April 3, 2010

The Rings of Saturn: The anatomy lesson


In the opening chapter an unnamed narrator talked about a certain journey he undertook alone in Suffolk county in 1992. A year later he was admitted in a hospital for an unspecified reason, something like a mental breakdown or exhaustion, though later he mentioned undergoing a "surgery" in the hospital. The narrator only described his ailment as "a state of almost total immobility."

The narrator (let’s call him Sebald, from now on) began composing this book (The Rings of Saturn, translated by Michael Hulse) about his travels to Suffolk in his mind while in the hospital and set to write it a year after being discharged. Two things he felt in his travels: a sense of freedom and a paralysing horror. The latter from the "traces of destruction" he saw in the countryside.

Then he proceeded to recount how after coming out of the hospital two Oxford lecturers died one after another. One is Michael Parkinson (who was researching on Charles Ramuz) and Janine Dakyns (a specialist on Gustave Flaubert). They were both single and appeared to be close colleagues of Sebald.

Sebald then recalled his search for Thomas Browne’s skull which, according to an encyclopedia, was stored in the very same hospital where he was previously admitted. He was able to contact someone who knows the history of Browne (1605-1682) and his skull. We learned that Browne was a son of a silk merchant, studied in Oxford, attended several universities, and became a medical doctor. Sebald speculated on Browne’s possible presence in an "anatomy lesson" conducted in Amsterdam in 1632. In fact, Sebald speculated on the presence of three men in that lesson: Browne, Descartes, and Rembrandt.

The anatomy lesson was a public viewing of the dissection of a corpse of a criminal. The said event was depicted in a painting by Rembrandt to which Sebald gave a kind of extended art interpretation, contrasting Descartes’s view on the value of body and flesh with that of the painter Rembrandt’s.

Sebald’s description of the painting betrayed his sympathy for Aris Kindt, the criminal whose body was being dissected. Sebald thought of the anatomy lesson as an extension of the corporal punishment on earth of a man hanged just a moment before. He seemed to be giving something of a critique of the scientific enlightenment that the lesson was providing its onlookers. In any case, it was hard not to detect an aversion on the part of Sebald while viewing the painting as if he himself was present during the entire operation, watching the Guild of Surgeons surrounding the body on the table, each surgeon fixated on the "open anatomical atlas in which the appalling physical facts are reduced to a diagram, a schematic plan of the human being."

It was likely that Sebald identified with the body prostrate on the table as he returned to his recollections of his time in the hospital after his own surgery. A contemplation of an aircraft and its trail of smoke bought him back to Browne and a consideration of his writing style. Sebald’s description of Browne’s prose and themes, a truly beautiful long passage, mirrored his own elegant prose fiction.

At this point until the end of the chapter Sebald shared the range of Browne's preoccupations from the structure of the quincunx present in Nature (with a capital N) to human fascination on the grotesque, bizarre, and fantastical beasts/monsters, whether real or imaginary. This was by no means a simple listing of themes, however. Sebald gave a prose-poetic riff on Browne’s philosophical ideas on nature, piling up details and images one after the other. As if tracing the structure of the quincunx himself. It was beautiful.

References to art (literature and painting) abound in the book. In Part I alone, we encounter the following:

Gregor Samsa – character in "The Metamorphosis" by Kafka

Charles Ramuz

Madame Bovary by Flaubert

angel in Dürer’s Melancholia

Thomas Browne; Urn Burial; The Garden of Cyprus containing the drawing of a quincunx; Pseudodoxia Epidemica dealing with real and imaginary beings; Hydriotaphia

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911 edition )

Rembrandt painting The Anatomy Lesson - reproduced in the book

amateur anatomist Rene Descartes – allegedly present also in the anatomy lesson

Hippocrates and his notes on sleeplessness

Brehm’s Thierleben – "a popular nineteenth century zoological compendium"

Jorge Luis Borges’s Libro de los seres imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings)

6th book of Grimmelshausen’s narrative in which Simplicius Simplicissimus encounter an imaginary creature

Image: Saturn's auroras, NASA/Hubble/Z. Levay and J. Clarke, 2005


  1. I once spoke to Sebald about Browne. There are 2 anatomy lessons painted by Rembrandt. J.S.Finch in 1950 was the first to speculate whether Browne was a sitter in 'The Anatomy lesson of Dr John Deyman'. There's a first edition of Descartes Discourse Leyden 1637 listed in Browne's library. Hope this of interest. What a loss for the world Sebald's early death was.

  2. Thanks for that. The second anatomy lesson is certainly interesting context for Sebald's book. I'm wondering if Sebald was aware of Browne as possible 'sitter' in the painting.

    Yes, Sebald is irreplaceable.