Carol Falvo Heffernan, The Melancholy Muse

In The Melancholy Muse, Carol Falvo Heffernan’s central argument is that Chaucer and Shakespeare, as emblematic authors of their respective periods, had extensive knowledge of the medical discourse of their day and used that experience when writing. Her central point is that Chaucer and Shakespeare are taking the knowledge of their time about melancholy and transmitting it into poetry, while also adding their own insight. She contrasts this with medical texts’ engagement with poetry, which she says is nonexistant– until Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, there are not (quasi-)medical texts that examine poetry in the same way poetry is examining medicine.

The structure of this book is Heffernan examining specific instances where her authors use medical knowledge in their texts, and tracing it back to possible points of origin. I found her chapter on the Book of the Duchess especially helpful because she directly addresses the controversy over what the narrator’s eight-year sickness is. She agrees that it is not lovesickness, and in fact believes that it is melancholia canina– a subtype of melancholy also called lycanthropy, where people begin to think they are or act like wolves or dogs.

In this chapter, she wants to examine how reading, sleeping and talking were used to treat melancholy by physicians and how Chaucer’s work is in dialogue with that. Citing Rhazes on sleeplessness (who says that melancholy people often go out at night and cry, especially in cemeteries!) and Paul of Aegina’s chapter on melancholy and sleeplessness, she confirms that the association between the two was well-known and that Chaucer is clearly playing off of it. Not only is sleeplessness a common symptom of melancholy, it has several possible cures: sleeping, but also reading. In turn, the process of talking to the knight, where the narrator seems to consider himself (Heffernan says) as a kind of physician, mirrors medieval beliefs that talking could soothe lovesickness and melancholy (cf the Dialogue). However, I don’t necessarily agree that the Black knight is “talked out of” his lovesickness b the end of the poem; this is also an interesting mirror with Lydgate’s narrator in A Lovere’s Lyfe, who laments that he is unable to talk it out– unlike the knight, he has no one to relieve his sorrow, and he can’t wholly play that role.

This book’s argument has a lot in common with Julie Orlemanski’s Symptomatic Subjects, yet its conclusion is not the same. While both reach the conclusion that medieval literature is broadly speaking in dialogue with medical traditions, and is both theorizing and humanizing contemporaneous medicine, Heffernan believes that medicine is incapable of doing what literature can do– humanizing or remixing medical discourse. Orlemanski, on the other hand, while her text is focused on literature, does leave medicine room to humanize itself. One example of this is in the form of the wound man, who is both an everyman and has very specific and affecting injuries; another is in the case of regimens of health, where doctors essentially use directions for their patients to tell highly specific stories about their lives (the connection between regimens and storytelling is mine here, but I think that it bears out what’s in the text).

This book also did something else useful for me, which is that it gave me a source for the often repeated claim that Aristotle makes melancholy an aesthetic category or character trait. Heffernan locates this in Problem XXX I (attributed to pseudo-Aristotle), which asks the question “why do creative people experience melancholy?”, Aristotle determines that it’s because of the quantity of black bile they have, NOT their drinking habits/external causes/ or contra-naturals; in other words, the imbalance is innate, not caused by the environment. This is a useful distinction although I would like to know if this idea gets complicated in any of Aristotle’s other writings, or if this overrides all of those.

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