Imaginary Books.

Adam Smyth has a very enjoyable LRB review of The Atheist’s Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed, by Georges Minois, translated by Lys Ann Weiss (Chicago, 2012). The book doesn’t sound great (“There are ways to articulate complexity, and Minois’s isn’t generally one of them”), but the review is a delight, full of lists of names:

Many accounts of imaginary books originate in Rabelais’s Pantagruel (1532), where, between the giants and the scatology, Rabelais describes the Library of St Victor in Paris – perhaps Europe’s earliest imaginary library. Among the volumes Pantagruel finds are The Codpiece of the Law; The Testes of Theology; On the Art of Discreetly Farting in Company; Three Books on How to Chew Bacon; Martingale Breeches with Back-flaps for Turd-droppers; and The Spur of Cheese. Imaginary books get funnier when they collide with enumerative bibliography – bodiless texts meticulously pinned to a board – and Rabelais’s catalogue lists 140 titles, some of which, he tells us, ‘are even now in the presses of this noble city of Tübingen’.

The iterative wit of the phantom bibliography is at work in the best-known early English example: John Donne’s Catalogus librorum aulicorum incomparabilium et non vendibilium, or The Courtier’s Library of Rare Books Not for Sale. Unpublished until 1650, Donne wrote the text between about 1603 and 1611, and it proved popular in manuscript with his coterie readers. It is a parody of guides to courtly behaviour – a turning on its head of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528) – and lists 34 titles including Edward Hoby’s Afternoon Belchings; Martin Luther’s On Shortening the Lord’s Prayer; and The Art of copying out within the compass of a Penny all the truthful statements made to that end by John Foxe. ‘With these books at your elbow,’ Donne suggests, ‘you may in almost every branch of knowledge suddenly emerge as an authority.’

But the review gets really riveting when it comes to the focus of Minois’s book, De tribus impostoribus, or the Treatise of the Three Imposters: “‘an aggressive work, a frontal attack upon religion’, according to Minois’s always exuberant prose, which labelled as imposters the heads of the three great monotheistic religions, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, and thus reduced the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran to beguiling tricks. [...] Between the 13th and the 17th centuries, De tribus circulated as a rumour and (in Minois’s words) ‘a sulphurous reputation’. Minois calls it a ‘virtual work’, but in the early centuries it was essentially an accusation” (of having been the author). The accusation was first directed by Pope Gregory IX against Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, but was eventually “levelled at a who’s who of Renaissance Europe,” including “Bernardino Ochino, author of Disputa intorno (Basel, 1561), and ‘that villain and secretary of hell’ (according to Thomas Browne) who converted to all three religions in turn.”

The condemnations were accompanied by an even more frenzied hunt for the missing manuscript: rumours spread of texts circulating in Europe and De tribus was (in Minois’s phrase) ‘in the process of becoming a reality’. ‘People claimed to see the book everywhere,’ he writes. ‘They confused it with other books; they fabricated fakes, which others bought at the price of gold; and they did this while cursing the work.’ (In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton condemned ‘that pestilent booke’, ‘not to be read without shuddering’.) Minois delights in strange, Eco-esque vignettes of doomed book-hunting obsessives, like Christina, the daughter of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who criss-crossed Europe in the 1650s looking for De tribus, flinging out rewards for information. Her diplomat Salvius was rumoured to have tracked down a manuscript after a lifetime of searching but, according to his confessor, guilt overtook him and he burned his copy shortly before he died of ‘excessive sexual activity’.

De tribus had been a rumour since the 13th century, but in the early 18th century it became a reality, several times over: multiple versions were written, in print and in manuscript, in different languages. [...] A Latin manuscript, De tribus impostoribus, seems to have been in circulation in late 17th-century Germany. A Protestant minister called Johan Friedrich Mayer had a copy in his library, which brought agitated requests from readers, a few of whom were permitted to make copies. After Mayer died, and after much petitioning, Leibniz was granted permission to read the text, watched over by Mayer’s son. ‘The work consisted of 14 leaves and 28 pages in a small folio,’ Leibniz wrote in 1716. ‘One could read nothing more execrable, more impious, or even dangerous … The style is full … of affected gallicisms. The fourth page of the work has been almost entirely effaced with a pen, apparently because of the blasphemies it contains.’ This manuscript, purchased in 1716 by Prince Eugen of Savoy and now in the National Library of Vienna, appeared in print in 1753 in Vienna with the false date of 1598. [...] Some claimed there was a copy in Italian. Responses and refutations of De tribus began to appear too, as did denials on the part of those accused of writing them, including Peter Arpe, who nevertheless admitted to having ‘held … in his hand’ De tribus. At some point between 1712 and 1716, a forged letter from Frederick II to Otto of Bavaria began to circulate, purporting to confirm the 13th-century origins of the (in fact newly composed) text. Publishers began to use the title De tribus to stimulate sales in any vaguely heterodox book. ‘Where do all the copies come from of this book,’ the librarian Mathurin Veyssière de La Croze fretted in 1718, ‘until now unknown to the learned world?’

What a story! The Necronomicon is a piker by comparison.


  1. This sounds really Eco-esque developing motives from both Foucault’s Pendulum and Baudolino.

  2. Bathrobe says:

    I should point out that Harry Potter is full of made-up book names, although pretty tame stuff compared to this.

    Of the many fictional books Rowling inserts in the Potter series, ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, ‘Quidditch Through the Ages’, and ‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard’ were all eventually published as real books.

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    There is a highly enjoyable supernatural horror novel by Arthur Machen called The Three Impostors.

    Machen being Machen, I imagine he might well have intended the title as a nod to those in the know (of whom I was not hitherto one.)

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    Wkipedia on “The Great God Pan”:

    “Machen’s story was widely denounced for its sexual and horrific content and subsequently sold well”

  5. Aww, Wikipedia, can’t you say “consequently” instead of “subsequently”? Sooooo cautious.

  6. Suggesting causal relationships is considered “original synthesis” and is violation of Wikipedia policy.

  7. >A bit off-topic
    It seems that some books related to sex, or pleasures in general, could have had success. Although it isn’t the Aristotle’s second book of “Poetics” cited by Eco in “The Name of the Rose”, “The Sexual Life of Kant” is a well-known hoax that gave rise to ridiculous citations from French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy. Actually, this book wasn’t written by Jean-Baptiste Botul but there is an author: Frédéric Pagès.

  8. Technically, so is advancing temporal relationships, although they tend not to count as original research. It’s just obvious that Tiglath-Pileser’s reign preceded the War of 1812, though you will hardly find a source to say so.

  9. John Emerson says:

    I reccomend Akerman’s “Queen Christina and her Circle” and “The Swedish Rosicrucians” for people who like this kind of thing, and throw in Popkin’s “History of Skepticism”. It was a wild and woolly time. The theory that Dutch was the language of Adam and Eve is in there somewhere, though others say it was Gothic. Prophecies are squeezed form occult readings of eight or so languages, including Coptic and Gothic. A supernova, a planetary conjunction, and three comets predict the Lion of the North, or something like that.

    Like the non-existent Three Imposters book, it seems possible that the Rosicrucians never actually existed. People believed that they had existed, and many wanted to be Rocicrucians and tried to develop their work and follow their precepts.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    (in Minois’s words) ‘a sulphurous reputation’ … (in Minois’s phrase) ‘in the process of becoming a reality’

    I think that the translator was not fully familiar with the subtleties of French. Une réputation sulfureuse and in the process of ….ing are not particularly original in French, and are certainly not Minois’s innovations.

    The sulphur alluded to in une réputation sulfureuse is a noxious, strong-smelling substance associated with the Devil. Of a heretical idea, statement, book, etc,. it could be said Ça sent le soufre! ‘It smells like sulphur!’. Outside of a scienfitic context. the adjective sulfureux is highly judgmental: ‘immoral, depraved, steeped in sin’, and such. Don Giovanni is the archetype of the man with such a reputation. (The French adjective applies to the idea, reputation, writings, etc, more than to the person).

    As for was in the process of becoming, I think that the translator used a school-type literal translation of the phrase être en train de, which is much more common in French than be in the process of … ing is in English. I would use was on its way to becoming … or even simply was becoming.

  11. marie-lucie: “être en train de”, which is much more common in French than “be in the process of … ing” is in English. I would use “was on its way to becoming …” or even simply “was becoming”.

    There are a few slightly different ways to convey in English what is meant by être en train de. I don’t believe they are, in general, any less common than être en train de, although “is in the process of” may be less common simply because it is a bit high-tone. What they express is something that Anglophones and Germans often express. In fact, what I take from your comment is that être en train de is more common in French than I had thought.

    Let’s suppose Robert is an older man in retirement. “What is Robert doing these days ? He is finishing up work on his new garden”. The question is not what Robert is doing at the exact instant the question is asked, but what activities he is pursuing around this time in his life.

    As so often, to understand a phrase (here “he is finishing up work”) requires more than adding up the meanings of its component words and dividing by the syntax. The additional understanding in this case is the knowledge that the phrase is in answer to the question “what is he doing these days“. It would be fair to say that the être en train de bit is already in the question. The example I gave is equivalent to “What is Robert in the process of doing these days ? He is finishing up …”.

    In German: “Was macht Robert denn so heutzutage ? Er ist dabei, die letzten Arbeiten an seinem neuen Garten abzuschließen.

  12. The use of en train de … that I love is the road sign trou en train de formation.

    What kind of bureaucratic mind would rather put up a sign than fix the road?

    [Further off-topic: Google translate can't cope with this at all.]

  13. “Hole being educated” ? That certainly goes beyond what the German welfare state undertakes for its citizens. Bravo les Français !

  14. That’s what the French-German part of Google Translate yields: “Loch im Prozess der Ausbildung“.

  15. Thanks for sharing that Google Translate moment of fun!

  16. There are a few slightly different ways to convey in English what is meant by être en train de. [...] As so often, to understand a phrase (here “he is finishing up work”) requires more than adding up the meanings of its component words and dividing by the syntax.

    You realize, I trust, that you are in the process of teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    AnrC: the road sign trou en train de formation.

    I wonder if this is supposed to be a translation form an English sign with an -ing suffix. If I had to write a sign for the same thing, I would probably use excavation en cours if I wanted to be very specific about the work being performed. Where “men working” appears in English, the French equivalent is travaux en cours. At least it was last time I was on a French road. But perhaps trou here means a pothole or similar spontaneous hole opening in the ground and getting bigger. But the use of en train de preceding a noun rather than a verb seems new to me: just en would be enough, or en cours (de).

    Stu: la formation is not necessarily training (for a job, etc).

    “What is Robert doing these days: the be …. ing form is often awkward to translate into French (as in German) since there is no morphological equivalent (except for the imparfait). Etre en train de here would be OK even if the activity (like finishing up the work on the garden) extends over a period of time, depending on the context: “Oh, he is keeping busy; right now he is finishing …” Oh, il s’occupe: il est en train de finir les travaux dans son jardin. As for in the process of, I think that it could apply to a lengthy undertaking: you could say he is (in the process of) finishing up the work on his garden, but not he is (*in the process of) washing the dishes, while French il est en train de faire la vaisselle is the ordinary way of referring to this activity occurring at the time of speaking.

  18. I don’t have a problem with saying I’m in the process of washing the dishes (as an explanation, for example, of why I can’t come to the phone right now). If anything is odd about it, it’s a slight collision of register between the somewhat technical word process and the domestic activity of washing the dishes.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    JC, I trust your native speaker intuition. Perhaps it is a question of register: I would not use “process” in that situation, but I would say “I am in the middle of washing the dishes”. Je suis en train de laver la vaisselle fits both, as well as plain “I am washing the dishes”, since en train de is neutral with respect to register.

  20. I think JC is an outlier in this regard; I’m pretty sure very few English speakers would naturally say “I’m in the process of washing the dishes.”

  21. very few English speakers

    “Infinite are the arguments of mages”, says Le Guin. She also speaks of “the art of making order where people live”, a high-register description of housework with which I have a lot of sympathy, though I would rather call it a craft than an art (not that I believe in any rigid distinction between the two).

  22. You realize, I trust, that you are in the process of teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.

    I don’t teach, I opine. I don’t know how my grandmother would have described the way she construed sentences. In any case, my comment was not about how she would have described it, but about a unattributed description that I consider to be inadequate.

  23. @marie-lucie excavation en cours. No, no sign of any travaux. (Which is to say not even other signs or diversions, far less a gang of road-fixers.)

    a pothole or similar spontaneous hole opening in the ground and getting bigger seems exactly it (from observation — can other rural road users confirm?).

    I guess to the bureaucratic mind: why put effort into fixing something that is clearly organically en train? We’ll wait until it’s a fully-formed hole of known dimension. (Memory is unreliable; it might have been trous in the plural. Perhaps all these holes are going to grow into one big hole, like cultures in a petri dish?)

  24. marie-lucie says:

    AntC: Yes, at first I misunderstood the meaning of trou en train de formation, I thought that a hole was being created for some purpose, hence my suggestion of excavation, then I understood it was something natural and the road crews were probably waiting until they knew how big it would become. But en train de formation struck me as bizarre. I guess en train de, once restricted to the pre-verbal position, is being extended to a pre-nominal position under the influence (and in replacement) of en cours de. But perhaps en cours de formation would suggest some form of training rather than a natural event.

  25. As someone who lives where icy streets and extremely heavy traffic make potholes a fact of life, I would point out in defense of those bureaucrats that a warning sign is cheap and quick and may save people’s axles, but repair crews are expensive and slow to get around to any particular pothole. That said, I agree that “POTHOLE FORMING” or “POTHOLE IN PROCESS” is a strange thing to put on such a sign. In NYC they are usually roped off, if deep enough, and if there is a sign it is wordless.

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