Making Copies

Just Like Me
Sarah McLachlan and DMC
Written by Harry Chapin, Sandy Campbell Chapin and Darryl McDaniels

Making Copies

Title Page
First Folio, William Shakespeare

There was an article in the Guardian, “Plagiarism: in the words of someone else… there’s little new in literature,” a few weeks ago about plagiarism. The article tries to identify the difference between copying and plagiarizing. On the surface it would not seem there is a difference and perhaps there isn’t. Robert McCrum, who wrote the article, mentions an article written by Robert Greene, a contemporary of Shakespeare. Greene wrote the article on his deathbed and he called Shakespeare, “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers,” or in more contemporary terms, a plagiarist. The charge is undoubtedly true in a literal sense, Shakespeare told very few original stories, but most agree that many of the stories he stole would likely have been forgotten a long time ago if he had not stolen them.

The song is an example of a more contemporary form of borrowing. The rap artist Darryl McDaniels (DMC) has taken some liberties with a song originally written and performed by Harry Chapin. Each listener’s taste in music may determine which is the better song or if both songs are not equally impressive in their own right. But is McDaniels a plagiarist for taking Chapin’s song, even if Chapin is listed first in the songwriting credits. Nor is McDaniels alone in borrowing bits from other artists. T. S. Eliot once remarked that many of his best lines were written by other people. A reading of The Waste Land, one of his best known poems, will reveal that many of the best passages are not original with Eliot. That said, though, most agree that Eliot has crafted a remarkable poem and even those that do not admire the poem recognize that the lines Eliot has taken from others serve Eliot’s purposes in the poem and not those of the original authors.

But what is plagiarism? J. D. Salinger is quick to take legal action against any work by another author that, in his view, too overtly borrows from his stories or intrudes into his private life. Just last year he brought suit in New York to prevent the American publication of a new book, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye by J. D. California (the name of the author on the title page is a pseudonym for Fredrik Colting). The central character of the new novel is a “Mr. C”, but the title all but tells most readers Mr. C’s full name. Has Holden Caulfield become so iconic a figure in the culture that his name is no longer the private property of Mr. Salinger? Or is Mr. Salinger within his rights to try to block publication of a work of fiction that so overtly borrows from his fiction?

J. K. Rowling not too long ago successfully blocked publication of a Harry Potter reference book that, in her opinion, borrowed too heavily from her books; that did little more than quote passages she had written. If she was within her rights to stop publication of this book are the makers of the 1986 film Troll within their rights to sue Rowling for using the name of one of their characters, Harry Potter, in her novels? Ursula Le Guin said of Rowling, “She has many virtues, but originality isn’t one of them.” Is this just one author sniping at another who has had a bit more success writing about wizards and their school days? How original is any author, to what extent is any story truly new? Most stories resemble other stories that came before them, but for the new story to succeed it has to find some way of setting itself apart. For example, how like Harry Potter in the film Troll is Harry Potter in the series of books that bear his name? Whether or not the borrowing of the character’s name is coincidental depends on how closely the Harry Potter of the books resembles the Harry Potter of the film. In the case of the novel featuring Mr. C. the author is hoping readers will recognize Mr. C as Holden Caulfield and not take it as a coincidental resemblance. But than Shakespeare expected his audience to know something about a story featuring a Danish prince named Hamlet.

The Courtesan or Oiran (after Eisen)
Vincent van Gogh

The paintings above and below by Vincent Van Gogh suggest other aspects of borrowing. In the first painting Van Gogh was clearly copying another painting by the Japanese painter Eisen. Van Gogh did this a lot; he felt that just as a musician could play music she or he did not writer so could painters borrow images from other artists. But what he did was not at all like what young art students sometimes do when they go to a museum and copy the paintings that are hanging there. Where young artists are trying to master technique and craft, Van Gogh, like Eliot, is using other images created by other artists to make his own unique statements.

In the painting of his bedroom at Arles he has placed some of his other paintings on the walls. He did three versions of this painting and each version has different paintings hanging on the walls. Gauguin lived with Van Gogh for a while and I wonder, what if the paintings hanging on the walls were Gauguin’s paintings. Would Van Gogh be plagiarizing if he painted the paintings of his friend on the walls of the room? What if the paintings of his friend were in fact hanging on the walls when he painted the painting, would painting what he saw be an act of plagiarism?

Bedroom in Arles
Vincent Van Gogh

There are obvious problems with students passing off the work of others as their own, but are writers always plagiarizing when they make use of the work of other writers? When an author adapts the work of others to her or his own purposes, does this not make the work new? There is a difference between cutting an image out of one painting (or photograph) and pasting it into another and painting into a canvas an image from another painter’s work, especially if the image that is borrowed is iconic. I remember an old series from the Doonesbury comic strip in which Zonker wins the lottery and uses his winnings to buy a title; he becomes Lord Zonker, or some such thing. In one of the episodes Zonker buys a Monet and the Monet is hung in his apartment by the water cooler. The painting by the water cooler is clearly a Monet but I do not think of this image as plagiarized.

My Sweet Lord
George Harrison
(He’s So Fine by the Chiffons)

Most borrowing like that done by Shakespeare, Eliot, and Gary Trudeau depends on audience recognition of the borrowing to work its full effect. The borrowing is conscious and done with the expectation that the borrowing will be seen for what it is. However, what about borrowing that is unconscious. George Harrison was taken to court for stealing the melody of his song My Sweet Lord from an earlier song, He’s So Fine by the Chiffons. The judge in ruling against Harrison admitted that she preferred his song to the original but upheld the copyright of the composer of the original tune. Harrison had to share royalties both from the song and from the record on which the song appeared. Harrison had his revenge though. He had earned enough money from work he had done earlier in his career to buy the rights to the original song. Harrison maintained, though, that if he had borrowed the melody he did not do it consciously. Does this really make a difference? It may be a mitigating factor that the pirating of another’s work was not done intentionally, but the lack of intent does not alter the fact that the work itself is the property of another.

Campbell’s Soup Can 1
Andy Warhol

I grew up with Andy Warhol and his soup cans. Some took these paintings seriously and some saw them as silly or contrived. Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s I saw these soup cans on television with great regularity and looked on the paintings the way some look at bad puns. The paintings were, to me, like those plays on words that elicited groans of pleasure from those that heard them. It may be that Warhol’s soup cans were an obvious and artificial representation of American consumerism and the advertising that promoted it, but the obviousness of the statement was only recognized after the statement was made.

A few years ago I developed an online course in which I used artwork to make points about the literature I was teaching. The paintings I used were painted many years ago and I took it for granted that the images were in the public domain and that I was free to use them. I learned in the process of assembling the materials for the class I was creating that though the original images, the paintings the painters created, were in the public domain, the photographs of them were not. So though the Mona Lisa has outlived its copyright, the photograph made of it may not have, in fact probably has not, outlived its copyright. The law was changed a year or two after I developed the course and I could now claim fair use of the images for educational purposes. Still, for the images I now use I rely on creative commons like that provided by Wikipedia as my sources. I do not want to infringe upon anyone’s right to earn an honest living from her or his work, even if that work involves capturing as accurately as possible something that someone else has created.

La Gioconda (Monna Lisa)
Leonardo da Vinci

Leaving Home

Child’s Song
Tom Rush

Leaving Home

“Brunnhilde lies asleep, surrounded by magical fire”
Arthur Rackham

The song is about leaving home and the emotions it evokes as well as the concerns. The painting is in a sense about a father throwing his daughter out of the house. Brunnhilde has disobeyed her father and her father, Odin, the chief of the Norse pantheon of gods, punishes her by putting her to sleep and surrounding her resting place with a ring of fire. The story is a “sleeping beauty” story in that she is ultimately awakened by a kiss from Siegfried who braves the fire to rescue her.

For some leaving home involves leaving the house and for others it involves being thrown out of the house. Either way it is difficult. But starting out on one’s own is always about facing the future. There was an article in the Guardian, “Arthur C Clarke and the end of upbeat futurology,” about the futurists of the mid to late 20th century, especially the futurist Arthur C. Clarke. The gist of the article is that for Clarke and others like him and all that followed him the future was full of promise and optimism. There were amazing things that were going to be accomplished by the century’s end, most of which did not come to pass. What is especially disturbing about this is that I grew up in a world where anything was possible and the world that is being given to the next generation seems to be one in which little of consequence is possible. I wonder if children growing up today are as excited about the world they are moving into as I was about the world I was moving into when I was a child.

The Flying Carpet (Ivan Tsarevich with the Firebird on a magic carpet)
Viktor Vasnetsov

Part of the optimism and excitement I felt about the world came from the stories I read. I read a lot of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and other writers of science fiction. Of course Wells’ view of the world was not always a positive view, his most famous novels were about things going wrong, an island with a mad scientist playing games with genetics, alien invasions, and an invisible man who was not motivated by kindness. One story I remember especially well was called “The Magic Shop” about a child with magical powers controlling mom and dad. The child was a malevolent child who was not making the world into a happy place, For children who often feel powerless there may be a delicious irony in the way tables are turned in the story, but the story was not really a happy one and its ending, even to a child enjoying the tables being turned, is disturbing.

But other writers presented a magical world like that of the paintings of the flying carpet. As the article points out, Arthur Clarke believed that “advanced technology (would be) indistinguishable from magic.” Our stories today still have magic but it is unrelated to technology, magic has been put back into the realm of fantasy and taken out of the real world. I enjoyed the stories of flying carpets and exotic places that could only be visited in the imagination, but I was also excited about a world in which some of that magic would be realized. Perhaps it is important to not only teach our children to dream but to give them a realistic hope that dreams can be realized, not just the dreams of a happy and successful life and the ability to set and realize goals, but the ability to believe in dreams of a wiser world with a more active imagination.

Flying Carpet
Viktor VasnetsovКовёр-самолет._1919-1926.jpg

Of course these new worlds that we dreamed of when I was child were often a bit “Utopic” in that they imagined a world in which science made life more just, less painful, and more pleasant for all. Of course these are not things science can deliver and one person’s Utopia is another person’s prison. Much of life is about giving up things we would like so that others can have things they need, whether that is in a marriage where one does what the other desires from time to time, or in a nation where each part gives up something to the greater good of the whole. Part of learning to live well is learning to live with a certain amount of sacrifice and suffering. Stories, even those with magic carpets, often teach us that. Often the most important lesson the stories we read as children teach us is that life can be difficult and that suffering is often followed by rewards of one kind or another.

There was an article in the New York Times, “New Envoy’s Old Advice for Children: Read More,” about Katherine Paterson being made the new “national ambassador for young people’s literature.” She talks about writing the stories she does not for her children but for her own “inner child,” suggesting that the stories we tell should be stories that we would first want told to us. In the article she talks about growing up in China at the start of the Second World War and witnessing some of the things done by the Japanese in China during that war. As a result she came to hate the Japanese. Upon graduating college she was given the opportunity to go to Japan as a missionary. Her hatred was such she did not want to go. She did go. She said, “It was one of the greatest gifts of my life to be able to be in a situation and find yourself loved by people that you thought you had hated.” Her first book also came out of this experience and there is probably a lesson in that as well, it is a lesson stories often tell us, it is a lesson found, for example, in the Harry Potter stories, that those we thought were our enemies are often our friends.

Sleeping Beauty
Walt Disney Studios

Another theme often found in children’s stories is that though we are surrounded by forces that mean us harm there are other forces present that watch out for us and protect us. In the film clip Maleficent intends great harm, but there are three other spirits, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, that guard the sleeping princess. As I have grown older the stories I now read have fewer of these protective spirits and the message is that if we are to be saved we must save ourselves. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect others to come to our aid or to expect divine forces to watch over us, but often it seems that aid and comfort is to be found outside of our own resources. In the classical literature it is not unusual to find characters protected by divine forces, Odysseus is protected by Athena and Aeneas receives help from different gods and goddesses at different points in his journey. But ours is a skeptical age and we tend to believe only in those forces we can see and touch. In this sense, perhaps, the stories we tell our children instill a false sense of security.

Leaving home often begins with solitude, with finding ourselves alone and perhaps friendless. Our beliefs teach us to what extent we can depend on forces outside ourselves. For many God and the teachings of their religion are real. For others religious beliefs and practices are an intrusion that takes our focus off of the problems at hand that we alone must solve. I have my beliefs about this but that is not really the point.

I think we depend on stories to show us something of the way and to help us figure out how to live well. We all need comfort and we all need to feel cared for. That we have these needs does not mean that there are forces out there that will see to it these needs are met, but it does suggest that others have these same needs and that we have an obligation to care for our neighbor. It suggests in part that our need is met by giving what we need to others, that there is a beauty sleeping in all of us that needs to be awakened.

Sleeping Beauty
Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The Mind and the Maker

Variations On an Original Theme, Op. 36 Enigma Theme (Andante)
Edward Elgar

The Mind and the Maker

Head, 1960
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard S. Field, 1990 (1990.192)

There were a couple of articles published this week on the mind and how it works, actually they were both reviews of recently published books. One in the Guardian, “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist”, and one in the New York Times Review of Books, “Mind Reading.” The first article is about how the left and right hand sides of the brain work and the second about how we evolved into readers. They do not have much in common in that they address two very different functions of the brain, but they raise issues about how the mind works and how we learn that are interesting to anyone who works in, or appreciates, the humanities.

The Guardian article reviews a book about how the different sides of the brain are responsible for two very different and somewhat contradictory operations of the brain. The left hand side focusing on the immediate and the concrete and the right hand side focusing on the future, the bigger, long term picture, and the abstract. The music by Edward Elgar is from The Enigma Variations and suggests that music, like language can take us in a number of different directions at once. The title, Enigma, suggests there is a mystery behind the music, which Elgar never explained other than to suggest the actual theme at the heart of the variations is never played. But the variations also suggest the different ways a melody can be heard and performed and, by extension, the different ways the mind can “understand” a piece of music.

The painting by Picasso gives us two views of a human face at the same time, the full face and the face in profile, again suggesting that how we see something depends on our perspective or point of view. The book reviewed in the article argues that for the mind to do what we need it to do each side must perform its part of the job and then hand the task back to the other part of the brain to do its part of the task. The left hand side of the brain does what it needs to do to address immediate problems than hands the task back to the right hand side to make plans for the future. If one side monopolizes the task and refuses to turn it over to the other side problems can arise. In practice it is the left hand side, that is more focused and less abstract, that is more likely to try to dominate.

Ocean Park No.129
Richard Diebenkorn

It is the two sides of the brain that allow us to see more than one side of a thing, as in Picasso’s painting, at a time. The painting by Diebenkorn is from a series of paintings called Ocean Park. Each painting is different and offers a different view of the same landscape. Ocean Park is a real place in Santa Monica, a suburb of Los Angeles. As with the music, that same view may change depending on how we see it at any given moment, seasons change, different aspects of a landscape may capture our attention at different times. A more left side of the brain painting of the landscape may be more identifiable as a Southern California beach city, but does that make it more “real”?

Ralph’s Diner
Ralph Goings

A more left brain way of looking at a landscape might be suggested by Ralph Going’s painting Ralph’s Diner. The painting attempts to capture a photograph with paint and canvas and to make that painting to the extent possible an exact duplicate of the photograph. It is an impressive demonstration of what can be done with paint, canvas, and an artist’s skill. But if all it does is duplicate the photograph what makes it more than just a demonstration of an artist’s skill, what makes it a work of art in its own right, what is the contribution of the right hand side of the brain?

I suppose it is the same thing that makes a Renaissance painting of a landscape, that captures that landscape as realistically, as photographically, as possible, a work of art. In any painting there are at least two components, the artist’s choice of a subject and the manner in which that subject is captured. The Renaissance painter tried to capture what was seen as a photograph might if the camera had existed. The photorealist painter is trying to capture the photograph as though it were a Renaissance landscape, sort of.

Paramount Picture

In this film clip Henry II makes Thomas Becket his Lord Chancellor. He is trying to use the brilliance of his friend and advisor to achieve certain ends with the church. Henry is a very concrete, left brain, kind of thinker. He knows what the immediate problem is and he knows the most effective way of achieving an immediate solution to that problem. Becket on the other hand is more imaginative, a more right brain kind of thinker, better at using abstract thought and abstract language to achieve the ends Henry desires.

Later in the film Henry will put Becket in charge of the English Church by making him Archbishop of Canterbury. Because it is the church that is giving him trouble he, thinking very concretely, will put his friend who will do what he asks in charge of the church. He misunderstands Becket who is immensely loyal in his service to Henry. By making Thomas head of the church his loyalty must be to the Church and not to Henry. Becket tries to warn Henry, but Henry is not able to make that abstract leap and imagine his friend as anything but loyal to the king.

Wallace Stevens in the first part of his poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar” captures the relationship between the concrete and the abstract sides of the brain, or perhaps lack of a relationship would be more to the point.

The Man with the Blue Guitar


The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

The audience wants “things as they are” they want what is “real” but the guitar captures it own reality, it changes what “it sees” and makes it into something else, as Diebenkorn does with his seascape. The artist, even the photorealist artist, captures the world in her or his imagination and makes that world into a piece of music, into a story, into a painting or a sculpture, the world is changed, after a fashion, by the imagination.

Blue and Green Music
Georgia O’Keeffe

The painting claims to represent music, blue music and green music, it is a visual representation of what O’Keeffe imagines music to “look” like. But it is not just any music; it is green music and blue music. What are the colors intended to suggest about the music? Did she have a specific piece of music in mind when she painted it? I wonder what the story is that O’Keeffe is trying to tell. There is a suggestion of sound waves and of flowers in the painting but I do not know what they are meant to suggest about music (perhaps I am too concrete in my thinking). There is also a sense in the painting that music is a force that is penetrating, perhaps the furrows that might suggest sound waves are not waves at all but furrows and it is the earth the music is penetrating. In that sense you might have the “blue” sky and the “green” earth.

The New York Times article is about reading and writing and how they evolved. It is a review of a book that tries to understand how the black (usually) marks on a white (usually) surface (that is not always a paper surface anymore) can produce such profound emotions in the human psyche. It wonders why the letters we use to make words are shaped the way they are and why do we use letters, like “b” and “d” that are so easily confused. The article also points out that the shapes of some letters, the “t” for example, have primal associations that might have made them attractive to those who invented the first letters, though it does not go on to say how these associations relate to the letters they have become. At its heart the written word seems to be a very right brain kind of function but it is often used to achieve very left brain kinds of things.

But for me it is the coming together of the imagination with language to tell stories that I find most attractive. It is the right brain ability to think abstractly and to imagine that causes me to wonder how we have evolved into storytellers who shape meanings through sounds and images and words. I also wonder why it is that reading Jonathan Swift excites me and makes me laugh but seems to put many of my students to sleep. Is it just an inadequate vocabulary or are there significant ways in which we all process what we read differently? Obviously we all see different things in what we read, but why is it that some of us can develop a “literary” imagination that can take complex texts and shape them into meaning and merriment while others not only cannot but do not have an interest in developing the skill?

It is not that those that are not attracted to the written word lack imagination, though it might be that some do, because many that are not captivated by the written word have very rich imaginations, they may be dancers, musicians, or painters. Maybe it is just a case of finding the right story to bewitch the imagination and that until that story is found the “literary” imagination pursues other things. Maybe it is just that it is difficult to understand how what is gold to one person is brass to another. We do not all value the same things; we are not all touched by the same things. It is probably enough that the imagination lives even if it is sustained by a different kind of nourishment.