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Saturday, February 02, 2008

A Scholar's Melancholy

In a fit of complete madness, I've decided to read Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. I mean, all of it, not just the 125-page preface to the reader, or perhaps Part One, Section 1, Member 3, Subsection 12, where he deals with the mating habits of ants, or the consistency of milk, or some other particular topic that I'm vastly interested in. All of it. As I said, madness.

I'm currently on p. 337 of the recently-reissued modern edition -- for which, I just now see, I overpaid. I had this ambition once before, in grad school, when I found the previous issue of the same crappy edition in the stall of a street vendor; it's now moldering on my shelf, having gotten some horrible book disease that makes bits of paper flake out of the binding onto my lap in a kind of dandruffy rain. I didn't get very far that time -- to p. 160, as I see by the complete cessation of all underlining after that point -- and I'm afraid that I'm going to run out of steam this time, too. (For one thing, the notes are very poorly situated in this edition, so that you're always flipping around between two points in the middle of the book. Not great).

So, I've decided that I'm going to use the blog to generate some amount of public shame, in the hopes that that will get me to actually read something, instead of Netflixing endless nonsense, or staring at my wall, or drinking myself into a stupor. On the principle that the only things that motivate me to work -- or in fact generate enough mental focus to do anything useful at all -- are shame and sheer terror.

I'll be mining this book for nuggets I've particularly enjoyed as I go along. And you'll be able to see the incredibly slow, molasses-like progress I make through it. I'm really the slowest reader in the world.

Sounds like fun, right? At least as good as drying paint.

Today I have a couple of things. First, I enjoyed this remark, from Part I, Sec. 2, Mem. 1, Subs. 4, a.k.a., p. 207: "the most generous melancholy, as that of Augustus, comes from the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Libra." This I enjoy for the completely, pointlessly personal reason that I happen to share a birthday with Augustus. Also -- though Burton didn't say anything about this -- Bruce Springsteen.

Secondly, a brief story, from Pt. 1, Sec. 2, Mem. 4, Subs. 3, i.e., p. 337:
A gentlewoman of the same city saw a fat hog cut up; when the entrails were opened, and a noisome savour offended her nose, she much misliked, and would not longer abide; a physician in presence told her, as that hog, so was she, full of filthy excrements, and aggravated the matter by some other loathsome instances, insomuch this nice gentlewoman apprehended it so deeply that she fell forthwith avomiting, was so mightily distempered in mind and body, that with all his arts and persuasions, for some months after, he could not restore her to herself again; she could not forget it, or remove the object out of her sight.
This is clearly a physician with a very poor hog-side manner.

The sheer, physical impact of things that you see or -- in this case -- are told, is incredible, in the whole book; this particular subsection -- on terrifying or fearful sights -- is introduced with the remark that they "so suddenly alter the whole temperature of the body, move the soul and spirits, strike such a deep impression, that the parties can never be recovered." You can be permanently, physically and mentally altered by an image. Wish I hadn't gone to that recent virally-marketed movie with all the camera-jiggling that nearly made me ill...

Finally, one last thing -- the long tirade about the universities, written entirely in untranslated Latin: just a taste:
What can we expect when we vie with one another every day in admitting to degrees any and every impecunious student drawn from the dregs of the people who applies for one? ... [L]et them only have spent so many years at the university in the capacity, real or supposed, of gownsmen, and they will find those who for the sake of profit or friendship will get them presented, and, what is more, in many cases with splendid testimonials to their character and learning. These they procure on leaving from persons who unquestionably jeopardize their own reputation by writing them ... Our annual university heads pray only for the greatest possible number of freshmen to squeeze money from, and do not care whether they are educated or not, provided they are sleek, well groomed, and good-looking ... Hence it comes that such a pack of vile buffoons, ignoramuses wandering in the twilight of learning, ghosts of clergymen, itinerant quacks, dolts, clods, asses, mere cattle, intrude with unwashed feet upon the sacred precincts of Theology, bringing with them nothing save brazen impudence, and some hackneyed quillets and scholastic trifles not good enough for a crowd at a street corner. (Pt. 1, Sec. 2, Mem. 3, Subs. 15, pp. 327-28)
Personally, I sort of enjoy thinking of myself as an ignoramus wandering in the twilight of learning.

  • At 2/02/2008 08:48:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    You can be permanently, physically and mentally altered by an image.

    Two g*rls, one c*p.

    I didn't watch it--just reactions to it--because I knew I might end up like that poor gentlewoman. (I'm a delicate soul, really.)

    And if you don't know what I'm talking about, trust me, you're better off for not knowing.

    Is the NY Review of Books edition good, Inkhorn? And complete? I kind of assumed there must be something wrong with it, given the affordable price.


  • At 2/02/2008 09:05:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I have no idea what you're talking about.

    The NYRB edition is just the old 1932 Everyman's Library edition, reissued with a very brief new intro, so, no, it's not good -- though it is complete, and I can afford it and feel OK about writing in it, and I think it's basically fine for a reading text. I certainly wouldn't cite from it, and I would want to consult a real edition before doing any actual work. Even from a casual reading you can see that there are clearly issues. One is that the translations of the Latin passages are -- well, quaint, at best. For instance, one quote in which the speaker swears by Jupiter is translated: "Man alive!" They give the gist, always, but they aren't exact at all, as I can tell even with my crappy Latin.


  • At 2/02/2008 09:13:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Oh, and it has on the back what is perhaps my favorite ever blurb, from Angus Fletcher:

    "One of the maddest and most perfectly paranoid, obsessively organized, etceterative assaults on the feeble human powers of concentration ever attempted."

    When he says, "feeble human powers of concentration," he's talking about me.

    Etceterative is an awesome word.


  • At 2/02/2008 11:20:00 PM, Blogger Erasmus wrote…

    ... provided they are sleek, well groomed, and good-looking ...

    The standards have really dropped since Burton's day.


  • At 2/02/2008 11:39:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    I bought that same edition, also several years ago, with the same ambition of just sitting down and reading the damn thing through.

    I had the same thought about Pepys's diary. And Proust. And the Life of Johnson. And I always sputter out around page 200.

    Well. The volumes all look very handsome on my shelves.


  • At 2/04/2008 09:45:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I have to admit loving this edition, not because I've made it all the way through, either, but because of the editor's other books. Holbrook Jackson was so taken with Burton, and with book collecting, that he wrote a six-hundred page pastiche of the Anatomy, entitled The Anatomy of Bibliomania (Recently reissued by U Illinois Press). Just as mad, just as verbose, and just as filled with insane trivia and quotations--it is wonderful for finding obscure book history stuff on any given topic.


  • At 2/04/2008 07:55:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Piers: Thanks for mentioning it; I hadn't heard of that book. A year from now, when I finish Burton -- or when I admit that I'm never going to finish Burton -- I'll have to check it out.

    Flavia: I'm now on my second failed go-round with Proust. In fact, I made it less far the second time than the first. But yes -- handsome volumes.

    Erasmus: I didn't transcribe the bit where Burton complains about the plague of sweatpants and Hollister hoodies.


  • At 2/10/2008 01:18:00 AM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    These are my favorite bits from the A of M, though I haven't read much further- I do like the section on how womens' melancholy differs from mens', though. I have a wonderful old facsimile edition (from AMS I think- it's in my office and I'm at home at the moment), though I'd rather have something with better notes. I applaud your determination, Inkhorn! You are doing exactly what I planned to do someday and haven't gotten around to doing (I'd also like to read Browne's Religio Medici straight through). But I can wait until after tenure, right?


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