BOOK REVIEWS (2014): Robert Burton’s (1620) The Anatomy Of Melancholy [Part 2]

1 April 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

“A cook of old was a base knave” (as Livy complains), “but now a great man in request; cookery is become an art, a noble science; cooks are gentlemen” (226–7).

Framing/Background for Replies[1]

The full title of this 1620 book by Robert Burton runs: 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.

This year, I haveset myself the task to read four or five pages of this book per day, which for its nearly 1,400 pages will put me finishing it sometime in October 2014, once I skip the indexes and footnotes that source Burton’s Latin quotations, &c.

Since I cannot hope to remember with a book this large, especially one read at this pace, whatever I might write as a reply to it, I plan to collect reflections along the way, not particularly numbered or systematically, maybe sometime(s) sporadically placed online, but primarily to memorialize the reading in some way.

In the scheme of temperaments— sanguine (pleasure-seeking and sociable), choleric (ambitious and leader-like), phlegmatic (relaxed and thoughtful), and melancholic (analytical and literal)—I fall into the last category. These days, melancholy gets abused as a synonym for depression, but it more arises from self-reflection.

A Reply To: Robert Burton’s (1620)[2] The Anatomy Of Melancholy [Part 2]

Since the last post about this book, ending at whatever page it did, Burton occupies himself largely by mulling over various physical causes of melancholy, artfully arranged in some scheme that makes sense to him. Here, he examines overeating, undereating, and drunkenness, and remarks at one point (quoting Livy):

“A cook of old was a base knave” (as Livy complains), “but now a great man in request; cookery is become an art, a noble science; cooks are gentlemen” (226–7).

I marked this particular passage, I think, to highlight the sexism. As general note, however, Burton’s encyclopaedic approach presents an excessive and impressive demonstration of documentation; one wonders if he’s read all the books he cites or if the library at Christ’s Church College simply had an exquisite index system. Of course, he also had decades to accomplish the work. It doesn’t necessarily make for a rewarding read, even if it is a scholar-like compendium of quotations—hundreds of which have no empirical value whatsoever.[3]

Now, obviously, I won’t tax Burton (or Livy) for such crassness that they failed to note the low opinion they held cooks in likely derives from the fact that history’s cooks consist primarily of women. I can find the point unsurprising and tedious, but still not have that serve as a point of arrival in my remarks; rather, it serves as the point of departure. I would find it interesting, in fact, to see tracked how the previously base social status of the cook got redeemed (in Livy’ age).

And this transformation, from the lowly Roman cook versus those now counted gentlemen, apparently repeats itself in or around Burton’s time—assuming his citation doesn’t constitute simply a case of that mindless repetition of Classical forebears that so marks so much of the so-called Dark and Middle Ages.[4] I suspect that over the years, burton has becomes the repository and authority one cites, without having to check his references.

Whatever that case, what process first introduces the cook as a low fellow and only later permits muddling about in the kitchen to provide a sign of class instead? When I imagine the “lowly cook” the first to come to mind: the army cook, i.e., a male unfit for military duty per se, and one very visibly doing “women’s work” for the sake of “real” men. But the implicit secondary status of such men also carries some degree of affection too, in exactly the way that non-uppity women can: soldiers can appreciate the one who provides sustenance on his/her own terms. Doubtless, with some armies, literal women provided the cooking. Thus, we may hear the affectionate term “cookie”.

But this simply underscores the two-facedness of patriarchy: it relegates women (and the cook) to a particular lowly status, and then heaps on certain kinds of compliments for those who remain (submissively) within the ambit of that definition. This holds for slaves as well, and those who refused to get the memo got called “uppity”; women who don’t: “bitches”. &c.

And assuming that Livy does not simply resort to cattiness here—since he clearly smirks at this elevation of “the man in the kitchen”—I still wonder what social forces prompted or permitted males to start usurping that role from women. And creating the designation of “chef” as something different than a “cook”. And, just as we now find the landscape of “chefs” in the world so that women in the uppermost echelons of the culinary world have arrived there only after considerable struggle against the usual forms of sexism, in both Livy’s and Burton’s example no mention gets made of women.

Because Burton’s text stands nearly five centuries old—though Livy’s comes out three times older—it may seem we can safely file the absence of acknowledgment for what a “cook” means under sexism of old. But again, while the landscape of current day “chefs” includes women, the discourse remains as chary about it as Burton (and Livy). And this distinction of males (as chefs) and women (and other lowlifes) as cooks still warrants interrogation. One can say—merely—sexism: obviously, but this doesn’t expose or illuminate the process by which male-bodied people infiltrated the kitchen and started playing lord in it.

Something of vagina envy must get into this. Historically, prior to males figuring out their spunk had something to do with reproduction, the purpose, necessity, and existential condition of the male must have remained very mysterious. Of all the culture ever invented by early human beings, hunting may alone provide the contribution of males. Because once males started inventing things in earnest, they did so by imitating existing female forms, it seems. Masculine sorcery, for instance, (or simply creation in general) imitates the female process of conception, gestation, labour, and creation—the very terms of which belie the various roots of masculine endeavours. Once Nature itself (typically regarded as female, but sometimes asexual, and sometimes bisexual) got downgrade to the Great Mother, responsible only for fecundation of children and fields, this removed the attribute of Creatrix and left the vacuum open for various male deities to assume the mantle of Creator.

This particular imitation need not provide the master template for all of the rest, but for the specific topic at hand, the showy and grandstanding nature of the male “chef” (as opposed to the lowly female “cook”) clearly provides yet another instance of this intra-cultural appropriation (by males of women).

Hence vagina envy, since neurotically unconfident males cannot share the limelight with anyone else—so that even the modicum of respect women accrued (by creating small human beings, by magically transforming dead meat into delicious meat) required co-optation on the one hand and a simultaneous acclaim when practised by males and denigration when practised by females.

If this provides a sort of vast backdrop to the issue, one may still wonder why (in Livy’s time, in Burton’s time) males sociologically turned their gaze inward, so to speak, an began poaching into the domestic sphere for places to aggrandize their ego. One would think any place where fewer opportunities existed to wax masculine in the traditional ways might exert some pressure, and so we might then wonder again how that might inform our current situation. One may see on the Food Network’s Iron Chef the tokenism of one female chef, relegated to last in the pantheon. And very few of the cooking shows with female hosts have the sort of high-brow cheffing that something like Master Chef has. Males can do things like “Diners, Drive-Ins, an Dives,” but Rachael Ray—a wildly popular hostess—still seems queen of a rather kitschy (i.e., non-cheffy) cooking approach.

It seems no accident then that Julia Childs makes for one of the most famous forerunners of the cooking show—a woman, generally regarded as a chef, who nonetheless taught homemakers how to cook fancy at home. The pattern offers no mystery: where the (social) function of the “woman as chef” plays the role of enhancing the domesticity of the “woman as cook in the home,” then Childs almost necessarily must receive the mantle of approval and designation of chef, but she gets to do so only so long as no other woman gets granted such exceptional status. She comprises a circumscribed Other, who did not try (in principle) outside of her carefully circumscribed role.

Of course, she proved much more interesting than that, but the official discourse still clung around her. For the women on the Food Network, it remains a much farther reach to get called a chef. A mere moment’s reflection, and they can fall from “chef” to “reality TV entertainer”—and this, without pointing to the spectacular implosion of Paula Dean, who never (so far as I can tell) had the imprimatur of “chef” in the first place. The vulgarity of capitalism wants to pretends first and foremost that a female “chef” has a pretty face. And in the improbable—and probably rigged from the start—outcome to one season’s search for a new Iron Chef, one could guess from the start that the elimination would take out first Elizabeth Faulkner, then Amanda Freitag, leaving Alex Guarnaschelli to take the laurel. A friend of mine declared it “embarrassing to watch” in the sense that the show had to pretend it arrived validly at its conclusion.

However this all works out, it seems a beautiful or grotesque irony that so many (male) chefs wax beatific about their earliest experiences with their mothers in the kitchen. The story has a trite (and probably often deliberate) sentimental appeal as a piece of discourse and rhetoric but it remains telling in its deployment nonetheless. And we might wonder if the age of TV and the specific kind of celebrity it can generate did not open all over again the same sort of social channel that Livy and Burton noted in their days.

As a final note on this, if seemingly by a roundabout path (its sense will become clear): Jung (1976)[5] notes that “the bull-anima appears to be decidedly feminine. In astrology Taurus, too, is a House of Venus” (¶662). Furthermore:

Like the sacrificial bull, fire … has a feminine nature in Chinese philosophy, according to one of the commentators on the Chuang-tzu (350 B.C.): “The heart spirit is called Chi. He I dressed in bright red, resembling fire, and in appearance is like a lovely, attractive maiden.” The Book of Rites says: “Wood is burnt in the flames for the Au spirit. This sacrifice to Au is a sacrifice to the world women who are dead.’ These hearth and fire spirits are the souls of departed cooks and are therefore referred to as “old women.” The god of kitchens grew out of this pre-Buddhistic tradition and later, as a man, became the ruler of the family and the link between it and heaven. In this way the original female fire-spirit became a sort of Logos and mediator (¶663).

This would seem to get us into the thick of this particular kind of transformation.


[1] If you’ve read this already in my other book replies, you can skip it. Otherwise: two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about. Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

[2] Burton, R. (1620). 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 . New York: New York Review of Books.

[3] All of the divergent medical opinions based on the humours for instance. I say this not because physicians of olde could accomplish nothing using this diagnostic language, but only to note that Burton’s detailed reiteration in places of things like the debate between Exstocrates and Zanzomanger whether the plum consists of a cold and wet humour or a warm and wet one seems of an only highly specialized interest at this point.

[4] And may inform much of Burton’s collocatory assembling.

[5] Jung, C. G. (1976). Symbols of transformation: an analysis of the prelude to a case of schizophrenia. (Collected Works Vol. 3, 2d ed., trans. RFC Hull). Princeton: Princeton University Press


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