Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Anatomy of Melancholy, anatomized

Melyvn Bragg's "In Our Time" program on the BBC's Radio 4 is almost always worth attending to: Bragg assembles three or four experts on a topic, anything from logic to Cleopatra to the neutrino, and he somehow manages to keep them all on point and speaking clearly at a smart layman's level for an hour of fascinating discussion and explanation.

Recently, "In Our Time" covered one of my favorite books for perpetual consultation, Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. You can listen to the program at the BBC's site, though I believe they only keep them up for a limited time; it's possible that if it's disappeared from that link you can find it for free in the iTunes store.

One of the pleasures of the digital age is being able to consult Burton on specific topics merely through a keyword search. A search for "broadcast," which seemed unlikely (Yes, I find: Merriam-Webster's dates it to 1767), led me to a search for "news," which was more productive, turning up this bit of advice about letting go of one's regrets and not dwelling on one's past--for everyone else will soon be distracted by other topics:
Be content; 'tis but a nine dayes wonder; and as one sorrow drives out another, one passion another, one cloud another, one rumour is expelled by another; every day almost, come new news unto our ears, as how the sun was eclipsed, meteors seen i'th' aire, monsters born, prodigies, how the Turks were overthrown in Persia, an earth-quake in Helvetia, Calabria, Japan, or China, an inundation in Holland, a great plague in Constantinople, a fire at Prage, a dearth in Germany, such a man is made a lord, a bishop, another hanged, deposed, prest to death, for some murder, treason, rape, theft, oppression; all which we do hear at first with a kind of admiration, detestation, consternation; but by and by they are buried in silence: thy father's dead, thy brother rob'd, wife runs mad, neighbour hath kild himselfe; 'tis heavy, gastly, fearful newes at first, in every mans mouth, table talk; but, after a while, who speaks or thinks of it? It will be so with thee and thine offence: it will be forgotten in an instant, be it theft, rape, sodomy, murder, incest, treason, &c. thou art not the first offender, nor shalt thou be the last; 'tis no wonder; every houre such malefactors are called in question: nothing so common,
There is, of course, the alternative approach, taken by Charlie Sheen, of reveling in one's bad acts and noising them about oneself. I don't know how Burton would have addressed such a tack, but this passage might suffice:
for his intemperance he hath aches, crudities, gowts, and, as fruits of his idleness and fulness, lust, surfeiting and drunkenness, all manner of diseases: pecuniis augetur improbitas: the wealthier, the more dishonest. He is exposed to hatred, envy, peril and treason, fear of death of degradation, &c. 'tis lubrica statio et proxima prxcipitio; and the higher he climbs, the greater is his fall.


  1. I enjoyed listening to such last night, imbibing some decent ale (for the humors, you know) and browsing the terrain of goodreads. While i found the discussion somewhat too clinical, as opposed to a contextual one - as to how AoM relates to other late Ren/early Mod texts and themes - I found myself so involved that I was surprised that the forty minutes had passed .

  2. I actually felt almost exactly the same about it, Jon. I would have liked a bit more appreciation of Burton's oddness as a writer--and how that related to or was reflected in other writers of the period and after as well. But the discussion was compelling nonetheless, and I remain astonished week in and week out at Bragg's ability to get three or four scholars to talk so clearly and well in a way that brings out the interesting aspects of the subject while not dumbing it down too much nor getting hung up on abstruse academic disputes. It's a remarkable program.