16 January 2004

The Browneing Version

      After reading RK's blog not too long ago, I found myself, rightfully, encouraged to look again at the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, someone I must confess I probably had not read since my undergraduate days (but only Religio Medici), but who I also vaguely remembered liking. Ah, such is the curse when reading is a huge part of one's profession: even those we enjoy can slide into the recesses of memory, whether by circumstance or forgetfulness, or some admixture thereto.

      But I offer this here as a kind of personal tale.

      After reading RK, I scanned about my room, sure Browne was lurking somewhere, but couldn't find him. Had I imagined this? Had I lost my copy of him, as I've lost so many things over the years? And all I could locate was an old set of Norton Anthologies with Browne included, but only in fragmentary form. No, this was not the Browne I read. Or was it? No, it wasn't. Or--- and backwards and forwards as memory tossed me around like a wet rag, or like -- no, I won't invoke that metaphor. But, alas, tonight, for some peculiar reason, I wasmarking a student paper and Will and Grace was on TV, and I inexplicably thought of Ben Jonson, by which W&G is the closest contemporary televised equivalent of Jonsonian comedy, and I thought: damn it, I know where he is... , and lo and behold, I dug deep (deep, deep, deep) into the mile of paperbacks situated in the alcove behind my television, and found my old copy of Browne's The Major Works, not an illustratious or academic edition (it's the Penguin), but there it was nonetheless, much to my own surprise, and much to my own memorial self-vindication.

      I was sure, sure, sure, sure, sure, sure, Browne was lurking about here somewhere, but like a Hitchcock hero, my own inability to prove it was making me begin to question my own memory. Long story short: aside from seeing John Cleese again, watching Will and Grace actually proved beneficial. Browne's a very fine writer, and in the next little bit I'll post a few significant segments from him that I deem especially good (he reminds me in a way of Stevens, in no other way except in his counter-temporal capacity to surprise with his diction; he always seems to have a finer turn of phrase at hand than one expects, and so many of his phrases finish, like good wines, with a serendipitous aftertaste). The only thing that is preventing me from doing so now to Browne what I did to Strand less than a week ago is laziness with typing, and the knowledge that I have to get on to other matters, because of that cursed thing called time.

   In many ways, he's a conflicted writer, but at the same time, much of his prose technique is remarkably serene, even when he's turning his words upon himself. I said, I'm sure entirely erroneously, that I have always gathered from Browne a kind of Buddhist sensibility, which is definitely wrong in fact, but not necessarily wrong in interpretation, because he seems to balance himself so well, and he seems to find a kind of verbal circularity (without becoming repetitiveper se) that seems almost koan-istic. I'm still not sure how much I stand behind such a statement, just because I can't explain my response as accurately as I'd like. But I think it's rather like Kurosawa interpreting Shakespeare: the grasp of the ethos is there, and there's the appreciation of technique and even an awe at the form of expression, but the response seems to have to happen, for me at least, in a different, and perhaps inappropriate, form. But I ask you, whoever you are that constitute my readership, how can you deny the beauty of statements such as these, as much as you may object to their content:

Every man is not only himself; there have been many Diogenes and as many Timons, though but few of that name. Men are lived over again; the world is now as it was in ages past. There wasnone then but there hath been someone since that parallels him, as if it were his revived self. (Religio Medici)


We carry with us the wonders we seek without us: there is all Africa and her prodigies in us. We are that bold and adventurous piece of nature which he that studies wisely learns in a compendium what others labour at in a divided piece and endless volume. (Religio, again)


Darkness and light divide the course of time, and oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest strokes of afflliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrow destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables Afflictions induce callusities; miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, an forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days, and, ourdelivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions. (Hydropathia)

or, even this:

Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us. (ibid.)

but just as that might seem cliched:

A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames seemed too little for death, while men vainly affected precious pyres, and to burn like Sardanapalus; but the wisdom of funeral laws found the folly of prodigal blazes, and reduced undoing fires unto the rule of sober obsequies, wherein few could be so mean as not to provide wood, pitch, a mourner, and an urn. (ibid.)

My working edition is, as I've said, the Penguin, the C.A. Patrides edition. RK was, as so frequently happens (except in his defense of Glenn Close as Gertrude), right beyond measure. I'm hoping to be able to make the time to go through The Garden of Cyphus and Christian Morals before life reminds me she's impatient to her attendance. Though this may seem a trivial thesis to all this, it bears stating and restating: there's no reading like rereading, and there's no discovery like rediscovery. And to think I'd forgotten Browne, or relocated him, as many of us do with other writers and thinkers we respect and/or admire, to a corner recess of memory, especially when most of us seldom examine corners anymore, unless otherwise compelled to do so, usually in some form of adolescent punishment.

By the way, it took me the better part of five minutes of awkward stretching and relocating my books (I am working with very tight shelf-space), simply to dig by Browne Penguin out again. I'm relatively sure I pulled a few things doing so. I am more sure, however, it was more than worth it. Especially considering that, these days, Browne is seldom taught anymore, so most will never at all be exposed to him, just as most will not be exposed to Wyatt or Herbert or Lady Mary Wroth or Aphra Behn. Oh, hell, these days, most wouldn't even be exposed to Dryden or Congreve.

This (surpisingly) isn't rant. It's mere satisfaction on my part of rediscovering someone I'm now partially ashamed I'd moreorless forgotten. It's the contentment of rediscovering a fine-tasted wine that one had somehow let slip from memory. I have to admit, in a way, I'm a tad ashamed. How did I let slip someone with so much to offer, and how did I let slip, for so long, someone so masterful in his prosaic technique, a technique I did admire once, however naively?

If I can summon myself from my lethargic ass and post some links to Browne in the next bit, I will, though I hope I do so before I forget. I don't know why, but I have, and am now niggled by, a sense of fear the I'll not think too much on Sir Thomas again for some time, and I may treat him in the "yeah, when I get to it" mentality that is not so far removed from the "we'll do lunch" mentality as I'd more optimisically like to believe.

Oh, memory, she is a cruel bitch-- most of the time. But every now and again, she summons something you'd least expect. And sometimes, when she does this, she slightly recharges you, with another few distempered volts through the jumper cables.

Alas, must focus. Coriolanus pends, as does an olio of work. Cheers and thanks again, RK. Relatively sure you didn't mean it in quite that way, but reminding me of Browne did a lot to stir, and I thank ye for it. Complacency and forgetfulness are among the devil's best friends. (And, crap, I've gone on wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyy too long again. Yes, RK, another Castro-point.) ;-)

(And, btw, please pardon any typos in advance. To describe my typing as abominable is concomitant with saying that Hitler's crimes were "bad." Ah, lintotes.)

No comments:

Blog Archive