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le plagiat par anticipation

5 july 2010

In his 1920 essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," T.S. Eliot wrote:

What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. . . . For order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered. . . . Whoever has approved this idea of order . . . will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.
Eliot stole this idea, of course, from Pierre Bayard's 2009 book Le plagiat par anticipation.

Bayard certainly didn't steal the idea of retrospective influence from Eliot. For one thing, he quotes Eliot in a properly documented footnote on page 118. And for another, Eliot's use of the idea fits Bayard's criteria for "plagiarism by anticipation." Eliot uses the main idea of Bayard's book (ressemblance). He conceals the theft by not citing Bayard (dissimulation). He wrote before Bayard did – indeed, before Bayard was born (l'ordre temporel). And most important, Eliot's idea is out of place (dissonance). I mean, here's T.S. Eliot – classicist, royalist, Anglo-Catholic – proposing some wacky postmodern idea about tremulating force-fields of influence that warp the space-time continuum of literary history. No way he came up with that idea on his own.

Bayard's own examples of "plagiat par anticipation" are uncanny. Voltaire's Zadig briefly acts against his character and century in the manner of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Maupassant, in a throwaway passage from an obscure novel, suddenly becomes more Proustian than Proust. Nietzsche stole ideas from Freud (who resolutely avoided reading Nietzsche, so as not to steal them back). Any number of precursors (as Borges noted) grab ideas from the much later Kafka.

Bayard goes so far as to suggest that there are authors we should really take out of their own centuries and assign to ones they'd feel more comfortable in. Laurence Sterne is so completely dissonant in the 18th century, borrowing so liberally from Mallarmé, Joyce, and the French Nouveau Roman, that we might as well give up and agree that he was born in 1913, at least for literary purposes.

Bayard is so correct about Sterne that I simply nodded. In fact, there's no better way to define "postmodernism" than by invoking Tristram Shandy. When I do this, graduate students tend to respond "Eh-heh" and try to avoid my gaze, which is patently that of a madman. But seriously, what books does Tristram Shandy actually resemble? Clarissa and Evelina, or Infinite Jest and House of Leaves?

Sometimes the work of artists is so far out of their contemporary ambit that an understanding of the aesthetics of literature calls out for an anachronistic grouping. The paintings of J.M.W. Turner, the poems of Emily Dickinson, are both so odd in themselves and so anticipatory of future artistic schools that it is just as illuminating to see them as Impressionists or Modernists as to see them in their own time. To call their achievement a plagiarism of the future is just a paradox. To note their deep affinities with their successors – inascribable to mere influence – is to begin to understand how artistic creation works.

Bayard's conception of literature as a mobile and plastic thing, susceptible to influences back and forth across the ages, is cyclical, Borgesian (in the sense that all aesthetic objects already exist in libraries or museums of Babel), and deeply ahistorical (in the standard sense). Bayard is also deeply out of tune with contemporary American literary criticism, not that he gives a maudissement. Virtually nothing is published about literary texts by American scholars nowadays that doesn't relate those texts to historically situated specific cultural practices. Bayard, by contrast, blithely sees medieval romancers and Romantic poets as working with the same aesthetic materials. He isn't even much concerned with the history of language; for Bayard, translation is transparent, and a mutually intelligible intercourse among the world's languages of all eras is one of his central assumptions.

But Bayard doesn't reject time's arrow altogether. One of his central contentions is that later writers bring the scattered attempts of their predecessors into focus "en lui donnant après coup un cohérence [by giving them a coherence after the fact]" (150). Just as we do this to our ancestors, some descendant is, somewhere in time, doing it right now to us. This nuance in temporal perspective is Bayard's finest, and most vertiginous, achievement.

Bayard, Pierre. Le plagiat par anticipation. Paris: Minuit, 2009.