Concerning Sir Thomas Browne and the Split-Fingered Fastball
By Stuart Mitchner
Browne’s writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, … the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation.
—W.G. Sebald (1944-2001)
As far as I know, King Charles III and Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) have nothing worth mentioning in common other than the fact that the author of Religio Medici was knighted by Charles II in 1671. A gap of 337 earthly years separates Charles II, who died in 1685, from Charles III, who acceded to the throne on September 8, 2022, after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who was crowned a mere 353 years after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, speaking of gaps.
Then consider Browne’s dates — born October 19, died October 19, which is today, give or take three and a half centuries. What other literary luminary lived out a perfect birth-death span? None other than the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, born April 23, 1564, died April 23, 1616, at which time Tom Browne was a lad of 11.
A mere 40 years ago I was absorbed in the 1982 World Series pitting the St. Louis Cardinals against the Milwaukee Brewers, still an American League franchise at the time. On October 19 the series turned in the Cardinals favor with a 13-1 sixth game victory. On October 20, the deciding game was saved by future Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter, master of the split-fingered fastball, who died just five days ago, October 14. Shortly before his induction into the Hall, Sutter said, “I wouldn’t be here without that pitch.” When he was pitching relief for the Cubs in 1977, bumper stickers around Chicago read “Only the Lord Saves More Than Sutter.”
The night of the day Sutter died, I dreamed I was in England. Just before I fell asleep, I’d been reading a letter from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to the love of his life Sara Hutchinson. Dated midnight, March 10, 1804, the whole letter was about Sir Thomas Browne, who “is among my first favourites, rich in various knowledge, exuberant in conceptions and conceits, contemplative, imaginative; often truly great and magnificent in his style and diction.” After referring to Browne’s fascination with “Quincuxes in heaven, the Hyades of 5 stars about the horizon at midnight,” Coleridge quotes a passage from The Garden of Cyrus: “…we are unwilling to spin out our waking thoughts into the phantasmes of sleep, which often continueth precogitations, making cables of cobwebs, and wildernesses of handsome groves. To keep our eyes open longer were to act our Antipodes. The Huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia.” At this point, Coleridge adds, “Think you, my dear Sara, that there ever was such a reason given before for going to bed at midnight … what Life, what Fancy! Does the whimsical Knight give us thus a dish of strong green Tea, & call it an opiate? — I trust that you are quietly asleep …. “
Dreaming in Norwich
In my dream I’m exploring a spacious plaza in Browne’s home city Norwich. Having read about the actual place online the day before, I realize this must be Hay Hill, a civic memorial to the author, with lights embedded in the pavement casting weirdly beautiful gouts of color on sculptures like the large, oddly shaped one I’m leaning against. As I finger the lobe-shaped marble contours, I realize I’m leaning against a gigantic brain. Some distance diagonally across from me is the sculpture of a single eye peering out from under the fragment of a marble brow. Across the way, strangely but somehow inevitably, is a McDonald’s, all lit up but apparently uninhabited after midnight. The book in my hands is W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, which begins in Norwich and concerns the adventures of Sir Thomas Browne’s brain, which disappeared when his remains were relocated in 1840.
With a chill, half-fear, half-wonder, I realize the whole square is a Quincunx, yes, an enlarged version of the five-pointed pattern mentioned in Coleridge’s letter. Now I can see that the various sculptures have been arranged as street furniture for passers-by to sit on or lounge in, most of them apparently inscribed with quotes from Browne’s writings. On one end of the Quincunx is the site of his residence, long since razed, now a Pret a Manger sandwich shop; on the other end is St. Peter Mancroft Church, his final resting place. Looking massively down on it all is an imposing bronze statue of Sir Thomas sprawled in a chair contemplating something in his hand.
As I’m gazing in the direction of the statue, a dark out-of-nowhere figure lurking beside me says, “That’s a very cavalier rendition of myself, looking most comfortable, for a statue, don’t you think?” By now it’s hard to tell whether the dream’s doing me or I’m doing the dream. What I can make out of the speaker’s face reminds me of the detective played by David Tennant in Broadchurch, like Browne, a thorny but charming cynic. The first thing he asks me about is the “split-fingered fastball,” a phrase in which he sees “cosmological possibilities.” “It’s almost unhittable,” I say, “as long as you have enough velocity. Sutter could fire it as fast as 92 miles an hour — it would come at the hitter like a fastball and then die at the moment of truth.” “A swing and a miss,” says my companion. “The story of civilization delivered in a single throw.”
Now he wants to know what I think of The Rings of Saturn. I tell him it’s fascinating, one of the best books of the 1990s. While he approves of Sebald and appreciates his debt to Urn Burial (“He got his whole approach from me”), Browne is troubled by Sebald’s reference to “labyrinthine sentences” moving like “funeral processions,” and is quick to quote his soulmate Coleridge’s depiction of him as “a quiet and sublime Enthusiast with a strong tinge of the Fantastic, the Humorist constantly mingling with and flashing across the Philosopher, as the darting colors in shot silk play upon the main dye.”
As he utters the last sentence, the lights in the McDonalds flash off and on and the night sky above us is suddenly ablaze with multicolored rays sent shooting like comets by the floodlights in the pavement. I’m dizzy with it all, only distantly aware that Sir Thomas is confessing his admiration for Sebald’s account of what it’s like to read Urn Burial, “rising higher and higher through the circles of spiralling prose,” ultimately “overcome by a sense of levitation.” Yes, levitation is exactly the word, and suddenly I know how it feels to be a split-fingered fastball moving at just under a hundred miles an hour. At the same time I’m reminded of W.G. Sebald’s untimely death in an auto accident. When I mention this to Browne, he snaps, “Untimely? Death is never untimely. Quite the opposite. The best way for writers with a philosophical bent to go go go is in motion. Camus went in a car crash, just him and a tree, all the way over and out in one blazing moment.”
On Being Knighted
In the days following my dream, with its split-fingered hallucinations (one of numerous English words coined by the author of Psuedodoxia Epidemica), I’ve been musing on the knighting of Browne by King Charles in Norwich. The year was 1671. I see it as a scene from a film, with perhaps Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as the 41-year-old king, looking as jaunty as he does playing Charles in hiding in Max Opuls’s The Exile (1947). Still limber at 66 from his habitual gardening, Browne kneels under the regal sword while his ginger-haired wife Dorothy, who birthed 11 children, looks on, blushing with pride. In 1947 the part might have gone to Ginger Rogers, who had just finished playing Dolly Madison in Frank Borzage’s Magnificent Doll (1946). In 2022, I’d still go with David Tennant as Sir Thomas and maybe Jessica Chastain as Dorothy. A person of special interest in the scene is the Lord Mayor of Norwich, who had originally been proposed for knighthood, but declined the honor, suggesting in his place “the learned doctor” whose house and garden, in the diarist John Evelyn’s words, was “a paradise.” I find it hard to believe that a Lord Mayor or any mayor anywhere, 1671 or 2022, would decline a knighthood. I can imagine Robbie Coltrane in the part, a sentimental casting choice in memory of the actor who delivered Cracker and Hagrid to the world and died, like Bruce Sutter, on October 14.
The Coleridge Connection
In the margins of his copy of Browne’s Religio Medici, Coleridge penned: “I have never read a book in which I felt greater similarity to my own make of mind — active of enquiry, & yet with an appetite to believe, — in short, an affectionate & elevated Visionary!”
At 3 a.m. that exclamation point is like a shout across the centuries heralding two affectionate elevated Visionaries, born 90 years and two days apart, Coleridge having arrived on October 21, 1772, 250 years ago Friday.
Jesus College in Cambridge is launching Coleridge250, a commemoration of the renowned alumnus, who never obtained his degree. Commencing on October 21, the celebration will kick off with a performance of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and run for the academic year. Meanwhile, Sir Thomas Browne’s birth/death day will be celebrated October 19 in Norwich; the sculptures are by Anne and Patrick Poirier. For further information and to see the Hay Hill memorial visit www.sirthomasbrowne.org.uk.