“Never confuse where you are with where you are going.”
In the past, when I’ve felt blue/down/angry, people’s always-helpful-and-never-knowingly-unappreciated advice has often extended to phrases like “try not to think about it” or “hmm, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here”, or even “I’d keep those sort of opinions to yourself if I were you!”
More often than not, the people who actually cheer me up are people I’ve never met, sometimes people who’ve been dead for years: poets, writers, philosophers, artists.
My recent quest to detox from most of the human race through other people’s multimedia art proved fruitful. The world may still be the planetary equivalent of a reasonably amusing hobo who approaches you and mumbles some crazy shit that makes you chuckle, only to pull out a rusty hunting knife and go straight for the gonads, but maybe it’s always been that way.
A long time ago, the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates found himself standing in the sunny garden of his friend Democritus, the ‘laughing philosopher’. Something like the following scene unfolded:
EXT. THRACIAN SUBURBS, 3RD CENTURY BCE – DAY
Hippocrates (tall, bearded, father-of-modern-medicine type) stands in a sunny Greek garden. His face suddenly turns sour as he sniffs the air suspiciously.
HIPPOCRATES (with distaste)
Hmm. Smells like entrails around here!
Following the intestinal scent, Hippocrates finds his friend sitting beneath a huge tree. Democritus (fat, pre-Socratic, father-of-atomic theory looking), has an open book in his nude lap and a big dopey Joker grin on his face. Strewn about him on the ground are the corpses of at least a dozen household animals.
Wtf, Democritus! Why do you sit naked under a shady bower, surrounded by the carcasses of many and several beasts? Do you hold these creatures in contempt or something, fam?
Nah, bro. I is doing science, innit. This book upon my knee is my own work. I am writing on madness and anatomy and that. I have anatomized these animals, all of which are dear to me, in order that my writings and researches may lead other men to avoid sitting upon the throne of atra bilis, known in English as melancholy.
I know what atra bilis is mate, for I am Greek also. But what is to be done about the smell, broheim?
FADE TO WHITE.
Flash forward a couple of epochs. Two score centuries, give or take.
1631. An English scholar by the name of Robert Burton, writing under the questionable (and possibly not-so-serious) pseudonym ‘Democritus Junior’ incorporates his own version of Hippocrates’s anecdote into what would become his only published work, a dense medical text on melancholy. Burton was an obsessive re-writer of his own work, and no less than five revisions of the book were published in his lifetime alone.
The text is described in the beginning (by a possibly unreliable source) as “A book once the favourite of the learned and the witty”, “the delight of the learned, the solace of the indolent, and the refuge of the uninformed”, which sounds like something quite a lot of people here in the 21st century should be reading.
Samuel Johnson supposedly once said that Burton’s work “was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.”*
By all accounts, Burton was quite the pleasant chap. A voracious reader. A devoted student of the world with a dark sense of humour. “Very merry, facete, and juvenile”, “the pleasantest, the most learned, and the most full of sterling sense.”
Anyone who has the word ‘learned’ attached to him that many times must be worth a read, surely?
FADE TO WHITE.
Let’s crash through another few centuries:
EXT. WEST PENDER STREET, VANCOUVER, CANADA – DAY
Benjamin (scrucify, clumsy, introverted but undeniably sexually attractive kind of guy) walks through the rain clutching an umbrella. He is at a point exactly equidistant from a secondhand bookshop and a little café run by a woman from Shanghai who makes excellent eggs Benedict.
BENJAMIN (inner monologue)
I swear, after going book shopping in Vancouver, that I will never complain about the price of paperbacks in Beijing ever again! Perhaps I’ll go to the library and see if they have anything by Alan Moore or Iain Sinclair.
I walk in to pick up a hold in the Vancouver Public Library.** The book is London: City of Disappearances, a sprawling multi-author fusion of fact and fiction about England’s swinging capital.
One of the book’s ‘characters’ is the enigmatic bookseller Driffield, who spends his time sipping jet black coffees, loafing about in salmon pink jumpers and gathering research for his self-published guides to All The Secondhand and Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain; he tries to make money by renting himself out to writers as a character in their fictional stories. On one of Driff’s many bookcases sits a 17th Century medical textbook, which is where I first become aware of Robert Burton’s 2000 page tome The Anatomy of Melancholy: What it is; With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. I clearly file it away somewhere in my brain in case the world becomes so depressing that I’ll want to steal any part of the catchy title for a blog project.
Ironically, for a book that he wrote mostly to relieve his own melancholy, the textbook apparently increased Burton’s malady to such a degree that he never recovered.
A similar fate may well have befallen the by-now-at-least-semi-fictional Driffield. Nobody is even sure of his current whereabouts, although rumours of his death may have been started by the mysterious book dealer himself.
FADE TO WHITE.
Onwards, further into the future:
INT. ANLILU SUBWAY STATION, BEIJING, CHINA – DAY
I hop onto Line 15 one chilly December evening, chatting to an interesting fella who was with the circus for ten years, and is now – after a decade of juggling and death defying stunts – ready to run away to Medical School. He’s now clowning around as a drama teacher, waiting for his scholarship to come through, studying Chinese medicine in his spare time. This guy is already a veritable fount of knowledge after pretty much teaching himself anatomy and physiology. I’m telling him about the time I myself wanted to run away from the circus of my life and join BBC medical dramas. As he talks about nerve endings and skin cells, and I talk about that red-headed surgeon from Holby City, something in the back of my mind reminds me that I still haven’t read any Robert Burton.
Several months later. After visiting a couple of art galleries, having distilled the story of my day into a 3000 word mess on art and Batman, I forget to put a paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover into my rucksack. Dashing towards the subway as usual, I can’t bear the thought of a commute without a piece of literature, so I open my iBooks app and load up the Project Gutenberg version of The Anatomy of Melancholy.
By the time I have reached my destination, I’ve read nearly 50 pages. A few days later, as I write this, I have read nearly 200.
I’m only on chapter 2.
*Although he also stated that it was “perhaps, overloaded with quotation”, which I can now confirm is very much the fucking case! And so much Latin. Remember that anecdote about Walt Disney rejecting Aldous Huxley’s screenplay for Alice in Wonderland because he only understood every fourth word? Here uncle Walt would be clueless.
**In Canadian libraries, a book reservation is called a ‘hold’, presumably because the word ‘reservation’ was already in use for the awful stuff that the early settlers were doing to native Americans.