Roberto Calasso’s university dissertation I geroglifici di Sir Thomas Browne (The Hieroglyphs of Sir Thomas Browne) is an eccentric work, one that was completed under the influence of hashish and diligent reading, and probably only exists because it was advised by Mario Praz, the Romantic scholar. But how lucky we are that it does. An Italian edition of the work became available in 2018 from Adelphi, the publishing house where Calasso himself was an editor for so long. There is no English translation. The Spanish version that I read (Los jeroglíficos de Sir Thomas Browne, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2010) needed two translators: Valerio Negrio Previo for the Italian, and Juan Carlos Rodríguez Aguilar for the English, Latin and French. Its claim to be a ‘first world edition’ is surprising but thus actually seems to be true, an interesting case of a translation existing prior to book publication in the original language. (Like most doctoral theses, even those by authors like William Gass and John Rawls, Calasso’s work was relegated to patient obscurity at the time of its completion).
Hieroglyphs is structured as five chapters, a nod to the quincunx symbol that takes its form as five dots on a die, which Browne claimed to find everywhere in reality and history going back to the Egyptian ankh and Christian cross. The writings of Browne (1605-1682) belong to the 17th century in their focus on the relationship between the seen and the unseen, the truth and the representation of truth, the divine and the political. As Calasso notes, ‘our century and the 17th century are kindred.’ Supposed inventions of the time include protective amulets, ‘powders of sympathy’ and philosophers’ stones, things that might have sounded practical then as universal cure-alls for society (a bit like today’s alleged panacea of human rights) but were perhaps no more than elaborate delusions, interesting nonetheless in their failure—and here we are coming to literature. Browne’s study of the hieroglyph forms a part of this idealistic search to comprehend everything, which can be traced in the arrangements of the cabinets of curiosity, the notes of the Royal Society and the drawings of Athanasius Kircher. These searches tend to look for an occult truth in nature, and to understand the world as a complex system of signs and symbols, a divine book accessible with esotericism, Kabbalah or anagrams that name God by other means. Often such approaches combine a genuine reach for truth with a more practical need to survive and create in a labyrinthine century that made authentic religious belief difficult to sustain, and professed beliefs into essential cloaks for conviction.
Calasso argues in a footnote that Browne himself was a Catholic who out of convenience acted as if he were Anglican. I am sympathetic to multiplying personae, yet the idea of doing this as a strategy to conceal an underlying ‘true identity’ sounds exhausting. Today’s less-confident modernity is concerned not so much with the ‘authentic’ true and false, it seems to me, as with the proliferation of experiences and the ways that different modes of being touch, overlap, interact. As I write, it occurs to me that Browne’s things of the world, his hieroglyphs, are also ‘actors’, objects that impose a layer of distance between those who witness them and the transcendent world beyond. Browne presents objects as an indirect form of access to truth, through which the beyond glints as ‘signs of the invisible in the visible’, as Calasso puts it. (The translation here, and those that follow, are taken from the Spanish).
In spite of these layers in the world, and himself, Browne longed intensely to meet again with simple happiness. I imagine Calasso as a doctoral student covering page after page with notes, passionately and assiduously following Browne through his arguments, reading every book that his preferred subject happens to mention, following up reference after reference in a bliss of encyclopaedic distraction. ‘Browne had a sedimentary spirit, a kind of geological patience and a natural concern for the incubation of images,’ writes Calasso. This way of rephrasing Browne’s ideas creates another stratum of literature, and brings Calasso into the line of the English polymath’s readers, those beings who have felt the deep imprint of his ideas in their minds. The wonder of meeting with one’s best loved writers through books will forever evade and outlast the calculated ironies of those who arbitrarily deem an influence to be in vogue or outmoded. Young Calasso certainly enjoys himself going down the rabbit holes of Browne’s beliefs, such as his ‘secret Egyptian knowledge (which ranges from the Magic Flute to the most sugary-sweet California occultism).’ Like many writers, Browne reads his contemporaries with care, and his very favourite is the labyrinthine Kircher. Calasso takes the time to research the Jesuit polymath, summing him up as an inventor of ‘burning glass, interplanetary voyages, alchemical axioms, Biblical numerology, cryptographic systems, minerals, therapeutic music, Saracenic cabala, machines of various kinds.’ In the end, Calasso admires Browne too much to adopt a cynical tone, and he accompanies him in his passions.
The image, Browne and Calasso both agree, is a special conduit to the truth that permits a short-circuit of the reasoning mind. ‘The inability of reason to navigate its way out of certain dead-end alleys is what forces one to begin speaking about a different order of things,’ Calasso glosses Browne, indirectly declaring his own principles. This idea runs through Calasso’s subsequent work on mythology and philosophy, in books from The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, focused on ancient Greek ideas, to Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India, narrating stories from Hindu thought.
To believe that words or sounds are somehow safer than images does seem odd, and is a judgement that persists even now. I was reminded of it just yesterday while reading an intriguing essay by Costas Douzinas, which states that ‘images speak directly to the senses and affect the psyche; they address the labile elements of the self and avoid the calming intervention of logos, language and reason.’ (Douzinas also sees Christ as a kind of hieroglyph for God on Earth). Browne’s argument for why writing cannot give onto truth in the same way that nature can is that writing does not enjoy a necessary relationship to things, as hieroglyphs do. The literary symbol is artificial, a random attribution of names. He is also sceptical that literary symbols can translate into critical elucidations. Yet Browne’s own work is brimming over with symbols. Here Calasso makes a surprising point. Browne is usually considered to be difficult due to his baroque, referential prose style, but Calasso says that the difficulty actually lies in the congestion of his images, descriptions with a basis in nature whose excess presence in the text demonstrates a near frantic desire to access the truth of the other side. For Calasso, ‘Browne might be described best not as a bookworm, but as the “librarian of the world”.’
Jessica Sequeira’s works include ‘A Furious Oyster’, ‘Rhombus and Oval’, ‘Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age’ and ‘A Luminous History of the Palm’. She has translated many books by Latin American authors, and edits the magazine ‘Firmament’ published by Sublunary Editions.