Sunday, January 22, 2012

Did Bob Dylan Plagiarize from Blavatsky?

Scott Warmuth’s blog Goon Talk has a January 16 post analyzing the possible borrowing by Bob Dylan from Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled. Along the way, comments by Robert Duncan and William Emmette Coleman on Blavatsky’s literary methods are given.

Coleman’s argument, outlined in his 1895 “The Sources of Madame Blavatsky's Writings,” is that

There are in Isis about 2100 quotations from and references to books that were copied, at second-hand, from books other than the originals; and of this number only about 140 are credited to the books from which Madame Blavatsky copied them at second-hand. The others are quoted in such a manner as to lead the reader to think that Madame Blavatsky had read and utilised the original works, and had quoted from them at first-hand, - the truth being that these originals had evidently never been read by Madame Blavatsky. By this means many readers of Isis, and subsequently those of her Secret Doctrine and Theosophical Glossary, have been misled into thinking Madame Blavatsky an enormous reader, possessed of vast erudition; while the fact is her reading was very limited, and her ignorance was profound in all branches of knowledge.

To simplify it: when Blavatsky quotes a classical author or some obscure text, she is using a translation already provided in another text. Warmuth comments:

I can relate to the exhaustive analysis aspects of Coleman's work, but his approach leaves me cold. In the 1952 book Plagiarism and Originality Alexander Lindey discusses the vices inherent in the method that Coleman took, what Jack London called the “deadly parallel” approach in a letter defending his own use of other writer’s material. Lindey suggests that, “Parallel-hunters do not, as a rule, set out to be truthful and impartial. They are hell-bent on proving a point.” This does not always have to be the case, I believe that one can look for parallels without a set agenda, but Coleman clearly had an ax to grind.

This is a subject that needs more attention, and Theosophists, who have had over a century to clarify the matter, have been lax in this regard. Dismissing it is not enough.

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