Contributed by Rhonda Rinehart.
Why are we sad?
Blue Monday, as Mondays in January have become known, are regarded as particularly depressing mid-winter days due to a variety of reputed factors like weather conditions, level of debt, failed resolutions and post-holiday dreariness. Calculated from untested (and largely unscientific) formulas, and more recently from tweets, Blue Monday is nonetheless increasingly considered a by-product of cultural and societal stress and frustration. Although not observed as scientific in nature, this “Blue Monday” analysis of the human condition isn’t new. Indeed, perhaps because of the human condition itself, people have continuously sought understanding of what makes the human mind and emotions function.
And so this brings us to The anatomy of melancholy: What it is, with all the kinds causes, symptomes, prognostickes, & severall cures of it. : In three partitions, with their severall sections, members & subsections, philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened & cut up. Written under the pseudonym “Democritus Junior”, author Robert Burton published the book in 1632, making it CHP’s oldest English language book. No formulas were used in determining what brings on “melancholia” and the closest thing to a tweet in 1632 is the book’s abundant marginalia.
At just over 720 pages, Anatomy of Melancholy is generally considered a prosaic satire on the topic of depression, particularly that of the author’s own struggle with depression. It attempts to uncover the physical, mental and spiritual reasons for “melancholy” (depression or melancholic depression), rending it into three “partitions” within the text – 1. Causes, 2. Cure, 3. Love Melancholy. Common thought was that melancholy was responsible for the extreme emotions associated with love, religion, and mental illness.
Often referencing religion as it explains the roles of devils and spirits in developing melancholy in human beings, it is unclear if these explanations are also satirical in nature or simply a sincere interpretation of the belief system in place at that period of time. Indeed, there is no scientific substantiation to complement Burton’s postulations in any of the book’s three partitions. These two characteristics, however, are precisely why Melancholy is so arresting. Given the book’s reputation as being a satire, and considering Burton’s prose-induced writing style, it is difficult to dismiss entirely the argument that the book was meant to be both a therapeutic outlet for Burton and a witticism for the reader. And yet it is equally problematic not to consider that “science” of the 17th century was based on mysticism, religion, magic and alchemy.
In the course of the 382 years since Burton’s book was published, we certainly consider ourselves a more enlightened society, more logical, more objective in nature. And yet, Blue Monday theories abound about why western society is sad, shrouded in pseudo-scientific formulas and research of Twitter accounts in an attempt to answer the same question Burton wondered. And although there is plenty of science behind what we now understand as depression, what generally entertains us is witty commentary about the human condition.
The Anatomy of Melancholy has been digitized and can be viewed and read using this link: http://cdm15960.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15960coll25/id/6979.