Illustration made for Oliver Twist

The Art of the Steal in Western Literary History and Writing

In a previous article I expounded on stealing and artistic borrowing in music. Well, “expound” may be misleading. It was a meditation on the challenges of inspiration, the central question being “When does a piece of art become ours?” Here, I explore the written word and its methods of homage, reference, ripping off, and so forth.

I use the word “meditation” for good reason. Full comprehension of this elusive and ambiguity-ridden subject cannot exist, yet some comprehension must. It’s a topic which matters deeply to what we make, made, and will make. 

How We Already Borrow

Diagram poking fun at various cliches
Priestman Atkinson, Wikimedia Commons

We already allow a certain amount of theft within reason. With good intentions, authors regularly turn to literary devices which amount to socially accepted lending. 

There’s the allusion, the literary equivalent of an in-joke which mentions but does not explain. There’s the reference, which explains but does not create. Parody calls on someone’s work to tease it and pastiche calls on someone’s work to shake its hand. Cliches are verbal trimmings that display a lack of imagination. They’re words for the base act of purloining ideas from someone.

If we are, in fact, metaphorical beggars scavenging for thoughts, then that throws doubt on the concept of “intellectual property theft.” If the law lost its teeth and if money were no object, then plagiarism might not even exist. At the least, it wouldn’t make sense. 

As a classicist, I can’t help but think of Aristotle.

The Classical Argument: Aristotle

Photo of a bust of Aristotle
Marble portrait bust of Aristotle Photo Credit: A. Dagli Orti, Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, Italy.

Written in 330 B.C., Aristotle’s Poetics was one of the first attempts to examine storytelling on a deeper level. Aristotle assumed a critical perspective instead of an emotional one. Like an engineer, he dismantled the engine of storytelling to see its parts, how it worked, and how it didn’t work. Of course, he offers his own judgments; he disparages the playwright Euripedes often. At the same time, he’s the first to think of acts, climaxes, and resolutions as individual atoms of a much larger body.

For instance, Aristotle coined the term “god from the machine” (in Greek, ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός), often referred to by its Latin name deus ex machina, to describe a common plot device that persists to this day. Euripedes and some other playwrights had the habit of sending in greater powers to untangle knotted plots. You’ve probably seen it somewhere, perhaps in the form of a cavalry charge out of nowhere or a sudden inheritance from a rich aunt at the eleventh hour. Film critic Roger Ebert explains it best:

Imagine a play on a stage. The hero is in a fix. The dragon is breathing fire, his sword is broken, his leg is broken, his spirit is broken, and the playwright’s imagination is broken. Suddenly there is the offstage noise of the grinding of gears, and invisible machinery lowers a god onto the stage, who slays the dragon, heals the hero, and fires the playwright. He is the ‘god from the machine.’”

On a classical Greek stage, celestial beings and powers would have been lowered onto the stage by a crane. That’s the “machine” in deus ex machina.

Imitation

Aristotle’s objection to this springs from his own peculiar ideas about art — ideas that we hold dear without realizing it. Aristotle calls the deus ex machina both “unnecessary and implausible,” which is true, but that means necessity and plausibility are two attributes of fine literature. It is not unfair to ask why Aristotle demands that.

Aristotle objects because he defines all art as one of three things: a reflection of things as they are said/ thought to be, things as they are/were, and things as they ought to be. To Aristotle, a painter, writer, musician, or poet acts just like a mirror or a colored pane of glass. Our eyes never stare into an indescribable or impossible landscape, but into the rearranged or faithfully recreated face of our own world, so art never transcends reality — it can only repeat it. 

Caveats

Aristotle’s philosophy of realism influences his argument somewhat. In Politics, he writes, “Nature is not [sparing], like the smith who fashions the Delphian knife for many uses; she makes each thing for a single use, and every instrument is best when intended for one [use.]” He seeks paragons. Many stories don’t stop at describing the way the world is, but comment on the way the world ought to change in response. Stories do not need a single purpose.

Argument for Theft

Nevertheless, Aristotle makes a good argument about how our stories depend on the world we inhabit. We have no frame of reference outside the way we say or think about things, the way things are, or the way things should be. The human imagination is a broad frontier, but it has limits. Even Alice in Wonderland’s absurd logic uses wordplay, sayings, and symbols like clocks and hares to communicate its imagery.

If you accept that basic premise, however, then writing becomes nothing but a copy after all, and that challenges the idea that we can ever own anything we make. A plagiarised novel becomes just a copy of a copy or yet another mirror held up to ourselves. You can’t license a book or poem anymore than you can license birdsong or dinner parties.

The Greek Chorus

Of course, Aristotle didn’t form his ideas in a vacuum. Ancient Greeks consumed stories in a way that made his conclusions self-evident and practically common sense. For instance, Greeks always recycled their characters and plots. They made changes, sure, but they rarely created stories out of whole cloth. Greek storytellers re-told, and they even relied on the audience’s familiarity with the general beats of a myth. Medea, Heracles, and Oedipus existed before Medea, Amphitryon, or Oedipus Rex.  

This explains, at least in part, the Greek chorus, which is such an alienating element of Greek tragedy for modern readers. The original audience already knew the broad strokes and would instead wonder about relevance, about why the playwright was dredging up old news. Why talk about Heracles here and now? The lesson was always anchored in the present, and the Greek chorus supplied commentary that silhouetted the message. 

Euripedes’ Heracles

Painting of Heracles wrestling the Nemean Lion.
Heracles wrestling the Nemean Lion Photo Credit: Yelkrokoyade Painter: Peter Paul Rubens

 

To recount large tracts of choruses or urge you to read them would be a mistake. They are nutritional and dry as a bone. Instead, let’s take Heracles as a case study.

In Euripedes’ version of the tale (a version which isn’t even his first take), Heracles is fresh from his Twelve Labors.  Out of jealousy, his mother Hera sends the goddess Iris to drive the hero mad. Mistaking kin for the enemy, Heracles murders his wife and children. He contemplates suicide, but his father and a friend talk him out of it.

The Young Carrying the Old

Near the beginning, the chorus cries: 

“Ah! Poor, poor boys! Fatherless boys! And [Amphitryon], you poor, poor, old man! And [Megara], poor, poor mother who weeps for her husband who is in the halls of Hades! Don’t let your feet, nor thighs tire, like an overburdened horse. . . . If any of you feels his feet faltering, grab the hand or the cloak of the man next to you! Let the old, though old, help the old! Once you were young and carried spears and arms next to each other! Fought and won wars together, for your glorious country. Look, look! His eyes! Flashing eyes, like his father’s! You can see their father’s misfortunes in them! His greatness is not missing either. Oh, my Greece, what allies you will lose if you lose these boys!”

The characters in the scene itself are Heracles’ parents, but you can obviously see that the chorus moves beyond the myth and petitions the audience to think about their currently enlisted sons. There’s a specific reason for that, one that’s strangely poignant for that time and place.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In classical Greece, conscription was compulsory, and Athenian citizenship for young men demanded two years of military service. The audience for Heracles consisted of children and wives as well, but every citizen would have been a soldier when young. This play was for them. 

The ugly realities of war haven’t changed much, and that includes war crimes. The city of Mytilene, located on the island of Lesbos, attempted a revolt from the Athenian Empire around the time of this play — the revolt took place around 428-427 B.C.E. and the play debuted around 416 B.C.E. The revolt quickly fell through, but Athens wanted to set an example. They debated whether or not they should execute all the men, enslaving the rest, or merely kill the ringleaders. Thankfully, they decided on the latter, but the Mytilenean Debate represents the sort of butchery (and moral dilemmas) that took place. 

Actually carrying out those orders would have affected Greeks on a familiar psychological level, and they no doubt took that trauma home. Like Vietnam vets many Greeks couldn’t retrieve their mangled personalities from the battlefield. 

In that light and with the power of a chorus, Heracles is an absolution of veterans and a consolation to a new generation of victims. It’s no longer about a collective myth, but the painful process of older warriors helping scarred youths return to their wives and children. Amphitryon, Heracles’ father, is Trautman asking Rambo to sheathe his sword.

“Oh, my Greece, what allies you will lose if you lose these boys.”

Our Myths and Discovery

Picture of Batman logo
Credit: Nagara Support (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Our stories have no chorus because they retell less. We rely on discovery. Even our nigh-mythic properties must add or avoid new things to slake that thirst. To be fair, Greeks would deviate from certain explanations or add twists, but those deviations were relatively small and conservative. Something like Supernatural, a TV show about chasing down references to myths and legends, wouldn’t occur to them. 

With discovery comes some notions about discoverers and, by extension, ownership. After all, if you find instead of borrow, then you owe nothing and own everything. 

But if Aristotle is correct and art is imitation, stories are more like natural wonders that dot the human landscape. Like in the case of the conquistadors and the Grand Canyon, we can only unveil them and bring them to the attention of our people (whatever that may mean).

Our Derivative Genres

Picture of the front cover of Fifty Shades of Grey
Credit: Vintage Books (Fair Use)

Any ranking of literary genres by repute would place fanfiction at the bottom. Admittedly, that’s due to a lack of quality which is difficult to ignore. Fans’ reverence for characters prevents them from exploring and pushing boundaries. That’s an obstacle to both characters and plots.

But it’s not the amateurishness of fan creators that invites scorn from others, but the lack of authority or a blessing from series’ creators. “Official” Star Wars books  elude the “fanfiction” label despite obvious similarities: every tack, rivet, and fixture comes from a license. Still, no one thinks that Geraldine Brooks’ March, her prequel to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, belongs in the “fanfiction” section of the bookstore.

The production life of TV shows, movies, and games complicates the question even further. Arguably, they cannibalize and democratize fiction more than anything else. They involve legions of specialists. TV show creators hand their series’ bible to a trusted cadre of writers. Hollywood shuttles scripts from pen to pen until they focus test well. Then, on top of it all, actors pitch in their two cents at the time of shooting.

With so many moving parts, it’s difficult to credit anyone.

Auteur Theory

Auteur theory attempts to resolve this by meting out responsibility and weighing up contributions by job description. It concludes that we must give most of the credit to directors. It’s the reason why it’s commonly said that Scorcese, not the army of talent behind him, “made” Raging BullUltimately, it seems like a futile task that diminishes, or at least fails to value accurately, the contributions of everyone up to that point.

Gregg Toland was one of the most skilled cameramen in the world during the 1940’s. At one point, he approached director Orson Welles and asked to join his first movie project. He said that he wanted to work with someone who’d never filmed because it gave him the liberty to experiment with tools like deep focus in a way that experienced directors would reject. The result, Citizen Kane, would influence cinematography for decades. Whether or not Kane would have succeeded with a more conventional cameraman is nigh-impossible to tell.

Lives We Haven’t Lived

Picture of front cover of Million Little Pieces
Credit: Random House (Fair Use)

Writing and stories are unique in their immateriality. They are mental doodles strung into something relatable. To reach anyone, they depend on some common understanding, some thread that can tie our thoughts together. Without faith in that thread, in the possibility that we can actually connect on some level, storytelling perishes. All emotive writing hinges on that flash of recognition. Saying, “I’ve got butterflies in my stomach” or “It’s a crisp morning” makes little sense unless you’ve brushed against those feelings yourself.

That logic, the supposition of an “emotional commons,” leads to some unsavory ideas. Does Lord of the Rings depend on Tolkien’s fight in the trenches of WWI? Could a non-Auschwitz survivor write Night? Was their experience necessary to imagine their struggles? Laying aside the question of whether or not a writer should tap into a life they have not lived, can they?

A Million Little Pieces

The furor over James Frey’s Million Little Pieces comes to mind. Frey’s account of drug recovery held worth so long as others believed that his life and the book’s narrative were one and the same. Once his recovery turned out to be a lie, the public turned on him. Whatever insights into the “human condition” he elicited, they soured when he no longer owned them on a personal level.

Conclusion

Cover of Virginia Woolf's "Room of One's Own"
Credit: Will Dady, Alma Books

If Aristotle is right and fiction is but a window into our own world, then individuals serve as a pane of glass, a filter for our own encounters with reality. The question, then, is whether or not those panes catch enough light to deserve ownership after all.

What you read now serves as possible evidence. Aristotle wrote Poetics. Kant wrote Aesthetics and Teleology. I’ve read both, yet something compels a reconsideration in my own words. Maybe that need to scatter light, to cast my own shadow, suggests we can own something, if only for a little while. Maybe our minds have their own grand and undiscovered kingdoms after all.

3 thoughts on “The Art of the Steal in Western Literary History and Writing

Leave a Reply