A recent post of Jonathan Mayhew's reminded me of an old complaint I have about the blurbs on my Penguin paperbacks. My 1981 King Penguin edition of Borges' Labyrinths describes Pierre Menard as "the man who re-wrote Don Quixote word for word without ever reading the original" on the back cover. (This sort of thing happens a lot, I've found. I wonder if it's a convention I've never been told about. Perhaps blurbs are supposed to be misleading so as not to ruin the plot?) In any case, my reading of "Pierre Menard" doesn't have him doing any "transcribing", as Jonathan seems to say. In fact, I thought the opposite was true.
Pierre Menard, as I read Borges, was trying to write Cervantes' Don Quixote without plagiarizing it. The task seems to be an impossible one; indeed, it seems absurd. Menard intends to write the exact same words as Cervantes, but he, Menard, is now to be their author. As Borges's fictional literary critic points out, the words will be the same, but their meaning will be entirely different. Menard wanted to, literally, write Don Quixote.
How can you become the author of a book that has already been written? We can imagine a parallel universe in which, as in ours, Cervantes writes the Quixote in the early seventeenth century but, unlike ours, does not publish it, and does not achieve the fame he enjoys here. Then, four-hundred years later, Menard discovers the manuscript and publishes it as an original creation of his own mind. This would of course still make him a plagiarist, but it would be very difficult to discover (if he kept his own secret). Menard would now become the author, and, if he really did present it as something he had just written, his words would be interpreted as those of a contemporary.
Though it is hugely unlikely, we could also imagine another universe in which Menard, in a true coincidence, produces a work that is identical to Cervantes' unpublished manuscript, exactly as Penguin's blurb writer suggests. In this parallel universe, then, two people write the same manuscript independently, they both spring from ("originate" in) the imagination of each unique author. This, interestingly enough, is the sort of "impossible originality" that I've argued we demand of students. We want them to "come up with" ideas that are in most cases already available in the published literature they just haven't read yet.
But these are not the universes that Borges would have us imagine. Menard desires a universe in which Cervantes wrote and published Don Quixote and in which Menard, fully aware of Cervantes' achievement, could also write and publish the same sequence of words, but in his own name, and, like I say, without plagiarizing them. As Borges and Menard are aware, this requires Menard to forget Cervantes' version. The odds against Menard's project are formidable*: the odds of writing the Quixote without plagiarizing it are exactly the odds of writing an exact copy of any book that one has never read. In our parallel universe we need only posit that Menard does not actually discover Cervantes' manuscript. Rather, someone else discovers it after Menard has become famous (if writing an original Quixote in
19051935 warrants literary fame). I suppose there would be a scandal. No one would believe Menard had not transcribed Cervantes.
And that's what happens when we find that a student who has, as expected, submitted an "unoriginal" idea in an essay, has also, as expected not to, used the exact same words as, either another student, or an academic blogger, or published scholar. We would not be entirely surprised to find a sophomore English major propose that Nick Caraway was gay. But we would raise an eyebrow if the student wrote "It’s a testament to Fitzgerald’s talent as a novelist that he was able to provide so much textual evidence that Nick is gay without confirming it or drawing undue attention to it. Subtlety is an art." Here a set of quotation marks and a reference to Greg Olear, not to mention an ellipsis, would, of course, be expected.
*Perhaps this is why Andrew Gelman is so passionate about plagiarism. The excuses are so often an affront to probability theory.