Monday, January 09, 2012

The Anatomy of Melancholy IV

It's been a while, but I thought a few book-notes might make for a good space-filler right about now.

Theory of the aid of pictures in conception, with examples: "Persina, that Ethiopian queen in Heliodorus, by seeing the picture of Perseus and Andromeda, instead of a blackamoor, was brought to bed of a fair, white child. In imitation of whom, belike, an hard-favoured fellow in Greece, because he and his wife were both deformed, to get a good brood of children...hung the fairest pictures he could buy for money in that chamber, 'that his wife, by frequent sight of them, might conceive and bear such children.'" Should I have put up pictures of geniuses? Or hipsters?

"...Tully (Cicero) confessed of himself, that he trembled still at the beginning of his speech; and Demosthenes, that great orator of Greece, before Philippus." This would be surprising to me if it were true. I tend to think of fear as one of the many unfortunate qualities of which superior men are blissfully unburdened, particularly in their especial areas of superiority. Nervousness suggests doubt of success, which largely means doubt of one's own superiority; which it would seem impossible a truly great thinker would be capable of feeling, especially when one becomes accustomed to the bombast and self-assuredness of the more prominent men of intellect at work in public life at any given. The longer view assures us that this is not always the case however.

The book is a compendium of human life, or at least human life as understood by a certain kind of male intellectual mindset, which formerly was often mistaken for the thing itself. I am not as yet always persuaded that it is not the thing itself, but it is true that old habits die hard, especially in the aged.

Of envy: "...the Sicilian tyrants never invented the like torment." That's funny. Sort of.
Alexander's ambition to emulate Achilles is described as "modest", followed up by this observation: "'Tis a sluggish humour not to emulate or to sue at all, to withdraw himself, neglect, refrain from such places, honours, offices, through sloth, niggardliness, fear, bashfulness, or otherwise, to which by his birth, place, fortunes, education, he is called, apt, fit, and well able to undergo..." This should be read as a lesson at my funeral; preferably by a winner, if any can be found to show up at it.

The brazen bull, the horrors of which were oft-reported by Roman authors--now that was a torture device. For anyone not familiar with it, this was a hollowed-out bronze cast in the shape of a bull in which the victim would be placed while the bronze was heated over a fire. Seems to have been frequently employed as entertainment at dinner parties, I presume among the more rapacious segments of the Roman elite, as the writers pretty clearly disapprove of the practice.

"This for the most part is the humour of us all, to be discontent, miserable, and most unhappy, as we think at least...Hadst thou Sampson's hair, Milo's strength, Scanderbeg's arm, Solomon's wisdom, Absalom's beauty, Croesus his wealth...Caesar's valour, Alexander's spirit, Tully's or Demosthenes' eloquence, Gyge's ring, Perseus' Pegasus and Gorgon's head, Nestor's years to come, all this would not...give thee content and true happiness in this life..."

"For particular professions, I hold as of the rest, there's no content or security in any...To be a divine, 'tis contemptible in the world's be a physician, 'tis loathed; a philosopher, a he could find no tree in the wood to hang himself, I can show you no state of life to give content." He is honing in on the essence of the case in these last two snippets..

The life of royal courts with its attendent ambitions, jealousies, lusts, etc, is described as "the suburbs of hell itself", which I thought not only humorous, but consoling, that a person who lacked not some capacity of force should state the idea. Of course I am only just now figuring out that in their own lifetimes most of these now celebrated writers were not substantial players in the power games of their times, and that that does matter to a greater extent than is often allowed for, for even if the writer is telling truths, it is usually only a small and limited view of matters that does not reflect how even the vast majority of clever people experienced at the time; which I think is more problematic than perhaps I was wont to formerly.

"Others, I say, are overthrown by those mad sports of hawking and hunting; honest recreations, and fit for some great men, but not for every base, inferior person..." The problem here of course is that ultimately most of civilized, or at least advanced life is not properly fit for inferior people, which is inevitably most of them.

There are a lot of quotes about the desperate quest for fame, the multitudes of books that died with their authors, and the like, which I am going to skip over as ground well-covered. It is never tedious however to be reminded that Xerxes was a moron:

"Such a one was Xerxes, that would whip the sea, fetter Neptune, in his stupid pride, and send a challenge to Mount Athos; and such are many sottish princes, brought into a fool's paradise by their parasites."

There is an extensive section on excessive devotion to scholarship as a source of insanity and a sapper of general vigorous powers. The anecdotes here include a Thomas Aquinas at dinner story, which is always promising (Aquinas is usually depicted in paintings as having the physique of a small tank):

"Fulgosus...makes mention how Th. Aquinas, supping with King Louis of France, upon a sudden knocked his fist upon the table, and cried (in Latin), 'This proves the Manicheans were wrong'; his wits were a-woolgathering, as they say, and his head busied about other matters; when he perceived his error, he was much abashed."

Sanicidae. = killers of healthy people. Funny name (I thought) for notoriously incompetent physicians and other quacks.

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