Still out there

Newton left behind a huge amount of material. Too much, if you ask the many editors who have, over the years, tried to make sense of it all. The tedium of his excessive re-drafting threatened to send more than one pious editor off the rails, to the madhouse or even to the grave. No documented Newton-paper-related deaths have occurred, but the sheer unending mess of the papers themselves probably protected them from many prying eyes over the years.

Those editors did have cause for hope, and for perseverance. Amidst the tedium of repeated drafts on minute details of church history or reams of papers relating to the administration of the Mint, there is the historian’s gold dust: vivid evidence of Newton’s most personal obsessions, thoughts he dared not share with anyone, a glimpse into his inner, imaginative world, a world inhabited not by mathematical characters or equations but by demons, beasts, whores and virgins. That is stirring stuff, and makes it easier to understand the tug of desire and anticipation that kept the scholars–the lonely, the proud and the few–at it over the years.

It also helps explain the perennial hope that something else will be discovered, some overlooked scrap of paper with Newton’s writing on it that just might reveal the answer to questions we haven’t even thought to ask. Recently, just such a scrap was discovered, at the offices of Maggs Brothers, the book dealers who bought many lots of Newton papers when they were sold at auction back in 1936. Did the re-discovered manuscript change how we think about Newton? Did it contain anything sensational or significant? I’ll leave you to wonder. It certainly sold for a prodigious amount of money, enough to buy someone a very fine sports car indeed.

Such sales are understandable, even if eyebrow-raising for those of us more attuned to the price of a cup of coffee than a Newton manuscript. It’s natural to want to acquire a fresh piece of the past, untainted by the gaze of past generations. It’s almost like getting a bit of oceanfront property, closed to the public and with a view of infinite horizon.

Less exciting is the fact that much possibly “sensational” material sits in archives and libraries around the world, unexamined and unheralded. The sensations contained in these unknown archives have yet to be considered. The answers they contain are for questions that future generations will think up, questions unknown to us now. These archives point to truths that are less glamorous, and less certain, than the truths revealed by miraculously recovered manuscripts in movies and novels.

Thinking this way about manuscripts and the past can be exhausting: since nothing is ever fixed, nothing can ever truly be known. I find it comforting, though, to think about the material we leave behind as having a life of its own, which continues as long as the paper itself survives and which cycles through different tellings at the hands of scholars and historians over centuries. Much better, it seems to me, to keep going, even if Truth with a capital T gets left by the wayside.

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