You’ve heard it time and time again: plagiarism is a sin, one which secures you a place in the Eighth Circle of Hell, among fellow thieves and falsifiers. It is also the lowest type of crime with which an intellectual or creator can be charged, so it’s no triviality that, last week, the Argentine justice found writer Pablo Katchadjian guilty.
Katchadjian’s story is well known in the literary world by now. In a nutshell: back in 2009, Katchadjian wrote a short book called El Aleph Engordado (The Fattened Aleph), printed 200 copies of it with an independent press, and gave them away, mostly to friends. The “fattening” consisted of taking Jorge Luis Borges’ classic, El Aleph, and inserting 5,600 words among the original 4,000 (plus five illustrations). The idea was simple enough and made transparent in the epilogue: “although I did not try to hide under Borges’ style,” Katchadjian wrote, “I also did not write with the idea of making myself too visible: the best moments, I think, are those in which you cannot be certain of what belongs to whom.” Next thing he knew, Katchadjian was facing a law suit by Borges’ widow and estate heir María Kodama, getting his assets frozen, paying a $80,000 Argentine Peso fine and, since last week, being officially prosecuted by the law.
Some ironies of the story are well known too. The literary irony, the most prominent one, is that Borges worked much precisely on the theme of creative reproduction and forgery, as most evidently shown by his story “Pierre Menard: Author of Quixote” and his rewriting of the ending to the Argentine classic “El Martín Fierro.” The political irony, the bleakest one, is that the officials getting busy trying to catch dangerous Katchadjian will be sitting right along him in Dante’s Eighth Circle, home not only to thieves but also to the corrupt, as president Macri’s government ranks as one of Latin America’s lowest in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. And the financial irony, the most unfortunate one, is that María Kodama’s documented habit of suing Borges commentators (and generally making money out of Borges’ estate despite the late writer’s own explicit wishes) has proved a profitable business, whereas the target of her latest venture, Katchadjian’s book, was a not-for-profit project — and, indeed, has cost him money in a considerable fine already.
The ruling was issued after a nearly yearlong “expert inspection” of the (just 10,000-word!) book, which aimed to determine whether it really was a case of plagiarism. “It is a glaring alteration of Borges’ text on the part of the defendant,” the ruling read, “thus disallowing the attempted defence in which he claimed that the publication of The Fattened Aleph was simply literary experimentation.”
Notice that, whereas the law suit had always been reported to be on the grounds of plagiarism, the ruling now states that Katchadjian “defrauded the intellectual property rights recognised by the current legislation to María Kodama” on the grounds of “alteration” of the work. Two questions arise. Are alteration and plagiarism the same thing? Is Katchadjian really guilty of it, if they are, or of either, if they’re not?
Let’s start by considering the textual ruling: “glaring alteration.” It took the experts one whole year to figure out what is already implied in the book’s title. The book is called The Fattened Aleph. “Fattening” is a type of alteration. Altering something requires that this something persist, that is, that it retain its identity; otherwise, the result of the work is not an alteration but a wholly new creation. As acknowledged not only in the title but also in the epilogue of his book, Katchadjian did not claim to have created a new thing — the book wasn’t called Totally Not the Aleph But Something Else — but rather to have altered an existing one.
This line of reasoning, however, puts Katchadjian in risk of falling over to the other side. If he does in fact admit that what he published did not count as a new piece but as an altered existing piece, then he presented someone else’s work as his own. And isn’t that the very definition of plagiarism?
To shed some light on this conundrum, we might call upon a story that Borges himself must have known and liked: the puzzle of the ship of Theseus. As first proposed by Greek historian Plutarch, the puzzle involves the question of whether Theseus’ legendary ship, preserved at a museum in Athens, can be said to remain the same even after it has undergone so many restorations that all of its original wooden parts have been replaced. One positive answer is proposed by Aristotle. Since what gives things their identity is what Aristotle calls their “formal cause” (roughly, their design), the restored ship is still the ship of Theseus; it doesn’t matter whether there is change is in the ship’s wooden parts, which Aristotle calls its “material cause” (roughly, what it’s made of). In this sense, The Fattened Aleph would not be an altered Aleph but a new thing altogether, because inserting new sentences here and there changes the form of the work just like adding a new mast or deck would have changed the design of the ship. Aristotle doesn’t allow the alteration of a persisting thing in this way. By contrast, other philosophers have argued that if someone collected the original parts that the museum threw away and constructed a ship with them, then this ship would be the ship of Theseus, which means the restored ship at the museum is not — regardless of whether someone really did reconstruct the original one. Perhaps this would render The Fattened Aleph neither an altered Aleph nor a whole new Non-Aleph thing; but rather, like the museum’s ship, some kind of reproduction.
Suppose, though, that long before becoming Athenian history, Theseus had seen it fit during his travels to have his ship radically improved, and so he went on some ancient version of “Pimp My Ride.” When the Greek counterpart to Xzibit (the rapper who hosted the MTV show) had been done and unveiled the new ship to Theseus, surely Theseus would’ve lost his mind and cried of happiness like those people in the show — or perhaps he would have just paid him. But he certainly wouldn’t have gone: “Hey, that’s not my ship!” So the ship would have, of course, remained Theseus’, and the credit for the alteration would have been Greek Xzibit’s.
This story yields a number of conclusions. Just like Xzibit did not claim to create cars but to alter them, Katchadjian did not claim to have created The Aleph. Plagiarism is to take someone else’s work and pass it off as one’s own — Katchadjian did not claim to have created The Aleph, so Katchadjian can not be guilty of plagiarism. And just like the result of Xzibit’s work was pimped cars, the result of Katchadjian’s was a Fattened Aleph. Alteration requires that it be of a pre-existing thing, so Xzbit and Katchadjian are alterers of cars and Alephs.
To get back to our questions: plagiarism and alteration are (of course) not the same thing. If the lawsuit was, as it has been reported to be, for plagiarism, it is ungrounded. On the other hand, what last week’s ruling claimed to have discovered via the “expert inspection” of the book was correct: that Katchadjian’s work is, in fact, an alteration. But the point that this is acknowledged in the book’s very title and its epilogue does not only show that the judge could’ve spared himself time and expert consultation fees; it shows that Katchadjian took credit from the beginning for only what he did: the alteration.
Whether he did this without permission is a different matter. To be sure, Xzibit would have been wrong to pimp peoples’ rides or ships without their knowing. But, generally, copyright laws protect against illegal profit, and it is acknowledged in the ruling itself that Katchadjian did not profit from printing and discretely distributing copies of The Fattened Aleph. So how is this different then from my having performed a similar alteration on another Borges story as a creative writing student? And from my printing and discretely distributing copies of this work — say, to my instructor, for marking, and to friends?
To rule in favour of a plagiarism suit and ground this ruling on the evidence of alteration is a category mistake. And it is far from petty. The process has been going on for several years now and it has taken a financial and emotional toll on Katchadjian and his closed ones — but also on the intellectual community. Interviews with Kodama show how little she understands of what is going on in Katchadjian’s piece. The authorities’ support of her case is effectively an undermining of ours — “us” being anyone who creates or alters (or, actually, like Borges himself, steals) ideas.
But it might not be a coincidence. Tyrannies do foment stupidity.
(Guess who I stole that ending from.)