February 3, 2013

THE MIND IS A SURPASSING STRANGE PLACE:

Speak, Memory (Oliver Sacks, 2/21/13, NY Review of Books)

Daniel Schacter has written extensively on distortions of memory and the "source confusions" that go with them, and in his book Searching for Memory recounts a well-known story about Ronald Reagan:

In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan repeatedly told a heartbreaking story of a World War II bomber pilot who ordered his crew to bail out after his plane had been seriously damaged by an enemy hit. His young belly gunner was wounded so seriously that he was unable to evacuate the bomber. Reagan could barely hold back his tears as he uttered the pilot's heroic response: "Never mind. We'll ride it down together." The press soon realized that this story was an almost exact duplicate of a scene in the 1944 film A Wing and a Prayer. Reagan had apparently retained the facts but forgotten their source.
Reagan was a vigorous sixty-nine-year-old at the time, was to be president for eight years, and only developed unmistakable dementia in the 1990s. But he had been given to acting and make-believe throughout his life, and he had displayed a vein of romantic fantasy and histrionism since he was young. Reagan was not simulating emotion when he recounted this story--his story, his reality, as he believed it to be--and had he taken a lie detector test (functional brain imaging had not yet been invented at the time), there would have been none of the telltale reactions that go with conscious falsehood.

It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened--or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others' suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten. Similarly, while I often give lectures on similar topics, I can never remember, for better or worse, exactly what I said on previous occasions; nor can I bear to look through my earlier notes. Losing conscious memory of what I have said before, and having no text, I discover my themes afresh each time, and they often seem to me brand-new. This type of forgetting may be necessary for a creative or healthy cryptomnesia, one that allows old thoughts to be reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications.

Sometimes these forgettings extend to autoplagiarism, where I find myself reproducing entire phrases or sentences as if new, and this may be compounded, sometimes, by a genuine forgetfulness. Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one's memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

Webster's defines "plagiarize" as "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own: use (another's production) without crediting the source ...to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source." There is a considerable overlap between this definition and that of "cryptomnesia." The essential difference is that plagiarism, as commonly understood and reprobated, is conscious and intentional, whereas cryptomnesia is neither. Perhaps the term "cryptomnesia" needs to be better known, for though one may speak of "unconscious plagiarism," the very word "plagiarism" is so morally charged, so suggestive of crime and deceit, that it retains a sting even if it is "unconscious."

In 1970, George Harrison composed an enormously successful song, "My Sweet Lord," which turned out to have great similarities to a song by Ronald Mack ("He's So Fine"), recorded eight years earlier. When the matter went to trial, the judge found Harrison guilty of plagiarism, but showed psychological insight and sympathy in his summary of the case. He concluded:

Did Harrison deliberately use the music of "He's So Fine"? I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless...this is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.
Posted by at February 3, 2013 8:45 AM
  
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