Tag Archives: Sir Thomas Browne

Planet Doug

You are free to imagine anything you like about an imaginary world. A former philosophy professor of mine – a man with a Tennessee drawl and a permanent smirk – liked to pick on one of my fellow students for purposes of illustration. This student he nicknamed ‘Planet Doug’ and all kinds of unlikely things were posited about him: that he was composed entirely of methane; that he orbited a giant ham sandwich; that he played host to life forms all of which resembled Harpo Marx.

It seems to me that the old notion that “every man is a microcosm, and carries the whole world about him” (in Sir Thomas Browne’s phrase) began to lose its vogue around the time that the actual globe, by conquest, exploration and trade, became more of a known quantity. I’m not sure why this should be the case, but maybe we only liked to think of ourselves as little worlds when the comparison suggested something mysterious and exciting.

It’s probably no coincidence that the shores and mountains of distant continents gave themselves up to the indignity of being named and described at the same time as the components of our physical bodies. Just as their gold and fame-hungry contemporaries were crossing seas to pin their names to various islands and territories, surgeons and doctors of the Renaissance were claiming rights of discovery to our internal organs.

F. Gonzalez-Crussi identifies a number of these inward provinces in A Short History of Medicine. The Fallopian tube, for example, was named for Gabriel Fallopius (1523-1562), and the Eustachian tube for Bartolomeo Eustachio (1520-1574). These two are well-known, the Columbuses of human anatomy. Less familiar is Johann Georg Wirsung (1589-1643) who discovered Wirsung’s duct, the “execretory duct of the pancreas,” or Adriaan van den Spieghel (1578-1625) who first described Spieghel’s lobe, “the quadrate lobe of the liver.” Glisson’s capsule, another part of the liver, was named for Francis Glisson (1597-1677).

The Sylvian fissue (“the deep cleft that separates the temporal lobe of the brain from the frontal and parietal lobes above it”) is named for Franciscus Sylvius (1614-1672). The Graafian follicle, near the surface of the ovary, is named for Regnier de Graaf (1641-1673). Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777) gets credit for discovering Haller’s ring, a tiny circle of blood vessels in the eye. Jakob Henle (1809-1885), who thrived at the close of the era, is responsible for Henle’s loop, which Golzalez-Crussi informs us is “a part of the renal tubules.”

If you, like me, never suspected that you owned any renal tubules, you do. Take up a magnifying glass to examine them and you will find a corner labeled with Henle’s name, quite legibly. I’m afraid that’s the way things are nowadays. You may pine for auld lang syne when people were pleased to think of themselves as rather mysterious microcosms of a rather mysterious Macrocosmos, but those days are over with. What you thought were your own undiscovered, dragon-haunted hinterlands have already been visited and claimed by others.

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Marginalia, no.277

Happy are they whom privacy makes innocent, who deal so with men in this world, that they are not afraid to meet them in the next, who when they die, make no commotion among the dead.

~ Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall

A beatitude of anonymity. I am torn, day to day, between the comical lust for my name to live on the lips of future generations (for what accomplishments, I don’t know), and the more comfortable ambition of passing unremarked into death and fertilizing some convenient tree. I like most trees better than I like most people.

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Marginalia, no.122

There is a sinfulle state of dreames…and there may be a night booke of our Iniquities, for beside the transgressions of the day, casuists will tell us of mortall sinnes in dreames arising from evill precogitations; meanwhile human lawe regards not noctambulos, and if a night walker should breake his neck or kill a man, takes no notice of it.

~ Sir Thomas Browne, from his notebooks

I read once about an elderly man who dreamt he was wrestling a stag.  The animal thrashed desperately with its antlers but he got an arm round its neck and gave a sharp twist.  He woke to find that he had killed his wife of fifty years.  One hopes he was a great philanthropist most nights – that he dreamt of curing cancer, bathing lepers or rescuing babies from falling pianos.  It might have counterbalanced his transgression.  But if we’re culpable for our dreams maybe God is similarly bound by dreams of universal pardon.

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Marginalia, no.102

The Turkish Emperour odious for other crueltie was herin a remarkable master of mercy; killing his favourite in his sleepe, and sending him from the shade into the house of darkness.  He that had been destroyed, would hardly have bled at the presence of his destroyer, where men are already dead by metaphor, and passe but from one sleepe unto another.

~ Sir Thomas Browne, from the Notebooks

“Dead by metaphor” is very nice.  Nice too is the whimsical spelling.  Why do we always correct Shakespeare and Milton but never Browne?  The folkloric notion that murdered corpses bleed in the presence of their murderer is echoed in Lady Anne’s words to Gloucester in Richard III: “See, see dead Henry’s wounds / Open their congealed mouths and bleed afresh / For ‘tis thy presence that exhales this blood / From cold and empty veins where no blood dwells.”  Criminal forensics must have been a simpler science when the killer could be identified by wheeling the victim round town for a game of Hotter/Colder.

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Marginalia, no.73

Raverat - Thomas Browne

…Sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness.

~ W.G. Sebald, on the prose of Sir Thomas Browne

I’m reminded of Gwen Raverat’s print, above, in which Death leans over Browne’s shoulder as he writes.  Browne was one of those unaccountable omissions in my formal education.  I was a year or two out of college when I first met him in the form of a bright yellow Anchor Classics paperback with a baroque ornamental cover so lovely I had to bring it home.   But accidental introductions are sometimes best, and some of our happiest discoveries -admit it- come from judging books by their covers.  Why all the morbidity about Browne? Perhaps abundance in language is sometimes more powerful for the final silence it evokes.  “The night of time far surpasseth the day,” he wrote, “and who knows when was the Aequinox?”

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