- Aesthetics of Fraudulence in Nineteenth-Century France. Frauds, Hoaxes and Counterfeits
This book proposes to analyze various strategies of representing and exposing fraudulence in 19th-century France. What Scott Carpenter argues is that while the tricks of fraudsters evolved over time in order to overcome the resistance of reason and new forms of critical self-awareness inherited from the Enlightenment, the discursive strategies to forestall or demystify fraudulence evolved in tandem, to the point of impinging in important but unexplored ways on the evolution of French literature. It is precisely this point of intersection between "literary" and "non-literary," or, more precisely, between fraud as theme and fraud as performance, that Carpenter proposes to study.
One of the major strengths of Carpenter's thesis is its far-reaching application: he extends his analysis to a surprisingly broad range of texts, genres, periods, authors and disciplines, thus showing how literary strategies of fraudulence pervade in unsuspected ways a number of non-literary and even "official" discourses. This strength, however, may also at times be seen as a weakness, such as when the yoking together of simulated and real "frauds" leads to the suggestion of a deconstruction of the distinction between literary and non-literary. But Carpenter might consider this reservation anachronistic since his aim is precisely to uncover the socio-political forces that determine the categories of literary and non-literary that we use retroactively to evaluate texts from the 19th century. In any case, by encouraging readers to consider 19th-century hoaxes and frauds both historically and analytically, by proposing to carefully scrutinize the common discursive strategies of canonical and non-canonical literature, Carpenter endeavors to expose the complicated intermingling of literary and political notions of legitimacy.
Critical interest in falseness is, of course, hardly peculiar to the 19th century. Since at least the ancient Greeks, philosophers have been interested [End Page 257] in policing the border between real and imitation, mostly in favor of the real. The method of exposure takes a new turn in the 18th century as philosophers and novelists begin to lie as a covert strategy to expose the "truth" of illusions and self-deceptions but which they eventually expose via irony and allegory. The 19th century goes one step further: fraudsters began to trap readers into a web of dissimulation with no visible exit strategy. This new type of literary fraudulence crosses over into the territory of "real fraudulence" by pretending not to be literature. But Carpenter wants to make the case that it is a kind of literature, or at least we should read it as such, since the authors deploy precisely the same literary strategies as "real" literary texts. Carpenter argues that the non-literary texts were forgotten, suppressed or marginalized on the basis of their "illegitimacy." The problem with accepting this designation is that the judgment is bound up with political considerations of legitimacy. By accepting to forget or leave in a state of suppression such "illegitimate" texts, we unwittingly distort our understanding of how the properly "literary" emerged from its opposite.
Of the book's ten chapters (on historical periods and authors, including Sand, Vidocq, Balzac, Baudelaire, etc.), the two of them devoted to Prosper Mérimée ("Violent Hoaxes: Mérimée and the Booby-trapped Text" and "Political Prostheses and Imperial Imposters") stand out as exemplary scholarship and best illustrate, for the purposes of this review, Carpenter's approach and core argument. In both chapters, Carpenter explores the overlapping of counterfeiting techniques between Mérimée's "non-literary" and "literary" hoaxes in an attempt to expose not only the interplay between seemingly "distinct" types of discourse, but to shed light on how thematic elements and literary techniques embedded in the "real" hoaxes help us more clearly identify similar elements and techniques in his "authentic" fiction. We also get a clearer sense of the deeper cultural and political stakes of the divisions between different types of discourse.
Carpenter's analysis begins with a long and detailed analysis of La Guzla—a collection of alleged translations of...