Plagiarism

The first century Roman poet Martial used the Latin word plagiarius to complain that another poet had kidnapped his verses.

Plagiarius: kidnapper, seducer, plunderer, one who kidnaps the child or slave of another.

Anglicized by Johnson in 1601.

Plagiary, adjective. 1. Stealing men; kidnapping. 2. Practicing literary theft.

Based on the Indo-European root *-plak, “to weave” (seen for instance in Greek plekein, Bulgarian “плета” pleta, Latin plectere, all meaning “to weave”).

Listen Fates, who sit nearest of gods to the throne of Zeus, and weave with shuttles of adamant, inescapable devices for councels of every kind beyond counting.

Neith.

Frigg.

Brigantia.

If, while riding a horse overland, a man should come upon a woman spinning, then that is a very bad sign; he should turn around and take another way.

Wonderful, wonderful, yet again the sword of fate severs the head from the hydra of chance.

When shall we three meet again

In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

As we, or mother Dana, weave and unweave our bodies from day to day, their molecules shuttled to and fro, so does the artist weave and unweave his image.

In the 19th century there was a literary scandal when the leading Sterne scholar of the day discovered that many of the quintessentially Sternean passages of Tristram Shandy had been lifted from other authors.

Typically, a passage lamenting the lack of originality among contemporary writers was plagiarised from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.

Now academics call the plagiarism “intertextuality.”

When the hurlyburly’s done,

When the battle’s lost and won.

Urðr.

Verðandi.

Skuld.

Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in Eboe, in what is now Nigeria. When he was about eleven, Equiano was kidnapped and sold to slave traders headed to the West Indies.

When our women are not employed with the men in tillage, their usual occupation is spinning and weaving cotton, which they afterwards dye, and make it into garments.

“I did so, sir, for my sins,” said I; “for it was by his means and the procurement of my uncle, that I was kidnapped within sight of this town, carried to sea, suffered shipwreck and a hundred other hardships, and stand before you to-day in this poor accoutrement.”

Persephone.

Europa.

Ganymede.

Plagiarism begins at home.

Nothing is said which has not been said before.

Originality: Judicious imitation.

Perhaps the efforts of the true poets, founders, religions, literatures, all ages, have been, and ever will be, our time and times to come, essentially the same—to bring people back from their present strayings and sickly abstractions, to the costless, average, divine, original concrete.

Hippolyta.

Helen.

Rapunzel.

I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that steal My words every one from his neighbor.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: One of Our Favorite Challenged Books

E.W. Kemble's frontispiece to the original 1884 edition
E.W. Kemble’s frontispiece to the original illustrated edition

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, undoubtedly one of the Great American Novels, ranks a healthy #5 on the ALA’s list the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books. Young Huck’s casual colloquial use of the word “nigger” and the cruel hijinks Huck and Tom play on Jim at the novel’s end are two reasons that many have sought to suppress Twain’s masterpiece, including educator and critic John Wallace, who famously called it “the most grotesque example of racist trash ever given our children to read.” Wallace went so far as to suggest that “Any teacher caught trying to use that piece of trash with our children should be fired on the spot, for he or she is either racist, insensitive, naive, incompetent or all of the above.”

I guess I should’ve been fired on the spot, as I’ve used Huck Finn in my classroom a number of times, almost always in conjunction with excerpts from Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, some Philis Wheatley poems, and a UN report on modern human trafficking. Context is everything.

While I can concede readily that Huck, the voice of the novel, says some pretty degrading things about Jim, often meant (on Twain’s part) to create humor for the reader, to expect Twain’s treatment of race to be what we in the 21st century want it to be is to not treat the material with any justice. And while Huck Finn may be insensitive at times, it handles the issues of race, slavery, class, and escape from the dominant social order with the complexity and thought that such weighty issues deserve. Ultimately, the novel performs a critique on the hypocrisy of a “Christian,” “democratic” society that thought it was okay to buy and sell people. This critique shows up right in the second page. Consider these lines (boldface mine):

The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn’t go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn’t really anything the matter with them,—that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.

After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.

Huck’s dream is of a delicious mix, a swapping of juices — integration. Additionally, his disregard for the dead Bible heroes reveals that the white Christian society’s obsession with the ancient past comes at the expense of contemporary value. Huck, an orphan, and Jim, separated from his family, will symbolically echo Moses in the bulrushes as they use the great Mississippi as a conduit for escape, for freedom. Huck (or Twain, really) here points out that it’s not enough to look at dead words on a page, on old dead lawgivers–we have to pay attention to the evils and wrongs and hypocrisies that live today.

Twain even tells us how to read his book from the outset:

Now, it’s impossible to read a book–a good book–without finding its plot, searching for its moral, or caring about its characters, and Twain knows this. His “Notice” is tantamount to saying “don’t think about an elephant”–he uses irony to tell us we must find motive, moral, and plot here, and that we must do so through this lens of irony.

But of course, you have to read closely for all these things. I suppose it’s technically easier to call something trash, throw it in the garbage, and not have to devote time and energy to thinking about it. Who knows? You might learn something–and we wouldn’t want that, would we?

[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally published this piece in September of 2008].

Cannibalism and the Economy of Sacrifice in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative

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I’ve been re-reading Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, a fascinating autobiography/travel book detailing Equiano’s experiences being kidnapped from West Africa at a young age and sold into slavery. During this time, Equiano migrates all around the world, earns and loses and earns again his freedom, and eventually comes to identify himself as an Englishman, replete with English values. Today, the book is widely regarded as a key abolitionist text; it remains a fascinating document of the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. It’s also a pretty interesting adventure story.

The early part of the book is chock full of images of consumption and sacrifice. Prominent among these images, the threat of cannibalism looms as the ultimate horror at stake in an alien encounter between two different cultures. The first image of cannibalism, however, becomes a sort of baseline of the rhetoric of cannibalism. Equiano relates the following Ibo proverb concerning villagers with bitter tempers: “if they were to be eaten, they were to be eaten with bitter herbs,” noting that many Ibo “offerings [sacrifices] are eaten with bitter herbs.” This seemingly light-hearted proverb locates the consumption of the human body as a site of holy sacrifice, acknowledging that the cost of existence always figures as a displacement of one person’s access to resources in favor of another’s. Equiano later expresses a wish to sacrifice himself to gain his sister’s freedom—“happy should I have ever esteemed myself to encounter every misery for you, and to procure your freedom by the sacrifice of my own,” here echoing the Ibo proverb’s realization of a sacrificial economy. This sacrificial economy plummets into the taboo horror of cannibalism, as a terrified Equiano, kidnapped and dragged to the West African coast, first encounters Europeans. He asks his fellow Africans “if [he] were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair.” The terror of this alien-encounter is not abated when the Africans assure Equiano that he is not to be eaten; “I expected they would sacrifice me,” he writes.

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As the horror of his sea voyage increases, so does his belief that he is to be voraciously consumed by his captors. While “all pent up together like so many sheep in a fold,” Equiano avers that “We thought […] we should be eaten by these ugly men.” Equiano here figures as a sacrificial lamb, consumed by brutal barbarians. The slave-traders tap into and exploit this fear, using it to manipulate the behavior of Equiano: “the captain and people told me in jest they would kill and eat me, but I thought them in earnest.” Equiano puts his horror even more bluntly: “I very much feared they would kill and eat me.” Equiano’s horror at the threat of cannibalism contrasts greatly with the captain’s playful attitude about the eating of human flesh. The captain “jocularly” threatens to “kill” and “eat” Equiano, and also threatens to eat his young friend as well. The captain then inquires about the cannibalistic practices of West Africans, jokingly averring that “black people were not good to eat,” thus implying he had tasted their flesh before. The captain’s rhetorical technique further destabilizes Equiano’s sense of safety as well as confounding any attempt to systematize knowledge of the ethics, morality, and diet of his new captors; in short, the captain further alienates Equiano’s experience. However, a future Equiano, reflective and knowledgeable, assesses these structures of consumption and sacrifice in terms of economy. “Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice?” Equiano demands of the “nominal Christians” who participate in the slave trade. Equiano thus translates the literal consumption of enslaved labor into the spiritual, emotional consumption that occurs when people cannibalize each other. The captain’s humor—and indeed, the slight and humorous tone of the Ibo proverb—both serve as defense mechanisms to psychologically mask the taboo terror of cannibalism that figuratively underscores the enslavement of human beings.