Monday, July 04, 2011

American Corrections

Aristotle whilst he labours to refute the Idea's of Plato, falls upon one himself.   

How Sir Thomas Browne would have loved the internet! But as a conscientious scholar he'd probably also quickly recognise its potential as a powerful, instantaneous source and distributor of much false information. His vast encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) devotes a whole book upon the causes of error. Adherence to authority and antiquity, the unreliability of human memory, exaggeration, poetic licence and artistic imagination are each examined and cited as causes of error. But for Browne the devout Christian, the principal agent  of error was  none other than the Devil. And indeed it's interesting to note that even today the colloquial phrase still exists that, 'the Devil's in the detail'.

Just how amused or frustrated Browne was from false statements attributed to him can be gleaned from the official publication of his Religio Medici. Following several years of pirated editions which conflated and interpolated his thoughts with those of others and as if with a game of Chinese whispers played on the internet in mind, Browne describes how the pirated edition of his private meditations degenerated-

which being communicated unto one, it became common unto many, and was by transcription successively corrupted untill it arrived in a most depraved copy at the press. He that shall peruse that worke, and shall take notice of sundry particularities and personall expressions therein, will easily discern the intention was not publik: and being a private exercise directed to my self, what is delivered therein was rather a memoriall unto me then an example or rule unto any other:

Aware  of conflation infiltrating pirated editions and the powerlessness of the author to redress the effects of error, Browne had little option  than to issue an official edition of Religio Medici in 1643. 

But because  things evidently false are not only printed, but many things of truth most falsly set forth; in this latter I could not but think my selfe engaged: for though we have no power to redresse the former, yet in the other the reparation being within our selves, I have at present represented unto the world a full and intended copy of that Piece which was most imperfectly and surreptitiously published before.

In modern times Browne has himself frequently been the subject of error. The two most frequent errors currently available online both involve him in cases of mistaken authorship.American authoress Madeleine L'Enge (1918-88) mistakenly named Sir Thomas Browne as the author of a poem whose opening line begins,  'If thou could'st empty all thyself of self'.  L'Enge's error of mistaken authorship has now travelled the globe far and wide, courtesy of internet bloggers. However, James Eason, webmaster of the wonderful online resource of Sir Thomas Browne's major works, in true detective style, identifies the poem's real author. Madeleine L'Engle's simple mistake, attributing the verse of  T.Brown, a 19th century minor poet, to Sir Thomas Browne was an innocent error and the likelihood of Sir Thomas Browne being the author of  a  poem chosen by her is discussed by James Eason at False.

What's more worrying in the internet age is the sheer proliferation and  dissemination of error world-wide. There's also this quotation which is currently attributed to Sir Thomas Browne doing the rounds among cut and paste scholars who never stop to question their sources.

No-one should approach the Temple of Science with the soul of a money-lender.

The source of this mistaken attribution is believed to be from American author Dwight J. Ingle, in his book entitled -  'Principles of Research in Biology and Medicine'. [1]  However, although Browne is credited with the first usage of the word scientificall in his writings, [2] he would never have employed such an  idolatrous phrase as 'the temple of science' as Science  in the 17th century was more often known as Natural Philosophy; while the pecuniary notion of exploiting science in order to acquire a quick dollar is a decidedly  Anglo-American inclination of  later origination than the 17th century scientific revolution. 

To be fair to both authors Madeleine L'Enge and Dwight Ingle, neither quotation really violates or misrepresents Browne's intellectual preoccupations, Science and the psyche being two dominant spheres of interest to the enigmatic 17th century polymath. Nor can it be forgotten that in fact, by far the greatest scholarship on Browne throughout the 20th century originated from  America,  including literary criticism by William Dunn, Norman Endicott, J.S.Finch, Frank Huntley and Leonard Nathanson for starters.

Digressing ever so slightly, in contrast to a golden age of Victorian literary criticism on Browne, in the 20th century the silence of British literary criticism upon Browne, is near deafening. After Edmund Gosse's vitriolic character assassination of 1905, Sir Thomas Browne was in effect largely shunned by all except the most broad-minded and independent of  British writers. The Bloomsbury novelist Virginia Woolf  however recognised the genius of his literary style and thought, as did the painter Paul Nash. They held and passed on  Browne's flame in the inter-war years. Myself and many others were introduced to Browne's writings by C.A. Patrides in his 1977 Penguin edition of the major works. Refreshingly, C.A.Patrides pays more than a casual nod of acceptance and understanding  of Browne's hermetic inclinations.

At the current time of writing the author most likely to introduce the enquiring reader to Sir Thomas Browne is the German-born author W.G.Sebald (1944 -2001). Although it may be questioned just how much grasp Max Sebald had upon the stylistic niceties and elaborations of Browne's baroque prose ( he himself wrote in German, a treasure-trove of work for future translators) what cannot be questioned is Sebald's deep interest and appreciation of Browne, especially in The Rings of Saturn (1998). Indeed Sebald's hybrid work The Rings of Saturn, part autobiography, part history and geography lesson, part musing upon time and decline is not unlike Religio Medici, both being literary works which  indulge in philosophical excursions and rambling meditations.

An apprehensive Brunonian scholar, or indeed, choose any one of your own favourite authors reader, might well fret that statements utterly uncharacteristic and even defamatory can now be widely disseminated  instantaneously on the world wide web. But in truth, the internet invariably weeds out much error and serves truth with more vigour. The success of Wikipedia, with all its caveats, proves this. To argue  otherwise would place the printing-press along with the book in court and judged as guilty in aiding and colluding with error more than truth. The internet, along with the book, is merely a tool of human communication. It's how such tools are used which is of greater significance. But a sharp discerner observing our internet age, might  equally question the reliance of storing vital information and knowledge upon a hard drive or disc in the eventuality of  a system crashing or even  a cut electricity supply. 

Actually the word electricity is one of  Browne's numerous neologisms as well as computer (as in the verb to compute) check them out in the OED. There's also his first ever recorded usage of the word Network, meaning an artificial connection  to consider. The word occurs firstly in the long running title of his 1658 Discourse The Garden of Cyrus or the Quincunciall Lozenge or Network Plantations of the Ancients, Naturally, Artificially, Mystically considered. And indeed throughout the discourse Browne elaborates concisely and elegantly upon networks discerned in art and nature, sometimes displaying a frame of mind not unlike what Jung  once described as the alchemist's 'active imagination'.

Browne's coining of words such as electricity, computer and network along with his love of knowledge and awareness of the ever-present factor of error in every-day life, as any computer user is well aware,  place him firmly as a scientist who anticipated much of the modern-day internet age.

My plea to fellow bloggers globally, is to stop and think, whenever encountering any orphaned and unsourced profound or archaic sounding quotation, before claiming it was written by Sir Thomas Browne !

Header quote - A great example of Browne's humour Religio Medici Part 2:15
[1] published in 1958. Philadelphia: JB Lippincott Co. p.19
[2] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book1, chapter 7
See also Browne on America

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