Nothing is original; every idea comes from somewhere . According to Jean-Luc Godard, “It’s not where you got it from, it’s where you take it to”. Every thought we have comes from somewhere – either inspiration or vicariously from someone else. It is not original, but derivative. The former is rare while the latter risks the danger of theft called plagiarism.
One of the earliest writers in the Middle English, Chaucer, remarked with amusing diffidence:
“that other poets have already reaped before me and carried away the grain”. And I come after, gleaning here and there, and am very glad if I can find an ear of any goodly word, which they have left behind."
He, like any good apprentice, learned his craft by first imitating the acknowledged masters and then evolving his own technique from theirs. He attained mastery of his craft early in his career, having learned the art of infusing fresh spontaneity into whatever he borrowed. Charles Dunn, A Chaucer Reader, U. of Toronto.
Copying another person’s work verbatim, is theft of intellectual property, while adapting, appropriating elements and transforming their ideas into a hybrid version can be creative. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.** Charles Coulton.**
Alfred Lord Tennyson acknowledges that ”we are part of all we have met”.
Every age needs to interpret the past and reflect the present in its own language; as Virginia Woolf put it: “There are some stories that have to be told by each generation” or T.S Eliot, in Four Quartets:
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice”
The genius of the artist is to be as absorbent as a sponge; soak up other people’s experiences and writings and transform them into realistic recreations to inspire others.
T. S. Eliot claimed that “Good poets borrow; Great poets steal.” Or in another version: “immature poets imitate, Mature poets steal,
Bad poets deface what they take, good poets make it better, or at least something different". His early poems are often described as “Pastiche” - patchwork, as they contain lines taken from other classics as allusions to create a new work of Art. The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock appropriates phrases from a number of other great works including Dante, Chaucer, Marvell and many French poets, yet as a work of Art, stands on its own.
T. S. Eliot was regularly accused of plagiarism, and it tickled him. “I should be glad to participate with a few quotations which the critic would perhaps not identify,” he wrote to Monroe after she had reported a complaint. With “The Waste Land,” he approached the scandalous limits of the technique.
The poem is a collage of allusion, quotation, echo, appropriation, pastiche, imitation, and ventriloquism. It uses seven languages, including Sanskrit, and ends with several pages of notes, written in a sendup of academic citation:
“The fable of the meaning of the Thunder is found in the Brihadaranyaka—Upanishad, 5, 1. A translation is found in Deussen’s Sechzig Upanishads des Veda, p. 489.” Good to know the next time you are in a German library.
The notes don’t interpret the riddle; they are one more riddle to be interpreted. If Joyce had written them, no one would imagine they were merely what they appear to be.
Of course there is no such thing as a pristine story—every story is tangled up with other stories—many are entangled with each other at many junctures.
What the syllabus says:
Transformations of texts have occurred for centuries, as stories have been adapted to contemporary situations. The inspiration of the known reflects upon the new, while the new resonates with the known. This process provides the basis for study in this elective.
The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes declares that “there is nothing new under the sun”. If it’s not in the Bible, or if Shakespeare didn’t say it, it’s likely not worth saying. Though everything worth saying has already been said; not everyone has yet said it.
Many critics claim there are no new plots, only variations on a few standard structures. Even Chaucer, writing in the 14th C. based many of the stories of his Canterbury Tales on French, Celtic or Italian sources. Most of Shakespeare’s Plays are adaptations of any raw material he could get his hands on. Hamlet is based on the 12th C. Danish primitive legend first printed in 1514. In other plays, Shakespeare had no scruples about stealing plots, names, dialogue and even titles. Parts of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra consist of passages of texts lifted verbatim from Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutrach. Shakespeare excelled in taking dormant works and breathing life into them with his mastery of language, as in Romeo and Juliet.
Benjamin Franklin unassumingly quipped:
“Why should I give my Readers bad lines of mine own, when good lines of others are so plentiful”?
George Bernard Shaw, said Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories so long as someone else had told them first”, and when accused of borrowing a plot, said, “If I find in a book anything I can make use of, I take it gratefully. He also said “I often quote myself; it adds spice to my conversation.”
John Dryden reworked Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida because of its ungrammatical, coarse and figurative expressions. Nearly everybody agreed that Dryden’s version, Truth found too Late, was a vast improvement. “You found it dirt but have made it gold” gushed the poet Richard Duke. (Bryson)
Charles Dickens is often credited with the saying “the law is an ass” but he was not the first to write it and fails to credit to any source. It was first documented some 200 years previous.
Here is Rudyard Kipling’s take on the subject:
When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre,
He’d ‘eard men sing by land an’ sea;
An’ what he thought ‘e might require,
‘E went an’ took – the same as me!
The market-girls an’ fishermen,
The shepherds an' the sailors, too,
They ‘eard old songs turn up again,
But kep’ it quiet – same as you!
They knew ‘e stole; ‘e knew they knowed.
They didn’t tell, nor make a fuss,
But winked at ‘Omer down the road,
An’ ‘e winked back – the same as us!
Australian novelist Thomas Kennealy admits he “plunders” other books to give his more heft.
New translations of old classics from the Greek, Latin or even Italian seem to occur every year. With so many people writing; it’s a wonder there’s anyone to read them.
Music is also influenced by preceding performers, so the Beatles borrowed heavily from Buddy Holly, Elvis and Mozart. Recently Simon Hattenstone described Lady Gaga as “a musical magpie” as she brazenly nicked and nicked and nicked to create something of her own. She admits influences from Led Zeppelin, Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, Madonna, Bowie and Prince.
Quincey Jones, the legendary record producer, chastised his most famous charge, the late Michael Jackson, for stealing “a lot of stuff” from other artists without paying them. “He was as machiavellian as they come,” Laura Snapes, The Guardian.
Rod Stewart’s beloved (and derided) 1978 hit “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? became the subject of a plagiarism case brought by popular Brazilian musician Jorge Ben Jor, who said that the hook of the song was lifted from his 1972 composition Taj Mahal. Stewart conceded:
‘Clearly the melody had lodged itself in my memory and then resurfaced. Unconscious plagiarism, plain and simple.”
One of Bob Dylan’s most celebrated songs, Desolation Row begins with an especially arresting opening line:
“They’re selling postcards of the hanging”.
Marcus recounts how when this song was released few people knew that in the first decades of the 20th century, there had been a craze of postcards of lynchings of black Americans by crowds of white Americans … postcards sent through the US mail, traded among collectors, sold in souvenir shops and at country fairs. Marcus is not making the case that Desolation Row is about this appalling historical phenomenon, Greil Marcus imagines how echoes of that phenomenon might have made their way to the young Dylan.
Marcus is so sanguine about the accusations of plagiarism that have dogged Dylan since almost the beginning of his career.
This is because Marcus sees Dylan, like the abstract figure of the folk singer, as constantly rewriting the national songbook, giving the old songs “new lives to live”. David McCooey Professor of Writing and Literature, Deakin University. The Conversation
According to Christopher Allen, Artists learn by copying great paintings. Rubens copied from Raphael, Michelangelo and later Titian in order to learn the secrets of their success. Sometimes great painters had their assistants reproduce copies of their best paintings. The best known are additional versions of Leonardo’s *Virgin of the Rocks *and other paintings by Caravggio and Raphel.
Kushana Bush has said of her work, that borrowing and adapting imagery not of my time or place – and crucially getting it wrong – somehow produces pictures that speak of the here and now. I am very attracted to the cycle of collapsing interpretations and values; it keeps you yearning. We somehow do not appreciate how lucky we are that we can be licking our Gelato while the world around us implodes.
For David Bamman, a senior researcher in computational linguistics with Tufts University’s Perseus Project, analysing collocations can help unwrap the way a writer “indexes” a literary style by lifting phrases from the past.
We can conclude that most literature (as other areas of life) is a transformation of an idea derived from another source or as Harry Mathews puts it, “all books come from other books".
As Newton first and then Einstein echoed, “we are all pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Finally, To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is called research. I forget where I stole that from.
Transformations effected by: #
updating, contemporizing, modernizing, resurrection …
transposing the geographical setting or the epoch of time - transposition
adaptation to a different medium, to a film, stage, poem, novel, or even a parody.
appropriation; borrowing, stealing, imitation, plagiarizing, quoting, literary piracy, a pastiche, derivative.
an inversion or change of perspective.
A subversion changing the meaning of the text by undercutting it.
a spin-off – taking lesser aspects of plot or characters and making them central to a new work.
A Parody – imitation is the highest form of flattery.
Characters can be counter-pointed, replicated, parodied or made counterparts;
Situations or plots correspond, or are parallel or consistent with the original source.
Themes can be reinforced, contemporised or subverted; changing the meaning of the text by undercutting it.
Adaptations of texts to film is a hard call. Not many good books translate well onto the cinematic screen. While reading, the responder has time to reflect and for introspection, that the pace of a movie often denies; there is no time or space to absorb, pause, think or process the events. The most successful transformed novels are those with plenty of description and dialogue, such as Thomas Hardy, Dickens or Austen.