Monday, June 29, 2015

Robert Burton and The Anatomy of Melancholy, always relevant

As I headed home from the office Friday evening, feeling momentarily overwhelmed by the events of the day and the week and the fortnight, from the horrors of the shootings in Charleston to the century-late acknowledgment of the reprehensibility of the South's cause to the juxtaposition of the terror killings in Europe and Africa and the celebrations that followed the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage, I found myself thinking of Robert Burton, and the showiest, most memorable passage from his endlessly fecund Anatomy of Melancholy (1621):
I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, etc., daily musters & preparations, & such-like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarums. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, etc. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical, then tragical matters. Today we hear of new lords and officers created, to-morrow of some great men deposed and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh; he thrives, his neighbor turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, etc. Thus I daily hear, and such-like, both private and public news; amidst the gallantry and misery of the world—jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candour, and integrity mutually mixed and offering themselves—I rub on, privus privatus; as I have still lived, so I now continue, status quo prius, left to a solitary life and mine own domestic discontents.
It's a "wonderful epitome of what life is like," as Anthony Powell put it. Life seen properly as a cascade, so vast as to be almost incomprehensible in the moment, barely less so in in retrospect, mingling the good and the bad, the important and the silly, the lasting and the fugitive. It's enough on the bad days to call to mind a line from Kafka's diaries:
With "Woe!" you greet the night, with "Woe!" the day.
But there's also Charles Lamb, who speaks I think for the odd mixture of--as Burton might have seen it--humors in many of us when he writes,
I cannot divest me of an unseasonable disposition to levity upon the most awful occasions.
Burton's rippling, rivering register of events reminds us that an admixture is all we're ever allowed.

As I read the Anatomy Friday night, I realized something further, and unexpected: surely this, this very passage from Burton, is where Antonin Scalia encountered the archaic word "mummeries" in proximity to "weddings," such that it stuck in his mind and ended up in his blistering dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges? Has Scalia, feeling the tides of history, this week at least, running against him, been seeking consolation in The Anatomy of Melancholy?

Burton offers countless consolations--he is, as Powell puts it, "never a bore," and "one of the first writers to grasp the innate oddness of human nature"--but I'd perhaps recommend that the good Justice, at the end of a long term closeted up with books of law, eager clerks, and crotchety colleagues, instead put the book down and seek some version of Burton's own remedy for melancholy, as related by Powell:
At Oxford, when plagued by melancholy, Burton, who seems always to have enjoyed a joke, used to go down to the bridge over the river, and listen to the bargemen swearing at each other. That would always make him laugh, and at once feel better.
As someone who spent most of his weekend (in, let's note, a much more cheerful and optimistic frame of mind than I'm ascribing to Justice Scalia) sitting on the porch admiring the chuntering nonsense of the local bird population around my feeder, I give such a prescription my heartiest support.

No comments:

Post a Comment