Christina Patterson: We are all following the gospel of recyling

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In a wonderful short story, first published in 1939, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges introduced the work of a minor French writer called Pierre Menard. In an extended passage of literary criticism, he contrasts the contemporary prose of Menard with that of Cervantes. While Cervantes, he says, indulges in "mere rhetorical praise of history," Menard's work, much "richer in illusion", explores ideas, about history and truth, which are "staggering". The texts he is comparing are, by the way, identical. The (fictional) Pierre Menard has sat down with Don Quixote and copied every word.

Whatever else is said in the General Medical Council's disciplinary panel in Manchester this week, it's a fair bet that Raj Persaud will not be praised for the "staggering" originality of his ideas. He may be praised for his consistency, in excuses he has offered for allegedly producing work that bears a Menard-like resemblance to the published work of others (excuses ranging from "cut-and-paste" computer errors to variations on "the dog ate my homework", involving sub-editors). He may be praised for his energy, and he may be praised for his drive. And on these counts, the praise would be entirely justified.

In The Motivated Mind, the book he published before the one on "How to Catch and Keep your Perfect Partner", he describes the habits he pursued in studying for his degree. He was, he says, "the first to arrive in the library each day and the last to leave", so that "eventually the librarian would consult me if she couldn't find something". After gaining his degree ("First Class Honours" he tells us three times in three pages), he pursued his other goals – clinical psychiatrist, media rent-a-gob – with similar dogged determination. Motivation, he explains "is clearly a psychological conundrum because on the one hand it is what takes us to the pinnacle of success, but on the other it plunges us into the abyss of hopelessness when we encounter setbacks."

Poor Raj Persaud. If not exactly in an "abyss of hopelessness", he can hardly be feeling cheerful as he awaits the verdict of the GMC panel this week. All that work. All those hours in the library. All that sheer, exhausting, self-promoting grind. All, possibly, thrown away – and for something that everyone else does all the time. Don't they?

Well, students certainly do, according to Professor Geoffrey Alderman, who yesterday warned that "league table culture" at universities had led to an explosion in plagiarism that was being ignored by the authorities. And journalists, it has to be said, do rely rather heavily on the ideas of other newspapers, and on the Cervantes of our day, Miguel de Google. Indeed, if the author of Ecclesiastes, writing more than 2,000 years ago, sometimes felt that there was "nothing new under the sun", he should try morning conference on a daily newspaper. By the time you've had your shower with John Humphrys, and your breakfast with all the papers, and your coffee with the newslists, a sense of world-weariness kicks in – to the point when each new day is merely a hook on which to hang your latest thoughts on David Davis or Wayne Rooney.

Politicians preach the gospel of recyling, but they really needn't worry. Today, we recycle everything. Our thoughts. Our words. Our clothes (skinny, wide, long, short, new black, new brown) but not for free, of course. In the age of information overload, we have, it seems, no choice, but to make our money out of really rather frayed old rope. It's called postmodernism. It's called entertainment. It's called exhaustion. It's probably best, however, not to call it original research.

Not just a pretty face (or two)

War criminals, like Dove models, come in all shapes and sizes, but a surprising number of them are big, burly white men with mean-looking eyes and steel-rimmed glasses. It has, of course, been pretty obvious for a while that Donald Dick, as one might term the two-headed mastermind of the American invasion of Iraq, follows in some pretty nasty footsteps.

With the publication of a new book, by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris, however, the case for the prosecution becomes even clearer. Standard Operating Procedure: Inside Abu Ghraib tells the stories of the young soldiers who took, and appeared in, the snapshots of orchestrated humiliation that shocked the world. Bad apples? Yes, and Donald Dick's a banana.

* It's hard to know whether to rejoice or despair. Every day seems to bring more postcards from the edge of the sexual frontline, offering further evidence that the design differences between men and women are so profound that we might as well give up the whole exhausting, soul-destroying struggle to get on and ape female chimpanzees in dropping the communication lark for a never-ending orgy of wild, promiscuous (and sneakily silent) sex. The latest ammunition, from the Stockholm Brain Institute, is brain scans indicating that gay men and straight women have symmetrical brains, while lesbians and straight men have right hemispheres significantly larger than the left. Where does this lead us? I have no idea. Except that those of us with a large number of gay male friends might feel vindicated that we do, indeed, have things in common beyond a preoccupation with clothes and shoes. And we can surely all agree that the pictures – blue lagoons, floating next to golden swirls, intensifying into a lovely terracotta – are very pretty indeed.