“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”—Audre Lorde
At that unhappy moment when Donald Trump took the oath of office with what has proven to be an attitude of obscene disingenuity, I happened to be 38,000 miles in the air somewhere above the Pacific off the coast of California. By happy and fortuitous circumstance, I was in possession of a ticket to Honolulu in January, the month when most of my colleagues’ professional society of literary scholars chooses to force its members into dreary hotel conference rooms in Boston or Chicago. By unhappy circumstance, of course, this day scheduled for my trip to God’s own terrestrial paradise (everything they say of Hawaii is true) happened to be the genesis of our never-ending Annus horribilis. All morning I’d harbored irrational fears about what would happen at the exact second when Trump put his hand to Bible (for the first time I assume). When I bundled into a cab on First Avenue headed on the Van Wyck towards Kennedy, the pink-gauze sky was just breaking over shrouded Brooklyn and Queens and Barack Obama was still president.
Half-a-day later, when we touched down some 5,000 miles away, having completely embargoed myself of any social media or news, and thus being blissfully unaware of “American carnage” and the inauguration speech that even George W. Bush thought was “weird shit,” I was able to fall asleep near Oahu sands in a cocoon of immense privilege while pretending that I was somehow not even in America anymore (Trump started his political career claiming something similar). With morning, I first encountered Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who in recent years has attempted to rehabilitate himself on Dancing with the Stars in that characteristically malevolent and tacky way that Americans have perfected, with his bizarre insistence that the National Mall contained “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” an easily disproven claim. A day later, and Trump adviser and amoral mercenary Kellyanne Conway would defend Spicer while on Meet the Press, arguing simply that they were in possession of “alternative facts.”
Because a Catholic scrupulosity compels me to never totally enjoy a vacation, I’d taken with me the Anglo-Russian television producer and London School of Economics media theorist Peter Pomerantsev’s crucial Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. When I came across the unfamiliar title at the Strand’s Central Park book stand a few days before, I suspected that there might be something helpful in Pomerantsev’s account of how the Kremlin had constructed a strange, chimerical, mutant form of authoritarianism that wasn’t just built on lies, but where lies themselves became the operative ideology, an epistemically anarchic relativism that he called “post-modern dictatorship.” The son of Soviet dissidents who moved to Britain and later Germany, where his father first worked in Russian programing for the BBC and then Radio Free Europe, Pomerantsev would later spend a decade in his native country also working in media, where he could watch as Vladimir Putin, with the assistance of Svengalis like Vladislav Surkov, mastered the dizzying, confusing, relativist aesthetics of modern Kremlin propaganda.
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible presents a Russian authoritarianism that owes as much to the cruelty of reality television as the Stalinist show trial; as much as they used to make the commissar vanish, they’re just as content to make people disbelieve the commissar (though ricin is still useful sometimes). Pomerantsev describes a country that “had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression—from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich—that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and position or belief is mutable,” so that the Russian state can be defender of a staunchly reactionary traditionalist order when that benefits its aims, or the battle-hardened fighter of fascism when that perspective assists it. What Putinism represents, argues Pomerantsev, is not ideology so much as something transcendent of truth or falsehood, where lies aren’t strategy so much as faith itself.
Now Pomerantsev broadens his scope out from Moscow, to London, Washington, Belgrade, Manila, Beijing, Mexico City, and that nebulous universe that exists in the connection between modems and smartphones in his second book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. He describes a “world of dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, fake news, deep fakes, brainwashing, trolls, ISIS, Putin. Trump,” where the author meets “Twitter revolutionaries and pop-up populists, trolls and elves, ‘behavioral change’ salesmen and Infowar charlatans, Jihadi fan-boys, Identitarians, truth cops, and bot herders.” While not always as unified as Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, Pomerantsev’s latest book (culled from essays originally published in The Guardian, Granta, The American Interest, and The London Review of Books) does provide a primer on how our dystopian new reality of digital simulacra came to be, what it has come to mean, and possibly how we might mitigate the worst of its effects.
Finding ferry-people across this social media Styx, Pomerantsev talks to experts like Russian dissident Lydia Savchuk who infiltrated the Internet Research Agency, the infamous St. Petersburg “troll farm” that long played a role in Moscow politics and that during the 2016 presidential elections saw “Over thirty million Americans… [share] its content among their friends and families.” The author doesn’t limit his analysis to the Kremlin, however, noting that Putinism is but “one front of a vast, global phenomenon.” Something those of us who are horrified by Trump would do well to keep at the forefront of our minds; for there is a certain type of centrist “#Resistance” person addicted to MSNBC and long conspiratorial Twitter threads who harbors the dangerous illusion that Trump is the disease and not the symptom, and that some mythic “normalcy” can be returned upon his ejection. There is also a variety of further-left individual (of which I suppose I’d include myself as a cautious fellow-traveler) who find the first group’s thinking unhelpful, but then overcorrect and end up minimizing the legitimate ideological and technological threats posed by a Kremlin that’s made itself the international of a revanchist order. What Pomerantsev makes clear is that this phenomenon is one that isn’t limited to one country—that’s precisely the point. Our crisis of democracy does not begin and end at the United States.
To that end, This Is Not Propaganda includes interviews with dissidents, hackers, and activists around the world who are attempting to fight a multi-pronged war against the cyber divisions of authoritarian states that have been able to so effectively weaponize information (and the appearance of information) over the past decade. These include the Philippine journalist Maria Ressa who has repeatedly been the target of digital attacks directed by the authoritarian president Roderigo Duterte, the Serbian democracy activist Srđa Popović who was instrumental in the movement against war criminal Slobodan Milosevic (and also literally wrote the guidebook for 21st-century agitators against oppressive governments) and the Mexican hacker Alberto Escorcia who has developed strategies for protestors to reverse-engineer some of the very same technologies used by states to spread disinformation. Pomerantsev even talks with the godfather of digital disinformation, the advertiser, analyst, and cofounder of Cambridge Analytica (which played such a decisive role in the 2016 election) Nigel Oakes. What emerges is an incomplete and sometimes inchoate picture of the second decade of our century, though one that still provides some names, faces, and intentions behind the dark avatars that swarm through Twitter like locusts spreading memes and propaganda, and the good wizards who’ve made it their mission to stop them.
Any radically new information technology alters human consciousness, and has the potential to promulgate disinformation amongst a credulous public not yet literate in the vagaries of the new order. Medieval manuscripts were no more accurate than websites; 14th-century readers of the anonymous The Travels of Sir John Mandeville thrilled to stories about dog-headed Cynocephalics, and two centuries later a rash of printed apocalyptic pamphlets, like the “English Nostradamus” Mother Shipton’s pseudographical prophecies, spread throughout Europe, driving paranoia as surely as Reddit and Twitter defuse QAnon conspiracy theories today. Yet Pomerantsev would be correct in saying that our current predicament is of a different kind, for unlike manuscript or print, our smartphones make us veritable cyborgs, creatures with super computers in our pockets who are continually, potentially connected by network to every other fellow cyborg in the world. This relativist consensus, an epistemic collapse that allows everyone to choose whatever truth is convenient to them, is a type of post-modern magical thinking. However, it isn’t just a return to archaic superstitions, but a reversal of the Enlightenment project that was based in an idea of objectivity that made the work of democracy possible. “There is nothing new about politicians lying,” writes Pomerantsev, “but what seems novel is their acting as if they don’t care whether what they say is true or false.”
We see this happening in real time if we compare the (obvious to some of us at the time) bogus rationale that the Bush administration used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the similar way that the Trump administration has gone about validating the extrajudicial assassination of Qassem Soleimani. While the former was an unmitigated human disaster and the later may yet hopefully prove to not result in the same scope of death, the Bush administration operated as if falsehood and truth were actual categories, even while they consciously chose to mislead. They operated in quasi-official channels, sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations to make the case for war with (compromised) intelligence, and cobbling together a coalition of other countries that supported the invasion. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on the other hand, tells us to believe that Soleimani was imminently about to attack U.S. interests, and doesn’t even bother to construct a more fully fleshed out lie. At that point, we’ve left even the realm of falsehood, and enter the halls of magic. Pomerantsev explains that “Fox and the Kremlin exploit the same ideas: If reality is malleable, why can’t they introduce their own versions too? And if feelings are emancipatory, why can’t they invoke their own? With the idea of objectivity discredited, the grounds on which one could argue against them rationally disappears.”
My above account lets the Bush administration off the hook entirely too much, for the fact is that Trump is just better at deconstructing the division between truth and lie than they were. That most people know that Trump is lying—and that he still gets away with it—counterintuitively shows how masterful said lying is. Much of this has to do with the way the social media ecosystem of Facebook and Twitter have altered how people understand reality; Trump doesn’t have to make any case for the third of the country that’s going to believe what he says, no matter how absurd it might be—they’ve already made that case themselves in their own heads. The previous Republican administration had already flirted with epistemological tweaking during the Iraq catastrophe; one should remember the anonymous source high in the White House who in a gambit worthy of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard dismissed what he called “the reality-based community” to New York Times Magazine reporter Ron Susskind. Propaganda has always traded in flat-out lying—that’s its nature. Part of Pomerantsev’s argument, however, is that the new world of digital misleading has in some sense democratized tyranny, making all of us unwilling accomplices in spreading a constructed reality, whereas in the past such campaigns were obviously top-down.
Glib traditionalists could point to “post-modernism” as the origin of this free-for-all, but our current crisis of epistemology doesn’t come from French academic salons, but rather the cynical calculations of political pragmatism. Charting how the democratic promise unleashed by the fall of communism in 1989 cynically ended with the justifications for the Iraq war in 2003, Pomerantsev notes that “Words and images filled with potent meaning in East Berlin ended in Baghdad.” With democratizing events as varied as the collapse of Soviet authoritarianism, the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, the exile of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the resignation of Suharto in Indonesia, and the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa, it could seem obvious to the self-satisfied liberal that the moral arc of history did indeed predictably move towards justice. “If once upon a time one could speak confidently about history’s waves of democratization flowing in a single current,” Pomerantsev writes, “now a great storm has broken out and it’s hard to tell what’s flowing where and in which direction.” We’re done with Ceausescu, Marcos, and Suharto, but now we have Putin, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jair Bolsonaro, Duterte, and Trump. Such is the state as aptly described by documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor in her perceptive book Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone when she writes that “Political gridlock, corruption, unaccountable representatives, and the lack of meaningful alternatives incense people across the ideological spectrum; their anger simmers at dehumanizing bureaucracy, blatant hypocrisy, and lack of voice.” Into that vacuum defuses the state agitprop of cynical actors willing to hijack our agency for their own coercive ends.
Such meme engineering rewrites the DNA of consciousness, acting as a parasite in the host and completely altering their worldview. In a passage that will no doubt have many nodding in recognition, Pomerantsev describes “people I have known my whole life [that] slip away from me on social media, reposting conspiracies from sources I have never heard of… which is rearranging our relations and identities with its own logic, or in the cause of someone else’s interests we can’t even see.” By way of making contrast between the previous century’s authoritarians and today’s savvier Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley-trained versions, Pomerantsev begins each chapter with a biographical account of his own parent’s running afoul of the Soviet government during the 1970s. In his family’s story, information was something emancipatory that could dispel the official Kremlin line, with censorship the cudgel used by the Soviets to oppress those who opposed them. Today, however, and it’s a surfeit of information that does the same, so much data that nobody can sort through it.
Censorship in 2020 functions not literally, but rather by screaming untruths so loudly through so many channels that reality itself is drowned out. Appropriately enough this is a free market version of propaganda, the tools of the state’s lies privatized and outsourced to your friends, family, and coworkers. The irony is that in the Soviet Union, everybody knew that what Pravda printed was a lie; today people share links from dubious sites pushing a line to assist the status quo under the guise of subversion. Our dire situation was summed up by the Ukrainian investigator Tatyana Gerasimova, who helped conduct an investigation of a tragic fire in Odessa that occurred following the Russian invasion, and which separatists and nationalists each blamed the other for, the truth ultimately being more complicated. Despite that nuance, Gerasimova explains that the truth can’t set one free if you’re incapable of recognizing the truth when presented with it. “Everyone lives in their own reality, everyone has their own truth, there is no reconciliation. We created the investigation to show that there is a difference between truth and lies. In that sense we failed.” So inured are we to the idea that there might be a truth, that there has been a trickle-down rewriting of reality, where now Big Brother doesn’t even have to convince you that 2+2=5. You saw it memed by your uncle on Facebook (the Deep State was the one who said 2+2=4 all along).
Our hellscape’s prophet of authoritarianism is less Franz Kafka than Philip K. Dick. Kafka’s vision of totalitarianism is of the show-trial, the prison, the centrally organized bureaucratic state whereby in The Castle he could write, “If a man has his eyes bound, you can encourage him as much as you like to stare through the bandage, but he’ll never see anything.” In our current world, we’ve put the bandage on ourselves and forgotten that we’re wearing it. Ours is much closer to the neon cacophony of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep where a character says “Everything is true…Everything anybody has ever thought.” The cruel irony of that is if everything is true, then nothing is true; if everything is permitted, then nothing is.
Pomerantsev writes that “More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful. But it also has given the powerful new ways to crush and silence dissent.” As it has turned out it’s the melee of continual information shared by our zombified fellow citizens that’s proven the easiest method to awash us in propaganda. Compared to the authoritarians of the past, Pomerantsev writes that “today’s strongmen are not so rigid. Instead of hanging on to one single ideology, they have learned to speak with different tongues.” To the detriment of all of us, one of the languages they’re most proficient in is a rhetoric that has been available on A.M. radio and amongst shock jocks and stand-up comics for generations, but that has been divorced from any transgressive import it may have once had, now rather serving the purposes of state power.
Leftists were once the funny ones, the Dadaist antics of groups like the Yippies potently using rude and obscene humor to challenge state and corporate hegemony, for “laughter removes the aura of impenetrability around an authoritarian leader.” A perusal of much of woke Twitter will demonstrate that the left has disastrously ceded ground in this regard, the import of humor being taken up by the right in a manner that poses serious challenges to the cause of justice. Pomerantsev recounts visiting popular Manila comedy clubs where stand-ups “pick victims in the audience and roast them, taunting them about the size of their penises, or for their weight, and this right in front of entire families who all laugh along in the relatives’ humiliation.” Duterte’s rhetoric mimics such stand-ups exactly, and goes a long way to explaining his popularity in the ostensibly socially conservative nation. “It’s a type of humor he shares with a troupe of male leaders across the world… [where] toilet humor is used to show how ‘anti-establishment’ they are.”
Such is the disingenuous use of “I was just joking” by leaders from Putin to Trump, who are able to deploy a cavalier cruelty without repercussions. It’s an ingenious hacking of liberals’ natural affinity for the freedom of speech, but done for profoundly illiberal aims. We still understandably valorize the jester speaking truth to power, men like Bill Hicks and George Carlin who were willing to say the seven words you can’t say on television, because if you’re barred from saying the word “fuck” then you’re barred from saying “fuck the president.” But our new authoritarians understand something about amoral tools—they can be asymmetrically used. Pomerantsev notes that “when such language is used consistently by men with real power to degrade those weaker, this humor becomes menacing: It lays the linguistic path to humiliating victims in other ways as well, to as pace where all norms disappear.” Laughter, it seems, is indeed indelible in the hippocampus.
Voters with NPR tote-bags and New Yorker subscriptions may have been caught off guard by the 2016 election results, but they were never the audience for The Apprentice anyhow. The current crisis in democracy, facilitated by cruel and relativist propaganda, is much less surprising if you’re familiar with the past several decades of popular culture that doesn’t receive prestige awards. Trump’s rhetoric matches not the highfalutin pretensions of William F. Buckley, George Will, and The National Review, but it owes everything to A.M. radio sports talk, shock jocks like Don Imus and Howard Stern (neither of whom were supporters of the White House’s current occupant), reality television, and the preening and theatrics of World Wrestling Entertainment. Following the release of the Access Hollywood tape, there was much hand-wringing about how people don’t talk like Trump did in that video—but of course many people do.
For his supporters, the “joy of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting shit, the joy of pure emotion, often anger, without any sense,” writes Pomerantsev. It’s not that they’re unaware of the cruelty; the cruelty is the point. While I had long been more pessimistic about the election then many of my liberal friends and colleagues, I definitively knew that Hillary Clinton would lose when on that Tuesday night I saw CNN interview a woman in a Pennsylvania bar (of the sort that I’m estimably familiar with) who dismissed the “pussy grabbing” comments by saying (and I paraphrase) “I don’t care. Lots of women talk that way too.” From a certain perspective, the election of Trump—a gameshow host who is in the WWE Hall of Fame and made his entertainment career appearing on Stern and talking about how his daughter is sexy—seems less a fluke and more a dispiriting inevitability.
This Is Not Propaganda is not necessarily a hopeful read. True, some of the figures whom he speaks with, from Popović to Escorcia, have and do contend with far worse than we do, and they are able to keep a type of revolutionary optimism. It’s hard to ignore Trump, and in some cases it’s malpractice not to consider him when necessity compels us. And yet few of us will wish on our death-beds that we’d wasted more words on his inanities, his narcissism, his bloated absurdity. One of authoritarianism’s most insidious characteristics is that it doesn’t give you the option to ignore it.
Pomerantsev doesn’t necessarily offer the average citizen much in the way of a map out of the quagmire, though that’s less his intent. He alludes that if we’re to hope for any kind of restoration of truth, of objectivity, of rationality, of democracy, that we must “formulate a vision of the alternative political model you want to see.” What this looks like will be hard to say, but it’s necessary to figure that out. What it won’t look like is the endless, lame obsession over Trump, who wants us to obsess over him: all of our own memes inexpertly put together about “Mango Mussolini,” “Cheeto Jesus,” and “Drumpf.” We can’t win that game, so let’s stop playing it. Tyrants may not believe in truth, but there should be succor in knowing that truth is very much real—and patient. “It’s coming from the feel / That this ain’t exactly real,” wrote that prophet Leonard Cohen, “Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.” And yet the chorus could still be sung that “Democracy is coming to the USA.” Hopefully.
Image: rob walsh
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.