We live in an age of reproduction. I’m sure some thinky guy somewhere made that point, probably while wearing a beret. I could just make the point myself and pretend that it was my idea. Or I could Google and find out that it was Max Frisch.
I needed to get the link to this blog for someone and so I googled for it, and what should I find but a group of Welsh people on Youtube doing exactly the same thing that this blog sets out to do – testing proverbs by experiment – under almost exactly the same title. This blog is titled ‘Proverbial experiments’ and their Youtube thing is called ‘The Proverbial Experiment’.
I was somewhat taken aback. I mean, the Universe is vast and there is plenty of room for coincidence, for people to have the same idea independently, but there is also the possibility that someone read my blog and thought it was a good idea and decided to do it themselves. I was certainly doing this a year before them – their first post is in Oct 2010. A month after my testing of ‘it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness‘.
And then it struck me, that here was an opportunity to test a proverb!
‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’.
So, I watch these Welsh students/comedy actors test the proverb ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’. A man who looks like Shaggy from Scooby Doo and a podgy man with glasses go awkwardly into a cupboard, where they blow out a candle. The podgier one swears. They conclude that the proverb is incorrect.
This is the same conclusion I reached when I tested the same proverb.
It could be a coincidence, but for the purposes of our experiment let us assume that they are copying me.
Having been imitated, do I feel flattered?
Well. No, not really.
Any joke one has heard before is stale, and can only elicit polite laughter at best, but one that you have made yourself that is told back to you is even staler.
I think my version of the experiment is better (well, I would, wouldn’t I?), it is at least more original, seeing as I did it first.
Initially, I feel annoyed at these people – if they are copying me and have not given me credit – then I feel embarrassed, sorry for them.
Then nobler sentiments flit through my being. Ideas are easily spread and shared in the modern age and if I did spark in them the fire of inspiration then that is a good thing. I can consider myself the brain to their shambling Frankenstein’s monster, the spark of inspiration to their mindless lumbering body, a body stitched together from pieces of stolen corpses.
Then I feel hungry and decide to go and get some breakfast.
Do famous people feel flattered by their lookalikes? I can’t imagine that Bryan Ferry is particularly by this chap and I daresay these chaps add to the reasons why Tony Blair finds it difficult to get to sleep at night.
I can’t imagine that either Dolce or Gabana are flattered by the fake handbags that adorn rickety markets the world over, stitched together in sweatshops by the tiny hands of Vietnamese children. I imagine that this imitation makes Dolce quite angry, and Gabana has to have a lie down on the sofa.
Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. Sincere flattery is the sincerest form of flattery.
When I first started doing this blog, in June 2009, it was as an entry to a competition to write for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency as a columnist.
I did not win, but I received an email from the managing editor telling me that I was a finalist and that: “in a world with more time/space/money, we would have been happy to host your writing on our site. I wanted to tell you this because I’m hoping you’ll take this as the encouragement your work deserves and that you’ll keep sending your writing into the world.”
I know that this is essentially a delicately worded rejection, but still it was flattering enough to provide me with the confidence to persevere.
I conclude that this proverb is not true. Flattery is encouraging, but imitation is disheartening, this is the essential difference I think.
About the proverb
The internet tells me that this proverb dates from the beginning of the 19th century, but that there were similar phrases in existence beforehand.
A forum on the site phrases.org.uk provides this helpful citation:
Usually said ironically when someone tries to gain attention by copying someone else’s original ideas. Coined by Charles Caleb Colton in 1820 in his ‘Lacon.’ First attested in the United States in ‘Malice’ by E. Cameron. The adage is found in varying forms.” From “Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings” by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996)