3 days. Barcelona. Reading the Divine Comedy

In April 2013 I had some spare holidays left and almost no budget. I had long wanted to read the Divine Comedy again. In 2000 I toured La Mancha riding my bike while reading The Quixote and it turned out a great experience. If Xavier de Maistre could do a Journey around his room, I might as well make a journey without leaving my city, Barcelona. I decided to use the Joan F. Mira’s version. I estimated that I could finish the reading in three days. I had to invent an itinerary that, inevitably had to be completely arbitrary.
The first thought was that I could use different means of transport every day and book.
The obvious choice for the Hell was the underground. I worked out how to ride through every station and added a visit to the Court building where perhaps I could watch real condemned.
I would move around by bus on Purgatory day and take this opportunity to undergo an delayed experiment: to catch a bus at random, get off anywhere and wander around until taking another bus at random.
Paradise would be by bike.

For three days I followed the narrative of personal salvation carried out by Dante, thanks to Beatrice’s love. This journey classifies what should be condemned in Hell, what kind of labors must be done in Purgatory and what is rewarded with perpetual holidays in Paradise. I couldn’t help joining the sport of sending contemporary characters to their presumably deserved place.

Among the many findings provided by this reading I would mention here just one: the idea that the most sacred, the sublime, that what marks the experience of the union with God and the universe, is a smile, laughing, as in this most extraordinary and happy expression: “the smile of the universe.”

Cio` ch’io vedeva mi sembiava un riso
de l’universo; per che mia ebbrezza
intrava per l’udire e per lo viso.
What I beheld seemed unto me a smile
Of the universe; for my inebriation
Found entrance through the hearing and the sight.
Oh gioia! oh ineffabile allegrezza!
oh vita intègra d’amore e di pace!
oh sanza brama sicura ricchezza!
O joy! O gladness inexpressible!
O perfect life of love and peacefulness!
O riches without hankering secure!

The strategy of alternating reading and wandering to a different location almost every Chant, worked very well. I never got tired of reading and I could explore my city through new perspectives. In the way of travelogues, I’ve compiled a double one, the “reading” of the city, riding subway, bus and bike, and the “journey” along the pages of the Divine Comedy. Click her for a general view or go directly to Hell, Purgatory, or Paradise. (catalan only, you may use Google translate).

Burton (3). Love melancholy, religious melancholy

The third book is about love and religious melancholy, or unhappiness related to love or religion.

The first section is about love in general, its definition in terms of desire , beauty as a cause, the possible objects of love according Augustine (God, the neighbor and the world); different kinds of love according the Aristotelian view on the soul, vegetative (in plants or stones), sensible love among beasts  (each one for those of the same kind (sus sui, canis canis), and rational love , proper to men, angels and God.

There can be many kinds of love, women, the pleasures of fine foods, idols. Would it be possible that we loved virtues, wisdom, honesty, compassion? The observation of human nature turns Burton into a pessimistic, “ but this we cannot do “, man seems to have been born to hate, he says in an excellent piece of rhetoric: Where is charity ?

The second section deals with romantic love, or “heroical love”, a disease of the soul, according Avicenna and Arnau de Vilanova . It can affect the heart, liver, testicles, brain. (We have now research trying to find what happens in brains of people in love . )

What are the causes of love melancholy? How does it work? Visus, Colloquium, Convictus, Oscula, Tactus , sight, conversation, companionship, kissing, touch. We haven’t changed that much, it’s just that some modes of visus, colloquium and convictus can be carried out through facebook and twitter. We fall in love with “a little soft hand” or “ a small foot, a well proportioned leg ” or we fall under the effect of a sight. There is some ground in the many metaphors of sights that trespass ( Theory of the effect upon the soul by the eye ).

Love can benefit from artificial allurements , gifts, dance, voice, love potions. We can assert the existence of love from kissing, or when we can’t stop watching the beloved (as Frankie Vallie said Can’t take my eyes off you ). Burton avows that in those matters he is a novice and relies on readings and observation.

The cure. How can love melancholy be cured? While acknowledging his little experience, Burton tries to dissuade us from falling into the trap of love with a funny argument, suppose she is pretty, then she will be a fool, or anyway, old age will turn a venus into an Erynnia. Examine all parts of body and mind and some defect will be found. Finally, the advantages of being single: if you are young then match not yet , are you old, match not at all.

It doesn’t seem to take the issue very seriously because after having argued against love and marriage, he says that the last and best cure of Love-Melancholy,”is to let them have their Desires”, there is no joy like that of a good wife . An exercise in scepticism finds the same reasons for and against love.

_1. Res est? habes quae tucatur et augeat.–2. Non est? habes quae quaerat.–3. Secundae res sunt? felicitas duplicatur.–4. Adversae sunt? Consolatur, adsidet, onus participat ut tolerabile fiat.–5. Domi es? solitudinis taedium pellit.–6. Foras? Discendentem visu prosequitur, absentem desiderat, redeuntem laeta excipit.–7. Nihil jucundum absque societate? Nulla societas matrimonio suavior.–8. Vinculum conjugalis charitatis adamentinum.–9. Accrescit dulcis affinium turba, duplicatur numerus parentum, fratrum, sororum, nepotum.–10. Pulchra sis prole parens.–11. Lex Mosis sterilitatem matrimonii execratur, quanto amplius coelibatum?–12. Si natura poenam non effugit, ne voluntas quidem effugiet_.

Section there is about jealousy and infidelity.

Religious melancholy

In the introduction Burton warned against religion “in excess”;  what ought to be love to God becomes superstition and idolatry, an infinite ocean of incredible madness and folly . We love the world too much, God too little . In the opposite, love divine “in defect” we find libertines or impious.

Where there is any religion, the devil will plant superstition. Burton offers a look at all known religions in the 17th century , Christians, Jews, Muslims; all of them, in their infinite variations, do what Machiavelli advised: use religion in order to control people. Priests manipulate believers to get privileges, superstitious pilgrimages are promoted to make advantage of ignorants. We do not know whether to laugh, with Democritus, or to weep, with Heraclitus. The Catholic Church, and their Pope are harshly criticized, for trading with relics, encouraging superstition to saints, miracles, apparitions, a whole “subterraneaous geography” just to frighten, and a lot of absurd theology (is it possible for God to be a humble bee? Can he create another God like itself?)

What is the cure for religious melancholy “in excess”? Tolerance , everyone can be saved if honest “because God is immense and infinite, and his nature cannot perfectly be known”, so different kinds of faith and religions can be accepted.

While the critics of religious melancholy “in excess”  has been harsh, religious melancholy “in defect” is milder treated. It seems as if Burton formulates its own doubts: a possible pantheism, the determinism of stars (instead of astrology now we would speak of physics determinism), the problem of Evil , si not sit Deus, unde bona? si sit Deus, unde mala?


Burton’s long book concludes with some reflections on despair. It is legitimate to wonder whether Burton’s melancholy has its roots in his religious doubts. Despair, this sickness, this murderer of the soul , is agravated when there is a disposition to melancholy , as the power of imagination becomes a curse when conscience is turmented by some sins induced by de devil who, after making us believe that they were something light, now produces an exaggerated remorse. The symptoms are terrible, sadness, fear, anger … a summary of hell. When speaking of the tendency for sinning, Burton switches to the first person, as if he really was making a bitter confession: “I persevere in sin, and to return to my lusts as a dog to his vomit, or a swine to the mire […] I daily and hourly offend in thought, word, and deed”. He accuses himself of faith doubts , not believing in God and just pretending to meet what is expected from him.

Where is comfort to be found? The mercy of God that, like a mother that tenderly takes care of her sick and weak child, instead of rejecting it or punishing him. [Christian’s have always pictured God as a masculine figure, a father, it is nice that here Burton thinks of a feminine figure, a mother.]

Be not solitary, be not idle.

Unhappy, hope, happy be cautious

Sperate miseri, cavete felices

Burton. The Anatomy of melancholy (2). The cure

How can melancholy be cured? The second book is about remedies. Divine providence is, of course a lawful mean, but saint’s relics or images are firmly rejected. Diet is thoroughly discussed, different kinds of food, drinks, the quality of water, how should constipation be addressed [now I know that suppositories were available in the 17th century!]. It feels like reading a health magazine instead of a treatise on depression.

But, as with the case of the “particular utopia”, Burton excels when he speculates and rambles; when writing about the quality of air as a remedy, he indulges in a long digression, to wander around the world with the imagination, like a hawk that flies freely where the curiosity attracts him. He envisages different lands, the species living in them, the currents of the seas. How can be explained that shells or fish bones are found in mountains far remote from all seas? What is the center of the earth like? What size should hell be in order to accommodate all condemned souls? Whence comes the variety of species? [We will have to wait to Darwin to get the right answer] Celestial spheres are challenged; is the earth a living whole (Sit terra animata?); are there infinite worlds? How does God spend his free time? Does He paint butterflies’ wings? Does He decide how many hours should it rain? How much snow? Some make maps of heaven, their offices, how many angels are in each department. Why is it are good and bad punished together? There are some pretend to be familiar with God and tell when the world will come to an end. Other wonder about what was God doing before creating the world. (Theologies, excrements of curiosity).

25 pages later, back down to earth, quality of air is discussed and comes the Section about “Exercise rectified of body and mind”. Moderate exercise is recommended, also travel to nice places (Deambulatio per amoena loca), visit gardens, climb mountains or imagine a travel in time, for example, to become an spectator of one of Cesar’s battles [I wonder when/where would I travel if I could], tourism in different cities or spend the time in some recreation, may be catching flies as Domitian the emperor, or playing with nuts.

Threre are more possibilities, games, dancing, study, collecting and, of course, books could not be omitted. What man is not attracted by maps? [Burton would have enjoyed Google maps]. Atlases, herbaria, Mathematical works, bestiaria … like King James, who would not be happy in this company? Study is good, provided we do not exceed in it, like Don Quixote. To medidate upon the Bible, to learn algebra, to inquire about the movements of the planets, to perform experiments, all is advisable to keep the mind busy … if it is a masculine mind. In the 17th century all that Burton can suggest for women is neeedlework !

In order to rectify the perturbations of the mind, we can rely on the power of music, a merry company, laughter and try to live merrily. I couldn’t agree more.

After reviewing what activities could make us happy, and before opening section IV about cures and remedies, Burton offers another excellent digression, A Consolatory Digression containing the remedies of all manner of Discontents. I wonder whether therapy in the 17thcentury would be like. Let’s comfort ourselves by considering all possible bad things.  In life, joys and sorrows are annexed, and succeed one another. If we summed the miseries and calamities that affect all men, and then divide them equally, would we share alike, or take our portion? Those who think they are unfortunate because of poverty should be reminded of all that can be enjoyed without money, and being free; maybe it’s happier the one who desires less than the one who has more. The section is completed with a list of divine precepts, truly a 17th century self help manual. Know thyself, don’t be idle, be contented with thy lot, hear much, speak little.

The drug section (the 17th century prozac) offers medicinal plants and precious stones that are carried hanged around the neck [don’t laugh, people still buy them today). One of the authorities mentioned is Arnau de Vilanova. Besides drugs, other medical actions are purging, suppositories, clysters, leeches for haemorrhoids. He does not write recipes in vernacular tongue in order to prevent self medication. Burton does not forget anything he has read about, and, for example, adds that now and then is good to be drunktobaccocoffee or strange potions that involve a ring out of a donkey’s hoof, a lamb’s brain cooked with particular species, a wolf’s dung.


Burton. The Anatomy of melancholy (1)

Sperate miseri Unhappy hope
Cavete felices Happy be cautious

“Be not solitary, be not idle.”

Those are the last sentences of the formidable “The Anatomy of melancholy” by Robert Burton (1576 – 1640), vicar at St. Thomas, Oxford, a mind of unlimited curiosity that could be satisfied with free access to the Bodleian library. I do recommend buying the book and reading it.  Here it is available online.  In several posts I’m going to present an abstract with links pointing to a selection of quotes.

The work goes beyond what would be a treatise on melancholy, what perhaps today would be cataloged as a depression disorder. In around 1.400 pages, besides discussing its causes and considering its possible cure, Burton, this tireless reader, presents the show of human fortunes and misfortunes, offers a lucid analysis of our follies, looking at us as if we were an ants’s nest and sometimes reminds us of Erasmus.

Who among us is not a fool ? We don’t know whether to weep, with Heraclitus, or laugh with Democritus. Burton says that Democritus would go on laughing in his era, in the 17th century; and I dare to say that he would amuse himself in our times; we get our souls repaired through different therapies, we apply diy solutions consulting self-help books, we long for the “authentic” experiences in prefabricated adventures to exotic destinations, we undergo plastic surgery to appear more attractive, we take stimulants to be more alert and sleeping pills to go to sleep, antidepressants …

It is a long reading, not always easy but most often fascinating. Burton writes about melancholy to escape from it, a trip along the diverse landscapes of human condition, with bitter critics towards religion and superstition,  and laments for bloody wars. Burton is to admire when he renders and filters his vast readings and when he observes the behavior of the humans around him. But he is irresistible when he writes what he likes and speculates wildly. So he asks, what would be Hercules agenda on the 17th century?  [what are the most important tasks?]   He does not stop here but formulates his “particular utopy”, 25 pages in length, detailing how cities would be planned, rivers, houses, schools, universities or roads.

The first book describes melancholy in general and its causes. No one would be free of it; the expression “melancholy, the character of mortality” is devastating. [It is really inherent to human condition? An unavoidable consequence of the ability to imagine? To be able to imagine a life without death, decrepitude, or the possibility of imagining a life without so many errors committed, without having caused pain, or may be just a life with a bit of luck …]. It agrees with the famous Aristotle/Theophrastus Problema XXX.1 that states  all men of genius have been melancholics and that they have a powerful imagination.

An introduction reviews anatomy and general diseases, offers a definition of  melancholy and then Burton proceeds to discuss the causes. Our avid reader will list all of them, from life circumstances such as poverty or being in prison, or the fact of getting old and suffer physical decadence and death.
There are also divine causes and our scholar does not omit any kind of demon, actually we have almost a complete study on them and, by the way, a particular one located in Barcino is mentioned. Another curious case involves a possession case that reminds of the vomit scene in the “Exorcist”.

As natural causes, attention must be paid  to what is eaten, gluttony, eat too much, or on the contrary, eat too little; evacuation, constipation, hemorrhoids, the quality of the air inhaled, exercise and several kind of activities ad last but not least, sleep.
Probably Burton speaks out of its own experience when he warns about the risks of study and solitary contemplation. Passions of mind, joy, desire, sorrow, fear are also a source of melancholy. We are never satisfied with what we have. We can become obsessed with hunting, eating or spending our wealth in mad buildings.

He can speak about the miseries of scholars out of his own experience and does not miss the opportunity to criticize ferociously the university, an institution that admits whoever has money and graduates fools that only learn some things by the heart after spending some years chopping logic.
When Burton reprobates the excess of curiosity, the time spent in researching superfluous matters, I can’t help thinking that he is not sincere, for it’s obvious that he enjoys it immensely. Other causes discussed are education, slander, imprisonment, poverty; blame on money that seems to have the power of buying anything.

The last part of this book deals with symptoms. Prudently, he advises potential hypocondriacs affected of melancholy to skip it because its reading could worse their condition. There are interesting references to Dürer’s engraving (see the post about Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl book about Saturn and melancholy), Saturn and Aristotle’s Problema XXX.1 where the hypothesis relating genius, madness and melancholy is formulated.