Learning from Lying: Paradoxes of the Literary Mystification

Learning from Lying: Paradoxes of the Literary Mystification

Learning from Lying: Paradoxes of the Literary Mystification

Learning from Lying: Paradoxes of the Literary Mystification


Writers who mystify operate through paradox. Since the eighteenth century, when the term was coined in French, the cycle of temporarily taking in a reader by means of a deceptive text, then deliberately uncovering the fake, has enacted a drama of Enlightenment. Obfuscation reveals trickery, in an exercise that simultaneously embodies the ideals of Enlightenment and interrogates their limits. In Learning from Lying, the lens of mystification reveals a singular literary history. Analyses of works by Diderot, Merimee, and Hildesheimer follow out the cosmopolitan roots of the genre in the Republic of Letters and show how it theorizes literature through practical experiment. For textual imitation revealed lays bare the necessary collusion between reader and writer that allows literature to exist as such. By clearly situating mystification on the continuum that ranges from fiction to forgery, Learning from Lying provides a timely intervention in current debates about the study of fakes. This book is thoroughly illustrated. Julia Abramson is Assistant Professor of French at the University of Oklahoma.


[S]ome play can be very serious indeed.

—Johan Huizinga,
Homo ludens (1944)

Blasphemy has always seemed to require taking things very
seriously…. Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve
into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of hold
ing incompatible things together because both or all are neces
sary and true. Irony is about humour and serious play.

—Donna J. Haraway,
Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991)

Writing from paris in January 1836 to a friend in the south of France, Inspector of Public Monuments Prosper Mérimée (1801– 70) complained bitterly of “provincial rogues” who respect neither civility nor history. the preceding November, Mérimée had traveled to Brittany to verify the existence of a fifth-century bardic manuscript said to be held there in a country church. the manuscript was nowhere in evidence. Yet Mérimée found himself accused of stealing it. Maintaining that the manuscript did not exist, he fought a duel with his accuser, one Théodore-Claude-Henri Hersart de la Villemarqué (1815–95). the confrontation between Mérimée and Villemarqué pitted the historian’s respect for evidence against specious fabrication, truth against the lie, fact against fiction. It is curious, therefore, that both combatants would prove to be accomplished literary fakers. a decade earlier, Mérimée had published a short volume of faux folk ballads entitled La Guzla, ou Choix de poésies illyriques recueillies dans la Dalmatie, la Bosnie, la Croatie et l’Herzegowine (1827). Four years after the confrontation, Villemarqué stood revealed as the true author of the Barzaz Breiz (1839), a collection of fabricated Breton folk songs.

The remarkable fact that two practitioners of the literary con took up arms over a question of truth brings into focus the singular na-

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