While presenting at The Emmys Monday night Woody Harrelson made a plagiarism joke about Matthew McConaughey’s True Detective lines. Was True Detective really plagiarized?

Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective hooked HBO viewers earlier this year with superb acting and breathtaking cinematography, but the antinatalist and pessimistic lines voiced by Matthew McCounaughey’s Rust Cohle really made the whole thing sing. Whether he was the young, brooding detective with slick blond hair, or the green, scraggily haired alcoholic playing with beer cans under fluorescent lights, every time Cohle opened his mouth it was a fount of poetic, philosophical, and sinister despair.


Earlier this month, though, allegations were made that Pizzolatto took many of these lines, these lines that we all fell in love with, from the work of one of his biggest influences for the series: horror and “weird” literature writer Thomas Ligotti.

These allegations did not come from Ligotti himself, but from Mike Davis of and Jon Padgett, who runs the fan site Thomas Ligotti Online. They present a number of Cohle’s lines that seem to heavily borrow from Ligotti’s philosophical treatise The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Now, this list is not of completely word-for-word lifts, but there are several turns of phrase that are definitely similar. What can’t be denied, and what Pizzolatto has himself said, is that much of Cohle’s worldview, and even many of his word choices, are heavily inspired by Thomas Ligotti.

Ligotti himself has noted that his work is heavily informed by the ideas of others. “It’s a synthesis of ideas I’ve formed over my life and of other people’s ideas that rhyme with mine,” Ligotti has said about The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. The cycle of creativity churns on and on. Any creation is influenced by the works and the ideas of others. We encounter ideas, churn them up with the bits and parts already rattling in our brains, make connections, and can shape them into something similar, but new. Often what makes narratives and art intriguing are their conversations with other works, and that has certainly been the case with True Detective. The audience of True Detective got so riled up with looking for literary references that we all turned in paranoid sleuths scribbling clues and searching for obscure connections. The payoff with the end of True Detective was in no was as exciting or fulfilling as most of its fans had envisioned after working themselves up into such a frenzy, but the process itself was exhilarating.

Shot from the show that also captures what was going on in every fan's mind

Shot from the show that also captures what was going on in every fan’s mind

Pizzolatto acknowledged reading Ligotti’s CATHR and being influenced by it in early interviews with a blog called the Arkham Digest and the Wall Street Journal. “I read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race and found it incredibly powerful writing,” Pizzolatto told the WSJ‘s Michael Calia. “In episode one, there are two lines in particular (and it would have been nothing to re-word them) that were specifically phrased in such a way as to signal Ligotti admirers. Which, of course, you got.”

In his statement addressing the plagiarism allegations Pizzolatto attributes the words of Rust Cohle to Rust Cohle, a fictional character. This seems strange, but it does give a nod to the fact that the character of Cohle gets his beliefs, ideas, and how he talks about them, from things he has read and heard from others. It’s impossible to cite the origin of every thought, and that becomes and exponentially monumental task when you cite who influenced who influenced you. Art, music, fiction, even our everyday thoughts, are rife with recycled ideas. It’s how we operate.

“Nothing in the television show True Detective was plagiarized,” Nic Pizzolatto said in response to these recent allegations. “The philosophical thoughts expressed by Rust Cohle do not represent any thought or idea unique to any one author; rather these are the philosophical tenets of a pessimistic, anti-natalist philosophy with an historic tradition including Arthur Schopenauer, Friedrich Nietzche, E.M. Cioran, and various other philosophers, all of whom express these ideas. As an autodidact pessimist, Cohle speaks toward that philosophy with erudition and in his own words. The ideas within this philosophy are certainly not exclusive to any writer.”

“Exploring and engaging with ideas and themes that philosophers and novelists have wrestled with over time is one of the show’s many strengths — we stand by the show, its writing and Nic Pizzolatto entirely,” HBO said in a supporting statement.

Bob Dylan has been accused of plagiarism for using lines of poetry without citing the original creator in the liner notes, and just this June, a team of true Bob Dylan detectives found over 1,000 unattributed direct quotes in his memoir Chronicles: Vol. 1. We’re talking about whole passages here, not the odd word or phrase. His spine-chillingly eloquent description of Johnny Cash is copied and pasted directly from Jack London’s “The Son of the Wolf.” Although Dylan has not made a comment about these recent findings, his previous response to allegations of plagiarism in his songs was more that abrasive than Nic Pizzolatto’s statement. The singer told Rolling Stone in 2012 that only “Wussies and p*ssies complain about that stuff.”

While Dylan’s use of the words of others is far more obvious and direct that Pizzolatto’s, Havard scholar Richard Thomas argues that Dylan’s literature collage isn’t even plagairism. “Whether it’s Timrod or Ovid or Twain, literature is letting the prior context be transmuted into something completely new,” he explained to the Daily Beast. “If you’re dumb enough to believe this is like a student plagiarizing a paper in school, that’s your own problem.”

A hard positive effect of the True Detective plagiarism drama is that Thomas Ligotti has gotten even more buzz than earlier this year when the first connections were made between Ligotti and Rust Cohle’s philosophy and lyrical rants. It’s obvious just from reading this recent interview that the man is an engaging and bewitching writer. I’m looking forward to reading one of his short story collections.

I personally feel a bit weird about lifting the lines of others. On Twitter I cite who I directly quote, and get my feathers ruffled and also feel a little complimented when people ask for the source of some my original tweets. The tweets that I don’t attribute are coming from my brain, usually from some burst of inspiration, though my brain is indeed haunted by the thoughts and words of others, and every inspiration is sparked by wildfires I did not ignite. But when a stray spark sets my kindling ablaze, it’s my own particular fire for a moment. It would honestly hurt to see a unique string of words that came out of me somewhere else unattributed, or worse, attributed to someone else. Someone made a joke meme putting my words on a photo of Drake, who is possibly more misquoted than Marilyn Monroe these days, which I found both hilarious and disconcerting.

I’m not sure I wouldn’t feel a bit flattered, though, if I heard one of my lines in a new Bob Dylan song. Just thinking about the possibility of that is my ego flattering itself, and raises bigger questions about the self and identity than I could ever tackle.

Maybe Voltaire put it best:

“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbor’s, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.”

? Voltaire

  • Lindaura Glamoura

    The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers is the biggest reference point in the True Detective series. For those in the know, this ancient classic was about an ancient classic that drove everyone who read it into a homicidal rage. At least the first half of the book is like this. The second half is rather prosaic, but the the first part is a series of vignettes illustrating what happens when someone finds a copy of the infamous (and fictional) novel, The King in Yellow. The True Detective uses all the weirdness, names and characters from Chambers’ novel. I don’t think this constitutes plagiarism either, but it made for interesting referencing for those who had not gone mad yet after reading The King in Yellow.

    • lynncinnamon

      This is widely discussed by when True Detective aired. I was one of those people feverishly reading about the King in Yellow and all the references made to it in literature. The legend about people who’ve read the fictional play going mad is a delightfully sinister concept, and so is the land of Carcosa. What’s interesting about the King in Yellow, though, is that Ligotti references it in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, so that may be where Pizzolatto got turned onto it, not that this really matters.