Phantoms of the Mind by Angus Gowland

Angus Gowland

Phantoms of the Mind


Browsing in the bookshop once again, you found yourself working your way through that familiar army of books you haven’t read. Your defences sprang back into action, deflecting the antagonists into their neglectable categories: books for your retirement, books you wouldn’t want seen on your shelves, books you ought to read but know you never will, books that will end up in the charity shop bag, books you once meant to read but now know better, and books you’ve heard of but aren’t sure they are worth the effort (with apologies to Italo Calvino).

It was a good bookshop (of course!), so one of your adversaries was probably The Anatomy of Melancholy. Since its first publication in 1621, Robert Burton’s book has loitered on the fringes of the English literary canon. After initial success – the first publisher is said to have ‘got an estate by it’ – Burton has had a steady flow of reputable admirers, including Johnson, Sterne, Coleridge, Keats, Melville, George Eliot, Woolf, Borges, Powell, Beckett, Burgess and, more recently, Philip Pullman. However, the Anatomy has never quite become a widely recognised, bona fide ‘classic’. For long stretches, the bulk of its readership has been restricted to bibliophiles and scholars. It has had an air of murkiness and desuetude.

Some of the reasons for this are obvious. By any standards, it is a long book (the final version has 516,384 words, including marginalia). Its contents are entertaining but challenging. The rich, meandering Jacobean prose is peppered with quotations (about 13,000 in total), many in verse and many in Latin. It is written as a cento, or patchwork, a form that both conceals and expresses its author’s character (the text is, he says, ‘all mine, and none mine’). The pages bristle with obsolete and arcane language and scholarly references, often to authors and books not well known even in the 17th century. The book is one of the most densely allusive ever written in English or any language. And it is not even easy to say what kind of work it is: non-fiction, yes, but beyond that the genre is elusive (critics have argued endlessly about this to little effect). It opens with a substantial satire, addressed to the reader by the pseudonymous Democritus Junior, before changing into an elaborately structured medical treatise – but one interspersed with digressions where the satire returns. The essayistic writing is infused throughout with moral, spiritual, historical, mythological, literary, geographical and scientific anecdotes and idiosyncratic reflections. It mixes serious erudition with outlandish folklore and absurd comedy, the sacred with the profane, and it is saturated with irony and scepticism. To put it mildly, it is an unusual book, likely to attract only adventurous and confident readers.

Nevertheless, today The Anatomy of Melancholy is quietly enjoying a period of wider appreciation. There have been several 21st-century reprints of the Everyman version, edited by Holbrook Jackson in 1932. There are now Chinese, Japanese, Czech, Polish, Slovenian, French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Italian translations. The appeal of the subject is not hard to explain. The Anatomy was written as a response to a perceived epidemic of melancholy, and parallels with our own crises of mental health and wellbeing, exacerbated now by the conditions of a pandemic, are striking. For some, reflection on our collective predicament has heightened awareness of the fact that we still do not really understand mental health and disease; in a few cases, the limitations of the tools and models of present-day psychiatric medicine and social care have become painfully evident. In such circumstances, the pull exerted by alternative ways of thinking about the mind and its maladies is strong, and it is not surprising that some readers (at least, those allergic to their bookshops’ Mind/Body/Spirit sections) have found their way to Burton. His book is by far the best introduction to the ideas and practices connected with mental disturbance and illness that prevailed in Europe before the advent of modern psychiatry and its orthodoxies – in other words, before the mind was rigorously separated from the body and the soul, and when classical philosophy, history and literature were still widely regarded as sources of essential insight about psychological malaise.

How does the Anatomy speak to us now? Reading it with an eye to the present has some pitfalls. It is tempting, for example, to think that Burton’s subject is what we call depression; this is a mistake, at least with regard to the current meaning of that term in a clinical context. Some of depression’s symptoms can be found in premodern melancholy, yet the latter was a much more capacious category: it included a range of irrational conditions, from persistent anxiety to aggressively violent and suicidal delirium, and also manifested itself in specific forms, such as lovesickness and religious mania. Melancholy could afflict a person’s body, mind and soul with symptoms that were, as Burton wrote, ‘irregular, obscure, various’ and ‘so infinite, Proteus himself is not so diverse.’ It was also embedded in human history, myth and nature, so that he could plausibly ask, ‘Who is free from melancholy? Who is not touched more or less in habit or disposition?’ Burton himself, as he says, was ‘not a little offended with this malady’ and sought ease through literary activity: ‘I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.’

Anyone who spends time with the Anatomy will see that at least some of the forms of chronic inner malaise that have evidently spread during the current pandemic are not as new as they seem. There is no need to reach for novel terms – ‘languishing’ is one recent suggestion – when we already have the expressive and expansive language of melancholy. Of course, the book is full of archaic and obsolete doctrines (of humours, spirits and demons, to name a few), the subjects now only of impulsive condescension or historical curiosity, but it is also rich with layers of meaning, created and refined over many generations of learning and literature, now forgotten or discarded.

In the 1979 epilogue to Literaturas germánicas medievales, Borges remarked that centos like Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and Montaigne’s Essays were actually ‘the most personal of books’. How so? By leading us through patchworks of quotations and allusions to their authors, they instantiate a paradoxical truth: ‘We are the whole past, we are our blood, we are the people we have seen die, we are the books that have improved us, we are, gratifyingly, the others.’ This is the most important offering of Burton’s book: an empathetic connection, across time and space, to a past world of meanings, where humanity’s experiences of melancholy in its various guises have been imbued with ethical, religious, historical and imaginative significance.

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