My great books #1: The Anatomy of Melancholy
Note: Two years ago, I posted a list of ten works of fiction that had shaped me as a writer. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be doing the same with nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. I hope you’ll find something here that will change your life, too.
The Anatomy of Melancholy is a medical textbook that both causes and cures the disease that it claims to describe. This is such a Borgesian idea that it’s mildly surprising that Borges himself—who was a fan—never did anything with it, but it’s less of a paradox than it seems. The scholar Robert Burton’s professed aim was to analyze the condition known in the seventeenth century as melancholia, which was both less and more than what a modern writer might call clinical depression. One of its causes, as he knew well, was “overmuch study,” with too much time spent among books and not among human beings. And it’s no accident that his own treatise is the ultimate example of a work so fascinating and exhaustive that it’s tempting to devote the rest of your life to it, just as Burton himself did, despite the psychological dangers that it presents. Of his fellow scholars and students, Burton writes:
They are most part lean, dry, ill-colored, spend their fortunes, lose their wits, and many times their lives, and all through immoderate pains and extraordinary studies…Because they cannot ride a horse, which every clown can do; salute and court a gentlewoman, carve at table, cringe and make congees, which any common swasher can do, his populus ridet, etc., they are laughed to scorn, and accounted silly fools by our gallants. Yea, many times, such is their misery; they deserve it: a mere scholar, a mere ass.
There’s no question that Burton is talking about himself here, as well as about his own readers, who wouldn’t be drawn to his book at all if they weren’t prone to the same affliction. Yet he also writes, with no sense of contradiction: “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” The same books and libraries that can cause much isolation and sadness are also the occasion for one of the most weirdly entertaining works in the English language. Melancholy itself is only its excuse: its real subject is the world itself and everything in it, and it uses melancholy as a lens through which to examine whatever Burton happens to find interesting. It’s our greatest book of digressions, with lengthy excursuses on such topics as the existence of werewolves, the possibility of life on other planets, and the sexual practices of the famous and obscure, the latter of which Burton couches discreetly in Latin. It was his life’s work, and he revised it repeatedly, adding more citations, quotations, and examples to the structure he had already established. And the paradox it embodies is that of the creative life itself: books and writing can make us miserable, but they’re also the only thing that can revive us again. I discovered The Anatomy of Melancholy in high school, and it’s startling to realize how perfectly it anticipated the shape my own life has taken. And Burton’s closing advice to his readers is as sound now as it ever was, as hard as it can be for a writer to put it into practice: “Be not solitary, be not idle.”