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  • Digital Archives and Sibylline Fragments: The Tempest and the End of Books
  • Peter S. Donaldson


In these pages I trace how Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books reads The Tempest anachronistically, as a play about the end of books and the advent of electronic forms. Greenaway finds The Tempest relevant to this shift because, as he puts it, we are living in the early years of “the second Gutenberg Revolution,”1 in which the ambitions of the Renaissance magus with his magic books are being realized, in part, through digital technologies.

Prospero’s Books is an anticipatory or proleptic allegory of the digital future, figuring destruction of libraries and their rebirth as “magically” enhanced electronic books. It is set in the past, and extrapolates from the several passages in the play in which Prospero’s books are mentioned the story of twenty four wonderworking books through which Prospero achieves his magic; yet, by calling attention to the digital special effects by which these books have been created on screen—digital painting and photoprocessing applications, computer animation, multiple screen overlays—Greenaway suggests that the magically enhanced codex volume is as much a part of our future as our past.

And perhaps that is so: the “expanded book” CD-ROM is one form that moves in this direction (though it is not a book), experiments with ink that reconfigures itself in response to computer instruction, and with “hot” links embedded in ink on paper may move us futher in the direction of such a future, retaining something like the form of the book but amplifying its powers.

Like Prospero’s Books, this essay itself exists in a transitional form (networked hypertext with linked images and brief video citations), and like Prospero’s Books it imagines future forms and depends on them. It is relatively linear in its form and bounded in its contours, presenting a small number of textual and visual citations. Yet it asks its readers to imagine that they are exploring a path, one particular path, through an immense networked digital archive.

Such an archive would include the complete film Prospero’s Books—as well as all other Shakespearean film adaptations, linked to relevant lines of text; which would include all extant copies and page fragments of the Folio text of The Tempest, and an extensive library of commentary; which would be linked as well to extensive collections of anatomical illustrations from the Renaissance forward, and to texts and images that illustrate the motif of the “end of the book” in the late twentieth century.

With such an archive in place,2 the role of the critic or interpreter would be at least a double one. One task would be to create a bounded exploratory hypertext, a “collection within a collection,” by specifying a number of linked resources relevant to the subject. The other task would be the marking of a path through that mini-archive, by choosing and commenting upon examples, as I do here. In such an environment, one could follow my path or break off to explore one of the text and image collections of which it is contructed. To borrow, at third hand, a phrase of Wittgenstein’s, interpetive hypertext would allow for “travel over a wide field of thought, criss-cross in every direction.”3

An essay within a digital archive—such a form might expand the resources that can serve as context for an interpretation, extend them to include several media, and create marked and unmarked paths to traverse. Such a form might also foster a documentary tendency, a style of interpretation in which the critic’s work always includes comprehensive access to the work discussed, to its sources, and to digital records—text, film, image—of the historical and material evidence relevant to the work under discussion. These digital documents might illustrate the rich and complex traditions from which an artist like Peter Greenaway (whose films are themselves encyclopedic and archival) draws his material. But their function would not be limited to illustration. The hypertextual and documentary aspects of such an essay would, perhaps, converge insofar as documents—virtual or material—always tell their own stories, or incite us to tell...

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