Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Witi Ihimaera and plagiarism

Yes, a big story here. There is more in the current Listener (not online until 19 December). Apart from Jolisa Gracewood’s brilliant detective work, about the most interesting online comment – that is, comment which is informed and from a literary type – that I have seen is from Scott Hamilton at Reading the Maps where there is a (by blog standards) good discussion of the issues.

What struck me, though, was Hamilton’s discussion of T.S. Eliot’s use of quotation in The Waste Land, which he calls “the finest example of creative plagiarism” and which opens up the whole issue of appropriation and modernist/post-modernist usage of earlier works. He cites this passage:
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
Hamilton points out that it uses the refrain from Edmund Spenser’s “Prothalamion”:
Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song.
As a Quote Unquote reader you will of course have noticed that this passage also uses this stanza from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”:
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Eliot’s use of this is far from word for word, but it’s clearly based on the Marvell and is instantly recognisable to anyone who knows the poem. The thing is that Eliot would and could have expected his readers to know this.

PG Wodehouse would have expected the same of his readers: he was a very different kind of writer but used a literary allusion on practically every page. Like Eliot, he had an educated audience who knew their Bible, Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Marvell etc, so could trust that there was a shared store of literary knowledge between them which he could allude to (or “reference” in today’s language). Thanks to our modern education system which requires everything to be “relevant”, this is no longer the case.

The English composer Peter Maxwell Davies uses musical quotations in a similar way – it’s ironic! – and no doubt in a generation or so these too will be meaningless to most listeners. As will Stravinsky’s quotes – not just the Russian folk tunes but also those in Le Baiser de la Fee (Tchaikovsky), Circus Polka (Schubert) and more. Bartok made sarcastic use of Shostakovich in his Concerto for Orchestra. Charles Ives used everything from Beethoven’s Fifth to hymns such as “Shall We Gather at the River”. Frank Zappa used Stravinsky, Ives, Holst, Ravel and Hindemith. Every blues or folk musician has done the equivalent. (Not just blues and folk: compare the chord changes of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe”, the opening song on Dark Side of the Moon, with Neil Young’s “Down by the River” which preceded it by a couple of years.)

However, all these writers and composers assumed that their audience would get the reference. Just as Picasso knew that everyone seeing, say, his Las Meninas:

would be well aware of the Velasquez original:

That doesn’t seem to be what Ihimaera was up to, because his sources were so obscure. And that is why, despite Scott Hamilton’s valiant defence, this looks like plagiarism. Still. I have yet to read the novel and if it is good, that will be ample justification for the borrowing.

The Dim-Post, as always, has a comment too. But the best bit on his blog is a comment criticising the book’s design: “Or am I judging a cover by its book?”


Chad Taylor said...

The entire point of Picasso's repainting Velasquez's Las Meninas was that it was such a discussed painting in the first place. He announced that he was going to do it and the working drawings and paintings were photographed in process (by Life, I think) and are still exhibited (in Barcelona - v. nice. Can recommend.) To say that Picasso knew his audience was well aware of the original is getting it the wrong way round: he painted it because his audience were aware of it.

It's like Brian de Palma doing the Odessa steps sequence in The Untouchables. As he said in publicity interviews for the film, "I decided to do the Odessa steps sequence," (or words to that effect) and every film nerd went, cool, let's see what he does with it.

Which is different from hiding it and pretending it's yours, obv.

I'm braced for the media fallout from this: the "all art is theft" talk and the book reviews as interrogations ("So this fictional novel, is it something you just made up?") and my special favourite, the "there are only five types of novel" story that gets wheeled out in the Guardian every three years.

Scott Hamilton's essay was very good, I thought.

Stephen Stratford said...

Indeed, Picasso used the Velasquez because it was so well known. As Francis Bacon used Velasquez's "Portrait of Pope Innocent X" over and over again ("I've always thought this was one of the greatest paintings in the world and I've had a crush on it," he told David Sylvester). Just as Zappa used Holst's "Jupiter", Ives used Beethoven's Fifth, Josquin used "L'Homme Arme" and Vaughan Williams used "Greensleeves". And I think that one of your predecessors in the Sargeson flat, the German painter Jorg Immendorf, also used familiar images in his work. But always it's the familiarity that makes it OK.

As Noel Gallagher put it with his customary illiterate inelegance, we are all "standing on the shoulder of giants". But no, not "all art is theft" and yes, brace yourself.

Anonymous said...

Pink Floyd and Neil Young? I don't think so.

Stephen Stratford said...

Anonymous: both "Breathe" and "Down by the River" start with several bars of E minor to A major, then shift to C major and B minor, with bits of D and G major to follow ("Down by the River" was the first song I ever performed in public - with Brent Parlane! - but I can't quite remember how it goes after the start). It's not standard changes, and David Gilmour was/is a fan of West Coast 60s/70s rock, which explains the presence of David Crosby and Graham Nash on has last album and DVD. So probably the Young song was in the air at the time. Not saying it's theft, but it's certainly family. The two songs are even in the same key. Go listen to both and you'll hear it.

Chad Taylor said...

In the visual arts, copying famous or existing artwork is commonly part of the training. Sketching classical statues or recreating a painting using a different media technique is a way of looking at how another artist works. So it's already part of the painter's vocab.

I've heard of writing exercises where students have to work in another writer's style but the idea makes me come out in a rash. I think it's dangerous: the difference between examining another artist's sensibility and adopting it.

I don't think the obscurity of a quote is necessarily proof of plagiarism; in fact, I don't think there's a hard and fast test. Yes, we could test all novels on the Internet (bracing myself again) but really it comes down to case by case, such as the examination which Jolisa Gracewood has conducted. In the old days, this was called "editing," or even "reading" -- reading being an active process as opposed to just sitting back and admiring the page count.

It does sound like plagiarism (I haven't read the book) and I don't know any writers who think plagiarism is good. Some journalists have complained that writers have not "commented" on this, i.e. joined the mob. Novelists don't respond quickly: they think about things first.

Check duplicate content said...

It is a fact that every writer goes through various references before making his own creation, but he is not expected to pick pocket the content of others and claim it to be an freshly written piece of writing.