David Lazar: Some of our readers might say they wouldn’t be caught dead reading a thousand-page, seventeenth-century compendium of quotation, essay, digression, and aphorism about the state of our incorporeal infirmities. What might you say to such a reader?
Robert Burton: No go and brag of thy present happiness, whosoever thou art, brag of thy temperature, of thy good parts, insult, triumph, and boast; thou seest in what a brittle state thou art, how soon thou mayest be dejected, how many several ways, by bad diet, bad air, a small loss, a little sorrow or discontent, an ague, etc; how many sudden accidents may procure thy ruin, what a small tenure of happiness thou hast in this life, how weak and silly a creature thou art.
DL: Thanks. I’m sure Amazon sales have now reached the torrid zone. Considering the intensity of your achievement, your influence on Johnson, Sterne, Lamb, Keats, so many others, does the fact that you are so little read sting you at all?
RB: A modest man, one that hath grace, a generous spirit, tender of his reputation will be deeply wounded, and so grievously affected with it, that he had rather give myriads of crowns, lose his life, than suffer the least defamation of honour or blot in his good name. And if so be that he cannot avoid it, as a nightingale . . . dies for shame if another bird sing better, he languisheth and pineth away in the anguish of his spirit.
DL: It’s good to hear such a balanced perspective. Within Melancholy are some of the great essays in the English language, the “Digression of Air” (“what God did before the world was made? was He idle?”), and “Artificial Allurements.” Can you speak to the way you assay, how you crafted these bold, wandering Montaignian essays in your swift, barely post-Elizabethan prose?
RB: One must needs scratch where it itches. I was not a little offended with this malady, shall I say my mistress Melancholy, my Egeria, or my malus genius, and for that cause, as he that is stung with a scorpion, I would expel clavum clavo, comfort one sorrow with another, idleness with idleness, ut ex vipera theracum [as an antidote out of a serpent’s venom] make an antidote out of that which was the prime cause of my disease.
DL: So you’re saying that writing is therapeutic? Many writing professors reject that idea.
RB: Cardan professeth he wrote his book de Consolatione after his son’s death, to comfort himself; so did Tully write of the same subject with like intent after his daughter’s departure, if it be his at least, or some imposter’s put out in his name, which Lispsius probably suspects. Concerning myself, I can peradventure affirm with Marius in Sallust, “That which others hear or read of, I felt and practiced myself; they get their knowledge by books, I mine by melancholizing. “
I am of Catullus’ opinion, and make the same apology in mine own behalf: I write for the most part to satisfy the taste and judgment of others; I am not mad myself, but I follow those who are. Yet grant that this shows me mad; we have all raved once. And you yourself, I think, dote sometimes, and he, and he, and of course I too . . . Howsoever my lines err, my life is honest.
DL: Point well-taken, and I see you’ve read my work.
RB: I have not offended your chaster ears with anything that is here written, as many French and Italian authors in their modern language of late have done?
DL: I’m from Brooklyn. Moving on, Do you have any new projects planned?
RB: Give me but a little leave, and I will set before your eyes in brief a stipend, vast, infinite ocean of incredible madness and folly: a sea full of shelves and rocks, sands, gulfs, euripes and contrary tides, full of fearful monster, uncouth shapes, roaring waves, tempests, and siren calms, halcyonian seas, unspeakable misery, such comedies and tragedies, such absurd and ridiculous, feral and lamentable fits, that I know not whether they are more to be pitied or derided, or may be believed, but that we daily see the same still practiced in our days, fresh examples, nova novitia, fresh objects of misery and madness in this kind that are still represented to us, abroad, at home, in the midst of us, in our bosoms.
DL: Sounds great. Almost like Anatomy II. There was a rumor floating around that you hanged yourself. Comment?
RB: Corpora cito extinguuntur.
DL: Isn’t that a somewhat coy response?
RB: Do you wish to be freed from doubt? do you desire to escape uncertainty?
David Lazar’s books include Occasional Desire (University of Nebraska Press), The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction (both Iowa), Powder Town (Pecan Grove), Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher (both Mississippi). Forthcoming is Essaying the Essay (Welcome Table Press) and After Montaigne, co-edited with Patrick Madden (University of Georgia Press). He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its thirteenth year, which has featured groundbreaking issues in transgeneric writing and the aphorism. He teaches at Columbia College Chicago.