Lost somewhere in the storage room of my childhood home is a videotape of me, at 8, surrounded by the colorful scraps of a Christmas morning. Off camera, you hear holiday music and conversation. On camera, center frame, dressed in sweater and jeans, I sit in a fugue state, picking aimlessly at the plastic of a packaged action figure. I stare at my hands. I stare at the carpet. Separated from the present moment, intently searching for something that isn’t there in front of me. My mother asks what’s wrong. I shake my head, as if in a dream. A minute later, she asks again, as if speaking to a shy puppy: What’s the matter? The one-sided dialogue between earnest mother and mute son continues for another minute. Then, as if exhausted, the home video cuts to another, cheerier scene from that December morning in 1990.
For most of my adult life, this brief snippet of film has been the defining image of melancholy: that intense—and, truth be told, intensely pleasurable—disposition caught halfway between nostalgia and depression. It’s a disposition I’ve carried with me throughout my life, and in those brief moments on that home video it’s captured, like low-definition footage of some mysterious woodland beast. What, exactly, is that little Zak thinking? What is he feeling? Says Webster: “a depression of spirits.” Says Oxford: “a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.”
Then there’s Robert Burton’s seminal (and exhausting) tome, The Anatomy of Melancholy, with a definition so lengthy, so convoluted, so comprehensive and contradictory that it requires 1,382 pages. It’s a book I discovered only a few years ago, during a (yes, melancholic) walk among the shelves of a local bookstore. Recently, like one of Burton’s melancholic scholars, I took it upon myself to finally sit down with his Anatomy as a way to better understand, to reconnect with, the boy in that home video—and the man he’d become. Ignorant of the book’s contents aside from its umbrella theme and its bricklike heft, I assumed somewhere in these pages would be a passage that could illuminate my own experiences.
Look to the past, history’s great teachers tell us. And yet I learned, perhaps too quickly, that one doesn’t approach this encyclopedic book with such utilitarian intentions. You’d be just as well-served planning a trip to Asia using The Travels of Sir John Mandeville as your guidebook. Burton cautions his reader as much in his lengthy introduction, written under the name of Democritus Junior (the fictional descendent of a melancholy philosopher and coeval of Socrates):
Yet one caution let me give by the way to my present or future reader, who is actually melancholy, that he read not the symptoms or prognostics in this following tract, lest by applying that which he reads to himself, aggravating, appropriating things generally spoken to his own person (as melancholy men for the most part do), he trouble or hurt himself, and get in conclusion more harm than good.
If you, like me, are looking to read The Anatomy to self-diagnose, to cross-check Burton’s list of symptoms with your own, don’t bother. You’re melancholy. In fact, as Burton suggests, we’re all melancholy in one way or another. And I imagine he’d find our 21st century just as rife with melancholy as his own 17th-century world.
“The tower of Babel never yielded such confusion of tongues,” Burton writes, “as the chaos of melancholy doth variety of symptoms.” Nevertheless, Burton takes it upon himself to bring some order to these symptoms and causes in the first partition of The Anatomy, and it was with a great amount of curiosity and glee, along with a muted feeling of dread, that I combed through these hundreds of pages in search of myself.
To begin with is my lifelong love of perhaps that most emblematic form of melancholy recreation: reading. All too often in my childhood, I’d escape from the company of my peers with books: comic anthologies, movie novelizations, children’s magazines. I’d tuck myself into corners and live in other worlds while the real one continued just out of earshot. As a college student, I passed on parties for the private corners of library stacks and department buildings. As an adult, I’m never so deliciously alone as I am with an open book in a crowded coffee shop or subway car.
Burton was onto this. Over the span of several dozen pages, he bemoans the “misery of scholarship” and the dangers of “overmuch story” as a fertile ground for melancholy. No wonder, then, that in imagining myself reading in public spaces, I often recall a line of concern expressed by another mother of a melancholy youth: Queen Gertrude, who, spying on her son in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, remarks: “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes / reading.”
To complicate matters, Burton lists reading as one of the possible ways to alleviate melancholy spirts:
Who is he that is now wholly overcome with idleness, or otherwise involved in a labyrinth of worldly cares, troubles, and discontents, that will not be much lightened in his mind by reading of some enticing story, true or feigned…For what a world of books offers itself, in all subjects, arts and sciences, to the sweet content and capacity of the reader!
Scattered throughout Burton’s tome are other pieces of myself, as a child and as an adult. I come across these passages like a patient who’s uncovered a psychiatrist’s notes, written in an archaic tongue and encompassing years of 50-minute private confessions.
The paranoia the socially shy feel in the company of their peers: “If two talk together, discourse, whisper, jest, or tell a tale in general, he thinks presently they mean him, applies all to himself.”
The overcompensation of one’s melancholy disposition with laughter and good cheer: “Humorous they are beyond all measure, sometimes profusely laughing, extraordinarily merry, and then again weeping without a cause…groaning, sighing, pensive, sad, almost distracted…”
The walks of my everyday life (around the neighborhood of my youth, in empty spaces after the departures of family and friends, through parks and city streets with just my thoughts and my earbuds): “But the most pleasant of all outward pastimes is that of Aretaeus, deambulatio per amoena loca [strolling through pleasant scenery], to make a petty progress…”
The envy of others’ well-earned success: “He tortures himself if his equal, friend, neighbor, be preferred, commended, do well; …and no greater pain can come to him than to hear of another man’s well-doing; ‘tis a dagger at his heart…”
And above all, the ever-present sorrow and rumination: an “inseparable companion…as all writers witness, a common symptom, a continual, and still without any evident cause…grieving still, but why they cannot tell.”
Burton devotes half of the third part of his Anatomy to melancholy’s relationship with love. And who among us would disagree that love—whether a one-night stand or a multi-decade marriage—isn’t tinged with its own special sort of sweet sadness?
Both in the closet and now long out of it, I’ve been convinced of the connection between homosexuality and melancholy. The sadness that comes from being strange, different, set off at an unwanted remove from the rest of society. The inward-facing anger at being forced into a specific sort of solitude one doesn’t necessarily want. The secret life lived wholly in the mind because it can’t be borne into reality without consequences.
There’s little homosexuality in Burton’s book (a scant mention of sodomy among sexually frustrated monks; the heroic love between Achilles and Patroclus), but still much I can relate to when it comes to the subject of longing, of unrequited (and requited) love, of lust and jealousy as a part of the melancholic lover’s disposition. And while a proud, open life can do much to alleviate the dangers of sexual and emotional repression, I’m not entirely sure the melancholy disappears so quickly. We carry our queer melancholy with us, everywhere, and all our future loves and relationships are tainted (or, perhaps, blessed) by this baggage.
Of cures for melancholy, Burton has much to say in the second partition of The Anatomy. Over several hundred pages, we’re drawn through ancient and early-modern methods for purging, curing, and alleviating one’s black moods. Confessing to a friend. Massaging one’s body with oils of chamomile and roses. Inducing vomit with laurel and sea onion. Eating early. Undergoing surgical procedures with knives and hot irons.
There’s nothing in these pages, however, of the cures I’ve experimented with over the years in an effort to purge myself of my perpetual gloom: the after-work therapy sessions, the late-night Google searches, the chat forums and inspirational blogs. And the pills: medications that Burton’s cadre of physicians and scholars, with all their talk of hellebore and leeches, could never have imagined. Ours is a modern world where there is, it seems, “a pill for that.” In such a world, of what uses are Burton’s medieval cures? (How quaint, how curious, how funny, I think as I put down The Anatomy to swallow my daily 40 milligrams of Prozac.)
But to cure myself entirely of my melancholy disposition? To cut it out of my body and keep it in a jar where I could observe it at a safe remove? I’ve long since given up on that project—not out of defeat but rather out of a strange sense of respect. Temper it? Yes. Keep it in check so it doesn’t interfere with everyday life? Of course. But to rip it out of my brain entirely? Alas, those roots run too deep. Take away my melancholy and you take away my very identity.
The New York Review of Books edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy I carried around with me like a millstone this spring is notable for two reasons. The first is the introduction by the always-insightful William H. Gass, who shares Burton’s love of language, of the uncanny effects of words piled on words piled on words, of sentences which achieve “the tone of a tirade that, in the midst of its fury, smiles at itself.”
The second is the front cover, a detail of a 17th-century vanitas painting by Philippe de Champaigne featuring a skull the color of leather and an hourglass caught in the middle of its span—appropriate reminders of life’s ephemerality, of the ever-present realities of death and the passing of time. And yet it’s an inaccurate representation. Look at the entirety of the tableau online and you’ll see what’s missing from this detail is a tulip, positioned to the left of the skull, its petals almost on fire with color. As any practicing melancholic will tell you, there’s sadness and anxiety in our outlook on life. But there’s also beauty. Always, on some level, beauty. And the well-lived life of a melancholic recognizes all three of these aspects—beauty, death, time—as working in concert.
This is melancholy’s truth: It is both blessing and curse, boon and bane. Inside that little boy’s head all those years ago, inside mine right now and forever, is an ever-persistent struggle between sweet and sour, joy and sorrow. A temperament that, according to Burton, has room for both “a thousand miseries” and “sweet music,” for “a thousand ugly shapes” and “rare beauties.”
Had I only had Burton’s words to share with my mother back then on that Christmas morning. Had I only been old enough, wise enough, to tell her we all, in one way or another, live with private melancholies. That the most enlightened among us have a respect for our long-anatomized disposition. That some of us, much to Burton’s consternation, wouldn’t live life any other way.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.