'La Litterature De Martial': Plagiarism as Figure in Sade, Lautreamont, Ouologuem, and Sony Labou Tansi

By Lack, Roland-Francois | The Romanic Review, November 1995 | Go to article overview

'La Litterature De Martial': Plagiarism as Figure in Sade, Lautreamont, Ouologuem, and Sony Labou Tansi


Lack, Roland-Francois, The Romanic Review


Le mal rongeur s'etend sur toute la figure ... (1)

Plagiarism is an intertextual literary practice with an abundance of intertexts to its name, not all of them literary. It has a history in legal discourse and its etymologies reveal a violent origin in the real: "PLAGIAT, Delit du plagiaire. Chez les Romains, on appelait plagiaire celui qui etait condamne au fouet (ad plagas) pour avoir vendu comme esclaves des hommes libres.--Dans notre langue, cette qualification s'applique a l'auteur qui s'approprie les pensees d'autrui." (2)

Within literary discourse, scenes of real, Oedipal violence have been figured by plagiarism: "Plagiarism is kidnapping. A false fatherhood. The OED points to the Latin plagiarus, 'one who abducts the child or slave of another'"; "Ainsi, pour l'homme, le plagiat est perversion: il equivaut a une relation incestueuse avec la mere." (3)

The figural power of plagiarism is a power to name something other than itself. In this article that other thing is writing, restrictively figured as violent, gendered, and historicized by my taking "Sadian" writers as exemplars. My first suggestion is that plagiarism is an appropriate figure of intertextual relations that are characterized by violence.

The figurality of plagiarism originates in an elaborate mise-en-scene of the legal question by the Latin poet Martiah4 "Ie te recommande nos Livres, Quinctianus, si toutesfois ie puis dire nostres ceux que ton Poete recite. Si une servitude trop pesante leur donne sujet de se plaindre, vien procurer leur liberte, (5) & ne leur denie point le secours suffisant: Et quand il voudra s'en rendre le maistre, repons qu'ils m'appartiennent, & et que ie les ay affranchis. Que si tu maintiens cela fortement trois & quatre fois, tu feras recevoir au Plagiaire (6) une grande confusion."

Martial is representing the court of law where his books, as manumitted slaves illicitly re-enslaved, would have to claim their freedom by the agency of a third party (here, the friend to whom the poem is addressed) since they would not, if shown to be slaves, have had the right to speak for themselves. Though the book-as-slave figure had a certain currency in first-century poetry, Martial's book-stealer as slave-stealer is unique in classical Latin. (7) The originating scene complicates plagiarism as literary figure since the plagiarist's crime is not simply to have alienated the property of another, but specifically to have alienated the freedom of the text. Furthermore, as an abducted ex-slave, victim of an original abduction by the first master (Martial), the text is implicated in a founding (or confounding (8)) history of appropriation and reappropriation. Thus the story of the first text to be figured by plagiarism is already a story of recurring violence.

If the association of literary plagiarism with literal abduction seems remote, Suzanne Guerlac, writing of Victor Hugo's L'Homme qui rit (where "a child is kidnapped and disfigured by a band of gypsies who have cut his mouth from ear to ear"), has shown how the child-stealer's crime can derive mythic power from the speaking of its proper and resonantly literary name: the mutilation of the child Gwynplaine by Harquenonne is called a work of art, and Harquenonne is hanged for it "as a plagiarist". (9)

The OED's alternative specifications of the plagiarist's crime--child or slave stealer--are actualized in these scenes from Martial and Hugo, though Martial's slave is not actually but only figuratively stolen, and shame is the only punishment imposed. With the arch-plagiarist Isidore Ducasse, Comte de Lautreamont, we are still speaking in figures: the "mutilation" of Hugo's poem "Tristesse d'Olympio", abducted by Ducasse and put to work in his Poesies, if it rivals Harquenonne for "artistry", is not actually violent, and if it is deemed that the crime nonetheless deserves punishment, this too need only be figurative. …

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