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. Read more