Friday, February 08, 2019

'Our Whole Life Is an Irish Sea'

In the portrait by Gilbert Jackson (1635), Robert Burton’s head appears pasted on top of someone else’s outsized body, an effect exaggerated by the ruffled collar. His hands are planted firmly on – what? The back of an upholstered chair? A pulpit? Between his hands is an open book. Scripture? His eyes are wide, his nose is long, and his expression is bright and not at all melancholy. He might be suppressing a laugh and he bears a notable resemblance to the late Anthony Hecht.     

Burton is author of the most inexhaustibly entertaining book in the language, the obvious choice of reading matter for marooned sailors. The first edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it Is; with All the Kindes, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes and Several Cures of It, published in 1621, contained 353,369 words. In each subsequent edition, Burton added more material. The sixth, published posthumously in 1651, with corrections and additions made before his death, The Anatomy contained 516,384 words. The book grew by accretion, like a galaxy. Burton’s prose, to use a word he favored, is anfractuous: “winding, sinuous, involved; roundabout, circuitous; spiral,” according to the OED, which cites Burton’s usage as the earliest in the language. His prose mirrors his mind, which was curious and accumulative. He loved catalogs and redundancy never bothered him. A characteristic passage begins, “Our whole life is an Irish sea, wherein there is nought to be expected but tempestuous storms and troublesome waves, and those infinite,” and continues:

“[W]e bangle away our best days, befool out our times, we lead a contentious, discontent, tumultuous, melancholy, miserable life; insomuch, that if we could foretell what was to come, and it put to our choice, we should rather refuse than accept of this painful life. In a word, the world itself is a maze, a labyrinth of errors, a desert, a wilderness, a den of thieves, cheaters, &c., full of filthy puddles, horrid rocks, precipitiums, an ocean of adversity, an heavy yoke, wherein infirmities and calamities overtake, and follow one another, as the sea waves; and if we scape Scylla, we fall foul on Charybdis, and so in perpetual fear, labour, anguish, we run from one plague, one mischief, one burden to another . . .”

It’s helpful to remember that Burton chose Democritus Junior as his persona, in homage to the Laughing Philosopher. When he is most flamboyant, laugh, because he probably is, melancholy or not. Anthony Powell’s use of Burton and his Anatomy in A Dance to the Music of Time is instructive. In 1977, several years after completing his twelve-novel cycle, Powell wrote in a piece for Radio Times collected in Miscellaneous Verdicts (1990):

“Burton’s importance, so it seems to me, is not in being proprietor of the Old Curiosity Shop, but as one of the first writers to grasp the innate oddness of human nature. He called this Melancholy, but what he meant really covered all behaviour. He was keenly aware of the manner in which personal existence can be put out of gear by some utterly trivial matter . . .”

We think of that as a modern insight, formulated by Proust or Freud, which is yet another example of our arrogant presentism. Where would the novel be without life’s way of being “put out of gear by some utterly trivial matter”? Think of Dickens, Svevo or Bellow. Burton, our ever instructive and amusing forebear, was born on this date, Feb. 8, in 1577, and died in 1640.

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