It is with great pleasure that I introduce the first guest contributor to this blog, Risa Sodi of Yale University's Department of Italian. She is the author of Narrative and Imperative: The First Fifty Years of Italian Holocaust Writing, 1944-1994 (2007) and A Dante of Our Time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz (1990), as well as articles on modern Italian literature and history. Thanks to her specialization in Jewish Italy and the Holocaust, in particular Primo Levi, I met Risa while participating in a panel on Primo Levi at the annual convention of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) a few years ago.
The following is her original contribution to this blog, titled
"La storia, by Elsa Morante, Bruno Piazza, et. al"
Risa Sodi (Yale University)
A decade ago, Orville Richard Burrell, a.k.a. “Shaggy,” a Jamaican reggae singer had an international chartbuster with the song “Angel.” It reached number one on ten singles charts, including in the U.K. and in the U.S., selling over 400,000 copies in the U.K. alone. The single mixed the bass line from Steve Miller’s 1973 song, “The Joker,” words from lyricist Chip Taylor’s “Angel of the Morning” (a 1968 hit for singer Merrilee Rush), and new lyrics by Shaggy. In Shaggy’s “Angel,” Taylor’s refrain
Just call me angel of the morning, Angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby
Girl, you’re my angel, you’re my darling angel
Closer than my peeps you are to me, baby
Better? Worse? My ten-year-old self hummed Rush’s version all through the summer of ’68. When I heard Shaggy’s remake three decades later, I started, I laughed, I wrinkled my brow, but I couldn’t decide: is this right?
What does this have to do with Elsa Morante? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about cheating lately. Plagiarism and cheating are hot topics on my campus. A November 12, 2010 Yale Daily News article, “Academic Dishonesty Cases Skyrocket,” reports that “the number of Yale students charged with cheating nearly doubled in the last academic year, according to the 2009-’10 Yale College Executive Committee Report”; not only, but of the 80 cases heard by the Yale undergraduate disciplinary board, 72 involved plagiarism or cheating, while the remaining 8 involved alcohol abuse. [i] A follow-up article, also written by David Burt (Yale ’13), notes that “Cheating Confusion Persists.” Yalies, it seems, think they know what constitutes academic dishonesty (though few admit to having read the university regulations), and one-third of those surveyed “said they did not know that turning in the same essay to different courses is considered cheating — and over half said they do not think it should be considered cheating.” [ii] Confusion also reigns over collaborative work on problem sets or proper citation usage for quotes and other information.
My campus is not alone in confronting students confused over what constitutes original thinking and what constitutes cheating. Campuses across the country are involved in similar battles. [iii] Many include tips on avoiding cheating or plagiarism right in their academic handbooks; some offer orientation classes for freshmen; others encourage professors to put a plagiarism statement on their course syllabi, taking their standards right to the people, as it were.
But the people, in this case, are not the same as in generations, or even years, past. While only 39 per cent of students “admitted cheating when William J. Bowers surveyed nine large public university campuses in 1963,” according to Columbia University, “sixty-eight percent of students surveyed at schools without honor codes acknowledged serious cheating at least once during their college career.” [iv]
Today, plagiarism is in the culture, albeit under a different name. It’s sampling, à la Shaggy, or it’s a remix, or a remake, or a mash-up (digital, music, video, or web application). A more genteel era referred to such creations as a pastiche, a medley or a mélange, but “mash-up” is so much more twenty-first century. What literature professor doesn’t smile at the idea behind Seth Grahame-Smith’s deliciously macabre 2009 Pride and Prejudice with Vampires, or Ben H. Winter’s 2009 tentacled Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Winter even lists Jane Austen as his “co-author.” Writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler drolly noted that that Austen was listed as co-author “despite the lack of what Hollywood types refer to as ‘participation.’” [v]
Today’s college students don’t so much study the cultural theories of intertextuality, dialogism, or intersubjectivity, they live them. Theirs is an hypertextual world, where Craig Ferguson’s TV talk show immediately becomes a “hypertexted” performance by a Parisian comedy troupe; where the producers of a (possibly sampled) music video sued the creators of “South Park” for parodying their video too closely (they out-sampled the samplers?); or where P. Diddy, via his company Sean John, lifted an obscure calligraphic font from a 2007 Yale School of Architecture poster and put it on his T-shirts, only to be surprised by the outcry.
Elsa Morante? I’m getting there…
In 2010, a 17-year-old German teen, Helene Hegemann, set off a media scandal with her chart-climbing debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill, when she frankly admitted to having sampled German blogger Airen’s novel, Strobo. Not only, she defended her right to plagiarize, saying "true originality doesn't exist anyway, only authenticity." She staked a claim to the "right to copy and transform" other people's work, and, according to Time magazine, to “taking a stand against…the ‘copyright excesses’ of the past decade.” [vi] Hegemann’s editors were not quite as bold and inserted into the novel’s second edition what was missing from the first: an acknowledgment of the “thoughts and texts” that had helped her. [vii]
Now, to Morante…
In 2007, I published a book on Italian Holocaust narratives, one chapter of which was dedicated to Morante’s 1974 novel, La storia (History). [viii] I called that chapter “Elsa Morante’s Questionable History” and, indeed, I still hold that, from the point of view of Holocaust writing and Jewish characters, there is a good deal to question in History. Morante, herself half-Jewish, though a practicing Catholic, crafted three characters — Ida Ramundo, Nora Almagià, and Davide Segre — who hate themselves as only “self-hating Jews” can. [ix] In all three characters, their self-loathing becomes pathological, chasing them to untimely deaths imbued with symbolism about the role of the powerful (in this case, occultly, atavistically powerful) who sin against the meek. “Morante’s focus on genealogy and bloodlines in a novel that creates its own representation of the Holocaust is, in light of the Nuremberg Laws, disturbing,” I wrote in 2007.
But that aside, another focus of my “questions” in that chapter was Morante’s appropriation of “thoughts and ideas” from an older work, Bruno Piazza’s Perché gli altri dimenticano (“Because the Others Forget,” unpublished in English). I carefully list the instances in which Morante takes over the words, the rhythms and the imagery of Piazza’s memoir. In fact, Piazza, a Triestine Jew, had been deported to Auschwitz via San Sabba in 1944, when he was already 55 years old. He returned to Italy at the war’s end — one of the roughly 10 per cent, or 800 Italian Jews (nineteen from Trieste), to survive deportation — and quietly resumed his former occupation as a lawyer. In a burst of energy, over three weeks in 1945, Piazza drafted his memoirs but a short time later, on October 31, 1946, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Perché gli altri dimenticano was published posthumously in 1956 and, ironically living up to its title, was soon forgotten by critics, scholars, readers and even by Italian Holocaust survivors organizations.
Morante, however, did not forget Piazza. In fact, she appropriated whole sections from his book, just as she took “inspiration” (“uno spunto”) from Giacomo Debenedetti’s novella, 16 ottobre 1943, and Robert Katz’s investigative report, Black Sabbath. [x] Unlike Hegemann, she immediately credited her predecessors in her novel, thanking them in the first and all subsequent editions for the spunti they provided her. At the time that I was working on Morante’s, Piazza’s, Debenedetti’s texts (from the early 1990s to the middle of the last decade), outrage was the dominate emotion I felt — for Morante’s casually disingenuous use of the word spunto, for the amnesia suffered by Piazza, for the transformation of Debenedetti’s elegant and elegiac prose into something he had not intended. But today, that outrage has lessened and — somewhat like my students — I, too, am confused. Is La storia a mash-up, and one that credits its sources, at that? Is originality impossible? Is sampling the new normal and hypertextuality inevitable? Am I naïve to expect Morante’s or other novelists’ works to be farina dal loro sacco (grist from their own mills)? Is Shaggy right when he sings,
Can’t be a fool, son, what about the long run
La storia saved Piazza from total obscurity. Morante “sampled” his works and inserted his words and imagery into a novel that has had a vast international audience and a vastly greater impact than his own original. Piazza lives on in the best-known novel of — arguably — the most read Italian woman novelist of the twentieth century. We may decide that, in the long run, in the Hegemannian sense, La storia is unoriginal but also “authentic.” Does plagiarism matter?
January 3, 2011
[iii] See, for example, the 2008 ABC News program “A Cheating Crisis in American Schools,” “University of Notre Dame Professor says cheating common on campuses” (http://business.nd.edu/news_and_events/mendoza_in_the_news/article.aspx?id=8073, December 4, 2010), “Now Class Must Tackle Cheating at Columbia” (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/03/nyregion/03columbia.html, December 3, 2006), etc.
[viii] Risa Sodi, Narrative and Imperative: The First Fifty Years of Italian Holocaust Writing, 1946-1994. New York: Peter Lang USA, 2007.
[ix] Sander Gilman, Jewish self-hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
[x] Giacomo Debenedetti, 16 ottobre 1943. Milan: Il saggiatore, 1982. Robert Katz, Black Sabbath. Toronto: Macmillan, 1969.