Thursday, September 01, 2011

Labyrinth of Wit and Learning

The Anatomy of Melancholy
The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

"Melancholy, the subject of our present discourse, is either in disposition or in habit. In disposition, is that transitory Melancholy which goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causes anguish, dulness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing frowardness in us, or a dislike. In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy, that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill-disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoick, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of Mortality… This Melancholy of which we are to treat, is a habit, a serious ailment, a settled humour, as Aurelianus and others call it, not errant, but fixed: and as it was long increasing, so, now being (pleasant or painful) grown to a habit, it will hardly be removed." (Pt I, 143)

This is a book that I view as a reference work in the sense that it can re read a bit at a time and turned to as if to reference a topic. The table of contents is maddeningly unspecific in its title, for example there is an eighty page section titled simply "A Digression of Remedies Against Discontents". However, there is a sufficiently detailed index to allow the reader some hope of finding more specific comments about "goblins' or "grasshoppers" or "green-sickness." The last of these refers to a symptom of "love-melancholy":
"The green-sickness therefore often happeneth to young women, a cachexia [Weight loss, wasting of muscle, loss of appetite, and general debility that can occur during a chronic disease] or an evil habit to men, besides ordinary sighs, complaints, and lamentations, which are too frequent." (Pt. III, 133)
I refer to it as the need arises whether due to my own melancholy or to a reference in another work. This is a massive creation of genius and a lifetime of thought. Much of the book consists of quotations from various ancient and mediæval medical authorities, beginning with Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen. Hence the Anatomy is filled with more or less pertinent references to the works of others. A competent Latinist, Burton also included a great deal of Latin poetry in the Anatomy, and many of his inclusions from ancient sources are left untranslated in the text.
Burton seemingly has collected everything written about melancholy and, combined with his own musings on the subject, has provided the reader an immense edifice - one with selections too numerous to catalog here - and one that still entertains and educates centuries later. It deserves my continuing devotion and meditation on its content and meaning.

View all my reviews

No comments: