Elusive allusions

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Coincidences, again. This morning, in a post to a listserv forum, I included a sentence: “The guide’s the thing…” and then, unsure whether the allusion would be recognised, I added: “as Shakespeare so nearly said.

I was still pondering whether the second part of the sentence was necessary when my daily “plagiarism” alert popped into the inbox, pointing me to an article In praise of plagiarism by Paul Greenberg, published in Arkansas Online, 26 January 2015.

Most of the page is hidden behind a paywall, but the first paragraph is open – and, like the title, intriguing.

Could I find the article anywhere else, a page which was open and free? Copy-and-paste the article title, in quotation marks, in a Google search box, add Greenberg, hit ENTER and bang! The first authentic hit (after the paid-for ad) was also behind a paywall, the second led me to the full article, on Townhall.com

The first two paragraphs read:

Now and then an old friend goes through a column of mine, highlights a few phrases, and compliments me on what he calls my “gifted plagiarism.” It seems he’s picked out various phrases I’ve borrowed from my betters – and he’s kind enough to mention only some of them.

My friend calls it plagiarism; I call it literary allusion. After all, when Cervantes or Shakespeare has said it better, why say it worse?

Greenberg doesn’t just call it “literary allusion.” Later in the article, he says that he is also happy to call plagiarism “research” – for which he thanks, cites and quotes from Tom Lehrer’s take on plagiarism, “Lobachevsky.”

I am not sure how much of Greenberg’s tongue was in his cheek in this article; he mentions several well-known plagiarism cases of the last 15 years or so, and suggests that the worst form of plagiarism is when the plagiarist uses “… bad prose. It’s not the theft that troubles in such cases, but the poor taste of the thief.

The article ends, “It’s not imitation but plagiarism that is the highest form of flattery. But always call it Research!” in praise of plagiarism indeed?

If Greenberg is being ironic, this article is too subtle for me. Perhaps I should know him, his reputation for honesty; if that is the case, it – or he – has eluded me.

But all this is just by the way. My interest was piqued by the term “literary allusion” – and by my listserv post. It has always bothered me: what if one makes an allusion, especially one using on, building on or punning on a well-known quotation – and the allusion is not recognised? If a (mis-) quotation is not seen as allusion, might it be taken as plagiarism?

One half of me says, “Play safe,” as I did with the Hamlet misquotation. Certainly you’re never wrong to cite the original.

But there is the notion of common knowledge: those who spot the allusion might think it was particularly clever, or apt, and for them no citation is necessary. They do not need the allusion spelt out. As with a joke, it loses much of its point if it needs to be explained. Parody is not as funny when the original is not recognised. Did anyone appreciate the pun in my last set of posts, headed “Nice like you, Ivi”? Should I have added a footnote, “after Bricusse-Newley”?

What about the post I gave the title, “By any other name…” Or “Memories are made of…” Or ” Baby, you can’t light my fire…” Or … I have to admit it, I’m a perpetual punster and a serial allusionist to boot.

I recall reading (and unfortunately cannot remember where, but it was at least ten years ago) that, once upon a time, there was no need to reference one’s quotations because an educated person would know the origins, and would nod wisely, and happily. The quotation, or allusion, would simply pass over a less-well-educated person’s head.

Now though, in a finger-pointing plagiarism-aware culture, it is certainly safer to reference one’s allusions, however obliquely; there can be no accusations of plagiarism. It might even add to the appreciation of those who do not know an allusion has been made, or a pun, a misquotation or an actual quotation.

Actual quotations1 They are awkward. If I remark, whether wryly or in wonder, “O brave new world!” to an audience I think will know the origin and someone in that audience doesn’t, and then cites me (“As Royce exclaimed, “O brave new world”) then I have misled. Instead of demonstrating my knowledge and awareness, I might be held to have plagiarised. Thus the footnotes or slipping in of an in-text or an in-speech citation: playing safe.

Common knowledge, more generally? These are treacherous waters. Common sayings, lines from Shakespeare (but probably not Cervantes?), verses from the Bible?  A common saying or a tidbit of common knowledge might not be as commonly known as one thinks, even within a discipline and an exclusive, educated audience. It might come down to context and confidence.

Common knowledge is a defence.  It might be accepted, it might not.  It’s something I need to think about, and perhaps explore, in later posts.


Meanwhile, there is one other thought I want to close with. I did not notice it first time around. I noticed it only once I’d written this post and was making the screengrabs to illustrate it. It’s the dateline to Greenberg’s piece, the one I managed to find as full-text copy at Townhall.com.

It’s the same title, the same first-paragraph, but this is dated February 20, 2007 – and not January 27, 2015.  I started wondering if today’s paywall-hidden text at Arkansas Online is exactly the same as the piece in Townhall.com?

I tried even harder to find a full-text copy of Greenberg’s current article. I failed – but not miserably. Instead, I found, thanks to Google News, an even earlier version of Greenberg’s article, in Southeast Missourian December 26, 2000.

Large chunks of the 2000 piece are repeated in the 2007 article, interspersed with some new material. This week’s ArkansasOnline article might well have more similarities to one or other earlier article than just the first paragraph. It is not allusion and it is not research, whatever the author claims. This is re-use. It’s recycling. It is very economical, Mr Greenberg.  It is so economical that, in some circumstances though not necessarily this one, this practice short-changes the readership, circumstances in which originality is expected.

I don’t know the syndication issues, whether ArkansasOnline has ties to Southeast Missourian has ties to Townhall.com, I don’t know (and do not really care) if there are copyright issues or (self-) plagiarism issues here.

But I can’t help thinking that, if Paul Greenberg really does think that plagiarism is not plagiarism if good prose has been appropriated, if he really does “praise” plagiarism, if he really does believe that plagiarism “is the highest form of flattery,” then it just might be fair to say – if nothing else – that this writer flatters himself?

One thought on “Elusive allusions

  1. Pingback: Cans of worms (and other kettles of fish) | Honesty, honestly…

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