Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Anatomy of Melancholy

This post will be a book review of sorts, but with gaming bumph attached.

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, to give the book it's full and glorious title, is by Robert Burton and was first published in 1621.

So what kind of book is it? Some doctors of the time considered it a medical text, and there are certainly plenty of references to Galen and Hippocrates, humoral theory, miasmas etc. Philosophers considered it philosophy and religious men saw it as a meditation upon something or other, possibly God, but possibly some humanist abstraction or other. But in my opinion they all got it wrong - it was the world's first piece of hypertext, Burton just had the misfortune to be writing it 350 years or more before the invention of the electronic doodad that might have enabled him to realise his scholarly ambition.

With its extensive buttressing of every point with quotes from ancient and modern authorities, it footnotes (and its footnotes to the footnotes ((and its footnotes to those) plus it's layered parentheses and convoluted sub-clauses (and sub-sub clauses))) it is a text just crying out for hyperlinks. To say it is digressive is like saying metonyms are synedochial. It attempts to cram the entirety of human negative emotion, all of it's possible causes, both within this universe and in the metaphysical beyond, plus all the possible treatments, proven, unproven and conjectural, physical and spiritual, between two bits of card and the prosaic medium of squished and dried wood pulp. Lots of squished woodpulp, 900 pages of it. One cure for melancholy I am sure Burton must have slipped into a footnote somewhere is being thumped upside the head with this very book.

It doesn't use a conventional contents page. It has a 'Synopsis' of it's 'Partitions', a division of the book into sections, sub sections etc. all mapped out in a diagram of parentheses, with extensive cross references. It is just crying out for a tabbed browsers and breadcrumb navigation, and the search function provided by the index is pathetic given the massive scope of the work.

You are most likely to know about this work through Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, virtually a love letter to the work as well as a satire upon it. Sterne did not invent his incredibly elliptical style, he nicked it from Burton and actually toned it down for comic effect. But who was Robert Burton satirising? Did he mean these ramblings to be taken seriously? And who the hell was Burton anyway? Helpfully Burton devotes the first few score pages of his book to an allegorical autobiography of his alter ego and nom de plume 'Democritus', his frontispiece to a symbolist illustration of his life and hell, he even includes his astrological birth chart! What could be revealing than that?

This is a book about depression written by a self-confessed depressive, but it is anything but a miserable read. It is filled with an erudite dry wit and acute and humorous observation that anyone who has read Sterne or Rabelais will immediately appreciate.

And today this great work is almost forgotten, despite it being the favourite reading of literati, glitterati and cognoscenti as Keats, Samuel Johnson, Borges and Nick Cave.

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Audiobook version. Clicky here!

The Gamey Bits!

First published in 1621 this book is still famous and widely read in 1642 at the start of the English Civil War, though the sheer size of the volume limits it to the reasonably well off and the density of its subject matter to the very well educated. A bookseller in a city will have it for £2 10s new, half that for a second hand copy. Robert Burton died in 1640, hanging himself in his chambers in Christ Chruch, a bit of a mystery man to his end. People that knew him in Oxford say he was a shy, extremely scholarly type who smiled and laughed at nothing except the utterly profane swearing and cursing the barge men used on each other as they jostled under the bridge.

It takes at least two weeks reading the work as a full time study, and it is only possible to get the full depth with knowledge of Latin and Greek. For more casual reading roll 2d6+2 and subtract INt bonus to get the full effect. To anyone with Intelligence of 8 or under it is utterly impenetrable gobbledigook. It may be read as many times as you like, but on each reading roll d20 under Intelligence to get anything more from it, and when rolling below subtract 1 from the result for each previous reading.

Roll d6 on the table below, +1 if you know Latin, +1 if you know Greek, add Intelligence and Wisdom bonuses.

0 or less - No effect. Never managed to do more than skim the work, or if had read it before gained no new insight.

1 - What the hell was all that about? The circuitous bafflegab has rendered you temporarily abstracted. Lose 1d3 Intelligence, regaining one per week as you clear your mind by sinking back into shallow banality. Regain one point instantly for attending a Punch and Judy show, one of the really good ones with the crocodile and sossidges and savage beatings.

2 - 5 Err, yeah, great book... You have absorbed enough of the book to say that you have read it. You can impress the ignorant with your erudition, but will be immediately exposed as a shallow dilettante among those who actually have. Temporary +1 Cha in the right crowd, -1d6 in the wrong one.

6 Melancholy. If you have never suffered from melancholy before, you sure do now. Roll over your Wisdom on a d20 to avoid this effect. You suffer from lassitude, demoralisation and misery at the profound meaningless of life and general ickiness of mankind. Lose 1 point of Strength, Constitution and Dexterity. Save again at the end of the month or lose another point. Cures are alcoholism, suicide or conversion to Puritanism or Presbyterianism, or possibly reading the book again.

7 Cured of Melancholy. You have seen the light, or possibly just appreciated Burton's cock-eyed wit, and if you had Melancholy before you don't have it now. Recover any lost characteristic points from Melancholy and gain +2 on all saves vs mind affecting magic or effects for the next 1d6 weeks. Non-sufferers get +1 to saves for 1d3 weeks from general spiritual re-edification. Does not affect Puritans or Presbyterians; merely reading a book of jokes and quotes from Pagan philosophers now getting their just desserts toasting in HELLFIRE will NOT divert your soul from its predestined path. Try the BIBLE you fool!

8 Introversion. You lose 1d3 Charisma as you become as obsessed and pedantic as Burton about tracking each thought down to its authoritative source and muse pensively on the nature of life. You gain +1 intelligence from the same.

9 Humanitarian Expansiveness. Gain +1 Charisma and +1 Wisdom as the droll and peculiar insights provided by the work make you more tolerant of your fellow man and his mental infirmities.

10 or above. Interesting Insight. Gain 1d100 XP if a Fighter, 2d100 if a Specialist or 3d100 for a Cleric or Magic User, gain +1 Int or Wisdom. In addition Clerics and Magic Users may now use the book as a research work for creating new spells. It has a value of 75sp for most spells, and a value of 150sp for spells that affect the mind and psyche.

1 in 6 copies recovered will be damaged by having a cavity cut out of the pages. The thickness of the work makes it highly suitable for hiding a bottle of spirits.