Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy
Few English books are as widely known, underread, and underappreciated as Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Stephanie Shirilan laments that modern scholars often treat the Anatomy as an unmediated repository of early modern views on melancholy, overlooking the fact that Burton is writing a cento - an ancient form of satire that quotes and misquotes authoritative texts in often subversive ways - and that his express intent in so doing is to offer his readers literary therapy for melancholy. This book explores the ways in which the Anatomy dispenses both direct physic and more systemic medicine by encouraging readers to think of melancholy as a privileged mental and spiritual acuity that requires cultivation and management rather than cure. Refuting the prevailing historiography of anxious early modern embodiment that cites Burton as a key witness, Shirilan submits that the Anatomy rejects contemporary Neostoic and Puritan approaches to melancholy. She reads Burton’s erraticism, opacity, and theatricality as modes of resistance against demands for constancy, transparency, and plainness in the popular literature of spiritual and moral hygiene of his day. She shows how Burton draws on rhetorical, theological, and philosophical traditions that privilege the transformative powers of the imagination in order to celebrate melancholic impressionability for its capacity to inspire and engender empathy, charity, and faith.
1 Democritus Junior: Discerning Care
2 Heroic Hypochondria and the Sympathetic Delusions of Melancholy
3 Exhilirating the Spirits: Study as Cure for Scholarly Melancholy
4 "Exonerating" Melancholy
Epilogue: Loving Burton, or Burton for Amateurs
"Shirilan’s book thus successfully performs a kind of Burtonian reading of the Anatomy, one that listens just as much to his rhetorical style and mode of speaking as it does to the content of what he says. By playing his bibliographic game of citations, she provides a wealth of insight into the literary, philosophical, scientific, social and theological contexts that inform the Anatomy, but perhaps even more significantly she champions an alternative mode of scholarship at least partially inspired by Burton, one that is not afraid or ashamed of suggestiveness and subjectivity."
- Daniel Gabelman, Eastbourne College, in British Society for Literature and Science, 2017
"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
"Whether excavating histories of language or closely reading a cleverly revised reference, Shirilan’s treatment of Burton is both interesting and deeply interested — both a critical examination of the Anatomy and a sympathetic aspiration toward the passionate spirit that animates it."
- Jessica Tabak, Providence College