Pseudonyms and fake news

Despite speculation and hard-headed scrutiny, nobody knows who the person behind the hyper-famous name ‘Elena Ferrante’ is. We might never find out. The French writer Romain Gary received the Goncourt Prize twice, once for a book written under his own name, the other for a book written under the pseudonym ‘Emile Ajar’. Nobody suspected anything and perhaps he would have taken the secret to his grave, if he hadn’t revealed it himself just before committing suicide.

We don’t seem to mind pseudonyms, even though the word actually means ‘fake name’ in Greek. Names may be fake, but stories have to be true. No tolerance for ‘pseudangelia’, the Greek word for fake news. The Ancient Greeks didn’t know fake news in the sense we do. I coined pseudangelia for the occasion. It’s all fake.

There’s a great deal of ‘fakery’, or pseudepigrapha in the European literary history. These are writings claiming to be something else they are. Authors purported to be someone else, stories alleged to have been written in a different century, a different context, a different place. For nearly every writer from classical antiquity there is a host of pseudo-writers adopting false names or seen to have been the same as those they claim to be. The 6th-century Christian philosopher known today as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite was long held to be the same Dionysius mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles in the 1st century AD, who may have never written anything. Some medieval writers of erotic poetry attempted to pass as the Roman poet Ovid. There was always someone usurping identity and more than one person ready to support the identity theft. The positive reception of pseudonymity is always more visible than the forging agent. In other words, those who fake it get less publicity than those who welcome the fake.

From our age of fake news, what history will remember won’t be so much those who faked it (besides, do we know now who they are?), but those who fell for them, those who clicked and passed on, who spread the pseudangelia like wonky half-angels.

The interesting thing about medieval pseudonyms is that the true authors are only rarely identified. Most pseudonyms stay pseudonymous. Even when historians and philologists call the pseudonymous author’s bluff, the real person behind the fake name remains anonymous, that is, nameless. There is a huge body of authors’ names from the medieval period, but an even longer list of nameless names: Pseudo-X, Pseudo-Y, faute de mieux. After all, what are we to call those who wrote books under pseudonym? And what are we to do when we have a Pseudo-Horace writing in the 9th century and another one trying to pass as Horace in the 12th century?

 

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