Forgers and Critics
in Philosophy and Literature 15 (1991) 182-188
If any law holds for all forgery, claims Anthony Grafton in Forgers and Critics (Princeton University Press, $14.95), it is quite simply that any forger, however deft, imprints the pattern and texture of his own periods life, thought, and language on the past he hopes to make seem real and vivid. The same details with which the forger hopes to impress his contemporaries will eventually make his trickery stand out in bold relief....Nothing becomes obsolete like a period vision of an older period. A notorious instance, not mentioned by Grafton, is the Garboesque heads of van Meegerens Vermeers, but many of us will have had our first conscious experience of the period vision of an older period at the movies, and I like Graftons example: Hearing a mother in a historical movie of the 1940s call out Ludwig! Ludwig van Beethoven! Come in and practice your piano now! we are jerked from our suspension of disbelief by what was intended as a means of reinforcing it, and plunged directly into the American bourgeois world of the filmmaker. Forgery illustrates the same principle continually and beautifully.
Forgers and Critics examines fraudulent creation and delusive reception as part of its general overview of literary forgery, but Graftons point is less to illustrate the absurdities of forgery than to show how modern criticism grows naturally from the attempts of early scholars to sort authentic from spurious texts. Names such as Scaliger and Erasmus figure in the discussion, as well as more obscure scholars and fakers such as Isaac Casaubon, Giovanni Nanni, and J.B. Mencke. Im certain students of advanced fields of contemporary scholarship will be eager to read Menckes On the Charlatanry of the Learned (Leipzig, 1715). The frontispiece of an early edition of this book seems to show an eighteenth-century meeting of the MLA.
Forgery certainly has charms to fool the learned ass, and Anthony Grafton has given us an adroit account of literary chicanery. Toward the end of the book, Grafton tells of an early history of Friesland that had three Indians with names like household detergents Friso, Saxo, and Bruno who left their native India in the fouth century B.C. to settle in Frisia. They drove off some local giants and founded Groningen, but only after they had studied with Plato and fought for Philip and Alexander. The image is enchanting, Grafton muses: three gentlemen in frock coats sitting around a peat fire murmuring in Sanskrit. Even Scaliger swallowed this one.
But my favorite still is the more recent episode involving a predecessor of Grafton at Princeton. Paul Coleman-Norton claimed to have discovered during wartime service in Morocco a new fragment from Matthew which he published with the usual scholarly apparatus and commentary in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly in 1950. One gathers the article was received by many in solemn acceptance. At the end of Matthew 24 Jesus tells his disciples that when the unfaithful are assigned their place with the hypocrites, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Coleman-Nortons newly revealed passage, some sensible person asks Jesus what will happen to those who have no teeth. O ye of little faith, Jesus replies, teeth will be provided. When I recounted this to a New Zealand friend, she was sure shed heard it first from the Irish comedian, Dave Allen. Later on, someone else told me hed heard the joke long ago in a version involving a country preacher. How old is this tale?
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