Rob Hardy on books


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An Idiosyncratic Mind from a Distant Time



Rob Hardy


I first encountered the writings of Sir Thomas Browne in a quotation that turns out to be one of his many famous ones: "But the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying." It stuck in my head, and even though I told myself from this one sentence that Browne was someone I wanted to read more, that was decades ago, and the reading never happened until now. New York Review Books has published a new volume containing his two most famous works. Religio Medici ("The Faith of a Doctor") is from 1643 and Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall ("hydriotaphia" is one of Browne's many coinages, and means the deposition of bodily ashes in urns) is from 1658. Browne has shown up in my reading before I got to hear from him in his originals. "What Song the Syrens sang," he wrote in Urne-Buriall, "or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzling Questions, are not beyond all conjecture." If you have read Poe's "Murder in the Rue Morgue," you encountered this as the epigraph. It is also one of the things Stephen thinks about in Ulysses. If you are familiar with Moby Dick, you have encountered Melville's quotations of Browne, for he wrote about whales (among countless other things); Melville must have loved Browne's antiquated language and tendency to coin new, often strange words (though some, like "hallucination," have become standard). This edition is edited by the husband-and-wife scholar team of Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff, who have clarified Latin or obscure English phrases, provided notes and a glossary, and given an introduction, with a brief biography and appreciation. I can't compare other editions, but for this newcomer to the reading of Browne's original works, I here felt very comfortable looking into the thoughts of an idiosyncratic mind from a distant time. 




Religio Medici starts with a surprise. "For my religion," writes Browne, "though there be severall circumstances that might perswade the world I have none at all, as the generall scandall of my profession..." It seems that in his day, doctors were often thought of as atheists, and Browne's work sets his own record of belief straight. "Holy water and the Crucifix (dangerous to the common people) deceive not my judgement, nor abuse my devotion at all: I am, I confesse, naturally inclined to that which misguided zeale termes superstition," like doffing his hat at a cross or crucifix. Yes, to a crucifix; even when hearing an Ave Maria bell for prayers to the Virgin, Browne, a strict Church of Englander, would get reverent: "Whilst therefore they directed their devotions to her, I offered mine to God, and rectified the errour of their prayers by rightly ordering mine owne."  




It was perhaps this sort of backstabbing acceptance that got Browne onto the Catholic Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum, but church officials, even Protestant ones, should have fretted some about Browne's skepticism and the importance he saw in the sort of scientific observation that doctors should have been doing: "The wisedome of God receives small honour from those vulgar heads, that rudely stare about, and with a grosse rusticity admire his workes; those highly magnifie him whose judicious enquiry into his acts, and deliberate research of his creatures, returne the duty of a devout and learned admiration." He is, however, a creature of his time. He sees that astrology works, but attributes its working to God's arranging it so, saying, "... if to be born under Mercury disposeth us to be witty, under Jupiter to be wealthy, I doe not owe a knee unto these, but unto that mercifull hand that hath disposed and ordered my indifferent and uncertaine nativity unto such benevolous aspects." He was also called upon as an expert witness against witches, and writes, "... for my owne part, I have ever beleeved, and doe now know, that there are Witches; they that doubt of these, doe not onely deny them, but Spirits; and are obliquely and upon consequence a sort, not of Infidels, but Atheists." He admits, though that his rational mind has objections to the fantastic tales in scripture, and he lists some of the more outragous ones, but he works hard to keep his beliefs: "Yet doe I beleeve that all this is true, which indeed my reason would perswade me to be false."  




Religio Medici is for a large part Browne's justification of his brand of Christianity, and would be tedious for those of us of a different persuasion, where it not for bright sparks of prose: "Charity begins at home, is the voyce of the world; yet every man is his greatest enemy, and as it were his owne executioner," or, with thanks to the editors for the parentheticals here, "Natura nihil agit frustra [from Aristotle: Nature does nothing in vain] is the onely indisputable axiome in Philosophy; there are no Grotesques in nature; nor any thing framed to fill up empty cantons [spaces], and unnecessary spaces." Urne-Buriall is different; naturally Browne's enthusiastic ideas about religion keep crowding in, but not for justification. Urne-Buriall was inspired by a cache of funerary urns that was dug up in Norfolk around 1655. It is an examination of ancient and modern burial practices, which allows the melancholic antiquarian Browne to meditate on that end which awaits us all. The editors write, "In the deepest sense, Urne-Buriall is not simply or primarily his diagnosis of the urns at Norfolk: it is his diagnosis of the human condition." He mentions burial practices of Egyptians, Romans, Scythians, and more. He refuses to believe that the cremation practiced by early civilizations was a sign that they had no belief in life after death; after all, the ancients would ensure "that the Funerall pyre consisted of sweet fuell, Cypresse, Firre, Larix, Yewe, and Trees perpetually verdant, lay silent expressions of their surviving hopes." He compares this to Christians decking coffins with bays, for "that tree seeming dead, will restore it self from the root, and its dry and exuccous [sapless] leaves resume their verdure again." He may have been melancholic, but he has humor. He assures us that he himself is "not ashamed of the Anatomy of my parts, or can accuse nature for playing the bungler in any part of me, or my owne vitious life for contracting any shamefull disease upon me, whereby I might not call my selfe as wholesome a morsell for the worms as any."  




Browne accepts that grief is necessary, and paired with that is some hope of earthly endurance; every culture carefully deals with the dead in its own way, and puts up monuments. But they often get it wrong, he says: "But the iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity. Who can but pitty the founder of the Pyramids?" Those monuments, "Pyramids, Arches, Obelisks, were but the irregularities of vainglory, and wilde enormities of ancient magnanimity." Most people don't get such remembrances and make no difference: "The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been." 




Browne wrote, "But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?" He didn't know how right he would be in his own case. His skull was dug up from its Norwich churchyard in the nineteenth century, and stolen by a sexton; only in the twentieth century did it make it back. He would not have cared. He wrote, "At my death I meane to take a totall adieu of the world, not caring for a Monument, History, or Epitaph, not so much as the bare memory of my name to be found any where." It didn't turn out that way; if he truly wanted the oblivion he writes about so movingly, he should not have written so movingly about the oblivion.  




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