Rare texts and images from early modern France
In the spring of 2001, while surveying the scholarship on the mysterious Lettres portugaises, I encountered an intriguing bibliographical redundancy: a seemingly new article by Richard-Laurent Barnett, published in 1997 in the American journal Romanic Review, was in fact identical to a chapter in Barnett’s book Dynamics of Detour (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1986). Another chapter from this book, on Pascal, had been similarly reprinted in 1998 in the German journal Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur. In both cases, only the titles, some footnotes, and a few expressions had been modified; the substance of the essays remained the same. There was no reference to the original publication.
Further research in the library stacks revealed that between 1990 and 2000 Barnett had also managed to recycle an essay on Corneille three times, as well as two essays on Racine (one in English, the other in French) three and five times, respectively – always changing the titles and little else. While not totally inconsistent with certain usages of academic publishing, this case of systematic self-plagiarism struck me as unprecedented and noteworthy. Dutifully, I informed the various journal editors (who were, of course, unaware that they had reprinted previously published texts) and presented my findings to the scholarly community in the guise of a book review.
During the following years, there were no more publications by Barnett on 17th-century literature, except for three additional iterations of his French-language essay on Racine. Instead, his focus manifestly shifted towards modern topics, with articles on writers such as Michaux, Modiano, and Cioran, as well as general questions of literary theory. I did not observe this phase closely but noticed, en passant, that the author’s name now appeared often as “R.-L. Étienne Barnett” and that he continued to move restlessly from one academic leadership position to the next, with an increasing specialization in for-profit distance education. Notwithstanding these variable identities and titles, Barnett did seem to be an actual person, if one was to believe the memories shared by those who had had the rare privilege of meeting or working with him, as well as the few photos that were publicly available.
Whereas my 2001 review had rather limited repercussions, intended as it was for the small circle of fellow dix-septiémistes, in late 2014 Barnett gained broader notoriety thanks to a long exposé by Michel Charles, an eminent literary theorist and editor of the journal Poétique. Charles demonstrated that 35 articles published by Barnett since 1999 in 10 different journals were verbatim copies of 19 essays originally written by others.1 Posted online on Fabula, the leading French portal for literary research, this 8000-word piece was widely shared and commented. It also prompted some of the affected publishers to conduct their own investigations, resulting in a wave of retractions, explanations, and apologies. The Hungarian journal Neohelicon, in particular, retracted no fewer than 13 articles signed by Barnett that it had diligently published in the years 2006-2014. Several journals expelled him from their editorial boards and terminated all collaboration.
Ordinary academics might have been discouraged by such draconian reprisals, but Barnett’s singular passion and persistence have allowed him to bounce back quickly and strongly, as evidenced by his latest publication: not a mere journal article, but an award-winning book bilingually titled The Adversarial Text / Le Texte adversaire (Fasano: Schena / Paris: Alain Baudry, 2017).
A book with this title was announced by Barnett as early as 1998, but it took another two decades of collective efforts for the project to come to fruition. Among the 11 “chapters” are indeed 4 of the plagiarized articles retracted by Neohelicon (originally written by René Audet, Jan Baetens, Lucien Dällenbach, and Jacques Poirier). But more interestingly for the field of 17th-century studies, the collection also gives new life to some of Barnett’s own essays, including (as chapters 1-5) the above-mentioned ones on Corneille, Pascal, Racine, and the Lettres portugaises. While these can all be found online in at least one of their prior incarnations, most of them had not yet been physically reprinted in the current millennium and were at risk of fading into oblivion.
Modestly, the book makes no mention of the previous publications of these essays; instead, in inimitably Barnettian fashion, it cites numerous other books and articles, recent or forthcoming, whose existence is difficult and perhaps impossible to verify. This protean updating of bibliographical references extends here to the work of other critics: for example, a statement about epistolary communication that was, in 1986 and 1997, correctly attributed to Susan Lee Carrell, is now credited enigmatically to “Vallois, C. E. (2014). Le nouveau roman épistolaire: énigmes et interrogations. Zurich: Haldenn.” Also worth reading are the eloquent epigraphs scattered throughout the collection: far from being straightforward quotations, many offer creative adaptations and alterations of the originals, and more than a few appear to show the author generously lending his own words to other famous writers, in a curious gesture of reverse plagiarism.
While the praise bestowed upon the book by its editor2 may be excessive (and the prizes it has won chimeric), there is no doubt that The Adversarial Text / Le Texte adversaire provides in its 230 pages a compelling and beguiling sample of Barnett’s work from three decades and deserves to be studied as such. According to WorldCat, among American universities only Harvard and Missouri-Columbia have so far acquired a copy. Other libraries will hopefully follow suit so that this remarkable volume, which is likely to remain the definitive embodiment of the author’s unique genius, can be more widely read and appreciated.
June 12, 2018
1. To this list needs to be added the following article on Racine, which I did not know when writing my review: Richard-Laurent Barnett’s “Les enjeux du schisme: essai d’herméneutique racinienne” (Revue d’histoire du théâtre 52, 2, avril-juin 2000) reproduces Marcel Gutwirth’s “Jéhu, le fier Jéhu: la métaphorisation du tragique” (Re-lectures raciniennes, ed. Richard L. Barnett, Paris-Seattle-Tübingen: Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, 1986).
2. See Giovanni Dotoli, “Au seuil de l’indicible: avant-lire” (The Adversarial Text / Le Texte adversaire, p. 9-12). Different versions of this presentation also appeared in the review sections of the following journals: Revue européenne de recherches sur la poésie (3, 2017); Studi di letteratura francese (42, 2017); Skené (8, 2018).