Let’s face it: No one wakes up one day with the epiphany, “I must read Religio Medici!” Sir Thomas Browne’s works are funky, antiquated gems, somewhat obscure even for those who study 16th and 17th century English Renaissance Literature, as I did at Columbia University from 1987 – 1994. Browne clings like a barnacle to the hull of the old literary canon as it sails away from contemporary life.
Nonetheless. While diverse literary voices give me joy and it may sink my writing cred to embrace some dead, white British guy, I ❤ you, Thomas Browne, because I love the quirky, the strange, the cross-genre, mixed-genre, absent-genre, the unexpected, complex, contrary, and undefinable. Long, wandering sentences light me up.
Ted Tayler, a mercurial and beloved professor at Columbia, introduced me to Sir Thomas, who unwinds and rewinds “those wingy mysteries in Divinity” according to his own peculiarities of thinking, and then settles these into the commonplaces of Renaissance as though he were a geometrician explicating a proof: “I love to lose my selfe in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an o altitudo.” Browne, a physician by profession and a radical Protestant, enjoys reconciling the sciences with religion, art, and ancient cultures. He’s a consummate individual, searching for his own truths in an age dominated by the dictates of a religious establishment.
While this all sounds arcane and old-fashioned, Browne’s facility with language produce heart-rending bits such as these: “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us” [Urne-Burial], “That whom we truely love like our owne selves, wee forget their lookes, nor can our memory retaine the Idea of their faces; and it is no wonder, for they are our selves, and affection makes their lookes our owne” [Religio Medici].
Professor Tayler was obsessed with the passage about that o altitudo (I confess I never quite grasped the whole of that), while I was entranced by a long passage which begins, Natura nihil agit frustra, or Nature does nothing in vain: “There are no Grotesques in nature; nor any thing framed to fill up empty cantons, and unnecessary spaces; in the most imperfect creatures, and such as were not preserved in the Arke, but having their seeds and principles in the wombe of nature, are every-where the power of the Sun is.” I won’t see this for a long time, but here Browne touches lightly upon an idea that Darwin will later call natural selection, and geneticists will understand as DNA replication and recombination.
The seeds and principles of my first book, Monster, sprouted from my son Robert’s sudden onset genetic illness at the age of one (which left him with profound disabilities). Suddenly, I was plunged into the mysteries of the body, medicine, and disability. The only way I could reconcile these new fields of knowledge was through literature—old and new, what I was once and what I must grow to become. My approach has been much like Browne’s, to meditate upon mysteries and unexpected connections.
Any able-bodied person coming to an enlightened understanding of disability must confront all the stereotypes that accompany it: ugliness, brokenness, irreconcilable difference, monstrosity. These wound. But in Religio Medici, Sir Thomas offers another way of parsing these insults that turns them inside out:
I hold there is a general beauty in all the works of God, and therefore no deformity in any kind or species of creature whatsoever: I cannot tell by what Logick we call a Toad, a Beare, or an Elephant, ugly; they being created in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes; and having past with approbation that generall visitation of God, who saw that all that he had made was good, that is, conformable to his will, which abhors deformity, and is the rule of order and beauty. There is therefore no deformity but in monstrosity, wherein notwithstanding there is a kind of beauty, Nature so ingeniously contriving those irregular parts, as they become sometimes more remarkable than the principall Fabrick. To speake yet more narrowly, there was never anything ugly, or mis-shapen, but the Chaos; wherein notwithstanding, to speake strictly, there was no deformity, because no forme …
Granted, Browne sets his arguments within the context of Christianity—and I respect those who question religious belief, particularly Christian hegemony—yet when I read this passage, I skip the Christian context and read it as a statement of ethical humanism. That is, strip away the era’s reliance on the structures of religious faith, and that’s what I see: Be cautious as you deploy the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness, which may be at all times false.
But returning to “the seeds and principles in the wombe of nature,” the more I studied genetics and genomics, the more I knew about DNA’s role in nature, the more I understood that DNA is the original and only monster: Its sole purpose is to replicate and produce variation, mutation, difference. As I write in “Notes on Creativity & Originality,” a meditation in Monster, “Evolution, therefore, might be an opportunistic engine expending energy in multiple directions simultaneously—not a progress toward perfection, if that’s what art is—or the making of it—revision ever onward toward an ideal.” So, yes, art may and must be monstrous, too: mixed-genre, asymmetrical, filled with irregularity, nonconformity, and difference.
I’ll always search for ways to speak of (but not for) my disabled son, and to complicate and unsettle disability stereotypes. For that, I have had Thomas Browne as a model of contrariness and individualism. Think freely; think for yourselves, no matter what norms or conventions you must overthrow or redefine.
Jeneva Burroughs Stone’s Monster, a linked collection of poetry and essays, is out now from Phoenicia Publishing. Her poetry and essays have appeared in the Colorado Review, Poetry International, Los Angeles Review of Books, Pleiades, and other magazines. Her work in nonfiction has been honored with fellowships from the MacDowell and Millay Colonies. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, a PhD from Columbia University, and a BA from Middlebury College. She does volunteer work for Rare Genomics Institute and CareGifted, the first dedicated to helping families of undiagnosed children find answers, the second to long-term caregiver respite. She is also a contributing editor to Pentimento: Journal of All Things Disability, which is dedicated to promoting the voices of caregivers and writers with disabilities. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
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The first 6 paragraphs of ‘Religio Medici’ with its Christian theological niceties can be a big stumbling-block for readers of Browne. The image of an ‘invisible sun’ is clear evidence that Browne was not inhibited from ‘borrowing’ imagery from his reading of alchemical literature, in this case by the foremost advocate of Paracelsus, Gerard Dorn. People often identify with Browne due to his multi-faceted interests and American scholarship in particular has been receptive to Browne in the 20th c. (J.S.Finch, Frank Huntley). The relationship between the diptych Discourses ‘Urn-Burial’ and ‘The Garden of Cyrus’ in imagery, truth and symbolism is rather fascinating. Thanks for writing an original appreciation of the Janus-faced philosopher.