W. Joseph Campbell

Too bad it’s only in French: A neat little book of impressive debunking

In Debunking, Media myths on December 17, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Talk about heavy-duty debunking.

The Times of London not long ago posted an item at one of its blogs about a book published last month that challenges the veracity of well-known quotes attributed to French rulers and intellectuals.

The book, Le Petit inventaire des citations malmenées (or, roughly, the Small  inventory of abused quotations), calls into question such famous lines as Louis XIV’s  “L’état c’est moi,”  Louis XV’s “Après moi le déluge,” and Queen Marie Antoinette’s “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (let them eat cake).

As described by Charles Bremner, the Times‘ correspondent in Paris in a blog posting late last month, “Those famous royal remarks are among dozens of misattributed, misunderstood and outright false quotations in a fun little book just published by two academics,” Paul Desalmand and Yves Stallini.

Bremner writes that the authors “delight in knocking down famous lines that were outright invented or wrongly attributed to great figures of the past. They blame lazy journalists and historians for populari[z]ing dodgy quotes and making them up because they sound right.”

Lazy journalists: Seems right.

Journalists can be quite eager to invoke famous quotes that “sound right” or are simply too good to check out. Too delicious not to be true.

The long-lived but almost certainly apocryphal remark attributed to William Randolph Hearst, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war,” comes readily to mind.

So does the comment attributed to President Lyndon Johnson, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Johnson supposedly made the remark after watching Walter Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam in February 1968. As is discussed in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the program when it aired.

And Hearst denied ever having vowed to “furnish the war” between the United States and Spain.

In its review, the Parisian daily Le Monde calls Le Petit inventaire des citations malmenées “clever” as well as “instructive and amusing. Also sad, sometimes.”

The book, Bremner further notes, challenges the quote attributed to King Henri IV, “Paris vaut bien une messe” [Paris is well worth a mass]. “No trace of this legendary quip by the ex-protestant king can be found in historical records,” Bremner writes, adding that authors Desalmand and Stallini “suggest that it may have been invented by enemies of the popular 16th century ruler who switched to Catholicism in order to have the crown.”

Le Petit inventaire des citations malmenées sounds like a neat little book of impressive debunking. It runs 188 pages, but hélas, is available only in French.

WJC

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