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Thread: The Anatomy of Melancholy - Robert Burton

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    The Anatomy of Melancholy - Robert Burton

    The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton is one of the oddballs of English Literature. It is an analysis of depression and its possible cures. It was first published in 1621 and revised over nearly twenty years. Ostensibly a medical textbook, it was written on the cusp of a scientific revolution, after Galileo and a generation before Isaac Newton began employing any scientific method of research.

    The examples of melancholia Burton gives over his very long work are never taken from contemporary case studies but all from ancient and academic writers. In other words it has a medieval approach by taking everything from ancient authority. The work is elaborately divided into sections as though there is serious analysis, but the impression is that Burton has thrown lots of things together with no consistent conclusions – there is a sense in which he is enjoying sending up his method. The divisions of the book can be seen in the full title:

    THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY WHAT IT IS WITH ALL THE KINDS, CAUSES, SYMPTOMS, PROGNOSTICS, AND SEVERAL CURES OF IT IN THREE PARTITIONS; WITH THEIR SEVERAL SECTIONS, MEMBERS, AND SUBSECTIONS, PHILOSOPHICALLY, MEDICINALLY, HISTORICALLY OPENED AND CUT UP BY DEMOCRITUS JUNIOR

    But there is a sense in which Burton seems to undercut his medieval approach and indeed mock it. His exempla are piled up and reported with gusto and frequently seem to contradict each other. At the end of the book the conclusion as to how to cope is remarkably simple and doesn’t seem to need over a thousand pages of examples: The melancholic need “diet, air, exercise” and “They must never be left solitary, or to themselves, never idle, never out of company”.

    Burton calls himself as author Democritus Junior, after the Greek “laughing philosopher” and there is a definite note of scepticism and irony in his manner. This scepticism has led some to see him as a precursor of the modern approach rather than the medieval, but the book is so crammed with learned citations that it does not give that impression.

    The flavour of his style can be seen in the introduction to his digression on Air (Burton likes digressions, indeed there is a sense in which the book is nothing else.)

    As a long-winged hawk, when he is first whistled off the fist, mounts aloft, and for his pleasure fetcheth many a circuit in the air, still soaring higher and higher, till he be come to his full pitch, and in the end when the game is sprung, comes down amain, and stoops upon a sudden: so will I, having now come at last into these ample fields of air, wherein I may freely expatiate and exercise myself for my recreation, awhile rove, wander round about the world, mount aloft to those ethereal orbs and celestial spheres, and so descend to my former elements again.

    Interestingly the book has something in two other oddballs of English literature which seem to take a highly logical approach to understanding life and then show that logic to produce highly unstable results. All three books were written by clergy of the Church of England. As well as Burton, they are

    Tristam Shandy by Lawrence Sterne, the extraordinary C18 novel with no apparent plot and endless digressions, which was apparently in part inspired by Burton.

    Alice in Wonderland which was written some three hundred years after Burton but at the same place. Both Burton and Lewis Carroll were senior members of Christ Church, the most prestigious of the colleges of the University of Oxford.
    Last edited by Jackson Richardson; 12-04-2016 at 01:28 PM.
    Previously JonathanB

    The more I read, the more I shall covet to read. Robert Burton The Anatomy of Melancholy Partion3, Section 1, Member 1, Subsection 1

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    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    I didnīt read the "Anatomy..." but here is a review that might interest you because it relates the book to the theory of humours.
    https://publicdomainreview.org/2013/...ns-melancholy/

    Humours-humour, there must be a relation though.
    #Stay home as much as you can and stay well

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    I liked the quote that Anthony Powell used from The Anatomy of Melancholy to finish the Dance to the Music of Time. The lead character in that sequence of books, Nick Jenkins, does research on Richard Burton.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    Nick Jenkins' friend calls his book Going for a Burton. In fact Powell wrote about another Oxford eccentric, John Aubrey.
    Previously JonathanB

    The more I read, the more I shall covet to read. Robert Burton The Anatomy of Melancholy Partion3, Section 1, Member 1, Subsection 1

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    Registered User Red Terror's Avatar
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    Thanks for the input ... very informative.
    There has never been a single, great revolution in history without civil war. --- Vladimir Lenin

    There are decades when nothing happens and then there are weeks when decades happen. --- Vladimir Lenin

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