Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tell Me If This Bridge Will Hold: A Letter to a 19th C. Engineer, on a 17th C. Essayist, With a Question About a Bridge

To Isambard Kingdom Brunel:

Mr. Brunel, I've been wondering: Have you read Sir Thomas Browne? I ask because of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the first bridge you designed, the one you didn't live to see finished. I hate to be the one to tell you, but technically, it still isn't done. The bridge is plain-faced stone. In your plans, you drew hieroglyphics on its pillars...

...which made me think of Browne. In 1646, he published Pseudodoxia Epidemica, an encyclopedic volume of essays interrogating common superstitions, or "vulgar errors." In Book V, Chapter XX, "Of the Heiroglyphicall Pictures of the AEgyptians" he wrote:
Certainly, of all men that suffered the confusion of Babel, the AEgyptians found the best evasion; for, though words were confounded, they invented a language of things, and spake unto each other by common notions in Nature. Whereby they discoursed in silence, and were intuitively understood from the theory of their Expresses.
See, after Franceso Petrarch found Cicero's letters in the 14th C., more or less kicking off the Renaissance, the renewed interest in the Classics also sparked a revival of the Greek's and Roman's fascination with Egyptian symbology. Do you remember the 1799 discovery of the Rossetta Stone, Mr. Brunel? No, how could you, you were born in 1806. Anyways - one of Napoleon's soldiers found it, and then it took another twenty years before the transliteration of the Egyptian script was worked out. For the four hundred years in between, and especially in Browne's century, it was thought that hieroglyphics were a language specially reserved for formal, sacred writing in Ancient Egypt, that only priests could read them, and that no one could speak them. They were understood to be a silent language of interpretation, used solely to expound the mystical meaning of Creation.

"Thus ther are two bookes from whence I collect my Divinity" Browne wrote in Religio Medici in 1642. "Besides that written one of God, another of his servant Nature, that universall and publick Manuscript, that lies expans'd unto the eyes of all." "What reason may not goe to Schoole to the wisdome of Bees, [Ants],and Spiders?" he asked. Because nature itself was considered a form of symbolic writing, penned by God, each living thing was regarded as an expression of a divine idea, a symbol to be interpreted. Brown called these symbols, mostly animals, "common Hieroglyphics," the living things the Egyptian's painted and carved counterparts supposedly represented. "Surely [the AEgyptians] knew better how to joyne and reade these mysticall letters than wee Christians, who cast a more carelesse eye on these common Hieroglyphics," he wrote. But that was the problem, the "error" Browne called to attention: if hieroglyphics were a representational language, then even if they were the "best evasion," to written language's inadequacy, they still weren't a huge step up as a means of reading - and rewriting - the natural world.

Browne in Pseudodoxia again: "This may conceive to have been the primitive way of writing; and this indeed might Adam well have spoken, who understanding the nature of things, had the advantage of natural expressions." Because they employ images of the natural world in lieu of letters or characters, hieroglyphs could have been the original Adamic language, the perfect means by which God and the first of mankind chattered over the garden wall in Eden. But, Browne said, surely this wasn't so. Hieroglyphs were closer than words, sure, to the creatures they represented, but they still were not the things themselves. Like moral fables told about animals - those natural symbols, those common hieroglyphics - spoken in man-invented tongues, Egyptian hieroglyphics were just another conventional language; the disconnect from the divine syllabary residing, according to Browne, in nature was still too great for his satisfaction. He wanted a code to a natural language, a way to actually read the world around him.

So, as far as classic English essays go, Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, his 1658 "Discourse on the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk," is about as famous and as beautiful as they get. But did you know it was the first part of a set of two? That essay's diptych companion was The Garden of Cyrus (or "The Quincunciall Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, naturally, artificially, mystically considered"). The latter essay was Browne's vision of art, nature, and God's interconnection therein via symbols: hieroglyphics, in part, but also this thing called the quincunx and, weirdly, the number five. In Hydriotaphia, Browne meditated langorously on death and burial ritual, marveling at the wonder of God's design; in The Garden, he was out to prove that design's intelligence. In Religio Medici he had defined nature as "that straight and regular line, that settled and constant course the Wisdome of God that ordained." How then, he asked in The Garden, could man read that wise text, and by extension, how could man rewrite it without adulterating its message? Since hieroglyphics were an inadequate option, Browne turned from purely imagistic symbolism to "mystical Mathematicks."

The quincunx is that five-pointed cross we see on gaming dice, and it was, according to Browne, the "Emphaticall decussation," the "fundamental figure." This is probably why The Garden isn't too widely read. Never mind its substantial length, Browne's sole aim in writing The Garden was to prove that the number five, in its quincuncial disposition (those dots), was the magical figure by which God had ordered nature. If it sounds like number-based conspiracy-theory-type raving, well, that's because it kind of is. And it's a mess! The state of Browne's handwriting in early drafts suggest he wrote the manuscript with manic speed. His pen's marks swoop and blur as though his imagination conjured evidence faster than he could write it down. Even cleaned up, the essay is a vertiginous parade of imagery and signification, links in a chain of baffling logic. After describing rows of trees ("garden," right?) growing in the quincunx's orderly shape, in sets of five, he digresses to "the Old Theme...of crosses and crucifixions," after which he considers that the Roman numeral V (quinque), "being doubled at the angle " (i.e. stacked on top of itself), would make the Roman numeral X (decem), which is a crossing (a "decussation") like the Greek letter chi (X). From there, he recalls the "Christian singularity" he sees in "the Hebrew Tenupha, or ceremony of their Oblation," where priests were - wait for it! - "anointed decussatively" in the form of an X.

Basically, this is not an essay you can try to read on any terms other than those it creates for itself. There's not point in waiting for Browne to convince you of his argument; he's too busy convincing himself of each connection he draws. It's an exhausting performance of obsession and it just keeps going. The links get weirder and Browne's writing is wild, but no mistake - The Garden is a carefully landscaped essay. In its first chapter (I did say it was long, didn't I?), Browne explains that the term "quincunx" applies "not only to the number of trees, but [to] the figure declaring that number," emphasizing his use of the five pointed cross as both a visual and arithmetical symbol. He performs this duality in the essay's very form, pausing midway, in the thirty-first of the essay's sixty-one paragraphs, so that thirty paragraphs lie on either side of his remark that the number five "cannot escape our observations in no small number of plants." (Then he starts counting the ways fives show up in the wild, as in a rose's five leaves, for instance.)

I suppose The Garden of Cyrus was also midpoint, of a sort. Even while he wanted to debunk romantic theories about Egyptian hieroglyphics and offer an alternative, Browne was still tethered to Renaissance interpretations - hieroglyphs as a silent language, nature as a book - in a major way. However, specious as his reasoning gets in The Garden, he was operating towards the Age of Reason in the sense that he approached his subject "affording delightful Truths, confirmable by sense and ocular Observation.". He insisted on empiricism, is what I'm saying, Mr. Brunel, and a standard of thought supported by evidence, by trial. (Incidentally, did you know that the word "essay," etymologically, means something close to that - a "trial", or an "experiment?")

You don't have a clue what I'm going on about, do you, Mr. Brunel? I mean, maybe  you did read Browne, maybe he was your favorite writer even. Maybe, in secret, you were a total Browne fanboy, and maybe that's why, in your design, you drew Egyptian hieroglyphics in the center of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I'd like to think that, I really would. The correlation would be so convenient, because bridges are about connection and so is language, and...and...But if there's anything The Garden of Cyrus illustrates, it's that any abundance of correlations won't necessarily reveal causation, except perhaps in our own imagination.

That's the risk of going into an essay - or an experiment - looking to prove rather than discover. It's the old "seek and ye shall find" trap. If our hypothesis is bunk, our observations merely accumulate, rather than inform. What symbols we unearth, we add up by wishful arithmetic, hoping that the magnitude of their similarities will hold enough weight to force a connection. If that's what Browne did in The Garden of Cyrus, well, I guess I'm sympathetic to his fault. For example, the hieroglyphs you wanted for your bridge were probably purely decorative, in keeping, perhaps, with the fashion generated by the Rosetta Stone's transliteration in the previous decade. There's nothing wrong with that, if that was where your head was at, but can you blame me for hoping for a grander significance?

You know, Isambard - can I call you Isambard? - it's not like you were obliged to record your thoughts for posterity, but this whole question of whether or not you'd ever read Sir Thomas Browne could have been cleared up really quickly if you'd just kept better diaries. You wrote in a journal for two years, filled thirty-five pages (scantly), and then you stopped. That doesn't leave me with a whole lot to consult, Isambard, but your first entry is a poignant one. On October 11th, 1827, you wrote:
At last I have begun this my private journal even now altho' at the second line I can hardly perswade [sic] myself that it is really private but am puzzling myself for proper words thus destroying the very object I have in view viz to record my feeling habits faults wishes hopes and every thing belonging to the present moment.
Preach! I get that, Isambard. I share your frustration. So did Browne. Reading the world is hard enough. Reading one's inner world - those feelings, habits, fault, wishes, hopes, and the present moment's every little thing - is harder still. But to write either, to convey what it is we see and feel, is to articulate experience via perpetually inadequate symbols. It's as though, to bridge the gap between sensation and observation, we're stuck with a linguistic chest of tools that are beautiful, sure, but rarely as hard or heavy or sharp as we'd like them to be. It hampers communication, for sure (even with our selves as in your diary). When you get down to it, I think that's why Browne wrote The Garden of Cyrus. Deciphering a more perfect communicative code might have allowed him to read the God-made book of the world. More pointedly, it would have also given him a way to talk to its author.

When I was home in England last New Year's I drove to Bristol. Clifton isn't the working class neighborhood it was when my grandmother moved there in the 1950s, but some things haven't changed. I walked my dog around the park in Clifton Down where parents still play with their kids. They slid one by one down the groove in the park's rock-faced hill, worn smooth and polished by over a hundred years of parents and children doing just the same. And there was your bridge, spanning Avon Gorge between Clifton and Leigh Woods, 337 feet above the River Avon. There it was, all sweeping cables and stately pillars, and no, it's not all it could have been. They opened it 1864, when you were five years dead and buried, and they never added those hieroglyphs you wanted. But still, it gets the job done. It gets us where we need to go.


P.S. Saw you at the London Olympics in 2012. Great hat!

All quotations attributed to Browne come from Sir Thomas Browne: The Major Works, ed. C.A. Partides (New York, 1977).

"The Personal Journal of I. K. Brunel" was transcribed and annotated by R. Agnus Buchannan and can be found online here.

Gemma de Choisy missed a connecting flight and is currently stranded in the Atlanta Airport. Sir Thomas Browne is keeping her company.

1 comment:

  1. Browne a good contender for founding Brit. Egyptology. Garden of Cyrus is the antithesis of Urn-Burial and the obverse of the obverse of the literary diptych minted by Browne. The quincunx functions above all as an archetype.Some nice thoughts on it, but i doubt Brunel or the Victorians had much time for it, preferring the stoicism of Urn-Burial and beginning the editorial trend of dissecting the 2 discourses against Browne's artistic intentions.. It is less stylistically polished but needs reading in conjunction with Urn. C.A.Patrides remains after 35 years best edition of Browne.As i say some nice thoughts but i also recognise a few of my own/wikipedia/Patrides phrases too !