Category Archives: 18th C

On Melancholia and Media

“I hear news every day, those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions,. . . .and such like, which these tempestuous times afford. . . .New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion &c.”* –Robert Burton on melancholy

In 1621, the Vicar Robert Burton published a gem of a scholarly work titled The Anatomy of Melancholy. Although the book, in a broad sense, is supposed to be a medical text, Burton’s approach was to gather literary quotes and create a philosophical treatise that drew from varied disciplines such as psychology, astronomy, meteorology, theology, astrology, etc. I would conjecture that Burton’s gathering of the pieces became a philosophical journey in and of itself. And, in fact, Burton claimed to have written the book as a way to dispel his own melancholy.

I’m no stranger to melancholy. Angst may be a term overused by lazy poets, but it’s also an indicator of melancholic bile, as well as an apt descriptor of the place where my mind dwells. The words above, inspired by Burton’s philosophical (if not jocular) mindset in the early 17th C, give insight into, not only my small world, but our modern 21st C reality, which throws many of us into the same splenetic fits as men suffered from 400 years ago. Think about this for a moment. You’re no doubt already aware that the character of humans hasn’t changed much over the centuries–not at core–yet we view our modern technological age as vastly different from Burton’s era. Despite that, we have, on record, an early 17th C man claiming that his private life was inundated by media. If you read the entire preface to the work where the quote is culled from, you will find that this section rambles on with the full spectrum of news–wars and rumors thereof, plagues, entertainments and entertainers, etc.

The modern glorification of media, its beauty and deceits, has come to us as a legacy from the days of the Enlightenment. Certainly, journalism and news weren’t new concepts even then; however, the 17th and 18th centuries marked a rise in printing and literacy that has not stopped rising since. Well, perhaps, literacy rates have tapered off over the years, but written words have continued to increase exponentially. Most people would call this progress, and I wouldn’t disagree with them. I love information. I love researching and sifting for ideas in a vast sea of them. Sometimes, though, I wish I could shut it all out and live as a media-less melancholic hermit in my desert home.

Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever have to remind yourself of how literacy and access to published works have enriched your life? I feel it, even if I want to shut out the noise at times. I’m quick to remind myself that the noise, or parts of it, will leave a record for posterity. As a female, I feel a great sense of relief having been born into these modern days, 400 years after Burton. I’m grateful that women are currently leaving their own record for the future.

Have you ever noticed that the early feminist movement seemed to mysteriously blossom at the same moment in history that literacy rates soared alongside of increased access to presses and printed works? I often hear the claim, usually from naysayers, that feminism is a destructive modern movement whose ideals are unknown to history. That’s a peculiar claim, really, because the core of femininity hasn’t changed over the years any more than the core of masculinity has changed (which I didn’t exactly prove without a shadow of a doubt earlier, but still, who is naive enough to believe otherwise?). With access to media, women have simply been given the voice to express who they are, and they’ve been doing so for the last few centuries. Sadly, their expressions of self aren’t always pretty or nice. But neither are the expressions of men.

My rambling thoughts at four a.m. have come full circle, it seems, with the acknowledgement that people aren’t always nice. Hence, media outlets aren’t always nice. Accordingly, it throws many of us into splenetic fits, if not irrational knee-jerk reactions to the way the world is going to hell all around us. Wars and rumors of wars. Religious controversies. Political intrigues. Paradoxes. Women. Feminism.

*Although the quote comes from the preface to The Anatomy of Melancholy, which you can find free all over the internet, I copied this tidy version of it from James Gleick’s Isaac Newton. I preferred his focus to my own. I was tempted to copy Burton’s entire paragraph because I like the whole rambling mess of it. Apparently, Gleick wasn’t tempted that way. Well, maybe he was, but, alas, he had an editor (a person I need).

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Words Wrought From Melancholia

Are you familiar with melancholia? Is she your dearest friend, who keeps you company through the wee hours of the night or early morning, before the sun has yet risen, and the air is silent and cold–when the entire world, or your small part of it, holds its chill breath before it restarts its mechanistic daily processes? That’s all right, then. You’re in good company with my dear friends from the 18th C, those men and women with whom I idly chat at my chilling early-morning tea parties. Melancholy’s in the pot, and the ghosts and I drink it together.

Samuel Johnson was a classic melancholic, who sighed deeply and claimed, “I write therefore I am alive.” He wrote. He did. And so do I. Together, we make good company. Adam Sisman, a historical biographer, makes my good friend out to be a rock star, however: “His powerful personality, his manifest integrity, his distinctive style, his penetrating intellect, his original ideas, his prodigious learning, his extraordinary versatility, and his imposing figure combined to make him a dominant literary presence” (21). Great! What was in that tea again, the pot Johnson and I were sharing? At least I choose my tea-friends wisely.

By the way, it’s important to note that the above quote can be found in Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. Essentially, Sisman waxed all poetic about Johnson in his biography of James Boswell, which is extraordinary that a biographer such as Adam Sisman is able to fill in these details 250 years after Johnson lived. The fact that Sisman wrote such a detailed and personal biography is telling; what is even more telling is that Sisman wrote a biography of a biographer who, in his turn, wrote a biography of a biographer. Fill my cup again, won’t you? I’m feeling a little jittery.

Samuel Johnson advised his friend Mr. Boswell, the Scotsman who really couldn’t help being Scottish, thank you Mr. Johnson, to keep a detailed journal of his life. Due to Boswell’s own intensive melancholic state, he followed Johnson’s advice to the letter, scratching out on paper what no one should have ever known about his life and the lives of others, until, of course, those scratchings were published, thereby giving want-to-know to delicate ladies who otherwise conduct proper, if not delusional, tea parties in the dark hours of dawn. These detailed writings of Boswell, scandalous or not, aided him when he listened far too closely to Johnson’s many opinions, one of which was that biographies should be personal rather than formal. Biographies of famous people ought to only be written by those who had shared a table with the famed person. This personal touch would avoid a distanced chronology of events, instead engaging the reader with the minutia of daily life.

I’m so grateful that Boswell took Johnson’s words to heart–deeply–especially considering their first meeting, which went about like this: “I do indeed come from Scotland,” said Boswell, “but I cannot help it.” Johnson replied, “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help” (22). Johnson, to put it mildly, wasn’t altogether fond of the Scots. And, yet, it was a Scotsman who wrote Johnson’s biography. Johnson, ironically, was a biographer, himself, one who didn’t take his own advice in sharing a meal with the men he wrote about–most likely because he wasn’t quite as delusional as I am, believing dead people to still live in some sense of the word. It was a little too late for him to drop his card by, say, Milton’s house, in hopes of gaining an invite to supper. But Johnson probably wouldn’t have liked Milton much, anyway. Isn’t it far better to remain detached, in order not to know? That’s, after all, why I drink tea with ghosts.

“I write therefore I am alive,” Johnson said. Are you so sure about that? It seems I know you, your dress and habits and manners of speech, because another man wrote to expel his own gloom, to rid himself of the destruction wrought by deep thought and philosophy in the scaffolding of his mind. I know you, Mr. Johnson, because of another man’s melancholy. Huh. I wonder what that says about melancholy. Maybe it would be better to take my teapot and brew it in the land of the living, where I might find true respite by jotting down details of this time and place. Or maybe I should just go to bed.

All quotes taken from Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 2000)

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Medicine As a Speculative Art


Today I’d like to take a detour into a subject that’s fascinated me for years: medicine. I love the nitty-gritty, the gross, the bizarre, the historical. Although most of my studies and reading are stuck in what I call the Long Eighteenth Century (mid 1600s to about 1830), I’ll read any book that appeals to my obsession with grossness. At the same time, I’ll read both fiction and nonfiction, but I prefer nonfiction.

I especially enjoy reading accounts from history, as in Frances Burney’s mastectomy letter to her sister, Esther, which details her gory surgery. The victims of these early mastectomies could do this, of course, because they were wide awake throughout the entire procedure. For heaven’s sake, Burney could feel the knife hit her breastbone! Can you imagine? The description is enough to set my teeth on edge. I’m dutifully thankful she wrote it down for posterity. A fictional tale that begins with a horrific mastectomy, much like Burney’s, is Nicola Morgan’s Flesh Market. The book is a fine piece of historical YA fiction with a medical theme, if you don’t faint during the initial surgery description, and can get past Morgan’s writing style, which is engaging, but fraught with fragmented sentences.

I’ve read so many great pieces of historical medical advice involving rabbits, some great spoofs on doctors, and journals such as Samuel Pepys’–which detail the plague year–alongside fictional accounts–Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, for example. A modern novel, not worth much in my opinion, is Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. I also enjoy compendiums of information such as Theories For Everything and Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers.

But what is most fascinating to me is the way in which medical science hasn’t changed all that much over the years. Doctors steeped in today’s practices mock new ideas; alternative doctors still espouse outlandish ones. Despite anesthesiology, modern doctors seem to find new ways to torture their hapless sick subjects, and sometimes their torture works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Throughout medical history, this has always been the case. Study the above image of early mastectomy tools. The seventeenth-century writer Mary Astell suffered through a mastectomy and died two months afterward. Almost a hundred years later, Burney’s mastectomy was no more advanced in its methods, but Burney lived for almost thirty years after the event.

A while back, I stopped reading daily articles on modern medical topics, especially on alternative therapies. I stopped this practice because I felt overwhelmed by the onslaught of information. I grew tired of it, and especially tired of the arguments between alternative ideas and mainstream ones. Recently, however, a friend lent me a book called Earthing which is about the great! wonderful! cure of walking barefoot and sleeping “grounded” in order to access the negatively-charged electrons from the earth. I like the idea of it and consider it a no-brainer that walking barefoot in nature is good for health. However, the book barely scratches the research surface before devolving into personal anecdotes of how this method helped even the sickest RA or MS patients. I don’t disbelieve these anecdotes, nor do I believe them. Keeping an open, yet skeptical mind is fundamental to who I am as a person, and when it comes to human suffering, I hope for the best.

But you can guess what mainstream medicine thinks of earthing. They hate it. They mock it. By the way mainstream doctors conduct critiques, you’d think ad hominem arguments spring from the hardest, most fundamental core of science. And the way they completely ignore valid double-blind studies if they’re published in the wrong journals or espouse the wrong/not accepted conclusions is just sickening, to be honest [I'm not sure what the cure for science disgust is. Maybe more ad hominem arguments?].

What I’m left with after all this is wanting to create my own monster from the wreckage of hundreds of years of medicine–be my own Frankenstein, as it were. Why not? The very idea that electricity can give new life to sick people is so galvanistic that I’m simply galvanized to write about it. I can imagine it now: I, Dr. Jillenstein, will force a mainstream doctor to walk barefoot through the grass! She will then transform, beyond my wildest nightmares, into an earth-muffin, Sedona-dwelling acupuncturist who wears a hood to hide her bee-raper bag. She will call me God and herself Eve, and I will have to run, flee from her until I can run no more and am forced to come face to face with the horrific visage I’ve created. And will I have the nerve to drive a crystal through her merciless heart? Stay tuned for the exciting denouement.

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A Blazing New World

There’s nothing that says “culture” like Facebook. Facebook is the epitome of twenty-first century American aesthetic. It’s a place where we can manufacture ourselves by updates: honest, exaggerated, or false. We are our Facebook creations. Accept this universal truth.

I suspect my profile is something akin to the chaos theory, but with a pessimistic twist on it of predictable results. No amount of force I exert changes these expected results. I simply push more objects into motion. Because the results of the chaos are predictable, order does inhabit my chaos theory, even if the order is a simple lack of irony. The expected will occur. That is order. That is good. That is ironic.

On a serious note, an old college friend—we’ll call her Camilla—typed out a frantic list of all the things she had to do this week, which included, but was not limited to a dance performance plus rehearsals, reading through hundreds of essays, and a load  of scholarly studying on obscure historical subjects. I immediately commented, “Let’s switch schedules.”

Camilla’s update reminded me of a truth not so universal, but still harsh. My schedule wasn’t so different from hers on the outside, but was diametrically opposed on the inside. Hers was a reflection of her personal dreams and goals, while mine mirrored a loss of myself–dance performances for my daughters–essays I read as a homeschool mom. Any other studying I might engage in is done surreptitiously and applied haphazardly to my sense of well-being, as if tacked on to mask my blank wall with ornaments and images. Recently, for example, I hung an avant-garde canvas covered in topological mixing (see above) and called it “Self Confidence”.

I sneaked out today to avoid staring at my blank wall, as well as my Facebook page. I tucked my computer inside its bag and left my house to haunt the corridors of the local college library. My plan was a pretense, of course. It was a pretense to scholarly achievement where none existed, and this pretense included having to request a guest ID to enter the scholarly databases. Then, after coming up blank yet again with my search terms, I typed utter nonsense in the parameters, such as “James Boswell, you’re a dirty old goat, and you’re no longer my favorite animus.” Then the library shunted me, the fake scholar, from their system. I sat at the table and felt sorry for myself, just as Boswell might have done nearly 300 years ago. I don’t know how anyone can beg a question, or conversely how a question can beg, but the circumstances implored, “Why is a dead man part of your psyche, anyway?”

I looked up blearily from my computer screen, and I saw him—not James Boswell, but a man whose presence in the library chilled me to the deepest place of my heart. I won’t name names, but ten years ago, we occasionally allowed this man to sleep on our floor because he was homeless and had been for years. He still is.

And he, too, haunts the libraries in town. With his 160 IQ (I made that number up), he searches for truth and gathers knowledge and works it all into loony 500 page dissertations on alien spacecraft technology. Really, nobody with an IQ of less than 160 could entertain the kind of technology he writes of—it wouldn’t occur to somebody with less intelligence, better social acumen, and a few more doses of sanity antidote.

Back then, when I was still in my twenties, and he in his forties or fifties, I knew we were alike. I sensed it and, therefore, wasn’t put off by him as another young person might have been. Unfortunately, my acceptance of him gave him the wrong impression, which ended in general embarrassment for all parties. This also meant he no longer felt welcome to sleep on our floor and moved his sleeping bag back into his van. To this day, he spends his nights by the river. And by day, he haunts the corridors of the libraries, searching for more information, for that crucial understanding of life, the universe, and everything that will allow him to reenter the world of men.

I saw my sad face reflected in his trifocals today. No, he wouldn’t look back at me. He quickly lowered his head to the large volume he held in his hands. But that didn’t matter because I witnessed in him what I needed to apprehend. I saw with blazing clarity what happens to fake scholars who wait and wait for understanding before they reenter the world. I know what you’re thinking (not really). I know that exiting the real world worked for Isaac Newton. Whenever he felt threatened by life, he retreated, and through his retreats he wrote his masterwork. But most men aren’t Newton. And aside from that, Newton wasn’t a fake. Newton was the real deal, a genius of the first order.

Now it’s time for me to acknowledge this most universal of truths and reenter the world. I’m also considering a change to my Facebook profile.

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On William Cowper, or, Why I’m Not a Calvinist

William Cowper (26 November 1731 – 25 April 1800) wrote this poem, The Castaway, in 1799. Simply put, it’s about a sailor who’s washed overboard during a storm. It begins like this:
OBSCUREST night involv’d the sky,
     Th’ Atlantic billows roar’d,
When such a destin’d wretch as I,
     Wash’d headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.
 Stanza seven, in the midst of the poem, offers this sentiment:

Nor, cruel as it seem’d, could he
     Their haste himself condemn,
Aware that flight, in such a sea,
     Alone could rescue them;
Yet bitter felt it still to die
Deserted, and his friends so nigh.

And then the poem ends like this:

No voice divine the storm allay’d,

     No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
     We perish’d, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulphs than he.
Cowper’s tight rhyme scheme and short lines are incongruous with his theme of hopelessness and despair. What is Cowper trying to say, anyway? Is he attempting to teach his readers they need to rely on God in order that despair not consume them? I don’t know. Maybe he’s after his audience understanding what it will be like on the day of reckoning. 
Cowper doesn’t see a way out of judgment, and for that he’s “whelmed in deeper gulphs” than the sailor and, perhaps, all mankind. His poem ends in an unsettling manner. He believes God could intervene, that there is a God, and, yet, that very fact tears him apart. All men must die alone, and God can save us–but will he? Cowper won’t die a bleaker death than the sailor. No, definitely not, because that’s not the point. Instead, Cowper will die consumed by his own doubts. That, I suspect, is the meaning of this poem. 
Click the link above for all twelve stanzas.
I feel badly for Cowper, for the way he lived his life in bleakness, but his soul must be settled by now. Thank God.
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