Given Browne’s interest in nature, why not simply go sit under a tree or spend a few hours gazing at moving water in the river? ‘Primitive’ peoples can do this, approaching plants, animals and nature in a simple way, he claims. (A 17th-century idea if there ever was one). For the European, in contrast, interpretation is required. This was not so in the beginning, and here Browne’s account reads as a kind of Fall. He denies a radical break between the Christian and pagan traditions, arguing that early Christianity, with its origins in paganism, concerned itself first and foremost with the moment of ecstatic connection to the world—this point also fascinates Calasso. But for the ‘civilised’ mind (another 17th-century obsession), a double meaning exists in everything, and nothing can be as it appears on the surface. Nature cannot be accessed in a direct flash of illumination but must be read as a book. Even the scientific method takes the world to be in need of deciphering, as if it were a Rosetta Stone. Yet the methods of inductive reasoning, new at the time that Browne wrote, can only go so far on the basis of reason alone. It is with other forms of study, Browne (and Calasso) suggest, that the world can still offer itself up to sophia, a sudden access of understanding. Europeans might have to put in more work than those gifted with ‘natural’ intuition, starting with rational deliberation and logos, to then suddenly depart from their interpretations in euphoric flight. By considering the world to be a system of hieroglyphs, one keeps the faith that the clouds might abruptly slide away to reveal blue sky, even if the cloud mass remains at present cryptic, stubborn and opaque, albeit teasingly and seductively letting through a few glints.
Browne did himself no service by thinking like this. His compulsion to find a possible route to the other side led him into obscure studies of the Harmonia Mundi, the translation of musical proportions into measurements of the cosmos. He grew overly intrigued by the paradoxes of reality, such as the way that the earth can simultaneously be a site of burial and a womb for new life. In another footnote, Calasso quotes Leslie Stephen’s Hours in a Library, which argues that Browne went mad from metaphysics as De Quincey and Donne went mad from opium. Browne was both attracted to, and terrified by, ecstatic truth, and in practice he saw it as something to cloak or ward off via deliberate complexity. His style introduces symbol after symbol in a thick layering process, refusing to alight on a single, luminous image. Too immediate an experience would result in horror. Browne, as Calasso notes, defines ecstasy as the incineration of the world. And so he purposely builds a barrier to it with his hedges and thickets of images. Truth must be accessed indirectly, else it would lead to catastrophe. Yet in a kind of anticipation of the sublime, this possible horror also has its attractions; the frantic piling-up of images holds a desire for the ecstasy of illumination via multiplicity, a longing for self-destruction, or in Calasso’s words, ‘absorption and annihilation in the absolute.’
In his roundabout, lyrical way of phrasing things, not quite committed to this or that view, it seems to me that Browne is also terrified of indulging in selective reading. Disinclined to adopt any firm stance, his hieroglyphs nearly always present themselves as paradoxes that could signify two things at one time, the door to infinity. To pick out an interpretation isn’t easy, and maybe there is no barometer for ever knowing if a reading is correct. But by necessity, most of us choose, even if one choice suffocates others. This terrifies Browne. Indeed, as he argues—with Calasso at his coat tails—this is precisely what the devil does best. The devil pares down the world’s richness to a single reading; it narrows the options and makes the reader adopt a single form of understanding, often based in textual explanation, blinding her to entire vistas of possibility.
And here I wonder if Browne’s logic might apply to history as well. Can the hieroglyph take the form of ideas from the past that suddenly become visible in the present, ones previously misread or overlooked out of ignorance, reigning material conditions or other causes? Calasso quotes a line from Urn Burial, with the Spanish translation departing slightly from the English to become more interesting. Where Browne writes: ‘That great antiquity America lay buried for thousands of years, and a large part of the earth is still in the urn unto us,’ the Spanish refers instead to ‘the great ancient cultures of América,’ that is, to multiple cultures, proliferating the mystery. There is so much yet to learn. And one of the things I like best about Browne (and Calasso) is precisely his faith in people’s ability to transform over the course of their lives, to learn from past errors and experiences, and transmute the material of past selves into something new. With study and directed attention, one might abruptly see what one did not before and accordingly develop responses, new forms of creation and action.
I find great pleasure in Browne’s wry, steady, near jurisprudential syntax, as well as Calasso’s more energetic lyrical reversionings. And I am grateful to move with Calasso’s brilliant mind as it ravels and unravels its human material—Browne’s pet word is ‘strange’, and he is ever at work to defy the commonplaces of his time. But after spending a number of hours with these two writers, I also long for a simple image and a bit of fresh air. Time is fleeting, our days speed on. For man himself is a hieroglyph, as Browne was well aware. In his chapter about Religio Medici, Calasso quotes the famous passage about silkworms, a reference it is possible to trace back to English: ‘Those strange and mystical transmigrations that I have observed in silkworms turned my philosophy into divinity.’ I don’t know what version of Browne’s essays Calasso was reading in Italian, or what version the Spanish translator was working with, but as the text goes on, my book departs from Browne’s source in a phrase that strikes me as important, even the essay’s hidden heart. It says that ‘man is no more than a transformation, a preparatory phase for the last glorious elixir shut away by chains of flesh.’ No doubt an orthodox Catholic reading can be made, but the way I choose to understand this line is as follows. The bodies of men and women will pass away, but love survives, and to read the world as a book of meaningful symbols can work effects. It is this profound faith in, and desire for, a resurrection of history in the future—a past that is never identical but radically transformed, brought into eternity—that inspired the lifelong searches of Browne and Calasso, and finds a proof in every tombstone or buried urn carrying an inscription of this kind.
For the lady
in quetzal feathers and jade ornaments
holding a ceremonial bar in her arms,
a divine serpent emerging from it,
to conjure the deity who adored her
but she was condemned to bury—
may these carved words
act as a substitute
until your return.
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.