I found particularly interesting Browne's assessment of the apparently widely held belief that it is possible to have sex remotely: ''Tis a new and unseconded way in History to fornicate at a distance, and much offendeth the rules of Physick, which say, there is no generation without a joynt emission, not only, a virtual but corporal and carnal contaction.' Well, quite.
Thomas Browne isn't an author I was that familiar with (despite having read – and, to my shame, repeated – the claim, which I now believe to be erroneous, that his Religio medici is some kind of 'fake'), but the other day I happened to read an excellent short novel by the Brazilian author Luis Fernando Verissimo, entitled Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans. It's a sort of intertextual detective story (I won't say a 'metaphysical detective story', because I find that description unhelpful: all detective stories are metaphysical), in which Borges himself features heavily as a solver of abstract mysteries in a fictional universe that looks very like his own (or at least that of an obsessive reader of his books). And the key to the intrigue, it becomes apparent to the attentive reader, is to be found in a throwaway paragraph at the beginning of one of Borges' own stories (I won't say which one, for fear of spoiling the dénouement) – which, like the word in the riddle whose answer is 'chess', is never mentioned in the novel. There are plenty more references to Borges' stories (and to Poe's) – as well as to the kabbalistic magus John Dee – to keep you guessing anyway, so chances are you won't untangle the intrigue before 'Borges' himself does.
Anyway, in that novel, the character Borges might be observed to remark upon 'Sir Thomas Browne, that magnificent seventeenth-century madman, and one of my favourite authors'. It is said, also, that Browne 'wrote a treatise on the X, which he saw as the union of temporal knowledge and magical knowledge.' This must refer to Browne's Garden of Cyrus, which is a discourse on the quincunx. Incidentally, 'quincunx' is a brilliant word not used often enough in English; whereas in French 'quinconce' is relatively current – perhaps because of traditional French predilection for geometrical gardens?
Published at the same time as that work, in 1658, was an essay on the recent discovery of some ancient funeral urns in Norfolk, entitled Hydriotaphia, or Urne Buriall. This is a wonderful little book, and as a 'consideration of times before you, when even living men were Antiquities, when the living might exceed the dead, and to depart this world, could not be properly said “to go unto the greater number”.', a musing upon those 'sad and sepulchral Pitchers, which have no joyful voices; silently expressing old mortality, the ruines of forgotten times', it surely has no equal. So much in this short work is supremely affecting, like this, for example:
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 stroaks of Affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and Sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into Stones are Fables. Afflictions induce callosities, Miseries are slippery, or fall like Snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no Stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in Nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days, and our delivered Senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our Sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.
'Tis opportune to look back upon old Times, and contemplate our Forefathers. Great examples grow thin, and are to be fetched from the passed world. Simplicity flies away, and Iniquity comes at long strides upon us. We have enough to doe to make up our selves from present and passed Times, and the whole stage of things scarce serveth for our instruction. A compleat piece of Vertue must be made up from the Centos of all ages; as all the beauties of Greece could make but one handsome Venus.
Anyway, having read the Verissimo novel, I betook myself to my Borges, and hastily re-read the story 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' which opens the English collection Labyrinths. The story, of course, ends, wonderfully, like this:
I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogué hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne's Urn Burial.
By the way, there is a fantastic Thomas Browne site here. Well worth a look (but beware errors of transcription, not to say typos reproduced from the original editions – in the two short passages I copied above, there were two glaring errors).
Given Browne's own careful analysis of the means by which Error encroaches upon Truth (whether by 'Misapprehension, Fallacy, or false deduction, Credulity, Supinity, adherence unto Antiquity, Tradition and Authority'), it is appropriate, in a perverse way, that the typographical errors I mentioned above have already insinuated themselves into this great Internet of ours. In particular, the passage transcribed on that University of Chicago site as: 'Darkness and light divide the course of time, and oblivion snares with memory, a great part even of our living beings' (which is nonsense) has made it onto a list of Thomas Browne quotes here, not to mention a GCSE/A Level EngLit site here. Of course 'shares' should be read for 'snares', and we could afford to lose that comma, too (although it does, admittedly, appear in the 1658 text). Proof, "if proof be need be", of the insidious power of that invisible agent Error.