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According to a recent biographer of Byron, originality can be expected from nobody except a lunatic, a hermit, or a sensational novelist. This hasty remark is calculated to prejudice novelists, lunatics, and hermits. People will inevitably turn to these members of society (if we can speak thus of hermits and lunatics), and ask them for originality, and fail to get it, and express disappointment. For all lunatics are like other lunatics, and, no more than sane men, can they do anything original. As for hermits, one hermit is the very image of his brother solitary. There remain sensational novelists to bear the brunt of the world's demand for the absolutely unheard-of, and, naturally, they cannot supply the article. So mankind falls on them, and calls them plagiarists. It is enough to make some novelists turn lunatics, and others turn hermits.
"Of all forms of theft," says Voltaire indulgently, "plagiarism is the least dangerous to society!" It may be added that, of all forms of consolation, to shout "plagiarism" is the most comforting to authors who have failed, or amateurs who have never had the pluck to try. For this reason, probably, a new play seldom succeeds but some unlucky amateur produces his battered old MS., and declares that the fortunate author has stolen from him, who hath Fortune for his foe. Indeed, without this resource it is not known how unaccepted theatrical writers would endure their lot in life. But if stealing is so ready a way to triumph, then humanity may congratulate itself on the wide prevalence of moral sentiments. So very
few people greatly succeed (and scarce any one who does not is called a thief) that even if all successful persons are proved robbers, there must be a lofty standard of honesty in literature. On the other hand, it is a melancholy fact that the very greatest men of all-Shakespeare, Molière, Virgil (that furtive Mantuan), Pausanias, Theocritus, and Lord Tennyson-are all liable to the charge of theft, as that charge is understood by the advocatus Diaboli. It is a little odd, not only that our greatest are so small, but that our smallest-the persons who bark at the chariot of every passing triumph
are so great. They have never stolen, or had nothing worth stealing, or nothing that any one would buy. But Dante: why, the whole idea of a visit to Hell, and a record of it, was a stock topic in early medieval literature. But Bunyan: every library possesses, or may possess, half a dozen earlier Progresses by earlier Pilgrims. But Virgil: when he is not pilfering from Homer or Theocritus (who notoriously robbed Sophron) he has his hand in the pocket of Apollonius Rhodius. No doubt Bavius and Mævius mentioned these truths in their own literary circle. No doubt they did not gloss over the matter, but frankly remarked that the Eneid was a pastiche, a string of plagiarisms, a success due to Court influence, and the mutual admiration of Horace, Varro, and some other notorious characters. Yet the Eneid remains a rather unusual piece of work..
Some one, probably Gibbon, has remarked about some crime or other, that it is "difficult to commit, and almost impossible to prove." reverse is the truth about plagiarism.
That crime is easy to prove, and almost impossible to commit. The facility of proof is caused by the readiness of men to take any accusation of this sort for granted, and by the very natural lack of popular reflection about the laws that govern literary composition. Any two passages, or situations, or ideas, that resemble each other, or are declared to resemble each other when they do not, are, to the mind of the unliterary person, a sufficient basis for a charge of plagiarism. These circumstances account for the ease with which plagiarism is proved. Yet it is difficult, if not impossible, to commit. For he who is charged with plagiarism is almost invariably guilty of a literary success. Now, even the poorest and most temporary literary success (say that of a shilling novel) rests on the production of a new thing. The book that really wins the world, even for a week, from its taxes, and politics, and wars and rumors of war, must be in some way striking and novel. The newness may lie in force of fancy, or in charm of style, or in both; or in mere craftsmen's skill, or in high spirits, or in some unusual moral sympathy and insight, or in various combinations of these things. In all such cases, and always, it is what is new, it is the whole impact of the book as one thing, that enables it to make its way to the coveted front. Now, what is stolen cannot be new; it can be nothing but the commonplaces of situation, and incident, and idea-each of them as old as fiction in one shape or other. Not the matter, but the casting of the matter; not the stuff, but the form given to the stuff, makes the novel, the novelty, and the success.
nobody can steal the form; nobody, as in the old story can "steal the brooms ready-made." The success or failure lies not in the materials, but in the making of the brooms, and no dullard can make anything, even if he steals all his materials. On the other hand, genius, or even considerable talent, can make a great deal, if it chooses, even out of stolen material-if any of the material of literature can be properly said to be stolen, and is not rather the possession of whoever likes to pick it up.
On this view of the matter, the only real plagiarism is that defined in the Latin dictionary: plagiarius "a man-stealer, kidnapper," so used by Cicero and Seneca. Secondly, "a literary thief (one who gives him
self out to be the author of another's book)." Martial uses the word (i. 52):
"My books, my Quintian, to thee
I send-if I may call them mine-
Recites them,-well, if they repine,
Come to their rescue and befriend them,
You'll aid them much by this relief,
Here "thief" is plagiarius, and a thief the rival poet is, for he gives himself out to be the author of another's book, and steals it readymade.
This is the only perfect plagiarism, according to the definition-namely, the claiming of a work of art which belongs to another man Now, plainly this kind of plagiarism is rare, nor would it be easy to mention a case in which it has been successful. In a number of novels we meet Now, the story of a man who comes into
possession of a book in manuscript, perhaps the deposit of a friend, and who publishes the work as a performance of his own. Such a man is a plagiarius; he cast his net (plaga) over the property of another. In real life it might be impossible to find an example of success in this kind of robbery. There are, luckily, plenty of men and women. who take credit, among their relations and friends, for the authorship of anonymous books which have been successful. They are "claimants," like the Tichborne pretender, rather than successful plagiarists. The case of George Eliot and Adam Bede is well known. There was a person named Liggins who gave himself out for the author, and even reaped some social if not pecuniary benefit. In the same way, but on a smaller scale, there were various pretenders to the honor of having written a certain essay in the Saturday Review, "The Girl of the Period." According to the actual writer, one of the pretenders was a clergyman. About twelve years ago an admired poet had great trouble with a married lady who asserted that the poet's real name was her assumed nom de guerre. Her husbard, naturally, was well deceived by this fair retiaria and caster of the plaga over other people's poems. Though it has nothing to do with the question of plagiarism, let us commiserate unlucky persons of letters whose real names, somehow, sound like assumed names. It is a misfortune they can scarcely recover from, and probably many people in the country still believe that Lord Lytton wrote Evan Harrington and Richard Feverel. Mr. Liggins did not succeed in the long run, nor does literary history,
perhaps, contain a single example of the triumph of a literary Perkin Warbeck. Only in very unusual and fantastic circumstances could he hope to keep the goods he stole ready-made. In the last novel on this situation, the pretender had every reason to blieve that the true author of the MS. was drowned at sea. Unlucky and ill-advised pretender! The sea invariably gives up her dead-in novels. Short of such an unexpected accident as the sea's not giving up her dead, how is the true plagiarist to feel comfortable with his stolen goods? Almost his only chance, and that a bad one, would be by way of translation from some little-known language. Not long ago a story or novel by a modern author was published in a periodical. Presently the editor got a letter from a correspondent, offering to furnish "the sequel of your little tale from the Basque," or whatever the original language may have been. Yes, it is very difficult to find a language safe to steal from. Let me confess that, in a volume of tales written by way of holiday tasks, I once conveyed a passage from the Zulu. There could not have been a more bare-faced theft, and no doubt, in the present inflamed condition of the moral sense, somebody would have denounced me, had the tale been successful. But as long as you do not excite the petty passion of envy, you may drive the Zulu cows unnoticed. There were only about three lines in the passage after all. The coolness of plagiarism has occasionally been displayed on a larger scale, as when a novelist boldly took a whole battle scene out of Kinglake's History of the Crimean War. He was found out, but he did not
seem to care much. Probably this particularly daring theft was a mere piece of mischief-a kind of practical joke. What other explanation can be given of Mr. Disraeli's raid on M. Thiers, and the speech about General Saint-Cyr? Of course, Mr. Disraeli could have made a better speech for himself. Thefts of this kind, like certain literary forgeries, are prompted by the tricksy spirit of Puck. But the joke is not in good taste, and is dangerous to play, because the majority of mankind will fail to see the fun of it, and will think the thief a thief in sober earnest. Only a humorous race would have made a God of Hermes, who stole cattle from the day his mother cradled him.
From these and similar cases, the difficulty, the all but impossibility, of successful plagiarism becomes manifest. If you merely use old ideas (and there are no new ideas), and so produce a fresh combination, a fresh whole, you are not a plagiarist at all. If you boldly annex the novel ready-made, either by way of translation, or publication of a manuscript not your own, you are instantly found out, and probably never get back your reputation. It appears that Mr. Charles Reade, in the Wandering Heir, "bodily appropriated" twenty or thirty lines of a little-known poem of Dean Swift's, descriptive of fashionable life in Dublin. Mr. Reade appears to have used this poem in such a way as to make the public think it was his own composition. If he did, he acted, to say the least, with very great rashness. He reckoned without the unsuccessful novelist and the unsuccessful novelist's family. Of course he was "denounced as a plagiarist by
two anonymous writers, who afterward turned out to be a not very successful rival novelist and his wife." These "lynx-eyed detectives" do, pretty often, "turn out to be' unsuccessful novelists and their kinsmen. Mr. Reade then uttered loud cries of wrath, and spoke of "masked batteries manned by anonymuncula, pseudo - nymuncula, and skunkula."
"He contended that to transplant a few lines out of Swift, and to weld them with other topics in a heterogenous work, was not plagiarism, but one of every true inventor's processes, and that only an inventor could do it well." The whole afair was not worth much consideration, but Mr. Reade's theory of what a true inventor might lawfully do was certainly a little advanced. A lump of such a brilliant manufactured article as a poem by Swift would be apt to look incongruous even in a true inventor's prose, and certainly was appropriated ready-made. Swift's notions about Dublin society had been adopted, and had informed the prose of Mr. Reade, a legitimate use would have been made of the material. Or, if Mr. Reade had said, "the Dean of St. Patrick's wrote thus on the subject," then once more the propriety of the quotation would have been unimpeachable. But perhaps the former of these suggestions will be demurred to by our moralists. There appears to be an idea that a novelist must acknowledge, in a preface or in footnotes, every suggestion of fact which comes to him from any quarter. For example, I write a novel in which a man is poisoned by curari. Am I to add a note saying, "These details as to the Macusi tribe are
and from Brett's Indians of Guiana. I have also to acknowledge the kind assistance of Professor Von Selber of Leiden. For another and earlier example of a somewhat similar use of this drug, the curious may consult Le Crime de l'Omnibus, by M. Fortuné du Boisgobey, to whose practice, however, science may urge certain pathological objections."
extracted from Wallace, from Bates, I have been invented and tried, or almost all. Probably a man of genius might make a good story even out of a selected assortment of the very oldest devices in romance. Miss Thackeray made capital stories out of the fairy tales, that are older than Rameses II., and were even published by a scribe of that monarch's. Give Mr. Besant or Mr. Stevenson two lovers, and insist that, in telling these lovers' tale, the following incidents shall occur:A Sprained Ankle.
This kind of thing is customary and appropriate in books of learning, but is seems incredible pedantry to demand such explanations from authors of works of fancy. When the scene of a story and the manners of the peoples described are not known to a novelist by personal experience, he must get his information out of books. For example, any reader of the first volume of Mr. Payn's By Proxy might fancy that Mr. Payn had passed his life in the Flowery Land. But this is believed to be a false impression, caused by the novelist's ingenious use of works of travel. Is he bound to acknowledge every scrap of information in a preface or a note? The idea is absurd. A novel would become a treatise, like Bekker's Charicles. The effect of this conscientiousness may be studied in the Epicurean of the late Mr. Thomas Moore, where there are plentiful citations, on every page of Egyptologists-for the most part exploded. The story would be better without the notes, which are useless in the age of Maspero and Mariette. Of course, if any novelist can make his notes as delightful as Sir Walter Scott's, the more he gives us the better we shall be pleased-provided they come at the end of the volume.
All ideas are old; all situations
An Attack by a Bull. A Proposal in a Conservatory, watched by a Jealous Rival. A Lost Will.
An Intercepted Correspondence. Even out of these incidents it is probable that either of the authors mentioned could produce a novel that would soothe pain and charm exile. Nor would they be accused of plagiarism, because the ideas are, even by the most ignorant or envious, recognized as part of the common stock-in-trade.
Now, it is a fact that almost every notion and situation is as much part of the common stock-in-trade as those old friends. The Odyssey, for example, might be shown to contain almost all the material of the romance that is accepted as outside of ordinary experience. For instance, in She we find a wondrous woman, who holds a man in her hollow caves (note the caves, there are caves in Homer), and offers him the gift of immortality. Obviously this is the position of Odysseus and Calypso. Rousseau remarked that the whole plot of the Odyssey would have been ruined by a letter from Odysseus to Penelope. Rousseau had not studied Wolf; but had letters been commonly