No, ‘True Detective’ Didn’t Plagiarize Thomas Ligotti, Hume, Schopenhauer, or Anyone Else

It seems barely a week can go by any more without a plagiarism scandal — last week it was BuzzFeed’s resident conservative viral politics editor getting fired for lifting from Yahoo! Answers, and this week it’s True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto being accused of stealing ideas and dialogue from horror writer Thomas Ligotti’s 2010 philosophical tract The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Much as it’s great fun for everyone on the Internet to point out instances where the two works seem to coincide, though, they’re barking up the wrong (dead, skeletal) tree here.

There was a similar controversy, such as it was, over Rust Cohle’s speech in the True Detective finale, which was similar to the work of another of Pizzolatto’s professed influences, the British graphic novelist’s Alan Moore. But c’mon, Pizzolatto is hardly the first writer to allude to the work of other writers in his own work. Intertextuality isn’t exactly a revolutionary concept — if anything, Pizzolatto could have been less disingenuous about his influences, but calling this “plagiarism” is overdoing it. As Flavorwire alumna Michelle Dean pointed out yesterday, “While I wouldn’t call this plagiarism, it’s a little too cute for Pizzolatto to say, ex post facto, ‘Oh, I was influenced.’ … It’s more a case of not-great behavior than anything else.”

It is, although in fairness to Pizzolatto, he mentioned Ligotti as an influence during the show’s run, so it’s not like he actively tried to hide the fact that his character was inspired by the writer. And in any case, the ideas he’s exploring didn’t start and end with the man he’s accused of plagiarizing. Here are two of the passages cited as evidence for Pizzolatto’s alleged theft of Ligotti’s ideas:

“We are things that labor under the illusion of having a ‘self’…each of us programmed with total assurance that we’re each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.” — Rust Cohle, 2014

“And the worst possible thing we could know — worse than knowing of our descent from a mass of microorganisms — is that we are nobodies not somebodies, puppets not people.” — Thomas Ligotti, 2011

And here are two more for your consideration:

“I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. ” — David Hume, 1739

“If a bodhisattva still clings to the illusions of form or phenomena such as an ego, a personality, a self, a separate person, or a universal self existing eternally, then that person is not a bodhisattva.” — The Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (or, as it’s better known, the Diamond Sutra), 868

The idea of self as illusion isn’t exactly a new one, is what I’m saying. It’s been a staple of Eastern philosophy for millennia (and, indeed, Ligotti himself quotes the Dhammapada in the introduction to his book.) At least a thousand years — perhaps as many as two thousand years — before the Buddhist sutras, the Aitareya Upanishad was discussing the idea of self as an aspect of a universal consciousness: “Is Self the mind by which we perceive, direct, understand, know, remember, think, will, desire, and love? These are but servants of the Self, who is pure consciousness. This Self is in all.” Or, as Rust Cohle might say, everybody is nobody.

Here’s the thing, though: once you accept the self as illusory, you can also conclude that ideas of morality are illusory and meaningless, and from there it’s a pretty quick descent into full-blown nihilism. (Indeed, Buddhism deals with this idea explicitly, perhaps because it was propounded by one Ajita Kesakambalin, a sort of subcontinental proto-Ayn Rand who was also a contemporary of the Buddha — the idea was called natthikavāda, and the Buddha went out of his way to reject it.)

I’ve not read Ligotti’s book, but from what I’ve read about it, it sounds like a rather bleak take on the implications of an illusory self and of the arbitrariness of morality. So, coincidentally enough, do the ideas of Pizzolatto’s character, who delights in arguing that, essentially, everything is terrible: “Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight — brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”

But again, this isn’t something new to Ligotti — Arthur Schopenhauer was arguing 200 years ago that the suffering brought by existence outweighs its pleasures, and that, “If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?” Are we gonna accuse Pizzolatto (and, indeed, Ligotti) of plagiarizing Schopenhauer, then? No, of course not. Interrogating and refining the ideas of those who have gone before is fundamental to philosophy, art, science and pretty much any other human endeavor.

It’s the same for Rust Cohle — the entire narrative arc of Cohle’s character traces his growth as a thinker. A great deal of Cohle’s inner conflict is played out between the polarities discussed above: on the one hand, the bitter, wounded part of him that argues that nothing matters, and on the other, the part of him with a deep sense of morality and a desire to bring down the Yellow King and his minions. He starts the series sounding like the guy in first-year philosophy who’s already read Nietzsche and Camus and thinks he knows everything — which, presumably, was the point, given that the end of the series brings a mellowing of his nihilism into a more optimistic brand of world-weary existentialism.

If anything, I’d suggest that Cohle represents a character working through the deep pessimism of Ligotti’s world view and coming out the other side. Creating a character to embody a view of the world that you want to explore is, again, something that writers have been doing for years. The protagonist of Albert Camus’ The Stranger is an excellent example. The difference, perhaps, is that Cohle exists as an avatar of someone else’s ideas, but again, this isn’t unprecedented. The protagonist of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra spends a lot of his time gleefully dismantling the work of other philosophers, and no one in their right mind would accuse Nietzsche of plagiarizing them (or, indeed, of lifting his narrator from Zoroastrianism).

It’s a bit rich, anyway, to accuse Pizzolatto of having lifted these ideas from something written three years before — no matter how strongly he may have been influenced by it — when the ideas in question have been part of the global philosophical conversation for millennia. The Internet is always up for a good scandal, of course, but move along, people. There’s nothing to see here except Schopenhauer looking miffed. (As usual.)