The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton. New York: New York Review Books. 1,392 pages. $22. BUY NOW


When the present writer was a very horrible young man, transfixed by Duchamp and the Sex Pistols, unable to forget Rimbaud's "The 'I' is somebody else" and Iago's artistically metasignificant "I am not what I am," he typed the following on a piece of paper: Write like Hamlet mad: Risk everything. Judging by the three distinct pinholes and the Carter-administration Scotch-tape residue at the top of this useful tutorial, I must have thumbtacked or taped it above at least four different desks in a turbulent literary youth that mercifully I can barely remember. What I meant, I think, taking Hamlet for a picture of literary intellect, which is precisely what he is, was that there is no self in imaginative writing (including nonfiction in its highest form). To phrase it another way, the self will be naturally integrated into the work; the artist's job is to worry about, to be other things: "Here comes everybody," as Joyce remarked of himself. With this, he was imitating the myriad-minded Shakespeare, whose self-portrait is Hamlet, and whose heir was John Keats, who noted that "A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity; he is continually informing and filling some other body." The poetical character, Keats said, accurately and perhaps more anarchistically now than then (particularly in the hillbilly kingdom of American "self-expression"), "has no self . . . It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen." A real writer, you might say, is a universe, not a person. If they're really good, they might even be the universe.

No prose writerˇeverˇhas been more of a universe than Robert Burton, self-curing author of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), an essay on the humors that went utterly out of control and became the craziest, best entertainment ever written in Englishˇfar more important than the King James Bible in terms of effect on alpha-class letters. It is the work of a bibliomaniac Proteus "filling," as Shakespeare "filled" Falstaff, the conceit of a book worth the price for its glossary alone. "I don't know if you ever dipt into Burton's Anatomy," Charles Lamb wrote in 1801, when the Anatomy was undergoing one of its recurrent vogues. "His manner is to shroud and carry off his feelings under a cloud of learned words." That, and plain, gorgeous, Mercutian immoderation:

Every lover admires his mistress, though she be very deformed of herself, ill-favoured, wrinkled, pimpled, pale, red, yellow, tanned, tallow-faced, have a swollen juggler's platter face, or a thin, lean, chitty face, have clouds in her face, be crooked, dry, bald, goggle-eyed, blear-eyed, or with staring eyes, she looks like a squis'd cat, hold her head still awry, heavy, dull, hollow-eyed, black or yellow about the eyes, or squint-eyed, sparrow-mouthed, Persian hook-nosed, have a sharp fox-nose, a red nose, China flat, great nose, nare simo patuloque [snub and flat nose], a nose like a promontory, gubber-tushed, rotten teeth, black, uneven brown teeth, beetle-browed, a witch's beard, her breath stink all over the room, her nose drop winter and summer, with a Bavarian poke under her chin, a sharp chin, lave-eared, with a long crane's neck, which stands awry too, pendulis mammis, "her dugs like two double jugs," or else no dugs, in that other extreme . . . a vast virago, or an ugly tit, a slug, a fat fustilugs, a truss, a long lean rawbone, a skeleton, a sneaker (si qua latent meliora puta) [think that what is not seen is better], and to thy judgment looks like a mard in a lanthorn, whom thou couldst not fancy for a world.

All this to say that, after a thousand classical writers, there is no accounting for taste.

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