“You’re police, are you not? Or FBI?”
“FBI, CIA, ONI … – We’re all in the same alphabet soup.”

From: Hitchcock’s North by North-West


Watching the make-over of the film The Thomas Crown Affair, this time with Pierce Brosnan as the millionaire, I was completely bowled over by the great scene at the end in which a little army of men dressed in the same manner and all wearing black bowler hats confuse the police who is after him. Also Brosnan’s lover, Rene Russo, who supports the hunt.
A little before this scene, we already saw Magritte’s famous picture, thus the hint was obvious.



This means that the great escape trick in Inside Man, shot in 2006, borrows its theme from this second version of the Thomas Crown Affair. Though not with hats, this time both victims and burglars are dressed up in the same outfit and also succeed in confusing the cops.

But went the copy-cat filming like this? No – both movies may well have plagiarized Hitchcock’s masterpiece from 1959. In North by Northwest, a spy thriller, Eva Marie Saint seduces Cary Grant into wearing a luggage carrier’s outfit plus, in this case, a red cap. Again, all ends in total confusion with an army of these brave boys all looking alike inside the great hall of a railway station. One, should by the way, listen carefully to the music in this film, magnificent stuff by composer Bernhard Hermann!

In our toilet cabinet hangs a cartoon by Stefan Verwey. Someone relieving himself perceives a man behind a pulpit on a podium, confronting a large audience. A banner above him announces:


My dictionary of ‘foreign words’ that occur in my own tongue, translates ‘plagiarism’ into the gorgeous word letterdieverij – letter-thieving, itself a rather strange word.

Plagiarism stems from the Latin plagiarius which means kidnapper, which in turn derives from the Greek plagios meaning underhanded or crooked. Letter-thieving never seemed to be an altogether right name for what it is all about. The sin of plagiarism – i.e. the Modern sin, as in Postmodernity anything goes – is indeed not to steal merely a few of someone else’s ‘letters’, but an entire text or at least a large part of it. As if it was yours.

Now, having come to the last page of my American edition of Márquez’ Memories of my Melancholy Whores, I must change my mind. Before arriving there I reread the passage on the first page where the brothel madam Rosa Cabarcas is quoted. She should know: “Morality also is a question of time, she said with a wicked smile, you’ll see for yourself soon enough.” So right she is.

In my twilight years as a philosophy professor, plagiarism already transcended the meager level of all the many centuries before. In a very short time ‘mental theft’, as Michel Foucault called it, has achieved great heights in often very low level theses written by a new breed of students. They consider plagiarism normal and morally not all that bad, after all it is efficient. Lately, professors have been doing the same thing, sometimes on a grand larceny scale.

However the battle goes on. Tap a word in on a comprehensive scanner and the teacher receives at his disposal samples of texts from which a student’s paper may be stolen. A pretty good system, since this new plagiarism far exceeds simple letter-thieving.

Old fashioned intellectual that I am, it seems to me that we are becoming down hill racers. The delicate screen between the private and the public, and for that matter between quoting and stealing, has been torn. One may oppose property, especially its capitalist forms, this however is not a good reason for denying an author his moral right of possessing the title to his own texts and simply quoting his name.

Now, the last page of Márquez’ book explains the printing characters used therein. It is called the ‘Janson letter’. This is a very good tradition among the best American publishing houses such as ‘Knopf’ and ‘Farrar, Straus and Giroux’. They offer us both their own US writers as well as translated authors in beautiful editions, brilliantly printed on nice paper, with fonts that sweeten the reading.

So, indeed, letter-thieving is literally possible! For a long time, this ‘Janson’ was attributed to a Dutch printer with the name Anton Janson and, like a newly explored star, named after its discoverer. Not all that long ago they found that already in the second half of the 17th century the Hungarian Nicholas Kis had actually created what, alas, will remain to be known as the ‘Janson’.

It can’t be true, letter-thieving by one of us Dutchies, these guys that also invented the word ‘letter-thieving’! Janson must have said to himself: ‘Good trade, what!’ and pinched it. We must however not exclude the possibility that the font got its name without him knowing this…

Unfortunately, that letter type is not included in the series of fonts that Microsoft provides us with. Otherwise this little essay would have been put before your eyes in the ‘Janson’, in the ‘Kish’ that is, and not in my otherwise favorite ‘Tahoma’. This ‘Tahoma’, by the way, is also killed by its electronic translation onto this blog. I have no idea what WordPress is using.

And also by the way: A public reading of some one else’s letters would go far too far.

Sierksma, 2.12/2010 Haarlem


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats. The reader, interested in my writings on aesthetics, literature, and sociology, may want to open, where various pieces are published.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s