'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.
The ever-controversial Michel Foucault argued in 1970 that books came to be "assigned real authors . . . only when the author became subject to punishment and to the extent that his discourse was considered transgressive." Previously, bylines had been applied mostly to scientific works and inventions, the better to allow the Catholic Church to keep the Galileos of its world in line, Foucault said. By contrast, "those texts that we now call 'literary' [folk tales, stories, the ballads of anonymous troubadours, stories, epics, tragedies]were accepted, circulated and valourized without any questions about the identity of their author."
That we still get upset or mildly disappointed or saddened when we discover, for instance, that 2001's Cameron Crowe movie Vanilla Sky, co-starring Penelope Cruz, was a remake of a 1997 Spanish film called Open Your Eyes,co-starring the same Penelope Cruz, is understandable.
It's understandable because, in the words of William Beard, "authenticity is such a vanishingly rare and prized quality nowadays that any hint of it needs to be defended wherever it occurs and, even more important, [the notion of]its absence needs to be denied." Furthermore, as another writer once observed, plagiarism , copying, "artistic thievery," is a lot like pornography: Everyone seems to know it when he or she sees it, but nobody can agree on an acceptable definition or whether it's a bad thing or a good thing.
Beard is a professor of film and media studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and the author of The Artist as Monster, a study of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, and Clint Eastwood: Persistence of Double Vision. For him, "there's more inauthenticity than ever in postmodernism -- in fact, postmodernism, more or less, is inauthenticity."
People, however, "aren't willing to let all the old naive notions of truth go yet, notwithstanding the fact that, in their hearts, they don't really believe in them and are up to the nostrils in the fact that, basically, everything is a copy," Beard says. "It's the need to keep believing, in a disavowing way, that this isn't happening and that things are still what they always were, that fuels these denunciations and the accompanying tone of hysteria."
Bart Testa, a professor of cinema studies and semiotics at the University of Toronto, notes that there's always been "an exchange of things" when cultures meet or find out about each other. Hollywood didn't introduce its best foreign-language film category until the 1956 Oscars, but Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai had already played the U.S. art-house circuit a year or so earlier. By 1960, U.S. director John Sturges had relocated Kurosawa's small farming village in 16th-century Japan to a town in late 19th-century Mexico and was calling his film The Magnificent Seven.(This, in turn, begat Return of the Seven, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, The Magnificent Seven Ride, Battle Beyond the Stars, Seven Magnificent Gladiators and A Bug's Life.)
What's new is that "it's happening much faster" now, Testa says, and it's wreaking havoc both on our old-fangled belief that "authors are supposed to originate their material" and with the tradition that "cultural production is nationally bound, culturally bound."
What's not new, he chuckled, "is that it's always startling for us."
For Bruce W. Powe, author of The Solitary Outlaw and A Tremendous Canada of Light, the value we place on the unique and the original is "a caricature" of the Romantic movement of the late-18th to mid-19th centuries.
"Audacity is more important than originality" for Powe, and "tradition personalized is the beginning of the truly new." In fact, the more an artist strives to be wholly original, the more he or she is "likely to end up being merely novel." What matters -- and what's bound to have greater resonance and endurance in the culture at large -- is what the artist takes from the existing world and how he or she transforms it.
Pablo Picasso understood this when he supposedly asked his partner in cubism and collage, Georges Braque, early in the 20th century: "What have you got that I can use?"
For Powe, it's "the hyperintensity of attention" brought about by high-speed electronic communications that's contributed to the particular shocks of the Martel-Scliar and Potter-Grotter episodes. "Art is still produced in solitude," he said, but it's consumed within a vast electronically linked universe "where every flaw, every fault, every crack is amplified to the nth degree."
The Internet, satellite television, e-mail, fax machines -- they all mark a sort of "retrieval of the collectivity of meaning," whereby a writer's work or life or influences, for example, have the potential to be excavated and mulled over by a virtual community of electronic Talmudic "scholars" from Chile to Madagascar to Canada.
Ezra Pound used to tell aspiring writers to "acknowledge your sources in your work -- or make sure you cover your tracks," Powe observed. The Web would seem to have made the last part of that advice an impossibility and the first a necessity.
Powe sees our current age as being roughly analogous, in the cultural sphere, to the early 20th century when the world was attempting to grasp the sundry audacities of Freud, Einstein, the Wright brothers and Virginia Woolf. "The really audacious explosions for us are yet to come."
The sheer flood of stuff that the technological age has produced has been frustratingly difficult to assimilate. Indeed, the nihilism and extreme subjectivity that some have attributed to postmodernism could be construed as a kind of revenge of the resentful. "For some, there's this feeling that we're in an afterburn, that there's this late-coming" to the great, intimidating cultural feast laid out by previous generations of creators and their apologists, he said.
One of the most egregious manifestations of this feeling of fin-de-siècle exhaustion occurred in 1998 with the release of the Gus Van Sant movie, Psycho.It wasn't so much an update of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film of the same name as a combination homage/recreation/plagiarism of the Hitchcock classic, in which Van Sant matched Hitch shot-for-original shot, image-for-image, violin shriek-for-violin shriek.
Yet while Van Sant's Psycho might be seen as a kind of end-game in the appropriation dance, it doesn't necessarily invalidate the famous aphorism by Igor Stravinsky -- or was it T.S. Eliot? Oscar Wilde? Milli Vanilli? -- that "lesser artists borrow; great artists steal."
In fact, Powe and others like him think we need "more theft," and better theft, in the cultural marketplace, not less. Bad theft would perhaps be Dimitri Yemetz's Tanya Grotter and the Magic Double Bass and Tanya Grotter and the Disappearing Floor -- works, in other words, that would seem to hew too slavishly to their primary source. At the same time, Yemetz's books have not been translated into English, so for most of us his defence that they're not J.K. Rowling ripoffs but "alternative parodies with roots in Russian folklore" is an untested (but tantalizing) thesis.
An example of a good theft, Canadian-style, would be Margaret Atwood's award-winning 1996 novel Alias Grace, the fictionalized tale of a real-life 19th-century incarcerated murderess whose memory is being probed by a pre-Freudian doctor. "Atwood's appropriating everything she can find into that book," Powe commented. "As ever, it still comes down to how the individual twists what he or she reads."