Sunday, January 22, 2012

With ageless bodies

Staircase

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.

4 comments:

wfrenn said...

You wrote, "I admit, editors are helpful. If I could afford one, I'd have one, too."
I am sure some of your readers would be happy to comment from time to time as "editors". I have done so judiciously from time to time.
I am glad to know that you would welcome editing feedback. I think most of your readers enjoy the interaction that comes with feedback, which constitutes an element of editing.

Then,you wrote, "I'm concerned everything I do here has an element of apology, self-justification.
..................................
If [Bob Dylan] can do it [borrow words and ideas], I can too. Be ruthless. Be unforgiving. Let nothing stand in your way."

Okay, but why the gratuitous truculence? Sounds like you feel still fell guilty about it, hence defiantly assertive.
But you don't need Dylan's authority. As long as you can justify "borrowing" ideas and expressions to remake them in your own way, you need no imprimateur. We all conceive our ideas broadly speaking from our environment-- including the human environment.
Wasn't it the Bible that stated, "There is nothing new under the sun"? (nearly accurate, in my opinion). But there are plenty of new ways to interpret and see things!
No apologies necessary!

Best,
The Capt'n

Melissa said...

I've been thinking a lot, lately, about "gratuitous truculence," as you term it. If I had to posit a theory, I'd say it's because our American culture is defiantly anti-artist, and my own personal family upbringing even more so. I vacillate, some days believing in the value of art, and other days thinking the whole enterprise is a waste of time. Ruthless artists, like Dylan, are inspiring precisely because they don't apologize.

So maybe I shouldn't either.

wfrenn said...

Amen!

You are at your best when you don't feel the need to justify your course in life. Explain, yes, apologize, no.

You said a lot in one sentence, and I appreciate it: ". . . our American culture is defiantly anti-artist, and my own personal family upbringing even more so. I vacillate, some days believing in the value of art, and other days thinking the whole enterprise is a waste of time."

Actually, America spends a lot of time and money on popular culture, but certainly is "anti-[classical culture] artist.

(John B. Twitchell proposed that argument in CARNIVAL CULTURE: The Trashing of Taste in America (Columbia University, $24.95), offering devastating amounts of proof, citing numerous examples of crassness, inanity and sheer disregard for the idea of quality in publishing, television and the movies. He also quotes some disturbing statistics for anyone who cares how their children are educated: "The average number of words in the written vocabulary of a 6- to 14-year-old American child in 1945 was 25,000; the average number today: 10,000").

But Twitchell does not argue that America is "anti-artist," per se, but that the icons that succeed are
crass, inane, and lacking in quality, thus, "trashing" taste in American life, at least from the point of view of classically educated or cultured people.

Yet, there is steill a taste for
more rarified music, literature, art, poetry, and even TV and film in America, although the audience will not, by definition be a mass, popular one.

An artist in this culture pursues it because s/he cannot do otherwise, because it is their identity, who they are and cannot be otherwise, whether anyone gives recognition or not.

Mozart, van Gogh, Franz Kafka, and hundreds more were such artists. History is littered with artists who died in poverty. One almost takes a vow of poverty when one decides to be an artist.

I suspect that the personal "family upbringing" you cite is less "anti-artist" than anti-poverty, and they would be delighted for you to succeed, whether or not they ever understood your work.

I'm with you, 100%, but understand that most Americans do not possess your sensibilities, artistic talents, nor got your education, and they have little understanding of what they owe to the artist's imagination.

I wish it were otherwise, but you you will pursue the life of the artist in vain if you seek too keenly for recognition.

I am grateful that you are gifted with the mind, sensitivity, intelligence, and character to be artistically talented, to choose a purposeful life in literature (the way I do in fishing), but certainly I do not expect the many to admire you until you produce a work that demonstrates your artistic stature.

And that is the sting of the harder path you have chosen.

Please don't give up. We admire your climb.

The Capt'n

Melissa said...

I'm curious to what degree Americans spend money on art of any kind these days, whether low- or high-brow, Britney Spears or Wagner. Does Twitchell discuss that? What I mean by our culture's antipathy towards art is really financial. Americans don't believe they need to pay for things, and they certainly don't believe their government should subsidize the arts.

There are very few models for economic success for artists, even on the order of aristocratic patronage from the Renaissance, other than best-selling super-stardom.

As far as my family is concerned--they are anti-poverty, yes, but I think they'd be in favor of my success as an author only if my book doesn't contain profanity or sex and isn't morbid or depressing. A peril of growing up Baptist.