Individual - Authority
Goethe’s Faust struggles in this manuscript fragment of Faust II with this same recurring tension between the immediate desire for knowledge and power and the always secondary call to virtue. “Seht ein paradisisch Bild,” says Faust, “Look at the paradisaical picture,” in a fragment of the manuscript, one of the many given by Goethe’s daughter-in-law as a souvenir to visitors. As memorable, as fragmentary a Faustian relic: a scrap of poetry copied by Isaac Newton in one of the alchemical notebooks which were disbound, scattered, and sold after his death, as an archive not in keeping with his legacy. “Listen to my daughter Meg / ” Newton has copied, “For she shall tell you truth & right / Hearken now wth all your might.”
It is, of course, difficult to listen, and difficult as well to discern or be told (or to agree on or wish to remember) what is true and right. The Beinecke Library collections embody the enigmatic quality of manuscript culture, and the fact that. despite our efforts to reach across the boundaries of time and self, we remain as often persistently unknown and unknowable to each other. Two manuscripts, paired facing each other in the exhibition, epitomize the fascination which the unknown can exert upon us over time, baffling our continued scrutiny and in spite of our best efforts at forensic analysis. Presented to Yale University by H.P. Kraus in 1969, the Voynich manuscript continues to stymie all efforts to decipher what seems to be an encrypted language, in an illustrated manuscript which carbon dating has indicated as of the fifteenth century.
Only a few years previously, in 1965, the Beinecke Library had received the Vinland Map from an anonymous donor, a manuscript purportedly dating to fifteenth-century Europe and representing the earliest known depiction of the New World. Pigment testing in 1974 indicated that the map was a forgery, because of the presence of titanium, a pigment in use only after 1920, but photon analysis in 1985 indicated that the pigment testing might have been methodologically unsound. The historically situated contexts of proof, authenticity, and viable evidence are made visible in the near fifty-year continuing debate over whether the Vinland Map was forged.
But it can also be remarkably difficult to know the authentic, particularly when fame has endowed the author involved with his or her own aura. Two letters from English novelist Charlotte Bronte are on display: one to Ellen Nussey, in 1852; a second, to Warren Horne, without a date. One is real, the other forged, identified as such by a scholar, Miss Mildred Christian, in 1955. In a volume of papers by William Henry Ireland, he presents his forged specimens of Shakespearean documents and signatures to the Prince Regent, as the “authentic” Ireland forgeries, the documents of what he viewed as an episode of great significane in the history of English literature.
This exhibition begins with one of the first manuscripts to enter into the Yale collections. It ends with a manuscript begun in the Beinecke Library reading room. "What is the soul? / and who are we / to each other / these images ask," writes Natasha Trethewey, in notes toward her poem "Miracle of the Black Leg." Named United States Poet Laureate in 2012, Trethewey can be found, in these drafts and annotations, fearlessly engaged with the demands of memory, the shifting nature of historical evidence, the claims of the past upon us, as writers and readers in the present.
"What is the soul? and who are we to each other," asks Trethewey. One possible reply was offered by Ezra Stiles, in 1793: "Perlegi hunc librum," or, "I did read this book." As readers of the Beinecke Library's manuscript collections, we hold the surviving traces of those who have preceded us as we do each other, by hand.