Friday, March 12, 2010

Thoughts intersecting

The last post, on the cottage, was chaotic, but, excluding my work, so was my life: not defined at all.
This is a good occasion to essay the intersection of two trains of thought, each of which has tributaries.
Sometime in the early 1960s, reading C. S. Lewis or Dorothy Sayers, I noticed discussion of Sir Thomas Browne (and in Sayers a whole paragraph on a performance of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins). I don't have Miss Sayers' novels in the house now, but it is not unlikely that I picked up both Browne and that concerto in her "Gaudy Night". Some authors describe furniture and railway stations to authenticate their fiction, but not a few use authors and artists. Several authors, I noticed later, seem to have owned the same famous Gramaphone Society recording of that Bach Concerto. My beloved mentor and thesis adviser at Berkeley had advised me to do something about my own prose by reading Virginia Woolf's "Common Reader". It may seem an odd choice, being idiosyncratic, but so was Sir John Beazley, of the same generation, and together they brought me to understand that writing involved more than grammatically defensible statements. Besides, I wasn't quite so dense as to attempt imitating either of them, and, but for his intervention, I might have kept writing like the worst of Miss Alcott's works for the rest of my life. I learned to pay attention to how I wrote. That it is, as T. R. Reid said in an interview last week, very hard work all who have tried it will agree.

Sometime after 1958, when it was published, I acquired a very nice C.U.P. editio minor, by John Carter, of Thomas Browne's "Urne Buriall" and "The Garden of Cyrus". The title page of the original edition was reproduced as a frontispiece:
As a budding archaeologist, I found him delightful, and I was fascinated by the interface of embryonic archaeology and, more than impressive, awe inspiring knowledge of Authors (to which, now, I'd add his familiarity with Roman coins found in England). And his prose was as lucid as enchanting, just as promised. He must have had an impressive private library, because it is the books that one lives with, I thought, then as now that become one's own, not some sort of database but a part of one's mind. To this day I haven't read all the Authors that Sir Thomas Browne knew intimately. So I was not surprised that Leslie Stephen's daughter, Virginia Woolf, in her early novel, "Night and Day", at the end of Ch. 5 (in the Hogarth Press Uniform Edition, pp. 72-73) chooses a "very lovely edition of Sir Thomas Browne" from which to have Denham read "a passage which he knew very nearly by heart". The young Virginia Stephen probably knew it from her father's library and used the book that she remembered, but certainly did not have in hand, since she cited it as four titles. I mentioned the Uniform Edition, because it is what I had; the American editor emended it, and her friends had caught the error immediately. I was shocked and puzzled; I did not know until years afterward how very ill she had just been in 1919. Besides, she may have recalled from girlhood reading the really puzzling "Garden of Cyrus" rather than the "Hydriotaphia".

A friend and I were discussing by e-mail what makes Tolkien more likable (to me) than C. S. Lewis, and I had said that it was that Tolkien's scholarly infrastructure was incomparably vaster and stronger and more wholly digested than Lewis's. It seems unkind to point out that Tolkien actually had children of his own to write for ("The Hobbit", anyhow), but it may be important. It was in that context that I remembered how I forgave Virginia Woolf practically any scholarly sin (rightly or not, I do not believe that she really mastered much Greek), and I had to conclude that I liked the way that she wrote, that I read her for her writing. Here, in any case, I only want to explain how it was that I located my own copies of Sir Thomas Browne and re-read (so far) the "Urne Buriall" (by now the preferable title, since the vessels shown are not what we'd today call hydrias):
In fact, I still do not know what to call them, but not, I think, 'Roman', unless chronologically speaking.

But here is the intersection of trains of thought that led me to record it here. Timothy Ferris, a science writer, has published a book, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, on which he spoke on BookTV last weekend. I listened twice. I have not yet decided to buy his book, for two reasons: he used charts projected in Powepoint, and in me he was preaching to the choir. Not only Virginia Woolf's friends had inculcated the Age of Enlightenment, as well as her father and Edmund Gosse, but, as I think I mentioned in an earlier posting, Hans Reichenbach's "Rise of Scientific Philosophy" and Karl Popper himself had helped form my mind in the 1950s. What interests me is, I suspect, a revival of the thought of my youth, opposing Liberal to Totalitarian (for example), and valuing what I might regard as a blend of Stoic and Epicurean points of view. In fact, it was just last year, if I remember rightly (time passes more quickly for the elderly), that a new translation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius was presented on that same BookTV. So, when I was enjoying the "Urne Buriall" again after at least twenty years, I noticed how perfectly his reading of the ancient Authors was brought to bear on the ancient cemeteries that in the 17th century were already known and how critically, as a doctor but not only as a medical doctor, he assessed the contents of burials for the evidence of the tools and ornaments and coins, or absence of coins, in them. Today he would be the perfect amateur numismatist, studying hoard evidence closely but refraining from drawing unwarranted conclusions from what he realized must be very partial evidence. In fact, medical doctors today do tend to like numismatics and epigraphy, too. I suppose I ought to find out whether Timothy Ferris used him as a witness.

Since I respect Ferris's ideas (though on looking it over I decided that I didn't like his prose so well), I am delighted if a generation that, like mine, will not be able to take prosperity for granted will be sustained by the kind of thought that sustained me. I am used to seeing Ravi Shankar revived with every new form of sound recording, but empirical thinking is not quite so marketable. It makes me wish I were not retired and might enjoy undergraduates responsive to ideas that excited and continued to inform my own mind.