29 January 2006

Mature poets steal?

The Little Professor on literary plagiarism:
In his "War on Plagiarism," Prof. Lesko neglects to get at the literary-historical problem: what, exactly, are we to do with a long-dead major author after we find him or her guilty on all counts? Should we respond to such authors in the same way that we respond to a novelist caught in the act now? (Or, as Scott asks of Coleridge, "And the more you love his poetry, the harder it is to know what to think of his kleptomania. Should you be indignant? Or just perplexed?") When I teach Dorian Gray, for example, I always point out that Ch. XI is plagiarized. Now, strictly speaking, an au courant contemporary probably would have recognized the "poisoned book" and, by extension, Ch. XI's debt to it; after all, Huysmans was a key Decadent. Moreover, as other critics of the novel have noted, there's something oddly appropriate about the chapter's derivative nature, given how derivative Dorian is himself. Still, we're stuck with the original question. Should I derail the classroom discussion for a lecture on the evils of plagiarism? Issue a blanket amnesty? Toss the novel into Reading Gaol? What?

Given that literary history consists of authors reading, rewriting, alluding to, parodying, and saluting each other, it's impossible to yank a brick out of the wall without reducing the whole edifice to a shambles. One cannot ignore Shakespeare because he borrowed extensively from someone else's King Leir, any more than we can eject Coleridge from the Romantic canon because he had a cribbing habit to accompany his opium habit. It's much easier to dimiss a pleasant third-rater like Rhoda Broughton, who in one novel absconds with a passage from The Mill on the Floss without so much as a "please, George." After all, Broughton has had no real influence on subsequent novelists. And there's the problem, isn't it? Once a work turns out to be powerful enough to generate imitation, response, parody, critique, and so forth, its own borrowings frequently become, in practice, a purely academic question. If the writer isn't caught and halted at the time (like Brad Vice), then his or her work may either go the way of all published literature or become so culturally significant that plagiarism becomes, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Once the work has successfully gone forth and multiplied after escaping into the wild, as it were, it's perhaps a little late (not to mention futile) to denounce the author at every turn; what are we to supposed to do, dig up Coleridge's bones and burn them? (Even Norman Fruman, famed chronicler of Coleridge's plagiaristic misdeeds, enthusiastically dubs Coleridge a "great artist" [2].) Like it or not, the plagiarism issue is just not very helpful when it comes to assessing Coleridge's, Shakespeare's, or Wilde's historical significance. It's similarly useless when talking about low-end novelists: I can point out that both Anna Eliza Bray and Emily Sarah Holt steal from John Foxe, but once I've branded "plagiarist" on their respective foreheads, I'll still be left with the problem of what they've chosen to steal and how it affects the texts in question.
Like it or not, I've come to think of this in terms of a sort of historical relativism. We've gone from a time when spelling wasn't even standardized (Shakespeare) to an era when personal information can be accessed from home (the internet). The line between allusion and thievery has always been a thin one, but we can't always apply the standards of "now" to the works of "then."

No comments: