The artist as a thief
Shocked headlines have reported that a newly discovered letter by Rudyard Kipling “admits plagiarising” parts of “Law of the Jungle”, which appears in The Jungle Book. Actually, the letter as quoted admits nothing of the kind. Kipling is evidently responding to a reader.
We can infer that Kipling found it somewhat asinine from the dismissive tone of his reply. “A little of it is bodily taken from (Southern) Esquimaux rules for the division of spoils. In fact, it is extremely possible that I have helped myself promiscuously but at present cannot remember from whose stories I have stolen.”
Given that “Law of the Jungle” offers mock-epic commandments governing wolves’ behaviour, we might not think it strange that Kipling declined to produce his anthropological evidence for Wolf Council ordinances.
The fact is that most writers are magpies, borrowing and reworking source material from wherever they find it. Shakespeare’s reliance on various older chronicles for his characters and plots is commonplace, and it would be ludicrous to suggest that in Paradise Lost Milton was “plagiarising” the story of Genesis.
The word plagiarism only emerged in the 17th century, by no coincidence arriving at the same time as the concept of copyright began developing. There can be no notion of plagiarism without a meaningful sense that authors have ownership rights that texts or ideas can be ‘intellectual property’; and the idea that authors were producing ‘property’ only became significant when they began to try to earn a living by selling that property.
The word plagiarism derives from the Latin plagiarius: a person who abducts the child or slave of another; a kidnapper; a seducer; or a literary thief. There is a pleasing irony in a plagiarism that would enforce the property rights of slave-owners: having enslaved a story to my own ends, do I have the right to complain if others pinch that story too? Plagiarism is often comical, as when the University of Oregon plagiarised the section of Stanford’s teaching handbook dealing with – plagiarism. Today, what we mean by plagiarism relates more to honesty than to originality; we call it “borrowing” when it is acknowledged.
But a conflicting imperative also operates, to situate one’s original work within a literary genealogy, to assert one’s place in a cultural tradition. In writing The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald “learned” from Conrad, James, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche by way of Mencken, to name some of the novel’s most prominent influences. Do those debts make Gatsby less original or artistic, less of a masterpiece? How do we distinguish any of this from education?
In the end, creative originality takes many forms, and many forms can be remade from originals. Invention from whole cloth is not the only — or even the optimal — method of literary creation, and it is virtually impossible to name an important author who could not be charged with some sort of intellectual borrowing or other. As Delacroix is supposed to have said of Raphael: “Nowhere did he reveal his originality so forcefully as in the ideas he borrowed.”
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