It Ain’t Heavy. It’s Just Melancholy.

I am reading two books concurrently, one on my various bus and train commutes, and the other before I go to bed, that are rather interesting in terms of melancholy. I’m not one for self-help books (although there are exceptions), and I find a lot of “self-help” present in things not labeled as such. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. They have everything in them. They are like the Psalms in the Bible. Open a page randomly, and something in a passage will reach out to your own experience, reflect it, illuminate it, confirm that you are not alone, you not the first to feel such things, you have company.

I read Joshua Ferris’ extraordinary first novel Then We Came to the End in 2008. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read in years (and certainly one of the best FIRST novels I have ever read). Then We Came to the End received a lot of praise. How could this young author follow up such an awesome debut? His second novel is called The Unnamed, and my sister Siobhan, who had told me to read Ferris’ book had told me a little bit about the second. The main thing I remember her saying is, “It’s really sad.”

And it is. The sadness is relentless. The Unnamed tells the story of a partner in a successful law firm, wife, kid, home in Connecticut, who is afflicted by the desire to walk. He could be in the middle of a trial when the affliction comes over him, and it doesn’t matter: he will turn, walk out of the courtroom and continue walking until he collapses. He walks miles and miles. He gets frostbite. Toes are amputated. His wife is devastated. They go to specialists, they consult yogis and crackpots, he has to wear a helmet at one point to monitor his brain waves. No one knows what it is. Is it physical? Is it neurological? His wife, desperate, handcuffs him to the bed, so that at least he will be safe. But that is not a sustainable solution. I haven’t finished the book yet. It is short but it feels long. This is not entirely a complaint, although I do want to put this poor man out of his misery. This is a sentiment I relate to, and find disturbing – also, one might say, triggering, and I have been doing my best to avoid triggers. The Unnamed, so far, is the brutal journey of a man who cannot stop walking, and it destroys his career, his marriage (although the wife hangs in there, she starts drinking as a coping mechanism), and also the possibility of any relief. If they can’t tell you what’s wrong with you, if it can’t be seen on a CAT scan, then what are you supposed to do? In this, the book feels like a long metaphor for depression, or melancholy (a word I prefer).

The following passage is one of the best I’ve read, in terms of describing what it actually feels like, to be overtaken by depression, as William Styron called it in his memoir of madness Darkness Visible: “the despair beyond despair.”

He was informed that Jane was on vacation and wouldn’t be returning for another week. Did he care to speak to a different broker?

“How nice,” he said. “Where on vacation?”

“I want to say Paris, but don’t quote me,” said the voice. “The south of France, maybe?”

He stood in the snow-patched prairie with the ice-blue brook running toward the rafting centers and trailer parks, far from the south of France, far from Paris, and a wave of death washed over him. Not biological death, which brought relief, but the death that harrows the living by giving them a glimpse of the life they’ve been denied. Its sorrow was a thousandfold any typical dying.

The other book I am reading is The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton. First published in 1621. I had heard about it. People reference it all the time. But it’s, like, 40,000 pages long. Who is gonna read it? Well, clearly many people have. It went through five printings (or something extraordinary like that) in Burton’s lifetime. It’s still in print today. It is gigantic, it is true. But it’s amazing how readable it is, how almost CHATTY it is. I will have more to say about it, but I am tearing through it. His references are daunting (he is a curator of quotes, that’s for sure), and his interest in the affliction of melancholy, something he is open about suffering himself, although he says that no man will ever go through life without being touched by it somehow. Nobody can escape. It is a medical book in many ways, which is really interesting, because it talks about the “humours” and all that. It is a grand accomplishment, and often quite funny. The preface, which runs 124 pages, is satirical (Burton was a big fan of satire, and his other published works are satirical in nature). It goes into the causes of melancholy, the “catch-22” theory of life: that life is crazy in and of itself, and so of course everyone is crazy, and the one sane person who stands up and shouts, “THIS IS NUTS. LOOK AT HOW WE BEHAVE” will be seen as the craziest of them all. So it’s a given that Melancholy afflicts all, to some degree. He has a 5 page treatise on “if you don’t like what I have to say, then don’t read it”, which made me laugh because he does go on and on in almost a defensive tone, addressing his readers and potential criticism in a “let’s cut you off at the pass” kind of way. How many bloggers out there have railed at their own readership, saying, “This is free content. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.” I myself have said such things. Or, more accurately, if someone moans about how they don’t like one post I’ve written, I will say, “Is the scroll function broken on your computer?” I have never gone as apeshit as this blogger, who was rightly criticized for her ridiculous essay. Seriously, hon, if people criticizing you bothers you that much, then stop writing publicly. Honestly. Or, close the comments section. You should be glad that people are reading you at all, frankly. But it made me laugh, Robert Burton’s insistence that if you don’t like what he has to say, then no one is forcing you to read it. Some things never change.

Who knew that a giant tome about “Melancholy” could be so entertaining. It’s actually a page-turner. Who knew??

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25 Responses to It Ain’t Heavy. It’s Just Melancholy.

  1. ted says:

    I loved The Unnamed too. So strong in its use of a tried and true classic literary device – symbolism.

  2. sheila says:

    Found your post, which answered my “And Then We Came to the End” question.

    // ‘…a dazzling book about a marriage and a family…’ the jacket waxes on. Dazzling maybe, but no, it’s not. As I read it, this book is about an individual and nature. His nature. This is King Lear, and Ferris writes some chapters that are a worthy analogue to Lear’s howl on the moors. //


  3. Sean O says:

    Just wondering if you could say a little more about what you mean by triggers.
    But don’t if it is upsetting to you.

    • sheila says:

      It is hard for me sometimes to locate my own triggers – actually, the Wikipedia page has a pretty good general breakdown of how they work:

      There is a reason why trigger warnings on articles/posts about rape or abuse are very important (people can literally have flashbacks)- and it’s important to understand how trauma works.

      War vets have been very helpful in trauma research. PTSD and all that. It can be loud noises, it can be crowds. It can be very specific situations – going to a movie. Or, with rape victims – going on a date, for example, kissing, being touched – even if it’s gently, by a nice man. It is really hard to negotiate triggers, especially if they are everyday normal pleasurable things – like “going on a date”, or “going to a movie”.

      So for me, I’m not sure but here is what I know: I need to avoid chaotic “jolly” social situations right now (like parties, or large groups of people in an enclosed space – art openings, cocktail hours, parties – these would all be disastrous for me right now). It is why I got off FB – even though that’s virtual. It was feeling like hanging out at a dinner party all day long. There’s an Oscar party coming up I really want to go to – these are good friends and I go every year – and I need to think about what I “need” to feel good enough to go. Maybe take a friend along. I’m still working with it. Parties/big groups can derail me right now. So I’m avoiding them.

      Not sure if that explains it, or makes sense.

      • sheila says:

        and feel free to email me if you want, at

        • sheila says:

          and just to add: my antipathy towards parties at the moment (including FB) goes deeper than just being mildly introverted. Because I cannot respond “freely” in those situations, because I have to put on my “social face” (which, in normal situations is fine, and no big deal) I start to feel unbelievably trapped and then a GIANT reaction will come up in response. It’s like the bottle of life gets 100% smaller in these specific situations and so you burst out of that bottle all at once. The container feels too small. It can be very scary.

          This is probably not a good explanation either. I have no idea if any of this resonates for you. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, obviously! :)

  4. Jim Cappio says:

    Sheila, have you ever read Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me? Almost the only thing I remember from that book is that The Anatomy of Melancholy is the hero’s favourite bathroom reading.

    Robert Burton’s tomb is in the cathedral at Christ Church, Oxford, where Lewis Carroll must have seen it every day. I have some blurry pictures knocking around somewhere if you’re interested.

    • sheila says:

      Jim – “The Anatomy of Melancholy” as bathroom reading. Hahahaha! yes – you can read a page here, a page there – it’s sort of built that way. And it’s an easy read (if you can just accept all the Latin in there, and not worry about it).

      and I would love the pictures, if you can find them!

      • sheila says:

        In the chapter on “Women’s Melancholy”, Burton blusters at one point, “What do I know about virgins, maids, huswifes and harlots? I am a bachelor!”

      • sheila says:

        oh – and no, I have not read Been Down So Long!

        • Jim Cappio says:

          You don’t need to, unless you are desperately in the mood for something early-Pychonesque but for some reason you don’t want to reread V. or The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon and Farina were of course such good friends that they could go to a party at Cornell as Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, but flipping through Been Down So Long I was surprised to remember just how sub-Pynchonian it is. I’m not going to be rereading it myself any time soon.

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  6. Jim Cappio says:

    Sheila, you surprise me! When the time comes, the best book to start with Pynchon is The Recognitions. Everybody should read it anyway, and once you do you will see how much Pynchon ripped off from Gaddis. As for Pynchon himself, I’d generally recommend starting with The Crying of Lot 49, because it’s short and has all of Pynchon’s shticks, and if you don’t like “The Courier’s Tragedy” you definitely won’t like the rest of him stuff.

    For a New Yorker, though, I would start with Chapter 5 of V. You’ll see why if you check it out. It’s pretty self-contained, too.

    And then you can tackle Gravity’s Rainbow . . .

    • sheila says:

      Not sure why you’re surprised. There’s plenty of stuff I haven’t read, plenty of authors I haven’t read, for various reasons, mostly mid-20th century white male writers, with a couple of exceptions (Heller, Styron, Salinger). I haven’t read Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Pynchon. Not really interested, frankly. Maybe I’ll get to them one day, but I have so much else that calls to me.

  7. sheila says:

    I’ve only read one Faulkner. I have read only one Mailer. No Pynchon, Bellow, Roth. I have just discovered Evelyn Waugh. I have read no Agatha Christies. The list goes on and on and on.

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