In Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, the protagonist Jake accepts money to be experimented on to find a cure for the common cold. He is interned in a country house and shares his room with Hugo Belfounder. Their discussions lead in a variety of directions but centre upon one of portrayal, of the truth of expression:
“There’s something fishy about describing people’s feelings,” said Hugo. “All these descriptions are so dramatic.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I said.
“Only,” said Hugo, “that it means that things are falsified from the start. If I say afterwards that I felt such and such, say that I felt ‘apprehensive’—well, this just isn’t true.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I didn’t feel this,” said Hugo. “I didn’t feel anything of that kind at the time at all. This is just something I say afterwards.”
“But suppose I try hard to be accurate,” I said.
“One can’t be,” said Hugo. “The only hope is to avoid saying it. As soon as I start to describe, I’m done for. Try describing anything, our conversation for instance, and see how absolutely instinctively you . . .”
“Touch it up?” I suggested.
“It’s deeper than that,” said Hugo. “The language just won’t let you present it as it really was.”
Language becomes a lie; it is a forgery of true event. It appears to Jake that Hugo leads these discussions, they are his ideas they discuss and Jake is in a process of learning from him. When they are released from the cold-cure establishment, Jake moves away and only sees Hugo occasionally. He begins to write up the conversations that they had and without Hugo’s knowledge builds them into a full book, a dramatic narrative of Hugo’s ideas.
He shows the book to friends, friends who he is careful not to introduce to Hugo. The book is rather good, far better than Jake could have produced, and he doesn’t want the source of these ideas to be revealed and himself to be exposed as a fraud. The book is published and Jake, out of a fear of the shame he will feel when Hugo confronts him about it, severs all links with his former friend.
Jake’s book, is one side of forgery. It is plagiarism, a term which seems to get people increasingly hot under the collar these days. I was at a university meeting of other tutors yesterday and was struck by the cynicism that seems to prevail over this matter. It has become our new witch-hunt, every student is thought likely to have suckled at the York Notes’ teat. We are not talking about copy/pasting from Sparknotes here, however, so let’s not get too worked up about that term. Let’s call it forgery, because Jake is making something. Indeed when Hugo finally meets Jake again after many years, he is puzzled by their parting. He read Jake’s book and loved it; it expressed ideas he had always been struggling towards feeling. The book was of course a falsified version of the things that Hugo actually said — how could it be anything else? Language does not allow true representation.
The other side of forgery, is perhaps best described in Peter Kivy’s article ‘How to forge a Musical Work’.*
Here, Kivy supposes a group of forgers, who have the idea of producing a fake autograph manuscript of J.S. Bach’s Partitia in A-minor for Unaccompanied Flute. They choose this particular piece because no original in known to exist; all we have are two contemporary manuscripts. They take these two manuscripts and construct a third, which differs from each of them in certain small details. They do not necessarily go to the expense or time of copying Bach’s handwriting, or finding manuscript of the correct period. As with the case of Mozart’s Symphonie Concertante for Winds, they claim to have copied the original manuscript before it was destroyed. Then Kivy supposes an astonishing possibility: the original turns up. It does not match either of the contemporary manuscripts, but is exactly the same as the forger’s score.
Kivy claims that the best response is to no longer view the forger’s score as a forgery, but as a ‘version’ of the piece, in the same way that we viewed the two contemporary manuscripts before the original was found. I rather like this idea. I don’t wish to get too involved in the discussion of how we view the forgery however; but the model appeals to me. I don’t think it is wholly unlikely. Much in the way that Lockheart inadvertently seems to replicate events from Scott’s novels in the author’s Life, here a similar process has taken place. “The forgers […] failed at forgery and, inadvertently, succeeded at art-historical reconstruction.”**
In Under the Net, Jake intends to forge, and fails by producing something original of his own. In Kivy’s model, the forgery is intended to deceive but fails by being the same as the original. What I think is interesting is the transference of ideas in both these situations. Murdoch shows us that we take ownership of the ideas we encounter. We inhabit them and make them our own. Kivy demonstrates that we might also inhabit other people’s ideas and by close observation replicate their intentions even if they are unknown to us. Forgery by its nature involves creation, but it also involves base materials. Depending on how these materials are heated, hammered, cooled; the process may produce something wholly new, or something wholly similar. The two views are not irreconcilable, and neither of them should be particularly condemned in the way that we irrationally fear forgery in the present day. Jake’s book is remarkable, Kivy’s forgers produce something wonderful – imagine for a moment if Bach’s original work is not found in that scenario; what they have produced is a considered version of how the original was. All ideas are passed on in this way of adaptation and simulation. Everything is forgery:
“…at this rate almost everything one says, except things like ‘Pass the marmalade’ or ‘There’s a cat on the roof’, turns out to be a sort of lie.”
Hugo pondered this. “I think it is so,” he said with seriousness.
“In that case one oughtn’t to talk,” I said.
“I think perhaps one oughtn’t to,” said Hugo, and he was deadly serious.
. . .
*Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol.58 (2000), pp 233-235
**Kivy, ‘Intentional Forgeries and Accidental Versions: A response to John Dilworth’, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 42 (2002), p.321