Roger’s Rules

A few unoriginal thoughts on plagiarism

My friend Stefan Beck has just written a tart piece about my friend Tim Goeglein’s unfortunate habit of lifting other people’s words in some columns he wrote for The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. When the story broke a few weeks ago, there was a delighted wailing and gnashing of teeth (an image I take from Matthew 8:11-12). The delight increased when it was revealed that Tim had not only appropriated some paragraphs from Stefan’s and my friend Jeff Hart (yes, Virginia, there really is a vast right-wing conspiracy) but also had thus helped himself in 20 of 38 columns (I take this number from the News-Sentinel). Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

Tim instantly apologized–he wrote me that “I am 100 percent guilty, 100 percent wrong”–and was forced to resign a few days later. I suspect many would have preferred that he hang on a few days longer: a public target is much more fun to torment than one who has slunk off in ignominious retreat. I wonder if anyone has meditated on the curious dynamics of contrition? It is not a solo activity. Like the tango, it takes two (I take the image from a 1952 song). Being sorry creates a sort of emotional vacuum which is filled when met by corresponding glee emitted from a grateful public. Only then is equilibrium reestablished. Perhaps this is why it is said that among the many pleasures enjoyed by souls in paradise is the pleasure of contemplating the miseries of the damned (I take this from Nietzsche, who took it from Tertullian). In any event, a little cottage industry instantly sprung up around the case of T. S. Goeglein, plagiarist. One clever chap with impressive computer skills and a lot of time on his hands even posted an interactive “Goeglein map” detailing the relationship between Tim and his various sources.

Now, I enjoy the pleasures of righteous indignation as much as the next chap. I couldn’t get too excited about this tort, however, even though it turns out I was one of Tim’s, um, sources (I take this revelation from an article by Ashley Smith in The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel). It’s not that I think Tim’s behavior was defensible. I don’t. But in the calendar of intellectual malefactions, department of misappropriation, it seemed pretty minor. I mean, it wasn’t as if Tim had swiped the cure for cancer and peddled it as his own. His behavior, though wrong, even had at least one subsidiary benefit: the columns of The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, bolstered by anonymous contributions from Jeff Hart, Robert P. George, Fareed Zakaria, George Weigel–not to mention R. Kimball and other luminaries–must have improved markedly.

These days, plagiarism is a Cardinal Sin in the academy. Of course, it’s always been frowned upon, but it’s my sense that the level of opprobrium that surrounds it has risen noticeably in recent years. Perhaps this is partly because, with nearly universal access to the internet, it is so much easier to plagiarize now than before. (Though the internet may make successful plagiarism more difficult: Mary Ann, co-ed–can I say that?–finds it easy to get a ready-made paper on just about anything on the internet, but Mr. Chipps, Ph.D., finds it correspondingly easy to find her out.) Possibly plagiarism seems a more scarlet violation these days because so many other intellectual vices–deliberate obscurity, political tendentiousness, general vacuousness–get a free pass.

Speaking of intellectual vices naturally reminds me of the philosopher Hegel. I was once teaching a class on The Phenomenology of Spirit, one of the most impenetrable documents ever produced by the human mind. When it came time for the class to write a paper on the book, one of my students, a clever and articulate young lady, turned in a paper in which whole paragraphs from the Phenomenology appeared verbatim and without quotation marks.

I was, I admit, a little taken aback. Here was one of the brightest students in the class: why would she do this? It saddened me to think she thought I wouldn’t notice. I brought it up when we met to discuss her paper and she seemed genuinely nonplussed. The similarity between Hegel’s words and hers was entirely accidental, inadvertent, she would never have deliberately copied words from the great philosopher. It might be said that it would be a far greater fault actually to think and write like Hegel than merely to copy out what he wrote. But that wasn’t the issue. In the end, I decided that the plagiarism really was semi-inadvertent and let it go. Today, that student, were she caught, would almost certainly have failed the course. She might even have been expelled and sent to work in the campaign of Barrack Hussein Obama, where her skill would have come in handy.

Good poets, said T.S. Eliot, do not borrow, they steal. (Though someone told me Eliot took the line, without attribution, from Tennyson). The Waste Land is a tissue of unattributed quotations. It appears now with Eliot’s own footnotes, but when originally published it had none. Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria is notoriously a tapestry of plagiarisms, most notably from Schelling, a writer even more hermetic than Hegel. (Even Hegel knew something was wrong with Schelling: his notion of the absolute, quoth Hegel in his one amusing remark, was “that night in which all cows are black”). I have been reading a lot of Kipling lately. “Recessional,” written in 1897 for Victoria’s Diamond Jubliee, is widely (and rightly) acknowledged as one of Kipling’s masterpieces. It is obviously laden with Biblical references. It is not always noticed, however, that it also contains a line that any vigilant counter-plagiarist would pounce upon: “Beneath whose awful hand we hold/ Dominion over palm and pine–.” Compare that with Emerson’s couplet: “And grant to dwellers with the pine/ Dominion o’er the palm and vine.” (I hasten to admit that I appropriate this bit of detective work from David Gilmour’s The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling.) All of which means–what? I am not sure. It is certainly true that people oughtn’t to fob off other people’s work as their own. And yet many writers get their start from cold-blooded assimilation. In Les Mots, his autobiography, Sartre tells us how he began writing as a child:

The first story I completed was entitled For a Butterfly. A scientist, his daughter, and an athletic young explorer sailed up the Amazon in search of a precious butterfly. The argument, the characters, the particulars of the adventures, and even the title were borrowed from a story in pictures that had appeared in the preceding quarter. This cold-blooded [Oh no, didn’t I just say “cold blooded”?] plagiarism freed me from my remaining misgivings. . . . Did I take myself for an imitator? No, but for an original author.

I can imagine some people arguing that it would have been far better if Sartre confined himself to copying out adventure stories instead of striking out on his own, but that is another subject.

It used to be that much literary creation was frankly re-creation. There were a handful of stories, and the trick was to recycle them in some compelling way. Our culture, heir to the Romantics, puts a great premium on “originality.” The quotation marks are deliberate, since hardly anyone is really original, though no one likes to admit it. (Really, we continue to recycle a fairly confined number of stories, though we don’t always notice.) Anyway, I’d wager The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel is a bit lackluster these days.