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Friday, March 02, 2007

Partisan of plagiarism

Jonathon Lethem, writing in the February issue of Harper’s, makes a convincing case for plagiarism. He begins with a plot-outline for Lolita, then reveals that it’s that of a novel by Hans von Lichburg, published in 1916. Lichburg became a Nazi journalist and his works disappeared. But not before Nabokov, who lived in Berlin until 1937, presumably encountered the story. The plot is all that Lichburg’s book shares with Nabokov’s masterpiece. The lesson is obvious. If this be plagiarism, “bring it on.” Of course, he’s extolling the creative transformation of elements—wherever they’re found—and not the craven substitution of others’ work for your own. He goes on to survey surrealism, the blues and jazz, as well as photography, before observing that the development of a commercial, technical culture of image and sign has so saturated our experience of the world that art is now compelled to appropriate the most ordinary and pervasive of materials and undertake to make the familiar strange. Lethem compares the surrealist’s conviction that ordinary things have become concealed by their familiar uses—hence producing their art by placing obects in unexpected contexts—to the concept of “enframing” [Gestell] Heidegger develops in The Question Concerning Technology. I’m sure he’s right.