Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Small Note on Thomas Browne

"The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying."

Reading this quip in the James Wood essay linked in the previous post reminded me of the original source text by Sir Thomas Browne titled, "Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk," from where it is taken. The entire essay is available here.

As the title also indicates it is an essay occasioned by the discovery of funerary urns (Hydriotaphia is the technical term for the same) in the Norfolk region of East Anglia in England. He begins with a survey of obsequial practices through different ages and culture, with special attention to internment and cremation rites then goes on to discuss the theology behind all these customs and finally, in the classic and often anthologized chapter five, he meditates on mortality and extinction, not just of the human body but of all the traces and proofs of existence that time continues to erase. He sees Urn Burial as a heroic but ultimately a futile and lost struggle against the destructive force of time.

I first heard about this work while reading W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn of which it is clearly an obvious precedent. There are some really wonderful phrases that Sebald also uses in his own narrative. A few I like:

"Circles and right lines limit and close all bodies, and the mortall right-lined circle, must conclude and shut up all. There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things;"

"But the iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity."

"Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man."

"What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzling Questions6 are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entred the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide resolution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarism. Not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the Provinciall Guardians, or tutellary Observators."

More information on the Wikipedia and link to the chapter five.

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