…must be endured,” said Robert Burton about melancholy, back in 1620. It’s considerate and a bit ironic that he should offer such a pithy description for the plight of melancholics and depressives, given that he literally wrote the book on the subject of enduring it, and in a new edition that book is a mere 1382 pages long.
It’s the sort of book that Borges might imagine but never assemble, with a million examples of every sort of melancholia and every sort of cure, many from antiquity. Learned beyond measure. Although difficult to read in long stretches, reliably diverting and provocative in chapters. One could spend a lifetime reading it I suppose, like Shakespeare or Proust, and never come to a final conclusion.
Here’s a lovely 400th birthday reconsideration by Ed Simon in The Millions, called Drizzly November in My Soul. A quote that stuck with me:
“One thing that Burton is clear on was that melancholy wasn’t simply feeling down. To be melancholy isn’t to be “dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill disposed, solitary, any way moved or displeased,” Burton writes, and that clarification is still helpful. For those blessed with a brain chemistry that doesn’t incline them towards darkness, depression might seem an issue of will power, something that can be fixed with a multivitamin and a treadmill. Reading Burton is a way to remind oneself—even as he maintained erroneous physiological explanations—that depression isn’t a personal failing. And it’s certainly not a sin. McMahon explains that by “reengaging with the classical tradition to treat excessive sadness and melancholia as an aberration or disease—not just the natural effect of original sin—Renaissance medicine opened the way toward thinking about means to cure it.'”