Monday, June 13, 2016

Send-Ups, Scholarly Fantasies, Playful Hoaxes, Pernicious Hoaxes, Undecidable Historical Reconstructions, and the Great, Formerly Great and Not Yet Great Fictions of the Seventeenth, Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

another set of digressions by Jerry Cullum

Last night, I had an extremely detailed dream in which I was in the (actually existing) shop of an elderly philatelist in Atlanta, only in place of the ancient volumes holding individually priced stamps, there were rank on rank of faded blue-covered paperbound volumes of reference books printed for British colonial postmasters—the first one I perused seemed to be an anthology of maps of the Falkland Islands and related South Atlantic colonial holdings, presumably relating to locations of post offices and postal routes. Except that the choice of things bound into the volume, in different sizes and printed at slightly different times, didn’t quite make sense; there seemed to be only a presumed relation between different items, such as a brochure containing only photographs of seaplanes (which presumably actually were used? or could be used? for postal transport).

Other similarly sized books contained assorted offprints of numbingly technical governmental brochures, all on similarly yellowed paper and in various sizes of 1920s or 1930s typefaces. Then a similarly formatted offprint, with seemingly old-style photographs set forth in identically vintage format, discussed in similarly numbing fashion the new influence of Italian canzoni on the compositional style of the young songwriter Bob Dylan.

In a moment of stunned realization I saw that the entire wall of faded books from His Majesty’s Stationery Office were perfectly produced fakes, all of them printed on actual or artificially aged paper with actual or replicated lead type, all of them complete or partial fictions. When I awoke, it took me a moment to reconstruct the layout of the old gentleman’s stamp store and confirm that no similar wall of resources for postal history existed.

And now for a recent story from Facebook, related to the foregoing only by the presence of postage stamps: Various Facebook friends were circulating a photograph of a 1907 letter from the University of Bern informing the young Albert Einstein that his application for the position of associate professor was being rejected because his hypotheses were not even Physics (capitalization in original). The letter was quite well photographed, with creases (and shadows caused by them) cutting across the typewritten text. There was, unaccountably, the edge of a modern-looking stamp lying across the upper corner of the letter, with the partial text “Ein” and “US” visible alongside a bit of a portrait.

It was obvious to anyone (but not to quite a few other anyones) that a letter written in English from a Swiss university to a fellow German-speaker in which the name of the university was also in English was a fake. The entire image from which the one being circulated was extracted simply hit the viewer over the head with the intended message: the block of stamps laid across the sheet of paper was a fantasy based on the actual Einstein commemorative stamp issued by the United States.

It’s possible that someone printed the anomalous letterhead and typed the letter on a vintage machine, but I would assume the whole thing was constructed digitally. Why they would go to such lengths to create an obvious fantasy that a growing part of the Internet was taking with absolute seriousness, I have no idea.

Perhaps my dream was triggered by the combination of that fantasy (a hoax would have been the same document written in German, minus the imaginary postage stamps) with a completely serious Internet rant reproducing the text of a possibly (but probably not) adopted nineteenth century amendment to the United States Constitution, in which the writer twisted the poorly constructed grammar of the amendment to argue that the entire U.S. government was now completely illegitimate, a conclusion that did not follow from the premises of his initial misreading of an ambiguous set of historical events.

The dream reminded me, however, that I have a sizable number of essays in the uncategorized 900+ pages of my largely abandoned blog that relate to the topics of epistemology and hermeneutics—not just how we interpret historical documents, but how we interpret the physical facts of the world via philosophy and analytical academic disciplines. And I could start discussing that last-named topic by describing a number of recent books about why we have systematically misinterpreted the inner emotions and mental lives of animals—but I don’t choose to do so. The essays (and quite a few of the versions of them) are famed for going off into seeming digressions that eventually are used to buttress the argument that has been dropped completely for the previous thousand words or so.

There are quite a few documents from the past that occupy an uncertain status as to genre—The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz being a recent case in point, as John Crowley declares it “the world’s first science fiction novel” rather than a hermetically obscure Hermetic allegory. The Voynich Manuscript is either an undecipherable mystery or a made-up piece of visual nonsense masquerading as an illustrated text. The page of hand-copied text that Morton Smith declared contained passages from the Secret Gospel of Mark was either a passage from a real letter of Clement quoting a real secret gospel, or a passage from a real letter of Clement making up a fictitious secret gospel for purposes of his own, or a purported passage from a completely imaginary letter of Clement written by a bored Byzantine copyist for purposes of his own, or a purported passage from a completely imaginary letter of Clement forged by Morton Smith for purposes of his own.

These are three examples in which fantasy and reality blur because we don’t know the intent of the author. In other cases, we know that texts were created as fantasies or allegories but taken with deadly seriousness by others—let’s leave those to one side because I haven’t written much about them, and others have.

En route to the twentieth century, there are a handful of novels in which a narrator presents a frame tale about how he comes to be transcribing for us a tale written or told by someone else—a very different genre from The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, in which the frame tale never purports to be the historical actuality in which other historical documents are presented. But other people have written ample numbers of words about those, and I haven’t, although I’ve always meant to get around to reading and analyzing The Manuscript Found at Saragossa. (You can find a very interesting discussion of that book on, incidentally.)

Jorge Luis Borges, who had read most if not all of his precursors, created fictions in which it was impossible for the average reader to disentangle improbable historical fact from complete fiction, and either one from systematic misinterpretation leading off in unreliable directions—a Garden of Forking Paths in which the Library of Babel held all the answers in forms that made them completely useless, with the maps presenting the truth in such detail that the map obscured the territory. (In latter-day actual mapping of such territories of the mind, we now have maps that are considerably larger than the territories to which they provide guides—maps that we could trust as completely reliable, were it not for the fact that the comprehensive maps contradict one another.)

From there, much followed. On a third- or fourth-generation metalevel, Catie Disabato’s first novel The Ghost Network combines contemporary pop culture, the history of alternative political movements, and the method of reportage used by contemporary media; she creates an entertainingly convincing mash-up of methods that owes much to Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme and David Foster Wallace but does not imitate them, and that entwines self-evident fakery with subtle satire in a network of narrative that makes you (or me, at least) believe that this preposterous story really could be real if it weren’t telegraphing its intentions so blatantly, except maybe it isn’t doing that.

This is a good place to start (and there are parallel strands of visual art doing such things, which I won’t take the time to enumerate), because of the importance of keeping one’s stories straight. There are too many deadpan fictions in which the parts don’t add up for anyone who knows the real story.

William Gaddis’ The Recognitions got the ball rolling for the postwar American version of this kind of thing, and I am reasonably certain I’ve written about that novel somewhere in my interminable-seeming (but eventually terminable) blogs.

I recently began to wonder if Gaddis had added a level of indeterminacy to his novel of counterfeits and originals that even he didn’t realize. I have been following the acrimonious dispute over which paintings ascribed to Hieronymus Bosch are by Bosch and which by his workshop, and whether the workshop paintings follow Bosch’s instructions or are freely created fantasies done with Bosch’s permission. (This is remarkably similar to the dispute over how much A. E. Waite directed Pamela Colman Smith when he commissioned her to paint a Tarot deck, but that topic, about which I have written, would be a digression.)

Imagine my surprise when I uncovered my long-lost copy of John Johnston’s book about Gaddis, Carnival of Repetition, and discovered that the cover illustration is a photograph of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, by Bosch (or by Bosch’s workshop?). It turns out that a plot device in The Recognitions is the copy of this Bosch painting that the forger protagonist creates and substitutes for the original in his employer’s art collection, an original that itself turns out to be a copy.

Well, I haven’t consulted the text of the novel, but Gaddis was obviously aware of the existence of various copies of Bosch’s paintings—eleven known examples of The Garden of Earthly Delights alone. The issue then becomes which ones are authorized copies from Bosch’s workshop and which ones are later copies created as such, versus ones created to pass for the real thing by art forgers. (As Rumi wrote, “Counterfeits exist because there is such a thing as real gold.”)

The issue today shades off into an art historical version of Baudrillard’s simulacrum, a copy without an original. Enormous issues of interpretation rest on details of The Extraction of the Stone of Folly in one case or The Marriage at Cana in another, or a version of The Last Judgment that differs substantially from the one indisputably attributed to Bosch. Clearly it matters whether Bosch painted it, or his workshop painted it according to his instructions, or someone else made it up out of their own heads, adding details in a faultless imitation of the style of Bosch but incorporating ideas that never occurred to him. But we don’t quite seem to know how to resolve these questions beyond dispute.

Can we at least get at the ideas, even if we don’t know who had them? Maybe, maybe not. But in Gaddis’ novel, we know that Wyatt knows he is making a fake, although Wyatt himself begins to wonder if when he puts himself into the mindset of an Old Master, he himself is not inhabiting the soul of an Old Master. In which case the soul of the Old Master is mingled with his materials. ("His" because in Gaddis' 1950s novel, the Old Masters being imitated were male, as was Wyatt.)

On some level, intention makes a difference; so many fakes are obvious a generation later because they seem like imitations redolent of the decade in which they were made up—Art-Deco-like busts purportedly from ancient Egypt, for example. The forger was making something good enough to fool the experts—but the experts were also people of their time.

There are whole essays to be written, and I am among those who have written them, on the issue of playful seriousness—something that starts with the jokery of The Chemical Wedding and proceeds on to, say, the Cthulhu Mythos begun by H. P. Lovecraft and elaborated through a host of successive writers and makers of plush toys, video games, and other Lovecraftian paraphernalia. I have written about this in “History of Religions and Cultural Fashions Revisited,” an essay that can be located on or perhaps downloaded as part of From Influence and Confluence to Difference and Indifference if one searches hard enough on the Cluj University Press website.

So there is clearly a lot to be unpacked here, and I wish I had time to analyze what is wrong with a large quantity of contemporary visual and conceptual art that riffs off of such topics. But there are smaller deadlines to be met. Feel free to follow my traces, for I won’t be following most of them.