Time Traveling with Sir Thomas Browne
W.G. Sebald greatly admired the writing of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) perhaps above all others. The two men, separated by three centuries, were in many ways kindred spirits. Here is Sebald reflecting on Browne (and, by extension, himself) in The Rings of Saturn:
The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne, too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond. In his thinking and writing he therefore sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator. His only means of achieving the sublime heights that this endeavor required was a parlous loftiness in his language. On common with other English writers of the seventeenth century, Browne wrote out of the fullness of his erudition, deploying a vast repertoire of quotations and the names of authorities who had gone before, creating complex metaphors and analogies, and constructing labyrinthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages, sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortège in their sheer ceremonial lavishness. It is true that, because of the immense weight of the impediments he is carrying, Browne’s writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air, even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation. The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time. And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence.
In his compelling and entertaining new book The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century (Granta, 2015) Hugh Aldersey-Williams does his best to locate the innermost essence of Browne. The book opens as Browne sets off on a journey from Bury St Edmunds to his home in Norwich (where Aldersey-Williams also lives). “What was he thinking?” Aldersey-Williams wonders. Browne, a physician by trade, but also “a philosopher and writer, a coiner of words, a Christian moralist, a naturalist, an antiquarian, an experimenter and a myth-buster,” had just testified at the trial of two women accused of being witches. Browne’s testimony suggested that their actions reflected the subtlety of the devil. They were found guilty and were hanged. Aldersey-Williams, who clearly wished Browne had testified differently by exposing the unscientific thinking behind the charges of witchcraft, decides to retrace Browne’s journey home from the trial. And he was going to make the trip slowly, on a bicycle. “I want time to think about what was going through Browne’s head.” The portrait of Browne that emerges is at once thoughtful and impassioned. His complexities and contradictions are carefully weighed and examined.
The title of Aldersay-Williams’ book suggests that the time travel he will take us on will be limited to only one direction, when, in fact, he shuttles continuously back and forth in both directions across four centuries. To understand Browne’s legacy and to understand him better in our own terms, we must see how his ideas and discoveries play out in the 21st century. But to understand Browne himself, we must understand the 17th century better. Aldersey-Williams, a science writer, is well-versed in the history and zeitgeist of Browne’s century and perhaps his finest accomplishment is to give the reader access to the mindset of a 17th century physician, living in a country divided by civil war and profound religious beliefs. Today, we tend to think of the 17th century (and pretty much any earlier period) as a time dominated by superstition and misinformation. As Aldersey-Williams demonstrates, unless his reader can momentarily grasp the given landscape of basic religious beliefs, assumptions, and arguments that pervaded 17th century England, when “belief in the devil was necessarily a concomitant of belief in God,” we will never understand how Browne could testify as he did at the witchcraft trial. Browne’s myth-busting stopped only at the boundaries that his faith required and protected.
So little is known about Browne’s life that a full-fledged biography is simply not in the cards. Instead, Aldersey-Williams focuses each chapter on a key theme from Browne’s life and career: Physic (that is, medicine), Animals, Plants, Science, Tolerance, Faith, Melancholy, and Objects (in which Aldersey-Williams attempts to track down the actual objects of Browne’s life). The chapters turn into time-traveling essays that encompass the evolution of ideas and practices over the centuries. In the chapter on Melancholy, for example. Aldersey-Williams slowly makes his way through a discussion of Browne’s obsession with death and with ancient burial practices (Browne rushed to be a first-hand witness to several newly unearthed Roman or early English burial grounds) to the broader 17th century conception of melancholy (think of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the early 1600s and Robert Burton’s magnificent tome of 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy ) and finally into a careful dissection of the modern understanding of depression and its various clinical definitions in the latest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
We tend to think of Shakespeare when we think of writers who coined new words and creatively expanded the English language, but Browne, who wrote with “delirious” style, was every much his equal in this regard. He is credited with creating 784 new words, including medical, precarious, insecurity, incontrovertible, hallucination, electricity, cylindrical, and ferocious – as well as providing “the first evidence of the true sense of another 1,616” words.
“Thomas Browne is my obsession,” Aldersey-Williams admits, but he is overly modest when he makes no major claims for his book, saying that he hoped only to “have found a way to bring Thomas Browne wide notice.”
I cannot extend Brownean scholarship. I have made no historical discovery about him, found no lost book, no forgotten manuscript (O happy author). Indeed all I seem to have found is that many of the objects supposed to have an association with Browne have disappeared. Nor can I offer the definitive interpretation of his texts (O naive author).
Like Sebald, Aldersey-Williams finds a kindred spirit in Browne. “I have chosen Thomas Browne to accompany me on this exploration of knowledge and unknowable truth. He may seem an odd, even perverse, companion to take. He is often wrong about things, and even when he is right, his scientific knowledge is bound to be out of date. But I have done it for good reasons: because I am fascinated by him, of course; because I am fascinated by his period; and above all because I believe the way he sees the world has lessons for us today.” And the two traits of Browne’s that Aldersey-Williams seems to most anxious for us to understand in the early years of the 21st century are civility and tolerance. Browne had an “almost boundless tolerance for the individual” (as opposed to the often irrational collective behavior of the crowd).
His attitude towards other religions and races, shaped by his European travels and wide learning, is mostly exemplary; it stands up well to scrutiny today. By the standard of his day, it is almost miraculous in its benevolence. He speaks up for the classes of humanity that were often ostracized or demonized.