“G.K. Chesterton, in his own warning against plagiarism surveillance, wrote that ‘to see the similarities, without seeing the differences, seems … a dangerous game.’ It leads, he thinks, to mad obsessions with notions like the one that has Bacon writing Shakespeare. All this seems so reasonable that one is likely to forget that plagiarism sometimes DOES happen and that, in any case, no one has been talking about suspicious similarities; the subject is irrefutable identities” (Thomas Mallon, Stolen Words, p. 119; emphasis Mallon’s, italics in original–CD).
Mallon does not footnote Chesterton but he does quote him (good to note given the title of Mallon’s book). To call a mere similarity “suspicious” is itself a bit suspicious. Why even call a similarity “suspicious” if you cannot prove the “irrefutable identity” (i.e., the plagiarism)? Anyway, Mallon’s Chesterton quote prompted a google-book-search in me for the additional context of Chesterton’s quote.
“I have a deep and hearty hatred for literary parallels; especially when they have a suggestion of literary plagiarisms. I object to the parallels on many grounds; but, among others, on the ground that they are never parallel. Or, if we may (with all respectful allowance for Mr. Einstein) put the matter as a mathematical paradox, we might say that the two lines of thought are indeed parallel because they never manage to meet. In almost all the cases I come across, the resemblance between one passage and another, suggested by the ingenious critic, is really not a resemblance at all, let alone an artificial or unusual or suspicious resemblance. There is no reason why two independent poets should not think of the same image or idea quite independently. … When I say I do not like poetical parallels, I do not mean that I dislike poetical comparisons. Some critical profit might be gained by comparing Keats and Horace, and noting the differences between their two ways of dealing with superficially similar ideas. But to see the similarities, without seeing the differences, seems to me a dangerous game.
It is especially dangerous, because behind that covert of coincidence there crouches that monster, the Baconian. By the Baconian I do not merely mean a man who thinks Bacon wrote Shakespeare, as some quite intelligent men have thought. I mean the sort of man who goes mad on Bacon and uses the mad arguments that many Baconians have used. I mean the man who searches Bacon’s essays for some mention of the sun in connection with the moon; and then searches Shakespeare’s Plays, triumphantly producing an allusion to the moon in actual conjunction with the sun. I mean the man who will not let Shakespeare call roses red or lilies white, without pouncing on the fact that somebody else had made the same botanical discovery. I mean the man who is proud of the quantity of his parallel quotations, and apparently indifferent to their quality.
In short, I object not only to the loss of proportion but of that general sense of probability which is so considerable a part of sanity. We have to consider not only what is improbably, but what is probable; and especially the coincidences that are overwhelmingly probable. And when I see these things neglected by a good writer in a good review, I venture to raise a mild protest” (G.K. Chesterton, Finding Influences In Poetry).