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My Poor, Incurable, Itching Humors

“’Tis most true, [many have an incurable itch to write]…in this scribbling age,” Robert Burton wrote nearly 400 years before the blog. “[O]ut of an itching humor that every man hath to show himself, desirous of fame and honor…he will write no matter what and scrape together it boots not whence.”

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December 15, 2008
 
 

“’Tis most true, [many have an incurable itch to write]…in this scribbling age,” Robert Burton wrote nearly 400 years before the blog. “[O]ut of an itching humor that every man hath to show himself, desirous of fame and honor…he will write no matter what and scrape together it boots not whence.”

I’d read only passages from Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy over the years, so I’ve been remedying that as I can by reading the 400-page abridged version, edited by Lawrence Babb (Michigan State University Press, 1965), a mere one-fourth the whole. (There’s a good review here of the New York Review Books edition [2001] with an introduction by William H. Gass.)

The Anatomy is one of those strange and wonderful books, along with Montaigne’s Essays, that the creative nonfiction movement points to as pedigree. Then, the pedigreed finger having pointed, it moves on without actually reading. In fact it occurred to me this week that if any of us had a lick of sense we’d re-dedicate ourselves not only to Burton, Montaigne, Lamb, Hazlitt, Emerson, and others we profess to be influenced by, but also to those they love, in Greek and Latin, by doing an at-home, self-guided Ph.D. in comparative lit or classics as needed to get the job done. A pox on your Inspirational Guides to Writing and Life.

Burton explains his ability to write as that of a scholar with a small but adequate income, access to a great library, and no wife or children, so he’s detached from the usual human thrashing, “like the Stoic sage, seeing all ages, past and present, as if in one glance,” and a “mere spectator of other men’s fortunes and adventures.” He offers a marvelous list of all the things he can afford to let alone (as Thoreau would say):

I hear new news every day and those ordinary rumors of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, etc., daily musters and preparations and such-like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies and sea fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarums. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, etc. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays; then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions; now comical, then tragical matters. Today we hear of new lords and officers created, tomorrow of some great men deposed, and then again of fresh honors conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh; he thrives, his neighbor turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, etc. Thus I daily hear, and such-like, both private and public news. Amidst the gallantry and misery of the world—jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy, subtlety, knavery, candor and integrity mutually mixed and offering themselves—I rub on privus privatus [in my personal privacy].

Sometimes, Burton admits, “I did for my recreation now and then walk abroad, look into the world, and could not choose but make some little observation…sometimes again I was [an insolent derider], and then again [anger burned my liver.]” This inescapable and universal melancholy that intrudes upon repose is Burton’s topic.

Two hundred years later Emerson writes:

At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

In our scribbling age we too might write of the giant if we shut out the clamor of new news. We have no Burton and are small in comparison. But as he says while downplaying his own work in regard to the ancients’, “‘A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.’” There's hope for us yet.

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