Who is free from Melancholy?


From Melancholy, Edgar Degas, c.1860

From The Paris Review:

Melancholy is a condition unsuited to a pandemic. Like ennui, it is an ailment born of stability. The strong light of catastrophe withers it. COVID-19 has prevented the indolence melancholy requires, even as its variants—anxiety, panic, vertigo—have bloomed in quarantine. If one is not already longing for melancholy, surely one has begun longing for the conditions in which it was once possible.

Perhaps this is why I’ve finally chosen to read Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy after many years of owning it. (I’ve not yet finished it; I’m not sure to what extent anyone can be said to have finished such a book.) “If you will describe melancholy,” Burton writes, “describe a phantasticall conceipt, a corrupt imagination, vaine thoughts and different, which who can doe?” The book sets this pessimism spinning like a top, whirling delightedly over local resentments and cosmic griefs alike. It is a labyrinth of arcane scholarship, obscure quotation, medical ephemera, and earthy shrewdness, all of it tied up with determining the root causes of melancholy. It is not hyperbole to call it one of the primary documents of European culture.

This greatest of medical treatises was written not by a doctor but a reclusive Oxford clergyman. As with Shakespeare, little is known about Burton outside his chief occupation. His contemporary, Anthony Wood, called him “an exact Mathematician, a curious calculator of Nativities, a general read Scholar, a thro’-pac’d Philologist.” The Anatomy of Melancholy, which is presented as a frayed patchwork of texts, is the obvious work of a bibliophile, less original conception than inspired collage. (“Tis all mine, and none mine,” Burton wrote. “Only the method is myne owne.”) It proved a remarkable popular success, going through six printings in Burton’s lifetime. After falling out of print for over a century, it was rediscovered by the Romantic poets—John Keats called it his favorite book—and quickly enshrined as a classic: the tract resurrected as literature.

“Quarantine Reads: The Anatomy of Melancholy”, Dustin Illingworth, The Paris Review