potter Stewart repudiated his formula for judging pornographic material. Getting robbed myself may well simplify this issue considerably. I wax biological, historical, literary-critical about recycling poets and endnote-forgetting essayists—until you lift this paragraph without attribution, dear Reader. At that point, I will take up my pitchfork and clamor for your head.