Great entertainment from 1621

I have recently returned from travels across Europe to Flensburg in Germany, way up near the Danish border. The purpose of the trip was to attend a meeting of the International Guild of Knot Tyers: nothing to do with my PhD work – although I suspect there is some interesting research to be done on knots in literature. Once more at my desk, I got back to exploring texts on the history of the lunatic asylum in Europe and the USA (I am working on representations of the psychiatrist in fiction). I have been enthused by the brilliance of Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization; and pleasantly surprised to find R D Laing’s early work on madness is as powerful as when I first read it in the 1970s, before his temporary descent into alternative culture. (I can’t say the same for David Cooper’s The Death of the Family, which I find too deeply rooted in the counterculture of its time to make tolerable reading in 2013.)

The recent technology for viewing texts is wonderful and I am a big fan. Wanting to play with my new tablet gave me the opportunity to read one of the free books long awaiting my attention, downloaded from Project Gutenberg. (If you aren’t familiar with this organization, I recommend it to you. Go to to see the huge number of available free books. It’s another of the Wikipedia-like, co-operative, online, not-for-profit enterprises. I spent a few, very enjoyable years as a volunteer proofreader with Gutenberg, joining a huge, worldwide community.) However, moving away from this discursion, let me return to the hub of the matter – and to a master of discursions.

I have been reading Robert Burton’s highly entertaining text, The Anatomy of Melancholy. The Preface alone is a delight, with its random meandering through English and Latin, prose and verse, references to scholars of antiquity; and chatty comments aimed at the reader, such as:

“… if you like not my writing, go read something else. I do not much esteem thy censure….” (electronic location 727)

Burton makes wonderfully amusing, direct communication with his reader, acknowledging that the style of his huge work wanders here and there, “… as a river runs sometimes precipitate and swift, then dull and slow; now direct, then per ambages, now deep, then shallow….” (location 797) He pretends to no high opinion of his own scholarship: “… I am but a smatterer, I confess, a stranger, here and there I pull a flower….”(location 815) He makes excuses for his apparent failings: “I should have revised, corrected and amended this tract; but I had not (as I said) that happy leisure, no amanuenses or assistants.” (location 777) Then Burton gets down to discussing (at considerable and enthusiastic length) the causes of melancholy, which he tells us can be, “… a blow on the head. Overmuch use of hot wines, spices, garlic, onions, hot baths, overmuch waking, &c. Idleness, solitariness, or overmuch study….” (You readers of this blog post may need to avoid the latter, for the sake of your mental health.)

I have only progressed through 13% of the text so far, and am very happy to have so much more entertainment to look forward to.

Frontispiece from 1638 edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy

Frontispiece from 1638 edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy

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