Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Anatomy of Melancholy III

The Anatomy of Melancholy II was a weak post, with little elaboration or personal input on my part, so I am going to take up III straightway as a corrective to that barren effort.

Fairy sightings: "Pauli, in his description of the city of Barcino in Spain, relates how they have been familiarly seen near that town, about fountains and hills." There is lots of stuff like this throughout the book.

"...prodigies frequently occur at the deaths of illustrious in the Lateran Church in Rome, the Popes' deaths are foretold by Sylvester's tomb." The tomb of Sylvester II (999-1003) is still marked by a memorial, which dates from 1910, in this church. According to this informative web page with regard to relics, this monument "is said to 'cry' before a pope dies (its marble becomes moist)."

"Men's miseries, calamities, and ruins are the devil's banqueting dishes."--Lactantius. To be honest, the ideas at work in most of these quotations are at such a remove from my usual thought processes that I am hard put to say much of anything about them. As they are so different and imaginative after a fashion however, I like to have such expressions around me to a degree.

Stories of possession: "A nun did eat a lettuce without grace or signing it with the sign of the cross, and instantly possessed...Durand...relates that he saw a wench possessed in Bononia with two devils, by eating an unhallowed pomegranate, as she did afterwards confess, when she was cured by exorcisms." Bononia appears to be the Roman name for several different cities, including Bologna, Italy, Boulogne-Sur-Mer, France, Vidin, Bulgaria and Banostor, Serbia. I am guessing Durand was referring the one in France. Burton is obviously fascinated by any incident or story which introduces to human life some element outside of ordinary existence, the cause both of the interest and the invention I suspect he would take to be Melancholy. The section on palm-reading and astrology went over my head because I was unfamiliar with and could not get a good grasp of the terms.

Witches are said to have carnal copulation with the devil, after which their brains are crazed. The devil of course being the ultimate bad-boy alpha male.

" all ages there should be (as there usually is) once in six hundred years a transmigration of nations, to amend and purify their blood, as we alter seed upon our alter for good our complexions, which were much defaced with hereditary infirmities, which by our lust and intemperance we have contracted." Well, here we are. Burton was looking for the Northern Goths and Vandals, innocuous, and free from riot and diseases, to come and reinvigorate the faltering stock of mainstream Europe. There is a lot of circulation of peoples in our time of course. I am not sure yet which carry the freshest and most vigorous reinforcements of blood however. I don't think it is supposed to be people like however, and indeed, I am almost certainly a double-barreled transmitter of the melancholy gene.

"...if a drunken man gets a child, it will never likely have a good brain, as Gellius argues..." I love to think of myself as a drunken man--it would give some texture and the possibility of unpredictability to my existence--but I really have not been one in a long time, and compared to serious drinkers, never.

The chapter on Bad Diet as a cause of melancholy is one of my favorites in the whole book, as numerous of my favorite foods, and the damage they do to one's body and mind, are investigated at length. For example: "Carp is a fish of which I do not know what to determine. Franciscus Bonsuetus accounts it a muddy fish. Hippolytus Salvianus, in his book de piscium natura et praeparatione, which was printed at Rome in folio, 1554, with most elegant pictures, esteems carp no better than a slimy, watery meat." They eat a lot of carp in the Czech Republic, especially fried--it is even the traditional Christmas dinner. There are ponds stocked with them all over the country. For home dining the custom is to bring home a live one--and they are rather large fish--as we do with lobster, and have it swim around in the bathtub until dinner time, at which one kills it by clubbing it in the head with a mallet. My impression is that having this huge fish swimming around in your tub makes it less of a bother to beat it to death, if one is queasy about such things, by the same principle that one doesn't have a problem setting traps for or setting loose a cat to feast on the mice that share one's abode. You are highly motivated to get it out of there.

"Among herbs to be eaten I find gourds, cucumbers, cole-worts, melons, disallowed, but especially cabbage." What? Cabbage is bad too? here is a poem, translated from Plautus:

"Like other cooks I do not supper dress,
That put whole meadows into a platter,
And make no better of their guests than beeves,
With herbs and grass to feed them fatter."

Another translated poem, from an author called Crato, on the black Bohemian beer of middle Europe:

"Nothing comes in so thick,
Nothing goes out so thin,
It must needs follow then
The dregs are left within."

"Venus omitted produceth like effects...some from bashfulness abstained from venery , and thereupon became very heavy and dull; and some others that were very timorous, melancholy, and beyond all measure sad. Oribasius...speaks of some, 'that if they do not use carnal copulation, are continually troubled with heaviness and headache; and some in the same case by intermission of it'...Villanovanus...saith. he 'knew many monks and widows grievously troubled with melancholy, and that from this sole cause'."

"Felix Plater, in the first book of his observations, tells a story of an ancient gentleman in Alsatia, that 'married a young wife, and was not able to pay his debts in that kind for a long time together, by reason of his several infirmities: but she, because of this inhibition of Venus, fell into a horrible fury, and desired every one that came to see her, by words, looks, and gestures, to have to do with her..." Among the charms of Burton is that he writes as if he is talking to himself, oblivious to any kind of outside audience, which has the effect for the reader who can find some commonality with him of having a greater intimacy than is usual. It also has the effect of making all of the incidents and reactions that appear in the book seem as if they could happen to anybody at any time, and in an atmosphere of exalted intelligence such as is extremely rare in real life but is strongly desired by the most desperate readers.

We move on to another favorite chapter, that on Bad Air. This sentence regarding the effects of heat is nothing I can really gloss on, but it is the sort of sweeping anecdote packed illustration of a facet of human experience that gives a lot of pleasure, (even where it depicts things that are actually extremely unpleasant): "At Aden in Arabia, as Lodovicus Vertomannus relates in his travels, they keep their markets in the night, to avoid extremity of heat; and in Ormus (located in what is now southeastern Iran, on the Persian Gulf), like cattle in a pasture, people of all sorts lie up to the chin in water all day long. At Braga in Portugal, Burgos in Castile, Messina in Sicily, all over Spain and Italy, their streets are most part narrow, to avoid the sunbeams. The Turks wear great turbans, to refract the sunbeams; and much inconvenience that hot air of Bantam in Java yields to our men that sojourn there for traffic; where it is so hot, 'that they that are sick of the pox lie commonly bleaching in the sun, to dry up their sores'."

We are reminded that cold air is almost as bad as hot however, and the list of places condemned for having air both cold and bad is too long to fruitfully include in the post here. Lithuania was among those locales singled out however, a very rare reference in literature to the land of 25% of my ancestors. If you follow food trends at all, you have probably observed that the Mediterrenean diet, especially favored by persons with ancestral roots in those countries, wins a good deal of approval. Unfortunately the Baltic Diet favored by my generations of my people--centered around whitefish, sausage products, heavy breads, beer by the hogshead, cabbage, potatoes, cream sauces, etc--does not seem likely to be embraced by the global foodie community any time soon. Which is kind of a shame.

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