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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Rereading the Classics [Burton]

This is the first of what I expect to be a series of essays along the lines of Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited, originally a feature in the Saturday Review during the later sixties when intelligent literary comment could still find a page in a magazine of more or less general circulation. Rexroth said that he was not engaged in picking a top forty, his own version of Dr. Eliot’s five foot shelf, but merely talking about books he loved. He had a good-sized list of topics he never reached, and the reader can regret the lack of his pithy words about Water Margin, say, or the essay he projected grouping Kropotkin with Ruskin and William Morris. Having, like Rexroth and my topic in the piece below, spent a good share of time in reading, I, like them, speak perhaps most precisely about myself when speaking about books.

Robert Burton, the British scholar and divine, author of the Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, enjoys something of a cult, which is only to say that, while he is not to the taste of many, his partisans feel immoderate affection for his book. What is more, his partisans include such contrasting sensibilities as Dr. Johnson and John Keats, as well as the ill-starred General Custer.

During the same period when Burton chose to investigate the human psyche in his monumental work, sometimes called the earliest comprehensive text on psychiatry, Francis Bacon was pursuing truth in other realms of natural history. As a courtier (Baron Verulam, Viscount St. Albans and Lord Chancellor of England) Bacon wrote several accomplished if unimpressive poems in pious and classicizing veins. In his philosophic writing, however, he regularly emphasizes the fictive quality of poetry, calling it “feigned history.” Though “a part of learning,” poetry “being not tied to the laws of matter, may at pleasure join that which nature hath severed, and sever that which nature hath joined, and so make unlawful matches and divorces of things.” He cites “One of the fathers” who called “poesy vinum daemonum, because it fireth the imagination; and yet, it is but with the shadow of a lie.” Its only power was “to give some shadow of satisfaction to the mind of man in those points wherein the nature of things denies it.” [1]

Burton might have argued in turn that all he knew was his own mind and thus to report this knowledge is the veriest direct observation. Surely, too, his pages contain the fruits of exhaustive research and a plenitude of cases for inductive analysis. And many a reader will testify to having found more than a “shadow of satisfaction” in their books. In the twenty-first century, we can scarcely avoid observing that Bacon’s descendants have immensely expanded the privileges of science and technology, though psychiatry has been reduced to diagnosing and prescribing, and humanistic studies have, especially in recent years, withered.

A writer’s writer, Burton weighs each element of syntax and constructs dynamic and elegant mobiles of words. A scholar for whom Classical citations constitute a good share of discourse, he refers to authorities obscure even at Oxford with perfectly natural familiarity. Further, he is a true philosopher, in the old sense of Buddha and Socrates, for whom the primary question, the really important one, is how to find happiness in life. Finally, many readers through the years have found his Anatomy, the only book he wrote other than a satire in Latin, to be a most entertaining volume, suitable for taking up and putting down at any point. In this extraordinary book, while discussing the capacity of vicious spirits to bring melancholy, he manages to swerve into an inquest on the corporeality of spirits with prodigious batteries of experts testifying on either side, and he turns then to the natural question of whether, if they be bodily, they must then have excrement. [2] Other authorities, we hear, believe all spirits to be strictly spherical in shape. Burton exhibits the views of the learned; the reader may decide on the evidence.

Though Burton provides a rigorous outline plan, his tendency always is to wander in what can approach stream of consciousness. Focusing on infirmities of the mind, he finds occasion to discuss human psychology in an all but unrestricted way. After all, according to Burton, all men are depressive. And for him the term melancholy is broad enough to take in mania as well as depression, as well as the derangements of every deadly sin, and countless other irregular forms of behavior. While he reviews the entire world (or at least a library reflecting the entire world), he tells his readers his motivation is intimately personal: “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” [3] His true topic, though, goes beyond even psychology and tends toward the encyclopedic. Burton declares, “I had a great desire. . .to have some smattering in all, to be aliquis in omnibus, nullus in singulis.” Wishing to consume all knowledge, this “roving humour” has led to systemless study: “I have read many books, but to little purpose, for want of good method. I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries, with small profit for want of art, order, memory, judgment.” Yet Burton’s mental life was teeming, and he found his academic seclusion, “a monastic life ipse mihi theatrum.” [4]

The universal scope of his interests is consistent with his wandering style which moves from one thing to another naturally but unpredictably. Though never shy about expressing opinions on these multifarious issues, he tends, as real life does, to simply present the evidence and leave the contradictions for the reader to sort.

Because of his desultory style and constant patchwork of quotation, Burton may be claimed by post-modernists as a bricoleur, pasting together as he does a tissue of others’ utterances Only perhaps in the pages of Athenaeus does the reader find a like delight in moving from one thing fluidly to another, engaging with all that is human, making an unmapped voyage of discovery by dead reckoning, and thus reproducing the quality of lived experience.
Burton’s ultimate contribution is his attitude, his convincing pose as the man who has researched the cosmos, and, familiar with the endless odd vagaries of the human mind, has become broadly tolerant, accepting, and moderate in all things. Sex, food, party politics, he is easy-going in most things. His intimate acquaintance with the past has brought him a sophisticated recognition of what never changes. The passions of our hearts – romantic, religious, and simply depressive -- are too familiar to dismiss lightly yet too absurd to take seriously. Like the Epicureans of late antiquity, has achieved a sort of weary acceptance, facing up to the terrible terms of existence with dignity and a redemptive style, spinning the most wonderful tapestries of words while waiting to die. He is, of course, nominally a Christian (indeed a vicar and a rector), and he asserts conventional Christian doctrine and Christian prejudices, but the reader may doubt that that role sufficiently characterizes his spirituality or what he offers to a modern.

Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism was a central text of my own early literary education, regards the anatomy as a subgenre of Menippean satire, and the spirit of Menippus the Cynic (and his teacher Leucippus) does inform Burton’s work. Yet, if Burton never cared to deflate the holy afflatus as his models Leucippus and Democritus had done, he did gaze at life with the same wide open eyes and then managed to so relish words that he built a fabulous monument of them, sometimes resembling Seneca, of whom he thought so much, and sometimes looking more like one of those weird and endless outsider art constructions like Cheval’s Palais Ideal or Henry Darger’s endless illustrations.
Democritus, whose character he assumes, was said to leave his retreat now and then to walk to the port and “laugh heartily at such variety of ridiculous objects, which there he saw.” As Juvenal tells us, Democritus “found food for laughter at every meeting with his kind: his wisdom shows us that men of high distinction and destined to set great examples may be born in a dullard air, and in the land of mutton-heads.” [5] In the same way, when Burton’s depression weighed upon him, unrelieved by either his beloved books or his eloquent pen, he would walk to the Bridge-foot in Oxford and his spirits would rise as he listened to the barge-men scolding and storming and swearing at each other. There must have been a grand edge to that laughter, and we know from his book that Burton would have found the very king’s court equally ridiculous.

1. The Advancement of Learning. Bacon refers to Augustine in Contra Academicas (386). In light of these views, it is amusing to recall the faction over the centuries that has maintained that Bacon, a “concealed poet,” was the true source of Shakespeare’s plays.

2. These topics are covered in one small section of Pt. I, Sec. 2, Mem. I, subs. 2.

3. 20 in the 1932 Everyman edition.

4. 17-18

5. This translation by G. G. Ramsay.

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