Jewish World Review March 31, 2006 / 2 Nissan, 5766
In praise of plagiarism
Now and then an old friend goes through my column, highlights a few phrases and compliments me on what he calls my "gifted plagiarism." It seems he's picked out various phrases I've borrowed from my betters, and he is kind enough not to mention the half of them.
My friend calls it plagiarism; I call it literary allusion.
After all, when Cervantes or Shakespeare has said it better, why say it worse?
When caught with my hands on somebody else's epigraph, the best defense I can frame is, of course, in somebody else's words. Namely, Tom Lehrer's. And specifically his ditty in honor of the great mathematician Lobachevsky.
For the full effect, it needs to be sung off-key after a couple of cold ones to the accompaniment of a tinny piano and a loud, vigorous Hey! at the end of each chorus, complete with a stage Russian accent:
"I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky. In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics: Plagiarize!"
And on to the chorus: "Plagiarize!/Let no one else's work evade your eyes,/Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,/So don't shade your eyes,/But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize/Only be sure always to call it please . . . Research!"
In these computerized times, that kind of research no longer takes the premeditation it used to back in the day when an article or book had to be typed out ever so laboriously. Now, quick, without thinking, you press a key or two and Bingo! somebody else's wisdom can appear under your name.
If and when the slip is noticed, always call it . . Accidental ! ("Gosh, I must have copied that in my research and forgotten it wasn't mine.")
Some of us live in fear that we might do just that in all innocence. It might not be forgivable, but it's understandable. Some language is so irresistible we almost automatically incorporate it as our own.
Joe Biden, the senator from Delaware, was so impressed once by an Englishman's eloquent speech that he adopted it as his own.
The late Stephen Ambrose was so taken with another historian's work that he appropriated it as his own. Yet he was so conscientious (or feeling so guilty) that he cited the original work in a footnote, as if to leave behind a clue so he'd be sure to get caught.
Ditto, Dorothy Kearns Goodwin. Her M.O. was just the same, right down to the telltale clue.
If I footnoted every maxim, proverb or allusion I used, my prose would look as if it had broken out with the chicken pox.
It's understandable why others' good stories and perfect phrases should be irresistible.
What's not understandable is why people would steal bad prose, or sappy memories. It's not the theft that troubles in such cases, but the poor taste of the thief.
Molly Ivins is my exemplar in these matters. When she was caught sounding word-for-word like Florence King accidentally, of course let it be said for Miss Molly that she had the good judgment to copy from the very best. Originality is a much over-rated virtue compared to good taste in prose.
Till now I had only Tom Lehrer's "Lobachevsky" to quote in defense of plagiarism, but now my old friend, the same one who spots so many of my borrowings/allusions, has put into words why I've always had a soft spot for the plagiarist, Naturally they are somebody else's words:
" . . . very few sane architects commence an edifice by planting and rearing the oaks which are to compose its beams and stanchions. You take over all such supplies ready hewn, and choose by preference time-seasoned timber. Since Homer's prime a host of other great creative writers have recognised this axiom when they too began to build: and 'originality' has (become) like chess and democracy, a Mecca for little minds."
The writer is James Branch Cabell. It figures. If you took out all the allusions and reservations and qualifications and adaptations from Cabell, the entirety of his multi-volume works might be reduced to a paragraph. Which, for those who appreciate what my old friend calls gifted plagiarism, is meant as praise, not condemnation. It is wholly a pleasure to quote him.
Indeed, I've borrowed/stolen the phrase, "It was wholly a pleasure . . . " from the way Mr. Cabell always began his letters to correspondents whose opinions he would proceed to devastate. I intend the theft as a tribute. Plagiarism is the highest form of flattery. But always call it . . . Research!
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