“The so-called 'Left-Hand Path' - that of Kaulas, Siddhas and Viras - combines the... Tantric worldview with a doctrine of the Ɯbermensch which would put Nietzsche to shame... The Vira - which is to say: the 'heroic' man of Tantrism - seeks to sever all bonds, to overcome all duality between good and evil, honor and shame, virtue and guilt. Tantrism is the supreme path of the absolute absence of law - of shvecchacarÄ«, a word meaning 'he whose law is his own will'." ― Julius Evola, The Path of Cinnabar.

“It is necessary to have “watchers” at hand who will bear witness to the values of Tradition in ever more uncompromising and firm ways, as the anti-traditional forces grow in strength. Even though these values cannot be achieved, it does not mean that they amount to mere “ideas.” These are measures…. Let people of our time talk about these things with condescension as if they were anachronistic and anti-historical; we know that this is an alibi for their defeat. Let us leave modern men to their “truths” and let us only be concerned about one thing: to keep standing amid a world of ruins.” ― Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World: Politics, Religion, and Social Order in the Kali Yuga.

“We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who died at his post during the eruption of Vesuvius because someone forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one that can not be taken from a man.” ― Oswald Spengler, Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy

This is one of my favorite books in the history of European letters. If Poe had one book in mind when he referred to a "curious volume of forgotten lore" I would be amazed if it wasn't Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.

Here is a good review from: http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/divphil/burtonr.htm

The complete review's Review:
If one had to pare down one's library to the barest minimum, Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy is a volume that one could never cull. If one had to prepare for a desert-island exile and could take only a handful of books along, then The Anatomy of Melancholy is surely a volume one would insist on taking. Those that have a copy of the long hard-to-find volume(s) treasure and cling to it -- one reason why you'll rarely find a copy at your local second-hand bookstore.

It is a famous book. A well-known title. But rarely seen. It has been, essentially, out of print for some time (the recent scholarly Clarendon Press edition being out of most reader's price range -- and, apparently, already itself out of print). Now The Anatomy of Melancholy has been republished in a convenient single volume by New York Review Books. A barely ballyhooed event, it should be the talk of the town, the publishing triumph of the season.

There are few essentials that belong on the bookshelf in every cultured English-speaking household. A collected Shakespeare. The Riverside Chaucer. Grudgingly: a King James Bible. And Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.

Certainly, other titles belong there as well, but one can debate the specific novels and the poetry that are worthy of inclusion. Not Burton's Anatomy. No question there. And, given the propensity of the title to fall out of print (as it has recently, and did previously -- for a particularly long, dark stretch between 1676 and 1800), we can only advise you to get your copy while you can.

What is this book ? Well, it is, nominally, an anatomy, an overview, a dissection, an analysis of melancholy. But melancholy is a broad term, a common affliction with many causes, symptoms, and, possibly, cures. And Burton is determined to consider each and every variation on the theme.

Burton's book is encyclopedic. Burdened all his life with a "roving humour", Burton acknowledges:
I have read many books, but to little purpose, for want of good method. I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries with small profit for want of art, order, memory, judgment. I never travelled but in map or card, in which my unconfined thoughts have freely expatiated.

Burton did, indeed, read many books. Every book ever written or published until that time, it would seem. Indeed, he appears to quote from every one of these books in The Anatomy of Melancholy -- from the earliest Greeks to his recent contemporaries. Arguably, the Anatomy is the last book that encompasses the entire learning of Western culture, the last successful effort to cram it all into one volume.
It is a strikingly odd book, in that it consists almost entirely of quotes and references to the thought of others. It is a book of references woven together. But what a tapestry. Burton builds his arguments and his explanations by constantly referring to what others have said before. Acknowledging that there is nary a new thought under the sun he dispenses with feigning originality. Newton may have stood on the shoulders of giants, but they remain largely unseen; in The Anatomy of Melancholy Burton stands on the shoulders of all of learned humanity, a small speck atop a very tangible, teeming mass.

There is both madness and method here. The book is overwhelming. It ranges across nearly all subjects: medicine, astronomy, philosophy, literature and all the arts, politics, nature. It runs from quote to quote to reference. Still, it is carefully constructed, partition upon section upon member upon subsection. Neat synoptical tables illustrate how each partition unfolds. All possible issues are brought up and dealt with, exhaustively -- but never exhaustingly. The style is an odd one, with run-on sentences that seem to want to break off every which way, but Burton's hand is a firm one and, amazingly, he keeps things under control.

The book is presented as being by "Democritus Junior", the pseudonym Burton chose to publish the book under; it is dedicated to George Berkeley (giving some sense of Burton's own philosophical inclinations). The book begins with a Latin poem "Democritus Junior to his Book", with which he releases it into the open day. An explanatory poem gives "The Argument of the Frontispiece" (see here or, if you have the patience, here for reproductions of the frontispiece) Next: "The Author's Abstract of Melancholy".

There is then a long introduction, "Democritus Junior to the Reader", and finally a warning "To the Reader who Employs his Leisure Ill". Then it is on with the melancholy show. The focus is on this perceived malady, but in essence it is also an excuse to discourse about all matters and manners in the world (and, occasionally, beyond).

The first partition is devoted to the more common, generic sort of melancholy, focussing on causes and symptoms. Melancholy can, apparently, be found everywhere. Burton explores every possible reason for that sinking melancholy feeling. From God to bad nurses, bad diet to overmuch study, "Self-love, Vainglory, Praise, Honour, Immoderate Applause" to covetousness, "An heap of other Accidents" to education ("if a man escape a bad nurse he may be undone by evil bringing up") -- it seems anything can cause it.

The symptoms are more straightforward, though also more varied than one might expect. From "Windy Hypochondriacal Melancholy" to the female variations -- "Maids', Nuns', and Widows' Melancholy" -- Burton gives a neat little overview.

The second partition suggests cures for melancholy, ranging from lifestyle-changes to medical solutions (from blood-letting to herbal alternatives). Burton himself suggested: "I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy." (And he was very busy at it.)

The last partition then is devoted to the most complex and irrational mind-ailments: love-melancholy and religious-melancholy.

The fun and the brilliance of the book lies in Burton's presentation. Melancholy is his springboard, but it is the entire human experience -- so melancholy-tinged -- that is his subject. Example after example is heaped on the reader, quote after quote after story after anecdote, all condensed to their very essence. A mad fill, an overabundance, literary profusion on the most extravagant scale.

On every page there are a dozen -- at least -- examples or citations or tales or ideas, each of which any author could spin out into a full-length novel or treatise. Indeed, The Anatomy of Melancholy is the ultimate writer's resource book. Many a career could be built on it -- and several have been.

Laurence Sterne carried on the Burtonian tradition, stealing extensively from The Anatomy of Melancholy for his own Tristram Shandy (a theft that was not discovered for decades, as Burton was barely remembered or read at the time). For many others the volume was also favoured reading (and, occasionally, cribbing) material, from John Keats to Samuel Beckett.

The Anatomy of Melancholy is almost unreadable. Densely packed, it defies reading as it is now generally practised. And yet it is the ultimate book, a volume that one can not but return to over and over, constantly. Perusal of the rich Anatomy is addictive, each passage like a snort of crystallized literary erudition -- with a healthy dose of humour.

It is a book that lasts a lifetime. It is bottomless: both a pit and a reprieve. Burton himself, in his lifelong melancholy fit, could not help but constantly add to the text. The first edition had some 350,000 words, the sixth over half a million. He was a man possessed, the text burgeoning to bursting, Burton always -- just -- in control.

It is a unique, and grand achievement. Modern efforts at so-called hypertexts and hyperfiction pale beside it. On only the printed page Burton goes far beyond what most have conceived in virtual worlds.

If you only buy one book this year, let it be this one. And if you buy hundreds of books this year, let this one be on the top of the list.

1 comment:

Chris said...

While I have read about the book several times, no description came close to the passion which fills your "review" of it. I was given a copy of the 1676 Peter Parker printing when I was 13 years old. All the pages are there, although the top board and several pages are detached. From the look of it I don't think anyone had ever reboarded it since it was printed. I've never actually read more than a couple pages - it really isn't a book that I could pull out and read the way it currently is. I was always fascinated by owning something that old, and wondered how it had come down through the centuries. I haven't actually seen the book in years - it is currently in a closet at my Mom's house. I should probably dig it out and take it to my own. I hesitate to just put it on ebay or something like that - it always seemed to me that it should be treated with more dignity.

Thank you for increasing my appreciation of this book beyond just its age.