Maybe he made it up
- The Forger’s Shadow: How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature by Nick Groom
Picador, 351 pp, £20.00, April 2002, ISBN 0 330 37432 X
Postmodernism awards high marks for non-originality. All literary works are made up of recycled bits and pieces of other works, so that, in the words of Harold Bloom, ‘the meaning of a poem is another poem.’ This doctrine of intertextuality is not to be confused with good old-fashioned literary influence. Such influences are mostly conscious and generally sporadic, whereas for Postmodernism it is impossible to open your mouth without quoting. As Roland Barthes and others have pointed out, the phrase ‘I love you’ is always a citation, indeed one of the most shopsoiled citations of all, even when it is sincerely meant. For the romantically inclined, this opens up an ominous gap between experience and expression; but if words are what we are made of – if I can know that what I am feeling is love only because I have language in the first place – the romantic view may need to be modified.
In the beginning, then, was the repetition. My signature is authentic only if it is a reproduction of its previous versions. Postmodernism is entranced by imitation but sets itself sternly against mimesis, or the notion of realist representation, so that what copies reproduce is not the world but other copies, in a ceaseless chain of simulacra. If meaning is a matter of difference, then there could have been no primordial word, since one word already implies another. If language can be said to have been born, Lévi-Strauss reflects, then it must have been born ‘at a stroke’. In any case, as Wittgenstein muses, it is difficult to imagine an origin without feeling that you could always go back beyond it. As the business of looking things up in the dictionary suggests, all words are stand-ins for other words, and all our language is filched and forged, reach-me-down rather than bespoke.
If texts can be translated, then a certain translatability or recycling is constitutive of what they are. And translations can certainly improve on the original, as with the word ‘Vienna’. Similarly, we would not call ‘literary’ a piece of writing which was not somehow portable, more capable than a shout of ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre of being transported from one context to another and interpreted differently each time. In this sense, literary discourse is what it is by virtue of never being quite identical with itself. But the point cuts deeper than literature: we would not call a mark which could happen only once a sign. Language must belong to the Other – to my linguistic community as a whole – before it can belong to me, so that the self comes to its unique articulation in a medium which is always at some level indifferent to it.
Who, then, wrote the first poem? If poetry, like potholing, is a practice governed by certain public conventions, then surely those conventions had to be always already in place for a piece of writing to be identifiable as a poem. I might furtively conceal some dreadful doggerel of mine from public view, but unless it was in principle accessible to others I could not speak of it as a poem at all, even a lousy one. With regard to origins, literary and social conventions are rather like the laws of physics. The mystery of the Universe’s origins is not so much how, pace King Lear, something could have come of nothing, since a random fluctuation in a quantum field might have popped an inflatable particle into fleeting existence, but rather where the quantum field itself might have come from. Or is to raise such a question merely to confuse different language games, modelling a quantum field on a material entity?
Plagiarism of a sort, then, is our normative condition, and self-parody, as Nick Groom recognises in The Forger’s Shadow, is the closest we can come to authenticity. (When the dust jacket informs us that the author is a former rock musician and contributor to the Erotic Review, who spends his time drinking ‘bitter in Devon pubs and red wine in his Soho club’, one yearns charitably to read this as deliberate self-parody while darkly suspecting that it is not.) Groom draws a useful distinction between forgery (an original work which is a con but not a copy) and counterfeiting (a fraudulent facsimile copy of an original). But a further distinction between counterfeiting and plagiarism is a touch obscure, and a bit later on we are informed, inconsistently, that counterfeiting has ‘no necessary source’, which blurs its contrast with forgery.
There is, in fact, a fourth category, known to the Irish (but apparently unknown to Groom) as ‘anti-plagiarism’. This little-known genre conflates Groom’s forgery with his plagiarism. In 19th-century Ireland, authors like William Maginn, Francis Sylvester Mahony and James Clarence Mangan were in the habit of producing literary texts cunningly modelled on the work of some well-known author like Tennyson or Thomas Moore, which they then coolly claimed to be the lost original that the author had plagiarised. Maginn, who founded Fraser’s Magazine and died an alcoholic pauper, is said to have been familiar with Hebrew, Syriac, Sanskrit, Basque, Turkish, Assyrian and Magyar (though nobody ever caught him reading), and occasionally penned verses in these languages which some detested rival could then plausibly be accused of having hijacked into English. Mahony, a spoiled priest and fellow imbiber, composed French troubadour ballads of which, so he maintained, Moore’s Irish Melodies were imitations, and generously acknowledged that some of Moore’s ‘plagiarisms’ were almost as fine as the originals. Moore’s poem Lalla Rookh (or ‘Larry O’Rourke’, as one Englishwoman misheard the title), originally appeared in the Mogul language in the audience chamber of the King of Delhi, so Mahony earnestly claimed. Mahony’s anti-plagiarist pursuits were themselves, he confessed, plagiarised from a French Jesuit who insisted that Horace’s Odes were written by a 12th-century Benedictine monk. In a similar way, Maginn’s compatriot Laurence Sterne, who was born and reared in Tipperary, includes in Tristram Shandy an indignant denunciation of plagiarism which is itself plagiarised.
The Irish poet James Clarence Mangan, who produced ‘translations’ from exotic languages of which he was entirely ignorant, was a political nationalist, as his anti-plagiarising might well suggest. For anti-plagiarism mischievously reverses the relationship between source and derivation, the authentic and the bogus, rather as Irish nationalism seeks to put an end to the colony’s enforced mimicry of its British proprietors so as to become self-originating. Anti-plagiarism, which inverts the relation between host and parasite texts by throwing the passage of time into reverse, is an Oedipal attempt to turn one’s own belatedness into priority, thus refuting the charge that the Irish are a mere botched pastiche of their colonial masters. In stealing and defacing the work of others, you can cheekily expose their own usurpation. Nationalism reverts to the primordial origins of the nation, an origin it then endlessly repeats. Some of the leading advocates of non-originality in our own time – Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault, Althusser, Lyotard – have all had experience of client societies, either in French North Africa or Soviet-ruled Bulgaria, and are out to unmask the Real Thing as a sham. Nick Groom’s book is clearly influenced by some of this thought; but like the counterfeiter it is not exactly out to trumpet its indebtedness, thus appearing rather less of a facsimile than it actually is.
The Forger’s Shadow, after some suggestive theoretical reflections, settles down to a series of case-studies of celebrated literary forgers, from James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton to the Shakespearean forger William Henry Ireland and the Victorian con-artist Thomas Griffiths Wainewright. Much of this is illuminating, and impressively wide-ranging: the book pirouettes energetically from poetry and the visual arts to law and economics, dropping erudite allusions and scattering portentous insights at the frenetic pace of a half-hour television documentary on the Renaissance. Indeed, it becomes at one point a kind of scriptive equivalent of such programmes, as Groom portrays himself rambling around Bristol in search of Chatterton’s ghost (‘I paced about, in the footsteps of Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and many others . . .’), for all the world like a print version of Simon Schama. One can almost see the make-up and microphone. It is a smart rather than deep study, with more wit than soul.
Groom’s rather predictably provocative thesis is that the forged work is actually the truest one – a case which, in rehearsing a familiar move in deconstructive theory (the deviant is the measure of the normative), is itself a compound of the derivative and the original. Forgery is creative rather than contemptible, rather in the way that a sign, according to Umberto Eco, is anything you can use to lie with. Since there can be no talk of authenticity without the concept of a fake, the phoney is the true ground of great art. The forger both buttresses the authority of the canon and is cast out by it, thus becoming Groom’s personal contribution to a familiar gallery of glamorised Postmodern victims (villain, lunatic, bastard and the like). Just as others have tried to shift Native Americans, the disabled, Mormons and the mad from margins to centre, so Groom seeks derivatively to place non-originality in the spotlight. But this case presupposes that there is indeed a tolerably clear distinction between the sham and the genuine, thus undoing with one hand what it achieves with the other. Rather than dismantling the model of margins and centre, it simply parks a new resident in the latter.
To deconstruct, however, is to transform a conventional wisdom, not just to stand it on its head. When Groom speaks in his jaunty, hit-and-miss way of artistic invention as ‘an endorsed form of lying’, he misses the point that art dismantles the distinction between truth and fiction rather than simply countering truth with falsehood. Literary propositions are parodies of real-life ones, not versions of real-life lies. Putting the forged artwork in place of the genuine article simply transfers the aura of the latter to the former. But by idealising the inauthentic in this way, Groom can reconcile his Postmodern persona with his Romantic one. There are really two texts jostling for precedence within The Forger’s Shadow: one a sometimes glib, rather modish Postmodern discourse, the other a more extravagant, spiritually-minded Romanticism which is fascinated by the mystical and occult, values the traditional doctrine of poetic inspiration, and subscribes to a cult of the great man. The book is cool and oracular by turns.
On one level, these conflicting idioms consort together quite happily. The Forger’s Shadow is an academic work striving hard to hook a more general audience (it hails from Picador, not Oxford University Press), and few things are more calculated to do this than an agreeably spooky ambience of spectres, hauntings, lunatics, criminals, the demonic, literary mysteries, Promethean heroism, esoteric wisdom and artistic suicides. The book’s chapter-headings – ‘Villain’, ‘Ghost’, ‘Lunatic’, Daemon’, ‘Bastard’ and so on – don’t bring to mind the way Dame Helen Gardner organised her materials. (Speaking of organising one’s materials, the volume informs us no less than three times that in the 18th century a suicide’s corpse was usually buried naked at a crossroads impaled on a stake.) A dash of Gothic sensationalism does no harm in the bookshops, and to this extent Romantic agony and Postmodern commercialism are by no means the mutual strangers they might seem – Groom portrays his great men in suitably streetwise journalese, as in the sentence ‘In the blue corner is Samuel Johnson, the greatest man of letters of the 18th century: an elderly, elephantine, scrofula-scarred, half-blind manic depressive.’ Besides, the Romantic idea of inspiration, suggesting as it does a certain self-alienation, is not hard to reconcile with the Postmodern cult of non-identity.
A little late in the day, Groom’s Romantic humanism puts up a brief, perfunctory fight against his Postmodernism. What, he asks himself at the end of the book, if the upshot of all of this juggling of signs and mixing of codes is an estrangement of one’s humanity? Buried somewhere in here, then, is a human subject still authentic enough to be capable of estrangement, and thus at odds with the simulacra he seems happy to celebrate elsewhere. As befits a Postmodern study, The Forger’s Shadow is for the most part relaxedly amoral about its central topic. Groom would scarcely allow himself to be drearily unreconstructed enough to champion truth and reality against the frissons of fakery. ‘Can forgery be defined,’ he inquires, ‘without a debilitating recourse to words like real, true or authentic?’ Such terms may have a debilitating ring to them in Soho clubs, but perhaps rather less so among those families who still want to know where the Bosnian Serbs buried the bodies.
Poets who poach the odd image from other poets may not be villains, but what about academics who lift their postgraduate students’ research without acknowledgment, not to speak of those who walk off with someone else’s country? Were the people of East Timor simply trapped in nostalgic, haut-bourgeois notions of legitimate possession in their resistance to Indonesia’s incursions into their territory? Ideas of authenticity may prove debilitating when it comes to art, but we still need to know whether reports of political torture are true, and whether the police have been forging the evidence again. Groom would surely not disagree; but his fashionable denigration of truth and authenticity leaves his position dangerously unclear. How would he react were I now, finally, to disclose the truth that I have been sitting on for so long: that I wrote this book on his behalf? Perhaps he will claim to have no memory of asking me to do so; but then his memory is clearly fragile, as he himself acknowledges when he remarks that he cannot recall from which book of my own a certain passage he quotes comes. Maybe he made it up.
There are problems, too, with the Postmodern dismissal of origins. The primordial can indeed be a tiresome fetish; but there are ways of censoring the investigation of origins which play right into the hands of political reaction. Pascal, Hume, Kant and Burke all counsel against any such exploration, for just such reasons. It is, as Hume puts it in his Treatise of Human Nature, that at the source of every nation we will find violence and usurpation; and if its citizens are now gratifyingly docile and quiescent, it is simply because they have thrust this aboriginal trespass or violation into merciful oblivion. For Burke, the impious uncovering of this original sin, which is what the odious Jacobins are up to, is a kind of sexual indecency akin to the horrific unveiling of the Freudian primal scene. Political origins are not, to be sure, the same as artistic authenticity; but calling the comparison to mind might persuade one to speak a little less cavalierly about origins in general.
In one of the uncanny hauntings of which this study is so fond, Romanticism returns in all its starry-eyed splendour, only this time as the simulacrum rather than the original. In an ironic inversion, it is now the simulacrum which needs to be protected from the contaminations of the authentic. ‘The simulacrum,’ Groom comments in typically hyperbolic style, ‘is our reality, but in our being we remain haunted by the chimera of authenticity. We can overcome this authenticity by craft and by making, and in rebellion, and in becoming inspirational.’ So it is now the authentic which is the revenant, the unexorcisable shade at the Postmodern feast, the virus or disability which must be conquered in an act of self-mastery, a vigorous if vague therapy of making, rebellion and inspiration. The terms have been ritually reversed, but nothing has really changed. Groom the reluctant Postmodernist is being constantly dragged back to his closet Romanticism, but must resist this insidious seduction with all the inauthenticity at his command. Being only human, even the most savvy and sophisticated of forgers find themselves backsliding into truth and stumbling into reality in moments of forgivable weakness.
Or – an alternative code for the same slippage – even those critics most intent on appealing to a wide commercial audience find themselves at risk of lapsing into the esoteric life of the intellect. The Forger’s Shadow is an uneasy compromise between the cerebral and the commercial, the scholarly and the sensationalist. It is a highly intelligent book and a show-off one as well, bristling with energy and enthusiasm yet oddly self-regarding, attractively ambitious in scope but suspiciously thin on the ground. It generously acknowledges the Bodleian Library, along with Jim and Pat, George and Gaye, Cheri and Jamie, Nick, Norman and Jane and a horde of fellow boozers at the author’s local pub, not to mention Andrew, Mandana, Bill, Dorcas, Jo, Laura and a host of others at his London club. Some of these people might be a bit surprised to learn that they have helped to shape his thoughts about the etymology of the term plagiarism or Plato’s view of poetic inspiration. But that’s intertextuality for you.