Article — From the February 2007 issue

The Ecstasy of Influence

A plagiarism

( 11 of 11 )

key: i is another

This key to the preceding essay names the source of every line I stole, warped, and cobbled together as I “wrote” (except, alas, those sources I forgot along the way). First uses of a given author or speaker are highlighted in red. Nearly every sentence I culled I also revised, at least slightly — for necessities of space, in order to produce a more consistent tone, or simply because I felt like it.


The phrase “the ecstasy of influence,” which embeds a rebuking play on Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” is lifted from spoken remarks by Professor Richard Dienst of Rutgers.

love and theft

“. . . a cultivated man of middle age . . .” to “. . . hidden, unacknowledged memory?” These lines, with some adjustments for tone, belong to the anonymous editor or assistant who wrote the dust-flap copy of Michael Maar’s The Two Lolitas. Of course, in my own experience, dust-flap copy is often a collaboration between author and editor. Perhaps this was also true for Maar.

“The history of literature . . .” to

“. . . borrow and quote?” comes from Maar’s book itself.

“Appropriation has always . . .” to “. . . Ishmael and Queequeg . . .” This paragraph makes a hash of remarks from an interview with Eric Lott conducted by David McNair and Jayson Whitehead, and incorporates both interviewers’ and interviewee’s observations. (The text-interview form can be seen as a commonly accepted form of multivocal writing. Most interviewers prime their subjects with remarks of their own — leading the witness, so to speak — and gently refine their subjects’ statements in the final printed transcript.)

“I realized this . . .” to “. . . for a long time.” The anecdote is cribbed, with an elision to avoid appropriating a dead grandmother, from Jonathan Rosen’s The Talmud and the Internet. I’ve never seen 84, Charing Cross Road, nor searched the Web for a Donne quote. For me it was through Rosen to Donne, Hemingway, website, et al.

“When I was thirteen . . .” to “. . . no plagiarist at all.” This is from William Gibson‘s “God’s Little Toys,” in Wired magazine. My own first encounter with William Burroughs, also at age thirteen, was less epiphanic. Having grown up with a painter father who, during family visits to galleries or museums, approvingly noted collage and appropriation techniques in the visual arts (Picasso, Claes Oldenburg, Stuart Davis), I was gratified, but not surprised, to learn that literature could encompass the same methods.

contamination anxiety

“In 1941, on his front porch . . .” to “. . . ‘this song comes from the cotton field.’” Siva Vaidhyanathan, Copyrights and Copywrongs.

“. . . enabled by a kind . . . freely reworked.” Kembrew McLeod, Freedom of Expression. In Owning Culture, McLeod notes that, as he was writing, he

happened to be listening to a lot of old country music, and in my casual listening I noticed that six country songs shared exactly the same vocal melody, including Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life,” the Carter Family’s “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” Roy Acuff’s “Great Speckled Bird,” Kitty Wells’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Reno & Smiley’s “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap,” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Heavenly Houseboat Blues.” . . . In his extensively researched book, Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Nick Tosches documents that the melody these songs share is both “ancient and British.” There were no recorded lawsuits stemming from these appropriations. . . .

“. . . musicians have gained . . . through allusion.” Joanna Demers, Steal This Music.

“In Seventies Jamaica . . .” to “. . . hours of music.” Gibson.

“Visual, sound, and text collage . . .” to “. . . realm of cultural production.” This plunders, rewrites, and amplifies paragraphs from McLeod’s Owning Culture, except for the line about collage being the art form of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, which I heard filmmaker Craig Baldwin say, in defense of sampling, in the trailer for a forthcoming documentary, Copyright Criminals.

“In a courtroom scene . . .” to “. . . would cease to exist.” Dave Itzkoff, New York Times.

“. . . the remarkable series of ‘plagiarisms’ . . .” to “. . . we want more plagiarism.” Richard Posner, combined from The Becker-Posner Blog and The Atlantic Monthly.

“Most artists are brought . . .” to “. . . by art itself.” These words, and many more to follow, come from Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. Above any other book I’ve here plagiarized, I commend The Gift to your attention.

“Finding one’s voice . . . filiations, communities, and discourses.” Semanticist George L. Dillon, quoted in Rebecca Moore Howard‘s “The New Abolitionism Comes to Plagiarism.”

“Inspiration could be . . . act never experienced.” Ned Rorem, found on several “great quotations” sites on the Internet.

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted . . . out of chaos.” Mary Shelley, from her introduction to Frankenstein.

“What happens . . .” to “. . . contamination anxiety.” Kevin J.H. Dettmar, from “The Illusion of Modernist Allusion and the Politics of Postmodern Plagiarism.”

surrounded by signs

“The surrealists believed . . .” to the Walter Benjamin quote. Christian Keathley‘s Cinephilia and History, or the Wind in the Trees, a book that treats fannish fetishism as the secret at the heart of film scholarship. Keathley notes, for instance, Joseph Cornell’s surrealist-influenced 1936 film Rose Hobart, which simply records “the way in which Cornell himself watched the 1931 Hollywood potboiler East of Borneo, fascinated and distracted as he was by its B-grade star” — the star, of course, being Rose Hobart herself. This, I suppose, makes Cornell a sort of father to computer-enabled fan-creator reworkings of Hollywood product, like the version of George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace from which the noxious Jar Jar Binks character was purged; both incorporate a viewer’s subjective preferences into a revision of a filmmaker’s work.

“. . . early in the history of photography” to “. . . without compensating the source.” From Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig, the greatest of public advocates for copyright reform, and the best source if you want to get radicalized in a hurry.

“For those whose ganglia . . .” to “. . . discourse broke down.” From David Foster Wallace‘s essay “E Unibus Pluram,” reprinted in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I have no idea who Wallace’s “gray eminence” is or was. I inserted the example of Dickens into the paragraph; he strikes me as overlooked in the lineage of authors of “brand-name” fiction.

“I was born . . . Mary Tyler Moore Show.” These are the reminiscences of Mark Hosler from Negativland, a collaging musical collective that was sued by U2’s record label for their appropriation of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Although I had to adjust the birth date, Hosler’s cultural menu fits me like a glove.

“The world is a home . . . pop-culture products . . .” McLeod.

“Today, when we can eat . . .” to “. . . flat sights.” Wallace.

“We’re surrounded by signs, ignore none of them.” This phrase, which I unfortunately rendered somewhat leaden with the word “imperative,” comes from Steve Erickson‘s novel Our Ecstatic Days.


“. . . everything from attempts . . .” to “defendants as young as twelve.” Robert Boynton, The New York Times Magazine, “The Tyranny of Copyright?”

“A time is marked . . .” to “. . . what needs no defense.” Lessig, this time from The Future of Ideas.

“Thomas Jefferson, for one . . .” to “‘. . . respective Writings and Discoveries.’” Boynton.

“. . . second comers might do a much better job than the originator

. . .” I found this phrase in Lessig, who is quoting Vaidhyanathan, who himself is characterizing a judgment written by Learned Hand.

“But Jefferson’s vision . . . owned by someone or other.” Boynton.

“The distinctive feature . . .” to “. . . term is extended.” Lessig, again from The Future of Ideas.

“When old laws . . .” to “. . . had been invaded.” Jessica Litman, Digital Copyright.

“‘I say to you . . . woman home alone.’” I found the Valenti quote in McLeod. Now fill in the blank: Jack Valenti is to the public domain as ______ is to ________.

the beauty of second use

“In the first . . .” to “. . . builds an archive.” Lessig.

“Most books . . . one year . . .” Lessig.

“Active reading is . . .” to “. . . do not own . . .” This is a mashup of Henry Jenkins, from his Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, and Michel de Certeau, whom Jenkins quotes.

“In the children’s classic . . .” to

“. . . its loving use.” Jenkins. (Incidentally, have the holders of the copyright to The Velveteen Rabbit had a close look at Toy Story? There could be a lawsuit there.)

source hypocrisy, or, disnial

“The Walt Disney Company . . . alas, Treasure Planet . . .” Lessig.

“Imperial Plagiarism” is the title of an essay by Marilyn Randall.

“. . . spurred David Byrne . . . My Life in the Bush of Ghosts . . .” Chris Dahlen, Pitchfork — though in truth by the time I’d finished, his words were so utterly dissolved within my own that had I been an ordinary cutting-and-pasting journalist it never would have occurred to me to give Dahlen a citation. The effort of preserving another’s distinctive phrases as I worked on this essay was sometimes beyond my capacities; this form of plagiarism was oddly hard work.

“Kenneth Koch . . .” to “. . . déluge of copycats!” Emily Nussbaum, The New York Times Book Review.

you can’t steal a gift

“You can’t steal a gift.” Dizzy Gillespie, defending another player who’d been accused of poaching Charlie Parker’s style: “You can’t steal a gift. Bird gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it.”

“A large, diverse society . . . intellectual property.” Lessig.

“And works of art . . . ” to “. . .

marriage, parenthood, mentorship.” Hyde.

“Yet one . . . so naturally with the market.” David Bollier, Silent Theft.

“Art that matters . . .” to “. . . bought and sold.” Hyde.

“We consider it unacceptable . . .” to “‘. . . certain unalienable Rights . . .’” Bollier, paraphrasing Margaret Jane Radin’s Contested Commodities.

“A work of art . . .” to “. . . constraint upon our merchandising.” Hyde.

“This is the reason . . . person it’s directed at.” Wallace.

“The power of a gift . . .” to “. . . certain extra-market values.” Bollier, and also the sociologist Warren O. Hagstrom, whom Bollier is paraphrasing.

the commons

“Einstein’s theory . . .” to “. . . public domain are a commons.” Lessig.

“That a language is a commons . . . society as a whole.” Michael Newton, in the London Review of Books, reviewing a book called Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language by Daniel Heller-Roazen. The paraphrases of book reviewers are another covert form of collaborative culture; as an avid reader of reviews, I know much about books I’ve never read. To quote Yann Martel on how he came to be accused of imperial plagiarism in his Booker-winning novel Life of Pi,

Ten or so years ago, I read a review by John Updike in the New York Times Review of Books [sic]. It was of a novel by a Brazilian writer, Moacyr Scliar. I forget the title, and John Updike did worse: he clearly thought the book as a whole was forgettable. His review — one of those that makes you suspicious by being mostly descriptive . . . oozed indifference. But one thing about it struck me: the premise. . . . Oh, the wondrous things I could do with this premise.

Unfortunately, no one was ever able to locate the Updike review in question.

“The American commons . . .” to

“. . . for a song.” Bollier.

“Honoring the commons . . .” to

“. . . practical necessity.” Bollier.

“We in Western . . . public good.” John Sulston, Nobel Prize–winner and co-mapper of the human genome.

“We have to remain . . .” to “. . . benefit of a few.” Harry S Truman, at the opening of the Everglades National Park. Although it may seem the height of presumption to rip off a president — I found claiming Truman’s stolid advocacy as my own embarrassing in the extreme — I didn’t rewrite him at all. As the poet Marianne Moore said, “If a thing had been said in the best way, how can you say it better?” Moore confessed her penchant for incorporating lines from others’ work, explaining, “I have not yet been able to outgrow this hybrid method of composition.”

undiscovered public knowledge

“. . . intellectuals despondent . . .” to “. . . quickly and cheaply?” Steve Fuller, The Intellectual. There’s something of Borges in Fuller’s insight here; the notion of a storehouse of knowledge waiting passively to be assembled by future users is suggestive of both “The Library of Babel” and “Kafka and his Precursors.”

give all

“. . . one of Iran’s finest . . .” to “. . . meditation on his heroine?” Amy Taubin, Village Voice, although it was me who was disappointed at the door of the Walter Reade Theater.

“The primary objective . . .” to “. . . unfair nor unfortunate.” Sandra Day O’Connor, 1991.

“. . . the future will be much like the past” to “. . . give some things away.” Open-source film archivist Rick Prelinger, quoted in McLeod.

“Change may be troubling . . . with certainty.” McLeod.

“. . . woven entirely . . .” to “. . . without inverted commas.” Roland Barthes.

“The kernel, the soul . . .” to “. . . characteristics of phrasing.” Mark Twain, from a consoling letter to Helen Keller, who had suffered distressing accusations of plagiarism (!). In fact, her work included unconsciously memorized phrases; under Keller’s particular circumstances, her writing could be understood as a kind of allegory of the “constructed” nature of artistic perception. I found the Twain quote in the aforementioned Copyrights and Copywrongs, by Siva Vaidhyanathan.

“Old and new . . .” to “. . . we all quote.” Ralph Waldo Emerson. These guys all sound alike!

“People live differently . . . wealth as a gift.” Hyde.

“. . . I’m a cork . . .” to “. . . blown away.” This is adapted from The Beach Boys song “’Til I Die,” written by Brian Wilson. My own first adventure with song-lyric permissions came when I tried to have a character in my second novel quote the lyrics “There’s a world where I can go and/Tell my secrets to/In my room/In my room.” After learning the likely expense, at my editor’s suggestion I replaced those with “You take the high road/I’ll take the low road/I’ll be in Scotland before you,” a lyric in the public domain. This capitulation always bugged me, and in the subsequent British publication of the same book I restored the Brian Wilson lyric, without permission. Ocean of Story is the title of a collection of Christina Stead‘s short fiction.

Saul Bellow, writing to a friend who’d taken offense at Bellow’s fictional use of certain personal facts, said: “The name of the game is Give All. You are welcome to all my facts. You know them, I give them to you. If you have the strength to pick them up, take them with my blessing.” I couldn’t bring myself to retain Bellow’s “strength,” which seemed presumptuous in my new context, though it is surely the more elegant phrase. On the other hand, I was pleased to invite the suggestion that the gifts in question may actually be light and easily lifted.

key to the key

The notion of a collage text is, of course, not original to me. Walter Benjamin‘s incomplete Arcades Project seemingly would have featured extensive interlaced quotations. Other precedents include Graham Rawle‘s novel Diary of an Amateur Photographer, its text harvested from photography magazines, and Eduardo Paolozzi‘s collage-novel Kex, cobbled from crime novels and newspaper clippings. Closer to home, my efforts owe a great deal to the recent essays of David Shields, in which diverse quotes are made to closely intertwine and reverberate, and to conversations with editor Sean Howe and archivist Pamela Jackson. Last year David Edelstein, in New York magazine, satirized the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism case by creating an almost completely plagiarized column denouncing her actions. Edelstein intended to demonstrate, through ironic example, how bricolage such as his own was ipso facto facile and unworthy. Although Viswanathan’s version of “creative copying” was a pitiable one, I differ with Edelstein’s conclusions.

The phrase Je est un autre, with its deliberately awkward syntax, belongs to Arthur Rimbaud. It has been translated both as “I is another” and “I is someone else,” as in this excerpt from Rimbaud’s letters:

For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it is not its fault. To me this is obvious: I witness the unfolding of my own thought: I watch it, I listen to it: I make a stroke of the bow: the symphony begins to stir in the depths, or springs on to the stage.

If the old fools had not discovered only the false significance of the Ego, we should not now be having to sweep away those millions of skeletons which, since time immemorial, have been piling up the fruits of their one-eyed intellects, and claiming to be, themselves, the authors!

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