'No reason to get excited,' the thief he kindly spoke. All Along the Watchtower, by Bob Dylan (1968) It's one great big cultural mosh-pit out there in the global village: ideas, images, stories and sounds travel hither and thither with a promiscuous frequency greater than the exchange of "precious bodily fluids" imagined by the paranoid Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.
One of the latest instances of cultural mixology goes on television tomorrow, namely I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! It's the American version of the British show of the same name that last year was sued by Bob Geldof.
One of the originators of the Survivor concept, Geldof felt Celebrity -- which, in its U.S. incarnation, strands such titans of stage, screen and television as Robin Leach, Maria Conchito Alonso and Julie Brown in a jungle setting for 14 days -- was infringing on Survivor's copyright. (As if Geldof came up with Survivor ex nihilo, without ever seeing Walt Disney's adaptation of Swiss Family Robinson as a lad in Ireland or reading Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe!)
Now comes word that NBC is shooting a pilot of a proposed TV series based on -- yes! -- yet another British program. The twist here is that Coupling, which started about three years ago with the BBC, was originally referred to as "the British Friends" since the comedy dealt with the adventures of six young, attractive couples trying to make a go of it in London. More recently, as the British series has gotten a bit raunchier, critics have taken to calling it "a cross between Friends and Sex and the City."
Of course, by now we expect such things from television, which is a collaborative, cobbled-together medium with a never-ending appetite for both the novel and the familiar. But every now and then, we seem to get worked up by instances of supposed plagiarism and appropriation, especially when they involve books. It happened twice three months ago in the space of one week when newspapers around the world ran front-page stories on instances of apparent artistic miscegenation.
One involved the announcement by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling that said she was thinking of suing a Russian author, Dimitri Yemetz, for compromising her copyright by writing a series of books featuring a young magician named Tanya Grotter. The other was the fuss raised by Yann Martel's acknowledgment that the initiating idea for his Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi came from a novella, Max and the Cats, written in 1981 by the Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar.
Jaded culture-vultures were somewhat taken aback by the storm. Really, they asked, wasn't this just "the same as it ever was," to quote David Byrne, himself a famous appropriator of other voices, other cultural rooms? Examples, in short, of the rule rather than the exception in this wild Webbed po-mo world we're trying to call home?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, because intellectually, it seems, we're willing to concede there's nothing new under the sun. Chaucer, a Brit who died in 1400, appears to have had more than a passing familiarity with the works of Boccaccio, an Italian, when he began to pen his Canterbury Tales. Shakespeare, still touted 400 years after his death as the greatest writer of English ever, borrowed, by some estimates, the plots for 90 per cent of his greatest plays.
Emotionally, however, we continue to be fond of notions of "authorship," "authenticity," "originality" and "intentionality," notions that go back at least as far as the 18th century, when the nation-states of the Western world enacted copyright laws, literacy was on the rise and artists began to proclaim that their primary allegiance was to their own genius, not to king or pope or merchant prince.