Saturday, June 19, 2010

`The Whole World Is a Phylactery'

Another metaphor for the blogging enterprise comes to mind. Call them cabinets of wonder, cabinets of curiosities, Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer -- already they are metaphors for the curious bounty of the world. Sir Thomas Browne, himself the proprietor of Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia and other cabinets of wonder, a luxuriant prose style and arcane learning, writes in Christian Morals:

“To thoughtful observers, the whole world is a phylactery, and everything we see is an item of the Wisdom, Power and Goodness of God.”

Even a secular sensibility recognizes that “everything we see,” perceived with sufficient curiosity, imagination, memory and learning, is connected. There is no isolation, no island-hood. Among books, models are numerous: some of the curious creations of Montaigne, Rabelais, Swift and Sterne, Moby-Dick, Thoreau’s journals, Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera, William James' Principles of Psychology, Joyce’s final two novels and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (bathed in Browne’s benisons). Near-models are Pope’s The Dunciad, Coleridge’s Biographica Literaria, Lamb’s essays and Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm. What distinguishes them is a grab-bag quality, plentiful anecdotes and evidence of learning, preserved from chaos by suffusion with the personalities of their authors.

In his review of Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare (1963), Guy Davenport writes: “[This] is a book that belongs to that scarce genre which we can only call a book, like Boswell’s Johnson, Burton’s incredible Anatomy, Walton’s Compleat Angler.” In other words, a genre without rules or definitions, one recognized by its failure to remain fixed by genre. I would add Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination to the heap. Among blogs, Mike Gilleland’s is the peerless example. You might find anything at Laudator Temporis Acti (books, trees, etymologies) and know with confidence it will prove a phylactery worthy of your attention.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Browne also the author of a tract entitled 'Museum Clausum', an inventory of lost, rumoured and imagined books, paintings and objects as well as being the owner of a cabinet of curiosities. As John Evelyn observed,' his whole house and Garden is a Paradise and Cabinet of rarities, and that of the best collection, especially Medals, books, Plants, natural things'.