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Vol. 30 No. 10 · 22 May 2008

Confessions of a Plagiarist

Kevin Kopelson

In his book Von der Einheit der Musik [‘The Oneness of Music’], Ferruccio Busoni devoted about one and a half pages to the piano under the heading: ‘Man achte das Klavier’ [‘Respect the piano!’]. In a highly laconic and perfected style he gives such a clear and accurate description of the piano’s characteristics that it is all I can do not to give it in full.

Heinrich Neuhaus, The Art of Piano Playing

I quote too much. Give me a good line – what am I saying? Give me a good paragraph – even a Proustian one – and I’ll shove it into my own prose regardless of how tiresome that is. Take my last book, on the satirist David Sedaris. Not only do you get more Proust than you’d ever care for, you get an awful lot of Sedaris – pure, unadulterated Sedaris.

It’s not that I’m lazy. Or rather, it’s not just that I’m lazy. I do much more in Sedaris than quote Sedaris, much more than simply ‘rhapsodise’ (to quote Frank Lentricchia). I analyse the man. I synthesise him. I provide what both Marxists and Freudians call ‘symptomatic readings’. But beyond that, beyond what all literary critics (including Lentricchia) are supposed to do, I – well, let me quote Winton Dean:

There is a big difference between the comparatively rare occasions on which Handel passed off others’ compositions as his own and the far more numerous instances of his using the ideas of others as a jumping-off point for fresh composition. It may seem strange that he needed to do this, but it involves a creative process, not simple larceny.

Or is there? Is there – for me – a difference between what Dean calls ‘creative process’ and ‘simple larceny’? Or rather, between creative process and not so simple larceny. Between process and, oh – just ‘write it!’ (to quote Elizabeth Bishop) – plagiarism.

The answer, by way of explanation for which I offer the following narrative (or confession), is ‘no.’ Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that all such confessions are deceptive. To quote J.D. Salinger (lines I’ve already included in more than one publication):

A confessional passage has probably never been written that didn’t stink a little bit of the writer’s pride in having given up his pride. The thing to listen for, every time, with a public confessor, is what he’s not confessing to. At a certain period of his life (usually, grievous to say, a successful period), a man may suddenly feel it Within His Power to confess that he cheated on his final exams at college, he may even choose to reveal that between the ages of 22 and 24 he was sexually impotent, but these gallant confessions in themselves are no guarantee that we’ll find out whether he once got piqued at his pet hamster and stepped on its head.

I, however, will tell you about that hamster – figuratively speaking – and also about how I’ve brained it.

It all began in the fall of 1968. I was in fourth grade (PS 135, in Queens). Mrs Froelich, for some reason, was spending most of her time speaking French. (I remember the line ‘Nous allons marcher ensemble.’) And then she went on strike, along with the rest of her union. No more French. No more marching ensemble. Parents set up an interim school in the ‘reform’ synagogue within walking distance of our house. (As ‘conservative’ Jews – as atheists, that is – we drove to one miles away. Think of the Jew on that desert island who builds himself an entire town: a library, a bathhouse, a synagogue, a second synagogue. ‘Why two?’ asked the sailors who eventually came to the man’s rescue. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘we don’t go there.’) My new teacher – my first male teacher – was just some guy. First grade: Mrs Berg (Jewish). Second grade: Mrs Dorsey (Catholic). Third grade: Mrs Solomon (Jewish). Fourth grade: Mrs Froelich (Catholic). Fifth grade: Catholic Mrs Keaton. Sixth grade: Catholic Mrs Kelly.

I don’t recall the new guy’s name. I can’t even picture him. In fact, the only thing I remember is that he made us write an essay on some conquistador. I chose Hernando Cortez – probably because, like Keats, I like the name. (Keats meant Balboa, of course.) But knowing that whatever I turned in wouldn’t really count and also that Mr X cared even less about this ridiculous situation than I did, I simply transcribed an encyclopedia entry. (So much for the notion that students plagiarise so as to please us teachers, to give us what they think we want but feel they can’t produce.) Now the thing is, this was no ordinary encyclopedia and no ordinary entry. The set, which came with the house, was about a hundred years old. ‘Cortez’ there was about twenty pages long. Clearly, then, my submission wasn’t the kind of thing an eight-year-old could devise. Even a precocious eight-year-old. Even a pretentious one. So imagine my – relief? surprise? indifference? contempt? – when this primal larceny came back marked ‘A’. (‘Nice work!’ Mr X commented. But, of course, unless the man was being ironic, he probably hadn’t read it – lazy bastard.)

After that, I did well enough in school – even without plagiarising – to get into both Harvard and Yale. Well enough on the SATs, as well. Nor did it hurt that I’d attended both Bronx High School of Science and Juilliard, where I studied piano. Not wanting to go where my brother Bob went, I chose Yale – where, like him, I majored in music. (A far better pianist, Bob left Harvard in the spring of 1968.) One teacher there was the musicologist Betty Boop (or so I’ll call her), who covered the 18th century. I forget the title of her course, but we called it ‘Clapping for Credit’. The thing was that ridiculous, that contemptible. So when Betty had us write an essay, I stole a seminar paper Bob had done in graduate school at Berkeley. (It was in the house, along with everything else he ever wrote.) The paper concerned the ‘Jeunehomme’ Concerto, a work generally considered Mozart’s first masterpiece. The piece was supposed to have been written for someone Bob called ‘the mysterious Mlle Jeunehomme’ – the only line of his that I recall. But to quote Wikipedia (not a particularly ‘good’ line, but what can you do?): ‘musicologist Michael Lorenz [has proven] that the woman was actually Victoire Jenamy, a daughter of Jean-Georges Noverre, a famous dancer who was one of Mozart’s best friends.’

Now, this paper was about fifty pages long. And there were extensive footnotes citing French, German and Italian material. (On top of everything else, Bob’s a polyglot.) Rather obscure material, I might add. Clearly, then, it wasn’t the kind of thing an 18-year-old could have written – even one who spoke a little French. Once again, though, I got an ‘A’. Either Betty was too stupid to recognise the larceny (my assumption at the time), or – having recognised it – too lazy to bring me up on charges. Or too indifferent. Or too kind. Or maybe, I now realise, she never read it.

Needless to say, I’m not proud of what I did, even though, to invoke Salinger, I’m proud of my power to admit it (now that I can’t be charged). Why, though, did I do it? Why else, that is – apart from contempt. I did it because I wanted to be Bob. Because I wanted to ‘walk together’ with him, only not at Harvard. (‘We don’t go there.’) And because – subconsciously – I imagined this outrageous theft would let me do so. Of course, readers already familiar with my published work will have known this. To quote my essay ‘The Sonic Mirror’:

One thing you should know about me – maybe the one thing – is that I didn’t always want to be an English professor. I used to want to be a pianist. But it wasn’t till I was around twenty that I had to accept my now rather obvious limitations. I lack virtuoso technique – for which I’m still petty enough to blame Mrs Graa [my first piano teacher]. And I lack musical intelligence – for which I don’t even have genetics to blame. My older brother, Robert, is a successful pianist.

Or, to quote my book Beethoven’s Kiss:

Dr Train, the psychoanalyst my father had me see when [my brother] Steve killed himself, once told me, after having determined that my mother hadn’t caused my homosexuality, that the terrifying, dominating and truly monstrous woman who had done so was Diana Graa. According to Train, Mrs Graa convinced me I couldn’t satisfy her fiendish, feminine desires – convinced me I was no good. Or at least not as good as my older brother Bob. Bob the true child prodigy, Bob the one with perfect pitch etc. Sad to say, I believed him.

This second passage, by the way, first appeared in a letter I wrote to the English professor and critic Wayne Koestenbaum (also Jewish). Wayne, too, is someone with whom I’ve identified. (In his case, though, it’s because he reminds me of Steve, my openly gay yet truly mean brother. Or rather of the nice brother I’d always wanted him to be.) He’s also someone who, in what I take as an explanation of why I keep writing about both siblings, contends: ‘In any life, as in any invention, or any work of literature, however lofty or pedestrian, there exists a fixed set of dominating themes, and mere diligence cannot increase their number or alter their nature. Their substance, if not their sequence, remains incorrigibly the same.’

I graduated from Yale in 1979. As I did not even play piano well enough to get into medical school – so we majors used to joke – I went to law school. To Columbia, in fact, which I loathed. (I’d only gone to please my father, an attorney, and also because I had no idea what else to do with myself.) Steve died shortly thereafter. I developed anorexia – which is neither here nor there but I may as well admit that too. And then I read The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas, an anti-Freudian Holocaust novel. My parents had it. I remember the passage on the letter scene in Eugene Onegin. (The heroine performs Tatiana.) I also remember the horrifying passage on Babi Yar, where the heroine dies, and where in reality many of my own relatives – on both sides of the family – were killed. Thomas, we later learned (about a year after publication), had lifted much of the latter from Babi Yar, a novel by Anatoly Kuznetsov. My parents had that as well. Now, some critics don’t consider this plagiarism. They call it postmodern. And while I’m in no position to judge – never having read the Kuznetsov – I do know a thing or two about postmodernism. I know, for example, that any such citation – like sarcasm, if not like (verbal) irony – should be immediately recognisable as such. Figuratively speaking, it should be within quotation marks.

I graduated from Columbia in 1982, started eating again, and then worked at a terrible law firm in Rockefeller Center. David Hyde Pierce, incidentally, worked there too – as a paralegal. He went on, of course, to play Niles Crane in Frasier, to win a Tony Award for Curtains, and to blurb Sedaris. ‘Charting a course from Marcel Proust to Tony Danza,’ he wrote, ‘Kevin artfully captures the exquisite pleasure and pain of reading David Sedaris.’ (‘If I were to read a book on David Sedaris,’ another blurber wrote, ‘it might be this one.’) Not that we first-year associates had much to do. The firm was in a slump. And so although I did some research and wrote memoranda (one of which simply transcribed a law review article), I spent most of my time reading Proust in English – unbillable hours I called ‘professional development’ – and hanging out with another first-year. Albertine Simonet (or so I’ll call her) had graduated from . . . well, I’ll say Berkeley, where she’d also gotten a master’s degree in French. (Not having yet learned, from Proust, to be unpretentious, we liked to imagine – in fact, we still imagine – that Albertine is Guy de Rothschild and that I’m Marie-Hélène, his wife: fantasy escape from life at the firm.) One time, Albertine told me (one of her more amusing revelations), she turned in an essay by Montaigne as a seminar paper. Her professor – very kind – simply handed the thing back unmarked and then asked, in private: ‘What drugs are you on?’ In reality, though, Albertine now tells me – very ashamed – that she turned in a rather famous essay on Montaigne (‘Montaigne: The Crisis of the Self’), that the professor (I’ll call him Charlus) confronted her in private, that he then told her parents, and that – unlike me – she’s never done any such thing again. Or to quote her recent email:

[Charlus] first called me in to discuss. Something was really amiss, he said, because you’re not that type of person. Plus, having done this on such a wholesale basis was pure lunacy – ‘not just a sentence, but the entire text!’ Then he called my parents. This was, in fact, a ‘crisis’ in my own life. The three of them determined that my contact with pot was not helpful, that it had altered my judgment. ‘What drugs are you on?’ was a humorous paraphrase of the drama of the event. And there was a lot of drama. Unhappy me! Unhappy parents! Unhappy professor! Not a great thing for me to have done, certainly. [Charlus], by the way, is still a friend. I may call to discuss this with him.

In 1984, I moved to a much better firm, one with actual work to do. But I loathed it as well. (I’m not the lawyer type, I realised. I’m creative, or rather re-creative: not Chopin, but someone who plays Chopin – and in both senses of the verb: to perform, to impersonate.) Looking around for something else to do, I considered the advice of various friends, including Albertine. ‘Teach college,’ they said. ‘Apply to grad school. Get a doctorate in English.’ ‘Well, why not,’ I thought. ‘Maybe I’m smart enough. Maybe I’ll like college students – Yalies, at any rate.’ Maybe, moreover, I’d like writing something other than legal memoranda. From having read Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s monumental The Madwoman in the Attic, I felt sufficiently ‘imbued with otherness’ to imagine myself doing for sexuality studies what these collaborators – and talk about walking together! – had done for feminism. Only instead of treating every single gay male novelist (those two do almost every female), I planned to work on Henry James alone. James, for me, came after Proust. And he wrote in English.

There was just one problem. My grades were fine. My GREs were fine, though I hadn’t been able to identify the line ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed.’ (It’s by Whitman, of course.) But all the schools requested some kind, any kind of research paper as a writing sample. I simply could not submit one . . . of my own. As a music major, you see, the only such paper I had was that one for Betty. And so, once again, I produced – or rather, re-produced – Bob’s work on the mysterious Mlle Jeunehomme. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘at least I’m not publishing the thing.’ But this time around, I now realise, the outrageous larceny – the identification with Bob – was not untainted by what, if memory serves, the literary critic D.A. Miller calls ‘all due aggression’.

I got into both Columbia and Brown – not Yale, though, and certainly not Harvard. (Once you reject Harvard, it seemed, they never let you back.) I chose Brown. Classes there were fine, for the most part. My course on James, though, was not. It was taught by a very old, very flatulent man – I’ll call him Grover Cleveland – who, despite the fact that this was to have been a seminar, recited lectures to us (to me, that is, along with only two other students): lectures that, to judge from the crumbling condition of the legal pads on which they’d been written, couldn’t possibly have been revised within the past two decades. This was utterly ridiculous, utterly contemptible. So when Grover had us write an essay, I stole an article on James that I’d seen in some collection, entitled ‘The Beast in the Closet’. And not just a sentence or two, but nearly the entire text – minus some of its clear and accurate description. Plus, if I recall, a bit of my own (less clear, less accurate). Now you might think that even I, by this point, should have known better than to do such a thing. You might think that even I should have had some shame. But I probably recalled, with amusement, Albertine’s Montaigne and thought: ‘Well, why not.’ And, besides, I had already begun to develop an identification with the article’s author, a Jewish woman called Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – a cross-sex, cross-sexuality identification (she’s not gay) that I’d come to write about in ‘Fake It like a Man’. The woman, you see, would soon come to dominate sexuality studies. And that article would eventually reappear as the central chapter of her truly monumental Epistemology of the Closet.

I got an ‘A’. Mr Cleveland even read it, which I could tell from his comments. But it turns out, I now realise, that I was ashamed. Here’s what happened. Shortly after this larceny, I actually wrote a paper of my own. It was for a seminar on Roland Barthes and Oscar Wilde. That professor (Bob Scholes) suggested I try to publish the thing. So I submitted it to Genders, which secured two supposedly anonymous readers. One, though, was D.A. Miller (possibly Catholic). And the other was Eve. The journal had neglected to delete their names from their reports – reports, I’m happy to say, that were rather positive. I forget what Eve said, but Miller, for some reason, called me ‘shy and lovely’. Or to quote the line in full, to the best of my recollection: ‘Must this be so shy and lovely, in the manner of the usual seminar paper, when with just a little work it could become the essay we really need?’ But I didn’t revise. ‘Wilde, Barthes and the Orgasmics of Truth’ – my first publication – appeared just as I’d written it for Scholes.

I then – this was 1989 – attended a conference at Yale. Wayne, who taught there, had organised the panel I was on. And so we met in person. I met Miller too: a hunk who taught at Berkeley, wouldn’t give me (lovely or not) the time of day, and (so) certainly didn’t connect me to any ‘orgasmics’. I met Eve as well, an incredibly kind woman who did make that connection, offering both to read anything else of mine I might care to send and to be of further assistance. What to send? What to send? Reader – mon semblable, mon frère – I sent her ‘The Beast in the Closet’.

This, clearly, was lunacy. (Think of Beethoven claiming to have written the ‘Jeunehomme’ Concerto and then submitting it to Mozart.) Unlike Albertine, however, I didn’t have marijuana to blame. Like her, though, I too must have felt ashamed – ashamed, of what I’d done to both Eve and Bob. And so I too – subconsciously – must have wanted to be caught. Caught and punished, in fact: ruined career in academia, ignominious return to law. But I wasn’t caught, unlike Albertine. For as far as I know, Eve’s never read the thing. (But what if she has!) Never seen my name above her work. Never noticed the plagiarism. Well, she will now. As will Bob, I expect.

I chose Scholes (definitely Catholic) as my dissertation director, in part because he told me he’s a fraud. ‘So are most of us,’ he added. The dissertation, though, wasn’t on James. It was on Wilde, Barthes and several others in between. Scholes, once again, suggested I publish. So taking her up on that second offer, I asked Eve to help me place the thing. She wrote to Stanford University Press. Stanford, having gotten another set of positive reports, offered me a contract. This time I did revise. And then I asked both Eve and Wayne for blurbs, compelling people I love to quote (and with whom I identify) to both read and write on me. Wayne’s, in part, reads: ‘Everywhere tenderly epigrammatic, Kevin Kopelson’s voice – moving with a litigator’s clean, panoptic brio – demonstrates that critique can be a form of courtship, even a form of love.’ Eve calls me ‘invitingly stylish and excitingly lucid’ – which is much better than ‘shy and lovely’.

Getting that contract, publishing Love’s Litany, helped me get the job I still have. But I’m not at Yale. I’m at some public school in the Midwest. Midwesterners, of course, are very nice. (Barthes would call this statement doxa, a bit of conventional wisdom – like the notion that students plagiarise so as to please.) And I do like my colleagues. But the students! Or rather, the English majors! Our department, you see, is the only one in the humanities not allowed to require that majors have a minimum GPA. (I imagine administrators saying: ‘They’ve got to major in something – and they speak English.’) So for the most part, we get the very worst students: students with GPAs of 2.0 or lower. (I shudder to think what their SATs must have been.) Students, moreover, with no interest in literature or in literary criticism – much like those administrators. They have other, primarily visual means of identification and escape. Other means of becoming sufficiently imbued with otherness. (Think World of Warcraft.) One such major, for example, began my seminar on Modernism but then changed his mind. ‘I don’t like to read,’ he explained. ‘What should I take instead?’ I recommended our course on the haiku, or maybe the one on epigrams. Another student, in my seminar on criticism, turned in a paper (on Gilbert and Gubar) that began: ‘Feminists believe that women should reap what they sew.’ ‘Don’t you mean “sew what they rip”?’ I commented. A student in my seminar on confession – very PC – turned in a paper (on Philip Roth) that began: ‘Every mother wants what’s best for his or her son.’ ‘This is so wrong and on so many levels,’ I wrote, ‘that I don’t even know where to begin.’ As you can tell, then, my main way of dealing with this ridiculous situation – with these students – used to involve both (verbal) irony and sarcasm. Not always, though. A student in my seminar on creative non-fiction – an inarticulate senior about to go to law school – plagiarised a rather articulate essay on some baseball player. I found it on the internet, in about two seconds. ‘You probably didn’t intend to lie and steal,’ I wrote – invoking that doxa about pleasing teachers. ‘You probably didn’t know how to do the assignment. In that case, you should have come to see me.’ He then did see me – and was incredibly belligerent. He was contemptuous, in fact.

Irony and sarcasm, of course, did nothing for me in the long run. Nor did it do anything for the students – students, I decided, who really need not seminars but lectures. They need to be informed, truly informed: not to have fake conversations on subjects about which they know next to nothing, with some middle-aged professor dumbing down the material and pretending to be their friend. I’m practically fifty.

There was just one problem. Well, three problems. It’s not that I’m lazy. I’m simply not smart enough to improvise lectures. Nor do I have the kind of memory that would take. Nor do I have time to compose such things beforehand. Love’s Litany (a lofty work) took me two years to do. So did Beethoven’s Kiss (pedestrian). So did Sedaris (both lofty and pedestrian). So did my two books in between, one of them on Elizabeth Bishop, the other – in a way – on Jean-Georges Noverre. (Work in progress includes poetry on Niles Crane, Pee-Wee Herman and Sviatoslav Richter – a Heinrich Neuhaus student. By ‘poetry’, though, I mean limericks.) At that rate, it would take me twenty years per course. And so – like most academics, perhaps – I now ‘rhapsodise’ aloud. I play, I mean I perform, I mean recite other writers’ work. I do so, however, without actually naming them. I do so without putting any such citation – or rather, any particular citation – within quotation marks. Of course, I do begin each course by telling students – in postmodern mode – that the lectures they’re about to hear aren’t very original. But they always seem to think they are – which, I must confess, is really my intention.

Which other writers? The list, I’m afraid, is far too long for me to name them all. Let’s just say it includes Eve Sedgwick – but not D.A. Miller. It includes Jesse Matz (Jewish), another hunk, who did give me the time of day at yet another conference and who – like Wayne Koestenbaum, not to mention David Sedaris (not Jewish) – reminds me of Steve. It also includes Vladimir Nabokov (not Jewish), whose own lectures (now published) were really written – and this is why I mention him – by Vera, his wife.

Have I, then, become Grover Cleveland? Will I do so? Perhaps. But it won’t be because I’ll have identified with him – not consciously. (It’s Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The rabbi stops the service, prostrates himself before the ark, and cries out: ‘Oh, Lord! I am nothing!’ Moved by this demonstration, the cantor then prostrates himself and cries: ‘Oh, Lord! I am nothing!’ And then some tailor, sitting in the very last row of the synagogue, cries: ‘I too am nothing!’ The cantor turns to the rabbi and says: ‘So look who thinks he’s nothing.’) It’ll be an irony of fate – if not a crisis of the self. For my conscious identifications – along with my classroom rhapsodies or, to invoke related theories of human identity, both my theatrical and my ‘discursive’ performance there (doing Sedgwick, Matz, Nabokov et al, or rather doing their work) – will, I suspect, have remained constant. They’ll still be with the various men – and women – I know take my brothers’ place. (No crisis.) And my father’s place, of course – Scholes in particular. As for my unconscious identifications – well, really, who am I to say? Who, in other words, am I to read myself symptomatically? Or rather, to read myself that symptomatically.

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