Long ago when reading a lengthy, serious, and technical book was considered an agreeable and even entertaining way of passing the time, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy was a best seller. This was a curious fate for a superannuated medical treatise written in the early seventeenth century not by a doctor but by a reclusive clergyman and scholar at the University of Oxford who set out to write on melancholy and made it the occasion to take up much else as well. During his lifetime the book went through six editions. From 1621 to 1651 it grew considerably in bulk, starting at 353,369 words and finally attaining 516,384 (a seventh edition with no revisions was published in 1660 shortly before Burton’s death). It was not reprinted during the eighteenth century, but there must have been many copies still available from the previous century. Samuel Johnson told Boswell that it was “the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.”
In the early nineteenth century, the Romantic movement made this tract into literature. Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats were all, among many others, fascinated by the work, and in one of Keats’s letters there is even a very elaborate, admiring, and funny pastiche of Burton. Coleridge is said to have pronounced it “one of the most entertaining books in the language.”1 It became indeed a classic: forty-eight editions were published in the nineteenth century.
Interest then subsided. In standard histories of English literature, of course, Burton always retained a grand place, but the twentieth century saw few reprints, although many libraries were, and still are, well stocked with the editions of the nineteenth century. Recently, however, there has been an important revival. New York Review Books has reprinted the text of the three-volume edition of 1932 in a useful and inexpensive single volume, and a six-volume critical edition has also appeared, containing all the many thousands of variants of the work as it appeared in the seventeenth century, with the last three volumes an extensive (although by no means exhaustive) commentary. At the same time, the French have suddenly decided after almost four centuries to translate the book, in two chunky volumes, with an introduction by Jean Starobinski, the world’s leading authority on the relations of literature and medicine, as well as on much else.
To call The Anatomy of Melancholy a medical treatise, as I have done, is misleading, in part because Burton uses the subject as an excuse to introduce whatever takes his fancy, but principally because melancholy was not so much a disease as a basic component of civilization. It defined a type of personality, but technically the condition of Melancholy was a physical imbalance created by an unwelcome preponderance of one of the four humors that regulated the body, in this case the invasion into the blood of the humor of black bile. When Burton wrote, the theory of the humors, which had dominated medicine since classical Greece, was about to be demolished, its foundation subverted by William Harvey’s demonstration in 1628 of the circulation of the blood and the fundamental revision in our ideas of the human physical constitution. The theory of the humors continued, nevertheless, to dominate medical practice tenaciously (in spite of the fact that there was no empirical evidence for the existence of black bile in the blood) and it is central to Burton’s book.
However, the theoretical confusion was already striking. In a book on the history of the treatment of melancholy,2 published in 1960, Starobinski remarks:
We can easily understand that the persistence of the word melancholy—preserved by medical language since the fifth century BC—is only a witness to the taste for verbal continuity…. But we should not be duped by the similitude of words: under the continuity of the word melancholy, the indicated facts varied considerably. From the moment in the distant past when persistent fear and a sadness could be identified, the diagnosis appeared certain. To the eyes of modern science, there was a confusion of endogenic depression, reactive depression, schizophrenia, neuroses of anxiety, paranoia, etc.
Burton himself acknowledges the desperate variety and complexity of the theory:
Who can sufficiently speake of these symptomes, or prescribe rules to comprehend them?… If you will describe melancholy, describe a phantasticall conceipt, a corrupt imagination, vaine thoughts and different, which who can doe? The foure and twenty letters [of the alphabet] make no more variety of words in divers languages, then melancholy conceipts produce diversity of symptomes in severall persons. They are irregular, obscure, various, so infinite, Proteus himselfe is not so divers, you may as well make the Moone a new coat, as a true character of a melancholy man; as soone finde the motion of a bird in the aire, as the heart of a man, a melancholy man.
He then lists some of the symptoms mentioned by his sources, including headache, dropsy, gallstones, epilepsy, gout, hemorrhoids, etc.
The confusion was apparent already by the second century AD, when different varieties of melancholy were distinguished by the physician Galen. It could, he wrote, be localized in the brain, generalized over the whole system through the blood, or centered in the digestive organs—a division followed by Burton. It would seem as if melancholy could be used to account for any form of physical disorder except accidents and non-self-inflicted wounds. Nevertheless, the fragility of conception was becoming more troublesome and hastening toward its collapse, when Burton decided to celebrate it with an encyclopedic account.
At least in intention, The Anatomy of Melancholy is not a work of original thought. Burton’s ambition was enormously bookish: to present everything that had ever been thought or written about melancholy. It is an anthology, or, better, a compendium. He himself called it a “Cento” (a patchwork garment, or a composition formed by joining scraps from other books): “I have wronged no Authors, but given every man his owne.” Like a bee, he says, he has gathered honey out of many flowers: “‘Tis all mine and none mine…. The method onely is myne owne.”3 Burton claimed that he would have written the book in Latin if the publisher had been willing to accept that, but this may be disingenuous: his delight in writing his native language is evident. He does, however, include a lot of quotations in Latin, to such an extent that he himself characterizes his book as a Maceronicon, a macaronic medley of languages. Much of the Latin was translated for the reader, and this gave Burton the advantage of a popular author and the dignity of a scholar.
Since he includes more or less uncritically everything he read on the subject (and the work grew as he continued his reading), he cannot avoid contradictions or evident absurdities. In the section “Bad Diet a Cause,” his various sources condemn beef, pork, goat, venison, horse, hare, rabbit, most fowl, and all fish. “Milke, and all that comes of milke, as Butter and Cheese, Curds, &c. increase melancholy.” One authority “utterly forbids all manner of fruits, as Peares, Apples, Plummes, Cherries, Strawberries, Nuts, Medlers, Serves [sorbs, the fruit of the service tree], &c.” He does not always reconcile absurdities, but merely observes them, most often without comment. His aim was not to set in order, but simply to set down, and the disorder, it would seem, filled him with legitimate satisfaction.
Paradoxically, Burton holds this millennia-old, crumbling theoretical edifice together by expanding it so that melancholy becomes at times synonymous with any form of madness: “Folly, Melancholy, Madnesse, are but one disease.” The disease, moreover, is the universal human condition:
And who is not a Foole, who is free from Melancholy? Who is not touched more or lesse in habit or disposition?… And who is not sick, or ill-disposed, in whom doth not passion, anger, envie, discontent, fear & sorrow raigne?
This comes, of course, from Burton’s reading of sermons and also of Montaigne, for whom the vices were the essential constituents of society that held it together.
That Burton knew that his expansion of the idea of melancholy was improper is evident. That he nevertheless rejoiced in his impropriety is clear from what follows close upon the above observations:
So that take Melancholy in what sense you will, properly or improperly, in disposition or habit, for pleasure or for paine, dotage, discontent, feare, sorrow, madnesse, for part, or all, truly, or metaphorically, ’tis all one. Laughter it selfe is madnes according to Solomon, & as S. Paul hath it, worldly sorrow brings death. The hearts of the sons of man are evill, & madnes is in their hearts while they live, Eccl. 9. 3.
The equation of melancholy and madness was not an idea exceptional or unacceptable in its time. In The Harleian Miscellany, a once-popular collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century historical documents edited by Samuel Johnson, we find an account of a young Frenchman, converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, who decided to change to Judaism. This apostasy was a capital crime, and he was strangled and burned at the stake in Geneva in 1632. He was unsuccessfully defended by a distinguished theologian, Paul Ferry, who urged a treatment of mildness and patience, and wrote:
I make no doubt that his illness proceeds from a black and deep melancholy, to which I always perceived he was very much inclined…. You know, Gentlemen, that there is a sort of melancholy…which is neither a crime, nor a divine punishment, but a great misfortune…there being so many reasons to believe that [his madness] proceeds from the disorder of the brain, and from melancholy.4
Melancholy furnished an early form of the insanity defense.
The almost unlimited expansion of the significance and field of action of melancholy is carried out by Burton with enjoyment:
This Melancholy extends it selfe not to men onely, but even to vegetals and sensibles [i.e. animals]. I speake not of those creatures which are Saturnine, Melancholy by nature, as Lead, and such like Minerals, or those Plants, Rue, Cypresse, &c….
This is metaphor run riot, and it even caused Burton to be tempted into the delights of anecdote, which he resisted:
Of all other, dogges are most subject to this malady, in so much that some hold they dreame as men doe, and through violence of Melancholy, runne mad; I could relate many stories of dogges, that have died for griefe, and pined away for losse of their Masters, but they are common in every Author.
The final expansion is to the melancholy of whole nations and societies: “Kingdomes, Provinces, and Politicke Bodies are likewise sensible and subject to this disease.” But Burton takes this idea from a late sixteenth-century Savoyard writer on politics, Jean Botero, and it was obviously congenial to the period. The metaphorical play with ideas, extending a word beyond its proper sphere, was part of Burton’s contemporary culture, essential to the writing of sermons. Applying the idea of melancholy to the whole of society, however, permits Burton in his satirical preface to launch an indictment of contemporary civilization as mad, sick, melancholy, and foolish, and stimulates him to construct a Utopia: “a poeticall commonwealth of mine owne, in which I will freely domineere, build Citties, make Lawes, Statutes, as I list my selfe. And why may I not?” The charm of his Utopia depends on his awareness that it is unrealistic, “to be wished for, rather than effected,” in spite of all his reasonable and practical proposals for the reform of education, economy, and politics.
His Utopia would not, however, please today’s ecologists. Virgin nature was anathema to him:
I will have no boggs, fennes, marishes, vast woods, deserts, heaths, commons, but all inclosed; (yet not depopulated, and therefore take heed you mistake mee not)…. I will not have a barren acre in all my Territories.
This shows that it may be as dangerous to leave the control of the world up to a scholarly Oxford clergyman as in the hands of a Texas oil man.
Melancholy, however, is not only an infirmity, but also a character trait that confers extraordinary prestige. When La Fontaine wrote of the somber pleasure of a melancholy heart (“Jusqu’au sombre plaisir d’un coeur mélancolique“), he implied that this pleasure is not granted to everyone, but only to the moral and aesthetic connoisseur. In the most popular and accepted image, the melancholic is the man of exceptional sensibility, difficult to rouse to action, but abnormally receptive. Suffering from partial paralysis of the will, he does not act without reflection and out of habit, but must force himself into action. Melancholy is also an almost irresistible pleasure, a continual temptation that, yielded to without prudence or restraint, leads to the mortal sin of despair. Escaping from the routine of ordinary behavior, the melancholic has pretensions to superiority.
These pretensions are validated by a long tradition that can be dated back to Aristotle or at least to a pseudo-Aristotle, as the book Problems, in which the main discussion of melancholy is to be found, is no longer ascribed to Aristotle. The opening is forthright:
Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic, and some to such an extent that they are infected by the diseases arising from black bile, as the story of Heracles among the heroes tells?
The long discussion that follows does not give either a convincing or coherent answer to this question, but compares melancholy to wine that changes the nature of those who become inebriated so that they behave in ways they would reject when sober. However, Empedocles, Socrates, and Plato are cited as eminent melancholics, and our pseudo-Aristotle adds, “The same is true of most of those who have handled poetry”; he concludes grandly that “all melancholy persons are abnormal, not owing to disease but by nature.”5
For the artists of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, this tradition provided a model for the anxiety and eccentricity of such geniuses as Josquin des Pres, Montaigne, La Fontaine, Michelangelo, Goya, Beethoven, and a host of major and minor figures. It was a tradition that produced innumerable illustrative works of literature and art, of which the most famous are Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the engraving of Dürer, Melancolia I, in which the emblematic figure of Melancholia implies the complex relations among wisdom, poetic inspiration, genius, and depression. The tradition lasted, even after the theory of humors had been finally discredited, until the poètes maudits of the late nineteenth century. In this way, melancholy became for centuries a stimulus to the imagination and an inspiration.
The first part of the seventeenth century was, for Samuel Johnson when he compiled his dictionary, the moment when the English language reached its ideal state. One would have thought that he would have preferred the clarity that was achieved a half-century later in the prose of Dryden and Swift, but he was evidently conquered by the baroque exuberance of the time of Burton. In the seventeenth century English prose came into its own, and reached the distinction previously held only by verse. With the exception of William Tyndale’s translation of the Old Testament (which seventy years later became the basis of the King James version), English prose in the sixteenth century has nothing to set by the side of the contemporary power, variety, and subtlety in France of Rabelais, Calvin, or Montaigne. English prose remained a somewhat awkward, provincial mode of expression. At the very end of the sixteenth century, however, prose suddenly took on a new vigor in the prose sections of Shakespeare’s plays, and in Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity of 1594.
Unfortunately, much of the magnificent eloquence of the early seventeenth century lacks a considerable readership today, even in academic circles, perhaps because it deals largely with religious matters in sermons, tracts, and prayers.6 The prose of Thomas Browne and John Donne still finds a few readers, and Lancelot Andrewes was taken up by T.S. Eliot. But Thomas Adams, so much admired by Coleridge and Lamb that he was compared to Shakespeare, is almost forgotten, Richard Hooker is read only by specialists in the history of religion, Thomas Fuller recalled only for a few quaint details, and Jeremy Taylor, previously revered, is now neglected, as his suavity does not recommend itself to modern taste.
I offer two brief quotations to show the tradition in which Burton worked, both typical of their authors and the age, the first from Thomas Fuller’s Good Thoughts in Worse Times (a sequel of 1647 during the Civil War to his Good Thoughts in Bad Times of 1645):
Living in a country village, where a burial was a rarity, I never thought of death, it was so seldom presented unto me. Coming to London, where there is plenty of funerals (so that coffins crowd one another, and corpses in the grave jostle for elbow room), I slight and neglect death, because grown an object so constant and common.
How foul is my stomach to turn all food into bad humors? Funerals neither few nor frequent, work effectually upon me. London is a library of mortality. Volumes of all sorts and sizes, rich, poor, infants, children, youth, men, old men, daily die; I see there is more required to make a good scholar, than only the having of many books: Lord be thou my schoolmaster, and teach me to number my days, that I may apply my heart unto wisdom.7
This combines a low, familiar manner with high style; a gnomic phrase announces with a new rhythm the metaphor of the library, worked out and accelerated with a complete listing of the ages of man; and the biblical style of the Psalms grandly rounds it off. There is a wealth of physical detail. English prose of earlier ages was rarely this complex, but here the variety of tone is employed with great ease.
Thomas Adams was habitually more sensational:
Satan therefore shapes his Temptations in the lineaments of an Harlot: as most fit and powerfull, to worke upon mans affections. Certaine it is, that all delighted vice is a spiritual adultery. The covetous man couples his heart to his gold. The Gallant is incontinent with his pride. The corrupt Officer fornicates with bribery. The Usurer sets continuall kisses on the cheeke of his security. The heart is set, where the hate should be. And every such sinner spends his spirits, to breed and see the issue of his desires.8
This is from a sermon of around 1613, printed in 1629 in The Fatall Banket, Works. (In the phrase “spends his spirit,” the meaning of spirit is semen, as in Shakespeare’s “Th’expence of spirit in a waste of shame.”) With this passage, not only is an idea—a conceit—given the physical immediacy of an image, but the figure of speech is detailed in such a way that it loses its metaphorical nature and starts to seem literal. Language is manipulated to increase the feeling of presence.
Chronologically, Burton falls between Adams and Fuller, and he has their picturesque variety, immediacy, and addictive looseness of construction. He, too, was a clergyman, although denied the position which would have allowed him to give sermons; he was, in fact, somewhat aggrieved about this, and took out his resentment in a satirical attack on the verbal extravagance of contemporary preachers, but he is himself no less extravagant, and generally more profuse. He makes, indeed, a virtuoso display of profusion and verbosity, and in his hands they became literary virtues.
One “Subsection” of The Anatomy is concerned with the “Discontents, Cares, Miseries, etc.” that can cause melancholy. Toward the end of this understandably lengthy chapter, Burton lists the inconveniences of the various professions, and continues:
I can shew no state of life to give content. The like you may say of all ages: children live in a perpetuall slavery, still under that tyrannicall government of Masters: young men, and of riper yeares, subject to labour, and a thousand cares of the world; to trechery, falshood and cosenage,
—Incedit per ignes,
Suppositos cineri doloso,
[“He walks on fire hidden by treacherous ashes,” Horace, Odes, Book 2, ode 1]
[the] old are full of aches in their bones, cramps and convulsions, silicernia [funeral meats], dull of hearing, weak sighted, hoary, wrinkled, harsh, so much altered as that they cannot know their owne face in a glasse, a burden to themselves and others after 70. years, all is sorrow (as David hath it) they doe not live but linger. If they be sound they feare diseases; if sicke, weary of their lives: Non est vivere, sed valere vita [Life is not just living, but living in health]. One complaines of want, a second of servitude, another of a secret or incurable disease: of some deformity of body, of some losse, danger, death of friends, shipwrack, persecution, imprisonment,…ingratitude, unkindnesse, scoffes, flouts, unfortunate marriage, single life, too many children, no children, false servants, unhappy children, barrennesse, banishment, oppression, frustrate hopes, and ill successe, &c.
The et cetera (or &c.) (one of Burton’s favorite words) is a sign of exhaustion; inspiration has momentarily given out. The list, which appears to speed up as it proceeds with extraordinary drive, is not compiled systematically but by association: wrinkled and weak-sighted evoke a mirror; loss and danger suggest the death of friends and shipwreck. This is not a logical depiction of the misery of life and old age, but a description written by a melancholic, not a reasoned display of possibilities, but a license to the mind to allow reminiscences and associations to come flooding in unimpeded. Burton does not strain to impose order, but almost passively allows the experiences of life and reading to present themselves in a succession imposed by the elements themselves, by the words and their associative meanings; at times this makes Burton read like a thesaurus. The above passage is followed by a cascade of literary reminiscences:
Our hearts faile us, as Davids did Psal. 40. 12. for innumerable troubles that compassed him; and we are ready to confesse with Hezekiah, Isay 58.17. behold for felicity I had bitter griefe: to weepe with Heraclitus, to curse the day of our birth, with Jeremy 20. 14. and our starres with Job: to hold the axiome of Silenus, better never to have beene borne, & the best next of all, to die quickly, or if wee must live, to abandon the world, as Timon did, creepe into caves and holes, as our Anchorites; cast all into the Sea, as Crates Thebanus; or as Theombrotas Ambrociato’s 400. auditors, precipitate our selves to bee rid of these miseries.9
This is truly a patchwork filled with a profound and moving, if bibliographical, sentiment. For Burton, books give us access to our most intimate feelings.
In an impressive essay on the relation of Burton to Hooker’s moderate Anglicanism, the poet Geoffrey Hill suggests that “the nature of the true discourse of the mind seems to me to be the central issue of The Anatomy of Melancholy.” (On religion, Burton tended to show a rigid intolerance, above all of Roman Catholics, whom he placed below Turks, Jews, and atheists.) It was the nature of his subject, Melancholy, that allowed Burton to construct a style that studied and followed the movement of the mind in its least constrained form, liberating associations as his sentences change pace, hurtle forward, and swerve so often in the middle of an argument. That freedom was the melancholic’s prerogative, and for this reason Burton was so anxious to extend it by identifying melancholy with madness in general.
Although writing mainly from the medical point of view, Burton generally holds the balance between the pains and the delights of melancholy. A long introductory poem entitled “The Authors Abstract of Melancholy. Dialogue” (the last word written in Greek) alternates two refrains through twelve stanzas: “Naught so sweet as melancholy” and “Naught so sad (sour, damned, harsh, fierce) as melancholy.” When he composed his treatise, however, the meaning of the word had shrunk so that the delights of melancholy had begun to outweigh the misery. It had become fashionable. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “In the Elizabethan period and subsequently, the affectation of ‘melancholy’ was a favorite pose among those who made claim to superior refinement.” The anguish of melancholy was often set aside and it began to recede into the background.
After Burton, as the grand established medical synthesis of the concept of melancholy broke apart, the pejorative content was largely replaced by other, more limited terms. In medical jargon melancholy retained its old meaning until 1800 and beyond, but in general speech by the eighteenth century the term, in fact, had lost much of its force and became genteel. Part of its old, more serious meaning, however, was taken over by the concept of boredom, or ennui (the French word always had a charge of greater anguish than the English, and still has the double meaning of pain as well as boredom). Interestingly, in England the French seemed initially to be regarded as specialists of the subject of boredom: according to the OED, the word “bore” does not exist in English before the 1760s, and several of the quotations from that period call it “French bore,” as if the French were better at boring or being bored than anyone else, or else as if they had invented the idea.
Perhaps they did, at least in its novel and almost transcendent aspect: the first example that one finds in which the experience of being bored is given its full weight is a famous, laconic, and beautiful sentence in Pascal:
J’ai dit souvent que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.
[I have often said that all man’s unhappiness came from one thing, that is, not to know how to remain quietly in a room.]
His source is in fact Montaigne, who remarked that the agitation of the hunt is more pleasurable than the kill, but the elaborate development that follows in Pascal on the essential role of distraction in our society has a power and an intensity that was new. From then on, the concept of boredom or ennui gradually gathered to itself and brought into focus some of the more sinister cultural aspects of melancholy. Tedium, boredom, and ennui became one of the great literary subjects after 1700, particularly in France.
In the eighteenth century the virtuoso descriptions of ennui that occur in the correspondence of Madame du Deffand with Horace Walpole were never surpassed. Old and blind, the mistress of perhaps the most important salon in Paris, in love with a distinguished literary British noble twenty years her junior (who was embarrassed by her love, terrified that it made him look ridiculous, but anxious to keep the affection of a woman so powerful and so witty whom he sincerely admired), she wrote to Walpole at least once a week for twenty years in an accomplished prose that had few equals at that time. In a letter of October 20, 1766, she describes one of her salon evenings:
J’admirais hier au soir la nombreuse compagnie qui était chez moi; hommes et femmes me paraissaient des machines à ressorts, qui allaient, venaient, parlaient, riaient, sans penser, sans réfléchir, sans sentir; chacun jouait son rôle par habitude: Madame la Duchesse d’Aiguillon crevait de rire, Mme de Forcalquier dédaignait tout, Mme de la Vallière jabotait sur tout. Les hommes ne jouaient pas de meilleurs rôles, et moi j’étais abîmée dans les réflexions les plus noires; je pensais que j’avais passé ma vie dans les illusions; que je m’étais creusé moi-même tous les abîmes dans lesquels j’étais tombée; que tous mes jugements avaient été faux et té-méraires, et toujours trop précipités; et qu’enfin je n’avais parfaitement connu personne; que je n’en avais pas été connue non plus, et que peut-être je ne me connaissais pas moi-même.
[Yesterday evening I admired the numerous guests who were at my house; men and women like machines with springs who came and went, spoke and laughed, without thinking, without reflecting, without feeling; each one played his role through habit: Madame the Duchess of Aiguillon burst with laughter, Mme De Forcalquier showed her disdain for everything, Mme de la Vallière jabbered about everything. The men were no better, and as for myself, I was buried in the blackest reflections; I thought that I had passed my life in illusions; that I had hollowed out for myself all the abysses into which I had fallen; that all my judgments were false and rash and always too precipitate; and finally that I had never really known anyone, that I had never been known, and that perhaps I did not know myself.]
This is the experience of boredom at its greatest depth, when society has lost all human significance and all actions are mechanical and predictable, and when personal identity ceases to have any meaning. “We are fully alive, and we experience the void” [On est tout en vie, et on éprouve le néant] was Mme du Deffand’s most anguished expression of ennui. For other eighteenth-century authors, ennui could be a weapon: “I amuse myself by boring you,” Diderot wrote with his usual verve.
I do not know of so profound an expression of boredom before this date, although Jean Starobinski in Histoire du traitement de la mélancolie des origines à 1900 cites some lines of Seneca that come close, and that certainly were known to writers of the late Renaissance. I do not think we can claim that no one was bored between the second century AD of Seneca and 1700, but the complexity of the concept of melancholy inhibited the development of a simple vocabulary for the specific expression of profound ennui that the Enlightenment fostered (in English, as we have seen, the word “boredom” is a very late arrival, the older “tedium” never signified anything more than being irritated by excessive repetition, and it took a long time for “ennui” to appropriate so much of the power of melancholy). Perhaps, too, the society of the eighteenth century was more like the sophisticated court of Nero than anything the Middle Ages had to offer.
Coincident with the revival of interest in Burton at the beginning of the nineteenth century, an affectation of melancholy became fashionable in France and England for young men and women. The word had become sentimentalized, a term for a vague sadness. By contrast, ennui took on a new power in France, and gradually reconstructed and acquired much of the significance that melancholy had had a hundred years before. Like melancholy, boredom became a stimulus, an escape from routine, and it is fundamental to the nineteenth-century novel. Mme Bovary reaches her tragic end simply because she was bored with her provincial life and timid husband, and boredom is the mainspring of action for the heroes of the other novels of modern life by Flaubert, for Frédéric in L’Éducation Sentimentale and the eponymous heroes of Bouvard et Pécuchet, as well as for Benjamin Constant’s hero of Adolphe, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, and the principals of too many other narratives to list here. It provided the basis for a critical view of the social order. The positive image of this concept is given perhaps only and remarkably by the hero of Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme, the seventeen-year-old archbishop who finds happiness at last in the solitude of prison, but his acceptance of loneliness shows up the superficiality of the ideals by which everyone else in the novel must live.
Boredom now offered the characteristic alienation from society once provided by melancholy. The word took on a grand meaning, not just a void of interest or a sophisticated indifference, but a dissatisfaction with the world, with civilization. Alfred de Musset wrote about the death of Byron:
Lorsque le grand Byron allait quitter Ravenne
Et chercher sur les mers quelque plage lointaine
Où finir en héros son immortel ennui….
[When great Byron was leaving Ravenna
To search the seas for some distant beach
Where he could heroically end his immortal ennui]
In the end boredom paradoxically recaptured the power and the significance once held by classical melancholy. The new power is consecrated in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. The terms “ennui” and “spleen” are both used, and some critics feel that there is a distinction, but it seems to me that the poet deliberately confounds them. The first section of the book was entitled Spleen et idéal, but it is the preceding introductory poem, the preface, that explicitly declares the new role of boredom. Invoked at the close of the preface, Ennui personified, smoking his hookah, his eye filled with an involuntary tear, is the greatest of all the vices and the inspiration of the book, recognized by the hypocrite reader, double and brother of the poet. Ennui was the inspiration for Baudelaire’s work, not just because it was a rich subject, an occasion for poetry, but also because, like melancholy, it had become not only a torment but a grand temptation, a source of delight.
Burton, perhaps not disingenuously, had claimed that he wrote his book both to cure himself of melancholy (giving the patient some activity was a very popular cure) and to aid those who suffered from melancholy. But above all he warns those of his public who are inclined to the malady that it was dangerous to read a description of the symptoms. For the unhappy few, melancholy could be irresistible.
After the nineteenth century, the large streams of melancholy and ennui split into the complex delta of all the various mental diseases: neurosis, manic depression, bipolar disorder, and so forth. Almost two and a half millennia of melancholy contribute to the development of psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine.10 Melancholy had, indeed, been a fruitful way of studying the mind.
June 9, 2005
His copy, which he must certainly have annotated in the margins as he did with most of what he read, has been lost, so we only have his opinion as reported in conversation. See Coleridge on the Seventeenth Century, edited by Roberta Florence Brinkley (Duke University Press, 1955), p. 432. ↩
Histoire du traitement de la mélancolie des origines à 1900 (Basel: J.R. Geigy, 1960), p. 9. ↩
All quotations from the prefatory “Democritus to the Reader,” p. 11. ↩
The Harleian Miscellany (London: John White, 1809), Vol. 3, pp. 215–216. ↩
Quoted from the Loeb Library translation, Aristotle, Problems, Books XXII–XXXVIII, translated by W.S. Hett (Harvard University Press, 1965), pp. 156–157 and p. 169. ↩
French eloquence of the seventeenth century is comparatively tame; even the most famous figures—Bossuet and Bourdaloue—have little of the verve of their English counterparts, and were unable to enliven the decorum of high style with the vigor of the low. The greatest master of French prose of the time, Blaise Pascal, had little use for the extravagant manner. ↩
From Good Thoughts [etc.] (London: Pickering, 1841), pp. 78–79. ↩
From In God’s Name: Examples of Preaching in England, 1534–1662, edited by John Chandos (Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), pp. 194–195. ↩
The Oxford commentary, Vol. IV, p. 313, tells us that a certain Cleombrotus of Ambracia, cited by both Cicero and Saint Augustine, “was so consumed for the better life on reading Plato’s Phaedo that he threw himself into the sea,” but we are not told anything about the four hundred auditors. ↩
For a brilliant account of the fruitful and illogical ambiguity of the theoretical foundations of psychosomatic medicine, see Jean Starobinski, La Relation critique (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), pp. 214–237. ↩