Not long ago I searched online for a free PDF copy of The Theatre and its Double by Antonin Artaud. My motivation was curiosity. For years I’d looked out for a physical copy in the theatre and film section of an enormous secondhand bookshop that I’m lucky enough to live within commuting distance of, but to no avail. The UK-centrism was always apparent. There were regular appearances by Gielgud, Tynan, Shakespeare etc. etc. – you get the scene. But this collection of essays by one of the 20th century’s most influential European dramatists eluded me for over 10 years.
So the thought occurred to me that there might be a free copy to peruse online. Sure enough, there it was, cover and all. Pretty soon I found myself testing the relative merits of browsing it with both iBooks and Kindle apps. Then the guilt set in. How come this rip-off hadn’t been found by the publisher and been taken down after legal threats? And most importantly, what justification could I muster for downloading it? One justification might be that I was simply putting into practice the communism that Artaud himself might have approved of, given his attacks on the distinctions between performers and audiences. Another might be that I’m not as well-off as those who rake in all those royalties from publishing. There were probably more ways that I justified the download to myself. Yet my justifications left me with the inescapable feeling that I was doing something wrong: why get into them were this not so?
And then, sure enough, after all those years of looking out for a secondhand copy, along one came a few days after my download. The timing seemed ironic. So much so that after wrestling with justifications, I found myself wrestling with whether I should bother with the long-awaited secondhand copy at all when there was a free and searchable copy at home. So I put it back on the shelf. Then I took it off again. Then put it back on again. Then I finally took the damn thing. If buying this book was going to be about justification, then it would be about justifying all those browses for it over all those years. I was damned if I wasn’t going to make my copy a patiently found one just because someone put the sodding thing up on the web for free. Besides – all that vacillating was making me look like a shoplifter.
And yet the moral questions didn’t end. The next consideration was, and still is, why I should remove the digital copy from my iPad when I’ve got a legitimate copy? And then, on top of this, there’s the twist. Has buying a secondhand copy denied a small publisher that much needed income that a new copy would have furnished?
I thought that finally finding a copy would be a very different experience. The only way to shake off the despoiling influence of that download was to sit down and start reading the thing it imitates in every respect except a capacity to hold personal significance.