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Review of "The Anatomy of Melancholy"

By Robert Burton
New York Review of Books, 2001
Review by Jennifer Radden, D. Phil. on Jan 18th 2002
The Anatomy of Melancholy

     It is a fitting tribute to the perennial popularity of Burtons Anatomy of Melancholy that the last decade should have seen not one but two new editions of that work one (published in six volumes by the Clarendon Press) large, extensively footnoted in the most thoroughgoing scholarly fashion, and offered at a cost likely to deter all but the most devoted bibliophiles - and the other a compact chunk of a book small enough to read on the train, or in bed, and costing little more than a sandwich and a mug of beer. Given the heft of the Oxford edition, it is gratifying and delightful that Burtons glorious Anatomy should have been part of the New York Review of Books list of quirky and interesting Classics titles alongside such long out of print or neglected treasures as J.L.Carrs A Month in the Country, the stories of Richard Hughes, and Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Paul Schreber.

     Favorite reading of Dr Johnson and of Keats, the Anatomy is still resonant enough to lend its title and its glamour to contemporary authors who find the dull and clinical connotations of depression insufficient to encompass their varied and profound states of suffering. While for most of its long history the Anatomy has been in print and read as appreciatively as it is today, it was neglected, and even disparaged, during the first half of the eighteenth century.  By the next century it was restored to popularity again, however: as Holbrook Jackson tells us in the introduction to the 1932 Everymans Library edition (of which he was editor) reproduced in this 2001 edition by The New York Review of Books, Byron applauded it, Charles Lamb gave a copy to Keats, who based Lamia upon it, and forty more editions appeared before the 1932 all English Everyman edition reproduced here. (The all English text, quite unnecessary in Burtons time, and essential in ours, provides translations of all Latin, Greek and other non-English passages in a parenthesis within the text, making for easeful and comprehending reading.)

     Jacksons brief introduction not only tells us something of the Anatomys history but captures its singular virtues. Few books, as he says, are more definitely or more curiously imbued with their authorship: To read it is to read him: to read him is to talk with him, to know him as we know the great persons of fiction, or those few writers who have so projected themselves into their works as to have achieved for their own personalities what the great novelists and dramatists have achieved for the characters of their stories or plays.

 Those unfamiliar with Burtons text will find it an absorbing and dense 1200+ pages worth (the notes, glossary and index take up another hundred odd pages), organized into parts, sub-sub and sub-parts, in which every imaginable kind, cause, occasion of and remedy for melancholy is introduced with copious quotations and illustrations in a text so amusing and vital in style, combining remarks at once learned, true, wordy and breathtakingly irrelevant, that it resists all summary.

     William Gass also offers an introduction to this 2001 edition, a lively and masterful discussion worthy of the Anatomy, in which he plays on Burtons notion that his work on melancholy would dispel his own gloom. By reading Burton, Gass assures us, so might we also chase away melancholy, and Burtons unashamed display of his lust for the word - his desire to name each thing, and find a song in which each thing can be sung - is a passion that we might emulate to our assuredly better health.

     We should read Burton for our health, certainly, but why else should we read him? For hundreds of years melancholy was a fundamental category in Western culture, used to explain, order, illustrate and comprehend human experience and all manner of human suffering. (In a small way, it is still.) Reinvigorated, embroidered and glamorized through the Renaissance, the humoral ideas of the Greek philosophers and physicians served as the basis for an elaborate, multi-stranded explanatory system and a way of seeing and experiencing the world. That glittering amalgam of Greek and Renaissance ideas reaches its zenith, but also its final expression, with Burton. The enchantments of the Anatomy are soon succeeded by the sourer and more rationalistic tones of the eighteenth century.

     One of the ironies of this great age of melancholy (Schiesari) which stretched from classical times through the beginning of the eighteenth century, was that while the subject of melancholy was a man, its symbol - Dame Melancholy as Burton calls her -- was a woman (whereas in todays dulled and depleted descendant category of depression, the subject and symbol both are female). Along with the gendering in Burtons text we also encounter his persistent misogyny: women were the cause and source of melancholy, but their experience of it was a lesser one, and one which marriage and domesticity would be quite sufficient to dispel. To todays reader, Burtons misogyny, while no more than a reflection of his time, is one irksome note in an otherwise irresistible book.


© 2002 Jennifer Radden


Jennifer Radden, D. Phil., is a member of the Department of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts, Boston, and President of the Assocation for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry.  She author of Divided Minds and Successive Selves and she is editor of The Nature of Melancholy : From Aristotle to Kristeva.

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