Despite William Gass’s name being front and center on the cover, it was long into the text before I realized that he happened to have penned the introduction to this, my inaugural book choice of 2017 and last year’s inaugural read, the Dalkey Archive edition of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which also happens to have an introduction by none other than Gass. Coincidence or fate? Either way, I’m thankful to have finally meet the acquaintance of Robert Burton. I’m also thankful that New York Review Books has made available a one-volume edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, however unwieldy it may be.
In the introduction, Gass latches onto and articulates something critical to a twenty-first-century reader’s approach to this seventeenth-century tome: “Guided by a genius, the pages of a commonplace book could be transformed into an original and continuously argued text…” (viii). In our approach to reading this extended treatise, we must recognize it as a compendium of a scholar’s notes and meditations, exhausting a particular topic, skillfully researching every conceivable Greek, Latin, and English text hitherto published. And being a librarian, Oxford scholar, vicar, rector, etc., we can rest assured that Burton had the world’s knowledge at his disposal. Still, like Frazer’s Golden Bough (1890), we must approach the work as a sort of monomaniac encyclopedia.
The question at the forefront of most minds is likely whether or not it is worth the time and effort spent reading it. Unless you’re a scholar, a historian, or a masochist (or on a desert island with only this book), you’re not likely to have heard of it, let alone actually read it. Most readers, outside of the aforementioned qualifiers, will have little to no use for reading this book. In fact, I presume most would scoff at it as an example of how ignorant and in need of scientific evolution we were in the seventeenth century. I choose not to defend the work against such sentiments. Yes, it is a very long and tedious book; it asks a lot of the reader. And if the reader does not have much interest, or is daunted by the length of the text, it probably won’t be much of an experience. In sum, despite the admonishments of hoary sages, I must admit that most people would be perfectly fine without reading this book.
As for me, however, I found reading Burton’s magnum opus to be markedly rewarding, a conjunction of intellectual nourishment and aesthetic splendor. When I saw that the preface alone was about 125 pages, I took a deep breath and braced myself, but the preface (“Democritus Junior to The Reader”) was the best part of the whole text—so much so that I found myself craving a commensurate coda! For 125 pages, Burton essentially sets out his purpose (“…my purpose and endeavour is, in the following discourse to anatomize this humour of melancholy…and…to show the causes, symptoms, and several cures of it, that it may be the better avoided…” (120)). The preface also sets the rhythm and form of the entire text: Burton follows a rigid outline (i.e. an anatomy) he has defined, that reminds one of the structural shrewdness of later German philosopher like Kant; and for each statement he makes, he supplements it with a library of quotations from classical literature.
One of the main themes of the work—and one of the reasons I so enjoyed it—is of balance and moderation between extremes, i.e. Aristotle’s golden mean. To the old question of the glass being half empty or half full, Burton may reply that it is neither; it is simply a half a glass of water (or whatever its contents be). This theme will continue throughout the text, especially when discussing melancholy caused by religion. Burton disdained the superstitious madness borne by religion: the ceremonies, the saints, the performance of religion (in short, the ceremoniousness of Catholicism; the book was published in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War). For Burton, religious madness had taken many astray of the Gospel’s true message. For a book, especially of such popularity in its time, written by an ecclesiastical man, that so blatantly criticizes piety in the early seventeenth-century (we are not too far off the mark from the likes of Copernicus and Tyndale), I agree with Gass that the later sections on religious melancholy and its cures are pointedly interesting. And yet, while Burton does not abandon faith in favor of, say, medicine, he combines the two.
Sure, there are blemishes all over the place, marking its time: at one point Burton writes that “…some say there be 304, some 307, or 313 [bones] in man’s body” (149). But for the most part, the book is packed with treasures. In addition to the preface and the section on religious melancholy, I enjoyed the whole stretch of pages 300-335 wherein Burton expounds on education, melancholy from too much study, and the miseries of the scholar; and the importance of music. Burton writes with such erudition and sprawling comprehensiveness that, when it comes to melancholy (an all-encompassing topic, one soon finds), he was basically the Wikipedia or even the Internet of his day.
Lastly, if you are on the fence about getting into this book or not, I shall add a few things to help tip you one way or the other. In my opinion, if you’re reading this review, you’re at least thinking about reading the book. Therefore, you are probably of the type of mind that would enjoy such a work. If you like dense but well organized works of high scholarship and exhaustive rumination, you will not be disappointed. As far as your reading plan, you could plow through as I did—it took me a couple of weeks, reading at least a couple hours a day—or you could heed Gass’s suggestion of reading a “member” a day; or, really, you could read the preface in (ideally) one large chunk and then read a few pages a day. The book is really around 1,100 pages (not the ~1,500 pages that some sites show), so, after the preface and reading at a frequency of 3 pages a day, you would finish the book proper in 325 days, neatly within a year. In fact, I may do just this in order to experience being in the presence of such a shrewd intelligence and absorb whatever my fatigued eyes and mind discarded during my first experience.