Ropen Burton s The anatomy of melancholy It is, as a short preamble to this book puts it, “perhaps the biggest, strangest, and most unwieldy self-help book ever written.” I’m not sure there is any “maybe” about it. I can certainly attest to its difficulty in handling, in the form of its single-volume NYRB edition: thick enough to be almost cubic, my first copy disintegrated when huge blocks of pages came loose from the spine; I had to leave my second copy in a previous dwelling, as it was simply too heavy for my luggage. Never mind, I thought: I’ll buy a digital version. Reader, be very careful doing this – the Kindle edition I bought from the obvious online retailer may be weightless, but mine had been edited by an idiot or an algorithm – I was very excited when I found a sentence that started “but we didn’t However, weave the internet the same, twist the same rope over and over again … “I wondered if Burton coined the word” internet “, just so it wouldn’t be used for centuries. The OED didn’t think so, and looking at the same passage in Another online version I saw that the original word was “web”.
But one of the reasons that I was temporarily attracted to the possibility that “the internet” was a Burtonian neologism was that his work, first published in 1621, connects almost everything that could be known about what we would loosely call mental illness today. From quote after quote from various authorities, anecdotes and sources, intertwined with Burton’s eccentric wit and generous humanity. If someone published a book of similar scope and ambition today and posted it online, half of the text would be hyperlinks. As Burton himself put it, with mad self-contempt: “Doric dialect, extemporaneous style, tautologies, apish imitation, a rhapsody of rags collected from various dumps, authors’ excrement, toys and knickknacks fallen confusingly, without art, without invention, judgment, wit, scholarly, severe, crude, rude, fantastic, absurd, insolent, indiscreet, poorly composed, indigestible, vain, elusive, idle, boring and dry; I confess everything (it is partially affected), you cannot think worse of me than I of myself “.
Mary Ann Lund’s book serves as an introduction not only to Burton’s masterpiece, but also to contemporary and historical conceptions of melancholy. Don’t make the mistake of confusing “blues” with what we now call depression. His writing is not so much to say why or how Burton’s style is so charming, but to give us a scholarly, comprehensive and readable picture of Renaissance medicine, using Burton’s book as a starting point. Melancholy, in the early modern world, could present itself in strange ways. Think “Shame of the first modern European bodies.” It tells, for example, the story of the classical scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), whose “autopsy revealed that his bladder was malformed and that the supplementary bladder was almost six times the size of the main chamber.” The apparent reason was that he had regularly ignored the call of the wild while absorbed in his work. (That George Eliot chose the name for the obsessive dry as dust in Middlemarch it is not a coincidence; but I’m not sure he knew about the bladder. Burton, whom she would have read, doesn’t mention it, but quotes Casaubon a couple of times.)
On a related subject, Lund retells from Burton the story of the Sienese gentleman who refused to urinate, arguing that if he did, the stream would flood the city, despite attempts by various doctors to persuade him otherwise. . In the end they set fire to the house next door and persuaded him that only he could put it out. Lund notes that Jonathan Swift was a reader of the Anatomy and he speculates that he used this story when Gulliver saves the Empress from the Lilliput chambers. (I am inclined to believe him.)
“People would think that they are made of glass, or that they have snakes or eels in their stomach; Or there is the case of the Swiss who fell into a well with frog spawn in it: he swallowed some water and began to believe that frogs were hatching in his belly; “And can’t you hear them croaking?” he asked the doctors who kept trying to convince him that it was just wind. He went to various countries to study medicine himself for seven years in order to find a cure and it seems that in the end everything turned out well. “
What’s interesting about this story, as Lund tells it, is that she only chooses one of Burton’s versions. Anatomy. The one she selects is perfectly good: Burton, when in a song, as he does most of the time, is unable to write a dull sentence (a crazy or almost impenetrably long sentence, but never dull, which is why her book has been in print for 400 years), but omits another, which contains this memorable formula: “Breec, okex, coax, coax, oop, oop.” In other words, we really hear the croaking. Burton is irrepressible and delightfully eccentric, happy to go far off track when it comes to the rhetorical conventions of the time. Anthony Burgess said, of the Anatomy, which “is, by a magnificent and somehow very English irony, one of the great comic works in the world.”
One might not get away with this feeling by reading Lund’s book before Burton’s. One problem is that, for its 250 pages, we have to take seriously the whole absurd business of primitive medicine, with its humors of black and yellow bile, cholera and phlegm; of the influence of the planets and, in particular, of the influence of religion and, indeed, of God himself. If you took any medicine in those days, you might be forgiven for asking, actually works? But the fact that he didn’t, or not much, is one of the reasons Burton’s book is so humane, so misleading, and ultimately forgiving.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism