Fabricating Authenticity: Reflections on the Theme

This paper was delivered (in modified format) as the wrap-up to our recent conference ‘Imagining the Real: Alternative (Arte)facts from Antiquity to the Present Day’ (Macquarie University, 13–14th October, 2017). It was meant as a series of provocations, an experiment in thought in response to the papers delivered at that event and will be published in an expanded form in the future. 

In the opening of the letter which constitutes the first part of John Cleland’s notorious novel Fanny Hill: Memoires of a Woman of Pleasure (1749) , the eponymous heroine sets out the principle of her confession: “Truth! stark naked truth is the word, and I will not so much as take pains to bestow the strip of a gauze-wrapper on it, but paint situations as they actually rose to me in nature, careless of violating those laws of decency that were never made for such unreserved intimacies as ours; and you have too much sense, too much knowledge of the originals themselves, to sniff prudishly and out of character at the pictures of them.” The book had been written to alleviate Cleland’s debt whilst he languished in jail. However within nine months of the publication of its second part, the author and publisher were arrested again and charged with ‘corrupting the King’s subjects’; the book itself withdrawn. The appearance of an expurgated and authorised version a year later by the author did not stop the creation and distribution of pirate editions from 1751 on, in which scenes were added or embellished.

Ten years after their publication none other than Johann Winckelmann, a foundational German art historian and archaeologist, declared in a letter to Francke on the 1st of January, 1759 that the work “the most obscene book that the world has ever seen”, to which he added, “but it is by a master of the art, by a man of delicate feelings and high ideas, and written in a sublime Pindaric style”. He was captivated apparently by the unauthorised salacious amplifications. The book was only taken off the list of prohibited books in Singapore in 2015. More recently this August the British Press was overwhelmed with false reports that the book had been banned from the literature syllabus of Royal Holloway, which were repeated in the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Daily Mail, and even Vogue. Fake News abounds.

So what does a pornographic novel have to do with questions of authenticity and forgery? The proposition I want to put to you is simple. Given the diversity of motivations and receptions of forgery throughout history – from the Australian scandal of the Ern Malley Affair, Constantine Simonides’ forgeries, the Demotic Gospel of Thomas, the output of Mark Landis or Beltracchi, to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife – it is somewhat inadequate to treat it as a coherent and unique phenomenon. Instead, I am going to suggest that this diversity makes better sense if we understand forgery as a manifestation of a set of impulses I will characterise as a drive to Realism. And because with the invocation of Realism I run the risk of simply replacing one opacity with another, I intend to spend this discussion addressing some of the features of this drive from an interdisciplinary perspective.

The contradictions and double entendres within the passage from Fanny Hill illuminate the paradox that underpins the drive to Realism. A wealthy male author occupies the voice of woman to tell the story of her rise to riches by virtue of her sexual exploits. Fantasy translated into confession. Truth in this context is literally naked, although the gauze denied is paradoxically present in the very act of this confession, of representation, as the final words suggest with their contrast between originals and pictures. The mediation of language, of representation of any kind, constitutes a kind of copying, an attempt at nature, at rendering the real which sharpens our appreciation of the gap between experience and what we do with it. Copying in this way is an expression of loss. In the words of Baudrilland, ‘to simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t.’ (Simulations, p. 5).

The urge to copy, to represent, is fundamental. It constitutes the way we perceive the world, understand it, participate in its persistence, share it, value it and possess it. These activities embrace the diverse motivations present in acts of so-called forgery. Moreover, these copies which we make of experience must hold to some degree a sense of coherence with the real, of being meaningfully representative of it to be satisfactory. They have, in essence, an intentionality which binds them to the world in some way. This is what I mean by the drive to realism.

The creation of copies of experience in what we do or say or – to put it another way – create is how we engage with the world, one another, and ourselves. This is how Augustine understood his famous lata et praetoria memoriae, that is ‘fields and tents of memory’ (Confessions 10.8.12): ‘From the same store come mental likenesses of the things that either I experienced for myself, or I believed in because of what I had experienced at one time or another. I weave them together with likenesses from the past: and from these I can reflect both on future actions and events and hopes, and on everything of this kind once more, as if it were all these before me.” (10.8.14). These imagines – which were for Augustine likenesses, representations, concepts and ideas – formed the building blocks of thinking about the future and thus of action itself. Moreover, as Augustine explains sentences before this passage his storehouse of imagines is where he encounters himself, it gives the self continuity and thus coherence.

Augustine’s representation of memory as a form of mental time travel has been taken up as a touchstone by cognitive scientists and philosophers alike in recent years. What is key to both Augustine’s conception of remembering and that of contemporary theories in the human sciences is the fact that it is always and essentially constructive. As Kirk Michaelian has recently summarised “remembering is not a matter of encoding, consolidating, storing, and retrieving discrete representations of discrete episodes […] these processes involve selection, abstraction, interpretation, integration, and reconstruction, all of which may introduce significant modifications to remembered information” (Mental Time Travelp. 103). Copying, reproduction, representation are fundamental to the way we recognise the world and our place in it. But the gulf between the mentalising of the world we engage in and the world itself haunts.

That gulf might be thought of as the foundational principle behind the emergence of psychology, at least in so far as we might crudely identify such an emergence in the figure of Freud. For him the conflicted relationship we have with a reality which is indifferent to our wanting is made manifest in our defences. The maintenance of a self concept tethered to reality determines psychological fitness. The inescapable disjunction between the two worlds – interior and exterior – rendered the biographical task impossible to Freud. “To be a biographer you must tie yourself up in lies, concealments, hypocrises, false colourings, and even in hiding a lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to the had.” (Letter to Arnold Zweig, 31.5.1936). Not only do we hide ourselves from the world in various costumes and representations, but in this way too our very selves are hidden from us. Our perspective on the real is always and necessarily partisan. So it turns out that psychologically we may all be masters of forgery.

What matters are the principles we use to fabricate the necessary sense of authenticity. How do we engineer realism and how do we recognise it? The aim of the sciences at the end of the nineteenth century was to create a knowledge of the world which perfected the flawed vision revealed through experience, as Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have explained (Objectivity, 2007). This sense of a constructed real which aimed beyond the parapets of the senses to capture a teasingly Platonic ideal informed scientific practice in the eighteenth century. The effort to capture the typical which is still a guiding principle in textbooks of all kinds saw the transformation of observation under interpretation. According to such observation only threw up deformations of the fundamental and divine perfection of nature. The job of the scientist was to restore that perfection and so bring human understanding closer to God.

In their article (‘The image of objectivity’, Representations 40, 1992, 81–128) Daston and Galison illustrate this attitude by referring to the way the Dutch anatomist Albinus proceeded with his representation of the human skeleton. Observing that skeletons differ according to age, sex and all manner of other variables, his example has been chosen to conform to the highest standards of aesthetic – that is male – beauty. Further on he adds the telling comment “As therefore painters, when they draw a handsome face, if there happens to be any blemish in it mend it in the picture, thereby to render the likeness the more beautiful; so those things which were less perfect, were mended in the figure, and were done in such a manner as to exhibit more perfect patterns; care being taken at the same time that they should be altogether just”. Albinus’ vision of the skeleton departs somewhat from the anatomical rawness we are now accustomed to see. Abridgement, embellishment, adjustment – just enough so that expectation and recognition could be satisfied – were the tools of scientific godliness.

According to Daston & Galison, the divine beauty of nature informed the use of principles of symmetry to extrapolate the form of snowflakes and the behaviour of liquids. Even after photography came to be integrated, some images were doctored in order to coax the ideal from the observation. Scientists were challenged by the difficulty of extracting the typical from highly complex arrays of particularity. Francis Galton exploited photography by using repeat exposures to superimpose the portraits of different criminals in order to arrive at a more general type. Technology’s specificity had to be tamed to reveal nature. These efforts accorded with the Romantic principles of the 18th century: no particular could be used if the perfect patterns of the universe were to be adequately represented and thereby understood.

These same interventionist tactics surface in the processes of restoration practiced in the 17th and 18th centuries, as Maree Clegg has discussed. Bernini’s Ares exemplifies this collaborative attitude towards the past. The provision of a new foot and hand for the god, a head and arms for the putto by his side, and a new handle for his sword not simply healing what was broken, but synthesising it with the aesthetic tastes of the day. However tempting we ought not think of rogue artisans applying their own philosophy of restoration to ancient remains.

In the records of a council meeting of the Louvre published in the Bulletin de la société nationale des antiquaires de france in 1906, the authenticity of an inscription which had been attached to a now lost base of a statue of Venus was discussed. In order to demonstrate the suspect nature of the base, another identical base, bearing an inscription for Lucius Caninius, proconsul of Africa, was brought forward. According to the minutes of the 309th session of the council of the central museum of arts in 1800, Visconti (the previous director of the Pio-Clementino Museum and then keeper of antiquities under the consulate headed by Napoleon) proposed that the statue attached to the Caninius inscription ought to be restored by the addition of an ancient head from an unknown Roman person of the Antonine period. The council adopted Visconti’s proposal without, it seems, further discussion. Intervention by patchwork thought honourable in 1800, raised suspicions a century later in 1906.

Intervention has over time quivered between methodological ideal and criminal practice. For Petrarch, the fourteenth century scholar, engaging with the past through its literature involved its consumption, its destruction, and recreation in order to provide it with a second life: “Take care lest [the nectar] remains in you for a long time in the same condition as when you gathered it: bees would have no glory unless they converted what they had found into something different and better. Thus, if you come across something worthy in your reading or meditation, I exhort you to change it into honey with your style …” (Letter to Tommaso da Messina, Fam. 1.8.23–24, trans. A. Lee, Petrarch and St Augustine, p. 49). This notion of the collaborative nature of the dissemination, reception, and transmission of textual knowledge stands as the indispensible backbone of the practice of textual criticism – of creating a singular version of a text from multiple unique manuscript witnesses. The idea goes back to antiquity and is present in Diodorus of Sicily’s Bibliotheca Historia.

In the provision of an outline Diodorus aimed to safeguard his work against the manipulation of compilers, evincing a concern for the dissemination of his work according to its original conception. However, what follows suggests a more collaborative vision of authorial practice: “And throughout our history it is to be hoped that what we have done well may not be the object of envy, and that the matters wherein our knowledge is defective may receive correction at the hands of more able men” (1.5.2). Authorship is not a matter of the ownership of knowledge, but the improvement of it and accordingly is open to transformation.

The sentiment is expressed more strongly in Caesarius of Arles’ preface to his sermons in which he instructs the faithful to copy them out as a devotional act, but that “if you find anything in the writing or ideas more or less than necessary, with charity be indulgent, correct the text as it needs and get it copied in better handwriting” (Sermons, 2 preface, CCL 103, ll. 22–47). The greater responsibility involved in the manual reproduction of manuscripts – with the editorial burden implied – caused John Trithemius to argue at the end of the fifteenth century in his work In Praise of Scribes for the continued superiority of copying in the face of printing’s capacity for exact mechanical reproduction. Reproduction for the bulk of history has been inexact, purposefully and virtuously so.

Yet there is something powerful in forms of likeness which dissuades us from creative abandon and sets shifting limits on what is a tolerable deviance from the real. The preoccupation of Renaissance artisans with hyperrealistic representation inspired new methods of rendering life, modelling flesh with leather and wood and making casts directly from nature, as Pamela Smith has shown (The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution, 2004). For the Resurrection Scene on the North door of the Florentine Baptistry, Lorenzo Ghiberti seems to have taken pains to cast a tree branch from life in order to imbue the scene with sufficient realism (p. 11). The Renaissance mission to capture the world accurately for Ghiberti could only be achieved by relinquishing style (maniera) and understanding how the natural world was put together and perceived. The power of representation in the copying of nature was thus to be found in the knowledge of the world so discovered, demonstrated and expressed.

The power of likeness might be also observed in the 16th century treatise De arte crucifixi. There a ritual attributed to the late antique Christian heretic Pelagius promised to grant the practitioner the seven liberal arts, all of theology, the resolution of all intellectual queries and the power to summon angels and spirits to foretell the future and provide knowledge of the past. The ritual asks of the reader to undertake the following actions: “make with your own hands a carved image of our Lord hanging on the cross with his arms outstretched (…) the more naturalistic and beautiful the image, the more effective it will be – it should be a complete and perfect image”. As Pamela Smith has observed the ritual asks the practitioner for a double imitation of Christ, first in the form of the naturalistic crucifix required, and second in the imitation of nature by manual craft – the practitioner as carpenter engaged in his own imitatio Christi. The coping of nature, of the model of Christ, was by the logic of this ritual the path to ultimate knowledge and power.

The crisis of representation, of whether a typical or ideal rendering is to be preferred over a specific manifestation, of whether the real is accessible to our senses at all, was resolved differently in the 19th and 20th century. As scientists at the turn of the century began to express their preference for the exactitude of mechanical observation as salve to the imperfections of the human gaze, literary theorists rejected the reduction to typicality represented by the earlier Romantic, classical and neoclassical styles. Theorists like Georg Lukács and Eric Auerbach advocated a realism expressed in the particular, the specific, the non typical character whose reactions revealed the complex forces which made up reality. For the Marxist Lukács this meant not a photographic reality, but the use of complexity of characterisation to let the true nature of social forces be felt in the fate of individuals – a commendably historical agenda. For Auerbach reality was likewise to be found in the intersections between the different ways individuals experienced the world. So a modernist like Virginia Woolf could be praised for putting “the emphasis on the random occurrence, to exploit it not in the service of a planned continuity of action but in itself. And in the process something new and elemental appeared: nothing less than the wealth of reality and depth of life in every moment to which we surrender ourselves without prejudice” (Mimesis, p. 552). Paradoxically newness here is to be found in the rendering of that most familiar thing – the real.

Realism, it turns out, like forgery, is a matter of perspective. It requires, according to Roman Jacobson, both being apparently real and distinctly individual – the conflation between the two notions, realness and individuality, not here assumed. It also demands a disruption of tradition, a confidence to let the unusual have its impact – as many acts of forgery too. This was the excuse George Eliot required to justify the outlandish events in Daniel Deronda. Quoting Aristotle’s Agathon (Poetics, 25) she could declare “it is a part of probability that many improbable things will happen”. Jesus could even have a wife.

Reflecting on the features of realism we might recognise those which have made forgery the broad church that it is. One which must embrace the less sensational examples; the certificates which provide verbal and material manifestations of oral traditions of the authenticity of relics in the medieval period; the composite statuary engineered by restorers of the 17th and 18th centuries; the fan fiction elaborations on lost ancient works produced by the likes of Simonides; and the earnest textual and monumental reproductions attempted by Renaissance artisans which passed into the tradition before being cast out as deceitful replicas. The unsavoury histories of forgery dominate and distort our appreciation of the habit, one which shares with the other arts of realism a genuine interest in understanding, translating, sharing and possessing our own experiences and those of others. We dismiss the replicant as somehow lesser because it reveals the fallibility of our most anxious compulsions – our inescapable need to reproduce.

Rachel Yuen-Collingridge

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