A tidal wave of intellectual, and sometimes financial, fraud is hanging above the happy tropical village of American academia, threatening to crash down on it and sweep it away into the off-shore reefs. The danger has a distinctly different appearance if observed from the Olympian heights where physical scientists view the approaching storm with Lucretian calm, or from the bustling lowlands where the busy teacher of humanities courses scurries to and fro, lecturing to a crowded classroom here, grading the papers from his senior seminar there, in his spare moments scribbling out his notions for an academic journal.
The physical scientist, who in America will allow to no other the name of “scientist,” sees the end of his reign as the only true scholar, a reign that began in the 17th century and, with the support of the Enlightenment Project, itself drawing to its close, exercised ever more power until the explosion in numbers, wealth, and prestige that followed the Second World War. His claim to objectivity and to a unique vision of the world, to possession of the key that opens the door to technology and wealth, is under assault from many directions, grim-mouthed feminists, giddy Nietzscheans, solemn votaries of Gadamer. These would perhaps have little influence without the growing evidence of fraud in the temple of Holy Science.
The plight of the humanities may be even more desperate. A few years ago, Rene Girard came to Boulder to tell us, “We live in a world where plagiarism has become a philosophical impossibility. It simply cannot exist. If a dean tells you that there can be such a thing, she must belong to some benighted field like computer science. This is very good news indeed. It is so good that literary critics should be discreet about it for fear of appearing a little self-serving.”
Girard, it is fair to warn you, was speaking ironically, but truthfully. Departments of English and of the languages and literatures of modern Europe have fallen almost completely under the sway of Nietzsche, more than a century after he resigned his chair of classical philology to pursue his vision. There is no objective truth, and claims to such truth are merely obtrusive signs of the will to power of church or state. A century ago it took a carefully educated and brilliant classicist to deconstruct, to point out the hidden and perhaps unconscious agendas of bureaucratic state and popular morality and canonical text. Even a generation ago, it took a decent education and a lively French pen. Now every monoglot American graduate student in comparative literature can do it.
More than a decade ago Stanley Corngold of Princeton wrote an essay on “Error in Paul de Man,” where he presented to the readers of the prestigious theoretical journal Critical Inquiry the discovery that De Man, guru of the Deconstructionists at Yale, had mistranslated a key passage in Nietzsche that he was “deconstructing.” Critical Inquiry gave De Man space to reply, and De Man said, more or less, “Well, let’s take Corngold’s translation. I can reach the same results no matter what words the author used.” Some time ago a heavily published young physicist at the University of California-San Diego was forced into early retirement when it was shown that he was using the same math equation in totally different papers on substantially different topics. Dc Man did essentially the same thing. He admitted that no matter what words he shoved into his theoretical meatgrinder, the same baloney issued forth. It had no negative effect on his reputation. Now, for totally other reasons, his reputation is at a low ebb, and colleagues are showing that Dc Man’s work is full of mistranslations, not only from German, but also from French, despite the fact that—or, Baudelaire might have said, because—he was Belgian. When, faced with this and similar scholarly malfeasance, the dean of Yale College said that he had given up on the humanities and would hire only “scientists,” his faculty drove him into early retirement.
Yale should not bear the full brunt of the changes in academic attitudes. Earlier this year the Chronicle of Higher Education devoted its back page to a plea that we rethink our definition of plagiarism in light of the pirating by Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s plagiarized dissertation is a two-edged sword in this debate. On the one hand, the existence of this plagiarism is evidence of a widespread and deep corruption in our academic and journalistic establishments. Yet it was uncovered by scholars employing the traditional standards and methods of textual editing and source criticism. There is evidence that the editors of King’s papers tried to delay publication of the discovery. There was, however, no wav to disguise the facts of the case, given the traditions and conventions of textual criticism and source criticism, i.e., real scholarship.
One way to test a method is to present it with unwelcome results. Real science, physical and humane, must come to terms with such evidence. Galileo did not like the idea that the planets might not move in perfect circles, as Einstein did not care for Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle.” Eventually, however, physicists did accept what the evidence told them. Documentary study of the writings of M.L. King and Paul de Man revealed unpalatable facts about these men. A Yale colleague and fellow literary theorist of De Man’s wrote for the New Republic an essay showing how easily literary theory could absorb and twist and deny the worst revelations. For both De Man and King, however, scholarly stud}’ of the documents, a study that goes back to the ancient world for its methods and standards, stood firm. The humane sciences arc virtually as old as the physical sciences and their methods are as time-tested and give results as valid. The future of American academia is deeply involved in understanding these important facts and building on them. It is literary theory and other offshoots of Nietzsche’s brilliant dissections of Western religion and science that are the Barthean mythologies used by our ruling white elite to preserve its authority in the waning afternoon of its long, but loosening, grip on power. Among the forces that will destroy this evil elite arc the discoveries of Western sciences, both physical and humane.
There are crises of plagiarism outside of America. Last spring, a professor of the philosophy of law at Naples submitted an article to a learned journal. By ill luck the relatively unknown German from whom he had translated his essay had just had it and several others translated into Italian, and the editor of the journal recognized the fact. Not only did the editor reject the article, but he got together with some learned colleagues and started to go over the professor’s books. Sure enough, they had been translated, down to footnotes and punctuation, from German books and articles. The professor caught red-handed, now in his 70’s, had enjoyed a distinguished career, honored with not only a professorship, but the presidency of his learned society and the rectorship of a learned foundation. It is a severe critique of his field that so few caught on so late, or that those who knew or suspected were silent. It is also worth noting, however, that the methods and standards do exist for catching and revealing such activities.
Professor Villani has been expelled from the learned society he once headed, but many plagiarists are much luckier. A book is published with paragraph after paragraph copied from another work. A note is sent to book review editors asking them to notify potential reviewers that suitable references were accidentally omitted. A similar note was found in a learned journal after it had published an article containing an idea also found in an unpublished dissertation written at the writer’s university, a dissertation whose author was not as compliant as the source for M.L. King’s work. Certainly all flesh is heir to forgetfulness and each case must be judged on its individual merits. Even in cases where such an excuse is not relevant, however, and sentence after sentence is copied from another source, the offense is treated as venial and constitutes no bar to professional advancement.
In most cases, as in those of De Man and King, the relevant universities draw the wagons in a circle and refuse to discuss the embarrassment, or, more brazenly, blame the messengers who proclaim the facts. One must then feel some admiration for Princeton University Press for allowing Professor Anthony Grafton of Princeton’s history department to tell the general public that the late Professor Paul Coleman-Norton of classics published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly a forged Greek text of a lost saying of Jesus, with extensive scholarly commentary. Admittedly, the fragment does small credit to the sagacity of the pious editors of the Quarterly. It concerns a disciple who wants to know how there will be “gnashing of teeth” for sinners who have lost theirs. “Oh ye of little faith,” answers Jesus, “teeth will be provided.” According to Grafton, Coleman-Norton’s students had heard him make the same joke in class. The tradition of classical forgery has distinguished antecedents. Grafton mentions that Erasmus added a work of his own composition on martyrdom to his 1530 edition of the works of Saint Cyprian.
What might surprise some is the continuing influence of those who indulge in such antics, Universities all over America give their staff a day off in honor of King. About a book a year pours forth from learned presses in praise of Erasmus. As I have indicated above, known plagiarism is no bar to academic advancement. As with the physical sciences, it is more often the whistleblower who suffers.
“Is there any comfort to be found?” asked William Butler Yeats. Despite what the apes of Nietzsche tell us, there are valid traditional standards in the humanities, as in the other sciences. Learning those standards remains a challenge. Standing up for those standards will earn little thanks from the corrupt elites that run our universities and our governments. Woe unto us, however, if we do not stand up for them. Many have led fruitful and creative lives without holidays in their honor or public recognition. Some have been given hemlock to drink, or its equivalent, for revealing the fraudulence of their society. To stand in that company, though at a distance, to hear those voices and learn those standards, and then to repeat them to those who can understand them, that is the life worth living, no matter what the cost. “I say unto you, they have their reward,” Jesus did say about people like Erasmus and King. The reward of those who stand up for excellence and truth is not only laid up in heaven, however. It is tasted here on earth, every day, in the lives they lead and the truth (and truths) they come to know.