Joke Book?

A.D. Nuttall

In the Cathedral at Christ Church in Oxford, between the recumbent knight with the false nose and the tomb of Saint Frideswide, who eluded her too amorous suitor by hiding among pigs, stands the funerary monument of Robert Burton. Already, it will be noticed, I am giving more information than is strictly necessary. My excuse must be that it is a habit I have caught from Burton himself. A schoolboy, asked to produce a review, is said to have written: ‘This book tells me more than I wish to know about this subject.’ The story is usually told as if it counted against the schoolboy; it can, however, without too much straining, be turned against The Anatomy of Melancholy.

The first edition of Burton’s treatise, a great compendium of knowledge – or else, according to some, a load of learned lumber-filling 880 quarto pages, appeared in 1621. As the years passed further editions were issued and, despite promises (soon broken) in the third edition that nothing more would be added, the book grew and grew. The textual editors of this magisterial Oxford edition (of which, so far, we have only the first volume, containing the text of Part One of the Anatomy, Parts Two and Three and the eagerly awaited commentary being still to come) explain that Burton’s text increased from ‘some 353,369 words’ to ‘about 516,384’. The adverbs ‘some’ and ‘about’, with their general air of a confessed, gentlemanly imprecision, are especially effective when set next to such aggressively ‘unround’ numbers: ‘some 353,369’, notice, not ‘some 353,370’, still less ‘some 354,000’. Clearly someone, or some machine, has been counting like crazy, and the concessive ‘some’ doubtless covers some craggy little problem concerning the proper number of printer’s ems assignable to a numerical reference, say, to Fracastorius. In fact, what we have here is a feat of almost eerie exactitude, politely disguised as vagueness. But in truth one rejoices that Burton has at last found editors of this stamp. Meanwhile, the record of growth (easily beaten, as it happens, by the growth from edition to edition of Frazer’s equally learned Golden Bough) is really a mark of life. Burton’s intelligence and learning were engaged and, as long as he breathed, he could not leave off writing the Anatomy of Melancholy. When he died in 1640 he left behind him notes for a further revision.

The funerary bust of Burton shows us a surprisingly chipper, youthful, handsome man. He has, however, a ‘widow’s peak’ worthy of Count Dracula in a Hammer film and is suitably compassed about by astrological signs. The Latin legend, said to have been devised by Burton himself shortly before his death, can be translated (I think): ‘Known to few, unknown to fewer, here lies Democritus Junior, to whom Melancholy gave life and death.’ The words are designedly of Delphic obscurity. They mean, we guess, that no one really knew Burton despite his fame, and that the black humour from which he made a comfortable living – or else, more conventionally, which ruled his life – proved in the end his undoing. J.B. Bamborough, in his admirably level-headed introduction, plays down the old story that Burton killed himself, giving as one of his reasons the simple fact that Burton was permitted a place in the Cathedral. Yet the ecclesiastical epitaph itself seems to hint at a dark conclusion: ‘... to whom Melancholy gave life and death’. The story relayed to us by Anthony à Wood, that Burton hanged himself in order to satisfy, as exactly as possible, a horoscopical prediction, must rank as one of the most spectacular examples extant of what philosophers call ‘making it true’. It is however too neat to be quite credible. Odder, less symmetrically framed anecdotes have come down to us, such as Bishop Kennet’s account of Burton’s falling into periods of profound depression, from which he could rouse himself only by going down to the riverside and listening to the curses of the bargemen-at which he would suddenly break out in (oddly unlovable?) laughter. We are perhaps confronted by the old, harsh understanding of laughter as inherently derisive, as necessarily involved with a sense of one’s own superiority (Hobbes’s ‘sudden glory’). That Burton suffered from extreme depression is something which we can reasonably believe.

The word ‘depression’ may cause the reader to pause. We need, as it were, to shake ourselves in order to be clear in our minds that the richly learned word ‘melancholy’ could be used to refer to anything as simply distressing, as unglamorously desolate as depression. To be sure, ‘melancholy’ is a much broader term than ‘depression’, connoting strong imaginative powers (with attendant pleasures) as well as anguish of spirit. But, when all this is conceded, it remains clear that the central reference of ‘melancholic’ is to states of profound depression. The real difficulty is one of style. Burton, as everyone knows, is a curious, fantastical writer, and these are epithets which hover on the edge of humour, in the modern sense of that word. It may be that we in the 20th century have dropped into a coarsely simplified binary division, quite inappropriate to older literatures: the abrupt question, ‘Is this a joke or is this serious?’ seems inept when applied to, say, More’s Utopia. Burton certainly wrote with a straight face but, somehow, it is a straightness which we feel we cannot wholly trust, closer at times to the ‘lack-lustre eye’ of the poker-faced clown than to the functional gravity of the medical expert.

Northrop Frye saw the Anatomy as ‘the greatest Menippean satire in English before Swift’. If this were true, Burton would be easy to place and our special problem of style would disappear forthwith. Burton, a sort of cross between Hamlet and a pedagogic Pantaloon, certainly assumes an antic disposition, strutting and posturing as he displays his astonishing learning. There is, moreover, an obvious affinity with Erasmus’s manifestly ludic Praise of Folly. It has often been observed that the great stroke of originality in Erasmus’s book is his choice of persona. The mock-encomium or semi-humorous praise of something ordinarily assumed to be contemptible has a long history, stretching back to Gorgias’s Eulogy of Helen; Erasmus transformed the tradition when he made Folly herself utter the speech in praise of folly, producing as he did so various paradoxes of self-reference. Burton, it might be said, in some degree follows the Erasmian lead in that, even as he offers an analysis of melancholy which is so zestful as to sound at times like a celebration, he presents himself as melancholy: Melancholy praising melancholy?

The matter is further complicated by Burton’s choice of the pseudonym, ‘Democritus Junior’. He seems to have chosen it in the first place for a very simple reason: Hippocrates tells how he called on Democritus and found him sitting in his garden in a shady bower, scribbling away at a treatise on melancholy; all around him lay the carcasses of animals, ‘newly by him cut up’. There is a touch of surrealism in the picture: the tranquil garden and the bloody corpses. Burton hastily explains that Democritus acted not from a cruel contempt for God’s creatures but from scientific curiosity. It is a little like the historic first meeting of Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes: Holmes, horrifically, had just been beating the corpses in the hospital dissecting-room in order to verify how far bruises might be produced after death. Democritus anatomised the animals in order to find the seat of ‘black bile’ (the first meaning of melan-choly). But Democritus was also, by tradition, the laughing philosopher (conventionally opposed to Heraclitus). Burton finds authority for saying that, for all his mirth at the follies of human kind, Democritus was ‘very melancholy by nature’. Nevertheless, he has chosen a name which will tend to confuse the persona still further.

When all this is said, however, The Anatomy of Melancholy is not the same kind of book as The Praise of Folly. Sterne pillaged it for Tristram Shandy, but for him the anatomy was more a quarry of curious materials than an artistic model. It is some indication of the real richness of Burton’s book that it was ransacked not only by humorists but by great poets: Keats drew his pale knight at arms, the story of ‘Lamia’ and the legend of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ from Burton. Bamborough in his introduction seems to me to get it right: ‘Undoubtedly the Anatomy is satiric and humorous in parts, but the bulk of it is straightforward and factual. Above all, it is not a parody of learning, as Menippean satires often were, but a genuinely learned work.’ Burton, like the melancholic Jaques in As you like it, is conscious that his sombre temper will be seen by others as comic and, perhaps in self-defence, will occasionally declare his ambition for a motley coat. But far greater is his scholarly zeal for his subject, his encyclopedic drive to exhaust all that is known of melancholy.

It is indeed mildly ironic that Northrop Frye, who persuaded many people that The Anatomy of Melancholy was a joke, should nevertheless have named his own great conspectus of literature (which is surely at least 80 per cent serious) Anatomy of Criticism. The evident allusion to Burton seems simultaneously self-deprecating and thrasonical. This is a field in which ironies beget ironies. I recently attended a seminar at which Frye’s suggestion that all quest-romances are variants of the dragon-slaying story was debated. What, it was asked, of Casaubon in Middle-march? Is he an oddly enfeebled dragon or a still feebler dragon-slayer? The answer came swiftly: ‘Neither, but rather Frye himself.’ For Casaubon is trying to write the Anatomy of Criticism (he called it The Key to All Mythologies). We may recall at this point that the first Casaubon – Isaac – was an immensely learned Continental contemporary of Burton. George Eliot’s sad heaper-up of undigested matter could also be seen, then, as Burton minus the humour.

To this day, European visitors to British universities sometimes confess themselves bewildered or repelled by the inclusion of jokes in papers read to learned societies. The 17th century, however, presents the problem in an especially acute form, which becomes most intractable precisely at the point at which we find ourselves no longer able to say: ‘This is clearly satire.’ The learned style of high literary culture, before it is invaded by the morally urgent plain style of Puritan preachers or the scientific, ‘functional’ plain style of the Royal Society, can easily look dotty to later centuries. It is hard to know how much of this is an effect of distance, time, and the availability of numerous plain texts for comparison. It is possible that, in some ways, Burton’s unremitting citation of authorities was, at first reading, simply intellectually impressive, like a thorough array of citations at the end of an article in a psychological journal today. When all this is allowed, however, an enjoyment of the macaronic alternation of Latin and English, a ludic delight in the crazy texture of the cento (a work composed entirely of rearranged, quoted fragments) is undeniably present. The author of the modern psychological article is not expected to cite authorities con brio, yet Burton does just that. There seems to have been something in the air (or perhaps in the water) of Oxford which fuelled eccentricity. Richard Corbett appears in grey modern histories as the efficient, ambitious churchman whose succession of preferments put Burton in the shade. Yet Corbett, whom we might begin to think of as a cold politician, could write lines like ‘the rustic threed/Begins to bleed,/And cobwebs elbows itches’ (nobody, by the way, knows what this means). Christ Church, the college of Burton and Corbett, is also the college of Lewis Carroll. Although Burton himself characterised his work with the terms ‘Menippean’, ‘macaronic’, ‘cento’, none of these is offered as a straight description. One can almost say that the Anatomy is jokingly described as a joke, and that this was the one joke that Frye, hundreds of years later would miss, when he concluded, in his 20th-century simplicity, that the whole work was, simply, a joke.

The funeral monuments of the 17th century treat death itself con brio, running to a vivid profusion of skulls, hour-glasses and the like which must always have been, at some level, fun to look at. One is tempted to say that the ‘curious’ learned writers of the period put up this bravura display because really they have no thoughts: to turn from Burton to Hoboes, or to the Descartes of the Discourse on Method, is to find oneself, suddenly, in a world of real intellection, a place, so to speak, of no nonsense. Yet the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth could certainly think, but his True Intellectual Systems of the Universe (1678) is, despite its late date, scarcely less allusive than the Anatomy itself. Bamborough makes something of the fact that Burton was a notable mathematician, but it looks as if the mathematics was mainly used in calculating astrological nativities (though he was also, seemingly, a skilled land-surveyor). Burton was not a mathematician as, say, Isaac Barrow (Newton’s teacher) was a mathematician. Bamborough gives a disquieting list of the things in which the author of such a book might have been expected to be interested, all virtually absent from the Anatomy: Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, millenarian theories of the senility of the world, the new Copernican astronomy. It is true that in the ‘Digression of the Ayre’ Burton provides a striking example of the ‘Kinetic Fallacy’, whereby changes in astronomical theory are re-expressed, wittily, as changes in the motion and position of the heavenly bodies. He says of the competing astronomers: ‘The world is tossed in a blanket among them; they hoyse the earth up and down like a ball, make it stand or go at their pleasure.’ Here, however, he is manifestly more delighted by confusion than eager to establish truth. Pleased with the contradictions of others, Burton energetically contradicts himself. Like Walt Whitman, he ‘contains multitudes’.

It may be said that the Anatomy is a great feat of Renaissance syncretism – that is, of the putting together of heterogeneous materials in a single system – but even this will not quite do. New York has been called ‘a melting pot which won’t melt’. The Anatomy is a syncresis which won’t syncretise. Burton himself says, disarmingly enough: ‘I have read many Bookes, but to little purpose, for want of good method, I have confusedly tumbled over divers Authors in our Libraries, with small profit, for want of Art, Order, Memory, Judgment.’ Burton’s modesty in this sentence is exactly answered by Hobbes’s boast that if he had read as much as other men, he would have known no more than other men. Bamborough with his usual judiciousness refuses to follow the now fashionable line that Burton’s contradictions are rhetorically and philosophically designed to propel the reader into a full realisation of the world’s madness. Instead, he suggests, they arise from the fact that Burton is following a traditional encyclopedic scheme of composition at a point in history at which, through sheer excess of ‘authorities’, it had sunk under its own weight. Burton does not significantly advance the science of melancholy. Nor is he the historian or even the chronicler of melancholy. Perhaps he is its antiquary.

But he is more, much more than that. Above all, Burton is a continuously interesting human voice. I say ‘voice’ because the auditory technique of the pulpit can be sensed in his habit of citing references with abrupt imperatives: ‘Hear Fulgentius ... Hear Chryso-stome ...’ His affinity with the theatre is just as obvious. It is not surprising that he wrote a play, Philosophaster, containing scenes making fun of primitive chemistry written before Jonson had composed The Alchemist. The famous scene in Middleton’s and Rowley’s The Changeling in which a test, taken perhaps from one Mizaldus, is administered to determine whether Beatrice is or is not a virgin, is Burtonian. Burton himself writes of such tests with overt scorn and covert relish: ‘To what end are all those astrological questions, an sit virgo, an sit casta, an sit mulier? and such strange absurd trials in Albertus Magnus, Bap. Porta, Mag.lib.2, cap.21, in Wecker, lib.5, de secret., by stones, perfumes, to make them piss, and confess I know not what in their sleep; some jealous brain was the founder of them.’ At the same time, with all the sonorous splendour of his sentences, he is always ready to prick the bubble of pomposity in himself. Writing on the melancholy of women he tells us how extreme depression is rare among hard-working women of the lower class but is rife among the better born (characteristically, he does not pause to wonder whether it is only the rich who have leisure and means to tell physicians about their illness). He then suddenly arrests the flow of his own prose with an ironic reflection on the figure he, Burton, cuts at this stage of the book:

But where am I? Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to doe with Nunnes, Maids, Virgins, Widowes? I am a bacheler my selfe, and lead a Monasticke life in a College ... I will say no more.

This reticence does not last long, however. The next words are, ‘And yet I must and will say something more ...’ and Burton roars on again, soon warming to the notion that sexual repression is the prime cause of melancholy. Hence, indeed, ‘those rapes, incests, adulteries, mastuprations, sodomies, buggeries of Monkes and Friers. See Bales visitation of Abbies ...’ Lord Shaftesbury said that the most ingenious way to become foolish was by a system. Certainly, unsystematic Burton is ubiquitously intelligent. Every sentence, every quotation has point, can catch and hold the mind.