Darkness Made Visible: Eamonn Peters on Imagined Literature
Illustration for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Gustave Doré, 1866
by Ed Simon
A few months after the end of the United States’ bicentennial year, and an unassuming, unpublished junior professor from Wordsworth and Southey College in bucolic Susquehanna, Pennsylvania found himself at the center of a media firestorm that was jocularly called “Miltongate.” At a panel of the Seventeenth-Century Literature Society, Eamonn Peters presented readings from an over three-hundred-year old manuscript he supposedly discovered in the archives of his college library, and which he claimed was the only copy of a complete epic poem by John Milton, called Boudica. The poem took as its subject the ancient British queen who raised a rebellion against the Romans, depicting Boudica as an ancient Oliver Cromwell expelling royalist tyranny from Britain’s shores. Peters claimed that upon Restoration the poet abandoned the manuscript of Boudica, with the sole copy eventually finding itself smuggled away to America in the lining of a Puritan emigrant’s coat. “I sing the song of the crimson toped queen,/the Roman’s hammer, who toppl’d the towers/of Londinium’s Romish perfidy/and purged poppery from Briton’s shores,/the Celtic warrior dame of Scythian blood/who smash’d the idols of pagan dread/as her equals at Masada stain’d desert sands red.”
Peters’ voice read out the halting and inexact blank verse in a ballroom at the Times Square Hilton, having invited a friend who was a reporter with the New York Post to act as a surrogate “peer-reviewer” (Peters’ article on Boudica having been rejected from every scholarly journal he submitted it to). Buried deep in the back of the next day’s issue was the headline “Paradise Tossed, Top Doc Hocks Poem Shock.” The wider media picked up the story, and Peters found himself feted by journalists who were fascinated by the narrative of one of the greatest poets in the English language writing an epic that lay hidden for three centuries, only to find itself inexplicably in the library of a small liberal arts college in the rural mid-Atlantic. By November of 1977, Peters was the third guest on an episode of the Dick Cavett show.
Peters’ fellow academics reacted to his announcement with incredulity. In a hastily assembled special issue of the Journal of Seventeenth Century Poetry C.A. Patrides and A. Bartlett Giamatti ripped apart Peters’ claims. They denounced the scholar for not releasing the entire manuscript, while pointing out errors and aesthetic deficits in Boudica (including at least a dozen groan-inducing puns). Patrides and Giamatti wrote, “We are convinced that Boudica, in possibly its discovery and certainly in its conception, is an unqualified and unmitigated hoax, unworthy to be included along not just the least of Milton’s works, but the least of his most insignificant contemporaries’ as well.” Peters eventually admitted that Boudica was not genuine, but maintained that he was a hoodwinked victim. Ultimately, even that weak defense collapsed when an editor at the pulp magazine Astounding Marvels came across a discarded slush pile submission Peters had sent in four years earlier under his own name, a racy yet maudlin fantasy tale about Boudica, where the language and plot matched much of the epic poem. Peters’ disgrace complete, Wordsworth and Southey rescinded his tenure, and the professor returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh where he still resides, writing erotic spy thrillers under a nom de plume.
In anticipation of the fortieth anniversary of the affair (and indeed the 350th anniversary of Milton’s actual publication of Paradise Lost) Peters is preparing for the first publication of a work under his own name in almost four decades. Breaking years of silence, Peters’ surprisingly philosophical semi-memoir and reflection on “Miltongate” is slated for a spring release. Review galleys of Darkness Made Visible present a recovering academic who has some fascinating observations to make about the nature of fictionality, authorial intention, and fraud, while remaining frustratingly unintrospective about his own role in the entire affair. His book is a strange chimera of literary criticism – part theory, part autobiography, part defensive diatribe, part fantastic literature in its own right. The entire incident has largely been relegated to a footnote of literary history (or maybe even more charitably a footnote-of-a-footnote), but Darkness Made Visible has the potential to reignite some of the controversy for the era of “Fake News.” This past November, a few weeks after the election, I had the chance to meet and talk to him when he was briefly in New York to meet with his publisher. Dr. Peters cuts a paunchy, tweedy figure, but he was extremely gracious and seemed unfazed and used to the rather critical inquiry regarding his positions. We met at a chain Middle Eastern restaurant on Broadway, a few blocks from Union Square and near the Strand Bookstore. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Ed Simon: I was really fascinated by the first line in Darkness Made Visible, which reads like one of those aphoristic, gnomic, totally unsubstantiated but interesting “theory-speak” lines that you come across in some continental philosophy. You write, “All of literature is haunted by a counter-history, which is the long succession of texts that could have been written but were not written; the proper insight is that the list of real and imagined literature is ontologically identical.” Based on your novels, you’re a pretty “earthy” writer [Peters laughs at this]. I was wondering if you could take that first sentence, maybe apply some of that earthiness to it, and explain what exactly you meant when you wrote it?
Eamonn Peters: What novel did you have in mind as being “earthy?” Alpha Centauri Orgy: A Fr. Zebulon Crabs Mystery? [Ed Simon laughs] Well, I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not…
Simon: It definitely was!
Peters: Or if the thing about aphorisms and gnomes or whatever was a compliment either….
Simon: Maybe less so!
Peters: But what I was trying to say in that line, is basically that there is something metaphysically really odd about fiction, right? The list of potential literature which does not actually exit in our reality is infinite – there could have been Plato’s discourse on the Jewish God, Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Mongolian Pilgrim’s Tale,” William Shakespeare’s Dante and Virgil. That’s not even to mention the texts by authors who themselves are not real, like Enoch Campion’s sixteenth-century The Tragical History of Dracule. Of course unlike fictional events or countries or people, imagined texts only require us to germinate them into existence and make them real. Literature is eternally conceived in the gossamer other-realm, but some of that is born into the world of wood-pulp, glue, and thread.
Simon: Alright, and that’s sort of interesting, but it sounds like you’re building up a bit of a convoluted defense of Boudicca, like you were somehow “pulling” into existence some apocryphal Milton text, when really you were just counterfeiting a fraudulent text which you claimed was Milton. Literary criticism isn’t clapping so that Tinkerbell doesn’t die. At a certain point some texts were actually written by some real people, and some weren’t.
Peters: Well, respectfully, what’s the difference? Epistemologically the relationship of any text’s fictionality to reality is similar. Note, I’m not saying that this is all relative. I understand that Boudica itself wasn’t produced in the seventeenth-century, rather it was produced by me in the ‘70s, but it describes a universe of fictionality – that sort of other realm where all fantastic and imaginative literature, which is to say all of it by all people, exists.
Simon: So that’s the whole idea behind your title, right?
Peters: Yeah, that of course we know there is no such thing as the author obviously, right? I was the only Barthian at Wordsworth and Southey back then, but more radical than any of that other stuff because I think that fiction is more real than reality is real. I’m like, a Platonist Barthian, if that makes sense?
Simon: Not really, can you explain more?
Peters: So, “Darkness made visible,” it’s the author’s job not to create, but to shine a light on that darkness and make us see all those potential texts which are really already just there. It’s like that old anecdote about Michelangelo, do you know that one?
Simon: Can you remind me?
Peters: So, Michelangelo, profound philosopher and poet in a lot of ways, trained in Renaissance humanism and Florentine Neo-Platonism, and all of this stuff that we in the English-speaking world aren’t really familiar with what he did. But he said that he never created any of his sculptures, he just chipped away all of the parts of the marble that weren’t part of the sculpture that was actually there. Understand?
Simon: I think so, you’re saying that the author just, what, combines words and sentences and paragraphs to reveal some sort of transcendent realm that’s somehow already just there.
Simon: And that it doesn’t matter who the writer as sculptor is, that it doesn’t matter who accomplishes that, but that the text itself, the sculpture itself, is the thing?
Peters: Exactly again.
Simon: Alright, but it seems that slapping “John Milton” on something where he wasn’t the “sculptor,” or “technician,” or whatever, is still, you know, fraudulent?
Peters: Yeah, but he could have written Boudica, that’s my point.
Simon: But he didn’t. And respectfully overlooking the fact that what he did write was obviously much better then Boudica, could he have written that poem? That poem was born out of your own experiences, out of your own history. There was more than three centuries between Milton and you, lots of history happened, the social context changed, the cultural context changed, politics, technology, religion, I could go on. A text which is actually written in the seventeenth-century will bear the influence of that century, same as one in the twentieth-century will. You can try for as much verisimilitude as you like, but ultimately won’t Boudica always just be an homage, a sort of tony John Milton fan-fiction?
Peters: Alright, maybe, but what’s with the classist denigration of fan-fiction?
Simon: I’ve got nothing against fan-fiction, but I’m asking you to defend this position on the ontological significance of fan-fiction?
Peters: I’m really into parallel universes, other dimensions, that kind of thing. The Everett Interpretation of quantum mechanics, that stuff. I’ve made a little bit of spending cash off of science fiction, and I respect all of that. So, when I think of world-building, or whatever, I assume that fiction is that which corresponds to just a different reality. So Jay and Daisy didn’t really fall in love in our universe, but in some different one, and The Great Gatsby is just an artifact of that dimension. The ultimate vindication of the correspondence theory of truth! The positivists should be happy for once!
Simon: I have to say, that’s a really odd theory of fiction. Doesn’t it denigrate the idea of a text as a real creation of our real world, which reflects the details of that world through literary conceit? Your view kind of makes all of literature into some sort of transcendent non-fiction which is just contingently true or false depending on what part of the metaverse you call home, right?
Peters: In my defense that would mean that The Art of the Deal is simply a terrifying dystopian novel in some better, happier reality! Of course the novel is all of those things that you said it is, a creation of our world reflecting and communicating our individual concerns and so on, an aesthetic and ethical object capable of critical and rhetorical analysis, and those might even be the most important aspects of literature. I’m simply also saying that it’s these other things as well.
Simon: So you’re saying that Boudica was already out there, and you just kind of….
Peters: Made that darkness finally visible.
Simon: Right. And so part of your claim – and I want to emphasize how strange and borderline sophistic it all seems – is that Boudica was a text that Milton would have been likely to have grabbed out of that shadow ream, but for all the normal reasons that an author doesn’t produce the book which they could have but didn’t, he didn’t. But that even if he was the likely one to have written it, you were the one who came along and chipped it out of the marble, and that in that sense you can think of the two of you as sort of co-authors?
Peters: I’m not sure that I am quite as literal as that, but that’s the spirit of the thing, yes.
Simon: So you’re sort of saying that Milton might as well have written Boudica?
Peters: [laughs] Less conceited than claiming that I could have written Paradise Lost!
Simon: Yeah, but notice the first person in your last answer, you clearly still believe in authoriality, of intention, of some sort of primacy of the writer.
Peters: Sure, in a prosaic sense. But I’m one who wonders why two generations after the importation of French theory we seem to be going backwards. I want a more radical theory.
Simon: So what do you suggest? Killing the “Author” wasn’t good enough? We need to exhume him and hit him in the skull with his own shin bone?
Peters: Maybe! But I want to make clear here, this isn’t a relativist pose, far from it. Behind that veil I think that there is sort of an absolute text. I am very hermeneutic, very theological. I want to reinscribe the transcendent signified! “In the beginning was the Word,” and all of that. So I’m calling for an occult criticism, a Fortean criticism.
Simon: You sound about one step from being one of those kooks who claim that they divinate literature from dead authors, Mark Twain’s posthumous stories generated with a Ouija board?
Peters: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but fair enough.
Simon: So did Milton whisper in your ear, was he your muse, your daemon?
Peters: Look, I deal with this in the book, and I go into detail about how I wrote Boudica. I think that the question of artistic inspiration is, even in our dead, disenchanted, positivist world, a bit mysterious. I think that Parnassus flows still, that we’re more than flies to wanton boys and that sometimes the gods see fit to arouse us a bit. My academic reputation was, rightly, so completely demolished that there is little I can do to ruin it even more, even if I claim that I used an obsidian scrying mirror like John Dee and his Enochian angels, and that the old Puritan poet gave me some lines about his Celtic queen, ok? So I’ll say right now, I don’t literally believe anything like that, ok? If you need to label it as a “hoax,” then fine, it literally was that. But now, with some distance, a lifetime later, I want to think a little but about what was important with the whole thing.
Simon: Well, not to be rude, but critics like Patrides, Giamatti, Stanley Fish, Al Labriola, Dave Jennings, all of those guys, they were not exactly hoodwinked by a pastiche of Milton, right?
Peters: No, they weren’t. And it’s true, the whole thing was born out of some duel frustrations – an academic career which had stalled, despite the 70s not being anywhere near as apocalyptic as that market is today, and my desire to write pulp literature, sci-fi, fantasy, all of that. So I used to amuse myself while working in the Wordsworth and Southey archives, and, well, Milton 2.0 took on a life of its own.
Simon: It sounds like you’re trying to exonerate yourself, to limit your culpability in what was obviously a work of forgery?
Peters: I’m not sure if you’ve read all of Darkness Made Visible, but I think that I’m very honest about what I did, and the damage that I caused. But look, I’m not going to beat my chest in contrition like that drug addict guy on Oprah ten years ago, alright? We’ve got this celebrity mea culpa culture, and whatever, yes, I’m sorry that I hoaxed people, but what if all we did was talk about how Sokal wrote a fake physics paper and not the deeper implications of the whole thing? Darkness Made Visible is my attempt at dealing with those deeper implications.
Simon: I was really struck in particular by your chapter called “The Geography of the Library of Babel.” Can you talk a little about how your fascination with “imagined literature” as you call it led to Boudica?
Peters: You’re a Pittsburgh guy, right?
Simon: Yes, alumnus of the same high school as you.
Peters: That’s actually where I first got into “imagined literature,” in the library at Taylor Allderdice, a copy of Ficciones, the Kerrigan translation that had been published not long before. And after that I read Labyrinths, the essays, even his poetry which is sadly underrated in the English-speaking world. I just went through as much of Borges as I can. You’re familiar with him of course?
Peters: Right, so then you’d know that he once said, “Writing long books is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness…A better procedure is to pretend that those books already exist and to offer …a commentary.” That’s always really struck me. I’ve been fascinated by it. Dictionary of the Khazars kind of stuff, or Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.
Simon: I’ve been told that I was the editor of the last one in one of your parallel universes! [Laughter].
Peters: Well anyhow, Borges instilled in me an abiding belief that criticism and theory are their own branches of creative writing. I think that never is this more clear, pure, or true than when the texts under consideration are themselves completely made up. That Boudica by Milton isn’t real doesn’t mean that our criticism of Milton’s Boudica must suffer. I understand that he never wrote twelve books of that epic while in hiding during the early days of Restoration, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t read scholarship about how Milton wrote twelve books of that epic while in hiding during Restoration. And remember, most of Boudica still sits on that shelf. I was never able to finish the whole thing. Blank verse wasn’t my thing, didn’t have the skill to do all of it, so the poem is mostly still imagined literature, just little dappled drops of it which exist as quotations in my secondary writing on it, or maybe they’re like seeds of inspiration for some future midwife to see through till full gestation. I believe that criticism is never more clear, pure, or true than when the texts under consideration are themselves completely made up. The purest theory focuses on literature that isn’t even real.
Simon: So that’s the difference between “imagined literature,” and “imaginative literature?” “Imagined literature” is that which simply has yet to corporealize, be made immanent, be incarnated?
Peters: Right, and all literature is imagined until it’s born and is made imaginative. Writers are simply midwives to reality, whose child is the literature itself. And that’s what I loved about Borges “Library of Babel,” this infinite, labyrinthine library with every book that was or could be conceived of. Imagine the marvels in there! Infinite marvels! So Boudica was simply a volume I grabbed off that shelf, in the section with authors whose names begin with “M.”
Simon: I was charmed that it was a real library, one I used to be familiar with, which generated in your mind this fictional, infinite, imagined library.
Peters: Oh yeah, absolutely. I grew up a good Regent Square Irish Catholic, maybe a bit too good, my dad was a former Jesuit priest. Had a PhD in English too, dissertation on Hopkins appropriately enough. And I remember talking to him about the four-fold method of interpretation that the Church promoted in the middle ages, you familiar?
Simon: Yeah, that scriptural texts have a literal, an ethical, a metaphorical, and what, a mystical meaning?
Peters: Right, the last is “anagogical meaning.” I like to think of my approach to unreal texts, to imagined literature, as a type of anagogical criticism.
Simon: In the last third of Darkness Made Visible you provide a classification schema for categories of imagined literature. I was wondering if you could explicate that all a bit?
Peters: Well first off, remember, I ultimately think that the difference between imagined literature and the actual stuff that ends up on a library shelf is simply an issue of perspective. At the end of all of it, at the apocalypse, those distinctions are meaningless, and they collapse into one another.
Simon: Still, in the here and now, in New York City in November of 2016, there is a difference between John Milton’s Paradise Lost as a book that we can go down to Fifth Avenue or to the Morgan and see a 1667 printing of in its original ten books, and, say, Herman Melville’s sequel to Moby-Dick which I just made up right now, correct?
Peters: Yeah, sure. Obviously.
Simon: Alright, so from that perspective, from our current perspective, what exactly are the different types of imagined literature?
Peters: Well, remembering that all literature by necessity is at first imagined literature, and in many ways remains imagined literature, there are a couple of different subcategories. Of course there are imaginary texts by real authors, like Boudica, which was imagined at least until I helped it get born. Then there are imaginary texts by imaginary authors.
Simon: Are there real texts by imaginary authors?
Peters: Well, scripture obviously. Folktales maybe.
Simon: What else is there?
Peters: Real texts by real authors of course, so you know, Crime and Punishment, Jane Eyre, everything in the library [laughter]. Of course you can further subdivide all of that. So there are lost texts, which have returned to the realm of imagined text, since it can never be real to you or me. They’re like books which have died, and their souls went back to that gossamer world. Maybe there is a form of literary metempsychosis and they can be born again someday. Everything at Alexandria, or in the monasteries before Henry and the Protestant Deformation stripped out all of those gorgeous illuminated medieval and Anglo-Saxon vellum; we’ll never get to read any of that stuff.
Simon: Still your father’s son?
Peters: Catholicism dies hard, or not at all. Have you ever heard of Sophocles’ play called The Loves of Achilles?
Simon: No, I’m not familiar with it.
Peters: So it’s a good illustration of what I think about in terms of imagined literature. Sophocles wrote something like 140 plays [editor’s note: the actual number was 120] and only seven of them survive, only seven! Some of the rest survive in fragments here and there, scraps of paper with lines on them. And from The Loves of Achilles approximately only one line survives.
Simon: And what’s that line?
Peters: You’re going to love this. It’s translated in different ways, but the one which I like the best, which compresses Sophocles sentiment into one beautiful, poignant, crystalline perfect line is: “Love feels like the ice held in the hand by children.” That’s how Stoppard translated it in one of his plays. Isn’t that beautiful?
Simon: It is.
Peters: My friend Alberto got me hip to that line. And here is the thing, I think that that line of Sophocles perfectly encapsulates the relationship that exists between real and imagined literature. In part that’s because The Loves of Achilles was once real literature, right? It existed in the real world, as ink on papyrus, as performances being uttered into the cooling twilight of a Theban dusk. If you wanted to experience The Loves of Achilles it was accessible as performance, or as material object in the scroll, or whatever its words were recorded. But as it was once imagined literature which Sophocles pulled into our world, it slowly disappeared and evaporated once again to return to that realm where it had existed only as pure potential. And now the only trace of its ashes left is that one line. That’s all that we have of Sophocles’ The Loves of Achilles. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, and as that play once was, so is all recorded literature now, and as that play became so shall all recorded literature someday be.
Simon: The line, it seems to me, also in its actual content, expresses a bit of what you mean by imagined literature, right?
Peters: Absolutely. I think if we replace the word “Love” with “Literature” – because what is literature other than an act of love, an act of trust and fidelity? – then it remains a profound truth. “Literature, feels like the ice held in the hand by children.” Because just like a hard block of ice on a hot summer day, literature is fleeting. That it preserves sentiment and feeling like an insect in amber is only a quality of its illusion. Literature is always about the mind in process, the world in flux, the individual ever dying. And of course, literature is subject to entropy, decay, death, and dissolution. It is always melting like that perfectly clear block of ice. Indeed as the play from which that line survives eventually melted away. But that it once existed is a quality of its permanence, so in that profound sense, even though it isn’t accessible to us, it was once accessible to some, and so has the blessings of eternity still about it.
Simon: So that’s a type of imagined literature. What about literature without an author, but born from a mistake between minds, between individuals?
Peters: You’re thinking of my chapter in Darkness Made Visible about mondegreens, right?
Simon: I am, I thought that idea of how chance and circumstance and accident and randomness can generate meaning where there is no actual individual author was fascinating.
Peters: I totally agree, my next project is tentatively about non-intentional randomness in the composition of literature. It’s called The Book as Oracle. Thinking about stuff like the I Ching, or tarot, computer generated literature, bibliomancy, aleatory literature in general, maybe asemic writing.
Simon: But mondegreens….
Peters: Right, mondegreens. So these are snippets of lyrics or poetry that are misheard by people. Writer named Susan Wright first theorized about them. When she was a little girl she misheard a bit of the ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray.” The line “And she laid him on the green” she heard as “And Lady Mondegreen,” hence the name of the phenomenon. But what I find so metaphysically interesting about this, is we’ve got this ostensibly seventeenth-century ballad which is already anonymous, filtered through Percey’s Reliques, which is already sort of authorially problematic, and then we have this wonderful mistake that Wright makes as a child. And it’s a mistake that semantically makes sense, but who was the author of that line “And Lady Mondegreen?” Not whoever the anonymous author of the ballad was, and not Percey who collected them. But it’s not Wright either, because she wasn’t the conscious origin of it. That’s how she heard it and she would have assumed that was the intention of the person who was the actual author. So who actually wrote that line? It’s a roll of the die.
Simon: Like “Scuse me while I kiss this guy,” or “There’s a bathroom on the right.”
Peters: [laughs] Right.
Simon: There is an example you give in the book about the profound differences small things can have in a text, and the sort of ever branching tree of potential literature, or imagined literature, as embodied in actually physical examples of texts, and it’s an example that warmed my early modernist’s heart…
Peters: You’re speaking about the Shakespeare thing, the Othello thing?
Peters: I hope that example works well.
Simon: I think it does – can you explain it a bit?
Peters: So a lot of Shakespeare plays come in two different versions. You’ve got the smaller, cheaper quarto versions often published in his lifetime for a quick buck, and then you’ve got that big, beautiful, glorious, posthumous 1623 folio, which has grounded a lot of what we think of as the “official” version of what Shakespeare wrote. But we’ve got no foul papers as they say, very little in the way of actual manuscripts except for some corrections in his own hand on one of the rarely performed plays. It’s hard to say what the role of intention is here, and I’m not doing some crazy “Queen Elizabeth and Walter Raleigh secretly wrote everything in the Tower of London” or whatever conspiracy theory. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, ok? But when you’re in the weeds, and looking at these differences, alright, then you get some interesting questions. There were collaborators like John Fletcher, there is the question of how actors figuring out what worked better on stage led to collaborative changes, that kind of thing. And the differences between quarto and folio can be pretty large. King Lear for example comes in two pretty radically different versions, and scholars have gotten pissed about these differences for generations. But in Othello you’ve got a really delicious, very small difference between the quarto and the folio versions that make no real difference in plot, but in some ways make a complete difference in interpretation, at least in one vein of interpretation.
Simon: This is in your chapter “Just an Iota,” right?
Peters: Yeah. So in any performance based on the folio version of the play, in act five scene two, Othello describes himself as “like the base Judean threw a pearl away/Richer than all his tribe.” Seems fairly straightforward. Othello, already a racialized Other, perhaps read as Semitic, comparing himself to the basest of all Judeans who is of course Judas, his very name marking his “tribe.” Seems to be a fairly obvious reference to the New Testament, to Judas’ betrayal of Christ and the payment to him of thirty pieces of silver. And the “pearl” which is thrown away is his own soul, or the love of Desdemona. But here is the big difference – so you’re a bit familiar with Renaissance typography, printing, that sort of thing?
Simon: A bit.
Peters: So you’d know that the letter “J” as in Judean would basically look indistinguishable from an “I?” I’m not sure if this is the exact way that this happened, but what happens if that “u” in “Judean” is upside down?
Simon: It would look like an “n.”
Peters: Right. So then “Judean” becomes “Indian,” and the line is now “like the base Indian threw a pearl away/Richer than all his tribe.” Suddenly the difference of that single letter – changing a “u” for an “n” – completely alters the entire connotative meaning of the text. Before we have a Christian allusion, a typological reference to the Bible, a type of dramatic parable which conflates Othello with Judas. Now we have a New World allusion, to this commonly held belief that the American Indians could be flummoxed with shiny trifles. You see that in Raleigh, in Harriot, or in Drake, Holinshed. Indians throwing away their paradisiacal land for jewels and shiny objects, trading a “Pearl” for a “pearl.” And so Othello conflates himself with this common European view of what “primitives” were like. And it’s delicious, the quarto comes out in 1622, only a year before the folio, and only three before Peter Minuit supposedly buys Manhattan from the Lenape for $23. So I sometimes like to think of that as Shakespeare’s “New York” reference, though it couldn’t have been, at least not exactly.
Simon: But what’s the significance of the difference?
Peters: Well in terms of literal plot, nothing really. Othello, in his grand rhetorical style, is simply saying that he threw away that which was most valuable. But in terms of deeper connotation, it’s a big difference, it shifts the reference from being this very Christian thing to something more contemporary. It puts the play in a different conversation, and dialogically with different conversation partners. But what’s fascinating to me is that we have no idea which version is “correct,” which one Shakespeare intended. Was it changed based on performance? Did the printer simply make a mistake? And which one was wrong, the earlier quarto, or the later folio?
Simon: I wanted to ask about your contention that all literature, whether imagined or real, is as lemon juice on a piece of paper?
Peters: That’s right. The image came out of something from my dissertation, which focused on a reading of a little-known seventeenth-century poem by the metaphysical Abraham Cowley, called “Written in Juice of Lemon.” It’s a rather sublime little object, where Cowley’s conceit is that the poem is as if written with lemon juice on a piece of paper, and only visible to the naked eye when heated by a candle flame.
Simon: Like making invisible ink when you’re a kid?
Peters: Exactly. And so Cowley writes “Whilst what I write I do not see, /I dare thus, ev’n to you, write poetry.” He makes a lot out of the nature of fire as a means to read the poem – is it the poem that we’re actually reading? He ends the first stanza with “Yet dar’st be read by, thy just doom, the fire.” He alludes to fire as a metaphor for truth, of the fire which burns heretics, and so on. But also fire as life-giver, sun as a type of fire. And it’s from “Written in the Juice of a Lemon” where I found one of the images that I thought helped make darkness visible, which gave me a model for thinking of how real literature emerges out of this ever unseen magnetic field of imagined literature. He goes back to this organic metaphor, of the candle flame which allows the reader to decode the poem as a type of sun which generative properties, “when a genial heat warms thee within, /A new-born wood of various lines there grows; /Here buds an A, and there a B, /Here sprouts a V, and there a T, /And all the flourishing letters stand in a row.” Literature emerges as plants tended in a garden! I think Cowley gets imagined literature really well when he says, “Still, silly paper! thou wilt think/That all this might as well be writ with ink:/Oh, no; there’s sense in this, and mystery—.” There’s this dash there, very Dickinson before Emily, and I love that dash after the word mystery. “Sense and Mystery,” very good definition of literature itself, don’t you think? Simon: And in the narrative of the poem, what happens? Peters: It’s a grand, fantastic, paradoxical, self-referential thing, literally a self-consuming artifact like my old nemesis Stanley would say. The poem is basically about itself, isn’t it? “Consume thy self with fire before her eye… Yet like them when they ‘re burnt in sacrifice.” And it’s paradoxical, since the poem he is writing about is by its nature temporary, it can’t be the poem we’re now reading, even though it’s implied that it is. Simon: So the poem written in lemon juice which can only be read through the intervention of the candle flame, is ultimately consumed by that very same flame? Peters: That’s how I read it. And it’s a wonderful evocation of how literature moves from potentiality to actuality and back to potentiality, the porous membrane between imagined and actual literature. Honestly, what ruins the sublimity of the poem for me, ultimately, is that Cowley of course didn’t’ write the poem in lemon juice, and didn’t let the one manuscript be consigned to the fire. Imagine that, if it had been read once and disappeared, fully confirming its own message! But of course he put it with ink to paper and now it’s preserved in anthologies, of course until the day it isn’t and until it finally disappears for good, as all literature one day will. I suppose rapid oxidation at high temperature is just a quicker form of entropy, but ask not for whom the bell tolls and all of that. Simon: So you see all of literature as being a bit like Cowley’s lyric then? Peters: Absolutely. Think of the great lines and narratives and novels which exist in the average day dream, in the typical wayward perambulation at dusk when the mind allows itself to wander? What poetry is hidden in everyday conversation and never recorded, what drama in the embryonic thoughts between dreaming and awaking? We’re forever surrounded by a vast unseen tapestry of literature, or in the midst of an unheard beautiful symphony, of which an astoundingly small part is ever saved for posterity. What paintings I have seen in dreams, what songs I have heard, all of which evaporate upon dawn! Do not mourn for the Library of Alexandria alone, for every second an infinite Library of Alexandria is created and disappears. And do not mourn, for despite the fact that these moments may never be preserved in vellum and paper, they did happen, and in the process our very lives in all their duel profundity and mundaneness become as if the greatest of literature. Literature is but life, and life is but literature, and they are massive, charged, electric, and devastatingly beautiful. Not just because of what they say, but that they can say at all.
Simon: We’re almost running out of time, but this connects to your image of literature as a “tree of potentially,” right?
Peters: That’s right. Because I think that this small typographical difference in Othello nicely illustrates how all literature operates: as a vast tree of potentially, a network of roots and branches that is infinite and where by necessity only a finite number can ever be actualized. But every text – every novel, story, poem, or play – has an infinite root system which represents that which it could have been but which it ultimately was not. Every selected choice bars others possibilities, just like in the lives that we live. Every word chosen over a different word, or every placed diacritical, or bit of punctuation, all of these cumulative choices hardens a reality out of the spectrum of imagined literature. It’s a coalescing, the way that the atmosphere can condense into fog which we actually see, even though the air of potentiality is always there, and in fact is the only reason that we can breathe. I apologize for my triple engaged mixed metaphor there!
Simon: [Laughs] That’s alright.
Peters: But what I want you to think about is how every sentence that is put on to paper precludes the potential sentences which could have been. That all literature is haunted by the shadows of its potentiality, of the rich vein of imagined literature which made it possible. Imagined literature is the manure from which the garden of our libraries grows. And in the end, it’s this realm of imagined literature, all of the novels and plays and poems never written but which could have been or could be, which accompany all of us all the time. I find myself writing all manner of literature in my head, all the time. Fragments shored against my ruin which are recorded only as electrons firing down my synapses and neurons. Imagined literature exists in the infinite space between the letters of record literature, between its very words. Imagined literature fills the gaps between these letters, waiting to be birthed in our world.
Simon: I want to thank you for this talk, and I have one last question.
Peters: What’s that?
Simon: Will we ever see that complete version of Boudica: An Epic in Twelve Books?
Peters: That depends. Milton still needs to write it. And perhaps he will.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University where he studies seventeenth-century literature and religion. He is a frequent contributor to several different sites, and can be followed at edsimon.org or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.