chapter  6
18 Pages

Death and Identity

O u r nature consists in movement. Absolute stillness is death. (Pascal, Pensées,

p. I z 6 )

The preoccupation with death probably always involved problems of

identity, but in the early modern period they became more acute. In

the context of secure faith and a belief in an underlying order in

Creation, the meditation on death might well arrive at a view of

human identity as being essentially or ultimately coherent and unified,

though not of course immediately so - not, that is, in the existential

experience of self. Thomas Browne speaks of the importance of

knowing oneself but also of the difficulty of doing so. M o d e r n psycho-

analysis might concur with his contention that 'the greatest imperfec-

tion is in our inward sight . . . and while we are so sharp sighted as

to look through others, to be invisible unto ourselves; for the inward

eyes are more fallacious than the outward' ( C h r i s t i a n M o r a l s , p. 249). 1

There is also something proto-psychoanalytic about Browne's belief

that our dreams may 'intimately tell us ourselves' in ways which

conscious introspection cannot ( O n D r e a m s , p. 176; cf. L e t t e r t o a

F r i e n d , pp. 190-92). The revealing difference is, of course, that for

Browne dreams tell us about our selves, rather than our unconscious.