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The Anatomy Of Melancholy: Episode 10

July 10th, 2020


A non-captioned version can be seen here

Robert Burton would have been a terrible careers’ advisor. In this episode, in an uncharacteristically concise manner, he manages to make fourteen different professions sound highly undesirable. He characterises his own calling as a vicar to be ‘contemptible in the worlds esteem’, which seems harsh. It’s easy to imagine taking up a career as an ‘alchymist’ would eventually turn you into ‘a beggar’ but if the role of ‘physician’ is ‘loathed’ then it is probably a good thing that he doesn’t get onto estate agents and politicians. It would be great to get his take on YouTubers, currency traders, bookmakers, advertising executives, cosmetic surgeons, insurance loss adjusters or cold callers.

After that knock about exchange things go down hill a bit, Craig hits us with depressing list of fears and complaints before Rochi knocks us out it a beautiful conclusion including a very famous quotation.

I really like this episode.

The Anatomy Of Melancholy: Episode 9

July 9th, 2020


A non-captioned version can be seen here.

We’re deep into the book now. Seven subsections are compressed into this episode setting out the various passions which, if aroused, can lead to melancholy.

Here hints of our theatrical adaptation linger. Expanding on the effects of shame and disgrace Craig acts out a curious anecdote of a priest having a poo in a ditch. Graeme, making the same point, has a dig about how poor Craig’s enactment is and Rochi, has a pop at Graeme ascribing his response to envy and malice. As often happens Gerard steps in to put everything that has come before into perspective: “Our whole life is an Irish Sea where in naught to be expected but tempestuous storms and troublesome wave” what a great sentence!

The Anatomy Of Melancholy: Episode 8

July 8th, 2020


A non-captioned version can be seen here.

Today’s episode takes on two significant causes of melancholy. The first is ‘bad air’.

A generation ago our weather forecasts spoke just of the sun and the rain, the wind and the snow. Now the cheery meteorological pundits have extended their remit and may occasionally expound on humidity, the pollen count and air quality.

Robert Burton lists places renowned for ‘bad air’. Pomptinae Paludes has probably fallen down this league table and Beijing leapt towards the top. Low emission zones are being put in place to ‘rectify the air’ in our big cities, protecting them from diesel cars and such like. That should cheer us up, but Burton was writing before the industrial revolution when melancholy could be considered as a vapour in the air, waiting to be breathed in by the unsuspecting passer by.

The British know about miserable weather and how Seasonal Affective Disorder makes us sad. Like so many of our latitude we are especially appreciative of the joys of spring. There is much to recognise in this talk of the air.

Maybe you will recognise the episode’s second half too. Maybe you too succumb occasionally to too much solitariness; the tendency to find your own company easier than that of other people. At times it is easy to wallow in just a little pleasant melancholia but Burton suggests the seduction of this solitariness is insidious, it becomes a habit. Writing in June 2020 when millions upon millions of people have been forced to subsist on their own company it maybe we are facing a subtle ‘feral plague’ brought on by not voluntary but enforced solitariness. We should no be alone.

Film On The Radio: Psycho

July 7th, 2020

If you came here to find The Commentators broadcasting Film On The Radio: Psycho then you are in the right place at the wrong time. HOWEVER the good news is that their ‘listen again’ facility means there is never truly a wrong time, so you can catch up ‘here and now‘ (or there later if you fancy). It’s a good one.

The Anatomy Of Melancholy: Episode 7

July 7th, 2020


Non-captioned version available here.

Scholars of episode 6 will have spotted that many foods are thought to bring on melancholy and that a prime consideration in this matter seems to be their ease in digestion. This makes sense. As scholars of episode 2 will recall, the spleen draws melancholy from the ‘feculent part of nourishment’, the more ‘feculent’ the food the more melancholy it would make one.

Does food that is difficult to digest make us melancholy? Let’s consider it from our contemporary perspective, having a dodgy stomach or suffering from food intolerances are certainly miserable afflictions. Things must have been worse in Burton’s time with its lack of refrigeration and basic germ theory. It is easy to imagine wanting some good guidance as to what food is safest to eat.

In this episode we follow our difficult to digest food on its journey and learn how constipation can send you mad. We also learn how the lack of other expulsions can have ‘like effect’ and – this being The Anatomy Of Melancholy – why the opposite is also true, how too many other expulsions can drive you mad.

Listen out for the final cautionary tale which illustrates this last point, it contains one my favourite euphemisms of all time.

The Anatomy Of Melancholy: Episode 6

July 6th, 2020


Non-captioned version can be seen

In contrast to the ethereal wonder of the previous chapter. here we are dealing with a baser matter: food. What, if we eat it, will make us melancholic?

Well, the answer seems to be most things and one of the eye stretching aspects of this episode is learning how many things we might even consider eating. It is a reminder of how narrow our apparently varied diet is. Now days in Britain if a meat eater ventures beyond chicken, beef, pork or lamb they might consider themselves partaking in exotica, maybe duck in a Chinese restaurant or goat from a Jamaican take-away, venison in a gastro-pub, a turkey at Christmas if they’re not going crazy and getting a goose, but swan or sheldrake? What the hell! It’s the same with fish, in the chippy going for the haddock is considered a bit left field, presumably they don’t stock carp as they account it ‘a muddy fish’.

It’s amusing to learn that Pythagoras has opinions of diet as well as triangles and reassuring to hear the author conclude, after all this conflicting advice, that trying following too strict a diet is more likely to make you miserable than the food itself.

The Anatomy Of Melancholy: Episode 5

July 5th, 2020


Non-captioned version here.

I love this episode almost unreservedly. I love the imagery of our coexistence with spirts and devils, the means to see them and the description of our planet as ‘a dark star over which the least of the gods presides’. I love the confidence of the maths calculating the distance between heaven and earth and the introduction of angels, both good and bad. This earnestness and credulity provokes in me a similar breathtaking, heart stopping love and compassion to that which I felt when my five year old daughter, fresh home from primary school, would explain to me how the world works.

I know this nostalgia for the seventeenth century is misplaced, that these theories must have been put in place to explain an otherwise capricious world, a world in which an unfortunate Cooper’s daughter may very well be overcome by malevolent spirits and caused to vomit up extraordinary matter for fourteen days, but I love it. I know I am surrendering to my own private fiction when I listen to this episode but this fiction still fills me with wonder and when I gaze up at ‘the starry heaven’ and contemplate an expanding universe and gravitational waves from the Big Bang that wonder remains undiminished.

The Anatomy Of Melancholy: Episode 4

July 4th, 2020


Non-captioned version here.

This is not a glamorous episode but it is important and gives us insight into the book’s structure.

By distinguishing between primary and secondary causes of melancholy the author explains links between melancholy and old age, plus why we should marry people who don’t resemble us. In doing so he also explains how he is distinguishing between different categories of circumstance that cause melancholy. Robert Burton is big on structure.

Where most books have a contents page setting out chapter headings, The Anatomy Of Melancholy has a branching map, resembling a fecund family tree. There are no chapters, instead this map describes how the book is split into three partitions, which in turn are divided into multiple parts, each part has many members and most members have numerous sub-sections. You will note we cite in each title card where that episode’s material is culled from.

The culling process has been brutal. Burton added material to the book for each of the five editions published in his lifetime and the modern paperback edition is 1,500 pages long. The introduction, which runs to about 150 pages we dealt with in the four minutes of episode 1. What you have here is all from the book but far from all the book.

The Anatomy Of Melancholy: Episode 3

July 3rd, 2020


Non-captioned version here.

The Anatomy Of Melancholy is an enormous collage of quotations and references from ancient through to contemporary sources. In this episode we get a sense of this construction and learn that the scholars Capivaccius and Mercurialis see ‘the inner brain’ as the principal site of melancholy from where, we are told, it disrupts the whole body.

Whereas the previous episode concentrated on the outmoded theory of the humours, here we have an idea that sits comfortably in our own age, that mental and physical health are interrelated. We will find this idea, along with notions of balance, harmony and moderation, reoccuring throughout the book.

The ideas in this book are fascinating but what for many readers makes it truely compelling is the character of Robert Burton, the author who is compiling, connecting and commenting upon all is many quotes. Despite claiming merely to speak through other people’s writing we get a clear sense of a man who surely would have been wonderfully engaging company. Sometime I think this just in turn of phrase such as here, after a long list of everyone who is susceptible to melancholy Burton finally adds just two exceptions ‘fools and stoics’. This makes me smile, I suspect it’s not true, but it makes we want to share a ‘nutmeg and ale’ with the man, or to converse with him whilst admiring ‘the verdure of the meadows’. He would cheer me up.

The Anatomy Of Melancholy: Episode 2

July 2nd, 2020

Non-captioned version is here.

I spoke with a GP once on the subject of depression. He related a story of a patient who approached him asking to be prescribed anti-depressants because, since the death of their mother, they’ve always felt miserable. When asked when this event was the patient explained it had been a full month ago. There followed a discussion about the process of grieving and how, as our book says, we cannot expect to live life ‘in a perpetual tenor of happiness’.

Like that GP, this episode explains the difference between passing and chronic melancholy*. Unlike that GP, his episode continues to describe melancholy is a material substance which the spleen draws from the food we eat. For hundreds of years all physicians would have known that melancholy was one of the four ‘humours’ but now they don’t, they’re not taught that any more.

I find great comfort in hearing this beautiful, elaborate and entirely spurious theory presented with such confidence. It’s possible this comfort comes from a sense of superiority, knowing we know so much more now than they did then, but I suspect, in truth, the comfort lies elsewhere. I think I find reassurance in the promise that the world we are stumbling around in today others will understand more clearly tomorrow.

*Of course it would be wrong to translate the old notion of ‘melancholy’ as contemporary ‘depression’ but it seems safe to regard the latter as a subset of the former.


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