By Scott Hamilton
The unattributed borrowings from other authors in Witi Ihimaera’s new novel The Trowenna Sea have become the literary news story of the decade in New Zealand, inviting a pompous editorial from the Herald as well as protracted arguments in the blogopshere. So far, though, the debate about Ihimaera’s novel has been framed in a very unhelpful way.
It seems to me that Ihimaera and his defenders – many of whom, like the unctuous Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland, Stuart McCutcheon, seem to be motivated by professional interest rather than private conviction – risk doing considerable damage to the public understanding of literature with the arguments they are using. Ihimaera and his supporters keep telling us that his unacknowledged borrowings make up only a tiny fraction of the text of The Trowena Sea – the figure 0.4% has been bandied about, though I understand that this is an underestimation – and that if only the borrowings had been noted at the back of the book then there would be no need for complaint.
Most of Ihimaera’s critics have not questioned the premises of this argument, but have instead insisted that his failure to cite all of his borrowings is an unforgivable sin, rather than a minor oversight. Stealing is still stealing, one of them said, even if the thief only takes a relatively small amount.
The implications of the terms within which the debate over The Trowenna Sea has been waged are clear. It is always wrong to borrow writing without attributing it, but if an author puts a note at the back of his or her book, then that author is free to take whatever he or she wants.
The consensus between Ihimaera’s defenders and most of his critics obscures the most basic question we need to ask, in any case of literary plagiarism, namely what is the writer doing with the words he or she has borrowed? What damns Ihimaera is not the fact that he has taken the words of others without attributing them, but rather the uses he has found for those words.
For the past hundred years, at least, plagiarism has been a respected literary tool. The history of modernist and postmodernist literature is filled with examples of masterpieces created using the words of others. Long before Ihimaera was even born, novels like Ulysses and Under the Volcano and poems like Pound’s Cantos and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson were being hailed as classics, not despite but because of the uses which they made of pre-existing texts.
Perhaps the finest example of creative plagiarism is TS Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land, which was greeted with widespread praise when it was first published in 1922. Eliot’s poem is a multi-perspectival portrait of a Western civilisation thrown into crisis by the First World War and the political turmoil that followed the war: moving brusquely from one scene and character to another, it shows us the disappointment of the hopes of the men who went to war in 1914, the drab vulgarity of life in big European cities like London and Vienna, and the widespread loss of faith in Christianity.
Like a surprising number of the great modernists, Eliot was politically conservative, and he was fond of contrasting what he saw as the chaos and nihilism of the twentieth century world with the glory and harmony of the past. By taking fragments from the literature of the past and juxtaposing them with modern imagery and modes of speech, The Waste Land was able to suggest something of the cultural decline which Eliot saw everywhere in postwar Europe. Here is a passage from the fourth of the poem’s five sections:
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
In these lines Eliot juxtaposes a quotation from the sixteenth century poet Edmund Spencer with an evocation of a polluted industrial waterway that is so precisely vivid that it simultaneously disgusts and excites us. Just as the harmonious sixteenth century world has degenerated into the chaos of the twentieth century, so the ‘sweet Thames’ which Spencer had saluted in his ‘Prothalamion’ has become, in Eliot’s imagination at least, a rat-infested canal. Eliot’s sadistic talent for juxtaposition and his hypnotic yet fractured rhythms mean that even those of us who do not share his bleak view of modern life and his romanticised picture of the past usually find The Waste Land a harrowingly powerful poem. Although Eliot acknowledged a few of his sources in the archly playful footnotes to The Waste Land, he left many other borrowings unattributed. (Many of Eliot’s peers were even less concerned with admitting their borrowings: his friend Ezra Pound, for instance, didn’t bother to write a single footnote to The Cantos, which includes thousands of excerpts from texts as different as The Book of Tao and the articles of the American statesman John Adams.)
If we followed the logic common to Witi Ihimaera and to most of his critics, then we would we have to fault TS Eliot for his unattributed borrowings, and ask Faber and Faber to remove The Waste Land from bookstores until the author’s supposed blunders could be corrected.
The difference between the plagiarisms in The Waste Land and the plagiarisms in The Trowenna Sea is closely related to the different intentions of the two plagiarists. Eliot has appropriated the refrain of Spencer’s ‘Prothalamion’ because he wants to make the author of The Faerie Queen into one of the voices in the large, discordant chorus that is The Waste Land; he does not want to assimilate Spencer’s verbal felicities, but rather to present them to the reader alongside his own.
Witi Ihimaera’s plagiarisms are both far less ambitious and far less noble than those of Eliot. Ihimaera seems to have borrowed attractive passages from other authors simply because they make his own prose seem more attractive. Rather than making some sort of original use of the passages he has borrowed – by juxtaposing them with dissimilar passages, for instance, or adding commentary to them – he has sought to insert them as gently as possible into his text. Indeed, Ihimaera appears to have ‘tweaked’ many of the passages he has appropriated, so that they fit more comfortably into their new contexts.
If Eliot is like the modernist architect who wants his building to bear witness to the origins of its materials, then Ihimaera is like the tasteless but conceited renovator who insists on painting over brick and plastering over iron fills.
What is unfortunate about The Trowenna Sea affair is not Ihimaera’s public embarrassment – despite his high media profile and commercial success, the man has never been ranked amongst this country’s first-rate novelists – but the misunderstandings about literary technique which are being perpetuated by those rushing to defend and attack the book.
The truth is that the validity of a creative writer’s borrowings can never be predetermined by some set of rules decided by philistines like Ihimaera’s boss Stuart McCutcheon. Even if they were copiously footnoted, Ihimaera’s borrowings would remain objectionable; even if The Waste Land did not contain a single footnote, it would remain a triumph.
I have to admit, at this point, to having a personal interest in this matter: if the controversy caused by Ihimaera’s new novel leads to the widespread belief that a writer who uses unattributed borrowings is some sort of unpublishable reprobate, then I will be in trouble, because a number of the poems in my 2007 book To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps contain unacknowledged excerpts from other texts.
My book’s title piece was written after I found a 1940s tome called The True Guide to Space Flight on the bookcase of the run-down Remuera mansion where I lived for a time when I was a Masters student. When I encountered this fancifully illustrated ‘textbook’ I was earnestly trying to study philosophy, and I was struck by the parallel between the hopeless speculations of metaphysicians and the hopeless dreams of the conceptual astronauts of the ’40s. The result was a prose poem with paragraphs like these:
Nor shall we get to the moon by giant aeroplane. An aeroplane uses the sloping surfaces of its clever propellers to lever itself through the air. Around the moon, though, there is no air. Nor, let us be clear, can swans, whirlwinds, wings of eagle or vulture, or balloons lift us anywhere near that mysterious, silently moving light.
Perhaps the problems we face are perennial. Problems, problematic views recede from the centre of concern, only to dominate later on. Aeroplanes take off, circulate, then fall out of the sky. Moons wax and wane, pass from palm to palm. Why won’t theories stay refuted? Why won’t problems dissolve, in this upraised glass?
I’m not worried by the fact that I can’t remember exactly which of the words in this passage come from The True Guide of Space Travel, which words come from the stodgy philosophical tomes I devoured as a Masters student, and which words I wrote myself. I think that the poem’s borrowings are justified, because of the new contexts and connections it establishes for what it takes.
In another poem that was included in To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps, I juxtaposed sentences from a rather stuffy guide to typography with quite different registers of language:
Rules of Typography
The world is full of enchanting objects: Venus flytraps, lighthouses, candlewicks, diamond rings on severed fingers, a scrubcutter’s hut in Pukemiro. Detail accumulates like capital. To be noticed, the text must draw attention to itself. (Strokes of the letters thicken, apertures shrink, serifs appear, fern tendrils wrap themselves around each capital.) To be read, the text must relinquish the attention it has drawn. (Fern rusts and crumbles, strokes and serifs fade; the reader nods and strokes his chin.)
It’s easy for me to identify the borrowed words in this paragraph: the first part of the first sentence and the third and fifth sentences all have the absurdly serious tone which made me giggle when I opened the only study of typography I have ever attempted to read. The rest of the words were improvised by me, but they occupy at least two different registers. The second sentence in the paragraph is a parody of the dry dialect of Marxist political economy, while the parenthetical sentences succumb to the charms of surrealism.
Many of the poems in my book don’t include quotes from other texts – not conscious ones, anyway – but I don’t feel that these pieces are any way more ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ than the volume’s title poem, or ‘Rules of Typography’.
To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps attracted seven or eight reviews, including one in the hallowed of pages of Landfall: all of them were positive, and none of them fingered me as a plagiarist. Under the new rules which both Ihimaera and most of his critics seem to be proposing, though, I presumably ought to turn myself in to the nearest literary critic, apologise humbly to the authors of The True Guide to Space Travel, and beg my publisher Titus Books to remove my volume from circulation until I can fit it out with a set of footnotes nobody will bother to read.
If I’m to be banished to the literary wilderness for my unattributed borrowings, at least I’ll be in good company: some of the most original and important contemporary New Zealand writers appear to be guilty of the same crime as me. Ted Jenner, for instance, is no stranger to the unattributed quote. Jenner’s recently-published collection Writers in Residence and Other Captive Fauna includes a series of poetic journals which record the decade he spent teaching Greek and Latin in Malawi. Ted’s journals consist of observations of his adopted homeland, reflections on its problems and his own problems, and quotations – not all of them acknowledged – from writers who seem to shed some light on his situation. For all their borrowings, the journals are the original expression of an original mind.
Richard Taylor is another writer who would suffer unjustly if unattributed borrowing were proscribed. For over a decade now, Taylor has been working with varying levels of enthusiasm on a cento – that is, a poem composed of passages taken from other authors – called The Infinite Poem. Inspired by the modernist composer Charles Ives, who dreamed of creating an ‘Infinite Symphony’ that would absorb the work of others and go on after his death, Taylor has found passages for his poem in newspapers, chess manuals, novels, the books of other poets, and almost anything else that crosses his cluttered desk. Taylor’s 2007 book Conversation with a Stone featured an excerpt from The Infinite Poem, but it did not bother to identify the sources of the material in the excerpt.
Instead of trying misdirect the debate The Trowenna Sea has prompted, Witi Ihimaera and his supporters should acknowledge that the real test of whether the book’s borrowings are justified is aesthetic, not legal. And, if he wants to learn how to use other people’s words creatively, Witi could do worse than pick up a copy of The Waste Land.
This article first appeared on the blog Reading the Maps
Footnote: long-suffering readers of this blog may remember a post back in 2006 about the controversy that the crude plagiarist Helen Demidenko’s anti-semitic novel The Hand that Signed the Paper created in Australia in the nineties.