Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Burton

My great books #1: The Anatomy of Melancholy

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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.”

Written by nevalalee

November 2, 2015 at 9:54 am

My Lady Caffeine

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Buzz Cafe in Oak Park, Illinois

I love coffee. Over the past decade or two, I’ve alternated between seeing it as an occasional treat and regarding it as essential to survival, and at the moment, I’d rank it among one of life’s basic necessities. I’m drinking a cup of it right now, seated a few feet away from the proximate cause of my recent decision to fully embrace caffeine. Every morning, usually between five and six, I’m awakened by a series of coos and squeals from the next room, signaling that my daughter—now five months old—has decided to start her day. If it’s the weekend, I pick her up, change her, and bring her downstairs to the kitchen, which, like the rest of the house, is silent and peaceful in the predawn light coming through the windows facing the yard. After I set her down in her little chair, the first thing I do is boil a kettle of water. Green tea, which for a long time was my beverage of choice, just won’t do. I need something stronger, preferably with cream and sugar, as I set up my laptop on the dining room table and start to contemplate the morning’s work. With my first cup in hand, my head clears and I start to write. And I’m happy.

It’s possible that much of what we think of as modern civilization we owe to coffee, which arrived on the European scene just when it was needed the most. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, gives us nice a sense of the mystique of coffee at the beginning of the seventeenth century:

The Turks have a drink called coffa (for they use no wine) so named of a berry as black as soot, and as bitter…which they sip still of, and sup as warm as they can suffer; they spend so much time in those coffa-houses, which are somewhat like our ale-houses or taverns; and there they sit chatting and drinking to drive away the time, and to be merry together, because they find by experience that kind of drink so used helpeth digestion, and procureth alacrity.

This description, which Burton based on the travel notes of the poet Sir George Sandys, remains as true as ever: the primary reason we drink coffee is still to “procure alacrity.” The introduction of coffee into European society created a third place, a social gathering point for ideas to be traded, and it kept us sober during the day for long enough to transact business. Later, it provided necessary fuel for the Industrial Revolution: as Mark Pendergrast observes in his book Uncommon Grounds, early factory workers quickly learned to subsist on coffee and bread, which only shows us how little has changed over the ensuing three centuries.

The author's desk

And it’s possible that coffee also affected the creativity of the culture in more profound ways. J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, wrote a curious little book called My Lady Nicotine, in which he notes that the flowering of culture in the age of Shakespeare coincided with the introduction of tobacco:

The Elizabethan age might be better named the beginning of the smoking era. No unprejudiced person who has given thought to the subject can question the propriety of dividing our history into two periods—the pre-smoking and the smoking…I know, I feel, that with the introduction of tobacco England woke up from a long sleep. Suddenly a new zest had been given to life. The glory of existence became a thing to speak of. Men who had hitherto only concerned themselves with the narrow things of home put a pipe into their mouths and became philosophers.

You could say much the same thing about coffee, which turned people into what the pharmacologist Louis Lewin, quoted by Pendergrast, calls “coffee house politicians who drink cup after cup…and by this abuse are inspired to profound wisdom.” Lewin calls the symptoms of caffeine usage “a remarkable loquaciousness sometimes accompanied by accelerated association of ideas,” which sounds about right to me. (It’s also true that the effects of caffeine in such settings are hard to separate from those of nicotine. Pendergrast quotes a contemporary observer of the London coffeehouse: “The whole place stank of tobacco like the cabin of a barge.”)

And writers and artists of all kinds—who quickly turned coffee into an essential component of the bohemian life—have long been aware of how deeply coffee affects us, both creatively and in smaller, more human ways. As one of them writes:

Everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop…Forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

Another notes:

I think the answer is we all need a little help, and the coffee’s a little help with everything—social, energy, don’t know what to do next, don’t know how to start my day, don’t know how to get through this afternoon, don’t know how to stay alert. We want to do a lot of stuff; we’re not in great shape. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep. We’re a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup.

The former quote is from Balzac; the latter, from Jerry Seinfeld. And it’s my lady caffeine who joins them—and all of us—together, as we enjoy one of the most profound pleasures that life has to offer.

“Be not solitary, be not idle”

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The great direction which Burton has left to men disordered like you, is this, Be not solitary; be not idle: which I would thus modify;—If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.

Samuel Johnson, in a letter to James Boswell

Written by nevalalee

August 21, 2011 at 8:34 am

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