Monday, August 5, 2013

Burton’s Book Of Melancholy

The Four Humours

The Four Humours: Medieval woodcut showing the four humors, “Melan” shown on the bottom left. Burton writes in Anatomy of Melancholy what might be written today, a sign of a true melancholic: [E]very man hath liberty to write, but few ability. Heretofore learning was graced by judicious scholars, but now noble sciences are vilified by base and illiterate scribblers, that either write for vain-glory, need, to get money, or as Parasites to flatter and collogue with some great men, they put out trifles, rubbish and trash. Among so many thousand Authors you shall scarce find one by reading of whom you shall be any whit better, but rather much worse; by which he is rather infected than any way perfected…”
Source: Public Domain Review

When a friend of mine recommended a number of years ago that I read Robert Burton’s Renaissance masterpiece, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), I was slightly taken aback; I had not thought myself as a melancholic. But having read the book and many other modern takes on the human mind and spirit, including books on medicine and neuroscience, I now know, or at least feel, otherwise. Indeed I am, and make no apologies for it. I stand in good company.

In an article in The Public Domain Review, Noga Arikha writes:
Melancholy is an old concept; in ancient Greek, melan means black, and hole is the word for bile. Melancholy literally means black bile: however ancient, we still know what that means. One can imagine black bile running through unpleasant states and negative emotions, from existential malaise and bitterness to common depression and despondency. Earlier, melancholy also covered madness and mania. Anyone could be afflicted – lovers, scholars, rulers. Monomaniacs were melancholics. And poets of course: melancholy at its best was a fount of inspiration and creativity. There are many famous melancholics – the author of Ecclesiastes was one, so was Hamlet (Shakespeare probably had read an earlier treatise on the subject, published in 1586 by the physician and clergyman Timothie Bright).
The book is a catalogue of passions as well as a compendium of quotes and stories – not so much a medical treatise, even though there are, and must be pages on anatomy and physiology. For black bile was a medical concept, one of the four bodily humours or fluids that coursed through the organism and determined its constitution, and along with it, our appearance and character, our strengths and weaknesses, our tastes, propensities and illnesses. To talk about melancholy was to engage in and endorse humoural theory. In its terms, black bile was a “cooked” version of yellow bile, or choler. The other two humours were phlegm, and blood. Mooted by the Hippocratics in 5th-century BC Greece on the basis of the view of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles that all matter was composed of the four elements, the humoural system that developed in the West (China and India each have their own humoural systems as well) had been systematized in the 2nd century by the Roman physician Galen, who associated humours with temperaments. Black bile might be noble, in some of its manifestations. But it was at first a crass outcome of digestive processes. Burton explained: “The gall, placed in the concave of the liver, extracts choler to it: the spleen, melancholy; which is situate on the left side, over against the liver, a spongy matter, that draws this black choler to it by a secret virtue, and feeds upon it, conveying the rest to the bottom of the stomach, to stir up appetite, or else to the guts as excrement.” (I, 12,4)
Reading Burton’s book with a modern mind raises the issue, uncomfortable in some circles, of the melancholic, the so-called unhappy person, reflective and thoughtful; and, as some some would add “to a fault.” Perhaps so. We talk about personality but not about temperament, which forms and takes shape from the combined mental, physical, and emotional traits of a person—it being his or her natural predisposition. Not everyone can have or display a happy face, part of a society’s dictatorial demands for a “happy personality,” where all negative or pessimistic talk and ideas are banished to the intellectual netherworld.

If it can’t be brought about by psycho-therapy, there are always pharmacological or other means. A pill, a hard drink, an illegal narcotic to escape the unhappy reality of existence, often harsh in its judgments. The cure is at hand: happiness need be obtained, whatever the cost.

In such thinking, which I find both unhealthy and dishonest, everyone ought to conform to being happy, an idea that leaves me cold. It’s the antithesis of originality and individuality; it mistakes agreement and flattery for courtesy and respect. I shudder at the banality of such conversations, where any display of emotion other than happiness or euphoria, is considered unwelcome, intrusive. Spare me the banalities of insipid, limp conversation; it’s as invigorating as lukewarm tea.

You can read the rest of the article at [Public Domain Review]