Reading Michael Keevak on George Psalmanazar

It’s either a ridiculous oversight of mine or else part of some grand plan which I have yet to form that I’ve never published anything about George Psalmanazar on a website ostensibly named for him. I’ll remedy that today by posting some of my reading notes for Michael Keevak’s biography of Psalmanazar titled The Pretended Asian (2004). I read the book a few months ago. Repurposing notes like this is something I do when I feel bad for not having anything fresh to offer. The fact is, I’ve been distracted by work, by travel, and by family emergencies. Forced to choose, I’ll preserve reading time at the expense of writing time.

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Michael Keevak’s little volume seems to be the only book-length biography of George Psalmanazar readily available. It’s not at all bad. Keevak is a professor of foreign languages (specifically, English) at National Taiwan University, which – if you know anything about his subject – is unspeakably perfect. The man known to history as “George Psalmanazar” became a celebrity in London in the early 1700s by pretending to be a native of Formosa (Taiwan) – a place which at the time was more than half myth in the minds of Europeans.

Psalmanazar went to remarkable lengths to build up his personal fiction. He created a spurious Formosan language with its own script and a well-defined grammar. He published, complete with fanciful illustrations, a supposed history of Formosan culture peopled with subterranean aristocrats, schools that taught classical European languages, and plenty of human sacrifice. At Oxford, Psalmanazar tutored would-be missionaries in the language and customs of the country they intended to evangelize. Despite his clearly European features and blonde hair, he defended his imposture publicly and met with a great deal of success, though there were always doubters.

Eventually, Psalmanazar experienced a moral conversion, brought on by reading William Law’s Serious Call, and faded into a Grub Street obscurity, translating works from Latin and various other languages, and teaching himself Hebrew. He was a contributor to the massive, multi-volume Universal History and, unsigned, penned the article it contained on the island of Formosa, in which he announced that his story had all been a bad joke. Later in life, he was acquainted with the younger Samuel Johnson, who considered him an eminently learned and altogether admirable man, but who refrained from inquiring into his earlier career as a con-artist.

Psalmanazar arranged for the publication, on his death, of his confession, The Memoirs of *****. He never revealed his true name, but described a childhood in France, an education by the Jesuits and Dominicans, family difficulties, enlistment as a soldier in various armies, and how he launched his career of imposture by trying to pass himself off as an Irishman, then as a native of Japan, and finally as a Formosan when he came to England.

It’s a terrific story, though Keevak rushes things. He’s more interested in questions of race-perception, in Psalmanazar’s place in the history of western orientalism, and in “The Great Wall of Europe” – that is, western ignorance and presumptions of superiority vis-à-vis non-western peoples. Nonetheless, I particularly enjoyed Keevak’s chapter on the stubborn persistence of Psalmanazar’s entirely fake but ingeniously constructed Formosan language, which continued to crop up in foreign language sample books and published multilingual compilations of The Lord’s Prayer for generations after the mask had fallen from the man himself.

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