The Ecstasy of Influence

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Some people consider Jonathan Lethem a Jewish writer because he’s Jewish (or half-Jewish, at least), but I’m not not going to go there to justify blogging about his recent Harper’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence.”

This may be a Jewish-interest blog, but it’s also my blog, and Lethem’s essay — which deals with plagiarism, copyrighting, and most importantly, the nature of influence and inspiration in art — may be the most brilliant piece of writing I’ve read this millennium.

You’ll need to schedule some time to read it, it’s 11,000 words long, but there’s a surprise ending that makes it all worthwhile (and if you just skip to the end, you won’t really get it). The essay begins by deconstructing the novelty of one of the 20th century’s great novels:

Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator — marked by her forever — remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.

The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.

But aside for being a profound rumination on the complex genesis of art, Lethem’s essay also forces us to consider what it means to live in a late-capitalist age in which we assume everything in the world is — or could be — owned.

Think copyright is simple? Consider this:

The Walt Disney Company has drawn an astonishing catalogue from the work of others: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, Song of the South, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Robin Hood, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Mulan, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, and, alas, Treasure Planet, a legacy of cultural sampling that Shakespeare, or De La Soul, could get behind. Yet Disney’s protectorate of lobbyists has policed the resulting cache of cultural materials as vigilantly as if it were Fort Knox — threatening legal action, for instance, against the artist Dennis Oppenheim for the use of Disney characters in a sculpture, and prohibiting the scholar Holly Crawford from using any Disney-related images—including artwork by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Oldenburg, and others — in her monograph Attached to the Mouse: Disney and Contemporary Art.

This peculiar and specific act — the enclosure of commonwealth culture for the benefit of a sole or corporate owner — is close kin to what could be called imperial plagiarism, the free use of Third World or “primitive” artworks and styles by more privileged (and better-paid) artists.

Lethem’s essay is available in its entirety here. If it doesn’t blow your mind, I’ll refund your money.

Posted on February 12, 2007

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