The Anatomy is a great mine to lay in the paths of the paraliterate. If you know anyone, a "writer," possibly, who thinks English began and ended with Strunk and White, give the Anatomy to them, and a little while later you will see them wandering toward a monastery, the nearest bottle, or a job as a gardener. The boldest adeptóthe reader with Ovid in his pocket, who might even know that Henry IV once stood barefoot in the snow with his wife at the gates of Canossa, may yet never achieve the summit of this book. You may think you have planted your flag on it, but you are perpetually at base camp, playing poker with Sherpas by a spirit stove, occasionally stepping out of the tent to look at what you've gotten yourself into. Opened randomly, the Anatomy can produce a kind of vertigo and sudden unconsciousness, after which you find yourself standing dazed in the next room, worrying with Burtonówhether you dropped the volume an hour or three years agoóthat Scandberg's death was possibly insufficiently lamented in Epirus. Yet opening at random is what this book, like the Bible, or Ulysses, is ultimately for: "And he at first that had so many attendants, parasites, and followers . . . is now upon a sudden stript of all, pale, naked, old, diseased, and forsaken, cursing his stars, and ready to strangle himself."
Burton's seventeenth-century observations evoke a world that you may consider different from ours only if you wish to remain in a state of parochial deformity. All men in all times, it seems, are prone to wind, lust, fidgets, fanaticism, credulity. In his essay on "The Force of Imagination," Burton, after rampaging through Avicenna and Ficinus, cuts loose with:
Why doth one man's yawning make another yawn? One man's pissing provoke a second many times to do the like? Why doth scraping of trenchers offend a third, or hacking of files? Why doth a carcass bleed when the murderer is brought before it, some weeks after the murder hath been done? Why do witches and old women fascinate and bewitch children? But as Wierus, Paracelsus, Cardan, Mizaldus, Valleriola, Caesar Vaninus, Campanella, and many philosophers think, the forcible imagination of the one party moves and alters the spirits of the other. Nay more, they can . . . in parties remote, but move bodies from their places, cause thunder, lightning, tempests, which opinion Alkindus, Paracelsus, and some others approve of . . . this strong conceit or imagination is astrum hominus [a man's guiding star], and the rudder of this our ship, which reason should steer, but, overborne by phantasy, cannot manage.
This is the world. Reason should steer us, but we cannot manage, being only human and thus by fantasy overborne, despite all this "progress" (except in the arts, especially prose).