A. Grafton: Forgers and Critics

Forgers and Critics. Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship

Grafton, Anthony
Anzahl Seiten
170 S.
$ 19.95; € 21,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Tom Tölle, Abteilung Europäische Geschichte, Universität Hamburg

Despite its initial publication in 1990, Forgers and Critics is a book for our time. Like a man “applying for a substantial loan”, who enters his bank with the appropriate attire and an “air of conviction” (p. 50), so “the serious forgery must go out to meet the world with [...] extra confidence”, as Anthony Grafton puts it. In recent years, forgers of many walks of life have moved the (German) public, at times feeding a scepticism towards the disciplines that created them: Art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, star of documentaries, including a German TV-show and a Netflix-movie provides one example. His success grew out of a greedy demand for authentic works of art not unlike the manuscripts forgeries that Grafton finds in Hellenic times.[1] This demand for old, long-lost texts continues to today, and it inspired the recent forgery of works by Galileo alluded to both in Ann Blair’s introduction and Grafton’s afterword.[2] Or consider the case of news-forger Claas Relotius and his critic Juan Moreno who – like many past critics – himself capitalised on his findings in a best-selling book.[3] The art world, scholarship, journalism ... all awash with frauds? Grafton suggests an approach that sees beyond the obvious and understandable outrage. He combines an astute sense of the “crime” of forgery (p. 37) with a humility towards the “desire to forge”, which could “infect almost anyone” (p. 48).

A new introduction, written by Ann Blair, shows the intellectual context as well as the impact of Grafton’s text since the 1990s as it helped blaze a trail for a new intellectual history: one less interested in the origins of modern ideas than in the protracted processes of human creativity, which involved scholars and readers alike. Grafton’s own introduction combines wit with clarity of argument as he uses snippets of forgeries ranging from a fourth century pun to the fake Hitler diaries to outline his central thesis that – in addition to enraging its victims and amusing the uninvolved – forgery “stimulated vital innovations in the technical methods of scholars” (p. 5).

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the history of forgers and critics in “the West”. It begins with the literary forgeries of the ancient world aspiring to emulate the organic relation between the writer and his works, which, if genuine, were called gnesioi (legitimate), and, if not, nothoi (bastards). In the medieval period forgers’ interests shifted markedly towards the fields of law and church, when forgeries bolstered the variegated claims and privileges of new polities and their “national identity” (p. 23), as these polities aggregated throughout Europe. Throughout, the story of forgers and critics runs in parallel at different speeds. By the fifteenth century, scientific jurisprudence with its understanding of credibility provided one standard. Beyond this, Grafton considers the closest tandem between forgers and critics to have occurred in the Renaissance, when professional jurisprudence spread into the Holy Roman Empire, theologians confronted dogma with texts, and sharp tools took root in historiography. Upon this ever tighter race followed new, nineteenth-century forgeries “of nostalgia” that creatively filled in the new „national” historiographies as they took shape.

Chapter 2 does away with three assumptions about forgeries then present in the literature: The assumption that forgeries flourish where authors feel they can only hope to achieve fame through emulation (for instance of Europe’s Middle Ages). Another that forgeries thrive before print makes text reproducible. And the one that assumes that forgeries were produced as tools to bolster one specific claim. Instead, like the marvellous detective stories it traces, Grafton’s narrative follows the crime of forgery into motive, means, and opportunity. The chapter shows a great range from ambition and material gain to hatred or an aspired “spiritual authority” (p. 17). The means of forgers work in two directions, aspiring, on the one hand, to emulate a certain moment in time with increasingly sophisticated techniques and, on the other hand, to fake the transmission of a text through time. New historical criticism, for instance, of Philip Cluverius, Jacob Perizonius, and Giambattista Vico challenged forgers to constantly up their ante and develop (or rediscover) ever more sophisticated tools for authenticating their forgeries. When it comes to opportunity the most ingenious part of the argument suggests that forgeries have their own historicity. They can hide in plain sight – lurking behind shared assumptions present at the time of their creation – and often crumble when the historical moment has passed.

Chapter 3 argues against a hypothesis of radical discontinuity – and for “an axis of continuity” (p. 75) – in the scholarship on forgeries: The older historiography contrasted the partisan attacks on forgeries of the premodern past with the modern critical approach to sources of German philology – an “objective study applied to all sources” versus “a subjective study applied to sources one wished to attack” (p. 70). Grafton reveals that his premodern authors – beginning with Galen’s criticism of Hippocratic sources in Chapter 1 – were better philologists and critics than their German successors would have it. In fact, the early German philologists of the late eighteenth century pointed to their late seventeenth-century forbears in Greek and Latin manuscript studies, in textual criticism, in Biblical exegesis (and that of other composite texts), and many more, with some humility. They in turn looked to the generation of the 1580s and 1590s (p. 74). Grafton shows in detail the link from third-century Porphyry via Isaac Casaubon to Reitzenstein as they engaged with a single text, the Hermetic Corpus. Methodological similarities as well as nuanced differences appear: Above all, they shared a basic toolkit (of “systematic comparison”, p. 97) to discover forgeries that reached as far back as Porphyry, and they all three appear to have tolerated quite a few of such forgeries as long as they coincided with their scholarly interest.

Chapter 4 decentres the Renaissance as the period in which a new critical method evolved. Renaissance humanists – the model of nineteenth-century textual critics – were not, Grafton shows, the disinterested authorities purging the classical tradition of fakes. Instead, he places Annius of Viterbo, an infamous forger, as one of many theorists who reinvigorated classical methods. Grafton traces the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century need for an “authoritative canon of ancient texts” to heal the “fissures in church and state”. But these attempts to write a new history of the world and reconsider the sources it would be based upon, resulted in obstacles as they encountered ever new duplicity. Oral traditions required critical reconsideration as did allegedly ancient texts. Critics, Grafton shows, rose to the intellectual levels, which the forgeries that they confronted demanded.

The epilogue is especially suggestive arguing that the “critic cannot escape time and place any more than the forger can” (p. 125), creating a wheel of textual fortune that makes some texts rise and others fall. This picks up on an earlier suggestion, that forgeries eventually dissemble because “later readers [...] will recognize the forger’s period superimposed on the forgery’s” (p. 67). Yet, this never amounts to moral relativism since – as Grafton reiterates – forgers offer us a “refuge from the open-ended reflection on our ideals and institutions that reading of powerful texts may stimulate” (p. 126). Forgery is escapism. The critic’s weapons may be “fragile” and her views clouded by her subjectivity, but – while not condemning the forger – Grafton’s sympathies lie with the critic.

This, finally, brings us back to the current implications of the work thirty years after its first publication. Recently, a new political party foundation in Germany named itself after the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus. Some of those close to the racist and revisionist political party that created this new foundation share a disdain for what they publicly call a dishonest press (“Lügenpresse”), spreading so-called “fake news”. This reviewer hopes that the foundation will dedicate at least some of the funds it might receive to providing its young target audience with a copy of Grafton’s book. Not only does it include an (arguably contested) account of an amphibian creating Western culture (pp. 99f.), Forgers and Critics also shows that forgeries are not the new and scandalous signs of a rotten system. In their manifold, complex, and curious iterations they have been part of the history of literature and scholarship since its beginnings. As Grafton notes, Erasmus, furious critic of forgery and forger all at once, bolstered his own desirable vision of Christianity with an elaborate fake. His De duplici martyrio claimed to have been authored by Cyprian, “discovered in an ancient library”, and happened to confirm Erasmian ideas[4]: A refuge from open-ended reflection it may have been, but it was also a lie.

[1] Arne Birkenstock, Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery, 2014; Der Meisterfälscher: Wolfgang Beltracchi proträtiert …, 2 seasons, each in five parts, 3sat 2014/15.
[2] Horst Bredekamp / Irene Brückle / Paul Needham (eds.), A Galileo Forgery. Unmasking the New York Sidereus Nuncius, Berlin 2014.
[3] Juan Moreno, Tausend Zeilen Lüge. Das System Relotius und der deutsche Journalismus, Reinbek 2019.
[4] E. g. Silvana Seidel Menchi, Un’opera misconosciuta di Erasmo? Il trattato pseudo-ciprianico “De duplici martyrio”, in: Rivista Storica Italiana 90 (1978), S. 709–743.

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