Sunday, November 23, 2014

Originality, Plagiarism and Pierre Menard

A recent post of Jonathan Mayhew's reminded me of an old complaint I have about the blurbs on my Penguin paperbacks. My 1981 King Penguin edition of Borges' Labyrinths describes Pierre Menard as "the man who re-wrote Don Quixote word for word without ever reading the original" on the back cover. (This sort of thing happens a lot, I've found. I wonder if it's a convention I've never been told about. Perhaps blurbs are supposed to be misleading so as not to ruin the plot?) In any case, my reading of "Pierre Menard" doesn't have him doing any "transcribing", as Jonathan seems to say. In fact, I thought the opposite was true.

Pierre Menard, as I read Borges, was trying to write Cervantes' Don Quixote without plagiarizing it. The task seems to be an impossible one; indeed, it seems absurd. Menard intends to write the exact same words as Cervantes, but he, Menard, is now to be their author. As Borges's fictional literary critic points out, the words will be the same, but their meaning will be entirely different. Menard wanted to, literally, write Don Quixote.

How can you become the author of a book that has already been written? We can imagine a parallel universe in which, as in ours, Cervantes writes the Quixote in the early seventeenth century but, unlike ours, does not publish it, and does not achieve the fame he enjoys here. Then, four-hundred years later, Menard discovers the manuscript and publishes it as an original creation of his own mind. This would of course still make him a plagiarist, but it would be very difficult to discover (if he kept his own secret). Menard would now become the author, and, if he really did present it as something he had just written, his words would be interpreted as those of a contemporary.

Though it is hugely unlikely, we could also imagine another universe in which Menard, in a true coincidence, produces a work that is identical to Cervantes' unpublished manuscript, exactly as Penguin's blurb writer suggests. In this parallel universe, then, two people write the same manuscript independently, they both spring from ("originate" in) the imagination of each unique author. This, interestingly enough, is the sort of "impossible originality" that I've argued we demand of students. We want them to "come up with" ideas that are in most cases already available in the published literature they just haven't read yet.

But these are not the universes that Borges would have us imagine. Menard desires a universe in which Cervantes wrote and published Don Quixote and in which Menard, fully aware of Cervantes' achievement, could also write and publish the same sequence of words, but in his own name, and, like I say, without plagiarizing them. As Borges and Menard are aware, this requires Menard to forget Cervantes' version. The odds against Menard's project are formidable*: the odds of writing the Quixote without plagiarizing it are exactly the odds of writing an exact copy of any book that one has never read. In our parallel universe we need only posit that Menard does not actually discover Cervantes' manuscript. Rather, someone else discovers it after Menard has become famous (if writing an original Quixote in 19051935 warrants literary fame). I suppose there would be a scandal. No one would believe Menard had not transcribed Cervantes.

And that's what happens when we find that a student who has, as expected, submitted an "unoriginal" idea in an essay, has also, as expected not to, used the exact same words as, either another student, or an academic blogger, or published scholar. We would not be entirely surprised to find a sophomore English major propose that Nick Caraway was gay. But we would raise an eyebrow if the student wrote "It’s a testament to Fitzgerald’s talent as a novelist that he was able to provide so much textual evidence that Nick is gay without confirming it or drawing undue attention to it. Subtlety is an art." Here a set of quotation marks and a reference to Greg Olear, not to mention an ellipsis, would, of course, be expected.

*Perhaps this is why Andrew Gelman is so passionate about plagiarism. The excuses are so often an affront to probability theory.


Jonathan said...

Another solution. He takes each sentence of the novel and waits until he feels that that could be something emerging out of his own sensibility. Then he writes that sentence with his own meaning, his own intention, behind it. It is a slow, painstaking process, because he must do it honestly, as himself, and not as a mere transcriber. He could memorize sections of it and then sit down to write, but never writing down something unless he felt it as his own. This is the heroic aspect of his feat: bridging the distance between the two sensibilities without ever cheating. The exact mechanism, I feel, is deliberately obscure since what matters is the negotiation between the two subjectivities.

Thomas said...

I think this is the key difference between how I understand the process and how you do. In your reading, Cervantes' text is a source, and the goal is to find a way to pass the words in some special way through Menard's imagination. In my reading, the goal was to have the words spring ("originally") from Menard's own imagination. In both cases, of course, the test is that the same words end up the page. My reading was clearly dominated by the "first method" that the critic describes and says Menard abandoned. But I'm not yet sure that your method (which does seem like a kind of "transcription") is indicated or, in a sense, allowed. On my view, he's saying Menard must never begin (even in memory) with Cervantes' words. And in that sense it looks very much like the goal is, as I say, writing someone else's words without plagiarising them (in the moral sense).

Jonathan said...

Right. That gets to my first idea that it is a science fiction story.

Thomas said...

This is the closest he seems to come to describing the "device":

"My [Menard's] general memory of Don Quixote [from his reading], simplified by forgetfulness and indifference, is much the same as the imprecise, anterior image of a book not yet written. Once this image (which no one can deny me in good faith) has been postulated, my problems are undeniably considerably more difficult than those which Cervantes faced. My affable precursor did not refuse the collaboration of fate; he went along composing his immortal work a little a la diable, swept along by inertias of language and invention. I have contracted the mysterious duty of reconstructing literally his spontaneous work. My solitary game is governed by two polar laws. The first permits me to attempt variants of a formal and psychological nature; the second obliges me to sacrifice them to the 'original' text and irrefutably to rationalize this annihilation."

Andrew Shields said...

Thomas, Jonathan:

Did you see this about "Kind of Blue", "Blue" by Mostly Other People Do The Killing, and Pierre Menard?