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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Is sex good for you?

I've reached the end of Part One of Burton -- which I feel pretty good about. I think I'm approaching the half-way point, since Part One is disproportionately enormous and etceterative, being the place where Burton gives the whole overview of his subject, before delving into its particular aspects -- cures, or specific forms of melancholy like religious melancholy, or love melancholy.

At the same time that I'm reading Burton, I've also been reading Michael Schoenfeldt's Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England, which despite its rather broad title -- the subtitle is Physiology and Inwardness in Spenser, Shakespeare, Herbert, and Milton -- is really an extended assertion of the centrality of diet to Renaissance medicine, Renaissance self-fashioning, and Renaissance ethics. It's all about an ethics of temperance, articulated in the specific arena of the regulation of eating; and it manifests itself throughout as an assertion of the centrality of food and the stomach, as opposed to sexuality and the genitals, as primary areas of ethical self-formation in the period. So, for instance, in the chapter on Spenser, Schoenfeldt makes a pretty convincing argument about exactly why we should not be surprised at the complete absence of genitalia from the allegory of the body in the House of Alma, and demonstrates how the focus on eating, digestion, and evacuation is both medically and morally central. It's good reading for dieters.

What troubled me here, however, is the recurrent balancing of dietary against sexual appetites. The central paradox of food for Schoenfeldt is that it's both essential for our survival and also the site of possible disorder -- a cause of sickness and madness, a test of temperance and moderation: this is what he calls the "anxious adulthood of consumption" (133). In the Milton chapter this central paradox of eating is explicitly contrasted to sexual self-regulation:
As we saw in the chapter on Spenser, numerous dissonances emerge when the language of temperance is applied indiscriminately to the realms of food and of sex, since food is a physiological necessity, while sex is not, and since sex is particularly troubling to Christian ethical practice, while food is not ... Milton views eating as a more insidious temptation than eros, because the moral hazards of consumption issue directly from its deceptive blend of physiological necessity and sensual attraction. (134-35)
I don't want to question the importance Schoenfeldt attaches to eating, in Renaissance culture; but I do wonder about the antithesis he draws with sexuality, which seems to be rooted in an assumption that sex isn't necessary to sanity and health. Burton, I think, would disagree. I don't want to claim that this is a major element of the book, but he does at various moments seem to suggest that sex could be good for the melancholy. For instance, of "Windy Hypochondriacal Melancholy," he writes that those who suffer from it "exceed all others" in being
luxurious, incontinent, and prone to venery, by reason of wind, et facile amant, et quamlibet fere amant (Jason Pratensis). Rhasis is of opinion that Venus doth many of them much good (Pt. 1, Sec. 3, Mem. 2, Subs. 3, p. 413)
-- a passage that starts out making inordinate sexual desire a symptom, but ends up suggesting that sex might be a cure, or at least a good thing. When he's writing about women, this is a pretty regular assertion. For instance, the section on "Maids', Nuns', and Widows' Melancholy" -- which has been given a great reading by Gail Paster in her most recent book, pp. 95-100 -- vehemently condemns men who "debar" their relatives or wards
of that to which by their innate temperature they are so furiously inclined, urgently carried, and sometimes precipitated, even irresistibly led, to the prejudice of their souls' health, and good estate of body and mind! and all for base and private respects, to maintain their gross superstition, to enrich themselves and their territories, as they falsely suppose, by hindering some marriages (Pt. 1, Sec. 3, Mem. 2, Subs. 4, p. 418)
I'm not quite sure what scenario he has in mind here, but the whole section is based on the assumption that -- for some people at least -- sex is essential to good health: "consider," Burton writes, "what fearful maladies, feral diseases, gross inconveniences, come to both sexes by this enforced temperance" (ibid).

It's certainly true that diet is the overriding concern, in The Anatomy of Melancholy; it's the first of the six Galenic "non-naturals," and thus the most important influence over the state of one's health. Burton does not, in what I've read so far, spend time clearly elucidating a theory of sexual healing. Nor is he exactly saying in these passages that sex is essential to life in the way that food clearly is. But he does seem to think that sex might be important for good health -- at least for some people. He himself, of course, was a bachelor. Maybe that's why he was so melancholy.

  • At 2/05/2008 12:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    inkhorn, may i hijack this thread for a second? (i'll have to think about the schoenfeldt entry; i haven't looked the book over since my exams.) have you run across any mention of (what we would call) nostalgia in burton? is it identified as a special class of melancholy or what?

    sorry for the hijack...was wondering by chance about nostalgia and burton this morning.


  • At 2/06/2008 09:26:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Anonymous -- Hijack away. The thread's a little bare, anyway.

    I don't think I've seen him talk about nostalgia, though I can imagine that it's a little tricky to decide what counts as nostalgia. Originally it meant an actual yearning for home, right? Something to do with sailors on long-distance voyages? At least, that's what a colleague of mine says, but she's an 18th-century person, so may have a different perspective. I'll keep my eyes open. When the sheer length of the book hasn't closed them for me.


  • At 2/06/2008 04:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    inkhorn, thanks! yeah, sailors. nostos meaning home in ancient greek...(don't know about the algia part)...think odysseus the ur-wayward sailor. the term itself was coined well after burton, but what's a little anachronism among friends.


  • At 2/07/2008 02:08:00 AM, Blogger Pedantius wrote…


    I wonder if you’re thinking about humour comedies and other early modern drama as you’re reading Burton? For instance, does he tell us why Antonio is so sad at the beginning of the _Merchant of Venice_? My students are convinced it is because of a repressed sexual desire for Bassanio. Maybe it’s actually a repressed desire for a cheesy risotto?

    p.s. When I first read it, I thought the title of this post was a variation on the phrase, “was it good for you?”


  • At 2/07/2008 07:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Ooooh, I can tell you about nostalgia! Johannes Hofer(a Swiss doctor) classified it as a disease in the seventeenth century. You've got the nostos part; the algia comes from algos (pain). It was used to describe the mind-tossing-on-the-ocean homesickness of sailors and, more specifically, soldiers.

    See Jean Starobinski, "The Idea of Nostalgia," Diogenes 54 (1966): 81-103.


  • At 2/08/2008 09:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…


    Thanks so much!



  • At 2/08/2008 01:05:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Cool. I'll have to read about nostalgia. If I ever finish Burton -- I'm currently bogging down in Part Two. Losing the Battle of Burton.

    Pedantius: that is *exactly* the joke I should have made, but didn't make. Sadly.

    As for humors comedy, I haven't really thought about it much. Gail Paster writes that Jonson (in some induction somewhere) distinguishes between talking about "humors" in the sense of psycho-physiological material, a la Burton, and talking about "humors" as a kind of social affectation -- Pistol-style humors, I think. So she discusses Jonson a bit, but keeps humors comedy generally somewhat bracketed from the questions raised by humoralism.

    And re: Antonio: well, there *is* a lot of stuff in Burton about merchants being alternately mad or melancholy ... And a huge amount of stuff about the sea per se as a melancholy-inducing subject, or as an image of our internal meteorology, as Paster calls it. (Not really a metaphor, as she points out, since we're actually composed of roiling liquids in various states of unrest). Whether that tells us anything about Antonio, I have no idea. My students tend to bite on the "repressed desire" explanation as well -- I mean, I tend to raise it as a theory, and they then tend to transform it into a fact.


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