Wednesday, 16 April 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name is … Plagiarism?

I was discussing art with a work colleague who is an artist. Most of my colleagues are artists of one form or another; painters, writers, musicians or singers. It's the kind of job that attracts artists. It is very flexible. All you have to do is commit to a minimum of 21 hours a week. There are three shifts a day; morning, afternoon and evening. Each shift is three hours with a 15 minute break after the first hour and a half.

The fifteen minute break is very important. We smokers all assemble outside, to one end of the revoltingly ugly building we occupy. It was opened in 1963 by Mayor Toopompoustobetrue and Chairman of the Planning Committee, Councillor Backhander. We smokers are not allowed to place ourselves in front of the building, not even on the pavement. This despite the fact that we pay to maintain this public thoroughfare with our local taxes. Perhaps we are perceived as raising the tone of the place.

We smokers are now the healthiest individuals on the workforce. Every break, no matter the weather, we troop outside to face the elements. Come rain, snow, blizzard, or gale with a chill factor of 20 below freezing, you will find us huddled around warming our fingers on our glowing cigarette butts. And, unlike our prissy non-smoking colleagues, who remained glued to their computers throughout their break, wasting their precious eyesight in order to see who has posted yet another anonymous picture of another nonentity on their Facebook, we converse.

So, as I said, I was discussing art with a work colleague who is an artist. He was telling me that he had been commissioned to paint one of the Stations of the Cross for a vicar friend of the family. The Stations of the Cross, for those who are not Catholic or High Anglican, are fourteen pictures depicting events in the Passion of Christ from His condemnation to the placing of His body in the tomb. Of the fourteen, only eight events are referred to directly in the Gospels, the others being accrued or mythologised over time. Paul, my painter friend, has decided to paint the Resurrection, not a conventional scene in this context, which got us into a discussion of the role of the Stations. I, having been raised a Catholic, thought his idea excellent for, if you are a believer, the death of Christ is the necessary presage to His Resurrection. And it is His Resurrection that is His final triumph, indeed, one can argue it is the whole purpose of His life. I ruminated on my belief that the traditional role of the Stations, i.e. the depiction of Christ's death, was a means of subjugating the faithful by weighing them down with guilt. (We sinners, of course, being responsible for His death, or He would have… er… lived to a great age and passed peacefully away in a hospice?) Hence the absence of the Resurrection. It offers hope to all and no ruler can possibly allow his subjects to live in hope. Fear, imaginary or real, as we know from current times, is the proper way to keep people in their place. (As an unnecessary postscript to this paragraph, I am no longer a believer, neither is Paul.)

However, I am drifting from the point on which I want to expound.

I was discussing art with Paul, the artist, as I might have mentioned, when we got onto the subject of content, style, Carravagio, and plagiarism. The latter topic particularly interested me. Paul quoted some well known artist, whose name temporarily escapes me, as saying something along the lines of 'Steal everything'. This, of course, is now totally acceptable in most arts. It is called sampling in the music business and irony in art. But it seems still to remain taboo in writing. The only author I can think of who openly nicked others' work was William S. Burroughs of Naked Lunch fame. (As part of a writing exercise, I wrote an existential piece that stole brazenly from Burroughs, Miller and Kerouac. It leaves you breathless but was fun to write.)

So, during the course of this conversation on art, and, in particular, on plagiarism, it occurred to me that I might have found the solution to a block against which I have been head-banging with one of my books. It concerns death. As already intimated, I do not believe in an afterlife, least not the way I was taught, however, I find myself with two subjects who have died yet insist on haunting my novel. I give nothing away. The book is not of horror, Goths, spirituality or the like; in fact, it is hard to say what my book is of. Much sweat mostly. I can say it is not a totally serious book. That said, I do not want it to be frivolous so have been searching for a way to underpin it with a thoughtful theme.

Death seems appropriately grave. But how to approach the subject in these secular times bookended by fundamentalists of one belief or another? It becomes more difficult if one's belief is, at worst, vague and, at best, lost in very complex philosophical ideas. The last thing I want to inflict on the world is a didactic work masquerading as a novel, Sartre's Nausea being a case in point. So, I thought, why not nick the ideas of other novelists, past, present and dead, and play around with them? I accept, of course, this is not a novel idea. However, as one thought inevitably followed another, I pondered on the idea of lifting lines on the subject wholesale from other writers. Why not? Context is all. Placing lines written in another time, of a different place, inhabited by other characters, into my novel will create a new interpretation, a new elucidation on the topic.

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