Impostures: Robert Browning and the Poetics of Forgery

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The true has no value beyond the sham: As well the counter as coin, I submit.

--Robert Browning The Statue and the Bust (21)


The belated revelation--modestly promulgated in 1934 by John Carter and Graham Pollard under the specter of a libel action--that scores of "rare" and collectible editions had in fact been forged and surreptitiously dispersed among the catalogues of universities, libraries, and auction houses in both Britain and America codified a minor canon of Victorian literature, broad enough to include the major figures of any anthology, select enough to print in a series of pamphlets. At the same time, the insinuation--painstakingly grounded in the textual minutiae of rag and wood pulp, kernless fonts, and anomalous punctuation marks--that Thomas J. Wise, the most authoritative critical bibliographer of his time, had for years maintained a prolific industry in counterfeits marked the culmination of a distinctively modernist and technologically informed mode of paleography, the emergence of an elaborate form of detection suited to a "wholly bibliographical" crime (Haywood 80). That those editions could, in the wake of Carter and Pollard's investigation, retain and indeed increase their collective worth through the very fact of their forgery--effectively trading authenticity for curiosity or scholarly use-value--suggests that Wise may have accomplished more even than his accusers have suggested: that the value generated and accrued in the act of forgery is less measurable by collectors' markets than by an index of a different sort, in the exercise of a critical practice "dependent for its development on the stimulus that forgers have provided" (Grafton 123) and in the differential calculations through which one period or mode of production distinguishes itself from another. But if the immediate controversies raised in 1934 have largely been settled, the critical question of the significance of forgery itself--or rather of forgery's implied claim to originality--remains an open one. The identification of a forgery, after all, merely underscores the epistemological difficulty that subtends any pure category of originality: the logical need to define an original on its own terms simultaneously requires and forecloses a reference to some provenance that might sustain an origin as historical fact. As Umberto Eco notes, "[t]o prove that an object is original means considering it as a sign of its own origin. To take something as the sign of its own origin means to take it as a symptom, an imprint, a clue, as the starting point for a series of inferences, conjectures, hypotheses, abductions" (616). In effect, forgeries can signify their origins; originals cannot. A standard of originality is possible only in the negative, as a test for forgery. Obviously enough, then, a forgery initiates a paradox. It functions only so long as it conceals itself, remains something other than itself. With the declaration of its actual status, it ceases to operate as a forgery at all. Once declared, however, a forgery may become (like Wise's pamphlets) an original of another sort: an original with the capacity to figure its own relation to origin perhaps. It may, as forgery, undertake another practice of meaning altogether (or, more precisely, of making), a poiesis that solicits or provokes criticism and accordingly negotiates temporality in a different way In its need for anonymity, a forgery merely shadows a prior dissimulation lodged within the notion of originality, an originality confirmed only in the possibility of its own abduction and in the corollary impossibility of testifying to itself. But in its contrary need for exposure, a poetics of forgery may also resituate the historical conundrum of originality entirely.

The problem lies not in the forgeries but in the originals, in their absence. What Carter and Pollard identified were not primarily, after all, simple reprints or pirate editions but rather texts that asserted a prior claim of authority, an imprint or a date sufficient to recast the history of the work in question. …