Justin Smith over at his blog:
In a fine introduction to a recent edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), William Gass writes that what he admires most about Robert Burton's life-work is “the width of the world that can be seen from one college window…; what a love of all can be felt by one who has lived it sitting in a chair.” Burton’s Anatomy, indeed, often gives the impression that its author set out to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art whose aim was nothing less than to reproduce the world.
As with the Internet, the result is clumsy and chaotic, and Burton recognizes as much; and yet, in this way, both haphazard and cloistered, he manages to create, over the course of a life, a thousand-page mirror of the world:
I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries, with small profit for want of art, order, memory, judgment. I never travelled but in map or card, in which my unconfined thoughts have freely expatiated, as having ever been especially delighted with the study of cosmography… A mere spectator of other men’s fortunes and adventures, and how they act their parts, which methinks are diversely presented unto me, as from a common theatre or scene.
Burton loved the world, though he knew it almost entirely through the books he kept in his cell. While at nearly the same moment in European history, Burton’s contemporaries, such as René Descartes, were denouncing ‘book learning’ as inauthentic, as an impediment to true knowledge, Burton reminds us, as Gass so well understands of his predecessor, that whether out in the world or locked in our cell, it is the human mind that is doing most of the work of experience anyway; a rich, full life may be led with only the most two-dimensional of stimuli to carry it along. The Anatomy of Melancholy is proof of this.
Today, too, the Internet can seem an impediment to many of what are thought to be our more authentic experiences. But it may also be facilitating the sort of experience we have always had, qua human beings, experience based in love, which can be had just as intensely in virtual form (letters from friends, books about nature, the Internet), as in ‘reality’ (seeing friends face-to-face, going camping). Sometimes I imagine I am feeling a love of the world as strong as Burton’s when I click, say, on a link from the Wikipedia entry on the Finno-Ugric languages to the entry on the Samoyed people of the Russian Arctic, and from there to the entry, written in Samoyed, on reindeer. There is so much out there, and it’s all in here!
True enough, in here, in this hyperlinked, screen-shaped reproduction of the world, what we find for the most part is a great mess “of barbarism, Doric dialect, extemporanean style, tautologies, apish imitation, a rhapsody of rags gathered together from several dung-hills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out, wihout art, invention, judgment, wit, learning, harsh, indigested, vain, scurrile, idle, dull, and dry.” But this is nothing new, and as Burton shows, it is the variety stacked upon variety, and the detail squeezed between details, the inexhaustible proliferation of adjectives, that makes this whole mess a mirror of human ingenium.