Tuesday, January 10, 2006

In Praise of Imitation

My college degrees are in music theory and composition, the "and" signifying that I both analyzed what the greats had done and wrote my own pieces. These two processes were, however, rarely separate: much of what I composed was an imitation of what I was studying, and I went through compositional fads related to my then-current theoretical interest. When I was infatuated with the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, I wrote music with twelve-tone rows, and not being original, I used one of theirs. When later I was into the avant-garde Polish music of Penderecki and Lutoslwaski, I tried to write like them.

I eventually stopped composing because I came to the conclusion that I had no authentic voice of my own (although I still play an instrument, clarinet). I concluded all I could summon was a weak imitation of others' voices. I sometimes wish I had kept at it, not out of a belief I would have gotten better, but for the sincere joy of it. Yet, I realized then, as now, that as Oscar Wilde quipped, "all bad poetry is sincere," and as we shall see, he should know.

The fear of influence in music is well-documented, including Brahms' complaint of Beethoven "dogging" his footsteps, and the unflattering comparison of his music to Beethoven's. In literature, Harold Bloom wrote a classic book in 1967, published in 1973, called The Anxiety of Influence. On pages 5-6, Bloom writes:

"My concern is only with the strong poets, major figures with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death. Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves. But nothing is got for nothing and, and self-appropriation involves immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself? Oscar Wilde, who knew he had failed as a poet because he lacked strength to overcome his anxiety of influence, knew also the darker truths concerning influence."

In Benjamin Kaplan's The Uneasy Case for Copyright, he states: "Copyright is in danger of stifling such wrestling with ourselves and with our predecessors: by seizing on all appropriation as a legal -- and moral-- shortcoming -- we fail to appreciate the creative process, and will end up the poorer for it." He also refers to a natural right to imitate, a nice twist on the different way the term "natural rights" is used in copyright discourse.

Copyright is often cast as a battle between creators and users, but more importantly, it involves issues with other authors, and within ourselves. We will be poorer, as Kaplan noted and as Bloom cautioned, if we don't facilitate the working out of creative anxieties.


Anonymous said...

Recently I enjoyed reading Sharon Shinn's science-fiction novel Jenna Starborn (Ace, 2002), which is a retelling of Jane Eyre in an interstellar future. Mr. Rochester becomes "Everett Ravenbeck"; the mad wife is insane because she is a cyborg whose cybernetic parts are malfunctioning, and so forth. A friend who knows Jane Eyre well says that Sharon Shinn has borrowed not just the plot, but occasionally some language as well. If that's so I suspect it will be an example (for another see here) of how an author can be simultaneously indebted and original.

William Patry said...

Another example is Kathy Acker, in novels like "Don Quixote: Which Was A Dream," "Pussy, King of the Pirates" (Robert Louis Stevenson among others), and "Great Expectations."

6:51 AM

Mark said...

Any thoughts on the Da Vinci Code case? Is one line not cited, but "copied" an infringement with a remedy? Thanks.

William Patry said...

I did an earlier posting on the DaVinci Code case, here: http://williampatry.blogspot.com/2005/08/da-vinci-code-opinion.html

Anonymous said...

The notion that copyright facilitates or impedes artistic struggles against influence is perhaps simplistic. Imitation and influence are far more complex phenomena than a clunky legal doctrine can accommodate. Sure, to imitate is to copy, but also to follow (as in following another's lead or example), a behavior that goes beyond mere mimicry. Bloom's book certainly conveys this complexity. A good musical counter-example might be John Oswald, whose compositions are densely packed with copies, but which exhibit little or no evidences of influence. (Oswald is also a reed player, by the way, and his alto saxophone performance with others flip this situation by demonstrating a sensitiviy to artful imitation--in the sense of following as a manifestation of influence--with little or no actual copying.)

Mark said...

How about the new appeal of that decision on Code? You'd think copying a piece of original fiction would qualify as plagiarism. That's clearly what Brown has done. Thanks.

AlanG said...

Went in search of Marcus Boon, a colleague I don't know, to find his new book, In Praise of Copying.

Found instead something about music: hmmmm ...

I can't figure it out, but the greatest pleasures I've had as a musician lately have all been copying:
Georgian polyphonic music, aiming at old, archival recordings' modal strategies, to sing them new and strong.

Songs of Leonard Cohen, Johannes Brahms and Nat King Cole, for which I've written new lyrics.

Let there be Freedom,
And immigrants here [in Toronto]
Let there be roti, rice and beans,
And let there be beer.

Let there be bread,
And let there be wine.
Let all be well,
And ... all be fine.

When people talk about pop music, they usually mean the lyrics, but when musicians talk about music, they barely even notice the lyrics, say, of Bach cantatas. Why do I derive pleasure from copying Cohen, or Lope de Vega or Ian Grant? Don't know, but it's a reliable high.