The Counterfeiters Critical Essays

Hugh Kenner


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Literary critics and cultural historians have long debated Eliot’s assertion that a “disassociation of sensibility” took place in the mind of Europe, and especially England, toward the end of the seventeenth century. The phrase and the various reactions to it have become central to literary and historical studies. The Counterfeiters is, in many respects, the most original contribution to this ongoing debate.

By his famous phrase, Eliot seems to have meant that it became acceptable, even expectable and desirable, to separate human intellectual and emotional responses to the world. With remarkable suddenness, the belief crystallized that facts were of supreme importance and that the empirical observation of facts and the clear presentation of them to others were the most useful, perhaps the only, tools for understanding and manipulating the world.

Kenner’s central thesis is to affirm Eliot’s observation, but he approaches the insight from a variety of angles, using a thematic development which not only illuminates the shift but also helps explain it and its continuing consequences. Kenner sees the “disassociation of sensibility” as manifest primarily in empirical philosophy, and one of its more profound results was the concept of “Counterfeitable Man.”

The theme of the counterfeit runs through the work, and Kenner starts by examining how thinkers of the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries prepared the way by being concerned primarily with the outward appearance of things, including living things, even human beings. Skilled craftsmen such as Jacques de Vaucanson constructed mechanical ducks which could waddle, splash, eat, and excrete. Was it not possible to construct a mechanical human?

According to empiricism, the answer had to be yes. Empiricists restricted their attention to observable phenomena, so humans became the sum of their outward activities: eating, drinking, walking, talking. If these functions could be acceptably reproduced, the result must be assumed to be a human being. The reproduction could be mechanical, like Vaucanson’s duck, or it could be literary, an assemblage of “facts” such as those about Robinson Crusoe or Lemuel Gulliver. These were two persons who had been not created, but counterfeited; they never actually existed (did they?), but their existence was nevertheless substantiated by documented facts— presented to the reader as facts rather than as art.

One major reason this counterfeiting is possible is the increased emphasis on facts that occurred about this time. The Royal Society issued its famous prescription for the best possible language: so many things represented in an equal number of words. If clear language full of facts was the goal, where did this leave poetry? As many before Kenner have noted, it left poetry in a curiously unsatisfying position, where poems attempted to retain the facts enshrined in empirical thought, yet also the lofty and self-consciously elevated language of “poetry.” In a sense, these are counterfeit poems: “That is what comes of the Restoration emphasis on clarity; it leaves nothing whatever for the poet to do but strike a bardic posture and elevate his language.”

Another type of counterfeit poem was developed when Alexander Pope discovered that, with taste and skill, bad poetry could be transformed into savagely comic verse. In this way, empirical philosophy was turned against itself. Less perceptive writers were left trying to match high verse with prosaic fact. Buster Keaton, a modern Pope, a self-aware counterfeiter, is...

(The entire section is 1476 words.)