God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; He plants his footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm. William Cowper (1779)
Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time. Longfellow (“A Psalm of Life »)
Bernard de Chartres avait l’habitude de dire que nous sommes comme des nains sur les épaules de géants, afin que nous puissions voir plus qu’eux et les choses plus éloignées, pas en vertu d’une netteté de la vue de notre part, ou d’une distinction physique, mais parce que nous sommes portés haut et soulevé vers le haut par leur taille gigantesque. John de Salisbury (1159)
Si j’ai vu plus loin que les autres, c’est parce que j’ai été porté par des épaules de géants. Isaac Newton (1676)
Byron’s tragedy, Manfred, was to me a wonderful phenomenon, and one that closely touched me. This singular intellectual poet has taken my Faustus to himself, and extracted from it the strangest nourishment for his hypochondriac humour. He has made use of the impelling principles in his own way, for his own purposes, so that no one of them remains the same; and it is particularly on this account that I cannot enough admire his genius. Goethe (1820)
I am now upon a painful chapter. No doubt the parrot once belonged to Robinson Crusoe. No doubt the skeleton is conveyed from Poe. I think little of these, they are trifles and details; and no man can hope to have a monopoly of skeletons or make a corner in talking birds. The stockade, I am told, is from Masterman Ready. It may be, I care not a jot. These useful writers had fulfilled the poet’s saying: departing, they had left behind them Footprints on the sands of time, Footprints which perhaps another — and I was the other! It is my debt to Washington Irving that exercises my conscience, and justly so, for I believe plagiarism was rarely carried farther. I chanced to pick up the Tales of a Traveller some years ago with a view to an anthology of prose narrative, and the book flew up and struck me: Billy Bones, his chest, the company in the parlour, the whole inner spirit, and a good deal of the material detail of my first chapters — all were there, all were the property of Washington Irving. But I had no guess of it then as I sat writing by the fireside, in what seemed the spring-tides of a somewhat pedestrian inspiration; nor yet day by day, after lunch, as I read aloud my morning’s work to the family. It seemed to me original as sin; it seemed to belong to me like my right eye … Stevenson
Our unconsciousness (…) swarms with strange intruders. Jung
An author may be writing steadily to a preconceived plan, working out an argument or developing the line of a story, when he suddenly runs off at a tangent. Perhaps a fresh idea has occurred to him, or a different image, or a whole new sub-plot. If you ask him what prompted the digression, he will not be able to tell you. He may not even have noticed the change, though he has now produced material that is entirely fresh and apparently unknown to him before. Yet it can sometimes be shown convincingly that what he has written bears a striking similarity to the work of another author — a work that he believes he has never seen. (…) The ability to reach a rich vein of such material [of the unconscious] and to translate it effectively into philosophy, literature, music or scientific discovery is one of the hallmarks of what is commonly called genius. (…) We can find clear proof of this fact in the history of science itself. For example, the French mathematician Poincaré and the chemist Kekulé owed important scientific discoveries (as they themselves admit) to sudden pictorial ‘revelations’ from the unconscious. The so-called ‘mystical’ experience of the French philosopher Descartes involved a similar sudden revelation in which he saw in a flash the ‘order of all sciences.’ The British author Robert Louis Stevenson had spent years looking for a story that would fit his ‘strong sense of man’s double being,’ when the plot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was suddenly revealed to him in a dream. Jung
One of the most disheartening experiences of old age is discovering that a point you just made—so significant, so beautifully expressed—was made by you in something you published long ago. B. F. Skinner
I had bought that book in my youth, skimmed through it, realized that it was exceptionally soiled, and put it somewhere and forgot it. But by a sort of internal camera I had photographed those pages, and for decades the image of those poisonous leaves lay in the most remote part of my soul, as in a grave, until the moment it emerged again (I do not know for what reason) and I believed I had invented it. Umberto Eco
“Though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered.” Hebrews 5:8. Were you ever in a new trouble, one which was so strange that you felt that a similar trial had never happened to you and, moreover, you dreamt that such a temptation had never assailed anybody else? I should not wonder if that was the thought of your troubled heart. And did you ever walk out upon that lonely desert island upon which you were wrecked and say, “I am alone—alone—ALONE—nobody was ever here before me”? And did you suddenly pull up short as you noticed, in the sand, the footprints of a man? I remember right well passing through that experience—and when I looked, lo, it was not merely the footprints of a man that I saw, but I thought I knew whose feet had left those imprints. They were the marks of One who had been crucified, for there was the print of the nails. So I thought to myself, “If He has been here, it is no longer a desert island. As His blessed feet once trod this wilderness-way, it blossoms now like the rose and it becomes to my troubled spirit as a very garden of the Lord!” My objective, in this discourse, will be to try to point out the footprints of Jesus in the sands of sorrow so that others of the children of God may have their hearts lifted up within them while they observe that “though He were a Son, yet learned He,” as well as the rest of us who are in the Lord’s family, “obedience by the things which He suffered.” I ask your attention, first of all, to that which, I doubt not, you would have observed in the text without any help from me, namely, that OUR REDEEMER’S SONSHIP DID NOT EXEMPT HIM FROM SUFFERING. C. H. Spurgeon ( The Education of sons of God, June 10, 1880)
One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there were one set of footprints. This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints. So I said to the Lord, « You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there have only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me? » The Lord replied, « The times when you have seen only one set of footprints, is when I carried you. » Anonymous (« Footprints in the Sand »)
We’ve lost “our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard. Andrew Keen (The Cult of the Amateur, 2007)
In a case of cryptomnesia well known to psychologists, when Wilhelm Fliess first proposed to Freud a theory of initial bisexuality in explaining neuroses, the father of psychoanalysis rejected the idea – only to write approvingly about the concept in the early 1900s. Freud later confessed that, when he hit on the theory, he mistakenly considered it a sound « new » idea, forgetting that it was Fliess’s. Freud even wrote about his inadvertent act in his book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Conrad McCallum
In false recognition people misattribute a feeling of familiarity to a novel event, whereas in cryptomnesia, people misattribute novelty to something that should be familiar. Daniel Schacter
Qui n’a pas un jour ou l’autre croisé une personnalité dans la rue et eu envie de la saluer comme une vieille connaissance?
En ces temps hypermédiatiques où, bombardés en continu par télé, radio, internet ou cinéma, on a souvent l’impression de mieux connaitre les visages de nos vedettes que ceux de nos proches …
Et où, dans les domaines notamment de la musique, se mutliplient les poursuites judiciaires pour plagiat …
Retour, avec The Star, sur l’une des branches les moins connues de la psychologie baptisée cryptomnésie par l’un des fondateurs de l’école psychologique suisse mais aussi, via son disciple Jung, de la psychanalyse Théodore Flournoy …
Qui, à partir de ses recherches sur une médium de son époque, avait repéré la forte incidence dans son psychisme de « souvenirs latents qui ressortent, parfois grandement défigurés par une œuvre subliminale de l’imagination ou du raisonnement, comme cela arrive si souvent dans nos rêves ordinaires » …
Et qui expliqueraient, bien plus fréquents qu’on ne le croit, ces sortes de déjà vu inversés que sont le plagiat ou même l’auto-plagiat involontaire …
MEMORY’S MIND GAMES
September 18, 2007
It’s early yet for the warnings to be considered threats, but they are nonetheless serious: plagiarists will face consequences.
With a new school term now truly underway, students are looking at looming deadlines and those who turn in papers and reports not of their own creation face visits to the dean, suspension and, in some cases, expulsion. Even scarier, perhaps, are studies showing how easy it is to inadvertently steal other’s ideas.
« It’s inherently difficult for people to identify the sources of their ideas, so I think we’re inevitably vulnerable to phenomena such as inadvertent plagiarism, » says Steve Lindsay, a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria.
Psychologist Tobi Lubinsky suspects that while the phenomenon is reviled, it’s also « more common than we’re aware of. »
Many people have committed, or have been victims of, unconscious plagiarism. It’s done unknowingly – that is, until your chanteuse girlfriend says you took her bon mots.It happens when we mistake memories of another person’s notions as new ideas of our own.
Swiss psychologist Theodore Flournoy, a mentor of Carl Jung, dubbed the phenomenon « cryptomnesia » back in 1900, but it’s been the subject of empirical studies for only about the past 15 years.
George Harrison, in his post-Beatles solo career, was at the centre of a landmark plagiarism case. Soon after his song « My Sweet Lord » topped the charts, its similarities to The Chiffons’ hit « He’s So Fine » became obvious, prompting a lengthy copyright battle. In 1976, a U.S. court ruled against Harrison, although it accepted the possibility he had plagiarized unconsciously.
Daniel Schacter, a Harvard-based memory expert, has called cryptomnesia a kind of « mirror image » of phenomena such as false recognition, the cause of eyewitness misidentifications.
In false recognition « people misattribute a feeling of familiarity to a novel event, whereas in cryptomnesia, people misattribute novelty to something that should be familiar, » Schacter wrote in his seminal 2001 book, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers.
Psychologists say the confusion arises because we have to use perceptual and temporal cues to identify sources. Recalling last week’s staff meeting, for example, you recollect that a bad idea came from Lana by virtue of a temporal cue: it came after Beth’s presentation.
Reading is especially prone to memory glitches, because it involves « abstracting away meaning » from concrete cues – things like the colour and position of text – that aren’t very memorable, adds Lindsay, the author of a chapter on source monitoring in a forthcoming textbook, Cognitive Psychology of Memory.
York University’s Lubinsky, who just completed her PhD dissertation on source memory in adults who are at a transition stage between normal aging and Alzheimer’s disease, says people make fewer source memory errors when they have less to remember, and also when told to remember sources.
When it comes to creative problem solving, Piotr Winkielman, a psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego, says, « In order to come up with a creative and novel idea, you have to have articulated elements of the process, and that’s what gives you the sense of authorship, » he explains.
But the feeling can be misplaced. A British study last year found that when someone elaborates on another’s idea, they’re more likely to mistake it for their own idea.
Lindsay says that’s an important finding because it suggests the process that a person uses to follow the argument of someone else « has a lot of overlap with the work that that person would do if they were generating the idea on their own. »
Something similar may have happened to Sigmund Freud. In a case of cryptomnesia well known to psychologists, when Wilhelm Fliess first proposed to Freud a theory of initial bisexuality in explaining neuroses, the father of psychoanalysis rejected the idea – only to write approvingly about the concept in the early 1900s.
Freud later confessed that, when he hit on the theory, he mistakenly considered it a sound « new » idea, forgetting that it was Fliess’s. Freud even wrote about his inadvertent act in his book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.
Another intriguing aspect of the way we stumble onto ideas is the mental and physical effort involved, according to some researchers who see the two as closely related experiences.
Assistant psychology professor Jesse Preston, a Canadian at the Universtiy of Illlinois, recently extended this idea and reasoned brain effort followed by its release could create the impression that a mental task is complete.
She and a colleague tested the theory by having people solve anagrams in pairs as they expended effort on incidental tasks such as squeezing a hand grip, or working harder to read the anagrams when the experimenters displayed them in a difficult-to-read font.
The results, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology last April, showed that increased effort while thinking about a problem – and reduced effort coinciding with a solution – increased plagiarism, with people claiming credit for their partners’ answers more often. In other words, the change in physical effort was akin to having a flash of insight.
How worried should we be? Preston suggests people are « generally pretty good » at identifying which thoughts they authored; cryptomnesia reportedly occurs between 3 to 9 per cent of the time in labstudies.
She’s quick to add, however, that if even five out of every 100 ideas are plagiarized, that’s « still probably too often for your liking if someone else is taking your idea and not giving you credit for it. »
I. The pencil had a life of its own
A few years ago Burrell Webb, a retired landscape artist living in Oregon, discovered that a poem he wrote and never copyrighted had become one of the most widely circulated verses in the English language. He says he composed the lines in 1958, after leaving the navy and being dumped by his girlfriend. “I was stressed, distressed, and single,” he says. “When I received those divine words, I broke up the lines and made a kind of poem out of it.” The finished product, which he published anonymously in a local newspaper—he felt it was God’s work, not his—tells the story of a man who has a dream that he and God are walking along the beach. When the man asks why sometimes there is one set of footprints and other times there are two, the Lord says he has been carrying him through his struggles.
Forty years later, Webb was alarmed when his son informed him that the poem was on napkins, calendars, posters, gift cards, and teacups. Usually “Footprints” was signed “Author Unknown,” but other times the credit was given to Mary Stevenson, Margaret Fishback Powers, or Carolyn Joyce Carty, who have all registered copyrights for the poem. (Registration does not require proof of originality.) The three versions differ mostly in tense, word order, and line breaks. With no way to prove that the work was actually his, Webb paid $400 to take a polygraph test. Now he routinely sends the results (“No deception indicated”) to those who question his claim.
Although several people have suggested to Webb, as consolation, that God gave the idea to multiple authors in order to more efficiently spread His Word, Webb is unsettled by the idea that “the Lord would be the author of confusion.” However the verse came into being, its message has reached all over the world. “Footprints” is the kind of poem we all seem to know without remembering when or where we first saw it. We’ve read it dozens of times, never paying attention. The verse is dislocated from context, so familiar and predictable that the boundary between writing and reading seems to disappear.
Yet the authors who claim to have composed « Footprints » have memories of the precise moment when they dreamed up these lines. Mary Stevenson, a former showgirl and nurse, said she composed the verse in 1936, following the death of her mother and brother. According to Gail Giorgio’s 1995 biography Footprints in the Sand: The Life Story of Mary Stevenson, Author of the Immortal Poem, Stevenson was inspired by a cat’s footprints in the snow and scrawled out twenty lines, as if the « pencil had a life of its own. » She was so pleased with her work that she handed out the poem heedlessly, jotting it down for anyone she met without thinking to sign her name. (Early in the book her father tells her, “Poetry’s nice to read, but essentially it’s just rambling words on a piece of paper.”)
Powers, a Baptist children’s evangelist, was more savvy about licensing the verse—she sold it to HarperCollins Canada in 1993—and she describes “Footprints” as the culmination of a life of religious devotion. In her memoir, Footprints: The True Story behind the Poem That Inspired Millions, she enthusiastically recounts all the tragedies she endured while never losing her belief in the Lord. In the course of 100 pages, she gets struck by lightning, develops spinal meningitis, gets hit by a truck, and has a near-death experience with a bumblebee. Her daughter gets crushed by a motorcycle and later slips down a 68-foot waterfall while her husband, watching, has a heart attack. In the hospital room a nurse pulls out “a little piece I have here in my pocket” and recites “Footprints” to ease the family’s pain. When she casually mentions what a shame it is that no one knows the poem’s author, Powers’ husband croaks from his bed, “It’s my wife.”
Far from dead, Powers currently travels around the world giving sermons about the power of faith. She has licensed the poem to nearly 30 companies, including Hallmark Cards and Lenox Gifts. Her lawyer, John A. Hughes, a self-described atheist, won’t say how much Powers has earned from her publications, except to guess that “Footprints” might be the “best-remunerated poem in history.” When pressed, he compares its success to that of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He has written more than 100 companies, requesting that they replace “Author Unknown” with his client’s name. “I am completely satisfied factually that Margaret is telling the truth,” he says. He acknowledges that “Footprints” is not entirely consistent with Powers’ other poems, which are composed of rhyming couplets, but he’s confident it’s within her range. (To prove that “Footprints” couldn’t be written by Stevenson, he contemplated hiring Donald Foster, the forensic literary analyst who studied the letters of the Unabomber.)
« Footprints » is far less of a stylistic aberration for Powers than it is for Mary Stevenson, who wrote sporadically, or Carolyn Joyce Carty, who struggles with punctuation and spelling. Carty is the most hostile of the contenders and she frequently issues error-ridden cease-and-desist letters to those who post the poem online. (She signs her e-mails “World Renowned Poet.”)
Carty wrote “Footprints” in 1963, when she was six. She says she based the idea on a poem written by her great-great-aunt, a Sunday school teacher. More than 20 years later, she copyrighted the verse as part of an 11-page document of stream-of-consciousness prose (“the gift, who are you, where have you come from, where are you going! I am a writers inkhorn that stands beside the sea”), which concluded with the text of “Footprints.” She declined to be interviewed but characterized her writing style in an e-mail: “I like common denominators in subjects, I always look for the common bond when trying to create a universal message.”
In describing her literary taste, Carty also articulates the intangible draw of “Footprints.” The poem reads as if it were written by consensus. Light, peppy, and moderately Christian, “Footprints” succinctly dramatizes an idea that will never be original: When we think we’re alone, we’re not. God is here. The footprints metaphor is so ubiquitous that perhaps the authors absorbed the message at some point without realizing it, then later sat down and wrote it out again, seeking to appeal to the largest number of people.
II. Do I know you?
In “Cryptomnesia” (1905), a paper about accidental plagiarism, Carl Jung argues that it’s impossible to know for certain which ideas are one’s own. “Our unconsciousness . . . swarms with strange intruders,” he writes. He accuses Nietzsche of unwittingly copying another’s work, and urges all writers to sift through their memories and locate the origin of every idea before putting it to paper: “Ask each thought: Do I know you, or are you new?”
In the realm of Christian poetry, the process of distinguishing which ideas are original is significantly harder—the same body of collective epiphanies has been passed down for years. When artists open themselves up to the inspiration of the Lord, it’s not surprising that sometimes they produce sentences that sound as if they’ve been uttered before. The first line of “Footprints,” which varies slightly among versions, seems to announce the authors’ access to the collective unconscious: “I had a dream,” “One night a man had a dream,” “One night I dreamed a dream.”
One of the earliest articulations of the poem’s premise—the idea that God reveals his presence through marks in the sand—comes from an 1880 sermon by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a noted Baptist preacher.
And did you ever walk out upon that lonely desert island upon which you were wrecked, and say, “I am alone, — alone, — alone, — nobody was ever here before me”? And did you suddenly pull up short as you noticed, in the sand, the footprints of a man? I remember right well passing through that experience; and when I looked, lo! it was not merely the footprints of a man that I saw, but I thought I knew whose feet had left those imprints; they were the marks of One who had been crucified, for there was the print of the nails. So I thought to myself, “If he has been here, it is a desert island no longer.”
Spurgeon’s formulation, more nuanced than the Footprints poem, rehearses the same fear of being “alone, — alone, —alone,” and then happily resolves it.
In other uses of the metaphor, the footprints image speaks to man’s omnipresence, not God’s. This seemingly banal metaphor has become a truism in secular writing as well. In an 1894 essay about composing his first book, Robert Louis Stevenson (whom Mary Stevenson, coincidentally, claims as a relative, and whom Carty cites as an influence) refers to footprints in the sand when acknowledging how hard it is to avoid borrowing from previously published work. After admitting adopting characters from Washington Irving (“But I had no guess of it then as I sat writing by the fireside”), as well as “trifles and details” from Daniel Defoe and Edgar Allan Poe, he invokes the footprints image. It’s as if he already associates the phrase with authorial confusion:
I am now upon a painful chapter. No doubt the parrot once belonged to Robinson Crusoe. No doubt the skeleton is conveyed from Poe. . . . These useful writers had fulfilled the poet’s saying: departing, they had left behind them Footprints on the sands of time, Footprints which perhaps another—and I was the other!
The “poet’s saying,” which Stevenson refers to, is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”: “Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime, / And, departing, leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time.” It’s fitting that in defending himself against plagiarism, Stevenson deploys a quote that has spawned so many interpretations. “Footprints on the sands of time” is a perfect image for cliché: terrain trod over and retraced, flattened with overuse.
But those claiming to have written “Footprints” argue that the image came to them as suddenly and surprisingly as a new gift. Burrell Webb rejects the notion that he somehow inherited an existing metaphor. It’s far more likely, he says, that people are trying to profit from his work. “I’ve never heard of the fellow [Spurgeon], so he couldn’t have possibly inspired me,” Webb says. “That allegorical poem was strictly a prayer relationship with myself and the Lord when I was feeling bad and crying for help and whining a little bit, which everybody goes through.”
Although nearly all of these authors claim they wrote the poem in longhand, dictated by God, the controversy didn’t surface until everyone began putting their versions online. There are hundreds of “Footprints”-inspired Web sites. One has a soundtrack of waves lapping against the shore; another features lines of the poem jiggling to the beat of Christmas songs. In Andrew Keen’s 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur, he writes that the Internet has induced a state of communal amnesia; we’ve lost “our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard.” Perhaps the « Footprints » writers are living a version of this peculiar situation. There’s not only an abundance of amateur authors, but they’ve all written the exact same thing.
Along with Webb, Carty, Stevenson, and Powers, at least a dozen other people have claimed, less rigorously, to have penned this poem. None of their accounts are particularly convincing, yet they all seem to genuinely believe they wrote the poem. They describe the words coming out effortlessly, even uncontrollably, as if they were finally articulating something they’d always known.
Originally Published: March 19, 2008