Thursday, August 11, 2011

Robert Burton--The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) {I}

Often extolled as one of the most remarkable books in all of European literature, I think I may have come to this at the wrong time of life. Like Thomas Browne, Burton's most ardent admirers tend to be men past the age of 50 who have a lifetime of committed reading behind them and are tired even of most of the classics. Among the testimonials left by fogies of this class, Anthony Burgess, a noted linguist and composer of music as well as the author of dozens of books, A Clockwork Orange being perhaps the most famous, stated that "Most modern books weary me, but Burton never does"; gruff middle-aged male man of letters extraordinaire Samuel Johnson declared it "the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise"; Llewelyn Powys, whose late Victorian son of a clergyman to Cambridge to Africa to country retirement biography is practically the template for the kind of reader who has traditionally found Burton most engaging, called it "the greatest work of prose of the greatest period of English prose-writing". In addition Anthony Powell in the 10th volume of Dance to the Music of Time (Books Do Furnish a Room), which is set in the couple of years just after the conclusion of World War II, has the world-weary character who is supposed to be the stand-in for himself undertake a book about the Anatomy as his means of finding some bearings again in a world gone mad. Thus I will leave open the possibility of reading this again when I attain that time of life and have more time to bestow on it the concentration it evidently deserves. This is not to say that I did not to some extent enjoy the book this time around. For a 1,132 page tome written in the 1620s it was not too much of a slog nor took an unusually long time to get through, and it is full of interesting and ingenious anecdotes and stories and observations, enough to fill up 11 pages of notes, which is much more than I usually take down. My problem was that I could not keep the overarching structure of the book, and the way that these anecdotes were supposed to be relating to each other, straight in my mind, so that all of the amusing and interesting parts I was experiencing in isolation, and not as part of this highly fascinating personality and worldview that one presumes these other celebrated readers were commiserating with. Now it is possible that this aspect of the book was simply over my head as far as being able to appreciate it went, but the truth is I did not put in the necessary effort to grasp Burton's very complicated system of melancholy in all its types with their origins and effects and treatments, presented in the form of a medical treatise, which besides being difficult seemed too ridiculous to expend the energy to keep properly straight in my mind, assuming the real brilliance of the book to lie elsewhere. Apparently the exquisiteness of this system and the peculiar genius of the man who conceived it are where a considerable amount of the beauty and appeal are to be found, and I, reading under the constraints of time and the various distractions which afflict me in my current state of life, was not able to focus my concentration on these with the attention they required.

If I had read this when I was 26 or 27, I probably would have put in more of the required effort, or at least would have been able to more easily. Whether my overall understanding of the book would have been good, or better, I am not certain, but I would have been able probably to enjoy a more unified and coherent sense of reading.

I'm really going to try to keep the transcribing of quotes and half-legible observations from my notes to a minimum here. With Locke I allowed myself to get carried away, in part because I did not think his book worked on the level that a "Great Book" properly ought to--which I thought I had become pretty adept at over the years, especially with English language authors--and could not think of how else to to demonstrate my meaning, in part because I probably will never read anything else by him again and wanted to have some sense of why he was, and sometimes still is, considered great, but I need to show some restraint here.

Unfortunately for my purposes he gets off to a good start with a lawyer joke in the introductory poem: "Should crafty lawyer trespass on our ground/Caitiffs avaunt! disturbing tribe away!"

Another poem follows immediately after, titled "The Argument of the Frontispiece", which refers to the illustration above depicting various types of melancholics. which hopefully is still visible. This was a inspired and helpful idea. Of the Inamorato (pictured middle left), for example, it is pointed out that "His lute and books about him lie,/As symptoms of his vanity." Of his own picture (middle panel below the title), the author notes:

"It was not pride, nor yet vainglory

(Though others do it commonly)

Made him do this: if you must know,

The printer would needs have it so."

This is followed by yet a third poem, "The Author's Abstract of Melancholy", which features these choice lines:

"Now desperate I hate my life,

Lend me a halter or a knife..."

There is very little I derive more enjoyment from in literature than the hilarious rhymes of 17th and 18th century verse.

After these poems comes the "Introduction to the Reader", which is 106 pages long, and is full of riotous sentences and thoughts, of which I will give a sample below:

"I am insignificant, a nobody, with little ambition and small prospects".

"So that oftentimes it falls out (which Callimachus taxed of old) a great book is a great mischief." The concise quotation referred to ("Mega biblion. mega kakon.") was included in one of the early exercises of the Greek manual at SJC, at the stage before most people began giving up any hope of learning that language to any substantial degree, and as such was a favorite phrase there, especially among people like myself who scarcely knew any other fragments of Greek thought to toss about in company.

Referencing Proverbs XXX.2--Burton was a walking encyclopedia of quotations, perhaps rivaled only by Montaigne among authors I am familiar with--"Surely I am more foolish than any man, and have not the understanding of a man in me."

I think I will stop there for now.

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