The tower of Babel never yielded such confusion of tongues, as the chaos of melancholy doth variety of symptoms.
-Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy
I prefer “sadness.”
Robert Burton likes “melancholy.” In it are the Greek melas and khole—literally, “black bile.” Today, he might prefer “depression,” which comes from the Latin deprimere, “to press down.” The latter seems the best description of what Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy does to the reader: It presses, crushes until the reader is spread so thin across the landscape of melancholy that he can understand the infinitude of sadness and nothing else.
Melancholy is an impossible place, a place of impossibilities. For Burton, it is a body with nothing around it; the body is the universe: chafing, discontent, grieving; feeling danger, loss, shame; a feral plague, a torture. This melancholy never stops growing in Partition 1, Section 3, subsection 2 of The Anatomy, “Symptoms or Signs in the Mind,” which overwhelms with a range of sadnesses explicitly distinct but whose feeling remains implicitly outside articulation. If the essay is an attempt to trap a subject by working through it or within it, then Burton’s subject isn’t quite melancholy but the communication of it.
Burton calls his text, first published in 1621, an anatomy—a separation of the parts of an organism to reveal their structures, functions, and relationships. He anatomizes melancholy, and he also creates a textual structure that is itself an anatomy, with carefully cut apart parts that supposedly come together to create a living whole. Just as the study of human anatomy may lead the studier to anthropomorphize everything, so Burton’s text leads the reader to turn everything melancholy: There is sadness everywhere, in every emotion, in every movement. The attempt at stabilizing melancholy through its symptoms only makes it undulate more, take up so much space that it takes up all space. If the only thing that exists is sadness, and the sad mind churning, then the sad person is necessarily alone in the world. And if the sad person’s body—the senses, the physical being—are a conduit to the world, then what fills the void of external reality is internal life. What fills the void is melancholy.
From within this sad mass, Burton tries to keep his subject still by methodically working through it. His main method is the list, where symptoms can go on forever. Though Burton structures symptoms according to categories—“inconstancy” and “humorous” are two of the nine*—these headings are mostly superficial. But they’re useful for the essay’s effect of letting the reader move alongside the writer as he attempts to communicate the true essence of melancholy and link it to the outside world. The reader hopes for order, but the lists lead nowhere—or lead, like everything else, to sadness, which is often literally without end, marked by Burton’s frequent “et cetera.” Such maximalism is at once encouraging and disheartening. The bloat of symptoms dismantles hope and movement. Whereas the reader goes from the sentence just read to the next one in hope of new language and new ideas, here, the reader finds the same void of meaning again and again: “They are afraid of some loss,” Burton writes. Anything can be considered a loss; anything can be part of melancholy, and the world loses the differentiation that creates meaning (and various meanings, different from one another). Despite denying it, the reader realizes that there is no point in trying to stabilize sadness. The search for a definition of melancholy becomes a search for the way to define in the first place. It is an essay, an experiment of words.
And what beauty Burton finds in experimenting! By stretching language to its utmost, by trying to make words capture that which they simply cannot bear, Burton creates a beautifully mimetic portrait of the sad mind at work:
Inconstant they are in all their actions, vertiginous, restless, unapt to resolve of any business, they will and will not, persuaded to and fro upon every small occasion, or word spoken: and yet if once they be resolved, obstinate, hard to be reconciled.
Like the melancholy person, the text is restless, unsure, obsessed with its own definition. The only mode that could take on such a fidgety topic is the essay, which in this case attempts to order something that can’t be organized. The point is not to find reasons for sadness, only to show how the inability to fully communicate sadness, for the melancholy person, is even more torturous than being sad in the first place.
By wondering his way through melancholy’s inexhaustible manifestations, Burton fails at communicating the illness, as all do, but he succeeds at transforming it into a living character. This calls to mind David Foster Wallace’s “The Depressed Person,” whose protagonist is less a person than a tense amalgam of distinct, inward-facing sadnesses—including the grand meta-sadness:
The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.
Authors have tried to capture melancholy in specific characters; Burton and Wallace flip that trend and capture specific symptoms. These matter, not the nameless person experiencing. In this sense, Burton’s “Symptoms or Signs in the Mind” might be best read as a biography of melancholy, a writing on the complex and unstable life of depression, a subjective state described by, if this were a story, what we’d call an unreliable narrator. But it’s an essay, so we’re drawn to unreliability because it shows thinking’s tracks: An essay is a pursuit of meaning, not necessarily a guarantee of finding it.
It’s in the very lack of finding it that Burton actually hints at one possible meaning of his Anatomy: Language can only get us so far, but getting us somewhere, even if that place is just a different part of the same circle, is better than standing still. It’s better to be moving in a spiral, spinning wildly inward on oneself forever, as if dividing by two until you reach zero, than it is to come up with a (false) concrete thesis. One of the main characteristics of sadness is that it can’t be completely and accurately captured in language. The working out, the figuring on the page, gives more about sadness than a straightforward description, no matter how detailed, could.
Edmond Jabès writes, in The Little Book of Subversion Above Suspicion: “Any reading sets limits. An unlimited text yields a new reading every time, a reading it partly escapes.” “Symptoms or Signs in the Mind” must be limited—by Burton, who makes it a discrete section, and by me by calling it an essay within what many call one giant essay. I’m talking of infinity, but by pulling out one section and calling it an essay, I’m restraining it. Why this section? Could a single sentence from the section be called an essay? No, because what makes this an essay is movement, as if it were a function asymptotically approaching infinity. It’s not enough for it to move forward, to run through a supposedly exhaustive list of symptoms. It’s almost the opposite: to never exhaust the symptoms at all, but to exhaust with them. Meanwhile, we lose sight of the sufferer, who is subsumed by symptoms. Melancholy erases identity, leaving the melancholy person a husk of a human. (We do not see the sad person in either “Symptoms or Signs in the Mind” or “The Depressed Person”—except for the therapist’s hands, and those we see only through the annoyance of the depressed person.)
But back to the Jabès quote: The limits the reader sets change upon every reading, but they share one thing: another reading that “partly escapes.” There is always something beyond the reader’s grasp. The near-infinitude of Burton’s “Symptoms or Signs in the Mind” makes the reader aware of what’s not included: Objective stability, a definition of melancholy, control over melancholy. What remains is the illusion that sadness, like other ailments, can be separated into parts, structured, and reconstituted. It takes a mimetic essay, one that never reconstitutes its subject, to negate that possibility. The tower of Babel, which Burton cites at the end of the section, falls into many languages, just as melancholy dissolves into symptoms. It must collapse, preventing true communication: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Gen. 11:7). The crumbled, chaotic language and symptoms need one another but will never unite in a singular portrait of melancholy. They’ll agree only that it is restlessness, rumination, repetition.
*In the spirit of Burton, I list the rest: fear; taedium vitae; suspicion, jealousy; passionate; amorous; bashfulness; solitariness. (And, I should add, &c.)
All Robert Burton quotes come from The Anatomy of Melancholy. The David Foster Wallace quote comes from “The Depressed Person.” The Edmond Jabès quote comes from From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabès Reader. And the Bible quote comes from the King James version of the Bible.
Rachel Z. Arndt is an MFA student in the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa.