14 May 2006

Originality and authorship, copying and creation

“Yeh masail-e tasavvuf, yeh terah bayaan, Ghalib” (these problems of mysticism, this discourse of yours, Ghalib!).

The poet sometimes refers to himself or herself by name (taqallus) in the last couplet (makhta) in Urdu ghazals (example above). In western culture, works can bear the imprimatur of the creator. Artists sign or initial their paintings. A vase shows the mark of the potter. A holograph MS can be proof of a work’s authorship. Some thing is created by someone.

Occasionally, the originator can be discovered in another’s artefact. Derek Walcott’s Omeros can be read as a re-telling in terza rima of the Iliad and the Odyssey (not to mention The Divine Comedy). Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (which we have yet to read) is supposedly a bow to E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. Not all retellings are obvious. Just as Voltaire’s Zadiq inferred the presence of a lame camel, or was it a horse, by looking at its hoofprints — the earliest form of Holmes’ style of literary detection that we know of — we can infer the presence of an author in secondary works. In South African novelist David Galgut’s The Good Doctor, we find everywhere the unmistakable footprints of The Ugly American. In turn, when he cast Monsignor Quixote as a priest who travels with his friend, the marxist mayor, Graham Greene signalled his debt not just to Cervantes but also to Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo series. Shakespeare borrowed from Holinshed, Virgil from Catullus, Dante from Virgil. Kathasaritasagar, which later found its way into Europe through some spin offs, is itself a derivative of the Hitopadesa which can be traced through several works all the way back to the Panchtantra and Kalil-wa-Dimna.

There’s a fine line between tribute and outright theft. However, there’s a belief that a work that incorporates excerpts from another writer should be treated as bricolage (in Indian popular music, it’s called “remix”) rather than as an instance of plagiarism. Pocopomo critics believe that “intertextuality,” the embedding of secondary texts, is a legitimate property of literature. Martin Amis had no such qualms. He accused American novelist Jacob Epstein of lifting sentences straight from his novel The Rachel Papers. Chinese bestselling writer Guo Jingming was found guilty of plagiarizing a Zhuang Yu novel to whom he now owes 210 thousand yuan. We can’t seem to get away from the decisions acquitting Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling of plagiarism. At home, Booker prizewinner Yann Martel admitted, after he was pressed, to being inspired by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar’s story about a boy on a boat with a panther after they are shipwrecked. Martel’s Life of Pi tells the story of a Indian boy in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger after his ship sinks. Someone whose name we forget but who edited a book by Nega Mezlekia, winner of the Governor General’s award in 2000, claimed that she had actually written a lot of his work. (Why a professional editor worth her salt would do wholescale rewriting rather than structural editing is a question only she can answer.) Things can get bad. Ken Adachi, a Toronto Star writer, killed himself after he faced a second accusation of plagiarism.

Literary figures have hidden their authorship under someone else’s moniker. James Macpherson put together bits from Gaelic folk songs poetry into his "Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gallic or Erse Language" (1760) by “Ossian.” This was popular even after the hoax was exposed. In 1769, the boy-poet Thomas Chatterton faked the 15th-century poetry of Thomas Rowley. Poor Chatterton killed himself in his room after he was found out. Other latter-day hoaxsters in the news: James Frey, Nasdijj, and J.T. Leroy belong in the same class as today’s email hoaxsters or the sellers of holy relics in earlier days.

Laurence Sterne complained about plagiarism: “Shall we forever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another? Are we forever to be twisting and untwisting the same rope?” but an article proves that he plagiarised this from Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. (“As apothecaries, we make new mixtures every day, pour out of one vessel into another…Again, we weave the same web still, twist the same rope again and again.”) The article goes on to cite Claude Lévi-Strauss from The Savage Mind on the distinction “between the ‘bricoleur’ who happily assembles constructions from a heterogeneous array of materials, and the more scientifically minded ‘ingénieur’, who is driven by the search for abstract concepts.” (Needless to say, most of this blog section was lifted from other sources.) Formula fiction, such as Harlequin or young-adult novels, run true to outlines of specific plot types. A recent victim of such mechanical reproducibility was Kaavya Viswanthan who shared her copyright with book packagers.

While it may seem proper, given copyright laws, to be able to dispute claims of authorship, literary theory poses a challenge. In Barthes' account of the death of the author, he argued that the ultimate meaning of a text and the author’s intention could not be deciphered as there were reading codes that allowed for open interpretation in bourgeois western culture. Besides, language displaces the author as a “person” for a “subject.” It seals up referentiality: discourse turns back on itself. Intertextuality and découpage entail the primacy of discourse over the real.

Barthes went on to say that “the author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation.” Previously, one presumes in oral traditions, although he used the term “ethnographic societies,” there was a commonweal of stories and telling traditions that were transmitted by “a mediator, shaman or relator” who mastered their narrative codes. Stories travelled across borders more effectively than people or goods. There was widespread borrowing across cultures. The debate over Homer’s identity, whether he was one or many “singers” still goes on in places. Of course, the unreliable narrator and multiple "authors" have been devices common to European novels since Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Work has been done, not just by poststructuralists, on mapping writerly and readerly codes. In another blog, we mentioned Ramanujan’s folklore typologies. Similarly the elements of storytelling such as motifs and units of meaning were plotted by Propp, Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson & c. There are theories that reduce all novels to six basic plot types and so on. Great users of narrative strategies to create authorial distance, Flaubert and Joyce both used the image of an author remote and indifferent from the work “paring his fingernails.” (Flaubert though also said “c’est moi” when someone asked him who the original for Madame Bovary was). Henry James in The Turn of the Screw traces the origins of his story through several transmission points. Brecht, though, would try for the opposite effect through his “alienation” technique to disrupt the story with reality to show its artificiality (in the sense of "artifice").

It would be interesting to trace the origins of these ideas. The most influential theory of artistic creation is Plato’s. For him, the act of creating is mimetic: it consists in copying "realistic" versions of true “ideal forms.” The metaphor of the dwellers in the cave who see shadows and infer the world from them can be extended to the creative process. Sensate reality itself is a copy and artefacts become copies of copies of originals that are at some remove from the ideal. In his interpretation of poeisis, Gilbert Murray, though, said the stress should lie on the creative process of “making” of the copy.

Leaving our simplified discussion of Platonic metaphysics, we see that as part of their apprenticeship to their art many artists started by copying the greats. Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet, “lived in an age and a culture when it was normal for the authors of poems or essays to renounce the vanity of authorship and to ascribe their works to more famous names, in order to secure a greater circulation for what they had composed.” “The ‘Khayyam’ of the Rubáiyat is really a collective pseudonym.” (source forgotten). This was certainly the case in painting. Cervantes said “Los buenos pintore imatan la natureleza, pero los malos la vomitan (good painters imitate, bad ones vomit it). Rubens copied Michelangelo and, according to one account, even improved a figure. Modern writers have followed that process too. T.S. Eliot went on to say that "immature poets copy, mature poets steal." Joan Didion honed her craft by typing sentences from Hemingway.

So when does imitation change from flattery to pilfering? Raymond Williams notes that “original” acquired the sense of being “authentic” (an original work of art) and “the sense of a singular individual.” There was an extension of its meaning to “the first work (not the copy)” to “new” in the 17th century. In the 18th century, “original” also meant “singular” or “rare” (Williams, again). In answer to our aesthetic poser, he says that “‘originality’ then became a common term of praise of art and literature” as being “distinguished by genius” and not mechanical, the product of mere skill and labour.

What if one were to make an absolutely identical copy of Michelangelo’s David, flaw for flaw, chisel stroke for chisel stroke? Would the copy be a lesser work? Is a lithograph series unique as each number has been reproduced? What makes a piece of art unique? One could assert that the lithograph series itself is a work of art taken together or individually. The second David is different because it was produced under specific conditions by someone else in a certain age. Therein lies its uniqueness. There is a famous literary analogue. In Borges’ story. Pierre Menard closets himself with the books that were found in Cervantes’ library. His object is to write not another Don Quixote but “the” Don Quixote. The reviewer then compares passages from the two Quixote which are identical. However — and here Borges' genius comes to the fore — he interprets them differently in the light of what was known in the age of the creator. He deems Menard’s version richer as it has insights that only came after the age of Cervantes had passed.

There are several takes on creation: philosophical, cosmological, theological, psychological, neurological and literary. What about the various creation myths in different cultures that embody the maker as an artist creating the universe out of gap, void or chasms? Early materialists, however, such as Lucretius saw the world as a combination of atoms – creation was not ex nihilo — and death simply annihilation and not to be feared. Among the pre-Socratics, Pythagoras, whose views were quite influential, found the “cosmos” composed in a perfect harmonic combination of “arithmoi,” very much like a musical piece, which extended to “the music of the spheres.” (The perfection of the universe was assumed.) Within the western philosophical tradition, teleological proofs, the argument of design, the ontological argument were used to prove the existence of a creator, a ruse that’s still in currency. Neurology lies beyond our compass just as much as discussions of eternity and infinity but it’s interesting to look at creativity. The artistic creator takes on a divine parallel with its attendant mysteries. In a book long suppressed for conflicting with the teachings of the patristics, Aristotle, that grey sheep of the islands, had claimed, we believe, 32 prime movers for the universe. An article that we read but can’t seem to find claims that Marsilius Ficino’s De Vita Triplici (1489) “the first book to treat of melancholy at any length, not only rehabilitated the ‘Aristotelian’ notion of the gifted melancholic, but expressly tied it in with the Platonic notion of ‘divine frenzy’, thereby laying the intellectual foundations for a new type of man, the ‘homo literatus’ or tortured genius, pitched back and forth between the heights of rapture and the depths of despair.” The suffering artist is hardly unknown to any of us, genius or not.

Write and despair.

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