The Uses of Fakery

There are many varieties of forgery in intellectual history, and they are not easy to separate. There is the physical manufacture of false documents, which is forgery in the strict sense; there is the false attribution of real documents, which then become “pseudepigrapha”; and there is the invocation and exploitation of invisible documents, which, if they remain obstinately invisible, are designated as “ghosts.” Only the first of these processes necessarily entails deception—the others can be the result of mere error; but whenever deliberate deception is involved, they can all be treated as forgery and included in a study of forgery. Mens rea—the consciousness of deceit—is the ultimate criterion.

The motives for such deceit differ too. Often they are mixed, or deeply buried in human psychology. Sometimes, of course, it is merely gain: a crude and simple impulse easily isolated. Sometimes it is fantasy: the illusion of self-aggrandizement; sometimes mere gaminerie, the desire to tease. But already we are moving in to a darker area, for the desire to tease often has deeper roots: it can merge with the desire to humiliate, furtive malevolence, thirst for revenge. Perhaps it may even spring from love; so at least the forger of the Acts of Paul claimed, when his forgery was detected, though the explanation is not very convincing: at least such love must have contained a strong admixture of vanity, of self-love. But perhaps that is true of most apparently disinterested forgeries. And then there is a more public motive: the politic fraud, the forgery that supports the claim of a prophet, or a legislator, to claim higher authority—the testament of a dead statesman, the oracles, perhaps even the direct advice, of God.

The earliest known forgeries are of this last kind. The Hebrew compilers of the Pentateuch did not indeed forge the handwriting of Moses—technically their work was pseudepigraphy—but Moses himself, according to them, went the whole hog: he produced an allegedly authentic autograph, “written by the finger of God,” on two tablets of stone. How unfortunate that this unique document was smashed to smithereens, in an untimely fit of petulance, before anyone else could see it! This particular technique—the discovery of a crucial document which then becomes unavailable for expert scrutiny—is a favorite device of the founders of religions or sects. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was directed by the Angel Moroni to such a document: a text inscribed on gold plates in the “reformed Egyptian script,” which miraculously translated itself into something like Jacobean English when viewed through magical spectacles, similarly discovered. That original text too has since become unavailable: the angel, we are told, demanded it back after translation. So, I think, have the spectacles. But the religions thus founded still flourish, and it is held indelicate to examine too closely the mechanics of their origins.

Let us therefore skirt this dangerous bog and begin, where Mr. Grafton begins, in his elegant and erudite lectures, with secular, literary forgery. This is an area in which the…

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