As far as I'm concerned everything I do here has an element of apology, self-justification. Why do I tap keys and then upload my words into a public journal? Why does anyone do anything? It's one of these questions that people who write for, say the New York Times, don't ask themselves. And why not? Because they have an editor?
I admit, editors are helpful. If I could afford one, I'd have one, too. I like to think of myself, though, as one of those eighteenth-century pamphleteers, blanketing the city of London with cheap reprints of their muck-raking journalism. That's a standard I can live up to.
Or the zines. I never read them—I wasn't cool enough—but I was cool enough to frequent the coffee shops where zines stacked, xerox-copied, by the cash register.
Which brings me, naturally, to plagiarism. Maybe not so naturally. But I've been thinking about Dylan's “Love & Theft,” and how I should really write it “'Love & Theft'”, because it's his only album that has the title itself listed in quotes on the album cover. Why? I have a theory, that I've been meaning to write an essay about for a decade now.
It's the theory that every word on that album, every line, even the title itself, is stolen. The title is taken from an academic treatise on burlesque shows in the nineteenth century. Just a rudimentary search on Google will alert you to how many times he was accused of plagiarism, for the songs from that album. Not from normal sources, either. From out-of-print Japanese novelists. From 60s-era Alcoholics Anonymous literature. From The Great Gatsby.
So what does it mean? Dylan steals words. Or does he? He appropriates words, unabashedly, makes them his own, but is that genuine theft? T.S. Eliot was the one who said: “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”
I believe him. I don't plagiarize, but lately I've been stealing sentences, taking them apart, and replacing their nouns and verbs and adjectives with my own. For a writer, it's almost the equivalent of imitating a master's painting. If I break a sentence apart and learn what makes it tick, I can make a better sentence on my own the next time.
Of course, what Bob Dylan's doing goes beyond that. He steals the words, then sets them to music himself. It's like he's giving them that honor, and doing it without apology, as if to say: these words belong to everyone. You may have written them, but now they belong to everyone. They're as much mine as they are yours.
I guess my point is that when it comes to pamphleteers and zines and even the humble blogger among us, what matters less are any rules than creativity itself. Dylan thumbs his nose at auteur theory, instead saying: whatever I do, as long as it works, is right. He's ruthless when it comes to his own art. But I believe he's tells us to be like him. If he can do it, I can too. Be ruthless. Be unforgiving. Let nothing stand in your way.