"Humorous they are beyond all measure," writes Burton of madmen:
They feign many absurdities, vain, void of reason. One supposeth himself to be a dog, cock, bear, horse, glass, butter, etc. . . . Many of them are immovable, and fixed in their conceits, others vary upon every object, heard or seen. If they see a stage-play, they run upon that a week after; if they hear music, or see dancing, they have naught but bagpipes in their brain. . . . Though they do talk with you, and seem to be otherwise employed, and to your thinking very intent and busy, still that toy runs in their mind, that fear, that suspicion, that abuse, that jealousy, that agony, that vexation, that cross, that castle in the air, that crotchet, that whimsy, that fiction, that pleasant waking dream, whatsoever it is.
Burton wrote English. I do not know what it is that we write. Much less the unhappiest moderns, on cocktails of meds that eliminate anxiety, melancholy, and prose style. The recent, Burton-aware The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by a maniac at the New Yorker, is the best argument I've ever seen for the abolition of brain medicine and the encouragement, in authors, of antic behavior and profound despair. To be clinical about Melancholy in either of its vogues (in Burton's time or in our own) is to confuse the natural alienative effects of high intelligence with disease. One may read the Anatomy with a sense of gratitude that no one ever got anywhere near Burtonˇor the Shakespeare of the Sonnetsˇwith a tub of Zoloft. Medication and moderation prevent depressionˇand literature.
Samuel Johnson said that the Anatomy was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise. By that we must assume that he had a decent copy: My own made me, several times, want to climb into a coffin. The Anatomy is too much book, in too many ways, for the paperback format, and in the case of the new portable Anatomy from New York Review Books, the bulk of the paperback creates considerable inconvenience. This edition cannot be read, at least in my tormented experience, without finally slicing it into sections, making each of Burton's "partitions" literally partitioned and truly portable. The universe that Burton's book is (or became, for the duration of his philological frenzy) has to be partitioned to be plain, and dividing it physically by four enhances its author's method. Whether one rises early or late to engage the Anatomy, paper or hardcover, mutilated or whole, the main point to be derived from it is that if one wishes to make a portrait of an artist, the job is to depict, encyclopedically or not, everything but the artist. Our geniuses these days have something to learn about writing, I think, and the Anatomy is a good place to look for it. (I had the pleasure of seeing my adolescent intuition ratified: You'll see what you see, in a book as big as the natural world.) But get it in hardcover if you can.
William Monahan is the author of the novel Light House: A Trifle (Riverhead, 2000), now in paperback.