September 13th, 2014

Anatomy of Melancholy

I’ve been taking medication for bipolar disorder for over thirty years. In my case, medication has been useful. It has made it possible for me to pursue a moderately successful career and a life without too much destructive drama. Psychiatrists have prescribed for me nearly every anti-depressant and anti-manic drug available. Some have been more useful than others have and their efficacy has changed as I have aged and my circumstances have changed. What worked thirty years ago works today, but didn’t work for an intervening decade. I would never consider rejecting medication, but it also has never been the complete answer for me.

Over the years, I have collected a bag of tricks for dealing with depression and hypomania. None of them is a cure or guaranteed to work, but all of them have been helpful to me at various times. One of the strangest is a book written in the early seventeenth century Oxford don: The Anatomy of Melancholy. It is an odd book. Robert Burton, writing under the pen name Democritus Jr., undertook to describe melancholy and its cures, what we call depression today, in expansive detail. Since he was a scholastic, this included cataloging and analyzing every reference to melancholy in every fragment of preceding literature. Oxford had a large library and the Anatomy is a big book.

You might think this is a recipe for the most boring, depressing book ever written. Even Burton himself warned against reading it. I agreed until about fifteen years ago when I read an essay by Robertson Davies, the Canadian author, critic, and educator after hearing a tribute to Davies on the CBC and stumbling on a collection of his essays at Munro’s in Victoria. The essay I happened to read mentioned that Anatomy of Melancholy was a favorite of Samuel Johnson and sometimes called the greatest work of prose in the English language. That piqued my interest. I had picked up a library copy of the Anatomy long before, but could not make heads or tails of it and returned it to the shelves quickly. Now, I was ready to try again.

I ordered the New York Review of Books paperback edition. The fact that the Anatomy was among the small collection of books the NYRB published at the time hinted that the book is something special. When the book arrived, it was a brick, the equivalent of four or five typical paperbacks in a single binding, hard to open, and tricky to hold. I started reading from the beginning, but found no magic: lists of people I had never heard of, places that are no longer on maps, and words I had never seen before. But after reading for an hour or so, I felt strangely uplifted. Burton, I think, satirizes melancholy, mocks it, and renders it absurd. I say ‘I think’ because I am not sure. He uses so many words, so many allusions, it is hard for me to tell what he is talking about, but whatever it is, it can turn the black dog, as Winston Churchill called depression, into a puppy.

I carry a copy of the Anatomy with me at all times and dip into it when I notice the drab tones of depression seeping into my landscape. Sometimes it chases the black dog away, other times it only delays the dog’s arrival or blunts its tooth, but reading the Anatomy is always good for a little cheer in a dreary time.

My NYRB brick is gathering dust on the shelf because I have switched to an eBook version. The brick is too awkward and heavy to mess with, especially when you can get an electronic version free from the Gutenberg Project. The Anatomy is an example of the good qualities of eBooks—travelling with a brick is a pain and my arthritic hands cannot hold it comfortably for long but the eBook weighs nothing and it is easy to hold.

Since the Anatomy costs nothing from Project Gutenberg, does not require a prescription, and is wholly non-toxic, I suggest to anyone who is chronically depressed to try the Anatomy. Not a cure, no guarantees, but it can help.

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