Jewish World Review Dec. 22, 2000 / 25 Kislev, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- NOW AND THEN an old friend goes through my column with a mental highlighter and writes me in ostensible praise of what he calls my "gifted plagiarism.''
He picks out various phrases I've borrowed from my betters, and he may not mention the half of them. I myself may not be aware of all the people I'm quoting without using quotation marks.
My friend calls it plagiarism; I call it -- literary allusion. After all, when either Cervantes or Shakespeare has said almost anything better, why say it worse? Doesn't the reader deserve the best?
Others aren't as generous in their judgment as my friend. I once received an outraged letter after I had defended hypocrisy, just as today I'm defending plagiarism. Hypocrisy, I submitted, was the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and, without hypocrisy, there would be no shame, and who would want to live in a shameless society?
It was scarcely an original point, but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth repeating, especially in this shameless age, a.k.a. the Age of Clinton, and before that the Age of Nixon.
Well, my correspondent wasn't fooled. She -- I believe it was a she, though memory grows imperfect -- had tracked down the definition of hypocrisy as the tribute vice pays virtue. It's from La Rochefoucauld's maxims, and she just wanted to let me know that she hadn't been fooled.
The best I could do was to point out that, if every time we used a proverb or maxim, we had to footnote it, our prose would have so many asterisks, it would look as if it'd broken out with chicken pox. It's a poor poet who needs footnotes. Like T.S. Eliot.
Now before I hear from all you literary (and, even more rare, literate) critics, for my e-mail already overfloweth, yes, I am aware that the actual maxim is: "Hypocrisy is the (begin ital) homage (end ital) that vice pays to virtue.'' But unlike Shakespeare or Cervantes, La Rochefoucauld can be improved upon.
Till now, when caught with my hands on somebody else's epigraph, the best defense I could frame was, 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. Thus:
"I can never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky. In one word he told me the secret of success in mathematics: Plagiarize!''
And on to the verse: "Plagiarize!/ Let no one else's work evade your eyes,/ Remember why the good L-rd 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 sort of research no longer takes the premeditation it did when one had to laboriously type out a column. Now, quick, without thinking, 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 in all innocence (well, in almost all innocence) do just that. It may not be forgivable, but it's understandable. Some language is so irresistible that we almost automatically incorporate it as our own, the way Joe Biden wound up giving some Brit's speech, and Al Gore soaked up fictive memories until he had compiled an autobiography. We can't help ourselves. It's like eating peanuts.
What's not understandable is why people would steal bad prose, or sappy memories. There's seldom anything subtle or ennobling about certain, let's say, embellishments. They're almost childlike, both in their transparency and their hunger for recognition and praise. 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 taste to copy the very best. Originality is a much overrated virtue compared to good taste in collecting.
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, of course, James Branch Cabell. Those who still know the name can spot him at once by his precious style, his condensation of wry opinionations that stop the reader at every turn, his thicket of literary allusions, and his almost Jamesian tentativeness.
If you took out all the allusions and reservations and qualifications from Cabell, the entirety of his work might be reduced to a paragraph. Which, for those who appreciate what my old friend calls gifted plagiarism, is meant as praise, not condemnation.
So of course it would be Cabell who would write the best defense yet of plagiarism. Some of us
were instinctively following his well-expressed advice (''choose by preference time-seasoned
timber'') long before we heard it. But once again I am indebted to my old friend for sharing, this time
for sharing someone else's wisdom. But always call it ...