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Gustave Petrovsky

If I had had any sense at all when I was young I would have carefully attributed all of my writings to Anonymous. As it is I have an embarrassing public record.

Perhaps it is best that I did not. Consider the sad case of Gustave Petrovsky, an obscurantist philosopher of no particular reputation, who published volumes of collected essays, all purporting to be by anonymous authors but actually by himself. He actually went to considerable effort to write in the style of various schools and attempted to prune his prose to remove various idiomatic tricks.

At the time no one detected his little frauds, in large part because his work went almost completely unread. In fact his only known reader during his lifetime was the char woman who weekly cleaned his garret. She used his discarded galleys as fuel for starting fires and fell into the habit of reading them before she consigned them to the flames. A confirmed diarist, she wrote indignant comments on "his nonsense" in her diaries. Ordinarily such diaries come to no good end, suffering much the same fate as the mortal remains of their authors.

It chanced, however, that her niece was a mistress of the President of France. The niece loved her aunt and considered her to be a great unsung genius. After her aunt's death she convinced the President to declare the diaries a national treasure. They were duly presented to the Sorbonne in a private ceremony that featured a bottle of champagne and a rather risque negligee.

For some decades the diaries lay quite unread on the shelves of a sub-basement archival library. There they would have lain, unread until the end of time, had it not been that an archivist retrieved them in error in response to a request from a professor of Literary Philosophy who was searching for material to serve as grist for the new theories of exegenesis that he was developing.

The professor perceived that the diaries were just the thing he was looking for. From them he immediately detected that Petrovsky has been conducting a little fraud. Unfortunately, as far as was then known, no copy of Petrovsky's works had survived, so the question became: Were there other essays, supposedly anonymous, in the public corpus that actually were by Petrovsky?

Thus began the Petrovsky school of exegenesis. The journals were searched for writings of unknown or of dubious provenance. Inferences were drawn from the comments in the diaries on Petrovsky's works, and from these tentative determinations were made as to which previously anonymous writings might actually have been written by Petrovsky. As the field matured, these tentative determinations solidified into actual fact, and a picture emerged of an unsung and unappreciated philosopher of heroic proportions.

Unfortunately during World War II a bomb destroyed a small girl's school in Southern France. The building was leveled and a sealed entrance to a subcellar was destroyed. When workers cleared the ruins they discovered a complete copy of Petrovsky's works that had been donated to the school by Petrovsky's mother.

The press proclaimed the find to be a great discovery. In fact, however, it was disastrous. It immediately became obvious that all of the speculations and scholarly research of the Petrovsky school had been specious and entirely without merit. The Petrovsky school vanished from the pages of philosophy; journals were removed from university shelves and given to fish mongers who used their pages for wrapping fish. Professors set their graduate students to work on revising now unacceptable papers to reflect the latest fashion, and Petrovsky returned to the obscurity that he had analyzed in life and found in death.


This page was last updated December 1, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 by Richard Harter

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