Ruthven’s Faking Literature, Forging Literature and Faking Forged Literature
This piece is 5,800 words or about ten printed pages long
In the last 50 years, poetry stumbled upon two large controversies — two works of literary ‘forgery,’ two works that were meant to shake the hierarchy of the poetry world. I am thinking of the writings of Ern Malley, I am thinking of the writings of Araki Yasusada. Reactions to the work of each of the so-called authors have been different in many respects. In one important respect, though, both were treated similarly. Both works were at least briefly banished to the category of the non-literary. They were slapped with the ‘hoax’ label and discounted. Since both works were hoaxes and fakes, we were told that neither work was literature.
Editor’s note: you can read six different articles
K.K. Ruthven’s Faking Literature may be the first such book-length study to justify the minority opinion that spurious literature is indeed literature. The book provides an excellent starting place for studying spurious forms of literature.
II. K.K. Ruthven’s Cultural Critique of Literature and Literary Forgery
Throughout the history of Literature, authors have worked collaboratively. Writers have ‘borrowed’ lines and plot lines from one another without permission or even without conscious awareness. Writers have created imagined personae. Writers have created works of outlandish fiction claimed by their authors to be true. For the most part, works indulging in such spurious means were once upon a time considered imaginative but otherwise usual. Today it is commonplace to find spurious works discounted entirely.
III. A Closer Look at Faking Literature
KK Ruthven’s treatment of literary spuriosity is refreshingly straightforward. Ruthven begins with a broad review of different forms of literary spuriosity. He sets his survey against the backdrop of the 1760s, ten years marked by the publication of three influential but spurious works of literature: the poems of a ‘Thomas Rowley’ written by a 15-year-old named Thomas Chatterton, James Macpherson’s ‘translations’ of the ‘original’ works of the ancient bard ‘Ossian’, and Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.
[...] is about the power of literary forgeries to disturb the societies in which they are produced, and to do so in ways resented by the guardians of cultural institutions such as literary studies, book-reviewing and the literary awards system.... But no writer is permitted to disturb those cultural institutions which accredit and mediate literature by demonstrating inefficiencies in their operations and thus questioning the grounds of their existence.
Why take the time now, at this precise moment, to conduct such an analysis of literary forgery?
Seeing that these supposedly ‘irregular’ and ‘abnormal’ literary phenomena occur more frequently than is generally acknowledged, the burgeoning archive of literary forgeries remains an unresolved problem for cultural analysts. Now that English studies is once again reappraising its activities, I think it timely to recall some of its repressed texts, and to consider how the discipline might refashion its agenda in the wake of such a reclamation. [Note 2]
Ruthven tells us we should revalue literary forgery:
[...] as an antinomian phenomenon produced by creative energies whose power is attested to by the resistance they engender in those who feel compelled to denounce and eradicate it. [Note 3]
Literary forgery, Ruthven tells us, is a political and cultural phenomenon; such works have power in their ability to both inspire various forms of disgust in those who are the targets of such political and cultural critique and flesh out those conflicts.
Two intellectual developments in the final decades of the twentieth century made it possible to reconsider the relationship between ‘genuine’ and ‘fake’ literature. The more important was post-structuralist critical theory, which seriously challenged commonsense assumptions about such key components in traditional literary studies as authorship, originality, authenticity and value. And the other was the continuing anatomy of what Jean-Francois Lyotard labeled in 1979 ‘the postmodern condition’, which enables us to see literary forgeries as in some ways normalised by the spuriosities of everyday life. Together they provide the tools with which to critique traditional strategies for concealing the scandal of literature as a cognitive mode. And by doing so they reveal how the ritual scapegoating of those caught perpetrating literary forgeries distracts attention from the spuriosity of literature itself. [Note 4]
Ruthven provides many historical examples of the spurious within what is commonly accepted without question as ‘literature’: the collaborative writings attributed to Homer or to John Keats
(e.g., ‘Endymion’), Shakespeare’s frequent borrowings, and Samuel
Taylor Coleridge’s ‘plagiarism.’
Literary forgery is a sort of spurious literature, and so is literature. Consequently, when we imagine the relationship between literature and literary forgeries, we should not be thinking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but rather of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. [Note 6]
At once literary forgery is literature, and, at the same time, literature is the twin or shadow of literature. Ruthven is telling us, perhaps in so many words, that literary forgery is AND is not literature. Well, which one? If it is a paradox that he wished to leave us with, why not come out and tell us that his final position is indeed that: a paradox?
IV. Literary Forgery Is and Is Not Literature: An Interlude
I have in my possession several ways in which we may interpret literary forgeries while at the same time accepting what I will call Ruthven’s Paradox, this space of being and not-being that literary forgery inhabits.
Around 1938 Paul Valery wrote that the history of literature should not be the history of the authors and the accidents of their careers or of the career of their works, but rather the history of the Spirit as the producer or consumer of literature. He added that such a history could be written without the mention of a single writer. It was not the first time that the Spirit had made such an observation. [Note 7]
[...] the pantheist who declares that the plurality of authors is illusory finds unexpected support in the classicist, to whom the plurality means but little. For classical minds the literature is the essential thing, not the individuals. George Moore and James Joyce have incorporated in their works the pages and sentences of others; Oscar Wilde used to give plots away for others to develop; both procedures, although they appear to be contradictory, may reveal an identical artistic perception — an ecumenical, impersonal perception. Another witness of the profound unity of the Word, another who denied the limitations of the individual, was the renowned Ben Jonson, who, when writing his literary testament and the favorable or adverse opinions he held of his contemporaries, was obliged to combine fragments from Seneca, Quintilian, Justus Lipsius, Vives, Erasmus, Machiavelli, Bacon, and the two Scaligers.
We may attempt to ignore the author in appraisals of literature, as Ruthven and Borges have both suggested, and we may ‘translate’ a work while ignoring its origins, but either way we are still faced with a contradiction, a paradox of literature itself.
[...] a poem is like a man walking on the bank of a river, whose shadow is reflected in the water. If you explain a poem, you are quite likely to do it either in terms of the man or in terms of the shadow, but you have to explain it in terms of the whole. When I said recently that a poem was what was on the page, it seems to me now that I was wrong because that is explaining it in terms of the man. But the thing and its double always go together. [Note 9]
De Quincey teaches us the act is as important as the word; Borges, that the history of literature is of literature & not its authors; and Stevens, that to ignore the author is to imply the importance of the author, & to ignore differences is to ignore the thing itself. By contemplating each example we may become better able to contemplate the paradoxical state of affairs in which literature exists.
V. Cultural Critiques, Works of Literature, Authorial Intent, and Forgery as Practice
Regardless of the apparent indecisiveness of Ruthven’s text, whether spurious works should be either considered no different from other works of literature, or whether, as Ruthven says, forgeries should be treated as the Tweedledum to capital-l Literature’s Tweedledee, I must repeat that Ruthven’s book is necessary and timely. To my knowledge, there is little other scholarly book-length work on contextualizing literary forgery. For one, the book contains a definitive bibliography and indices on the subject. Faking Literature touches on most topics germane to the subject, and it defends a relatively non-reactionary and historically balanced position, choosing arguments both from historical and multicultural perspectives.
VI. Forging Literature and Translating Literature
The concept of translation is deeply tied to the issues of authenticity and identity (identity both in the sense of personal identity and in the sense of ‘being the same’). I am reminded immediately of Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, which he fervently claimed to have translated, perhaps without unpacking what he meant by ‘translation.’ I am reminded of course of Araki Yasusada’s Doubled Flowering. I am reminded of James Macpherson’s Ossian ‘translations.’ I am reminded of the Thomas Percy ‘translations’ of ancient English poetry. I am reminded of the famous Borges quote, ‘The original is unfaithful to the translation.’
[...] Chaucer's ‘Troilus and Criseyde,’ Sidney’s translations from Petrarch, the King James version of the Bible, Ezra Pound’s ‘The Seafarer’ from the Anglo-Saxon and ‘Exile's Letter’ from Li Po . . . [as translations] played a key role in reorienting the English language. These translations are based on a different concept of faithfulness. They fragment the original totality, starting with a conception of ‘lack.’ The translations sense a quality in the original language, reflected in the original poem, which the second language lacks. The translator is faithful to this conception and tries to recreate it in the second language. A translation in this sense starts with criticism and ends by pointing, not to the first, but to the second language. It explores the second language and, if successful, changes it by assimilating this lack. I define this kind of translation a transparent text. [Note 10]
Once again we are confronted with an embodiment of a contradiction, a contradiction that is made apparent by or perhaps even created through the analysis of literature. The contradiction is: by assuming that one’s language can never capture what was in the original language, one can successfully incorporate what was missing into the final translated product.
VII. The Forged Forgery: A Third Form?
How are we to interpret the paradox that literary forgery is and is not literature? More pointedly, can we find works of literature that attempt to occupy this paradoxical space, the space of being forgeries yet being literature, of being literature yet not being literature, of being perhaps literary forgery and not literary forgery?
It's again like music. It doesn't really mean a goddamn thing, and yet it does. It's this kind of halfway into reality and halfway out of it that does seem to me important [...]. [Note 11]
[Note 1] K.K. Ruthven, Faking Literature, Cambridge Press, Cambridge, 2001, pp2-3.
Borges, Jorge Luis. ‘The Flower of Coleridge.’ Other Inquisitions. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.
Jacket 17 — June 2002
This material is copyright © Patrick Herron
and Jacket magazine 2002