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Why is Robert Burton’s masterpiece Anatomy of Melancholy being sold as self-help?

27 June 2020

9:00 AM

27 June 2020

9:00 AM

The New Anatomy of Melancholy

BBC Radio 4

The BBC has been having a good pandemic. Stuck at home, a generation raised on podcasts and YouTube has discovered the comfort of a radio that babbles quietly in the corner. The concerts from the empty Wigmore Hall, streamed live on YouTube once a day, have been the first classical concerts of my life that could honestly be described as cultural events. And in the initial terror of the disease’s spread, everyone reverted to watching the BBC simply to find out what would happen next. Perhaps our vaunted passion for fake news was only a fad of convenience given that, when our lives depended on it, we really listened to Auntie.

Nestled quietly between the pips and the press conferences I found The New Anatomy of Melancholy, a 12-part series asking what Robert Burton’s 1,000-page Anatomy of Melancholy has to teach us today. It was a bold and noble piece of commissioning, one whose drab execution served as a frustrating reminder of how cultural broadcasting, which aims to be both stimulating and informative, often ends up being neither.

Burton’s Anatomy is one of the strangest books ever written. Ostensibly a tract on the diagnosis, prevention and cure of melancholy, it is more like a lunatic encyclopaedia whose organising principle is the nature of human misery. In this programme, unfortunately, Burton’s dizzying masterpiece is beige-washed and resold as ‘a prototype self-help book’. And it gets worse. When Burton writes: ‘I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy,’ the statement is glossed as proof that for Burton writing was a ‘personal form of therapy’.


Throughout, whenever something lucid and poetic from the Anatomy is read out, a presenter’s voice chimes in to explain that he has, in fact, said something entirely different about bipolar disorder. Anything and everything is forced through the mouli-legumes of modern mental-health discourse: a tame therapist or doctor is then procured and spoonfed this mischaracterisation so they can dribble it back out for the listener. ‘Seeing friends, sleeping well, looking after yourself, being active,’ says one guest, audibly reading something the producers have handed her, ‘Burton was pretty much correct in the core model of the treatment today for depression.’

That would be useful advice, if that was what Burton had actually proposed. For interest’s sake, why not at least mention that he also recommends boring a hole in the skull, cauterising the forehead with a heated iron and taking suppositories made from sweet almonds? Indeed, why not mention the passages about werewolves, demons, enemas and haemorrhoids? And why not intimate so much as once that he doesn’t necessarily mean everything he says?

Other guests are read passages of the book and asked to respond with their own expertise. ‘Thou art discontent, thou art sad and heavy; but why?’ asks Burton. ‘Rule thyself then with reason… wean thyself from such fond conceits, vain fears, strong imaginations, restless thoughts.’ To which someone responds: ‘I think that’s especially relevant in the social media era.’

Many of these people are scholars, doctors, artists. They are not boring people. Rather, each interview seems to have had the interesting bits edited out. What’s left is just some half-meant platitude, which can then be used as a structural hook to whisk the listener on to the next half-minute conversation while we listen to 15 seconds of ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’.

With a book as complex and multifaceted as Burton’s, some form of intellectual compromise was inevitable in The New Anatomy of Melancholy. And there’s a part of me that thinks: top marks for trying. Top marks for bringing this book out into the daylight, for giving it time and interspersing the whole thing with decent-sized chunks of Burton’s own beautiful prose. Maybe it even worked. Perhaps someone out there found their interest piqued by the lucid intensity of what they were hearing and bought a copy to find out more.

But another part of me thinks that that makes the failing even worse. Here was an exceedingly rare opportunity to argue on a large stage for an under-read masterpiece, something strange and sui generis that doesn’t fit into any of the categories in your local bookshop. Instead, pulled by the need for accessibility on the one hand, and the importance of their subject on the other, the show ended up describing a 17th-century self-help book designed for a 21st-century listener. Unfortunately, no such book exists. No one involved seems to have been convinced that this book could be interesting on its own, weird terms, so they edited the interesting bits out. And if you take the interesting bits out of The Anatomy of Melancholy, there’s almost nothing left./>

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