No Shit, Sherlock: A Dogged Monkey Writes
Years ago I wrote a poem with the line “wavewhite wedded words” in it. Normally I would shy away from such an overly alliterative phrase, but this had the ring of truth to it. For a couple of years I sent this poem along with others to a variety of lit mags, adding the rejection slips it received to my ever growing collection. One day, as I was re-reading a part of “Ulysses” that I love, I was shocked to see the exact same phrase written there. Clearly I had remembered the phrase from a previous reading and reproduced it without being aware that I hadn’t made it up. I know there are many writers out there with better memories than mine, who would never have made a mistake like this; mine is frankly not very good, but unfortunately good enough to remember a poetic fragment without remembering it had a prior context (not to mention that context was one of the most famous works in the entire canon of Western Literature).
How does the question of originality (mine, anyway) play out on the web? In my journal I have an entry for 22 January 2003 mentioning an idea I’d had for (hypothetically) creating and marketing “Bobble-Head” religious figures, e.g., Bobble-Head Buddha, Bobble-Head Jesus, etc. Don’t worry, I’m not claiming to be the original inventor, too fucking late for that. In fact at the time I thought it was too obvious an idea for others not to have thought of it, too. However, a search of the internet in January 2003 turned up zilch, and I thought, “How clever, maybe others have thought of this, but no one’s marketed them yet, at least not so you can find them with Google." Fast forward to the last days of 2005: not only can they be found, there are multiple versions for sale (I won’t bother with a link, anyone who wants them can find them the same way I did).
I like word-play, I appreciate it from others and frequently engage in it with like minded friends. Over a beer last May I blurted out “Drive-by Crucifixion.” It’s obvious, right? Sure enough, a quick search the next day showed there was already a band with that name and, more uproariously clever, a snapshot of a sign advertising such an event at someone’s neighborhood church. Today I found about 15-20 references, most of them to the band (I haven’t checked to see if there’s more than one); I’m no longer able to find the photo on-line, however, although I do have a JPG copy in my private archive.
These days I figure if you find only one or two sites already exhibiting your clever phrase from last night’s drunken musings you’re doing okay. And I really feel like I’m catching up. A search for “Global Village of the Damned” yesterday turned up only two hits! One was a serious article discussing the destructive effects of the internet on communication (Kevin Ridolfi, “Global Village of the Damned,” Renaissance Online Magazine, May 2000, Vol. 4, No. 5). The other was located within a site based on the movie “Zontar, the Thing from Venus.” Anyone who knows bad sci-fi movies knows this is one of the legendary stinkers of all time. The site, “Zontar, the Magazine from Venus,” can be found under the umbrella of “The Church of the Sub-Genius,” which has been around in one form or another (originally, in other words, “offline”) since the 1970s. If you haven’t gone there already, I highly recommend a visit.
Years ago Borges based one of his meta-fictions, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” on the proposition that if one could independently reproduce a great work of literature, say “Don Quixote,” it would be an achievement of equal magnitude (perhaps even better), regardless of the prior existence of the actual masterpiece itself. In the Borges fiction, the question of intent is not an issue, since Menard has approached the original text as his deliberate target. Another question worth asking, however, might be the proper judgement if this apparent plagiarism happened to occur without the second author ever having read, or even having been aware of, the original. Here I’m not referring at all to the hypothetical accident of reproduction by an infinitely large army of typing monkeys, or a computer program—just one particular primate independently trying to produce something original. For myself, of course, I would be quite thrilled to reproduce a single haiku of Basho that I’ve never read, which is certainly possible (that I’ve never read it, I mean). The issue I find interesting in this case (at the moment) is proving that the second writer has done this in all innocence. My point is that in the early 21st century it would be essentially impossible to claim that one has never seen or heard of, nor ever had an opportunity to read, the original “Don Quixote,” or the works of Basho.
Fortunately, perhaps, even assuming deliberate intent, there are legitimate avenues allowed for bypassing some of the rules governing creative rights; one is to assert that the second version is a satire or parody of the first. I have a vision of deliberately publishing a work of particularly ill repute, say Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” under my own name, then subsequently claiming that the most effective way of demonstrating the absurd nature of the original was to reproduce it word for word.
But I’m sure someone else has thought of this already.