Obviously, new electronic technologies pose challenges to the habitual ways we think about culture—about its production, its transmission, its reproduction, its reception. As obviously, the transformations of the cultural object in today’s trans-national and informational society will be leading to a whole slew of studies on the nature of intellectual property and, more specifically, on the pertinence of the concept of authorship in modernity.
Although Françoise Meltzer, in Hot Property: the Stakes and Claims of Literary Originality, does make passing reference to the possible destinies of authorship in the current postmodernized moment, her way of approaching the theoretical issues around cultural property and originality derives more from a look at past cases, rather than present ones. Adopting explicitly what she terms an “inductive” method, her study, after a very short (7 page) theoretical introduction, is devoted to a series of case-studies in which literary originality is challenged in a variety of fashions.
The first chapter, “Freud and Descartes: Dreaming On,” interweaves readings of Descartes and Freud on dreaming. Meltzer argues here that Freud, even as he argued in theory for a concept of the unconscious that would dislodge the ego’s creative control and potential for transparent authorship, so feared his own loss of control and especially his own loss of scientific originality that he could not come to grips with the anteriority of Descartes. Relegating Descartes to the status of mere philosopher (rather than scientist), Freud evinced an anxiety of influence [End Page 911] that manifested itself as an inability to engage with Descartes and especially to direct against this prior figure the same intensity of dream-interpretation brought to bear on less challenging contemporary figures.
The second chapter, “Paul Celan and the Death of the Book,” centers on plagiarism charges that were brought against Celan and added to the list of pressures that pushed him deeper into inescapable depression. In the ways that she had referred, in her introduction, to her interpretive efforts as exercises in “symptomology,” Meltzer reads the anecdote of plagiarism accusation as a means of opening specific biographical events up to larger theoretical issues. In this particular case, the charge that Celan’s writings are not authentic—are not his property—connect up to the broader question for the post-Holocaust poet of the very possibility (or not) for writing to find a home, for creativity to have a justifiable place.
Chapter Three, “Disappropriating Colette,” moves Hot Property more directly into engagement with gender issues. Here, with a richness of detail, Meltzer passes under blistering review the diversity of means by which Colette’s husband, “Willy,” controlled both her writing and her life, while taking credit for himself. Even as he does little that is artistically creative, Willy creates a vast machinery for literary production, a machinery in which his wife is obliged to be one of the ever-turning, ever-churning cogs.
Chapter Four, “Walter Benjamin and the Right to Acedia,” chronicles charges of indolent flanerie leveled against the German critic (even by supposed fans or friends such as Hannah Arendt or Theodor Adorno). For Meltzer, such accusations complement the sentiment in many writers on Benjamin that his career, insofar as it didn’t follow regular channels (for example, successful entry into the world of academia), is not original, not proper, not correctly authorial.
Especially in the chapter on Colette (where much of the fascination comes from the sheer extremity of Willy’s controls of his wife’s career and writing practice), Meltzer’s diverse case-studies are rich in fascinating detail and anecdote. Too rich, too fascinating, perhaps, for the wealth of intriguing information in Hot Property tends to submerge the overall intent of the analysis and render Meltzer’s overall points unclear. Frequently, one senses that there is a theoretical lesson to be drawn from this or that anecdote—and frequently one can even sense what [End Page 912] the lesson is—but too often one has to work hard to get the point of so many captivating tales...