André Breton’s and Eugène Atget’s Valentines


The product of an amusing or unusual event, an anecdote will be repeated both orally and in print. Its reliability and value as evidence or historical fact is, however, almost always suspect, which the study of multiple versions of single anecdotes confirms: chronology, places, major and minor characters, and so on, almost never fail to change in major and minor ways in the retelling (Saller 74–78). Even though the anecdote’s other most salient feature is its oral transmission, most studies, for obvious reasons, draw on published accounts—from the tablets of antiquity to the ephemeral newspaper—to verify its unreliability. That is not to say that a keen awareness of its origin in speech does not also work itself into examinations of the anecdote; no treatment of the anecdote can dispense with the word’s etymology as “unpublished news” without giving it its due. Oral narratives spring not only from a need for entertainment but also from the exercise of unauthorized free speech. As untrustworthy as they are insidious when spread as gossip, anecdotes lack authority yet exemplify free speech, which circulates in opposition to institutional and published forms of repression (Fenves 154–5).

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