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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Novelist Mark Helprin on Econtalk

So, yet again, a comment on a months old Econtalk. This time with guest Mark Helprin. The subject is copyright and as usual both the guest and Russ Roberts have some very interesting things to say. To sum up quickly, Helprin wrote a book on copyright in America. Basically, Helprin wanted to extend copyright protection by at least another decade, maybe two. Apparently, this is a hotly disputed subject. His introduction is sort of funny, because he acknowleges that he chose to write about copyright in part because he didn't think anyone would find it controvercial. Instead, he uncovered a hotbed of neoliberalism that wanted to socialize creativity. To be fair, I certainly don't receive any hatemail, so I can't comment on Mr. Helprin's reaction to some very heated responses he received.

On the whole, I don't really have an opinion on the subject. I personally benefit from a release of copyright's because I listen to audiobooks. I read A Tale of Two Cities that way. Now Dickens, clearly is long dead, and his copyright expiration is not at issue here: Helprin fully believes that the public has a right to intellectual material. However, he makes an able case. If you're an industrialist or a business owner, you leave your assets to your offspring when you die. That's all you have. A copyright is an asset, so why isn't it protected the same way?

At anyrate, I don't take issue with that. But as usual in Econtalk, the palaver shifts toward cultural issues, and borh Helprin (who wrote speeches for Bob Dole, and Roberts are RightingRightatics.) Here are a couple issues:

1. One Worldism. Both Russ and Mark, (excuse me for addressing them so informally but I really feel as if I know them,) are complaining about people that want a world with "one government." Maybe I'm sheltered, but never in my Ravingest Leftaticist moments have I ever dreamed of such a condition. What does that even mean? Which is of course, what Helprin and Roberts point out, it would be madness, and tantamount to tyranny. But my issue is that by creating this sort of glossed-over tar-and-feathering of a group to which I belong. I'm an idealist, and I do think that social government programs are important, and that more government money ought to be devoted to them than less. But here they are, these two guys are rambling on like a bunch of old men playing dominoes on the stoop and muttering about "these kids today." This one government business is a gross mischaracterization of the American left. I mean, it's not even an intellectual argument, but as someone who reads a lot of liberal literature, on --gasp--the internets--I've never seen anything like it! Not even on Daily Kos!

2. Helprin spends a lot of time talking about how creativity is a solitary adventure. Whole parts of his speech here could have come straight out of the fountain head: "What you feel in the presence of a thing you admire is just one word – ‘Yes.’ The affirmation, the acceptance, the sign of admittance. And that ‘yes’ is more than an answer to one thing, it’s a kind of ‘Amen’ to life, to the earth that holds this thing, to the thought that created it, to yourself for being able to see it. But the ability to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is the essence of all ownership. It’s your ownership of your own ego. Your soul, if you wish. Your soul has a single basic function – the act of valuing. ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ ‘I wish’ or ‘I do not wish.’ You can’t say ‘Yes’ without saying ‘I.’ There’s no affirmation without the one who affirms. In this sense, everything to which you grant your love is yours." (Ayn Rand-The Fountainhead). I liked the Fountainhead--again, gasp--and I'm still a liberal. I liked it because it gave me the courage to speak my mind. As a teenager, trying to fit in and be liked, I would purposely let other people express their opinion before I expressed mine, then mold whatever I said to fit. Shameful, I know. And the Fountainhead was critical to my becoming the man I am today, anonymously writing my thoughts on a blog that no one reads. (that was a cynical joke)

I'm a big believer that creativity is an individual pursuit--but not always. And that's where I think Helprin is all wet. He thinks that all the greatest works came from one mind. Personally I think that's naive. Russ and Mark mention Shakespeare quite a bit in this discussion, but of course, Shakespeare was the most hackneyed and plagiarized writer of the English language. Not that I don't give mad props to Shakespeare, but the fact of the matter we know very little about him actually, and what we do know actually points to the opposite--his plays were workshopped by his theatre company--the very definition of collective writing. One of the best plays I've ever seen was my friend's performance here in NYC of Kafka's "Trial of K." The group adapted it to the stage, and did a brilliant job of it. But by now, I'm running shy of the point--Helprin would probably agree to all of that. My point is actually much subtler. Think of the most solipsistic work you can think of--let's say Catcher in the Rye. Sallinger protects his intellectual property like a mama bear protecting it's cubs. Is Catcher in the Rye really the work of one man? Helprin makes the point that when he started at the New Yorker, the editors wouldn't change a comma without the permission of the author. But then again, talk about creative barriers--just submitting your work to a magazine presumes that you're willing to change your vision if the portal of dissemination requires it. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous. And the second you've changed your vision to meet the demands of the portal--the sanctity of indivualism has been compromised. The only truly individual writers are the ones who can publish without permission. Take this blog. No one tells me what I can't write! (Oh please oh god, please someone tell me something!) Fact is--Helprin's been a somebody for a long time--somebody's have a lot more freedom to publish than nobody's. Helprin acknowleges this, but still manages this conceit about individuality.

3. Back on this common good theme that Helprin sets up as being naive. He says that the proponents of rolling back copyright law because writing is actually a collective really just aren't as creative as him. They're jealous, because they can't create the way he can, and so they have to hack apart other's work to make something of themselves. Of course, I'm paraphrasing, and Helprin says it in a very diffident gentlemanly manner. But that's what it comes down to. I don't think I even need to comment on that.

It's 1:38 am. I'm still at work, and I'm exhausted. I'm not editing this till tomorrow. Enjoy it in it's spastic, incorrect juicyness.


marry said...

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HammClov said...

Thanks Marry, I appreciate the input