There is no antidote to the kinships found in reading. They permeate the pages, the psyche—spaces, atmospheres and all—to the point of irreversible contagion. At the heart of such traffics, Jessica Sequeira articulates in her acute study of Roberto Calasso’s The Hieroglyphs of Sir Thomas Browne, lies a transformative force, at once timeless and entangled.
The wonder of meeting with one’s best loved writers through books, Jessica states, will forever evade and outlast the calculated ironies of those who arbitrarily deem an influence to be vogue or outmoded.
Here is the timeless time of reading.
‘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, Jessica glosses Calasso, elegantly declaring her own construct.
Here is the deuteroscopic time of writing.
Here is the mystery of kinship, in analogies which connect seemingly disparate elements through a unifying image: in the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, the images of the quicunx and of the garden exist in the same mental place as those of the urn and of the ash. They form a chimeric image—composite, implausible yet charged with shifting meanings—which continues to hold while it continues to change: repeated, amplified, detected everywhere to the point of vertigo. To the point where the image according to which the Browne-Calasso-Sequeira chimera organises writing, becomes the form itself of their writing. To the point where the image in a text becomes the text. After reading Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus and, as Jessica demonstrates, Calasso’s book on Browne—and in turn, Jessica’s remarks on Calasso’s book on Browne—you will have felt, sensed profoundly and physically, the quicunx as pervading underlying image in the prose: not by means of logic, but having been subjected to the cadence and arrangement of its rhetoric. A method of reading, thinking, writing is manifested.
Meister Eckhart said, what can be received is received in the form and manner of the receiver. In this singularity one forever yearns for other voices, forever other and forever with. Between book, œuvre, and literature, an undercurrent of thinking binds words in kinship, not entirely grasped by what is defined, public, and published, but read with the ears. Jessica’s piece scrutinises the manner in which Calasso developed his ways of thinking, feeling, understanding literature in reading in the slow layered time of reading Browne, in words and atmospheres passed on, rethought, and transformed across someone else’s words. Here is the equivalence of writing with a special form of being told, which in turn means to be receptive, listening. This way of rephrasing Browne’s ideas, Jessica writes, creates another stratum of literature. In an appendix to the Italian edition of the book, Calasso remarks that the term deuteroscopy (‘to give a second glance’) unlike hallucination, electricity, computer—all coined by Browne—has not found current usage in the English language. Yet all his work, he states, was a deuteroscopy, a perpetual gloss to the words of others. He never made any claims of being the first, if not in the manner of saying. So writing begins: on a cusp of speechlessness, looking back at words that came before, where a writer can rebegin to articulate language by allowing it to germinate from the words of others; where writing is not simply content, but a manner of saying. Browne, Calasso writes, was glad to find himself at that point where word becomes taciturn, turning into a language of another quality, the utopia of uninterrupted gloss. Critical reading in turn becomes a study of tone: at the beginning of the book he asks the very appropriate question, how to treat Browne’s amphibious, refracted words?
Yet the methods of inductive reasoning, new at the time that Browne wrote, Jessica states, 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. […] 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. By the time Calasso wrote his text on Browne, he had already translated into Italian The Cloud of Unknowing, the late medieval text in which the texture of language becomes a site of possibilities for understanding that which logic alone cannot grasp; the text whose pronouncement you do not know what, except that you feel in your will a naked purpose might be one of the best descriptions of the experience of reading Calasso’s books. In the monumental eleven-book œuvre spanning nearly forty years, from The Ruin of Kasch (1983) to La tavoletta dei destini (2020), a densely woven prose unfolds, steeped in a lifetime of reading, in composite forms that merge storytelling, historical survey, scrutiny, speculative drifts, philosophical commentary, visionary detours. Here words are often borrowed from others, so the choice of words becomes important; the choice, but also the uncontrolled textures of other writings that seep into one’s writing despite itself, despite self. The effect in reading Calasso’s books is one of empty plenitude, of being overwhelmed with knowledge and understanding although it is difficult to pin down what exactly is known and understood. This significant emptiness informs the nothing at the heart of critical reading which demands attention: a manner of tuning into nothing to quantify, and much in excess.
Reading, writing, are not to be restricted to a specific area, or form. Something else weaves a multitude of threads together, a sense of profound connection and, as Jessica demonstrates, the underlying force of transformation in language. Calasso’s texts embody the experience of reading, in their apparently incoherent structure and lack of frame. It is not the frame that matters, but the core of an attention which connects various materials, and in turn shapes writing. Sometimes it is a return (from the urn-taciturn): a couple of hours after Jessica’s article was published last month, she writes to me saying that a few words in her piece appeared stuck together in the webpage layout. Buriedfor, followingBrowne, upreference. FollowingBrowne’s inventiveness in making up new words, I want to take upreference as a new term, which might designate all and nothing, a cross-fade of reference and preference driven by u/you (a discerning subject always addressing another); a term driven by attention and care in reading beyond the extant laws of a lexicon, as if Browne’s words from the urn rearranged and endorsed Jessica’s, not buriedfor ever, but still alive in her reading of hidden hearts and quetzal feathers. A restless prose draws vitality from its dying, of old things we write something new.
Daniela Cascella is the editor of A Year of Carte Blanche and Other Chimeras at MAP. Her books articulate tensions and points of contact between the literary and the sonic: Nothing As We Need It (Punctum Books / Risking Education, forthcoming 2022), Chimeras: A Deranged Essay, An Imaginary Conversation, A Transcelation (Sublunary Editions, forthcoming 2022), Singed. Muted Voice-Transmissions, After The Fire (Equus Press, 2017), F.M.R.L. Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound (Zer0 Books, 2015), En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing. An Archival Fiction (Zer0 Books, 2012).
Voices Heard in Reading
Jessica Sequeira, ‘The Librarian of the World’, Part 1 and Part 2, MAP Magazine, 27 April 2022
Roberto Calasso, I geroglifici di Sir Thomas Browne, Milano: Adelphi, 2018 (1965)
Sir Thomas Browne, ‘The Garden of Cyrus’, in Religio Medici and Other Writings, London: Everyman’s Library, 1969 (1658), pp. 177-229
Meister Eckhart, ‘La solitudine’, trans. by Giovanni Maria Bertin, in I mistici, ed. by Elémire Zolla, Vol. I, new revised edition, Milano: Adelphi, 2010, p. 823
The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. by A.C. Spearing, London: Penguin, 2011 (14th century CE)