David
Carpenter 

 

Hoovering To Byzantium


David Carpenter

For a long time I've been looking for an all-purpose verb that describes what writers do when they use (lift? recycle? borrow? deconstruct? steal? rework? draw from?) someone else's story to tell their own. Take the case of Herodotus. He is very popular these days. More than 24 centuries have passed since he recounted the story of Gyges and Candaules, but this story still beckons modern writers to the keyhole of a certain ill-fated bedroom. Candaules, King of Lydia, has conceived an immoderate heat for his queen. She is never named, but she is the most powerful character in the story. The irrepressible king doesn't seem to realize this. He brags to his friend Gyges (body-guard and confidant) that the queen's beauty is unsurpassed. He insists that Gyges hide in their bedroom and see for himself. Gyges declines the offer. It is improper, he argues, but the king insists. Under orders Gyges hides in the royal boudoir. He spies the queen naked then steals from the room. The next day he is summoned by the queen, who spotted him slinking out of the boudoir. She is outraged by her husband's indecency. She gives Gyges an ultimatum: either he die for this act of voyeurism or kill the author of it and marry her. Once again, Gyges protests against any involvement, and once again to no avail. He agrees to serve the queen, murders Candaules, and rules by her side in Lydia.
        Modern writers as different from one another as Mario Vargas Llosa and Michael Ondaatje have revived (revived?) the Gyges and Candaules story in various ways. Here is an interesting example from another contemporary novelist. The story is about a middleaged man of reasonable affluence who has yet to learn the fundamentals of love. He is a historian of sorts, but at this difficult time in his life he discovers he would rather read myths than history. One of his favourite stories is that of Gyges and Candaules. In fact, it turns into a real life scenario when he is given the opportunity to play Gyges, destroy the king, and leap into bed with the queen.
Our man meets a fascinating, learned, intuitive woman whom he considers to be ugly and obnoxious. She has an irritating habit of lecturing him. He believes her to be interfering with his private concerns, and in some mysterious sense he sees her as a devil, perhaps even the Devil. They argue and eventually have a fight. A physical fight. He wins by beating her in the face, but for both of them, this brawl is the beginning of love.
        But his ordeal is far from over. He has to confront his best friend, the Candaules figure, and humiliate him so severely that the two can never be friends again. This revenge (described as "eating up" the other fellow) involves forcing him to see his own duplicity.
        By now some of you will have guessed which novel I am summarizing. In case not, I can provide a final clue. The symbol that draws together the separate threads of this story is a severed head believed to utter prophecies which lead to strange and forbidden knowledge. Its voice is that of the demonic woman, who has an uncanny grasp of our hero's deeper self.
        Many readers of contemporary British fiction will have guessed that this novel is A Severed Head (1961) by Iris Murdoch, the story of Martin Lynch-Gibbon and his bewildering love for Honor Klein. Well done, except it is also a summary from the plot of Fifth Business (1970) by the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. Virtually every detail of my summary fits both novels. More than a decade ago I was jolted by my discovery of these similarities. Hmm, says the young scholar, eyebrows raised, moral judgements in their silos at the ready. Hmm. This bears looking into.
        I was living in Toronto, finishing my first book of fiction (Jokes for the Apocalypse). It was late in the winter of 1983, and I was on a very long leave from university teaching. I thought I could take a brief rest from the rigours of fiction writing to do an essay on the similarities between the two novels. A Severed Head was present in Fifth Business like a palimpsest. You just had to scrape a bit and there it was. I would first approach Davies and give him a chance to defend himself by phrasing my key question as diplomatically as possible: Is Fifth Business your response to A Severed Head?
        A decade ago such a question might be considered part of the new critical discourse. Among certain university writers all novels were responses or reactions to previous novels.
        Early in 1984 I called Davies' secretary at Massey College and made an appointment to see him. He greeted me with warmth and consideration, and he answered my first few questions without difficulty.
        "Is Fifth Business your response to Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head?" I said boldly.
        "What do you mean?" he said.
        I rattled off my list of similarities, which was not short, concluding with the way Davies uses the story of Gyges and Candaules, and he grew quiet. The temperature in the room seemed to drop.
        "Well," he said at last, "you must realize, Mr. Carpenter, that many writers of the twentieth century like to use myths."
        Until this moment his answers had been direct and thoughtful. This response seemed preposterously inadequate. Aha, I said to myself. Bull's eye. I pushed my thesis further, but to no avail. Our conversation wandered into innocuous territory.
The more I thought about my interview with Davies, however, the less enthused I became over my planned essay. What was I going to say? That Davies the master novelist was a closet literary lifter? And what business did I, a young neophyte with more ego than reputation, have meddling with the reputation of a man I respect? I dropped the project and it died right there.
        But I never forgot Davies' discomfort at my question--that it had been an invasion of some kind. To this day, I'm convinced that Davies read Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head before he wrote Fifth Business and found things in Murdoch's novel he could use in his own. (Readers will note that I have not used the P word.)
        To be fair we also need to look at the differences between these two novels. Murdoch's is a modern comedy of manners for a sophisticated sixties audience with at least some familiarity with D.H. Lawrence and his "dark gods." Her story begins when Martin Lynch-Gibbon's marriage breaks down. His lovely wife, Antonia, is a fashionable society beauty five years Martin's senior. She tells him one day that she has fallen in love with her psychoanalyst, a charismatic American named Palmer Anderson who is Martin's best friend and our King Candaules figure. Until this moment, Martin has been drifting along in a complacent wooze of pleasure and comfort. He loves his mistress Georgie, sort of, but keeps her a secret from everyone. He also loves his wife, sort of. He is a wine merchant and he finds the business prosperous and fulfilling, sort of. But when wife Antonia tells him that she wants to leave him for Palmer Anderson, Martin promptly falls, however shallowly, in love with her. These three characters attempt to be civil about things. Martin outdoes himself as the good loser. "There was nothing I could do," he says, "except act out with dignity my appointed task of being rational and charitable." His wife tries to mother Martin through his agonies and maintain an almost daily connection with him. She persuades him to go and see her new lover, Palmer. Martin does, and the two men try to revitalize their friendship.
        Enter Honor Klein, half-sister of Palmer, a Cambridge professor of anthropology and custodian of the "dark gods" of the aboriginal people she lectures about. It is dislike at first sight, but Honor and Martin are thrown together on a number of awkward occasions because Honor's brother and Martin's wife are now living together. They fight and, soon after, Martin acquires a fascination for the repellent and devilish woman. He is falling violently in love. Things have become very complicated indeed. Martin pursues the woman all the way back to her home in Cambridge, and under the influence of drink and eros, breaks into her boudoir when she is in bed with--are we ready for this?--her brother, the psycho-analyst, who was supposed to be with Martin's wife, Antonia.
        The charismatic king has been exposed, so to speak. From this moment on, Anderson loses his power over Martin, over Martin's hapless wife Antonia, and even over Anderson's half-sister and longtime lover, Honor Klein. Martin repels Anderson from his wife, regains her for a brief, quiet, boring re-union, but soon yearns to be with Honor. No longer does she seem ugly. He tells the woman of his hopeless passion for her. She tells him, "Because of what I am and because of what you saw I am a terrible object of fascination for you. I am a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use, anointing it with oil and putting a morsel of gold upon its tongue to make it utter prophesies. And who knows but that long acquaintance with a severed head might not lead to strange knowledge." She discourages Martin's advances and he backs away.
        Just when Martin feels as though the two halves of his life might be coming together (the feeling and the thinking half), his wife Antonia delivers her second little surprise: she has always loved his brother Alexander, and wants a divorce so that she can marry him. Once again, Martin prepares himself for the loneliness and confusion of living alone, but this time without his mistress Georgie, who is undergoing therapy with (you guessed it) Palmer Anderson. Re-enter Honor Klein. She has decided not to turn her back on Martin. By the end of the novel they are about to embark on an adventure with one another which might just have something to do with love.
        In summary, this novel might sound like a soap opera for people with a B. A. in psychology, but it's wittier and more challenging than my summary has allowed. All six characters have gone through the convulsions of love and separation, and all six emerge from their chaos and futility with new partners. Georgie flies off with Palmer to New York, the place Martin has never managed to take her. Antonia settles in with Alexander, whom she has always adored. And Martin and Honor bring the novel to a close with a relationship that "has nothing to do with happiness, nothing what-ever." Martin says to Honor, " 'I wonder if I shall survive it.' " She says with a smile, "You must take your chance!" And here are the last words of the novel: "I gave her back the bright light of the smile, now softening at last out of irony. 'So must you, my   dear!' "
        Irony is the operative word here. Much more than a diversion for the jejune at heart, Murdoch's novel is an ironic look at the breakdown of familiar patterns in the life of a middle class man and the world he walks through without ever quite getting the goods on. Martin's world is filled with self-assured, articulate, well educated people who dispense a great deal of advice, but almost always the advice is wrong or leads to chaos. Murdoch's characters live amid the plenty of the British postwar boom, but the one commodity they can not seem to lay by is certainty. A Severed Head is a manual on how to survive without certainty. The novel enjoyed a popular success and an afterlife when it was made into a film in 1970, the year Fifth Business was published.
        Davies' novel was one of the first serious works of Canadian fiction to reach an international audience. Writers as various and eminent as John Fowles, Anthony Burgess, Saul Bellow and John Irving have sung its praises in print. An impressive stack of scholarly articles have been published on The Deptford Trilogy, of which Fifth Business is the first and most illustrious installment. It seems to draw very heavily on A Severed Head for some of its characters and subplots and for some of its themes and mythic structures, but the novel has a life of its own.
        Fifth Business is the story of Dunstable Ramsay, perhaps the most famous curmudgeon in Canadian literature. His story begins when he is ten years old and has a disagreement with his friend, Percy Boyd Staunton. Dunstable refuses to fight Percy, and instead tries to ignore his badtempered taunts and snowballs. To avoid Percy's last salvo, he steps in front of a couple going for a walk. One is Reverend Amasa Dempster, the other his young pregnant wife Mary. Percy's snowball (which has a stone inside) strikes Mary on the head with great force, and she falls to the ground. She is taken to the doctor where she gives birth prematurely to a grotesque unnaturally small child. For the rest of her life, Mary will be confined in one way or another. She will be stigmatized as the "simple" woman of Deptford.
        Her assailant, Percy Boyd Staunton, is our Candaules figure here. He's the son of the richest man in Deptford. He manages to silence young Dunstable (a reluctant Gyges figure) with a threat, and Dunstable takes on the guilt of the entire tragedy. He devotes a good part of the next sixty years of his life to the care and maintenance of Mary Dempster whom he comes to see as a saint.
        Paul Dempster, the tiny grotesque child of Mary, grows up to be a strange, inverted Christ figure. While still a boy he is seduced by the circus and runs away from home to become a performer and a master conjuror who creates miracles of illusion on stage. He changes his name to Magnus Eisengrim. Percy Boyd Staunton grows from a young son of a bitch to a very rich bastard, but he still maintains a connection, even perhaps a friendship, with Dunstable. He is so proud of his 'queen' Leola's beauty that he insists upon showing nude photographs of her to Dunny/ Gyges. (Just as Dunstable is a reluctant Gyges figure, Leola is a reluctant Queen of Lydia figure.) Percy Boyd Staunton changes his name to Boy Staunton, which is consistent with his self-image as an eternally young and fatally handsome swordsman among the ladies. Dunstable Ramsay grows up to be a school master of history, a hagiographer of world renown, and changes his name to Dunstan Ramsay, after St. Dunstan, who in saintly lore is said to have grabbed the devil by the nose with a pair of tongs. He resists the role of Gyges or any other heroic role thrust upon him to become instead a sort of moral historian. Dunstan Ramsay is Fifth Business. He is "the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one [in an opera] who knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody's death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business."
        The woman who tells Dunstan this is Lieselotte Vitzliputzli (Liesl for short), a Swiss gargoyle and personal devil for Dunny. Very much like Honor Klein in A Severed Head Liesl becomes less loathsome to Dunny. Indeed, after she and Dunny fight, they make love. Liesl is the brains behind Magnus Eisengrim's magic show, the Soirée of Illusions. One of her functions with the magic show is to be the voice for the Brazen Head, a severed head that speaks prophesies and tells fortunes to the audience.
        I have mentioned that A Severed Head is a comedy of manners about a society in disarray. Appearances are deceptive in the extreme. The gurus in Murdoch's novel are frequently wrong. Circumstances in Martin's world dictate a disengagement from anything resembling a traditional morality. Martin can try to do good, he can try to acknowledge his own guilt or judge others as guilty, he can try to see the many ways in which he too is culpable in this conspiracy of infidelity and counter-infidelity, but he must eventually pursue a quest for identity that leads away from the comforts of middle class morality or any recognizable code of decency and move into the darkness of Honor Klein's neoprimitive vision of things. Whatever Martin gains, it will be at the cost of stability in his life.
        By contrast, Dunstan Ramsay comes from a family and a small town that have none of the grace, affluence, leisure and sophistication of Martin's world. Dunstan grows up under the shadow of Calvinism; if he can't feel enough guilt, he will manufacture it. When his gurus (like Liesl) teach him at last that his Calvinistic beliefs are more destructive than they are redeeming, he comes to espouse a Jungian vision of life with its timeless cycles and archetypal world of wonders, and this vision lends stability and a sort of poetry to his life. In Fifth Business, the gurus are usually wise and almost always right, and like Dunstan Ramsay, who is fre-quently lectured to by priests, philosophers and learned women, we the readers are enticed toward this Jungian vision of things.
        Utterly unlike A Severed Head, Fifth Business is a masterpiece of didactic fiction, a learned polemic on the eternal verities by a devout Jungian. Indeed, there is enough theor-etical discussion in Davies' novel to consti-tute a sort of Jungian gloss on Murdoch's. The difference is that Dunstan and Davies remain relentlessly moral in their outlook.
        It starts with an accident. Or is it syncronicity? A small missile strikes a saintly, sensual, and allegedly "simple" woman on the head. The missile mysteriously disappears throughout most of the novel and then re-appears. Our narrator spends the rest of his life trying to come to terms with this life-altering event, and from boyhood to manhood, he sees miracles that could belong in a history of the saints (for example, the miraculous appearance of a statue of Mary). From the favourite hangouts of his small town to the musty rooms of the private school where he teaches, haunted by religious miracles, he carries with him the secrets of the past. Perhaps the greatest secret has to do with the grotesque and tiny child whose parents are a sad parody of Mary and Joseph. But their child's life is a sort of miracle epic. Our narrator remains a bachelor in Toronto and courts the company of priests and theologues. He is inflexibly moral to the end.
        I know, I'm repeating myself. But I'm also summarizing for you the plot of a more recent American novel, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany (l989). All of these bizarre details fit Irving's novel. This time the saintly/sensual Mary figure dies in the accident, and she's more of a Magdalene than a Madonna. So is the mysterious statue that seems to preside over her memory. The missile is no longer a snowball with a piece of granite inside; it is now a baseball. (Irving's story is, after all, primarily an American novel.) But all in all, these and many other plot details are remarkably similar.
        John Irving has made no secret of his admiration for Robertson Davies' Fifth Business. And he goes one step further. His schoolmaster narrator, John Wheelwright, reminds us that he has taught Fifth Business "with the greatest pleasure" to his literature class in a Toronto private school. "'I consider Mr. Davies,'"Wheelwright tells one of his colleagues, "'an author of such universal importance that I choose not to teach what is 'Canadian' about his books, but what is wonderful about them.'"
        Perhaps something "wonderful" from Davies' novel survives in Irving's, something to do with the narration of miracles to an audience in need of them. But my speculation scarcely does justice to John Irving. For Owen Meany is absolutely irvingated with his own concerns and obsessions, such as the war in Viet Nam, and with the memory, the smell, the mythology of his New England setting. Speaking of New England mythology, note Irving's debt to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Both novels deal in saintly/sensual New England women who have a child out of wedlock because of a liaison with a minister whose cowardly lips are sealed. And both women are pretty fond of red and handy with the needle, as I recall.
    I wonder if Robertson Davies could prevent himself from smiling at the above passage from A Prayer for Owen Meany; no doubt this is Irving's acknowledgment to Davies. I wonder if Davies could prevent himself from smiling at the entire novel. Surely imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. (And if so, perhaps Iris Murdoch and Herodotus are also smiling.)

I must admit, this essay is a bit more personal in its origins than I have so far admitted. I have a little confession to make. A few years after my meeting with Davies and after my own first book of fiction had come out, I was at a literature conference. A colleague of mine, David Williams, approached me. He had just read my book, Jokes For the Apocalypse.
        "What's this Robertson Davies connection?" he said.
        "What do you mean?" I said.
        He quoted a phrase to me: "the revenge of the unlived life."
        I must have lost the same amount of colour as Robertson Davies did some years earlier. The phrase, spoken by my narrator Ham Walmsley, came originally from the mouth of--you guessed it--Liesl in Fifth Business.
        Williams offered to extend his list of similarities, but I derailed him. I couldn't bear to hear it. I, David Carpenter, a "good lad" the neighbourhood mothers had said, a former boy scout, a regular attender at the local Sunday school, a man who had grown up believing that honesty was the best policy, I had taken... lifted... stolen...appropriated...I had...I had gone and p-p-p...
        My embarrassment was the beginning of this essay. First of all, why was I embarrassed? Why did Davies become so diffident? Were we both getting protective of our lair, or were we wondering whether we held full title to it? Or better still, where do writers' notions of ownership of literary commodities come from? Where do our notions of originality and literary theft come from? I can begin to confront these questions by looking first at my own sense of culpability at having been discovered with my net in Robertson Davies' goldfish bowl.
        What interests me here are the ways in which we writers deploy our reading in order to write our books. I have to approach this phenomenon not as a theorist or an academic sleuth, but as a writer. So many theorists and academics from Eliot to Foucault have made pronouncements on the ways in which literary discourse arises from a whole galaxy of literary discourse, that the long shadow of an orthodoxy has been cast over the subject. One is apt to forget the personal, sometimes turbulent, even neurotic process by which a writer's words find their way onto the page. If we listen to theorists only, we might be tempted to think of the creative process as a self-possessed act of scholarship or an exercise in cleverness; or that the best literature is like a rising corporate executive, the literature with the best connections.
        I want to begin with the state of mind that led up to my work on "Jokes for the Apocalypse," the title novella of my book. I began writing it in the summer of 1980 at a writers' colony in Ft. San, Saskatchewan. We writers lived and worked in a huge, spooky old chalet in the Qu'Appelle Valley. This residence was filled (it seemed to us) with the ghosts of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mustard gas victims from the first great war and many more victims of tuberculosis. Our chalet bore a physical resemblance to the one in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, with its rows of screened-in porches for sitting in the cool dry air. Strange and memorable things happened to me in that chalet and to other writers who came there, year after year.
        The place was frequented with ghostly memories and so was I. I was not thinking a great deal about literature or about Robertson Davies. As always, the words of my favourite books were no doubt hovering somewhere in my mind, but at the time of composition my mind was unusually feverish with the story I was about to write, peopled by characters who already had their own voice, which in turn emerged to some extent from some very personal details in my life. I was hungrily sucking up all sorts of things from life and memory. For one thing, I was uneasy over an affair I had had with a young woman. I couldn't be sure that I had acted responsibly. I was beginning to wonder whether I had ever acted responsibly. A sentence of Adele Wiseman's, a writer and friend of mine, kept circling around in my head: How can men ever begin to understand the delicate ecology of those adoring young women? The men just haul on their woodsmen's boots and stomp around on the flowers.
        I began my story with an accurate memory of once picking up a hitchhiker. Soon the memory passed into fiction, and my main narrator lurched into his own identity, oozing alcohol from every pore. Ham Walmsley is long on charm and short on understanding, and his life is about to collapse.
        Just as I was on my way to Ft. San when I picked up my entirely real hitchhiker, he too is on his way there. He is going to a job, teaching band to teenagers. Walmsley is haunted by an emotionally desolate past. He has a curious relationship with guilt: he repels it and courts it with impressive ease. He has long, carefree lapses from the ordinary rules of consideration for others and then sudden attacks of guilt. The guilt is part of a cycle; it is so overwhelming that it guarantees and renews Ham's need for another binge. He has sex with his lovely young hitchhiker and then drops her off the next morning so that she can hitch back to the city they both came from. A terrible fate befalls her and Ham begins to feel responsible. Then he blocks her out so that he can no longer even remember what she looks like. But still he suffers terribly. Part of his atonement is to unburden himself to a colleague down at Ft. San, an artist who is older than he, a woman named Lena Rotzoll with an adventurous past who has done her share of suffering. They exchange anguished accounts and for a while form a bond of fellow sufferers. When Ham Walmsley's atonement is in full swing, he is at last visited by Lola, his mysterious hitchhiker, who is either a ghostly memory or a memorable ghost.
        I could never be sure about the ghosts of Ft. San (which would be a book in itself); Ham Walmsley can never be sure if this last visitation from Lola is anything more than a desperate eruption from his own suppressed imagination.
His imagination has begun to turn on him and clamor for expression. Here is a rumin-ation from near the beginning of "Jokes" in which Ham is thinking back about the dog he loved when he was a boy. His mother had finally had the dog put down. "I blew up....I yelled at her and she told me she knew I slept with that dog. The only reason she'd ever let it go on was that she felt sorry for me. It occurred to me years later what she was really accusing me of. Not that there would have been anything wrong with it. In the absence of love you start to wonder if any kind of love isn't perhaps its own justification....Such thoughts for a man who teaches band. Revenge of the unlived life" (italics mine).
        Compare the above with the following passage from Fifth Business. Liesl, that beautiful Gargoyle, is lecturing Dunny Ramsay about the stupidity of his Calvinistic background. "'But even Calvinism can be endured,'" she says, "'if you will make some compromise with yourself. But you--there is a whole great piece of your life that is unlived, denied, set aside. That is why at fifty you can't bear it any longer and fly all to pieces and pour out your heart to the first really intelligent woman you have met--me, that's to say--and get into a schoolboy yearning for a girl who is as far from you as if she lived on the moon. This is the revenge of the unlived life'"(italics mine).
        I am now quite sure that Liesl's last sentence, above, is my source for Ham Walmsley's words from my own book. I am also sure that the Lena/Ham relationship draws on the Dunny/ Liesl relationship. I have always loved that part of Fifth Business. I must have carried this construct and these words somewhere inside, and when Ham begins his furtive ruminations on love and the desolation of his own life--there they were, these words. This concise wisdom. The writer in me chose them. A few years later, the author in me was embarrassed by them.
        This distinction between writer and author is an important one, and perhaps more important now than ever before, because never before in literary history has the split between author and writer been wider. The writer is still the person who sits in a musty little room and scribbles things down. He's a dull fellow or gal but s/he does the real work of writing. The author is the one who has written it. He wears the ascot or she dresses all in black and signs copies of her books, says provocative things at readings, and lives in the world we call society. She is a public perception of the writer, sometimes even a public icon. She is just as often a fake, or he a dandy, a self-important bohemian who sits in cafés and flirts with waitresses and bemoans his state of misunderstood genius to all who will listen. Authors hold court. Only when they hold a pen are they writers once again.
        When Chaucer translated the poets of the Italian Renaissance and borrowed from Boccaccio to write Troilus and Criseyde, it was the writer who did it. And thank God he did. Who would argue that Chaucer's poem about Troy isn't also a very English poem? When Shakespeare absorbed all those materials by Geoffrey of Monmouth, John Higgins, Edmund Spenser, and others for King Lear, again, the writer in him did it. To worry about literary lifting at the time of composition--to the writer then or now--would amount to so much fussiness. Such worries would interfere with the delicate process of a story or a poem unfolding. Such worries might well have in-hibited the flowering of the English Renaissance. (Let us remember that Shakespeare the author has all but vanished from sight. We don't know who the hell he was. The more we speculate about it, the more we become suspect as scholars. Shakespeare the writer, now there's another case entirely.)
        When it comes to the work of contemporary writers, I sometimes detect a bad smell hovering over conversations about the ways in which writers deploy their reading for their own purposes. How many times have I heard the phrase, that so and so's work is too derivative. Perhaps so and so's work is too derivative, but sometimes I can't escape the pervasive assumption that influence is a problem rather than a normal state of affairs. This assumption has evolved slowly over the last four centuries.
        Thomas Mallon, the American English scholar and critic, gives a lively account of the evolution of literary borrowing of all kinds in his book Stolen Words (1989). He begins with the Aristotelian notion of literature born of imitation. Imitative writing was seen as a virtue. "The great critical cry of classical literature was not an Emersonian call to 'trust thyself' but a Horatian exhortaton to follow others."
        Around the time of Shakespeare's rise in the theatre world, however, the virtues of imitation must have been wearing a bit thin. Elizabethan writers such as Robert Greene grumbled about Shakespeare's habit of borrowing plots. As writers began more and more to live by their pens instead of through the good graces of their patrons, they began to do even more grumbling about borrowing. They began to make some unmistakeably territorial sounds.
        Robert Burton (whose Anatomy of Melancholy was to be looted by Laurence Sterne) emerged to set the standard for acknowledged borrowing in the early 17th century. Mallon tells us that at this time "the word was getting around that words could be owned by their first writers" because literary property was now being thought of as "both imaginative and financial capital." We can trace this emerging attitude towards literary property by looking at the evolution of the word 'plagiarism.' In classical times, a "plagiary" (from the Latin plagium) was a kidnapper. Not until Ben Jonson re-adapted the term was it associated with literary theft. And it wasn't until the 18th century that we had an authoritative (albeit spare) definition of plagiarism, Samuel Johnson's: "Theft; literary adoption of the thoughts or works of another."
        This definition came about (mid 18th century) when the notion of orignality was beginning to spread. What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed--the words themselves --had at last become a commodity. The fear in the mind of a 17th century writer, that he might be vilified as a word-for-word plagiarist, became an official crime in the 18th century.
        In the 19th century, again in England, originality had finally become an orthodoxy, and the copyright statute was amended so that a writer's publication was protected for 42 years after publication. If plagiarism and copyright piracy in the England of Dickens was still a concern, in America it was a veritable plague. Not until the end of the 19th century did Americans begin to honour the spirit of English copyright laws. Mallon tells us that "only in 1988 did the Senate vote to allow American participation in the Berne Convention on international copyright that was drawn up in 1886." The world and all of literature has always been the storehouse of the writer. But what is storehouse to the writer is now a loans department to the author.
        It's fair to assume that with the growth of our notions about originality and literary theft came a more intense awareness of shame and infamy at being accused of plagiarism. Indeed, for most authors surveyed in Mallon's book, the greatest fear was not of lawsuits but of the moral stigma of getting caught in a furtive act: using the materials and especially the words of other writers without proper acknowledgment. The more readers and writers revered 'originality' as an absolute artistic virtue, the more the spectre of guilt floated over the 'influenced' writer's horizon.
        The influenced writer. Does that sound like a euphemism? Alert readers of the world, merlin-eyed scholars: I urge you to think otherwise.

Even with the proliferation of electronic technology the world of the writer hasn't changed much. Writers are still at their best alone with a story in a private little room. But the world of the author has changed drastically. Authors must learn how to project a public image. To sell their books, they must become good copy. It helps if they look good on television. Once they have become well enough known to make a living by their words, they need good agents and lawyers. Now that film and television contracts constitute a large chunk of the successful author's income, the money stakes are much higher. The author is more like a sports hero or a corporate star than ever before, and since authors live very much in the world, their ethics must conform even more to the rules of corporate law. As businessmen and women they are disengaged from the thing they do best: pecking away in their studies or garrets, where imagination is the only legislator, and where conscience has more to do with getting it right than trying not to offend other writers. Little wonder that dullard pecking away in the garret is so much happier. The writer can forget for a little while that he or she is compelled to be an author.

When my brother and I were small boys, in wintertime we would play on the living room floor with our box of metal cowboys and Indians, engaging them in a perpetual battle that rang throughout the house. On certain days my mother would come along to hoover the floor. In our house, one did not vacuum; one hoovered. We had scarcely acquired this machine when it became a verb.
"Out of my way, you varmints," she would say. "When I'm hoovering rugs, nothing escapes this machine."
The machine sucked up dirt, nails, toys, lint, fuzzy candies, and coins with an impres-sive lack of discrimination. With a little imagination, our hoover could become a science fiction nightmare. Sometimes my brother, being an older brother, would object to this invasion.
My mother's reply was usually something like this: "You can do without cowboys and Indians for a few minutes, but you can't do without a clean house. Vamoose!"
Thus the birth of authoritarian morality.

David Williams, wherever you are, I was hoovering for art's sake. At the very first time of composition at Ft. San, Saskatchewan, I may have been aware that the phrase "the revenge of the unlived life" had come from the pen of Robertson Davies. The more I think about it, my character Lena Rotzoll from "Jokes" shares a great deal with Liesl. I may have been aware that I was using a phrase from Davies' book but, if I was, I brushed this awareness aside, because in the fever of composing a first draft, these were the right words. In the subsequent drafts I paid no attention to these words--unless it was to congratulate myself on them.
Some readers might well wonder if there is any such thing as plagiarism. I believe there is. If I copy down someone else's words or ideas and pass them off holus-bolus as my own, I am plagiarizing. If I copy down someone else's poem--even if I've just translated it--and say to my reading audience, "See how clever and wise and sensitive I am," I am a plagiarist plain and simple. Again, Thomas Mallon is helpful here. The writer, he claims, "need not blush about stealing if he makes what he takes completely his, if he alchemizes it into something that is...thoroughly new." But this form of enlightened lifting "is not put unchanged onto the dinner table by someone who pretends he's been cooking all day."
How much is too much? To make judgements on this question the literary sleuth looks for an entire pattern of stolen words and ideas done with unmistakeable cunning. But hoovering up a plot (or an idea, a maxim, a character, a technique, a moral dilemma, a phrase) for one's own use is as common as breathing for the writer. Tracing the process of lifting or any other legitimate kind of influence leads us into labyrinths as byzantine as the human mind. At best this is a fascinating exercise in the impossible.
This much I can say with a degree of certainty. Murdoch lifts from Herodotus enough so that her own characters can become modern, ironic reflections of the original story. Davies tries Herodotus on for size and Murdoch too. He isn't drawn much to Murdoch's comedy of manners where intelligent characters seethe with futility, but he seems to love Honor Klein every bit as much as I love Liesl. John Irving leaves Herodotus alone, and demon-strates little patience with Davies' many monologues and his bowing towards the superior wisdom of Europe, but he seems drawn to Davies' full rendering of grotesques, his intellectual vigour, and his skill in recounting a spiritual journey full of miracles. Murdoch, and then Davies, make fascinating use of heads without torsos. Irving leaves the head and arms, and takes the torso.
The supreme lifter would seem to be Davies. His debt to Iris Murdoch probably goes beyond what my summary has revealed, but he has written such a fascinating novel, such an original novel, that he easily escapes my earliest suspicions of excessive borrowing. In fact, Fifth Business is a livelier novel than A Severed Head. For all its wit and sophistication, Murdoch's early novel never gets out of the drawing room and into the dark gods, the ekstasis of Martin's awakening. But Davies' novel not only promises a world of wonders for his improbable grump of a hero; he delivers on these wonders.
        I have a writer's memory, not a scholar's. Perhaps I have very little to teach the scholars who make their living from close and careful reading. Perhaps only this: that when the words or ideas of another writer find their way unacknowledged into a lively and original tale, well, sometimes a good hoover doesn't discriminate too well when it's sucking things up. It is too busy going about its work. It just moves forward in a fine frenzy rolling. It has been doing this from before Genesis I, verse 1. And sometimes still, it does this in a sacred cause.

 


1link to Home
David Carpenter Home Page David Carpenter Biography David Carpenter Publications David Carpenter reading excerpts David Carpenter  upcoming events David Carpenter books for sale