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Being an original - like everybody else

By MELVIN MADDOCKS / September 2, 1988



BETTE MIDLER has sued Ford Motor Company for using a Midler impersonator on a television commercial. Thus the brassiest voice since Ethel Merman joins Woody Allen, Jacqueline Onassis, and other famous recluses in a legal outcry to keep consumers from being confused about who, in fact, is endorsing what. There is no comparable recourse for Groucho Marx. W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy, also tied into products by ``look-alike'' or ``sound-alike'' impersonators - not to mention the Leonardo da Vinci ignominiously forced to recommend a bank on one ad, nor the Jehovah reduced to playing hot-dog salesman on another.

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Still, 1988 has seen a fair amount of declaring a plague on plagiarism, starting with Joe Biden. The senator from Delaware got into all sorts of trouble for forgetting his footnotes in a speech aiming him toward the Democratic presidential nomination.

In another instance of punishment exacted for a most improbable coincidence, a cartoonist hired by the Ohio Republican Party was fired last month after submitting work bearing a too-remarkable resemblance to Jeff McNeely's.

Perhaps the strictest whistle blown against a borrower forced John Hersey to apologize a few weeks ago for drawing just a bit too conspicuously on a James Agee biography in the course of his own essay on the late poet, playwright, and critic.

The clones and copycats of '88 ought to be scampering for cover about now, it might seem, chased by wadded-up balls of tracing paper. But as with other ethical matters these days, there is considerable wobbling about where to draw the line in spite of all the indignant tut-tutting.

Indeed, the severe attitude toward plagiarism may be dictated less by condemnation of dishonesty than by contempt for a failure to be original. Plagiarism becomes one more symbol of mass production, like the tract house, the glassy high-rise, the computer-designed car - all the other ``look-alikes'' in daily life.

Distaste for the unidentified secondhand item is worsened by the humiliating fact that imitation has become a practical necessity. Whether the product is political speeches or TV commercials or cartoons, the goods have to be turned out at a hectic pace while aspiring, at the same time, to satisfy the taste for something fresh, something different.

In response to Ezra Pound's command to all moderns, ``Make it new,'' one can only answer, ``I'm dancing as fast as I can - and if there's a bit of plagiarized Gower Champion or Bob Fosse to my choreography, well, I don't have time to be an original.''

Yet being original - or at least novel - remains the American passion of passions. Didn't this country start as an original, a first, a one-and-only? Won't it be a sign of the end if we turn out to be ``like everybody else''? No wonder we misuse the word ``unique,'' as if we yearn for uniqueness to become the universal, democratic property of all Americans. No wonder we hang plagiarists out to dry, like Puritan sinners in their stocks.

On the other hand, how tough it is to be always ``outrageous,'' as the originality word of the moment has it! After all, only one man can become famous for wearing a single glove, like Michael Jackson. And how many talk show hosts can become celebrities simply by punching out their guests, like Morton Downey Jr.? If all women try to be original by dyeing their hair purple, only mouse-brown will stand out.

Ah, the same old eccentricity again and again (yawn).

In one respect, plagiarists are simply our most desperate seekers of originality - they can't stand being ordinary, no matter what the price. But by proving to themselves the folly of copying, they also make their critics realize that absolute originality is an illusion as well.

The rest of us, somewhere in the middle, concede that maybe nothing is new under the sun. But, settling for a decent variation, we can hardly wait for the next self-plagiarizing sunrise.

A Wednesday and Friday column