Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

I’m unsure how to begin to write about something that is essentially a collection of lists and attributions. Anatomy of Melancholy begins with a series of portraits of the different kinds of melancholy, as well as little poems about them: hypochondria, mania, and lovesickness all make an appearance. Mania (characterized as violent and insane) has a sonnet which ends, “twixt him and thee, there’s no difference”. This is odd to find in a book that goes on to expand on the many differences between the sick and the well, but also makes sense within its larger framework: what Burton stresses throughout is that anyone can become sick with melancholy. Things like your temperament and your environment put you at greater or lesser risk, but at the end of the day even genial, friendly and outgoing people can be stricken with melancholy. It can be pleasurable or painful; as Burton mentions, most but not all melancholy causes sadness.

Just like there are different types of melancholy, there are different severities. Mania seems to be the most severe. Phrensy is madness, but accompanied by a fever. Delirium is an umbrella term for madness, and hydrophobia is a fear of water (or more specifically, getting rabies and seeing mad dogs in water, and therefore being unable to drink). Melancholy comes from love, study, and divine action. It was unclear to me reading the summary section whether Burton considers madness to be a type of melancholy or vice versa, but I believe that medical convention and also the series of portraits at the beginning suggests the first one.

One thing this text has done is give me a possible answer as to why people seem to put Avicenna and Galen in conflict with each other all the time. Here, it seems like Aristotelianism is just a rejection of humoralism (155) but maybe there is something else there. Humoral theory seems to suggest that the type of melancholy you get depends on your temperament, as well as where in your body the “melancholy adust” settles (I cannot remember now whether adust is a synonym for bile itself or a material refuse left behind by the blood, but either way it is a humoral remnant). Breaking out into the skin, it can cause leprosy and jaundice, and in the brain it causes madness. (Burton goes on to divide it into head melancholy, bodily melancholy– i.e. a melancholy temperament– and “windy melancholy”, or hypochondria, in the liver and spleen.) Hot brains incline to madness, while cold ones incline to melancholy. The process of adustation is a physical one, and one that I would like to look into descriptions of more. He also mentions a “Book of Melancholy” by Hippocrates that I should look into.

Beyond these categorizations, I am most struck by the discussion (157-9) of the difficulty of determining what melancholy is. If something is so various, Burton asks, doesn’t it make sense we’d be confused by its different manifestations? He describes a situation where hypochondria was mistaken for asthma, and concludes that although medical authorities usually focus on one discreet kind of melancholy, the three variants (head, body, and windy) are usually mixed. “‘Tis hard, I confess,” he writes, “yet nevertheless I will adventure through the midst of these perplexities, and, led by the clue or thread of the best writers, extricate myself out of a labyrinth of doubts and errors, and so proceed to the causes.” This confusion and co-incidence of different types of melancholy is the main thing I am taking from this text, as well as Daniel’s invitation to see the list format as melancholizing, and to read this as a text trying to elicit a melancholy affect.

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