Plagiarism and Cryptomnesia

This is another item that I am re-posting from Futility Closet (www.futilitycloset.com). It is re-posted with the permission of Greg Ross, who maintains the site. You can have daily updates from the site delivered to your e-mail each morning.

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Several years after publishing Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson was abashed to discover that he had drawn much of the story from Washington Irving’s 1824 book Tales of a Traveller, which he had read many years earlier and forgotten.

“I believe plagiarism was rarely carried farther,” he wrote later. “The book flew up and struck me: Billy Bones, his chest, the company in the parlour, the whole inner spirit, and a good deal of the material detail of my first chapters — all were there, all were the property of Washington Irving. But I had no guess of it then as I sat writing by the fireside, in what seemed the spring-tides of a somewhat pedestrian inspiration; nor yet day by day, after lunch, as I read aloud my morning’s work to the family.”

This is an instance of cryptomnesia, the mistaking of a forgotten memory for an original idea.

Stevenson charged himself with plagiarism, but he had honestly believed he was writing a new story: “It seemed to me original as sin; it seemed to belong to me like my right eye.”

In reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Carl Jung was surprised to discover “almost word for word” an incident reported in a ship’s log in 1686. Jung recognized the passage from a book published around 1835, about 50 years before Nietzsche was writing. He contacted the philosopher’s sister, who confirmed that the two of them had read the book when Nietzsche was 11 years old.

“I think, from the context, it is inconceivable that Nietzsche had any idea that he was plagiarizing this story,” Jung wrote. “I believe that fifty years later it had unexpectedly slipped into focus in his conscious mind.”

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My previous re-posts from Futility Closet have included:

“But Should It Cound toward Promotion and Tenure”: http://academeblog.org/2013/05/21/but-would-it-count-toward-promotion-and-tenure/

“Another Item of Ironic Scholarship from Futility Closet”: http://academeblog.org/2013/05/26/another-item-on-ironic-scholarship-from-futility-closet/

“Odd Library Subject Headings”: http://academeblog.org/2013/06/03/odd-library-subject-headings/

“Herein Lies Another Route to Madness”: http://academeblog.org/2013/06/07/herein-lies-yet-another-route-to-madness/

“How-To Books That Make One Wonder Why”: http://academeblog.org/2013/06/18/how-to-books-that-make-one-wonder-why/

“Higher Ed’s Version of the Great Imposter”: http://academeblog.org/2013/06/20/higher-eds-version-of-the-great-impostor/

“ A Significant Portion of Someone’s Life Was Devoted to Writing Each of These Books”: http://academeblog.org/2013/08/26/a-significant-portion-of-someones-life-was-devoted-to-writing-each-of-these-books/

“Making Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow a Little Less Mundane”: http://academeblog.org/2013/08/19/making-yesterday-today-and-tomorrow-a-little-less-mundane/

“Parsing the Paradoxical Nature of Politics”: http://academeblog.org/2013/12/09/parsing-the-paradoxical-nature-of-politics/

“The Pyramid Cemetery”: http://academeblog.org/2013/12/23/the-pyramid-cemetery-a-historical-anecdote-with-the-resonance-of-a-parable/

“How to Make the Case for an Article’s Publication”: http://academeblog.org/2013/12/27/how-to-make-the-case-for-an-articles-publication/#more-5380

One response

  1. Pingback: Where’s LaBeouf? | Academe Blog

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