May 27, 2005

Welcome to the Plagiosphere

You’ve all heard of the biosphere, a word that envisions all life on Earth as an interconnected web. Now comes the plagiosphere, a word that envisions all language as an endlessly recycled, pooled resource that we all contribute to and take from, and in which almost nothing is said that hasn’t been said before. According to Ed Tenner in MIT's TECHNOLOGY REVIEW, just as Copernicus kicked our planet out of the center of the universe and Darwin demoted Homo sapiens from the summit of creation, the Internet is showing us that the phrases and sentences we craft so lovingly are not unique. Web–search technology, text–comparison software, and a new technology involving the comparison of nonverbatim textual similarities, prove that just about everything we say or write is unoriginal. (Hat tip: Charles Martin.)

This threatens me as a writer, so watch me scramble to disprove it.

To begin with let me give the idea of plagiarism–monitoring its due. Plagiarism is a real and growing problem on college campuses. The Internet has enabled students to easily download canned papers on any conceivable subject, and software improvements have recently allowed the creators -- if you want to call them that -- of these plagiarized documents to edit stylistic variations into them, making them harder to detect.

It’s important to catch plagiarism. It’s important that we not become a culture of cheating.

But what does this have to do with literature? Let’s say that some forgotten journalist in 1930 used the phrase “a hard day’s night” in a newspaper column. Does that disqualify John Lennon? Of course not. Lennon never read the column -- had no knowledge that the phrase was ever used before. It was original for him, and for the world on the whole it originated with him.

Let’s make the case harder -- and more realistic. It happens to be true that Lennon heard the phrase from Ringo Starr, who used it casually in conversation. Lennon grabbed onto the phrase and was inspired to use it in a song. Does that make Lennon’s work unoriginal? Perhaps in some pedantic, art–denying sense, but not in any authentic sense. Ringo’s off-the-cuff comment was a cute ephemeral witticism until John turned it into a song. (Everything is ultimately ephemeral, of course, including “A Hard Day’s Night,” alas, but we’re talking on the relative human timescale here.) John made Ringo’s phrase live.

And what if the phrase hadn’t really originated with Ringo? What if he had heard his grandmother say it, and what if she had read and forgotten that 1930 newspaper article?

No difference, I say. It would be good if Ringo’s grandmother and the original journalist received public recognition for the phrase, just as Ringo has always done. But none of those characters turned the phrase into a great song.

There’s an anecdote about Beethoven that expresses a similar point. Beethoven was walking in the woods and heard a peasant singing a folk song. (This must have been before old Ludwig became deaf.) “Lovely!” said L.v.B. “I must compose that.”

Was Beethoven a plagiarist? Well, if there’s a lovely German peasant song out there that provided the inspiration for a work of Beethoven’s, I would welcome knowledge about it. The German folk tradition, and any known writer of the folk song, would deserve credit. But Beethoven’s work is not diminished by the knowledge. When he said, “I must compose that,” he didn’t mean, “I must take that as is and steal it and present it unaltered as my own.” He meant, “I must give it new form, adding to it, augmenting it, amplifying it, heightening its beauty.” (By the way, I don’t know whether or not Beethoven ever did base a work on that song he heard.) (And by the way, I read this discussion about Beethoven and the folk song somewhere years ago -- I have no idea where -- and am recycling another writer’s argument.)

There’s a multiculturalist question here that needs facing. Many European classical composers have based works on folk songs from various traditions. Does this make them plagiarists, cultural thieves? In my view, the folk sources deserve credit and publicity. It’s right that the creativity of folk artists -- which often exceeds the creativity of “trained” artists -- should be brought into the light and honored. But all artists use one another. The folk song Beethoven heard had probably undergone dozens of revisions and variations over time, and had been improved by that process. If it weren’t for that gradual refining process -- a kind of cultural evolutionary adaptation -- art as a whole would be poorer. I don’t mind that the Rolling Stones have borrowed licks and lyrics from a lot of previous bluesmen. The bluesmen borrowed from each other just as much; it’s almost impossible to say where any particular blues line really originated. The Stones have not denied their debts and have in fact significantly helped bring old blues back into the public eye. And most importantly, they have always turned the old into something new. They are not mere copyists. The crucial question is not, “Where did you first get that phrase?” but “What have you added to it?”

Getting back to the point about word combinations: Does literature require unique phrases? I would say that originality of phrasing is one of many possible attributes of a literary work but not the most important one. It’s desirable, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient.

Unique word combinations can be created readily enough by computers, and also by the word magnets on my refrigerator door. Such combinations are not literature. On my refrigerator at this very moment there happens to be the sentence, “Would you imagine a chocolate present,” placed there by an obscure member of my household. I don’t know if that sentence has ever been written before; I haven’t checked. But let’s assume that it’s a unique, original sentence. Does that make it a work of literature? Only in a trivial sense. As an off–the–cuff creation it deserves an admiring comment before it’s scrambled to give way to another semi–random formulation. But what gives it further life is the fact that I’m writing it here, placing it in a context of ideas and spreading it to a wider world. Yet my formulation is ephemeral too -- unless perhaps someone else takes it up and spreads it even further, keeping the sentence one step ahead of the linguistic Grim Reaper. If someone does that, I hope they give me credit -- but that hope is essentially a matter of vanity. If they don’t give me credit, the sentence will still go out into the culture at large, enriching it.

The thing is, though, literature is not a word game. If spinning new phrases were all it took, anyone could be a great writer just by throwing darts at a dictionary. (In fact some popular song lyricists have taken that approach. Whether the resulting songs are art or not depends largely on whether the nonverbal parts of the song are strong enough to carry the lyrics on their coattails.) Any great Scrabble player would be a great writer.

But it doesn’t work that way. In fact literature -- prose literature, anyway -- can be written with an almost complete lack of original phrases. Simenon and his predecessor Balzac are great novelists who never turned an original phrase. They used the same plain words over and over to describe the same drab rooms, the same dusty furniture, the same desperate ordinary lives -- and to turn them into something meaningful and beautiful. Literature is not about making phrases but about making life.

If literature isn’t primarily in the words, where is it? In the ideas? No, not really. Suppose someone had gone up to John Lennon and said, “Hey, Lennon, I think you should write a song about someone coming home from a hard day’s work and finding comfort in the arms of his beloved.” Would that person deserve credit for “A Hard Day’s Night”? Of course not. The song is not in the idea but in the quickening of an idea into life. And that happens not in a random tossing–together of verbal elements and not in the purveying of a pedestrian concept, but in the soul of an individual artist. The soul is the art.

This plagiosphere -- this dictionary–universe in which all words already exist, to be picked up and used and then dropped by anyone who wishes -- is the source of originality, not its destroyer. All the phrases we say and write fall to the ground and decay in a heap and become humus for some flower to grow in, a Lennon flower, a Beethoven flower. And those flowers themselves will wilt after a time, and fall and make humus for later flowers.

It’s been said that most writers work their entire careers only to provide a phrase or two for greater writers to use. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole blogosphere served that purpose. Is that plagiarism? No, it’s the nourishment of art.