Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More Dylan Thefts, II: Rollins, Pynchon, Hemingway, etc.

A while back I reported on some passages of other authors that Bob Dylan had re-used in Chronicles. I've continued to find more, as have others, especially the indefatigable Scott Warmuth.

Some of the more interesting borrowings I've found are the following:

The Portable Henry Rollins (1998), p. 131:
"Roads full of debris and sadness, old music shifting on the radio. The smell of gasoline on my hands."

Chronicles, p. 74:
"Radio sounds came shifting out of cafes. Snowy streets full of debris, sadness, the smell of gasoline."

Hemingway, "The Battler," The Nick Adams Stories:
"Nick saw that his face was misshapen. His nose was sunken, his eyes were slits, he had queer-shaped lips. Nick did not perceive this all at once; he only saw the man's face was queerly formed and mutilated. It was like putty in color."

Chronicles p. 75:
"His face was misshapen, looked queer formed, almost mutilated -- like putty in color."

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, p. 529
"...cast-iron flowers on spiral vine all painted white..."

Chronicles, p. 58:
"There were some iron flowers on a spiral vine painted white leaning in the corner"

Jack London, "The White Silence":
"All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege ...."

Chronicles, p. 96:
"When I hear Hank sing, all movement ceases. The slightest whisper seems sacrilege."

"The Yellow Claw", Sax Rohmer:
"Through the leaded panes of the window above the writing-table, swept a silver beam of moonlight."

Chronicles, p. 166:
"From the far end of the kitchen a silver beam of moonlight pierced through the leaded panes of the window illuminating the table."

Scott has also uncovered a lot of other interesting material, which I'll leave to him to write about.

There are two ways to take all this. One is to say that Dylan is alluding, not copying; paying tribute, not ripping off; and conceivably playing a game with his readers, daring them to find (as he knows they will) the various authors whose words he has creatively re-used. This is part of his genius. This is a perfectly respectable point of view. The second perspective, however, is the one that I favor, which is to be disappointed that Dylan's descriptions, narrations, and word choices are, much of the time, not his. It seems like lack of imagination, and maybe a little distrust of his own abilities, to say nothing of the questionable ethics.

But whatever you think, isn't it better to know what his method is? Chronicles, it's now becoming clear, is comprised of some authentic reminiscence and some fiction (I take it that the characters Ray, Chloe, and Sun Pie, to name a few, are fictional). Within this mixture, typically when he is reaching for an eloquent description of the physical setting, or of his own tangled thoughts, he uses the words of others, sometimes heavily rewritten, sometimes only lightly retouched. Plagiarism or collage? It's your choice.

This is to be distinguished from the use of sources for the purpose of information. Scott has demonstrated that Dylan used an issue of Time magazine for his portrait of the early '60's. It can also be demonstrated, for instance, that Dylan's information about Balzac (Chronicles, pp. 45-46) is derived from Graham Robb's Balzac: A Biography (1995). (What, you thought Bob knew Balzac personally?) Nothing problematic about any of that. I would have cited these sources, but I'm an egghead, and Bob is not.

More of this stuff will come out. Eventually the palimpsest that is Chronicles will be as full of marginal glosses as the Talmud. Like his method or not, it is interesting to see what the dude has been reading. And if we didn't like Bob, it wouldn't matter, right?


Jim Janknegt said...

Any chance he has a really good memory for literary images and just sort of absorbs them to be regurgitated later without any conscience knowledge of the source? There is no doubt he is incredibly imaginative. Imagination has to be feed. As Picasso said, "Great artists don't borrow, they steal."

The Bob Dylan James Damiano Story said...
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Anonymous said...
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Noel said...

I think that what Jim says has to be closer to the truth. This sort of thing is so pervasive in Dylan's work that it's certainly not a matter of coincidence, but it can't be some intentional way of working. I just can't imagine the guy sitting down with some enormous stack of magazines and books -- especially of the wide range that he seems to draw from -- and thumbing through them looking for the right turn of phrase. I think that Bob Dylan simply has a mind that is deeply tuned in to images and ways of phrasing, and he's soaking stuff in all the time and reshaping it. I think that's really the essence of his creative identity. He has never been one to "construct" new things -- rather, his appeal and his power come from his amazing ability to synthesize elements into new, impressionistic pieces that have such punch that they feel new and alive. There's new meaning created, but it's not "authored" in the sense of some abstract message conveyed. The meaning is forged uniquely by the amalgamation of "stolen" materials. Or something like that.

ptervin said...

I agree with Jim's comment; Dylan has an incredible memory and he is obviously well read. During the writing process, however, things tend to come out a little too close to the original sometimes. I really don't think it is a conscience case of plagiarism, rather a regurgitation of all that he has consumed.

steve said...

Wouldn't it me a nice Wiki-like project to maintain "The Annotated Chronicles"?

Impeach President Palin said...

I favor the idea that Bob knows anything he does will be analyzed, catagorized, denied, defied and crucified. That's been the case for him since he was accused I think by Time magazine of stealing the lyrics to "Blowing in the Wind." People have literally been picking through his garbage for decades.

Certainly in the age of the Interwebs, it's easier to find the references and quotes that he's using.

It's his way of paying tribute or even just giving a shout out. And your post means that you've played along.

EMC said...

No, sorry, I don't buy it. No one's mind is so capacious that he can unconsciously (and yet artfully) copy the exact words of authors as diverse as Hemingway, Jack London, Proust, Sax Rohmer, John Dos Passos, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Rollins, Time Magazine, and "The 48 Laws of Power," just to name a few that have been cited. This is intentional. Textual analysis is my business; trust me, this just doesn't happen unwittingly.

Noel said...

Well, that's interesting, EMC. Seems like a difficult thing to prove. Can you point to some scholarly article or something else that establishes that this kind of process has to be intentional? It seems a pretty strong statement to say "no one's mind is that capacious", given that we know that human minds are capable of amazing things, and that we have, still, very little idea how they actually work. I think that Dylan's ability (if it even makes sense to call it that) in this regard is just part of what makes him so singular. There've been plenty of would-be imitators, but it's clear that "being Bob Dylan" doesn't involve applying some conscious process that can be replicated. It's not as if he just "got there first" ("there" being the position of "the guy who constantly synthesizes wildly different sources"). He's unique, and this is a big part of why.

Mike said...

Wow, I honestly don't know what to think about this, and I'm a literary scholar too. Looked at one way, it surely seems like plagiarism. Looked at another, it seems like homage. From another, it seems quite original in its own way. I'm not aware of any other writer who works exactly like this. This issue may become crucial in the long term assessment of Dylan's art: how truly creative is he? I think this is still only the beginning of a debate that may go on forever. Thanks for sharing this stuff EMC and providing a forum to discuss it.

dennis said...

It is what it is. I enjoyed reading the book alot and look forward to the next installment.

Alex said...

is it not also possible that these are literary cliches? "smell of gasoline"... "silver beam of moonlight"... and do you think he's the first person to observe white iron flowers on a spiral vine... how are these comparisons being generated? google books? were these loose similarities found in other books? or have you just cherry picked the similarities contained in books by "significant" authors like hemingway and pynchon and london? sorry if you have discussed your process before, but it should be transparent if you're hypothesizing a possible insidious conclusion about plagiarism.

EMC said...

Alex, it's the combination of several unusual phrases in one place, not the occasional one, that is significant. I invite you to check the results yourself via Google books, if you are genuinely interested. Start with the phrase "like putty in color" and tell me how many separate writers use the phrase. How many writers use "smell of gasoline" within the same sentence as the odd combination "debris and sadness"? It's not rocket science.

Mike said...

The weirdness of all this is that both points of view defy belief: 1) it's difficult to believe that this is all unconscious. There are too many. I know my own mine is not even close to being capacious enough to pull this off. and 2) it's difficult to believe as Noel said that either surrounds himself with a stack of books that he thumbs through as he writes or even copies these things into some sort of notebook that he later draws from.

If it's plagiaristic, i.e. a deliberate theft designed to mask a lack of creativity, how can Dylan be so naive to think that he wouldn't be called out on it and publicly reamed? What artist would want that kind of humiliation?

So it is homage in this age of googling, where Dylan figures that no matter how obscure his source we'll figure it out and be pointed to something he loves and wants to share? As a huge longtime Dylan follower, I certainly hope it is the latter.

But this is a serious enough issue for me that I'd like to see Dylan respond to these questions. But fat chance of that, I suspect. He'll probably choose to remain inscrutable and force us to stew about it.

Noel said...

But the fact that you find the exact phrase -- even the likelihood that it was indeed lifted verbatim from the given source -- doesn't say anything about how that happened. Again, what gives you the confidence to state so categorically that "no one's mind is so capacious" and that this process might be less than conscious?

By the way, I wouldn't see some kind of moral problem here if it were conscious. There seems to be an assumption in a lot of these discussions that this kind of reuse is "wrong". But that's a separate discussion. I'm really curious about any established science that proves that the only way for this kind of thing to happen is for it to be an intentional act. I seriously doubt such a thing could be proven.

Noel said...

Yeah, and that's the thing, Mike: your mind -- and my mind -- isn't so capacious, no offense. Because you're not Bob Dylan, and nobody is Bob Dylan except Bob Dylan. That's what I meant about it not just being a matter of him "getting there first". I would say that this is not a usual human capacity that could be exercised by anyone, such that if young Bobby Zimmerman hadn't cornered the market on it there'd have been another one right in line behind. The way that Dylan is able to do this is some kind of crazily heightened characteristic of how his brain works -- it has to go beyond intentionality, maybe even full awareness -- though I'm sure he's done about as much reflecting on the process as a person could. When he says things in interviews about some unknown source of inspiration, I don't think he's being poetic or mystifying -- I think he's expressing the nature of the situation as succinctly as it can be expressed. It would seem that he just soaks everything up like a sponge, and that his brain is constantly busy rearranging all that material, and that that shaping and re-utterance is his primary way of expressing himself creatively. Chronicles is in many ways a portrait of that process, too, which should make it even less surprising that it is full of so much theft, along with all the love.

JWHarding said...

Many of your contributors claim to be literary scholars, so I'm surprised no-one has pointed out that this is a technique T.S. Eliot used. It's a perfectly valid literary technique. I don't hear anyone threatening to "expose" "The Waste Land".

It's all part of the world Dylan exists in, and expects us to move in. The origin of the phrases may be known to the reader, in which case the allusion sets up a link adding depth to the text. If it's not recognised, that doesn't matter either, the words have a depth of their own.
Whatever the case, don't look to Dylan for an explanation. We are, as we always were with Dylan, out on our own. You're in the work; work it out.

Noel said...

The comments are appearing out of order here. My next-to-last comment ("But the fact...") was in response to EMC's most recent comment ("Alex, it's the..."). And my last comment ("Yeah, and that's...") was in response to Mike's comment ("The weirdness of...").

Mike said...

JWH, what Dylan is doing is significantly different from what Eliot did in "The Wasteland," where Eliot's own footnotes indicate his sources and even his strategies in using them in some cases. You could argue that what Dylan does is much closer to what Joyce did in Ulysses, but even there, I think, Joyce's methods were more transparent. He explained his schemata pretty extensively to his friend Frank Budgen and told people about all the "enigmas and puzzles" he put in to keep the professors busy for centuries.

Of course, Joyce and Eliot were writing pre-google: without some authorial assistance, it would have been much more challenging then for readers to track down all the sources and allusions. Dylan is surely savvy enough to know that it doesn't take googling professors very long at all to track down these things. That's why I just can't (or is it that I just don't want) to see this as plain plagiarism.

It may well be a clue (or a bit of a red herring) in Chronicles when Dylan says he tried reading Ulysses in the 60s and couldn't make "hide nor hair of it." He says Joyce seemed arrogant. But now on "Feel a Change Coming On" he says he's been reading Joyce. Maybe this is as much annotation as we should expect from Dylan. Maybe he just wants us to know that he's working the way Joyce did, putting all these sources together in a highly creative way.

I still want to give this more thought, but at the moment I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. I still think Chronicles is a great book.

eruke said...

I really enjoyed this discussion--it's a great relief and pleasure to find people talking about Dylan's thievings and borrowings with serious interest. I try to add my 2 cents on my Dylan blog, gardenerisgone.comif anyone is interested. My friend the outstanding Dylan writer, John Hinchey (his book, Like a Complete Unknown is terrifically rewarding for any *deep listener*) alerted me to this discussion and posted a link to it on my blog.


Jeff said...

If the opposite happened - if a writer were to sprinkle unattributed phrases from original Bob Dylan songs throughout a work of fiction - he or she would be sued for copyright infringement.

Personally, I have no problem with him doing this. Before the asinine new view of copyright took hold, writers borrowed extensively from one another and across genres, music and poetry and fiction. But the door should swing both ways. If Dylan can cut and paste from Hemingway and London, I should be able to quote a line from a poem or song without being nailed to a cross as a thief.

Mike said...

Good point, Jeff. At the very least, the work of Dylan's lawyers make him seem more than a bit hypocritical. (I wonder, are they--the lawyers--doing this at Bob's direction, or are they only trying to justify their own existence? I sincerely hope the latter.)

John Pilecki said...

Jeff - I would contend that much of Dylan's work has become virtual background noise in our popular culture - beginning with his adopted name, "Dylan" - according to the Social Security Administration, the name "Dylan" has ranked anywhere from 19 to 31 for boys for each of past ten years - in 1966 (as far back as the ranking is published on the S.S. website) it was #927 - do you think this growth in popularity of the name would have occurred had not Robert Zimmerman decided to borrow the Welsh poet's surname? Often I see and hear snippets from Dylan lines and song titles (which cannot be copyrighted) in headlines, ads, t.v. and radio news reports, off-handed comments in conversation by people barely aware of Dylan's existence, etc. So beginning with his name, Dylan has influenced the use of language in a way that is below the radar of copyright, sometimes, as with his name, with borrowed, reworked material, but the influence is undeniable.

Samuel said...

John Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost and that is studded with countless references to Homer, Virgil, Ovid, the Bible etc. that now would no doubt be called plagiarism. So it's not completely unprecedented for a great writer to be able to store and adapt phrases and descriptions from other authors in their own work, without necessarily copying from the source. In fact, I'd argue it's a quality every great poet or author has - and not just in the bookish T. S. Eliot way. Read any Shakespeare play - it's a tapestry of language and borrowing from different sources, including fairly contemporary plays that he adapted! Is that also plagiarism?

Kenmeer livermaile said...

You get away with what you get away with. My only concern would be is whether a) Chronicles is a good read, and b) if anything libelous or slanderous resulted from these borrowings, thefts, appropriations, reassemblages...

As for Dylan the artist: since early on, his fame and allure have been stronger than his talent. Not that he isn't very talented, but... hell, it took Shakespeare at least a few generations to become SHAKESPEARE.

I think this imbalance creates both problems and opportunities for Dylan the artist. My impression is that Dylan's chief tool, for making opportunities from his ludicrously bloated legend, has been his audacity, which smacks of chutzpah, and is a major part of why so many revere him, thereby further bloating The Legend.

I imagine Dylan, if asked about these things, would answer, "Yeah, I kind of ripped some of that stuff off," saying "kind of" less as an evasion and more as a (probably insouciant) acknowledgement that the truth of it all is only "kind of" true.

One of Ellington's players -- I think it was Johnny Hodges -- watched how Ellington would write down phrases his players improvised, later forming them into compositions.

"You're not a composer, you're a complier."

A major part of Dylan's talent has been his reverence for the work of others and his willingness to use said work.

When it works: yippee. When it doesn't: wouldn;t be the first time a Dylan tune/lyric has annoyed/bored/completely escaped me.

Martin said...

really enjoyed all this stuff edward.

don't you mean 'compiler'not 'complier' in the last bit?

s'pose if dylan wasn't so well known he'd get away with it all as other authors do.