Plagiarism as Cannibalism

Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael perplexed me all morning until now—and I got it like a lightbulb.  The critical book/essay written in a very non-traditional prose-poem style, but that isn’t what threw me off; it was the beginning story, which he calls the “First Fact” about a ship sunk by a collision with a whale and its survivors splitting among 3 whaleboats, deciding to avoid Tahiti to avoid cannibalism but when they failed to find land they had to resort to cannibalism themselves to avoid starvation.  Olson mentions that Melville knew the story and even met one of the survivors, but it seemed to have no other connection to Olson’s thesis, that Melville was heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s King Lear, and originally wrote Moby Dick without Ahab and “may not, except incidentally, have contained Moby-Dick” but rewrote it after he read Shakespeare, incorporating Ahab as a King Lear figure.

And my coffee finally kicked in—Olson is proposing that Melville cannibalized Shakespeare, giving his own work life by taking it from the dead.


I don’t know why I haven’t come across plagiarism described as cannibalism much before (though this may be an inaccurate term to apply to Olson’s thesis because he doesn’t call it plagiarism, and most modern scholars–Poe excluded—would call what Olson says Melville did: being influenced by Shakespeare) —I’ve seen it described as kleptomania, theft, murder, fraud, lying, “literary barbarism”…but not often as cannibalism…or maybe I have.  I mean, to “cannibalize” a work is to take the usable parts and work it into a new work, but it actually has much more positive connotations than “plagiarism” so they weren’t really connected in my mind.  To connect this back to Poe and Longfellow, in a footnote in Moss’ book notes a Longfellow (possibly revealingly) retold this story in 1834:

We read in an old story book—the Gesta Romanorum—that a law once prevailed in a certain city requiring that every knight should be buried in his armor and that if any one should rob the grave and deprive the dead man of his armor he should suffer death. It once happened when this city was closely besieged that a poor cavalier transgressed the law by borrowing the harness of a dead knight from his sepulchre and though he thereby saved the city from destruction he was nevertheless condemned to death in order to satisfy the noisy populace who were jealous of his fame.  Petrus Berchorius the putative father of this story appends a ghostly moral to it. Will it not likewise bear a literary application? Let the reader say whether an author who robs the grave and borrows the weapons of the dead even to do his country service does not deserve to be put to death as a literary felon and is not in danger of suffering such a fate.

I can see why Longfellow would want to connect plagiarism and cannibalism (though in this story it’s just the knight’s armor): though it is an activity more deviant than stealing, traditionally frowned upon, cannibalism implies that the thing it’s taken from is no longer any use to anyone, and so is right because it’s pragmatic.

Olson uses as evidence of Melville’s reliance on Shakespeare, underlining and notes from the margins of Melville’s copies of Shakespeare, particularly regarding Ahab and madness.  In the margin of one Shakespeare volume, Melville wrote a longer version of Ahab’s reverse benediction, baptizing his harpoon in blood. Another indication of cannibalism?  Olson leaves this connection entirely implied.

Another thread running throughout the essay is paternity: “Melville agonized over paternity” (82), and Olson mentions various myths involving paternity as a sort of cannibalism itself—Kronos castrating his father, Seth and Osiris, Prometheus, and Venus all involving a birth or a coming to power through mutilation of the father.

Another parallel to Moby Dick, Olson talks about the Pacific as a new American frontier: “The Pacific is, for an American, the Plains repeated” (114).

At first I was puzzled over this as well, but I think it too can be connected to cannibalism and paternity. Olson starts his essay with the statement “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America” (11).  So, space becomes a sort of father to America, which must be cannibalized (naturally involving destruction of the frontier as unknown and unexplored space by the Western world) in the process.  The nature of space is that once you are there it’s gone.

Olson has another odd statement in the beginning of his essay: “Some men ride on space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive.  As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted” (12).  Am I being plagiarism-nuts to see this as a comparison of how they viewed appropriation—Melville as embracing a cannibalism of the literature that fathered of much western drama, but Poe rejecting what has come before in favor of digging into the subconscious for originality.   It’s an odd metaphor—I’d probably be more likely to view appropriation as digging, digging up old stuff, as in the Longfellow story…but perhaps my interpretation isn’t quite right.  Back to work!

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