The Varying Poverties of Now

In the appendix to his brief but radiant 2010 manifesto ‘Reality reality hungerHunger’—a supremely confident and practically pedagogical collage of quotations and personal observations published in order to define a perceived new age of literature—David Shields writes with this kind of over-excited, unnecessarily aggressive tone. He’s explaining why those hundreds of quotes were used throughout his book without any acknowledgement of their sources.

…I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost. Your uncertainty about whose words you have read is not just a bug but a feature.

A major focus of ‘Reality Hunger’ is approbation and plagiarism and what these terms mean… However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows…

If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 207-221 [the citations, which immediately follow the appendix] by cutting along the dotted line [which Shields actually published on those pages].

Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do—all of us—though not all of us know it yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.Stop; don’t read any farther.”

 We could wonder why Shields, after constructing a text which he intended to be the ‘Ars Poetica’ for early-21st-century artists, was still concerned enough to remind us that the scissors should be sharp. Or why he spent 200 pages tapping into the wealth of Western wisdom and then felt such an urgent need to, I guess, sum things up—to make a somewhat politically tinged statement like “Reality cannot be copyrighted.” Or why he decided to use that one-size-fits-all Picasso quote, “Art is theft,” both as one of the book’s epigraphs and as one of the introductory lines of the tenth chapter. Why would you use it twice?

But, I’d rather use Shields’ argument as the backdrop for a brief ramble on the first chapter of Book XII of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel ‘Tom Jones’—a novel that, along with helping to spark a new era of long-form fiction, employed a mixture of criticism, personal essay and narrative similar to what Shields seems now to be calling for in his manifesto (albeit within a very different context, of course, and not in quite the same way). And, funny enough, this particular chapter begins with almost exactly the same leading thought used by Shields to begin his appendix.

 The learned reader must have observed that in the course of this mighty work I have often translated passages out of the best ancient authors, without quoting the original or without taking the least notice of the book from whence they were borrowed.”

In this case, Fielding is really just talking about his use of Greek and Latin passages, either for strictly his own purposes or through the mouths of his variously virtuous, erudite and purely zany characters. But his aim in first employing the uncited quotations and then explaining to the reader his reasoning is really the same as Shields’; it just so happens that he’s doing it within the defining years of different modern age.

I think it’s kind of weird that Shields wrote that whole book without once addressing Fielding’s ideas, or referencing him in any way. Maybe because the ideas weren’t quite hip enough for Shields’ purposes (which is kind of a bullshit reason), maybe he forgot, or maybe he’s just never read him. I think it’s the first—bullshit—reason. So, let’s see what exactly Fielding had to say, and we’ll notice once again how similar his tone can be to someone writing in protest of digital-age copyright laws over 250 years later. Here, he’s justifying his use of Greek and Latin quotes without acknowledging their sources.

 …The ancients may be considered as a rich common, where every person who hath the smallest tenement in Parnassus hath a free right to fatten his Muse. Or, to place it in a clearer light, we moderns are to the ancients what the poor are to the rich…

 In like manner are the ancients, such as Homer, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, and the rest, to be esteemed among the writers as so many wealthy squires, from whom we, the poor of Parnassus, claim an immemorial custom of taking whatever we come at. This liberty I demand and this I am as ready to allow again to my poor neighbors in their turn…

 Nay, I absolutely claim a property in all such sentiments the moment they are transcribed into my writings, and I expect all readers henceforwards to regard them as purely and entirely my own.”

 One could say that Fielding and Shields are in fact equally aggressive in defense of what they see as their liberty, freedom, property, etc. Except that Fielding, to his credit I think, doesn’t take the slightly more manic route of attempting to directly co-opt the reader—he expects readers to respect his personal authorial boundaries, rather than imploring them to rebel against the current practice of his publisher.

But Shields probably didn’t feel like mentioning any of this because Fielding’s declaration stops far short of aligning with ideals of the totally free sharing, remix, sampling culture the hippest cats are currently trying to push. Which makes sense, because he was writing in 1749.

Fielding draws the line at pulling uncited text from work published by his contemporaries, whom he considers just as “poor” as himself, and unable to afford a petty theft quite as easily as Homer or Horace.

 …all I require of my brethren, is to maintain the same strict honesty among ourselves which the mob show to one another. To steal from one another is indeed highly criminal and indecent; for this may strictly styled defrauding the poor (sometimes perhaps those who are poorer than ourselves) or, to see it under the most opprobrious colours, robbing the spital.”

Basically, Fielding was defining his conception of a strictly literary sense of public domain, right around the same time that copyright law and the general notion of a legal public domain were entering European society. It was definitely fresh stuff to the first readers of ‘Tom Jones,’ especially coming in such a forceful tone from the author—but I guess the truth is that now, to people like Shields, this firmly delineated thinking represents some kind of satanic opposition to the new age 21st-century, all-access sharing, genre mish-mash, fiction/non-fiction supreme, essay remix whatever that we’re all supposed to be clamoring for if we want to call ourselves good critics or writers.

Or maybe Shields just never read the book. Who knows. Maybe I should ask him someday. He probably wouldn’t want to talk about it. I’d probably have to start talking about something else and then try to weasel it into the conversation. Kind of like sampling, I guess. Who knows.

I do have to say, of course, that it’s nice that we eventually grew out of Fielding’s idea of robbing the rich ancients and protecting the poor contemporaries. In fact, as I’m writing this I’m listening to Roland Kirk play two horns on a 1962 recording of his tribute to Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, which carries the long title of ‘Where Monk and Mingus Live/Let’s Call This’ (the second half of which is a Monk tune). It’s better than electronic sampling—but what do I know? All I know is that, for all our gripes about 21st-century culture—most of which are probably purposely ironic and disingenuous anyway—it’s nice to live the era of access. Sure, I would’ve rather had the chance to buy Roland Kirk a drink; but at least now I can pretend I once knew him.

That’s the illusion, right? Shields never actually met Montaigne, right?

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