Spring 2009

The Perfect Crime

Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon channeling Robert Burton in the October 2008 issue of frieze.

Dear Jörg and Jennifer,

I trust you’ll forgive this unorthodox way of getting in touch. I’m writing to explain—and, I hope, put to rest—a matter that’s been preying on my mind for some time now.

You’ll remember that last year I wrote a piece for the October issue of the magazine on the history and theory of charlatanry. We’d discussed the essay over lunch in the spring, and both of you (and Dan too) were excited by the prospect of a piece on fakers, artistic and otherwise. We talked about what distinguished a charlatan from a simple liar or a con artist, and supposed it might have something to do with insincerity rather than straightforward deceit. That was essentially the line I took in my piece, “Is F for Fake?”, which dealt with Warhol, Duchamp, Dylan, and the notorious quack doctor John Brinkley, among others. It was a fascinating essay to research, and I think we were all happy with the result.

Now, you may not recall that the piece opened with an epigraph from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, from 1621. (Well, 1621 is the date of the first edition; Burton kept revising the text until his death in 1640.) Here’s the sentence as it appeared: “I count no man a Philosopher who hath not, be it before the court of his Conscience or at the assizes of his Intellect, accused himself of a scurrilous Invention, and stood condemned by his own Judgement a brazen Charlatan.” I think you’ll agree it’s an apt summation of some of my argument, which mentioned in passing various accusations of charlatanry leveled at the likes of Baudrillard and Derrida.

I guess a quotation from Burton felt especially à propos, too, because the charlatan, like the melancholic, seems in some ways such a seventeenth-century figure—I was thinking of famous fakers in plays by Shakespeare and Ben Jonson—but also because The Anatomy of Melancholy mounts so baroque a display of erudition that one starts to suspect Burton must have made some of it up. Actually, I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that many of his citations from classical authors are inexact at best, perhaps as a result of his working from memory or his own careless notes. In any case, the reader certainly gets the impression that his scholarship is a sort of performance, if not actually a confidence trick.

But that’s neither here nor there. I’m skirting my main point, which is this: I invented that quotation myself. It’s a fake. I’d been looking out for a suitable epigraph while researching the essay, and failed to find a passage that sounded just right. A few days before the deadline I pulled my copy of Burton off the shelf and spent an hour or so trawling the index for references to shamming or deceit: still nothing, not even in Burton’s brilliant discussion of the melancholic’s tendency to malingering and hypochondria. And then it struck me that with a little care regarding seventeenth-century syntax and a few quaint capital letters, I could simply contrive the quotation I needed. Maybe you can imagine the fun I had writing that sentence—I still think it sounds plausible, though I’m not sure Burton would have used the word “brazen” in that way—but you probably can’t guess, yet, the trouble it’s caused me since.

Be assured that I thought seriously about coming clean, and even drafted an email to Jennifer on the day I filed the piece, in which I admitted my modest ruse, and trusted that you’d both appreciate the joke. I’m hoping even now that you’ll figure the con was in the spirit of the essay as a whole, though things have assuredly become more complicated—at least for me, if not for you as editors. I half expected that your tireless copy editors might spot some oddity in the sentence—it’s happened before, and I’ve been infinitely grateful, when I’ve accidentally botched a quotation—and the fact that nobody did flag it for fact-checking should not reflect ill on anybody’s professionalism. It’s only my own reputation that’s been sullied by my foolish and arrogant decision to keep you in the dark.

So what was I thinking when I sent you the piece and failed to admit my deception? I certainly didn’t imagine I was effecting some sort of Sokal-like revelation of the credulousness of the art press; you know I’m not convinced by that man’s stupid trick and can’t abide his bullying little book. I suppose my (immature, I know) delight at the whole scurrilous meta-aptness of the ploy got the better of me. But I’d also been re-reading Baudrillard’s Simulations and Simulacra, and been reminded of the ruse he pulls in the epigraph to that book. It starts, as you’ll no doubt recall, with a quotation from Ecclesiastes: “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” If it sounds too fitting to be true, that’s because Baudrillard famously wrote the passage himself, as he later admitted in the third volume of Cool Memories. Google it now and you’ll find several discussions of the epigraph as a quintessentially Baudrillardian sleight, and probably just as many where the author quotes it straight but is oddly unable to find it in any translation of the Bible.

But all of that is just my own self-aggrandizing stuff. More to the point, you might be wondering by now what’s brought on this confession, so late in the day. Events, you see, have taken a curious turn. Some weeks after the frieze issue in question appeared, I was contacted by an academic in Uruguay—a notable scholar of Borges, as it happens—who was preparing a collection of essays on the subject of fakery and wished to include “Is F for Fake?”. I was flattered, of course; after securing assurance that frieze would be fully credited in the book, I agreed to publication and began to add some scholarly apparatus to the essay. And then my heart sank: what of the fake quotation? Assuming that an academic editor would want to excise such a sophomoric jape, I dashed off a confession and proposed an alternative epigraph. I’m perplexed to have to tell you now that the editor likes the joke—it has an air, she says, of the Argentinean master! The book will appear, in Spanish, later this year.

You’ll appreciate, I’m sure, my predicament—which I hope, indeed pray, is not also now your predicament. We—forgive me, I—have sent this little lie out into the world, where it may do who-knows-what damage in the years (let’s not speak of the decades, or centuries) to come. I’ve been haunted recently by the possible scenarios. A diligent graduate student, justifiably thrilled to unearth evidence of Burton’s early theorizing of the relationship between philosophical thought and self-conscious performativity, may waste hours, days, weeks, combing a Spanish translation (or worse, the linguistically knotty original) for the fantastical sentence. More vexingly, unwitting scholars might take the epigraph on trust, and quote it in their own writings, so that it insinuates its way into academic discourse. I’ve begun to dream of whole libraries filled with false citations.

Enough of these fancies, though; I’m sure it won’t come to that. In any case, you must rest content in the knowledge that I take full responsibility for this egregious deceit. (As also in the certainty that it has not happened before, nor ever will again. Really.) And yet, dearest editors, isn’t there a sense in which we are all in this together? Honestly, I don’t want to worry you—we’re all conscientious and busy people, with neither the time nor the inclination for infamy—but can you really say, in light of the sordid course of events that I’ve tried hard, believe me, to lay out for you as sincerely as possible, that you don’t feel something of the same twinge of guilt that I feel right now?

But we must remain calm; discovery, not to mention posterity, is a long way off. The relationship between writer and editor is such a delicate and—don’t you agree?—such a precious one. It’s based on trust, of course, and I know that I can trust you.

Yours truly,

Brian Dillon is UK Editor for Cabinet, and a Research Fellow at the University of Kent. His writing has appeared in the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, frieze, Art Review and Modern Painters. He is the author of a memoir, In the Dark Room (Penguin, 2005); his Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives will be published by Penguin in September 2009.