There seems to be very little in common between Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso, but all three of them were of the opinion that stealing, rather than imitation, was the mark of a great writer, poet or artist. This is not as startling a position as it seems to be. By a strange twist, it does not endorse plagiarism. Instead, it celebrates creativity, while recognising that no artist creates alone, just as no human being lives alone.
This position would have been taken for granted in oral cultures in the past. All our great books with roots in orality are built on this stealing. Even when we attribute them to a single writer today, the stories in them passed through various renditions before being penned down by that writer, if he ever existed as an author rather than as an author-function.
In this sense, as some critics have noted, Homer is a myth. But even authors like Aeschylus and Sophocles, who obviously existed historically, took up and rewrote stories that were already in circulation. I can say this about other epics and early sacred books too, both in the Hindu and Islamic traditions, but I will stick to safer European illustrations.
So when is it that the problem of authorship starts, and the controversy of plagiarism erupts? When does stealing from a writer become a problem? And to what extent is it really a problem when living writers make use of the work of other living writers, as, most recently, the International Booker Prize nominee, Willem Anker, is supposed to have done of Cormac McCarthys fiction?
One of the characteristics of Shakespeares plays is that in most of them Shakespeare never concocted a new and original story. Instead, he rewrote stories that were already in circulation, and often existed in or as various other texts. For instance, the legend of King Lear preceded Shakespeare in different versions. Shakespeare largely stole that story, including the main characters. But he also introduced some twists, a subplot, a new ending and at least one unforgettable character, all of which combined with the stolen elements to raise the play to another level altogether.
Not to mention, of course, the powerful poetry of Shakespeares lines, though, even there, at least one section, probably used for satirical purposes, was nonchalantly lifted from a religious tract.
Of course, in Shakespeares time, plays were decidedly not individual works: they were collaborative efforts, more like commercial screenplays of Bollywood today. But even in his sonnets a form already associated with specific authorship Shakespeare re-used previous stances, styles and tropes, but gave them a distinctive twist.
Authorship is a late concept, and it is tied to a culture that uses writing extensively. Its sacred provenance is an even later concept, and rooted in the largely Romantic notion of the originality of the author. Well into the 18th century, the idea of a writer being original hardly existed. As Alexander Pope put it, True Wit is Nature to advantage dressd:/ What oft was thought, but neer so well expressd. For neo-classicists like Pope, the author could make no real claim to original thought, only to a better and apter presentation of what was already being thought by others.
The Romantics, who followed the Neo-classicists, had a more inspired understanding of writing. They stressed the individuality of the artist. It is largely with this Romantic belief that authorship becomes authentic.
Along with this, of course, runs the matter of commercial publication: actually, to an extent, the authenticity of the author is a commercial creation. It is an appendix to the rise of the printing press and the publishing industry. It is in the nature of capitalism to make us consume commodities produced in the millions while claiming to turn us into different individuals; some have argued that the two are different sides of the same coin.
Whether you like this or not, whether you are a capitalist or a Marxist, the fact remains that without capitalism and printing there would have been, at best, a very weak notion of literary plagiarism. The Romantics, with their inspiration and individual genius, with their cloudy wanderings and pensive couches, were the cultural side of this commercial development.
Writers today often insist on their individuality, for it is essential to their royalties and sales. No publisher or agent would want them to forget it. And yet, to be honest, perhaps because literature is the oldest mode of complex thinking known to humankind, there remains in a few writers some sense of regret for ages when the burden of individuality did not rest so heavily on them. It is a kind of nostalgia for a time when writings were not considered distinctive pools of stagnant words but part of a flowing stream of language, stories and thought.
Having said that, as an active and committed writer, I cannot claim that I do not care how my words and books are used. It is easy to accept a degree of pilferage if the stolen work is used creatively: if, for instance, the new work reuses a previous work in a manner that draws attention to it and acknowledges the influence. This was what T.S. Eliot did in his poetry, and Pablo Picasso did in most of his art. Here the adoption has to be engaged, informed, intelligent, visible to the serious reader and necessary for the new work.
I suspect that many creative writers and I am one of them will not consider this plagiarism. Some, like me, would consider it a compliment.
But what if the adoption is hidden away even from the informed reader and not acknowledged or foreshadowed in any way? In other words, what if it is a version of plagiarism as we define it in narrow, pedantic academia? And what happens if the old work is unsuccessful but the new work becomes a success?
I think the answer to this last question provides the necessary key. For if both the works are obscure, then it hardly matters. If the first work is famous and the second one obscure, then it hardly matters either. But if the first work was obscure and the second work becomes famous, then, inevitably it leads to the recovery of the first (obscure) work, and a critical questioning of the conditions of its obscurity.
I am not being postmodern or avant garde. I have problems with most of found art and automatic writing; I find in much of installation art an evidence of the artists privilege and corporate backing rather than their talent.
Having said that, I seriously think that there is plagiarism only in bad art and bad literature. If it is good, it always makes new use of the old elements, making it anew, in the words of Ezra Pound. And if it is bad, then, why, who cares except maybe publishers, academics and the media?
It is this that Wilde, Eliot and Picasso had in mind. Willem Anker and Cormac McCarthy are both renowned authors. Finally, after the media and publishing hubbub subsides, Anker will be judged not for what he took from McCarthy, but how.
The writer is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.