Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Anatomy of Melancholy

       Dr. Arrowsmith...Have We Found the Soul Yet?

June 27, 2009: On my way to the Point in Hyde Park to cool off during the warming temperatures of the mid-afternoon.  Low and behold: boxes!  Yes, yet again, the perennial "book boxes" of Hyde Park.  The boxes in front of this particular home appear now and then filled with various and sundry titles, from mysteries and popular fiction to the miscellany of today: short tracts of medieval French literature, 3 volumes of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution (in hard back), and Robert Burton's (1577-1640) masterpiece The Anatomy of Melancholy.  

Ah, so where do I begin?  With the illustrious Burton himself or the masterful and ill-definedAnatomy...?  Well, first of all, let me say this: the book is gigantic--well over 1,000 pages.  And it is at first glance a perplexing book, because it does not indicate to the reader or observer of the tome its elemental genre.  But this is where the good Mr. Burton comes into view.

Robert Burton was a man of many talents, to use that far overused phrase.  But that is perhaps because he was a man of an age when many talents were necessary to survive in a difficult world that was understood primarily through humors and heavens.  Nonetheless, Burton was a renaissance man in a renaissance era.  And as some scholars and commentators have noted, his chief work, The Anatomy of Melancholy, is a reflection of his own dealings and coming to terms with depression.  Whatever the truth on this subject is, what is surely accurate is that this work is not simply a discussion of melancholy or melancholia, but a mirror of intellect, humanity, and selves in the the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  This book is no mere description or digression into the humors and dissections of the human pains suffered through metaphorical slings and arrows of outrageous quote some old Dane in his own perplexities, but a complete anatomy of "man in the world," to use an anachronistic moniker.  The book reflects the library of the 17th century, as others have suggested.  In fact, writer Nicholas Lezard from The Guardian, wrote about The Anatomy of Melancholy in a 2001 essay, calling it "The Book to end all Books."  He also notes:

Paperback not so much of the week as of the year, of the decade - or, I am inclined to say, of all time. And why? Because it's the best book ever written, that's why. I use the word "book" with care. It's not a novel, a tract, an epic poem, a history; it is, quite self-consciously, the book to end all books. Made out of all the books that existed in a 17th-century library, it was compiled in order to explain and account for all human emotion and thought. It is not restricted to melancholy, or, as we call it today, depression; but then a true study of it will have to be - if you have the learning and the stamina - about everything. That is why there are about 1,400 pages in this edition, why the only other edition, from Clarendon Press, runs to three volumes (it also costs a bomb compared to this and is, anyway, out of print), and why Burton never, strictly speaking, finished it: there was always something else to go in.

If you're interested in more of what Mr. Lezard writes, you can find the entire article at the following link:

VADE LIBER...! Something like "Go forth, my book!" as some Latinists might agree upon, is what begins a poem in this tome entitled "Democritus Junior ad Librum Suum" (Democritus Junior to his Book).  He is the departure point for Burton: Democritus, as described by Hippocrates et al., was a "little wearish old man, very melancholy by nature...," (Burton, 16).  But this Democritus, who tends to his garden, is the foil for good old feelin'-blue Burton and his bouts of depression and melancholia.  Burton embodies himself and his woes in a classical soul, a classical identity, which gives his own troubles both prominence and patience, strength and durability, intellectual weight and severity.  And then takes it further.  After a moderate helping of philosophical appetizers, the whetted palate of the reader will be set to a full banquet of melancholic platters, in three refined sections--of course, these are the refinements of the 17th century, so tastes may vary.  But the basic structure is as follows:

Section 1: Of Disease...and Melancholy; With a Digression of Anatomy
Section 2: Causes of Melancholy
Section 3: Symptoms of Melancholy
Section 4: Prognostics of Melancholy

MY COMMENTS:  Ah, how diseased we are by this thing called melancholy!  Yet, this apparently medical investigation is nothing like a "modern" medical discourse.  It details in playful language the observations of such things as "love of gaming," which could mean many things.  But goes into the pleasure of hunting, and even takes note of popes with the joyously
creative line: "Leo Decimus, that hunting pope, is much discommended by Jovius in his life, for his immoderate desire of hawking and hunting, insomuch that (as he saith) he would sometimes live about Ostia weeks and months together, leave suitors unrespected, bulls and pardons unsigned, to his own prejudice and many private men's loss."  Oh, those hunting popes!  Just imagine old John Paul II lifting his Remington to de-blossom some Roman pigeons in the rafters or below some pre-Rafealite cornice for his squab pranzo!  Needless to say, perhaps, this is not the perfect picture for some.  Yet, the paradox to be found in Part 1, I believe, is not in the encyclopedic consultation of old post-Hippocratic wanderings, but under the heading "SUBJECT XV. Love of Learning, or overmuch Study.  With a Digression of the Misery of Scholars, and why Muses are Melancholy."  Good heavens--it is as Burton writes, this malady of the intellectual soul, a reason for melancholy, the student and scholar lives sibi et musis!(for themselves and their studies!)  Doom is approaching!

Section 1: Cure of Melancholy in General 
Section 2: Diet...with a Digression of Air
Section 3: A Digression of Remedies...
Section 4: Medicinal and Chirurgical Remedies...
Section 5: Particular Cures

MY COMMENTS: Is this what we might call "The Audacity to Cope!?"  I think our president already has this copyrighted.  My apologies.  It does appear, though, that amid this coping, our good Mr. Burton suggests such things as "hot sod" for dealing with melancholy.  And I don't think this is something to be applied like a nicotine patch, rather to be ingested like a licorice stick!  Yum!  But also, "mountain birds," "succory," "endive,"  and "parsnips," may add to our melancholic health.  And oddly, the very corruption of the soul founded in too much sport hunting, is the very thing that may also help us.  I suppose Mr. Burton approves mostly of moderation.  (Though, I was once told "Everything in Moderation...including Moderation!")  Think about it.

PART 3: 
Section 1: Love and its Objects
Section 2: Love-Melancholy
Section 3: Jealousy
Section 4: Religious Melancholy
MY COMMENTS:  It is a rascally thing this love and religious melancholy.  But for Burton, it almost falls into a rambling pit of Roquefort-making platitudes that I am too loathe to entertain now.  Well, perhaps not that bad!  It's simply too early in the morning for me to be quoting his Latin verses of amore, which evoke something less than a hirsute gladiator mumbling joylessly some anachronistic misogynies on the benefits of his "uxor": "Optima viri possessio est uxor benevola!" (Man's best possession is a loving wife!)  And goodness, that is what we have for Mr. Burton in a nutshell.  But readers: be not dissuaded from this tome and its magnificence.  It contains the nuggets, the pearls! of beauty and humor all among its idiosyncratic blessings.  I'm doing the poorest of justices to it.  Shame on me.

Soteriology of Books?  Who's Saving Whom?

Now I do have an additional comment about finding books.  And specifically, finding books among the "jumbled heap" (to quote my friend Chad) of the book boxes on the street.  You see, after I'd found this lovely and lively Burton book the other day, I went back on a secret mission in the early evening hours, to save those remnant books from the potential and threatening rains.  I did not want whatever was left to be drenched and drowned.  Saving!  Saving!  Saving books, objects, anthropomorphized entities, extensions of the self!?  Well, perhaps not that far, but some folks do believe this.  And in this brief soteriological gesture (indeed, this is a wholly / holy other blog!), I went, I returned... (And I returned in great this medieval monk above, who had a need to save the wine in his monastic basement.  Remember, he's not doing it for the himself, but for the wine...wink, wink!)

And Returning in the "save the books from the rains!"  What did I find?  There were no books, the box was empty.  I was glad.  I was glad that someone else had saved them...saved those Trotsky writings from the brutality of the rains and winds and elements collectively.  And I returned a second (or was it third time?) to that house and to those boxes.  The next day (Sunday), there were more boxes, three boxes in fact.  Most of the books were junky (ah, another moment of Biblioschade!--see my earliest posts on this).  But there were others.  There were two books, specifically, which caught my attention, and I grabbed them.  They weren't in bad shape either.  These were:

The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russians, by W. Bruce Lincoln (Doubleday, 1981), in soft cover.  An amazing book in amazing shape.  This book, truly a tome, and filling out at nearly 850 pages, was in great shape.  Only a few imperfections.  It's list price on the back cover is US $17.95, which was big money back in 1981.  From the inside cover, it is listed as $7--and scripted in the handwriting and location typical of Powell's books here in Hyde Park.  That's a usual price for one of their larger, more quality books of history.  Though, this still depends on the type of book and other issues of quality.  Nonetheless, perusing the text, it looks like it will be a fine read and a good companion to my biography of Peter the Great, by Robert K. Massie (who won the biography Pulitzer for the book back in 1981).

The Jefferson Conspiracies: A President's Role in the Assassination of Meriwether Lewis, by David Leon Chandler [Winner of the Pulitzer Prize], (William Morrow and Company, 1994).  Also in pretty good shape, this book caught my eye.  It seemed truly conspiratorial, like something off the shelves of a UFO bookstore in New Mexico.  But here oh, people!  I think this is a little more bone fide than that.  In fact, it is intriguing.  I'm intrigued, right the dark hours of the late evening.  I may just start reading now! 

Enough now.  Enough on Melancholy, its discontents.  Enough on the sadness of reading or in between reading.  The books were saved.  We will not have to think about soteriology for a while now, ...I hope.


  1. Did Lewis commit suicide or was he assassinated?

  2. Ah, a good question. It depends whom you ask!