Stephanie Shirilan, Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy

Stephanie Shirilan, Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy (London: Routledge 2015) 230 pp. £60.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781472417015

Stephanie Shirilan’s Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy argues that Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy seeks to transform the idea of melancholy from a disease to a beneficent spiritual state.  Instead of a cure what melancholics need is therapeutic management. Burton’s irrational, excessive style thus models a therapeutic playfulness that helps sympathetic readers refine and delight in their experience of melancholy.  Shirilan explains how this therapeutic literary logic is underpinned by Renaissance faculty psychology and the pneumatic accounts of the spirit put forward by Renaissance Neoplatonists.  Pneuma was considered the sustainer and originator of life and the bridge between body and spirit.  So, to relieve the heaviness of melancholy the melancholic needs to access the pneumatic realm, which for Burton is achieved through the power of the imagination, particularly the delights of reading and study.

A further concern of Shirilan’s book is to combat the scholarly ‘epidemic of literalist misreadings of the Anatomy in the past several decades’ (9).  To this end, she regularly and at some length turns from analysing Burton and other primary sources to criticizing common academic interpretations of Burton.  For Shirilan, the ‘anaesthetic objectivity’ of materialist historicism limits its ability to understand Burton’s ludic mode sympathetically (184).  Most critics are too quick to take Burton at his word when he says he ‘calls a spade a spade’, and thus they miss the complexities of his ironic, parodic style.  Shirilan’s method, by contrast, is to accept Burton’s invitation to play a game of bibliotherapy – to ‘follow Burton’s sound and sense and to make historical sense of the structures of meaning that inhere in their resemblance’ (25). This sympathetic, personal approach is highly refreshing and laudable, although it does at times mean that some of her readings are largely conjecture based on suggestiveness, as she herself admits (27).

Chapter One, ‘Democritus Junior: Discerning Care’, begins by showing how Burton playfully rejects the Neostoic ideal of tranquility advocated by Lipsius, instead drawing on an Augustinian critique of Stoicism that claims apatheia undermines Christian humility and compassion.  For Burton, cynicism hardens the heart and makes us like animals, whereas empathy transforms and lifts the spirit. Burton takes on the mask of Democritus Junior, indicating his intention to ‘cheer the melancholic reader’ by substituting ‘sociable laughter for solemn introspection’ (39).  This ludic persona is a corrective to the relentless interiority of English Puritans, who advocated regular self-examination.  Burton’s use of the classical genre of the cento allowed him to ventriloquize and ironically subvert many of his sources, which is why readers and critics should be wary of reading these citations as straightforward endorsement.  His Democritean persona ‘stages its own hysterical instability’ in the way he retracts retractions, ultimately appealing to and attempting to stimulate the sensitivity and good will of the reader (59).

Chapter Two, ‘Heroic Hypochondria and the Sympathetic Delusions of Melancholy’, looks at a variety of delusions associated with melancholy and the way that Burton treats these examples differently from contemporaneous medical and spiritual books on hygiene.  Other writers on melancholic delusions treat them as ridiculous, absurd or even nefarious, but Burton considers them as examples that incite wonder and stimulate sympathy.  These instances of psychic breakdown highlight the fragility and permeability of the human condition, which simultaneously also means that humans can be moved and cured by imaginative suggestion.  The chapter concludes by looking at how the delusional melancholic is also a kind of paradoxical ‘champion of the irrationality of faith’ because his ‘brittleness warns against the consequences that ensue from delusions of imperviousness’ cultivated by spiritual hygiene manuals (100).

Chapter Three, ‘Exhilarating the Spirits: Study as Cure for Scholarly Melancholy’, considers the theological, philosophical and psychological contexts for Burton’s therapeutic literary logic, particularly Neoplatonic accounts of pneuma.  According to Shirilan, Burton’s aim in advocating a kind of ‘ecstatic study’ is to evoke wonder rather than spiritual introspection (102).  Burton believed that significant parts of the spirit are moved to pleasure and mirth aurally, and thus he developed a rhetorical style that ‘courts the mind’s ear’ (114).  The cure for the melancholy caused by ‘serious studies and businesse’ is not greater self-discipline or spiritual rumination but delight and wonder that can also be accessed through study.  Melancholy begins with sorrow but it is cured with ‘jests and conceits, playes and toyes’ (136).

Chapter Four, ‘“Exonerating” Melancholy’, analyses Burton’s ‘Digression of the Ayre’ as the prime example of his study cure for melancholy. Shirilan traces the images of breath, wind and spirit in the Digression and argues that these meditations present a cosmic journey in the tradition of the Longinian sublime that Burton Christianizes thereby transforming melancholic despair into a hope for regeneration and salvation.  Moreover, writing and citation itself is a kind of pneumatic exchange across time and space that encourages greater generosity and sensitivity.  The chapter ends by claiming that Burton’s centonic style is an ‘ars amatoria’, a kind of ‘artful dilation’ that is ‘propelled by desire’ and offered to his readers as comfort and cure for melancholy (175).

In the Epilogue, ‘Loving Burton, or Burton for Amateurs’, Shirilan recounts some of her scholarly journey with Burton and considers why modern scholars so often misread Burton as grave and earnest. Contrasting modern scholarly opinion with enthusiastic Amazon reviews, Shirilan suggests that the unwillingness to admit aesthetic feeling and subjectivity into modern scholarship keeps much of Burton’s therapeutic bibliographic play hidden, making it seem occult to materialist historicism.

Shirilan’s book thus successfully performs a kind of Burtonian reading of the Anatomy, one that listens just as much to his rhetorical style and mode of speaking as it does to the content of what he says.  By playing his bibliographic game of citations, she provides a wealth of insight into the literary, philosophical, scientific, social and theological contexts that inform the Anatomy, but perhaps even more significantly she champions an alternative mode of scholarship at least partially inspired by Burton, one that is not afraid or ashamed of suggestiveness and subjectivity.

Daniel Gabelman, Eastbourne College