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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32.3 (2002) 433-468

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The Book and the Fetish:
The Materiality of Prospero's Text

James Kearney
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut


Staging the Disappearance of the Book

In Prospero's Booksthe writer/director Peter Greenaway presents a cornucopia of texts, magical and humanist, scientific and fantastic, to represent the eponymous volumes of his film. In Greenaway's vision, Prospero's books include The Book of Water, A Book of Mirrors, A Book of Mythologies, A Primer of the Small Stars, An Atlas Belonging to Orpheus, A Harsh Book of Geometry, The Book of Colours, An Anatomy of Birth, An Alphabetical Inventory of the Dead, A Book of Travellers' Tales, The Book of the Earth, A Book of Architecture and Other Music, The Ninety-Two Conceits of the Minotaur, The Book of Languages, End Plants, A Book of Love, A Bestiary of Past, Present, and Future Animals, The Book of Utopias, The Book of Universal Cosmography, Lore of Ruins, The Autobiographies of Pasiphae and Semiramis, A Book of Motion, The Book of Games, and Thirty-Six Plays. Greenaway's books not only celebrate the early modern fascination with catalogues, but also suggest the kind of humanist and esoteric learning that would create both a Prospero and The Tempest. One of the most stimulating of Greenaway's interventions in the text of The Tempest, this catalogue of books satisfies a need to fill in the gaps in Shakepeare's enigmatic play. With no textual clues to the identity of Prospero's books, the critical tradition has similarly filled in the gap by reading Prospero's books allegorically.

Understood variously as an embodiment of the unbounded ambition of Baconian science and a remnant of the culture of medieval magic, as an idealization of a superior European technology and a materialization of European letters and literacy, as the enchanted "book" of the theater and the corporeal incarnation of the sorcery of Shakespearian language, Prospero's books have become all things to all critics. But perhaps both Greenaway's [End Page 433] staging of a textual cornucopia and the critical tradition's need to allegorize Prospero's books are symptomatic of the fact that the books never materialize within the pages of Shakespeare's play. That is, in all the descriptions of this ostentatiously material object—which is, at various points in the drama, to be stolen, drowned, and burned—the enchanted tome fails, by some secret sorcery or other, to materialize within the printed text of The Tempest. The books (or is it a single book?) are mentioned four times within the text of the play, and each time they seem to be positioned off-stage. 1 Prospero will "to my book," he will "drown my book," but it is never clear that he has his books, or that the audience is expected to have seen his books. Certainly, theatrical productions can and have staged Prospero's book or books, but the printed text suggests that The Tempestconsists of plots and characters that revolve around an archive that is always elsewhere, always off stage.

To explore the significance of this structuring absence to the play's "staging" of the material book, in this essay I examine the central role that conceptions of literacy and materiality play in the European understanding of the "barbarous" other. I read The Tempestas a cultural document that addresses the problem of materiality as it was employed in defining "civilized" and "savage" in early modern England. Using William Pietz's important genealogy of the fetish, a genealogy that traces the emergence of the concept to the trading encounters of Europeans and Africans on the coast of West Africa in the early seventeenth century, I read the early modern understanding of the fetish as a product of the iconoclastic discourse of the Reformation. The latter discourse continually returns to the material book in order to articulate its understanding of materiality generally.

A Prehistory of the Fetish

Infant reason cannot reach above a...


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