Plagiarism Symposium Part IV: Words Ain’t Got No Owners, Only Users

Here’s a word, Josh, that I find intrinsically cringeworthy: plagiarism, from plagium, “kidnapping.” What I detest about plagiarism is the insinuation that words and ideas can be “kidnapped,” and the succeeding one that they can be owned with some exclusivity.

I, it would seem, come at this issue from an idiosyncratic angle—much of my career having been spent in what some would deem ideological plagiarism. These “some”—the ones who denounce my ongoing quest to write Don Quixote word-for-word as Cervantes did—are ignorant of the process of artistic development. Let me, for the sake of the ignorant, parse down my astronomically lofty goal to a simple question: Is it more impressive for Miguel de Cervantes—a 17th-century Spaniard, a Catholic, a man with a rich military history—to write Don Quixote than it is for Pierre Menard—a 20th-century Frenchman who does not speak Spanish, who does not practice Catholicism, and who has no military history, let alone a rich one—to do so?

In one man’s biased but informed opinion, the latter seems to be the correct answer. To compose Don Quixote at the beginning of the seventeenth century was a reasonable, necessary and perhaps inevitable undertaking; at the beginning of the twentieth century it is almost impossible. It is not in vain that three hundred years have passed, charged with the most complex happenings—among them, to mention only one, that same Don Quixote. Cervantes’ accomplishment was natural and spontaneous; mine requires constant and careful calculation. Merely trying to become Cervantes would be both flawed and plebeian—nothing more than the transposition of his characters into my time like so many of the useless jokes that base their status as literature on unoriginal anachronism. My goal is not to pen a contemporary Don Quixote, but rather Don Quixote, sans qualification. In doing so, though, I would transform the work from a simple picaresque novel into a historical one that somehow maintains such a designation only by ignoring the passage of history.

And yet, the more successful my venture, the more exact my version, the more ardent the calls of plagiarism. As if Cervantes owned the Spanish language or the picaresque novel or the characters of Don Quixote or Sancho Panza. As if no one imagined taking chivalry a tad too seriously or of pursuing an unrequited love.

To think, analyze, and invent are not anomalous acts, but the normal respiration of the intelligence. To glorify the occasional fulfillment of this function, to treasure ancient thoughts of others, to remember with incredulous amazement that the doctor universalis thought, is to confess our languor or barbarism.

So my venerable colleagues,* please do not belittle what I hope to achieve as “unoriginal” and do not dare brandish “theft” in my direction. I do not “pass off” this work as my own; it is my own. I will arrive at it by entirely different and, if I may add, higher means than Cervantes, and the rigor which accompanies this academic and cultural journey shall only infuse my words with new meanings and subtexts.

*if I may use that adjective without “plagiarizing” our old friend, “Bede.”

Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he will be.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dan on July 15, 2009 at 8:04 PM

    “PIERRE MENARD, author of Don Quixote, stands apart from the rest of us in two key ways. First, he will write on one topic and one topic alone: sports rules.”

    Reply

  2. Well, Daniel, when people attack premises of which I am in favor and hold a certain level of expertise, I naturally feel the need to express myself. I am, after all, so much more than a one-trick pony.

    Reply

  3. Posted by janechong on July 16, 2009 at 6:24 AM

    May go off on a few tangents here. The argument that words have no owners, only users, runs into some major problems when you consider the important role that the concept of ownership plays in the minds of both the “users” trying to produce works and the readers who are trying to understand, assess, or simply (if there is such a thing) enjoy them.

    Let’s go with the readers, to keep this short. To put a more familiar spin on the controversy, let’s deal directly with the dichotomy Barthes sets up between the birth of the reader and death of the author. The problem I’ve always had with the attempt to draw a clear distinction between a text and its creator, much less actually privilege either the product or the process by which it was created, is that we, as readers, don’t really buy it. Someone who picks up Infinite Jest on a whim and falls in love with it is that much more likely to search for other DFW books, and to want to learn a thing or two about the man and mind who brought this combination of ideas into existence. Why? We’re pursuing new insight, or replication of old ones. Thus even if it were unarguably the case that the meaning and merit of a work stood apart from their producer and process, so long as the means by which we as readers make meaning and assess merit is as outward-directed as it is inward, as social as it is “personal” (whatever that means), the text and whomever the world believes its author can’t escape each other.

    So yes, Mr. Menard can argue all he wants that his is the more impressive creative context, but to do so would be to completely miss the point of the critics accusing him or plagiarism.

    “And yet, the more successful my venture, the more exact my version, the more ardent the calls of plagiarism.”
    Yes. Not because Cervantes owns the Spanish language, but because critics and readers cannot buy the idea that anyone but Cervantes could produce Don Quixote. The day they can is the day the author really dies.

    All kinds of cliches come to mind -man is a social animal; no man is an island -when I think about the why and how that inspires us to appreciate any work. To respond to Josh’s comment, about John’s inexplicable sense of betrayal: A reader is offended by an author’s plagiarism not just because he is culturally conditioned to see this as theft,* but because by not giving hefty sources intelligible attribution, the author has actually compromised the integrity of reader’s meaning-making, merit-assigning practices (however misguided they may anyway be). The contextual trail upon which reader is trained to be (and, I argue, is instinctively dependent), it has been messed with, if you will.

    *Readers are only theoretically that considerate. In practice, we are selfish. I.e., I am theoretically outraged on behalf of the “original” author and the commercial interests of the book enterprise, but in practice, I am more outraged on my own behalf and enraged by the authors’ decision to delete the signposts that generally guide me around the linguistic landscape.

    Reply

  4. Mademoiselle Jane,

    I thank you for your readership, your argument, and your self-awareness regarding its caprice. I also am grateful to you for, perhaps inadvertently, proving my point.

    You argue that you yourself have always had difficulty delineating the typically obfuscated line between text and creator and/or privileging the product or the process. But don’t you see that this is my point! The words on the page are but the physical and linguistic manifestations of disparately cogent processes by, I believe, disparately cogent men. For Cervantes to write A and for Pierre Menard to write that same A does not mean we have written the same thing, for we have arrived at Point A from totally different indices of origin along different paths and through different contexts and, dare I say, philosophies.

    The words may be the same, but the meaning is not precisely because of the context behind the author’s construction of them. When Cervantes calls history the mother of truth, it is in line with the philosophy of his, if I may say, rather pedestrian times. But when I say that history is the mother of truth, when Pierre Menard says this in the 20th century when he has to compete with the historical works that have bridged our three centuries since Don Miguel put quill to parchment, when I say this it becomes a direct refutation of my time and of William James and all contemporary historical thought! Cleary, mon ami, while are words look similar in the agate type, they are NOT the same in the mind and in context and, inarguably I think, in meaning.

    Reply

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