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Monday, March 03, 2008

"Be not solitary, be not idle"

This will be my last piece of Burtoniana. Masses of people will no doubt express surprise and relief -- or maybe shock and rage -- when I write that I have now ploughed my way through the whole thing. I think this requires a moment of counting, because in my edition, the page numbers restart three times: first for the preface and the "First Partition," on causes and symptoms; next for the "Second Partition," on cures; and one last time for the "Third Partition," on Love-Melancholy and Religious Melancholy.

Let us count:

Partition One: 439 pp.
Partition Two: 261 pp.
Partition Three: 432 pp.

Which gives us a grand total of 1,132 pages; but that's just the text. If you factor in the notes, you get 523 + 312 + 503 = 1,338. And I did generally tend to look up the notes, though this was by and large not an edifying experience. So, basically, I read a lot. I read in my living room. I read in my bedroom. I read in airports. I read in a cabin in the woods. And, occasionally, I read at a joint around the corner where they have two good bourbons and three good tequilas, all of which were employed in completing this task. Which they also, at a certain point, began to hinder.

I could now go ahead and follow my usual practice of singling out various absurd, ridiculous, mad, or preposterous things that I came across in all this reading. But instead, I'm going to announce my conversion to Burton-style medicine. It's easy to mock, especially in its crazier manifestations -- blood-letting, trepanning (yes, Burton seems willing to consider that trepanning might be a good way to let the crazies out of your brain), curing schizophrenia by eating cucumbers (to cool the hot humors), or whatever. The major points he makes, though, seem to me reasonable, probable, and also pretty well in line with a lot of contemporary "alternative" medicines. For instance:

1. Diseases of the mind are linked to diseases of the body, and vice versa. In a sense, there’s no real difference, in a humoralist context, since our emotional and mental balance is described in terms of the quantity and temperature of the four bodily fluids.

2. The best therapy for most conditions, psychological or physiological, is not medicine or surgery (or blood-letting or trepanning), but the "rectification" of diet and exercise. Only when all else fails should you try something more drastic. A few medical conditions are caused by eating too little, a great many by eating too much and eating badly. Many others are caused by inadequate exercise. (Burton is, however, a little quaint on the subject of exercise – he thinks you should stop the instant you break a sweat).

3. Along with diet and exercise -- healthy and regular "evacuations." He's all about the bowel movements, which is easy to laugh at, but a lot harder to refute, as a basic aspect of health. (One of my weirder etymological discoveries, in reading this book, is that “defecation” began as a mental process; or, rather, it began as an alchemical term for the purging of imperfections, and then expanded metaphorically to more abstract or spiritual meanings: thus Burton can write that Luther “began upon a sudden to defecate” the Church. A little later, Boyle could aim to “Defecate and Exalt our Conceptions,” and Johnson still hoped “To defecate and clear my mind by brisker motions.” Only in the nineteenth century did the idea of defecation as a mental cleaning get re-physicalized to the act of purging the body. At least, that’s what it looks like from the OED).

4. Our habits shape us, physically and mentally. So does our culture -- what foods we're used to eating, for instance. There's even a macrobiotic Burton: he doesn't quite extend this to food (maybe because a lot less food was actually being shipped long distances at the time?), but with herbal medicines he insists that the best ones are those produced locally, because the "composition" of our bodies is already adapted to locally-grown produce. These days he'd be all about the terroir, or whatever it's called.

5. On the more psychological side, a great deal of this book is about solitude – which is presented as both pleasant and dangerous. Being alone too much eventually makes you crazy. Go out, have a drink, take it easy, get a hobby, find something to occupy yourself, and stop worrying so much. Or -- write a really, really long book about melancholy. You know, so you can see how much crazier other people are. In any case -- according to what are virtually the book’s final lines -- “Be not solitary, be not idle,” because those two things open the door to every form of insanity.

None of that seems at all mad or preposterous to me. But don't anybody go actually eating the foods Burton recommends. Or cutting any holes in their heads. Nor should anyone, under any circumstances, try to cure "dotage" by eating the boiled and spiced brains of a ram "that never meddled with an ewe" (Pt. 2, Sec. 5, Mem. 1, Subs. 5, p. 248), or hypochondrical melancholy by putting "a pair of bellows' end into a clyster pipe, and applying it into the fundament, open the bowels, so draw forth the wind" (p. 260). But, mostly, Burton is also telling us not to do crazy shit like that.

One last thing, on "hypochondriacal" or "windy" melancholy. The hypochondries, OED tells me, are the areas of the abdomen just below the rib-cage on either side, so they include things like the spleen, the liver, and so forth -- the organs generally considered to have been the source of melancholy and passion. Hypochondriacal melancholy seems for Burton to encompass more or less all obsessions, paranoias, and anxieties, including what we would call hypochondria, i.e., the obsessive conviction that you're dying of leprosy, botulism, gangrene, snakebite, mesothelioma. Burton is certainly well aware of that kind of hypochonria: he twice warns his readers to skip over the descriptions of symptoms, if they’re that way inclined. But Burton’s hypochondriacal melancholy also includes things like gas and "rumbling in the guts." It seems that the limitation of “hypochondria” to its current meaning is a pretty recent event. OED notes that, in the nineteenth century, hypochondria was basically the male counterpart of hysteria; in Burton, it's a very widely ramifying term, one of the three major subdivisions of melancholy: there's melancholy of the head (running from headaches to seeing visions), hypochondriacal melancholy, and then melancholy "Over all the body." If they haven't already, somebody needs to write a history of hypochondria.

(A quick Google search to see if someone has in fact done so turned up an article titled: "Some penetrating insights: images of enemas in art," which is one for Bardolph's post on titles...)

  • At 3/03/2008 11:28:00 AM, Blogger Katie wrote…

    Congratulations on finishing the Anatomy! I've recently discovered the world of Renaissance scholars blogging about their work (precipitated by one extremely procrastinatory evening in which I googled things like "early modern blogs"), and have really been enjoying reading yours. It's interesting to see your final post focus on the ways in which Burton seems remarkably forward-thinking or proto-modern rather than quirky or wacky, which is what we usually think of.

    At any rate, thanks for chronicling your journey through Anatomy. Now I'm contemplating reading it cover-to-cover as well. Despite being an early modern grad student, I blush to confess that I've only read the usual excerpts from it - things like "Democritus Jr. to the Reader" and "Digression of the Aire."

    Two thumbs up to your Burton posts!


  • At 3/03/2008 01:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I think finishing the Anatomy now qualifies you as a "Burtonian," a quirkily elitist type of nerd that seems to be, according to the NYRB's second intro, more of an orientation than a choice:

    "I am not concerned at the moment with his defence, even if it were necessary, which it is not, for there is no reason why any one should read him unless he wishes to do so. Burton is for the Burtonian."



  • At 3/03/2008 02:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I should point out (I'm the above poster) that I am not in fact a Burtonian. Like, laughably not a Burtonian. I only made it through the two prefaces and about half of the "Abstract of Melancholy" poem.


  • At 3/03/2008 10:09:00 PM, Blogger Renaissance Girl wrote…

    A great achievement. I have only read the third partition, and I'm realizing now its relative dearth of cucumber cures and poop advice. Clearly, I need to revisit the whole thing. What a change it might work on my worldview! (To say nothing of my mind-clearing rites.)


  • At 3/04/2008 10:42:00 PM, Blogger Unknown wrote…

    Congrats! Having dragged around all three volumes of the Shilleto edition and read them at home, at work, while travelling I am jealous that now the Anatomy can be read in its entirety in the Oxford edition. some of us were not so lucky, and had to read the whole thing in some cramped, crabbed older editions!


  • At 3/05/2008 10:10:00 AM, Blogger Bardolph wrote…

    You know here in England, the NHS still issues Burton as the first point-of-call text book for GPs. Or at least it feels like that, sometimes.


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