Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy”



 I was in Symposium Books downtown last week, and somehow I got into conversation with a bright-eyed older lady.  We were negotiating our way through the minor fiction of Virginia Woolf – “Flush” and “Orlando” and “Melymbrosia” – when my eye fell on a stack of cement-block-sized volumes lying near me: nicely-bound new NYRB editions of Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy,” priced attractively at $10.99.  They were hefty little tomes; even if I never get around to reading it, I reasoned, I could always toss it at a pursuing enemy and at least slow him down.



(I just weighed it on the postal scale.  It’s two pounds twelve ounces. It’d leave quite a dent in your forehead if I chucked it at you.)



The new proprietor of Symposium, a funny hipster of whom I approve (the former guy was a drippy-looking Robert Crumb caricature who, according to a writer friend of mine, looked like he was either dealing or using, or both, in the back room.)  He regarded my purchase thoughtfully and approvingly.  “My wife is doing comparative lit,” he said, “and she’s reading all of these things.”



“Thomas Brown,” I said.  “Chaucer.  ‘The Faerie Queene.’”



He nodded.  “I had to read that one too,” he said. 



“And Traherne,” I said.  “And Hakluyt.  And Sir Thomas Mandeville.  And –“



Yes, yes.  Of books, and the making of books, there is no end.



I don’t know if you’ve ever read Burton.  I never had, until last week.  If you are, like me, a booklover with a sense of humor, you will adore this book.  It purports to be a list of all – all! – the causes of human melancholy, and every single cure ever put forward for each one of them. It is plentifully annotated.  Burton read everything available to him, and he remembered everything he ever read. 



If it sounds like a dismal topic – well, it’s not.  It is light and charming.  That’s the idea, after all; you’re melancholy, you pick up the book, and it cures you.  It is the original over-the-counter remedy for depression.  Samuel Johnson (per Boswell) said it was the only book that ever got him out of bed early.



Here’s a taste, from the section on eating too much:



“A true saying it is, Plures crapula quam gladius. This gluttony kills more than the sword, this omnivorantia et homicida gula, this all-devouring and murdering gut. And that of Pliny is truer, “Simple diet is the best; heaping up of several meats is pernicious, and sauces worse; many dishes bring many diseases.” Avicen cries out, “That nothing is worse than to feed on many dishes, or to protract the time of meats longer than ordinary; from thence proceed our infirmities, and ’tis the fountain of all diseases, which arise out of the repugnancy of gross humours.” Thence, saith Fernelius, come crudities, wind, oppilations, cacochymia, plethora, cachexia, bradiopepsia,  Hinc subitae, mortes, atque intestate senectus, sudden death, &c., and what not.”




I know just enough Latin to struggle through the quotes even without Burton’s helpful glosses (although they are often a relief – and when he omits a translation, I know it had a Bad Word in it).  Every phrase has its little pleasure.  Oppilations?  Cacochymia?  Plethora?  O god, bradiopepsia, I think I have that right now.  And sudden death!



And what not.




This book is my new best friend.



Although I still might hurl it at someone, to dispel my melancholy.



(Note: you can download it free at Gutenberg.org, though they’d be glad of a couple of bucks, if you’d care to throw a few bucks their way.)





About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

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