Plagiarism and Influence: The Monster of Repetition – Echo and Quote

Every writer is influenced by previous works, one cannot help but becoming part of this infinite stream. Literary plagiarism is that fine line between original and stolen insight. As an example, most of Shakespeare’s plays were derived from previous playwrights, lesser-known works that were either part of the mix of current playwright material or had gone into disuse. In our time Shakespeare would probably be considered a plagiarist. My feeling is just the opposite, as T.S. Eliot stated on more than one occasion stated the obvious:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” (Sacred Wood)

It’s this sense of difference, this swerve from the previous work, the change ever so slight that gives us something new, original. Stealing thoughts, sentences, words, etc. is not in itself plagiarism no matter what the modern money criers say, it’s this path between quote and echo that reverberates throughout all the arts. As Harold Bloom once suggested the “Originals were themselves not original” which as he’d explicate man times was the truth of all art.

Influence is a strange and weird manifestation of that crossing over between one mind and another. As stated above some writers quote directly from others, while some will mutate and transpose certain thoughts into new metaphors or images. Those who can do this best become that strange thing: an original writer who is able to transform her tradition into current parlance and currency of time and place. There are only so many human stories, and only so many ways of saying things. As one Wallace Stevens once said

The man-hero is not the exceptional monster,
But he that of repetition is most master.”

Eliot himself would become a master of the quote, quoting others in repetition of their work fitting it to the “correlative objective” of The Wasteland. Others like Borges would become masters of the echo, repeating the gestures and works of others in the guise of a new emperors clothes such that readers who know could see what was hidden while others would gawk on as if the King were not naked at all.

The only ones who are affronted by plagiarism are those who seek monetary gain, a capitalist sin. For this many a good writer following thousands of years of literary echo and quote mechanics has seen his-her work go down. Sad.

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