Thursday, April 23, 2009

`Fortune Layes the Plot'

“Tread softly and circumspectly in this funambulatory Track and narrow Path of Goodness…”

The sentiment is familiar enough, echoing the tired admonition that we keep to the “straight and narrow path.” What holds my attention is the first adjective, funambulatory – a silly walk? That’s not far off. It refers to tightrope walking or rope dancing, as in a circus. The sentence comes near the conclusion of A Letter to a Friend (c. 1672, published posthumously) by Sir Thomas Browne. The word choice is typical of Browne – drawn from what today we would call “popular culture” but used in the context of applied morality. Trying to lead a moral life is like walking the highwire, presumably without a net.

Reading Browne’s prose -- as dense and sweet as fruitcake, without the queasiness -- is like one of those nagging reminders that we use only one- tenth of our brains. Most of us wallow about in the linguistic shallows while Browne plumbs the Mariana Trench. Dave Lull passed along news that novelist/essayist William H. Gass was to speak last night at Columbia University on “Baroque Prose”:

“Gass listed John Donne, Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, and Thomas Hobbes as early devotees of Baroque prose. He would be their evangelist today. Indeed, when he compared their works with those by `old young people’ currently writing, his enthusiastic preference for the former came through: `A sermon of Donne’s often has more ideas, more energy, certainly more art, than these writers’ entire books. And the meters of Sir Thomas Browne are confounding and should astonish everyone.’”

And go here for an interview with Gass at Columbia, in which he says:

“It is a performance prose, associated, though not exclusively, with the sermon… and it makes its way to the U.S. through Emerson and triumphs in our time with Henry James. It is an oral prose, not a `written’ but a `spoken’ one, hence it is dominated by rhetorical rather than poetic structures.”

So I packed The Prose of Sir Thomas Browne with my turkey sandwich and read around in it over lunch at school. In the section titled “Essays and Observations from Notebooks,” editor Norman J. Endicott includes a short piece, “The Line of Our Lives.” I noted this sentence:

“Fortune layes the plot of our adversities on the foundation of our felicities; blessing us in the first quadrate to blast us more sharpely in the last: and since in the highest felicities there lyeth the capacitie of the lowest miseries, shee hath this advantage of our precedent happinesse, to make us truly miserable.”

It’s notable that Gass, a nonbeliever and longtime proponent of experimental fiction, should so admire Browne, a devoutly religious man, physician and scholar whose sensibility was expansive enough to comfortably contain such a crowd. Gass and Browne are word-drunk men. Elsewhere, Gass called him “Dr. Style.” Browne might speak for both when he writes in Religio Medici:

“I could never divide my selfe from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgement for not agreeing with mee in that, from which perhaps within a few dayes I should dissent myself.”

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