Intellectual Life Before Dan Brown: Official

A modern Scholar in the Marais

An older one, sans wi-fi

“I enjoyed one thing in Paris, which I most desired above all things, and oftentimes wished for before I saw the citie, even the sight and company of that rare ornament of learning Isaac Casaubonus, with whom I had much familiar conversation at his house, near unto St Germans gate within the citie. I found him very affable and courteous, and learned in his discourses, and by so much the more willing to give me entertainment, by how much the more I made relation to him of his learned workes, whereof some I have read. For many excellent bookes hath this man (who is the very glory of the French Protestants) set forth, to the greate benefit and utility of the Common-weale of learning…[long list] with which excellent fruits of his rare learning he hath purchased himselfe great fame in most places of the Christian World…”

Thomas Coryat

Tom’s big deal in Paris was a meeting (of minds) with the greatest Classical scholar of the era, Isaac Casaubon. Tom suggested that Casaubon came to England and write the definitive history of Queen Elizabeth. He did come two years later, after the assassination in 1610 of Henry IV and a change in political climate in Paris. In London he worked for James the First. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

He who would know Casaubon
Let him read not tombstones but his pages
Destined to outlast marble
And to profit generations to come.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it has been used on several occasions in literature since as it denotes a certain cleverness. Firstly by George Eliot, in “Middlemarch” the sweeping Victorian state of the nation novel, and more recently by Umberto Eco, in “Foucault’s Pendulum.

It is fascinating how the “brand” Casaubon changes through European history: Tom’s hero is replaced by George Eliot with a dry stick academic, attempting to write “The key to all Mythologies”. This Casaubon brings to mind the line in Robert Browning’s A Grammarian’s Funeral, being “dead from the waist down.” In a book of the same title about the Casaubon legacy Anthony Nuttal writes: “The scholar is at odds with life…Also, more disquietingly and more risibly perhaps, he is at odds with – cut off from – sex.”

This would be news to many academics, of course. But Eliot’s “Casaubon” represents the collector, too engaged in study to live life. In “Middlemarch”, married to the impetuous heroine, Dorothea, he quite simpy dries up and – conveniently for the metaphor – dies. Leaving Dorothea free to romance with more blood-coarsing romantics; love of passion rather than of the mind winning the day.


In the labyrinthine world of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (the “thinking person’s Da Vinci Code™ says pretty much everybody) the modern Casaubon is the narrator. He and two friends in the Milan publishing world decide, long before Dan Brown, they have seen too many manuscripts about occult conspiracy theories. But instead of rejecting the idea, the three choose to improve the genre. (Foucault’s Pendulum will never be filmed). The three create their own conspiracy just because. It is named: “The Plan”. Soon, they have lost all sense of the fun of it. Real secret societies appear out of the woodwork, thinking (this sound familiar, at all?) that a Big Secret (a Lost Treasure) might be about to be found by Belbo, one of Casaubon’s two friends in all this.


Now we get spooky: on Sunday I went for a drink at the Arts and Métiers café in the Marais. Foucault’s Pendulum opens with Casaubon hiding after closing time in the Parisian technical museum Musée des Arts et Métiers, right here. Hauntings again, really it feels too close.

Here is a list, from Wikipedia, of the major secret societies that get a name call in Eco.

# The Knights Templar (the main players)
# The Rosicrucians
# The Gnostics
# The Freemasons
# The Bavarian Illuminati
# The Elders of Zion
# The Assassins of Alamut
# The Cabalists
# The Cathars
# The Jesuits

It is not an easy read, Foucault’s Pendulum, and is probably up in the top fifty of books bought but never finished. It is allusive and post-modern as befits an Casaubon-ish author polymath who travels in Hyper-reality. (I once observed the following exchange between the author and screen-writer, Gilbert Adair, and the author and journalist, Mick Brown.

Gilbert: “Do you see, Eco in L’Espresso, Mick?”
Mick: “I see it, I just can’t read it.”)

Just before I left I received an email from Professor Theodore Zeldin, a scholar of France and the French, and author of the classic humanist text, A Intimate History of Humanity. Zeldin is a kind of modern Casaubon, in the very best sense. He wrote:

“Congratulations. What a lovely idea. What an admirable
adventure.You invite comments. Mine is a question.
What will you leave in each place you visit? What germ will you plant? Is it just observation?”

I replied that I’d try to explain my roots and routes, to anyone I met. It would be an attempt to give back on a daily basis a little of what I’ve accumulated over the years, in the memory, and on the memory stick. And online a guide to Tom and a snapshot of life now. I don’t know if it is an answer, for over the past two weeks and the constant juggling between Tom, history, allusion, and the visceral moment I’ve developed what I’m calling “Casaubon Complex” – a complete sensory overload. I’m trying to learn what the best Jacobeans did, that to progress the processing and editing of the richly diverse material before me I must be hard-nosed. The information broken down into manageable themes, not some hyper-linked theory of “everything.”

“Causabon Complex” captured on film in the Marais.

The Impossibility of Pure Travel is theme one. Perhaps “New Yorker” was correct, my journey really is about being The Last Tourist. Other themes: family, roots, displacement and chosen exile; memory, and its lapses and revivals, the apparent, yet complicated, ease with which we can live elsewhere, the catalysts for these things; technoliges that change the way we see. These are not the staple-diet of tourism, but are some of the reasons to keep the mind engagé as the Giga-bytes of knowledge pile up.

“As for the streets of Paris they were more sumptuously adorned that day than any other day of the whole yeare, every street of speciall note being on both sides thereof, from the prentices of their houses to the lower end of the wall hanged with rich cloth of arras, and the costliest tapestry that they cold provide. The shewes of our Lady street being so hyperbolical in pomp that day, that it exceeded the rest by many degrees. …they exposed upon their publique tables exceeding costly goblets, and what not tending to pompe, that is called by the name of plate. Upon the middest of their tables stood their golden Crucifixes, with divers other gorgeous Images….artificiall rocks, most curiously contrived by the very quintessence of arte, with fine water spowting out of the cocks, mosse growing thereon, and little sandy stones proper unto rocks, such as we call in Latin tophi…”

Marais Street Life

The more I follow Tom, and see what excites him, I ask myself did he, a success story at court, with the most creative of friends, escape England, give up his salary from the Prince of Wales – twice – because he knew too much?

On the road it is easier to forget. Unless there is good fi-fishing, like tonight.

About robhunt510

Writer, artist
This entry was posted in Paris. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Intellectual Life Before Dan Brown: Official

  1. Anonymous says:

    Robin, some gnostic advice on the question of sensory overload, from the Nag Hamadi codices:’We have but one wish; we would be preserved in knowledge [γνωσις].We seek but one protection: that we do not stumble in this kind of life'(from the Prayer of Thanksgiving, NHC VI 7, 64,31-65,2; NHS Vol XI, 1979, 385).The modern gnostic embraces the bottomless memory stick,WM

  2. Robin Hunt says:

    Ah, embraces the bottomless memory stick. This morning when my 27 Google Alerts hit the in-box embrace was not the word I had in mind. I’ve been writing about the necessity to forget, and edit, but there is the other controlling fear that one has missed too much. In Paris, perhaps as with all big cities, I feel I’ve always been around the wrong corner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s