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The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk

On imposters.


This is not, of course, my desk. Our esteemed publisher is in the middle of moving his family from not one but two cities in the state of New York to Virginia. (It’s a long story.) As the editor, I don’t mind filling in, though I am afraid I haven’t got his knack for charming personal anecdotes. While I attempt one, our oldest, who has just turned six, is sitting next to me, asking when I am going to get on with reading the next Nancy Drew to her.

Because I am writing this column despite not being the publisher of this magazine, one could say that, like many of the villains in her favorite mystery series, I am an imposter. Imposters fascinate us. One of the first pieces ever commissioned for this magazine was a review of The Professor and The Parson by Adam Sisman, our greatest living biographer. (For another excellent piece by the review’s author, one also concerned with crime and deceit, see B.D. McClay’s reflection on detective shows on page 56.) The subject of Sisman’s book is Robert Parkin Peters, a fantasist who secured academic posts, multiple livings in the Church of England, and several wives on the strength of his lies. Why did he pretend to have credentials he did not in fact possess? Why would anyone lie about such things? Sisman came across Peters in the papers of Hugh Trevor-Roper, about whom he also wrote a book some years ago. Trevor-Roper himself was the author of The Hermit of Peking, a fascinating biography of Sir Edmund Backhouse, a man who convinced journalists, scholars, corporations, and the British government that he was not only an expert on Chinese calligraphy but a spy, an arms dealer, and the onetime lover of the fearsome Empress Dowager. That book in turn owes a great deal to The Quest for Corvo. Many of Frederick Rolfe’s exploits cannot be discussed in a family periodical, but among the most harmless were his Reviews of Unwritten Books, a series of anachronistic parodies: Machiavelli on the Boer War, Dr. Johnson on Carlyle, Lord Bacon on the telegram, and so on. (Peter Hitchens reviews the diaries of another great serial liar, Henry “Chips” Channon, on page 43.)

But not all misunderstood figures are imposters. Some people are simply enigmas. (On page 13, Patrick Smith reminds us that Paul VI was the most inscrutable of the modern popes; elsewhere, on page 54, Jane Scharl imagines the dying words of Theodoric, the vicious Arian to whom we are indebted for the writings of Boethius.) Others manage to deceive themselves, especially about things that matter to them most: family life and the Church. Happily these illusions are often dispelled, sometimes through conscious effort, on other occasions by an inexplicable irruption of grace. (Jake Neu reflects upon such a case on page 16.)

Deception is also a social and political question. Some deceptions are easily uncovered. (For an open-and-shut case against automated traffic cameras, see C.J. Ciaramella’s report on page 10.) Others are more difficult to make sense of, especially when entire civilizations fall victim to them. (This is the problem discussed by Maclin Horton in his essay on the 1960s and the real meaning of the so-called “culture wars", which appears on page 22.) It would be absurd to suggest that modern American liberalism, for which some Catholics once had high hopes, triumphed simply as a result of false advertising, even though the latter is a problem in book publishing. (Nic Rowan seems to have been misled about the contents of a new birding volume: see his review on page 49).

Instead, I suspect, the source of many of our discontents is the fact that we do not agree about definitions. (For reflections on the real meanings of “freedom” and “strength,” respectively, see Sister Carino Hodder on page 19 and Tomás Díaz on page 27.) Even the most basic concepts and categories—the nature and end of human life—are increasingly the subject of widespread equivocation, and we have to accept the fact that most of the arguments we have, in American politics as well as in the Church, involve two or more sides talking past one another. (Lydia Sherwood reminds us on page 47 that in some quarters even an experience as universal in human history as motherhood no longer has an agreed-upon definition, or at least not one that recognizes meaningful distinctions between, say, our Blessed Mother’s care for our Lord and whatever rats do with their young.)

Sometimes these epistemic disjunctures become so wide that they cannot be bridged again. (Addison Del Mastro discusses the economic and other consequences of lost knowledge on page 29.) They become the occasion for more than windy musings from editors attempting to impose a cohesiveness upon the eclectic contents of a new issue. They are, among other things, the causes of wars. (For Sam Kriss’s reflections on the messy competing political realities in the city of his birth and the ineffable quality of the “real” Jerusalem, see page 36.)

All of that sounds rather heavy, I’m sure. I should add on a lighter note that like millions of American families, mine spent the summer looking forward to football season. (For Eve Tushnet’s beautiful account of another sporting event, see page 33.) My wife insists that the Lions are going to win at least nine games this year. Tell me that isn’t an imposture worthy of Backhouse or Rolfe.

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