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Never to go forth of the limits': space and melancholy in Robert Burton's library project.

This article is a study of early seventeenth-century melancholy in the context of a library project introduced by Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Modelled on the great libraries of the times, Button's library is designed to function as the only space free of melancholy and as such is to be structured on the principle of isolation.

Discussing the interrelations between the Burtonian vision of the melancholy reader and his concepts of space, the article explores the terms of isolation Burton establishes in order to construct the library. The article is also an analysis of the problem of border transgression, which is constitutive for the notion of melancholy. Finally, the article presents issues involving the moulding of the brand new man Burton envisions: a man free of melancholy and inhabiting the supposedly isolated space of the library.

Keywords: Burton; library; melancholy; reader; space


Penned up

When Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), decides to describe the space of the library as constituting a therapeutic measure against the melancholy condition, he reserves for the description the middle part of his three-volume work. He introduces the library in the Second Section, Member Four of the Second Partition, entitled 'The Cure of Melancholy'. Thus he enfolds the vision of the library in his writing, which itself is a library of quotations penned within his own study functioning as his private library. Since the library occupies the innermost space of Burton's work, studying, the supreme 'exercise and recreation of the mind' associated with the space of the library is what Burton classifies as a strictly indoor activity, one performed 'within doors' (II, 86). (1) Thus the image of the library envisioned by Burton could never be complete without the express mention of the bolted doors which form an indissociable part of the library experience as he quotes after Heinsius, the keeper of the library at Leyden in Holland: '"I no sooner" (saith he) "come into the library, but I bolt the door to me"' (II, 91). The moment of bolting the doors, which entails a very hermetic gesture, seems essential for the library to constitute itself, to become accessible to the reader and thus to be of curative value to the melancholy patient.

This article sets out to explore the terms of the proscribed enclosure and the ways in which Robert Burton tries to negotiate the limits of the library in order to situate the melancholy 'mind within doors' (II, 86) and thus complete the illusory task of designing a space free of melancholy.

Mortuis magistris

The sign of bolted doors inscribes the library in prison architecture, which is very close to the way King James understands the idea of library when, in one of the quotations Burton uses to construct his library, the monarch claims: 'If I were not a king, I would be a university man: and if it were so that I must be a prisoner, if I might have my wish, I would desire to have no other prison than that library, and to be chained together with so many good authors et mortuis magistris" (II, 91). The quotation implicates the space of the library in questions of state. It is the king who, wishing to remain within the library, envisages himself in the role of either a scholar or even a prisoner as he associates these two seemingly incongruous roles with the enclosed space of the library. Thus the library is perceived in terms of both a scholarly venue and a prison, as the king's discourse provides the two heterogeneous spaces with a link, the chain: the linking instrument par excellence. The chain, while introducing uneasy tension between the two otherwise disparate spaces, not so much collapses them into one, as makes them overlap, transpose, infiltrate one another.

As a visible bond between the two institutions, the chain renders manifest their common share and investment in the system of control, confinement and enslavement, a system that operates by means of chaining together everything and everyone to what Nietzsche calls the cold monster of the state. What even more highlights its function is the fact that the chain is evoked by the sovereign voice of the monarch who treats it as the most reliable and secure sign linking his persona with the spaces of the library and the prison.


Thus the architecture of the library Burton designs is the architecture of enclosure whose most pronounced feature is the one implying inwardness, confinement, imprisonment. To dwell in the library is to experience 'many laborious hours, days, and nights, spent in the voluminous treatises' (II, 90). Burton outlines what seems like a vision of an ideal existence in a library, which is to be constructed as an interior compressing the whole world within its limits, since to work in the library is to explore the world outside and yet 'never to go forth of the limits of [one's] study' (II, 89).

It is within the limited space of the library that the reader is given the opportunity of seeing the whole world, which is made possible since, for Burton, the reading process amounts to the effects of seeing: 'The inspection alone of those curious iconographies of temples and palaces, as that of the Lateran Church in Albertus Durer ... affect one as much by reading almost as by sight' (II, 78). To read is almost to see and the two interdependent activities result in an almost similar impression effected on the recipient's mind. Thus for the purposes of driving away melancholy it is enough to occupy oneself with reading books. Actually, the comparison comes from a passage devoted to 'outward pastimes' (II, 74) and as such constitutes a lapse on Burton's part, a disturbing intrusion of the inside, an unwarranted transformation of the space seemingly situated outside the library into the space of reading, a digression foreshadowing the forthcoming argument and distorting the present one.

Reading conceived of in terms of visualizing seems to make the world present to the sense of sight. This kind of visibility entailed by reading generates a substitute world, a world that is omnipresent in Burton, if one takes into account the fact that it is always possible, and commendable, to replace seeing with reading. What Burton postulates is no longer what Michel Foucault presents as characteristic of sixteenth-century knowledge: 'non-distinction between what is seen and what is read, between observation and relation, which results in the constitution of a single, unbroken surface in which observation and language intersect to infinity'. (2) Rather than conceal the difference and draw an equals sign between the two activities, Burton upsets the balance, gesturing toward a radical shift in emphasis, supplanting the visible by the legible.

Thus, in Burton, the perceiving subject being, for therapeutic reasons, invariably placed within the library (the library being the privileged venue from which to perceive the world, there being no space outside its domain anyway, as each act of seeing can be effectively substituted by reading, which is a means of preserving the library's influence, order and demesne), he knows no other world but the one constituted by the process of reading.

Thus a space that is a book or a reading room comes to function as the only possible space from which to learn about, observe, and even experience the world that in Burton seems to be irreversibly situated outside the library limits. Rather than be, one is to read about being: the preferable mode of existence is that of a reader. To be a reader, for Burton, is to confine oneself to the limits of the library, which is a prerequisite delimiting the expanse of neither the library nor its outside, but rather it proves to be a condition of multiple and convolute implications for both these domains. What is being delineated or what, in consequence, delineates itself is the definition of the reader as the one who recognizes the limits of the library: both in the sense of having already come across their edges, thresholds, boundaries, ends, having, in fact, already crossed them, already violated them and so, only thus, on return, being able to recognize them; and in the other sense of abiding by the law imposed by the limits--the law of the border that is to be respected and as such never to be violated.

The double law inscribed in the gesture of recognizing the library limits appears to be a sheer paradox, as it is not possible 'never to go forth of the limits' without actually having experienced the limits--their limitations and limited character, that is--without first violating their laws, without first venturing beyond them into the region which the law of the limits defines as the region of transgression. And yet this is what is demanded of 'any man' who is to become a reader: to focus his eye on the space within the library limits which in that particular instance seem to be traced by the contours of the map.

Mapping the limits

The reader is 'to look upon a geographical map ... chorographical, topographical delineations, to behold, as it were, all the remote provinces, towns, cities of the world, and never to go forth of the limits of his study, to measure by the scale and compass their extent, distance, examine their site' (II, 89). One, in the wake of Burton, is to travel "but in map or card' (I, 18) rather than in the world as the space of the map or card comes to function as the exclusive space of Burton's travels. Although entailing movement, journeying from place to place, covering long distances, travel is conceived of as an activity that can and should be legitimately practised within the limits of the library while studying a 'map or card, in which [his] unconfined thoughts have freely expatiated' (I, 18).

Reflecting the world by reducing it to its own scale, and so envisioning the world in miniature, the map makes a pretence of bringing closer the faraway, the exotic and the foreign. Thus what Burton finds of particular import is the apparent accessibility of 'all the remote provinces, towns, cities ... and other remote places of the world' (II, 89). The remote, by no means annihilated, appears to dwell within reach: it seems to be here, open for penetration and yet remains alien and irrecoverably distant, unapproachable, recoiled upon itself. The ambiguous experience of remoteness, which in its distancing effect eludes being located, mapped and thus brought near at hand, makes for the uncanny character of the whole venture. Describing his travels on card, Burton evokes names of far-off places, as well as listing names of travellers into the unknown and outlying regions of the world (which is a gesture similar to that of quoting, of summoning words that come from afar, from other books). Thus, by probing into the remote, fathoming it by means of names and naming, Burton endeavours to negotiate, mitigate, obviate its distance and inscribe it in familiar and domestic terms.

Believing that his travels in the 'elaborate map' should render the world available for closer inspection, Burton takes recourse to the act of beholding, which, strangely enough, reverberates with the implications carried by the instance of holding; as if facing a map Burton not only could see but also hold the remote: the map seems to transform an act of perception into a gesture of possession, (3) as Burton blurs the difference between the two by using a word within which the two dissimilar activities overlap. Beholding, holding the map, Burton subjects the world to close examination as well as to painstaking procedures of measurement by the scale and compass: the world in his hands and under his eye is to be stripped of the uneasy experience of remoteness by becoming entirely definable, as there is nothing to be left beyond the control of his mathematicall instruments (4) further aided by reading 'exquisite descriptions', 'accurate diaries', 'pleasant itineraries', 'Observations' and 'Surveys', as well as 'those parts of America, set out, and curiously cut in pictures' (II, 89). For Burton, to take possession of the world is to render it measurable and legible. The requirements of potential measurability and legibility precondition any encounter with the world, which out of necessity is bound to be a vicarious one.

Thus the Renaissance maps of Ortelius, Mercator and Hondius which Burton chooses to travel in yield a world that presents itself as a potentially knowable totality capable of being fully mastered by means of a new perspective whose fixed viewpoint 'is elevated and distant, completely out of plastic or sensory reach'. (5) It is precisely this superior and privileged vantage point assumed by perspective map makers and map readers that Burton adopts to anatomize melancholy: 'I ... lead a monastic life, ipse mihi theatrum, sequestered ... in some high place above you all' (I, 18). Throughout his writing Burton assiduously maps out his 'high place', describing it in terms borrowed from Lucian ('Charon in Lucian, as he wittily feigns, was conducted by Mercury to such a place, where he might see all the world at once' (I, 47)), insisting that the reader should suppose himself 'to be transported to the top of some high mountain, and thence to behold the tumults and chances of this wavering world' (I, 39); directly identifying it with the position of a map reader, when he claims that his aloof situation transforms the world below into a well-depicted map ('Our villages are like mole-hills, and men as so many emmets, busy, busy still, going to and fro, in and out, and crossing one another's projects, as the lines of several sea-cards cut each other on a globe or map' (I, 274); or else, imagining it to coincide with the bird's eye view ('As a long-winged hawk ... still soaring higher and higher ... so will I ... mount aloft to those ethereal orbs and celestial spheres' (II, 34-5)), which should enable him, among other things, to 'correct those errors in navigation, reform cosmographical charts, and rectify longitudes' (II, 40). Thus Burton's vision of the world is filtered through the sweeping perspective of the map which imposes itself between his eye and the world. The map, representing the world in the abstract, constitutes for Burton not merely its substitute or surrogate, however indistinguishable from the original it might prove to be, but it seems to actually replace the world, put it into eclipse. In the presence of the map, the world, for Burton, is being erased/erases itself.

The eye and the speculum

Erasure of the world, contrived by means of rendering it supplementary, superfluous and redundant, seems to be the governing principle in Burton's construction of the library. To achieve his ends Burton avails himself of dissembling procedures by implicating and imprisoning the reader's eye, the eye of the one 'Who is ... involved in a labyrinth of worldly cares, troubles, and discontents' (II, 87), in a maze-like structure of mirrors or in a structure mirroring the maze of the world.

The presentation of the library, the way of introducing its contents and thus erecting the library structure, rests in the main on vocabulary reduced to terse, abrupt and unembellished infinitives of the verbs 'to see" and 'to read'. The elliptic and inexpressive 'to see' and 'to read' constitute the sole, seemingly frugal and fragile, passageways to Burton's library, the only introductions to the open book, however truncated and ruined. The person entering Burton's library is even to be depersonalized as the infinitive use of the verbs 'to see' and 'to read' erases the subject and thus strips the activity in question of any personal or temporal features. The only feature that is retained is the one of melancholy. For Burton, who diagnoses the whole world as suffering from the same disease, melancholy does not, however, function as a differentiating principle: 'Who shall I exempt?' is the ever recurring question of the introductory text.

Thus Burton designs a space where the structurally depersonalized acts of seeing and reading segregate books, volumes, treatises into particular catalogues, dividing and dissecting knowledge and, by the same token, the world. It is the gaze, allegedly impersonal, that creates, organizes and buttresses the hermetic architecture of Burton's library.

The apparently randomly chosen books Burton decides to open and peruse in front of the reader's eyes, as it were, rather than only mention in passing, are unfailingly referred to in terms borrowed from the rhetoric of dissimulation, being introduced, as they are, as mirrors, glasses--smooth and flawless surfaces reflecting the world removed in space and time from the precincts of the library:
   To see a well-cut herbal, herbs, trees, flowers, plants, all
   vegetals expressed in their proper colours to the life ... and
   that last voluminous and mighty herbal of Besler of Nuremburg,
   wherein almost every plant is to his own bigness. To see birds,
   beasts, and fishes of the sea, spiders, gnats, serpents, flies,
   etc., all creatures set out by the same art, and truly expressed
   in lively colours, with an exact description of their natures,
   virtues, qualities, etc. (II, 89-90; my emphasis).

The books in Burton's library, presenting the natural world in proper colours to the life, depicting almost every plant to his own bigness and providing an exact description, seem to emulate the world in a gesture directed not at returning the world back to itself, but rather emphatically stressing the sheer impossibility and alienating character of such a repetition, reiteration, recapitulation. Insisting on the precision in the execution of colours and proportions, repeatedly underlining their lifelike quality, Burton appears to construct his library following a two-fold assumption. On the one hand, he consistently aims at an ultimate annihilation of difference between the original and its duplicate, between nature and its hand-made image. The similitude between the representation and the represented is so close that the two almost amount to the same: the interval, hiatus, gap between them is almost non-existent. On the other hand, pausing on the problem of accuracy, Burton embraces the necessity to rest satisfied with the incompleteness of the 'almost' and thus unwittingly reveals the incommensurability which incapacitates any attempt at one-for-one transposition. Focusing the reader's eye on the technicalities concerning the adequate rendition of nature, Burton stresses the irreconcilable and uncompromising otherness of the duplicitous product, which, in order to represent, inevitably makes recourse to the idiom of its own production, in this particular case to the alien and alienating idiom of word and image. It is the mediating agency of word and image (which, in the language of mirrors and mirroring, constitute the tain of the mirror) that exiles, removes, distances nature's double away from nature.

The library project seems to be preconditioned by the double requirement of sameness and difference. For Burton, the relation between the library and its outside is not a question of undisturbed and faithful reflection but rather of reconstitution of the world in an opaque, auto-reflective medium.

Mounted in the rhetorical framework of dissimulation, mirroring and dissembling, the books are to function as multiple surfaces of speculum attracting diverse gazes; spaces where gazes intersect, converge and diverge, tracing and sustaining an entangled network of what with reference to pictures Burton styles as falsa veritas, counterfeit reality, only to elevate it to the status of reality when he turns to books: 'by reading of some enticing story, true or feigned, where as in a glass he shall observe what our forefathers have done, the beginnings, ruins, falls, periods of commonwealths, private men's actions displayed to the life, etc.' (II, 87; my emphasis). For a book to become a glass in which to see reality, it no longer even seems to matter whether the story it narrates is part of actual history, since the distinction between the real and fictitious, being considered negligible, is blurred or altogether suspended. True or feigned, the story is transformed into a mirror image of reality displaying to the life past actions of our forefathers; in what appears to be an autocratic and totalitarian gesture, history becomes subject to alteration, modification and revision in conformity with the guidelines laid down by the library, whose prime consideration is that of enticement: provided that the story is enticing, it is immediately being perceived as a mirror image of reality.

What the speculum returns, then, is not an undistorted mirror image; once the category of enticement holds sway, no balance between reality and its image can be struck as the rules of correspondence cease to apply. The mirror image either comes in excess of or falls short of demand. The mirror, no longer passive, subservient or reproductive, becomes the playground of fiction nurtured by forces of allurement, desire and forgetfulness.

The reflective function of mirrors being displaced, the space of the mirror reveals itself as a space of forgery where reality is being falsified, a space generating, or rather minting, counterfeit semblances. A certain reversal takes place. It is the ineluctably belated and derivative reflection here impressing itself in the form of a written sign that claims precedence over reality. What is to be interpreted in terms of reality is its reflection that arrives as a mere transcript or apograph: a writing of distance that out of necessity inscribes itself off and away from the original script or graph. (One is reminded of the double role of the librarian as recorded in Johnson's Dictionary: he is the one who has the care of a library but also the one who transcribes or copies books; the library, then, is also defined by the transformative and reproductive task of transcription, a task inscribed in the intermediary character of distance which ineluctably implies change, alteration, or even error.) Hence, it is a second-hand, repetitious and copious writing (mis)guided by the falsifying principle of enticement that not only stands for, but overwrites, the original.

Authorizing the feigned to construe the library which allegedly mirrors reality, Burton actually reconstructs reality from within the space of forgery and fabrication delineated by the library limits. Thus, attending to the outside from within the library confines, believing that the library constitutes a genuine mirror of reality, but at the same time sanctioning, within its limits, the lack of difference between the true and the feigned in shaping the real image of the world, Burton privileges the copy, the library possession, by according it the status of reality. It is the copy, the apparent product of mirror reflection, that becomes for Burton the creative principle.

The interweaving of factual and fictional, their equal status and authority, which Burton proffers here, within the context of his visionary library, and puts into practice throughout his book (itself a version of library comprising, by means of allusive reference and profuse use of quotations, a wide range of books), results in the library being treated as the space where history is in making, rather than as a source of second-hand experience of history. (6) Hence, the kind of pleasure drawn from reading enticing stories can by no means be considered merely vicarious or voyeuristic, as Patricia Vicari suggests, since, for Burton, the spectacle of history, incorporating both the true and the feigned, amounts to history itself. There seems to be no other history but the one reflected in the distorting speculum of the library.


The library severs ties with its exterior most emphatically when it promises its reader to bring about forgetfulness of the world by providing him with an 'enticing story'. The reading matter is here perceived in terms of allurement and seduction: it functions as an object whose sole aim is to ensnare its reader within the enclosed space of the library. The condition of enticement seems of double importance here. Its fulfilment blurs and suspends the division separating the true from the feigned; while the extent of its influence seems to coincide with the extent of the library: as long as the story is enticing, the reader stays under its spell.

Thus the reader is to concentrate his eye on the book to the exclusion of the outside: the act of reading is instantaneously to be transformed into an act of erasure. One reads to the extent that one exercises one's capability to erase. The postulate of erasure, although never expressed directly, is what Burton seems to formulate when he repeatedly associates reading with a certain unconcern for what constitutes human life. According to Burton, it is only by taking recourse to reading that man can enjoy an unperturbed isolation from the concerns of the outside. 'Who is he ... that will not be much lightened in his mind by reading' (II, 87) remains unanswered since the reader is here defined as the one who, while reading, 'will forget all care' (II, 86). Forgetfulness induced by reading may have its therapeutic advantages, but a library project based on oblivion of the outside seems to be dangerously close to totalitarian utopias.

What the reader is to be sheltered from is grief and suffering; these undesirable emotions, along with ambition, seem to be the only ones informing the outside that is constructed in terms of political and military power. Persistently building the library against the grain of the outside, contrasting it with the situation outside, Burton inadvertently involves himself and his library project in the power politics allegedly predominating just beyond the library borders. Thus he does not manage to keep the library intact from the influence of the outside; Burton actually needs the outside to establish a hierarchy whose topmost priority would be learning: 'It is more honourable and glorious to understand these things than to rule over provinces or be young, handsome, and rich' (II, 90). Invoking, and thus availing himself of, the resounding name of the classical philosopher, Burton claims that 'Seneca prefers Zeno and Chrysippus, two doting Stoics [he was much enamoured of their works], before any prince or general of an army' (II, 90). The library is by no means free from power relations: what Burton persuades the patient to do is forsake worldly ambitions and enter the domain of learning which, strangely enough, is believed to be 'more honourable and glorious'. Thus, describing the library in terms borrowed from the worldly perspective, Burton implicates its domain in worldly cares of honour and glory, which merely replace the old ones without ever effacing care as such. The promise of freedom from care proves illusory but what poses a real and immediate danger is the curative method based on forgetfulness.

Wishing to isolate the reader in a carefree environment, Burton, in fact, wishes to inflict amnesia upon the reader's mind: thus, excluding from within the library the memory of pain and producing a comforting illusion of well-being, Burton eradicates human history and, in a characteristically utopian fashion, he is moulding a brand new man. Or is it still a man that Burton is thus shaping? After all, he offers the would-be reader the kind of experience that can only be induced by drinking from Circe's cup. In his vision the library foists upon the reader 'the like sweetness, which as Circe's cup bewitcheth a student, he cannot leave off' (II, 90). The library, consistently honed into an insulated, secluded and sequestered space of an island, now turns out to belong to Circe whose drink has the power of effectuating metamorphosis. Within the island like space of the library it is not only the outside that is washed away, it is also the human subject that undergoes change. Alluding to Circe's cup, Burton inaugurates the movement of metamorphosis: the reader, ineluctably caught up in the movement, can no longer lay claim to his own self as it is the self that becomes subject to dissolution. Comparing reading to drinking from Circe's cup, the mythic gesture evocative of narratives of transformation and translation, Burton envisages the reader not as a self-possessed and self-controlling ego, but as a being in flux and at a loss for a definition of the self. The reader seen as entranced in and spellbound by the reading process becomes one of Ulysses' companions: less than human, a beast-like creature without memory. The comparison entraps the reader on Circe's island, turns him into a captive prisoner who, being stripped of his human form and transformed into a swine, is thwarted in his desire to reach his homeland and, consequently, awaits death. Inscribed in the myth of transmutation, the reader is denied his subjectivity guaranteed and defined by his prospective destination: the satisfactory conclusion of the reading process. Erasure of the subject that amounts to his death is perfected through and accomplishes itself in the inconclusiveness of reading, in the sheer impossibility of ceasing to read: he who reads 'cannot leave off' (II, 90).

Burton, claiming to observe the world outside from within the library, simultaneously engages himself and his discourse in a risky and somewhat illusory enterprise aimed at declaring the world without null and void. The attempt is repeated with a varied emphasis in three different ways: (1) by rendering the world outside transgressive; (2) by supplanting it with a new one, fabricated within the space of the library; and (3) by consigning the world outside to oblivion.

Not to touch a book

The threat of dissolution alluded to in the metaphor of reading seen as drinking from Circe's cup seems to be lurking in Burton's exemplary postulate 'not to touch a book' (I, 168) put forward much before he decides to present his vision of the library.

'Not to touch a book', is an injunction Burton, writing from within the library, tenders in an attempt to avoid melancholy. Writing from within the library, being surrounded by books, and thus not able to turn himself away from books, Burton, in an unprecedented and self-contradictory fashion, decides to prescribe to the melancholy patient, such as himself, the task of keeping distance. The hand, whose primary function is to touch, is to refrain from performing this very basic and unreserved gesture. The interdiction concerns not so much reading, which is only a far-off implication, a remote consequence, as touching a book. It is an admonition against a random and haphazard itinerary performed by the hand proceeding in a touch and go manner from one book to another; an exhortation stressing as undesirable the evanescent moment of tactile contact with the book, the hand deriving from it a certain sensory pleasure. (The motif of pleasure is not to be neglected, Burton finds it of import even in a brief reference to the sense of touch: 'Touch, the last of the senses, and most ignoble, yet of as great necessity as the other, and of as much pleasure' (I, 159).)

The sanitary precaution against the malady calls for some measure of reserve, a self-imposed restraint, a conscious withdrawal. For a brief and fleeting moment, Burton finds the closeness of the book threatening to reason since, in this particular context, to touch the book is to act irrationally, it is to contradict reason, to rebel against its dictum. At face value 'not to touch a book' seems to be just one more apparently meaningless and insignificant example lifted from an inconsequential series of events. It is placed there, as if by chance, amid an incongruous hotchpotch of random activities, among minute debris of more general processes of seeing, walking and speaking: 'to open our eyes, to go hither and thither, not to touch a book, to speak fair or foul' (I, 168), and as such it falls under the rubric of activities controlled by the sensitive appetite, the inferior power of the will. Such classification defines the activity, or rather its renunciation and disavowal, as subject to desire. One is never free when it comes to touching or not touching a book.

For Burton, the moment of touching a book is not a peaceful one, as it is engendered by disharmony, disruption and mutiny on the part of the sensitive appetite that is 'many times rebellious in us, and will not be contained within the lists of sobriety and temperance' (I, 168). Burton's self is not able to take rational decisions; it cannot resist a powerful impulse; rather it becomes smothered by the sheer force of desire. Thus to touch a book is to be at war with one's own self. The book which in this very singular example instigates the work of that which is beyond control, of passion, is not there to consolidate the self; to the contrary, this kind of involvement with the book which is brought about as a result of a coup against reason and its injunctions, disintegrates, dissipates and dissolves the self as a rational construct. Yet, according to Burton, the library cannot be left; the impulse to remain in touch is too strong, too overwhelming, and, although lower in hierarchy, and therefore contemptible on account of its beast-like nature, the impulse, in fact, (de)/(trans)forms the self. Unable to isolate itself from the library, the self is bound, at its own risk, to function on the point of self-destruction.

What, however, seems intriguing is the fact that to exemplify the rebellious element Burton selects an event so close at hand: an event which being very specific implicates the whole library, puts the whole library at stake; an event which informs the life of a person who like Burton writes from within the library. 'Not to touch a book' comes as a most tangible example of breaking the self-imposed law, of ignoring the postulates of reason, and of subjecting the self and its writing to the control of the library, whose regime rather than cure the melancholy person of the malady, consigns the person in question to the unreal, to forgetfulness, and to dissolution of the self.


(1.) Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, London: J. M. Dent, 1932, vol. II, p. 86. Subsequent references to this edition will appear by volume and page numbers in parentheses in the text.

(2.) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, ed. R. D. Laing, London: Routledge, 1992, p. 39.

(3.) The question of holding, and specifically of holding the world in one's hand, is not irrelevant to the question of melancholy. In the iconographic tradition, studied by Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl, the figure of Melancholy is always portrayed with her hand clenched to a fist, the pugillum clausum, a typical symbol of avarice, which, however, could reach 'the proportions of real insanity [and then] the patients would never unclench their fingers because they imagined themselves holding a treasure or even the whole world in their fist'. R. Klibansky, E. Panofsky and F. Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy, London: Nelson, 1964, p. 162.

(4.) Mathematicall instruments, which, for Burton, constitute such a high value as to become part of his legacy (see Nicholas K. Kiessling, 'Robert Burton's Will, Holograph Copy', Review of English Studies 41 (1990), 94-101), function as attributes of melancholy (Durer's Melancolia is depicted with a pair of compasses lying scattered about) whose sign is Saturn, god of the earth (overthrown and castrated, he was imprisoned in the bowels of the earth), and of agriculture (as such, he 'had also to supervise the measurements and quantities of things and particularly the partition of land' (Klibansky et al., Saturn and Melancholy, p. 167), and as such, the great Geometrician. Burton himself claims to be embodying the most characteristic Saturnine features, as he associates his own persona with activities requiring knowledge of measuring instruments, such as a pair of compasses, but also with activities typical of a person he coincidentally defines as vere Saturnius, confessing: 'I am vere Saturnius" (II, 79), which in the 1932 edition is translated as 'a true lover of the country'.

(5.) The revolution in map making was inspired by the new perspective introduced by Brunelleschi and whose 'fixed viewpoint ... generates a "coldly geometrical" and "systematic" sense of space which nevertheless gives "a sense of harmony with natural law, thereby underscoring man's moral responsibility within God's geometrically ordered universe"'. S. Edgerton quoted by David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Cambridge, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, p. 244.

(6.) Discussing Burton's attitude to and uses of history, Patricia Vicari concludes: "Burton's most characteristic way of using history in The Anatomy is to treat it in the baroque fashion: that is, to abandon the rational approach in favour of the emotional and aesthetic.' E. P. Vicari, The View from Minerva's Tower, Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 1989, pp. 158-9. The approach termed baroque history consists in what Vicari describes as 'Piling up bits of information, making no distinction between one kind of event and another, these historians abandoned classical terseness for verbosity, complicated syntax, and strung-out metaphors. They were primarily men of letters, and when they came to write histories they treated them as no different from the plays, poems, and romances they also wrote, whose purpose was to entertain' (p. 153). Such a treatment of history may have resulted from 'a loss of faith in the intelligibility of historical phenomena" (n. 18, p. 236), an explanation Vicari quotes after Gilbert, but she never refers it directly to Burton. In Burton's case, according to Vicari, the baroque approach to history is solely dictated by his curative purposes: he juxtaposes the true and the feigned, using history only as a resourceful hunting ground to broach another subject, prove a point, or simply prolong the narrative, only because his ulterior aim is to cure by providing entertainment: 'One of the cures is, in fact, entertainment itself--diversion of the mind from its morbid reflections' (p. 159). The nature of the entertainment is here considered vicarious whereas I should argue that Burton, taking recourse to both true and feigned, desires to create a different reality: one that is oblivious of the outside, one that is forgetful of its own referential dimension. The space Burton alludes to as the space of writing is inevitably adumbrated as a space of darkness where writing is preconditioned by the space of a 'dark room' which like a monad seems to lack both windows and doors (a space that Burton himself, trying in a variety of ways to bolt the door of his library, finds impossible, a mere fiction).

Dr Liliana Barczyk-Barakonska is a Lecturer at the University of Silesia. Address: Institute of British and American Culture and Literature, University of Silesia, ul. Zytnia 10, 41-205 Sosnowiec, Poland. [email:]
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Author:Barczyk-Barakonska, Liliana
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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