Thomas Browne

I was first introduced to Thomas Browne in one of my favorite books, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.  How could I not be intrigued by Sebald’s distillation of Browne’s thought?

What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. And because it is so, it befits our philosophy to be writ small, using the shorthand and contracted forms of transient Nature, which alone are a reflection of eternity.

W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, 19

And, indeed, Browne is an intriguing thinker, an eclectic sort of man, with an appreciation of nature near and dear to my own:

Thus there are two bookes from whence I collect my Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of his servant Nature, that universall and publik Manuscript, that lies expans’d unto the eyes of all; those that never saw him in the one, have discovered him in the other: This was the Scripture and Theology of the Heathens the naturall motion of the Sun made them more admire him, than its supernaturall station did the Children of Israel the ordinary effects of nature wrought more admiration in them, than in the other all his miracles; surely the Heathens knew better how to joyne and reade these mysticall letters, than wee Christians, who cast a more carelesse eye on these common Hieroglyphicks and disdain to suck Divinity from the flowers of nature.

Thomas Browne, Religio Medici19

Idiosyncratic spelling original.  Incidentally, Browne apparently invented the words electricity, medical, pathology, hallucination, and literary.  The list itself is an apt description of his works. More of Browne on nature:

I hold there is a general beauty in all the works of God, and therefore no deformity in any kind of species of creature whatsoever: I Cannot tell by what Logick we call a Toad, a Beare or an Elephant, ugly; they being crated in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes and having past with approbation that generall visitation of God, who saw that all that he had made was good, that is, conformable to his will, which abhors deformity, and is the rule of order and beauty. There is therefore no deformity but in monstrosity, wherein notwithstanding there is a kind of beauty, Nature so ingeniously contriving those irregular parts, as they become sometimes more remarkable than the principall Fabrick. To speake yet more narrowly, there was never anything ugly, or mis-shapen, but the Chaos; wherein not withstanding to speake strictly, there was no deformity, because no forme nor was it yet impregnate by the voyce of God: Now nature is not at variance with art, nor art with nature; they being both the servants of his providence; Art is the perfection of Nature; Were the world now as it was the sixt day, there were yet a Chaos: Nature hath made one world, and Art another. In briefe all things are artificall for Nature is the Art of God.

Religio Medici, 20

In Urne Buriall, perhaps a better showcase of his eclectic sensibilities than Religio Medici, he offers insight into the eternal struggle of the historian, enthralled by the fragments of the past, fighting a desperate and losing battle against the mists of forgetfulness:

Large are the treasures of oblivion, and heapes of things in a state next to nothing almost numberlesse  much more is buried in silence than is recorded, and the largest volumes are butt epitomes of what hath been.  The account of time beganne with night, and darnesse still attendeth it.  Some things never come to light; many have been delivered; butt more hath been swallowed in obscurity & the caverns of oblivion.

Browne, Urne Buriall, 141

The urns of the title were Roman funerary urns found in a field in England.  Browne marveled at how such fragile artifacts could be preserved yet undiscovered only a few feet below the surface, trod upon by who knows how many in the long centuries between their burial and discovery.  This discovery leads him to some truly wonderful prose and a near-bewildering survey of ancient funerary customs.  It culminates:

But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equall lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature.
Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us.

Browne, Urne Buriall, 137

I like Browne, I like the way his mind works, and I’m keen to explore further, particularly in The Garden of Cyrus, his companion piece to Urne Buriall, which (I’m told) is a discourse on the interaction of art and nature hinted at in the above quoted passage from Religio Medici.  Fun stuff.

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2017 in Books

Prior entries: 2015, 2016

Over the past few years, I’ve lowered the total of books I hoped to read, in an effort to better savor my reading and also because there’s a glut of very long books on my To-Read shelf.  Thus, I aimed to read 125 books in 2017 and surpassed that goal, reading 130.  The majority were, as is usual, physical books, though 20% of the total were read on my Kindle.  The full list, with fancy charts and whatnot, can be found here.

Genre

My genre classifications are never exact, yet they give some sense of what I spent the bulk of my time reading.  Leading the pack this year was generic Fiction, with 22 books.  This was followed by Historical Fiction (15) and Poetry (12).  The fuzziness of my categories is apparent from the fourth and fifth places on the genre list, Academic (11) and History (10) respectively.  I truly have no idea where I drew the line between the two (similarly, between fiction and historical fiction).

Authors

E.C. Tubb, the author I read most in 2016, once again topped the list with 9 books this year.  In a close second came Bernard Cornwell with 8.  In both cases, these authors offered quick diversionary reads that I could power through in a weekend during breaks from academic work.  Jane Austen, about whom more later, was third with 4 books, followed by  a four-way tie between George MacDonald Fraser (3), Ernst Junger (3), Dante (3), and J.G. Farrell (3).

Notable Books

These are books that I thought were especially excellent and that I would recommend to others.  Many of them were rereads and a number I have written about before.

Rereads

The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa – One of my favorites.  Previously mentioned in 2015.

Mani  by Patrick Fermor – Probably my favorite of Fermor’s books.  He was my favorite author of 2015, and I talked him at greater length in that entry.

Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise by Dante – My love of Dante has been discussed at length.  He also made both previous instantiations of this list. In 2017, I picked up the Esolen translation, which I thoroughly enjoyed, though the Mandelbaum remains my favorite.  

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene – I am a huge fan of unconventional portraits of sainthood (see also Waugh’s Helena), and Graham Greene’s writings were an instrumental part of my conversion many years ago.  Like many of the characters that populate the books on this list, the Whiskey Priest is someone who has never left me since first I encountered him miserably cowering in the depths of Mexico.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky – My favorite book by one of my favorite authors.  Raskolnikov, the sweltering streets of St. Petersburg, poor Lizaveta, and the haunting grace of Sofya have taken up permanent inhabitance in my mind.

Beowulf – Much like in the case of the Odyssey below, I’m not certain what I can say about Beowulf that is not trivial, a true classic.  Incidentally, if you get a chance, you should seek out the Seamus Heaney audio version.  His voice is everything you could possibly want.

Troubles by J.G. Farrell – My discovery of Farrell’s Empire Trilogy many years ago inaugurated a profound change in both the way I read and what I read, and his books have always had a place on my list of favorites.  Thus, I felt I owed him a re-read and was pleased to find that this second time around only confirmed their excellence.  Troubles is, to my eyes, the best of the trilogy, though I would strongly encourage anyone to read all three.

Drama of the Divine Economy by Paul Blowers – An excellent study of the place of creation in the development of Late Antique theology, has played a major role in the development of my own thought on the matter and on shaping the course of my research in general.

The Journey of the Mind to God by Bonaventure – One of the most profound and dense works of theology I’ve ever encountered.  Truly beautiful.

Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger – One of the greatest books about war ever written, perhaps my favorite outside the Iliad.  Striking in its unique tone, Junger truly loved war, reveled and thrived in it.  The final chapters are one of the most gripping descriptions of battle I have ever encountered.

New Books

The Odyssey by Homer – I’m ashamed to say that I’d never finished the Odyssey prior.  It’s, of course, one of the greatest pieces of literature in human history, and you really ought to read it in order to consider yourself literate at all.

Out of the Ashes by Anthony Esolen – All too often, traditional thought becomes mired in diagnosis, a jeremiad bemoaning the state of the world and a desperate search for what went wrong.  Esolen, whose translation of the Divine Comedy I mention above, offers much needed practical advice for what should be done.  Unlike the other entries on this list, I would not recommend Esolen for anyone not convinced of his basic critique of liberal modernity at the outset.  Indeed, I debated including it for that reason.

Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot – My appraisal of modern poetry has never been particularly high (see also, modern art, modern architecture).  So, I was shocked to find how much I enjoyed Eliot.  Haunting and beautiful.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens – An utterly joyous, delightful book.  One of the most singularly enjoyable books I’ve read in ages and were it not for a later entry on this list an easy choice for my favorite new book of the year.  Truly wonderful, very funny, read it.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq – A truly disturbing book that speaks to the core of the profound sickness at the heart of the modern world.  Another book that I debated leaving off the list, but I could not in the end ignore it.  Maybe the most accurate and therefore horrible portraits of acedia (the characteristic sin of our world, that I always tell myself I will write about and then fail) I have read.

Before Church and State by Andrew Jones – Fascinating study of the world of Louis IX’s (i.e. St. Louis’s) France.  A marvelous work of scholarship, but also a compelling portrait of an alternative to the modern, liberal order, one fundamentally directed toward peace and salvation.  A true must-read for both those interested in the Middle Ages and critics of the contemporary order.  I hope to write more extensively on it soon.

The Aran Islands  by John Milton Synge – Read in preparation for my trip to Ireland.  A fascinating account of life on the edges of the Atlantic.  Beautiful and it will make you want to explore the islands for yourself (regrettably, my visit to them was only a few hours), though the world Synge depicts is assuredly lost to time.

Science, Politics, and Gnosticism by Eric Voegelin – One of the most insightful works on politics I have ever read (though I don’t claim to be particularly well-versed in the subject).  Voegelin’s contention that modern through is essentially a form of (somewhat oddly defined) gnosticism is both compelling and illuminating.  He’s a formidable intellect.  I have so many notes that I’ve taken on this book that I’ve quailed at typing them up more times than I can count, and his New Science of Politics is sitting near the top of my current To-Read pile.

The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys – In an odd circumstance for this list, I remember very little about this little book aside from an emotion it engendered.  Not a sadness exactly, but a sense of indescribable small completeness, reminiscent of John Williams’s marvelous Stoner.  Leys wrote my favorite book of last year, The Hall of Uselessness.  

The Crisis of Western Education by Christopher Dawson – Engaging study of the history of education and the problems afflicting its modern form.  Sadly, Dawson was far too optimistic about the potential for Catholic education to preserve true learning in the time immediately following when the book was written (indeed, that period witnessed an almost wholesale collapse of the ideal he espouses).  Nevertheless, that is no reason for despair, and his ideas remain vital and worthwhile.

Pride and Prejudice (along with Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, [Emma which barely missed being included in the 2017 list, will be on my list next year]) by Jane Austen – For years I put off reading Jane Austen because I had placed her in the same category as many 19th century authors, wonderful but long and involved, works that you needed to get yourself into the proper mindset to read and which occasionally become a slog, even though you enjoy them.  I could not have been more wrong. Austen is wonderful, hilarious, and brilliant.  Her books fly by, the characters are marvelous, and I cannot stress enough how fantastically humorous, while at the same time profound (Austen is a terrific moral philosopher) they are.  Unquestionably the winner of my AUTHOR OF THE YEAR award. Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of 2017 in a landslide, immediately entering on to my list of my favorite books of all time (and it is quite close to the top of that list).  I cannot rave enough about how much I loved these books.

Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky – The last of Dostoevsky’s major works that I had yet to read, typically excellent.  I might even place it second in my list of personal favorites, though that’s pending a re-read of Karamazov.  Like all of Dostoevsky’s great novels it remains disturbingly relevant (the chapter describing the meeting of the revolutionaries was amazing on this account) and yet rooted in a Russian time and place that it’s fascinating to explore with him.  And like all of his novels, the characters are magnificent.

As always, I finish this post exhausted.  I write with the hope that it will inspire you to pick up at least one of these books, all of them are great, all worth your time.  Reading exposes us to so many magical worlds, explore them!

The Hollow Earth

The wonder of history lies in the fact that it is only available to us in fragments, tantalizing scraps that glimmer amidst the obscurity of the past.  Take, for example, this brief mention found in the letter of Pope Zachary to Boniface, the indomitable English missionary and destroyer of pagan oaks. For Boniface, the greatest threat to his mission were not the defenders of said oaks but wicked priests.  He is eternally complaining, prosecuting, and excommunicating these imperillers of his flock, typically for the mundane sins of adultery, murder, and failing to recognize that being a Christian priest requires one to stop being a pagan.  Yet, there are also unique cases, such as that of Virgilius, who (apparently) attempted to usurp one of the dioceses under Boniface’s care and, moreover, taught a “false and sinful doctrine” that “there is below this earth another world and other men, and also a sun and a moon.”1

Was Virgilius merely guilty of teaching that there were men living in the antipodes?2  The mention of another sun and moon seems to belie this.  Perhaps then he was a preacher of the Hollow Earth?  He was Irish after all, and the Irish had a rich tradition of a subterranean otherworld, the dwelling-place of the sídhe–fairies.  The Germans also had a tradition of underworld spirits, and we can easily imagine an Irish preacher appealing to this tradition as a piece of common ground, “now we all know about the fairies underground, don’t we?”  Or maybe it was both, the antipodes made accessible through the subterranean paths of the sídhe, a syncretic blend of cutting-edge medieval geography and Hiberno-German mythology?  (This last is obviously the best and most likely scenario).  In any case, Virgilius was apparently acquitted of teaching this pernicious doctrine–guilt would have necessitated his expulsion from the Church, Zachary tells us–and later became bishop of Salzburg and a saint in his own right.  I like to think this acquittal was not the result of him renouncing his belief or of Boniface misrepresenting his teaching, but rather canniness on the part of the Irish bishop, who remained dedicated to his belief in another world lying below our own, to subterranean paths that led to the far side of the earth, with other men and another sun, lurking in the caves of Thuringia.

 

1. Letter LXIV in the Emerton translation.
2. An issue because it was widely believed that the antipodes were inaccessible, thus making the Gospel command to preach to the whole world impossible.

A Mysterious Fellow

Herodotus is full of wonderful things.

Aristeas, they say, was in lineage the equal or superior of any citizen in his town.  One day he entered a fuller’s shop in Proconnesus and died there, so the fuller locked up his workshop and went to announce to Aristeas’ relatives that he had died.  The news of his death spread quickly throughout the city, but a man of Cyzicus objected.  he had just come from the city of Artace  and he claimed to have just met and talked with Aristeas, who was on his way to Cyzicus.  So he vehemently denied that Aristeas was dead.  Meanwhile, the relatives of Aristeas went for his body at the fuller’s shop bringing along what they needed to take up the corpse for burial.  But when the place was opened, Aristeas was nowhere to be seen, dead or alive.  Seven years later, he appeared in Proconnesus, composed the verses that the Hellenes now call the Arimaspea, and, after he had finished them, disappeared a second time.
(Herodotus, Histories 4.14)

The Arimaspea  detailed Aristeas’s travels in the far north among the cannibal Issedones, who tell him of the the one-eyed titular Arimaspi, locked in perpetual battle with the gold-guarding griffins, and the Hyberboreans, living with Apollo beyond the beyond.  (As an aside, Herodotus also teaches us about Abaris the Hyberborean, who traveled with an arrow and ate no food.)  Only two fragments of the poem remain, the more notable of which is quoted by Longinus:

A marvel exceeding great is this withal to my soul—
Men dwell on the water afar from the land, where deep seas roll.
Wretches are they, for they reap but a harvest of travail and pain,
Their eyes on the stars ever dwell, while their hearts abide in the main.
Often, I ween, to the Gods are their hands upraised on high,
And with hearts in misery heavenward-lifted in prayer do they cry.
(On the Sublime, 10) 

What a fascinating character.

The Listeners, Walter de la Mare

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
   Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
   Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
   Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
   ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
   Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
   That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
   That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
   By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
   Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
   ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
   Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
   That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
   Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
   From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
   And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.
Wonderfully eerie.

On Prayer

Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man with God.  Its effect is to hold the world together.

John of Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent274

John’s claim here is no empty piety.  He truly believes that prayer is the binding that holds creation together.  We must understand that, for John, man represents one of the two poles of creation and God the other.  Man is created last among all creation and encompasses all creation within his nature.  We can take within ourselves the forms of all things (just think, within your mind you contain so many things, favorite trees and childhood memories, types of cars and the dance of birds) and these forms fundamentally are the things themselves.  We are the microcosmos, the final procession of God’s creative act and intended to inaugurate the return of all things to their Creator.  This process is, of course, disrupted by sin.  Yet, through the Incarnation the pathway toward God is restored.  The aspect of creation that has strayed furthest from its Creator (i.e. us) is sanctified through union with God in Christ, and we are able to be reconciled to our Creator via imitating Him, bringing creation with us and restoring the cosmic order.  Prayer brings about this reconciliation and, thus, is the unifying bond of the world, the thing that holds together creation and Creator and effects their union.

The Habit of Thought

So acquire the habit of being present at this activity of the material and moral universe. Learn to look; compare what is before you with your familiar or secret ideas. Do not see in a town merely houses, but human life and history. Let a gallery or a museum show you something more than a collection of objects, let it show you schools of art and of life, conceptions of destiny and of nature, successive or varied tendencies of technique, of inspiration, of feeling. Let a workshop speak to you not only of iron and wood, but of man’s estate, of work, of ancient and modern social economy, of class relationships. Let travel tell you of mankind; let scenery remind you of the great laws of the world; let the stars speak to you of measureless duration; let the pebbles on your path be to you the residue of the formation of the earth; let the sigh of a family make you think of past generations; and let the least contact with your fellows throw light on the highest conception of man. If you cannot look thus, you will become, or be, a man of only commonplace mind. A thinker is like a filter, in which truths as they pass through leave their best substance behind.

A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life(74)

I cannot think of a better summation of what my work as a teacher and scholar aims toward, nor can I recommend Sertillanges’s book highly enough.  It is truly excellent and one of the books that most deeply shapes me.

Annunciation

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharged from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, IV

On Memory

A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered.  You are speaking, Hman, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another.  It is all one thing.  The seroni could say it better than I say it now.  Not better than I could say it in a poem.  What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure, as the crah is the last part of a poem.  When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing.  Now it is growing something as we remember it.  But still we know very little about it.  What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then–that is the real meeting.  The other is only the beginning of it.  You say you have poets in your world.  Do they not teach you this?

C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, 74

(one of the reasons) why I love the Proslogion

Alongside the Divine Comedy, St. Anselm’s Proslogion is my favorite piece of medieval writing, and it’s my favorite because it’s beautiful.  That might surprise those who are only familiar with the text for the so-called “ontological argument,” the arguments of the second and third chapters that demonstrate not only that God exists but that He cannot be conceived not to exist.  The argument is 100% correct and thus deeply frustrating to those who would like not to believe in God, thus often mocked and parodied and rarely actually contemplated,* but that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to try to describe at least a sliver of the sublimity of Anselm’s writing and to hint at why it ends with the joys of heaven.

The Proslogion starts with a sort of spiritual emptiness. No matter where we look, God does not appear. What’s more, study only leads us to the realization that God cannot in principle appear, cannot be understood, cannot be grasped. Yet He unquestionably is.

What to do in the face of this emptiness, sitting in our empty cell, staring at the blank wall and trying to hold the un-holdable? Starting from this absence of God, Anselm shows that all we need is one piece, a single understanding, and from the simple operation of our reason God emerges from the silence. His attributes become clear and finally we realize that the darkness is not darkness at all, but light. Light so bright that it shines dark, light so bright that we, our sight weakened by sin and crippled by ignorance, are blind. The highest realization is not catching sight of God, but the realization that it is God by which we see. We haven’t missed the forest for the trees, we’ve missed the light that envelops and pervades the leaves. The light which allows the forest to appear at all.

Constructed in this way, moments of the greatest spiritual dryness, of the utter absence of God, are transformed into the moments where God is closest. Our ignorance is transformed into knowledge, blindness into sight. That is the beauty of the Proslogion.

 

*see also: Pascal’s Wager