Teaching Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” tonight. My two favorite passages are:
If nostalgic cartoons had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy; without Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; without The Flinstones—more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths—The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don’t strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series fo “plagiarism” that links Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, or Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism. (61)
As a novelist, I’m a cork on the ocean of story, a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I’ll be blown away. For the moment I’m grateful to be making a living, and so must ask that for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you please respect my small treasured usemonopolies. Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing. (68)
I’m rather fond of this essay. While remix culture brings these issues to the fore, Lethem reminds us that composition, that poesis in its broadest sense, has always been about appropriation. In fact, I first came across Lethem when I read his novel Gun, with Occasional Music, a direct homage to Philip K. Dick. I just recommended the novel, along with John Scalzi’s The Android’s Dream, to a student who wants to do her senior thesis on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Both novels are, in their own way, homages to Dick, both explore the question of what it means to be human, and both involve a genetically modified sheep. In his essay, Lethem discusses Bob Dylan as a knowing plunderer of what has come before and notes that Dylan has himself never refused a request to rework his own music. Dylan and Lethem both knowingly plunder visions and offer visions to be plundered.
Tonight, we discuss this essay before I introduce a video remix/mash-up assignment which asks students to imagine what the academic version of a remix/mash-up would be. I first used this assignment last semester and was quite pleased with the results.