Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Sir Thomas Browne's Grand Conjunction













Sometimes I get very indignant when my cultural heritage is misrepresented. I'm writing of course about the  utterly erroneous act by New York Review of Books forthcoming 2012 publication of Sir Thomas Browne's Urn-Burial without accompaniment of its diptych companion The Garden of Cyrus. NYRB in collusion with Stephen Greenblatt, a distinguished Harvard professor no less, are in fact committing  a publishing act totally against Sir Thomas Browne's artistic intentions, an act of ignorance which really ought not occur any longer. I will elucidate for the edification of the culprits concerned.

It is now fifty years since the American scholar Frank Huntley stressed the inter-relationship between Browne's discourses stating - 

'the first essay cannot be read without the second for the two pieces are purposefully antithetical and correlative. The first is death; the second, life. The first is guess-work, the second science. The first is accident; the second its opposite, design. The first is sad;  the second filled with garden delights'.  


Likewise the literary critic Peter Green also a full fifty years ago, recognised the discourse's relationship to each other -

'the two Discourses can no more be separated than the voices in a fugue:  taken together they form one of the deepest, most complex, most symbolically pregnant statements upon the great double theme of mortality and eternity'.

When one acknowledges Sir Thomas Browne was a dedicated adherent of Hermetic philosophy then Stephen Greenblatt's error, in collusion with the publishers NYRB, becomes glaring obvious. It was in Browne's spiritual testament and psychological self-portrait Religio Medici that the Norwich-based physician and philosopher unequivocally declared- 

'the severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes'.[1]

In this context the writings of the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung assist our understanding of Browne's artistic vision. In C.G. Jung's view polarity or opposites are dynamic sources of psychic energy [2]. Jung also recognised that the union of the opposites plays a decisive role in the alchemical process stating-

'the "alchemystical" philosophers made the opposites and their union one of the chiefest objects of their work'. [3]

The 1650's decade in Britain saw a boom in the  publication of esoteric literature, in fact the greatest volume of  esoteric literature Britain has ever seen occurred during this decade. It was primarily due to a relaxing of licensing-laws under the Protectorate of Cromwell and also to a deep mood of Endzeitpsychosis, with the execution of King Charles I, that a deluge of Paracelsian, Cabbalistic, astrological and alchemical literature was printed. It is against this background that Browne's 1658 discourses were first published. Browne, an avid bibliophile could not possibly have been unaware of this reading trend. His discourses remain the most rewarding of all alchemical literature published during this decade. Incidentally, in the fourth edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1658) the year of the 'twin' discourses first publication , they are appended  to the encyclopaedia in this running order - firstly the dedicatory epistle of Urn-Burial followed by the dedicatory epistle of The Garden of Cyrus. Incontrovertible evidence of Browne's artistic intentions. Browne's solitary hint of the relationship of his discourses occurs in the dedicatory epistle of The Garden of Cyrus-

'That we conjoin these parts of different Subjects, or that this should succeed  the other; Your judgement will admit without impute of incongruity; Since the delightful World comes after death, and Paradise succeeds the Grave . Since the verdant state is the Symbol of the Resurrection, and to flourish in the state of Glory, we must first be sown in corruption'.

Although many readers may prefer the stylistically stronger discourse Urn-Burial, the human condition as the ancient Greeks realised, is not totally sombre and grave, but is also, as the discourse The Garden of Cyrus delineates, playful and delightful. Just because The Garden of Cyrus is in places stylistically weaker and includes a long difficult chapter of botanical observations does not justify the regrettable trait of 'dumbing-down' and its total omission by publishers. Urn-burial's counterpart may in fact be the obverse and not the reverse of the literary coin forged by Browne. The publication error of printing Urn-Burial without its companion The Garden of Cyrus which began with the stoical-minded Victorians need no longer occur with our fuller understanding of Browne's artistic vision.

I've written at great length upon the plexiformed relationship between Browne's 1658 discourses and shall in due course reveal hitherto undiscerned connections between the diptych discourses, but in the meantime, Professor Greenblatt and NYRB take heed and please desist in future from misrepresenting Browne's artistic vision !


Top: Frontispieces to Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus
[1]  Religio Medici Part 1 Section 12
[2]  C.W 8. 414
[3] C.W 14 Foreword
Bibliography
Green P.   Sir Thomas Browne Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Their Work, No.108 1959)
Huntley F. L. Sir Thomas Browne: A Biographical and Critical Study
 Ann Arbour 1962
Jung C.G. Collected Works Routledge & Kegan Paul
Patrides C. A. ed. The Major Works of Sir Thomas Browne Penguin 1977
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