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Stephanie Shirilan, Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy
by Suparna Roychoudhury

Shirilan, Stephanie. Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy. Routledge, 2016. ISBN: 978-1472417015. $72.00 cloth.

With Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy, Stephanie Shirilan joins the select group of scholars who have attempted to scale the heights of Burton’s monumental Anatomy of Melancholy. Taking her cue from what she sees as a failure among critics to engage sympathetically with the work, she demonstrates how, in Burton’s view, melancholy confers unique affective and spiritual resources—positive, transformational powers which need not be cured so much as refined by way of “therapeutic disburdening” (150). The suggested method of this disburdening is encoded in the form of the Anatomy, which Shirilan characterizes as a kind of bibliographical game premised on artful irrationality and misdirection. Collectively, the book’s four chapters cover the major topics a reader might wish to see: Burton’s rhetorical and authorial style; the variants of hypochondriacal, spiritual, scholarly, and love melancholy; connections with Early Modern society, knowledge, and faith. In all these contexts, Shirilan shows, Burton’s attitude is playful, compassionate, and full of wonder; the Anatomy emerges as a philosophical consolation. Foremost a stylistic analysis, this dense and erudite book fluidly traverses Burton’s myriad references and tropes, gathering a great many localized insights in support of a holistic argument that underlines the Anatomy’s life-affirming optimism.          

Why does The Anatomy of Melancholy remain underappreciated in scholarly circles? Possible answers suggested in Shirilan’s polemical introduction have to do with current interpretive vogues. Imperatives of productivity and the arrival of searchable archives have promoted a “consultative” style of reading that misses “subtleties of tone or context” (5). Poststructuralist approaches to Burton’s copious style have tended anachronistically to reduce “everything into nothing and abundance into absence” (12). The “new humoralism,” embodied in the work of Gail Kern Paster and others, has portrayed Early Modern “physiological and spiritual solubility as intrinsically anxiety provoking” (9). These and other methodologies have made it difficult for us to recognize the salutary charge of Burton’s text. Contrary to conventional seventeenth-century Christian discourses of well-being, the Anatomy avers that “solubility or openness of mind, body, and spirit” is in fact necessary for health; with this view, the opacity and irrationality of its prose is taking purposeful aim at “popular Puritan and Neostoic ideals of rhetorical temperance and affective restraint” (5). Burton transforms melancholy from a disease into “a kind of spiritual privilege that draws on the impressionability of the melancholic imagination” and allows for “greater compassion and awareness of divine presence” (11).

The way he goes about this Shirilan interestingly conceives as a “sophisticated and subversive bibliographical game” set for the reader, a sort of “therapeutic playing” (5, 13). The game is premised on the formal qualities of the cento, that discursive form in which many texts are stitched together by way of quotation and citation. Burton’s centonic tapestry, Shirilan claims, contains deliberate mistakes, ironies, and mis-citations, writerly errors that should be understood as “techniques of both self-concealment and tactical disclosure” (33). To read the Anatomy correctly it is necessary to enter into this game, to pursue imaginatively the allusive leads dotted on every page. Shirilan offers an illustration of her method in the introduction, remarking upon the resonance between a Latin expression used by Burton to describe extemporaneous style—stans pede in uno (on one foot)—and the rabbinic phrase al regel achat. It seems to her that the Anatomy and the Torah share a conviction that even an imperfect, hobbling, one-legged way of speaking is better than not speaking at all. Whether or not this resonance is intentional is hard to prove, as Shirilan immediately acknowledges. But the point is that there are gains to be had merely by venturing into the labyrinth of interpretation—provided that the reader is so inclined: “down the rabbit hole we go, or don’t go” (27). In ensuing chapters, Shirilan repeats the exercise, picking at other textual wrinkles: the story of Cleombrotus, retold in three places in three different ways; a quotation misattributed to Seneca; a Latin line from Terence translated phonetically into silly-sounding English (51, 56, 58). Such examples alert us in different ways to the untrustworthiness of what appears to be authoritative discourse—the susceptibility of readers, the mirage of authorial voice, the inevitability of textual corruption. The examples are perhaps too few and far between, seemingly arbitrary in their selection; yet, they are illuminative, lending depth and dimensionality to Burton’s opaque prose.

Through these errors, Burton at once ventriloquizes and parodies the spiritual authorities of his day. This is demonstrated in chapter 1, “Democritus Junior,” which argues that the Anatomy rejects the idea of self-care espoused by the moral philosophy of Christian Neostoicism, rejects the “anaesthetic tranquility” that is supposed to issue, paradoxically, out of “overwrought interiority” (37, 41). Instead, Burton professes a more dynamic, “salutary view of the emotions and the vicissitudes of human experience” (37), one that takes the release and not the avoidance of passion as its healing premise. The irrationality and indirectness of his rhetoric strategically analogizes the “plasticity and contingency of the self” (42). The comic energies of the cento, nicely described as a form of “ironic pantomime,” connect with the persona of the laughing philosopher Democritus Junior, whom Burton adopts as a narratorial surrogate (5). Mirth is important because it turns the universe into something wondrous rather than tragic; it lightheartedly undercuts the impossible ideal of inward stability promoted in religious discourse. Thus, counterintuitively yet intriguingly, compassion mixes with mischievousness in Burton’s spiritual therapeutics. Shirilan’s argument also indicates that Burton was mapping subjectivity in a manner not unlike what we see in Renaissance fiction; non-fictional texts like the Anatomy have much to tell us about the complex historical phenomenology of the Early Modern period.

In the second chapter, we move on to “Heroic Hypochondria and the Sympathetic Delusions of Melancholy”—to physiological and psychological transformation. Shirilan examines the “ancient catalogue of melancholic delusions” and fantastical metamorphoses supposedly suffered by hypochondriacs (64). Burton’s handling of these stories, she suggests, is kindlier, less smug, than those of his physician contemporaries. For him, melancholic suffering “tenderizes the spirit”; the fact that the patient is “unable to experience the pains of others or the horrors of the world as separate from his or her own body” evinces an excess of compassion (71, 72). Shirilan emphasizes the importance of imagination, which according to some accounts acts as a pneumatic bridge between the self’s physical and psychical parts, and therefore represents a conscious means of transforming melancholy into something more positive. Burton sees the prevalence of melancholy as a comforting indication of the communality of human experience, not to mention an occasion for empathy. These are bold claims, given that melancholy and imagination both were almost universally linked to weakness and corruption— disease, possession, sin—throughout the period. Equally counterintuitive is Burton’s valorization of spiritual melancholy: the despairing believer unwilling to accept the gift of grace, says Shirilan, exposes the contradictions of Protestant doctrine, which demands that he be “both cheerful and grave, confident and meek, imperturbable and compassionate” (94). The doubting melancholic critiques the certitude of others, cautioning against the “delusions of imperviousness and imperturbability cultivated in the name of good spiritual hygiene” (100).

It seems the author of the Anatomy was as unwilling to celebrate melancholic virtuosity as he was to condemn melancholic psychopathy. Genius, Shirilan explains in her third chapter, “Exhilarating the Spirits,” was not something Burton ascribed to scholarly melancholics so much as “a heightened imaginative agility and capacity for assimilative mimesis” (110). Accordingly, it is by way of imagination that melancholy academics may best find relief. With this, Shirilan resolves the seeming contradiction whereby Burton advocates study as the cure for too much study: the disease is university-style learning; the cure must be imaginative wonder. In a  memorable section, Shirilan follows Burton’s giddy romp through a constellation of intellectual diversions—natural history, mathematics, astronomy—in which he enumerates “wishful lists of things ‘to see,’ ‘to read,’ and ‘to learn’” (126). He demonstrates how the melancholy scholar can escape the “solipsistic desire for mastery” merely by marveling at the wealth of recreations available to humankind (134). Adapting a trope of fluid circulation that performs key synthesizing work in her book’s argument, Shirilan suggests that study of this airborne, roving sort can provide “physically transformative contact”—through “the air of discourse, the pneumatic medium of scholarly debate, and thought itself” (113, 136).

The fourth and last chapter, “‘Exonerating’ Melancholy,” is the most wide-ranging and sublime. Inventively, it considers melancholy as a geohumoral “exoneration”: much as the earth is given to ventilations and exhalations, Burtonian melancholy allows the mind to “empty or disburden” itself (140). Shirilan argues that the Anatomy’s hydraulic imagery—wind, spirit, breath—calls to mind “the mutability and vicissitudes of the earth and cosmos” as well as “the perpetual flux of human experience” (138, 153); both are connected to divine exoneration, the “mechanic of grace whose forceful abundance inheres in the very structure and physics of the universe” (158). In what is maybe the book’s most arresting sequence, Shirilan turns to the “Digression of the Ayre,” gathering images of what she calls a “melancholic sublime” (156). Two birds “entwined in a hibernatory kiss, torpid but living at the bottom of frozen waters,” for example, become an emblem of “the experience of melancholic torpor and reanimation” (141). With images like these, Burtonian cosmography converts the terrors of cosmic cataclysm into intimations of hope and wonder; it does this by collapsing the false dichotomy between premodern modes of natural history and the objectivity of experimental science. Expanding on its theme, the chapter moves onto socioeconomic exonerations—injustices of inequality, the unfairness of primogeniture, the possibilities of colonialism—and then venereal exonerations—classical arguments against love, women, and marriage, which Burton rejects as absurd (best to let lovers have their way). Finally, we alight on the idea that centonic citation is also a kind of transpirational exoneration, a “whisper” exchanged with “living and dead authors, readers past and present” (173).     

Unlike recent studies of the Anatomy by Angus Gowland and even Mary Ann Lund, Shirilan’s analysis is focused on the mechanics of Burton’s idiosyncratic rhetoric.[1] She investigates the perambulatory quality of the Anatomy’s idiom; she dwells on the author’s strategic use of the second person pronoun; she parses his histrionic gestures of retraction and impersonation; she notes the incidence of zeugma, asyndeton, and enargeia. This is a learned book, steeped in Burton’s intellectual and philosophical sources; yet, it is more interested in accident and discovery than in historical narrative. In part because of its method, which reflects Burton’s own way of thinking, the presentation can seem eclectic: for instance, the discussion of imagination mostly ignores Aristotelian philosophy. The argument has a diffuse and recursive rhythm; key elements such as the formal properties of the cento, the power of imagination, and Christian doctrines of spiritual hygiene surface throughout. Many unexpected insights come up along the way too: readers will encounter compelling digressions on such varied topics as skin, the contreblazon, slumming princes, Ovid’s meter, and Sapphic desire.

The detours reinforce the substance of Shirilan’s argument: for Burton, to swerve is to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable is to remain healthful and free. His idea of melancholy is something not to be cured but occasionally relieved. Rather than a pathology, or even merely a predisposition, melancholy is a kind of conscious practice, a way of being in the world. This perspective feels modern, and indeed the Early Modern valences of the terms “imagination” and “sympathy” seem sometimes to blur into the more contemporary meanings of ingenuity and compassion. With its focus on inner flux, the book is not totally removed from the “new humoralism” it rejects; it recolors that flux as exuberance. Emphasizing the consolatory aspect of the Anatomy, Shirilan’s analysis derives sentiments of a tone not normally associated with Burton: pandemic disease signals an “absence of care and community” (20); cosmic forces of sympathy assure us that “we are, conceivably, never alone” (112); “love is the antidote to melancholy” (159). Likewise, she urges us to hear in Burton’s motto “’tis all one” an open-handed rather than dismissive dictum, “tending toward euphoria, not despair” (168).

An intriguing element of this book is its mimetic quality. In attempting to recuperate Burton by way of a complex yet sensitive interpretation, Shirilan rather does for him what he did for the idea of melancholy. She models the hyper-bibliographical and ludic lexical work that Burton requires, a style of reading surely as remarkable as the cento is a style of writing, one that obliges us “to be entertained and distracted from ruminating preoccupations, to be busied for seemingly endless stretches of prose and time” (183). Though it is unclear to me whether the imitation is deliberate, it underscores, wonderfully, that the Anatomy resists summarization, laughingly confounds the heresy of paraphrase; to engage with it fully means to write it anew.


Suparna Roychoudhury
Mount Holyoke College

[1] See Angus Gowland, Worlds of Renaissance Melancholy: Robert Bunton in Context, Cambridge UP, 2011, and Mary Ann Lund, Melancholy, Medicine and Religion in Early Modern England: Reading The Anatomy of Melancholy, Cambridge UP, 2013.


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Suparna Roychoudhury, "Stephanie Shirilan, Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy," Spenser Review 47.3.48 (Fall 2017). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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