The Anatomy Lesson

••• Robert Burton and the Library of Babel

Men turn into their own books, "like so many hide-bound calves in a pasture." In Burton's only other work of note, the antic play Philosophaster (1606), a character describes a visit to Oxford's library, "wherein many dead are found, unhappily held by chains."


Illustration by Paige Imatani

"By this art you may contemplate the variation of the twenty-three letters, which may be so infinitely varied, that the words complicated and deduced thence will not be contained within the compass of the firmament": So commended Democritus Junior (né Robert Burton) a contemplative cure for melancholy. In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges prefixed part of this sentence to his story "The Library of Babel," then vexed it to nightmare. Its monstrous Babel-oteca holds not only every book ever written, but every book it is possible to write—from unthinkable narratives ("the true story of your death") to acres of insanitizing combinations ("the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first line to the last"). Those who seek ciphers go vividly mad—or at least fall into "excessive depression."*

Reading, then, is a futile, even dangerous activity. If, as Burton deduced of love, "the beginning of this disease is the eye," then worse infections can also enter by that route. His preface warns those afflicted by melancholy to skip the descriptions of symptoms, lest they sprout within the reader. And later he mentions "an especial antidote against jealousy" that he will not commit to paper; instead, "when I meet you next I will peradventure tell you what it is in your ear."

Truly or metaphorically, 'tis all one: Borges went functionally blind the year he was appointed director of the National Library; Democritus, the Greek philosopher after whom Burton followed pseud, was said to have put out his eyes "because he could not abide to see wicked men prosper" (as Burton has it) or "so that the spectacle of reality would not distract him" (as Borges comments). It is worth asking whether there is a difference.


"They do incline, but not compel; no necessity at all": So Burton indicts stars as a cause of melancholy. Though the charge is minor, Burton himself was nevertheless "a curious Calculator of Nativities" (as Anthony Wood noted in 1721) who predicted his dying day. After he expired on January 25, 1640, "at, or very near that time" foretold, some whispered that he had hanged himself rather than leave the world in error. His burial was Christian. "He left behind him a very choice library of Books," Wood reports. As if for proof, a monument above his remains bears the fatal table, along with the epitaph he composed: "Known to few, unknown to fewer, here lies Democritus Junior, to whom Melancholy gave life and death."

The true story of his death cannot now be known, of course. But calendrical coincidences heat the imagination, and it is hard not to read his hic jacet as one of history's shorter suicide notes. Or perhaps it should be considered a postscript, to that of history's longest.

*If my reader will grant that the story is a conscious gloss on the Anatomy (and if my faithful factchecker will "take five"), perhaps it can be said: The repeating "MCV" is indeed a cipher—for the Anatomy itself. In those letters, one sees (indeed cannot but see) the Roman for 1105. This is close enough to the length of Burton that we may (a) surmise the existence of an edition of exactly this length, or (b) prune the present New York Review Books reprint (based on the 1932 Everyman's edition). Minus the notes and index, the raw page total is 1132, an overage of 27. But toting up and deleting the material prior to the preface (14) and the three synopses (13) make the numbers agree.

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