THE GLOOMY aphorist EM Cioran wrote of this book that it had "the best title ever invented" but the work itself was more or less indigestible. If the literature of depression tends toward attenuated speech patterns (the crippled syntax of a Beckett or Duras), then Burton's treatise is a gargantuan anomaly, a monster of eloquence. Depressive silence gives way to a verbal voraciousness that devours language and learning alike. First published in 1621, The Anatomy ran to a paltry 900 pages. Burton spent the rest of his life revising a book that now clocks in at a potentially soul- destroying 1392 pages. But sheer size should not put the modern reader off one of the most astonishing books ever written.
Burton called melancholy "the rust of the soul", capturing the twin torments of spiritual decay and its physical manifestations. Melancholia is no mere "mood disorder" (Burton reminds you of the poverty of modern terminology). Supposedly originating in an excess of black bile, the disease threatens the body with a vile array of sensations.
The Anatomy is an eerie laboratory in which the human form becomes porous and fluid, subject to terrifying assault. Melancholia can be an accident of astrology, the result of excessive heat or cold, a moist brain or cold stomach. If you've got a melancholic parent, a hot heart or a small head, you're pretty much doomed. So numerous are the causes of melancholy, so universal is its dominion, that the book quickly runs into methodological trouble. Melancholy proliferates; it flowers like rust on every surface Burton touches.
The book's problem (and great success) is Burton's style. It is largely of quotations, citations and glosses on other works. From his phenomenal erudition, Burton fashioned a book that says everything there is to say about melancholia, then tries to say everything there is to say about everything else. Burton called it "a rhapsody of rags gathered from several dunghills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled …