Urne-Buriall in Tlön and the Sedulous Ape
At the end of Jorge Luis Borges's Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the Tlönian conspiracy is taking over the world and the narrator retreats into esoteric literary pursuits. The final paragraph reads:
Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön. I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogue hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne's Urn Burial.
Who's Browne? What is Urn Burial? And what does it have to do with the story?
Browne & Urne-Buriall
Sir Thomas Browne was born in 1605, died in 1682, and was trained as a doctor but is remembered mostly as a writer. He coined a huge number of words including "cryptography", "electricity", "holocaust", "suicide", and "ultimate". He personally embodied the transition from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment—a skeptical polymath with an interest in science, he published Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a book that refuted all sorts of popular superstitions. At the same time he believed in witches, alchemy, and astrology.
Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk is his most influential work.1 On the occasion of the discovery of some ancient burial urns, he launches into an examination of funerary customs across the world and ages, various cultures' ideas about death and the afterlife, and the ephemerality of posthumous fame. But the essay is mainly famous for its style rather than its content: endless sentences, over-the-top abuses of Latin, striking metaphors and imagery. It "smells in every word of the sepulchre", wrote Emerson. Browne begins in a dry, almost anthropological mode:
In a Field of old Walsingham, not many moneths past, were digged up between fourty and fifty Urnes, deposited in a dry and sandy soile, not a yard deep, nor farre from one another: Not all strictly of one figure, but most answering these described: Some containing two pounds of bones, distinguishable in skulls, ribs, jawes, thigh-bones, and teeth, with fresh impressions of their combustion.
The essay then slowly escalates...
To be gnaw’d out of our graves, to have our sculs made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into Pipes, to delight and sport our Enemies, are Tragicall abominations, escaped in burning Burials.
...and reaches a crescendo in the final chapter:
And therefore restlesse inquietude for the diuturnity of our memories unto present considerations seems a vanity almost out of date, and superanuated peece of folly. We cannot hope to live so long in our names as some have done in their persons, one face of Janus holds no proportion unto the other. ’Tis too late to be ambitious. The great mutations of the world are acted, our time may be too short for our designes.
There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things; Our Fathers finde their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our Survivors. Grave-stones tell truth scarce fourty years: Generations passe while some trees stand, and old Families last not three Oaks. To be read by bare Inscriptions like many in Gruter, to hope for Eternity by Ænigmaticall Epithetes, or first letters of our names, to be studied by Antiquaries, who we were, and have new Names given us like many of the Mummies, are cold consolations unto the Students of perpetuity, even by everlasting Languages. [...] In vain we compute our felicities by the advantage of our good names, since bad have equall durations; and Thersites is like to live as long as Agamemnon. Who knows whether the best of men be known? or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot, than any that stand remembred in the known account of time?
Borges & Browne
The ending of Tlön refers to a real event. When Borges and Bioy-Casares were young, they really did produce a Quevedian2 translation of Browne's Urn Burial which they did not publish. Browne was a significant stylistic influence on Borges, especially his "baroque" and "labyrinthine" sentences. That conspicuously unliterary word found in the famous first sentence of Tlön, "conjunction", almost certainly comes from Browne. Borges explains in an interview:
When I was a young man, I played the sedulous ape to Sir Thomas Browne. I tried to do so in Spanish. Then Adolfo Bioy-Casares and I translated the last chapter of Urn Burial into seventeenth-century Spanish—Quevedo. And it went quite well in seventeenth-century Spanish.... We did our best to be seventeenth-century, we went in for Latinisms the way that Sir Thomas Browne did. [...] I was doing my best to write Latin in Spanish.
That phrase "sedulous ape",3 what does that mean? Well, it's a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson (Borges was a big fan) who also tried to imitate Browne! In his 1887 essay collection Memories and Portraits, Stevenson writes:
I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to Obermann. I remember one of these monkey tricks, which was called The Vanity of Morals: it was to have had a second part, The Vanity of Knowledge; and as I had neither morality nor scholarship, the names were apt; but the second part was never attempted, and the first part was written (which is my reason for recalling it, ghostlike, from its ashes) no less than three times: first in the manner of Hazlitt, second in the manner of Ruskin, who had cast on me a passing spell, and third, in a laborious pasticcio of Sir Thomas Browne.
In fact Browne's essay was admired by virtually all of Borges's Anglo predecessors: De Quincey, Coleridge, Dr. Johnson,4 Emerson, Poe. The epigraph of The Murders in the Rue Morgue is taken from Urn Burial: "What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, although puzzling questions are not beyond all conjecture."
Back to Tlön
Let us return to the origin of this post: what does Urn Burial have to do with Tlön? Why does Borges make the reference? We can safely assume that he had a reason in mind, but the connection is not immediately obvious: Browne's essay is about funerary customs, death, and fame—there's nothing in it about idealism, alternate worlds, or the social construction of reality.
I believe the key is that Browne misattributed the urns to the Romans (they were really Anglo-Saxon and dated to ~500 AD).5 Just as the invented world of Tlön invades reality in the Borges story, so Browne's invented Roman urns (and the connection they imply between Rome and England) impose themselves on our reality. Or perhaps the connection is to the Tlönian hrönir, objects that (in that idealist universe) appear when you start looking for them. Browne looked for Roman urns and therefore found them. This perspective also recalls Borges's fabrications of fictitious writers.6 A third and more doubtful interpretation involves Browne's mention of Tiberius, who (like Borges-the-narrator) rejected the world and withdrew to Capri, where he wrote anachronistic Greek verse and had oneiric visions inspired by ancient mythology. Or perhaps Borges simply wanted to pay tribute to his influences.
- 1.NYRB puts out a cute little tome, pairing it with his other famous essay, Religio Medici, a kind of Montaignian self-examination. ↩
- 2.Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645) was a nobleman and prolific writer. I'm not sure if this is a little joke from Borges? I haven't read Quevedo yet, but the internet tells me he was known for his conceptismo style which favored rapidity, directness, and simple vocabulary (and was opposed to the ostentatious culteranismo style). This would suggest that the very notion of a "Quevedian translation" of Browne is a joke in itself, as Browne was famous for his ornate and extravagant style. But when Borges later talks about the "Quevedian translation" he refers to it as stylistically baroque and Latinate, so maybe not? ↩
- 3.Sedulous, adj. Showing dedication and diligence. ↩
- 4.Johnson wrote a short biography of Browne. "In defence of his uncommon words and expressions, we must consider that he had uncommon sentiments." ↩
- 5.Did Borges know about the urns not being Roman? The Norfolk Heritage Explorer(!) has a very handy page on the burial site, which includes a ton of references. The Archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon Settlements (1913) clearly attributes the urns to "Anglians" and calls out Browne for misattributing them. So it's entirely plausible that Borges would know about Browne's error. ↩
- 6."The methodical fabrication of hrönir [...] has made possible the interrogation and even the modification of the past, which is now no less plastic and docile than the future." ↩