Today I am delighted to bring to your attention the incomparable creator of tiny cartoon tube socks, known around the internet as Devon is a Devon. Artist Devon Sherman brings colour and comedy to the black bile of Burton’s Melancholy, and explains why it is not as depressing an endeavour as it may sound!
Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is a gargantuan medical treatise on melancholia. As its full title – 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 – suggests, Burton did not believe in limiting one’s self, even following publication. His book underwent 5 republications following its initial 1621 release, each time resulting in broad expansions and alterations. It may help to read this short introductory post on Burton and melancholia first.
Suffice it to say, The Anatomy of Melancholy is dense; it is a weighty book on a weighty topic. Considered a fundamental text within the canon of English literature, it influenced such greats as doomed Romantic poet, John Keats, and doomed Romantic poet, Lord Byron. It may, therefore, surprise you to learn that along with bodily fluids it’s oozing satirical comedy and may actually make for an uplifting, rather than depressing, read.
“[M]y own two cents,” Devon explains, “would be that melancholia is not a bad thing. To be thoughtful, awake, and alive – without living in complete denial of everything bad (chiefly death but also other seriously bad stuff like racism, genocide, and all the evils humans [do to] one another) – is to be melancholic. It is the best way to live, but it is not the easiest.”
Initially inspired by the unarguably depressing state of politics in the United States in 2016, the Brooklyn-based artist turned to Burton in an act of intellectual rebellion. “I think reading The Anatomy of Melancholy might make us all feel a little better, and it will definitely make us smarter,” she explains.
Whilst reading a book that is almost 400 years old and over 1,000 pages long may sound daunting, Devon’s illustrations and explanations offer an enlightening, amusing, and accessible insight into Burton’s lifework. Sometimes it is beautifully relevant, sometimes tragically so. Often, however, the contemporary charm of Burton is in the uniquely peculiar way in which his theories have aged. And the charm of Devon’s work? Well, I hope you’ll agree that it speaks for itself – that you too find yourself in a pile of writhing slugs, or an alien-like figure knocked out in despair. She conjures up creatures that express universal experiences, feelings, melancholia, that are relatable and human to a degree that should be impossible in such a vivid palette!
I shall say no more, and will instead share Devon’s illustrations of Burton’s Melancholy, specifically selected and annotated by the artist herself.
[Reading Guide: Directly below each image, in bold, you will find the corresponding section of Burton’s Melancholy. In quotation marks is the specific excerpt from the specified section which has been illustrated. The ‘Artist’s Note’ follows, and is provided in Devon’s own words.]
Anatomy of Melancholy, Pt. I, Sec. 2, Mem. II, Subs. 4 – Retention and Evacuation a Cause, and how:
“Of retention and evacuation there be divers kinds, which are either concomitant, assisting, or sole causes many times of melancholy.”
Artist’s Note: This surprisingly dry section was about sex and pooping, or the lack thereof. I drew a pile of slugs, some of whom may be doing it, pooping, neither, or both.
Anatomy of Melancholy – Pt. I, Sec. 1, Memb. II, Subs. 9 – Of the will:
“Those natural and vegetal powers are not commanded by will at all; for “who can add one cubit to his stature?” These other may, but are not: and thence come all those headstrong passions, violent perturbations of the mind; and many times vicious habits, customs, feral diseases; because we give so much way to our appetite, and follow our inclination, like so many beasts. The principal habits are two in number, virtue and vice, whose peculiar definitions, descriptions, differences, and kinds, are handled at large in the ethics, and are, indeed, the subject of moral philosophy… We cannot resist, our concupiscence is originally bad.”
Artist’s Note: Initially I did not like this drawing, but then I kept working on it (willpower) instead of eating donuts (concupiscence), and now I kind of like it.
Anatomy of Melancholy – Pt. I, Sec. 2, Mem. I, Subs. 2 – A Digression of the Nature of Spirits, Bad Angels, or Devils, and how they cause Melancholy:
“And yet for all this Thomas, Albertus, and most, hold that there be far more angels than devils.”
Artist’s Note: I drew this after going to a party where everyone knew each other very well, and I knew only two people and not very well. Also I was grumpy.
Anatomy of Melancholy – Pt. I, Sec. 2, Mem. I, Subs. 2 – A Digression of the Nature of Spirits, Bad Angels, or Devils, and how they cause Melancholy – Extent of Their Power:
“Plato in Critias, and after him his followers, gave out that these spirits or devils, were men’s governors and keepers, our lords and masters, as we are of our cattle (…) In a word, Nihil magis quaerunt quam metum et admirationem hominum [they seek nothing more eagerly than the fear and admiration of men].”
Artist’s Note: I can’t remember exactly what was going on in the world when I drew this, but it was – as usual – something very bad.
Anatomy of Melancholy – Pt. I, Sec. 1, Mem. II, Subs. 3 – Containing Parts, Dissimilar, Outward (quote contained within image).
Artist’s Note: And then on some less enlightening days, I had to decipher what on earth Burton meant by dissimilar forward and backwards “parts”.
Anatomy of Melancholy – Pt. 1, Sec.1, I Memb. III, Subsect. I. – Definition of Melancholy, Name, Difference:
“Fear and sorrow are the true characters and inseparable companions of most melancholy, not all, as Her. de Saxonia, Tract. de posthumo de Melancholia, cap. 2. well excepts; for to some it is most pleasant, as to such as laugh most part; some are bold again, and free from all manner of fear and grief, as hereafter shall be declared.”
Artist’s Note: This is a drawing of melancholy, fear, and sorrow. I had a real doozy of a time deciding how to draw melancholy, described elsewhere as “cold and dry, thick, black, sour, begotten of the more feculent part of nourishment, and purged from the spleen.”
Anatomy of Melancholy, 216-219 – Pt. I, Sec. 2, Mem. II, Subs. 1 – Bad Diet a Cause. Substance. Quality of Meats:
“Aubanus and Sabellicus commend Portugal beef to be the most savoury, best and easiest of digestion; we commend ours: but all is rejected, and unfit for such as lead a resty life, any ways inclined to melancholy, or dry of complexion.”
Artist’s Note: Sections like this are one reason no one reads this book cover to cover. Also I think Burton really hated birds: “Though these be fair in feathers, pleasant in taste, and have a good outside, like hypocrites, white in plumes, and soft, their flesh is hard, black, unwholesome, dangerous, melancholy meat.”
Anatomy of Melancholy – Pt. I, Sec. 2, Mem. II, Subs. 5 – Bad Air a Cause of Melancholy:
“How can they be excused that have a delicious seat, a pleasant air, and all that nature can afford, and yet through their own nastiness and sluttishness, immund and sordid manner of life, suffer their air to putrefy, and themselves to be choked up?”
Artist’s Note: I try to keep the project somewhat politically relevant. So humans are destroying the planet, if you hadn’t noticed, which is also something that Burton presciently ranted about four hundred years ago.
Anatomy of Melancholy – Pt. I, Sec. 2, Mem. II, Subs. 6 – Immoderate Exercise a Cause, and how. Solitariness, Idleness:
“Opposite to exercise is idleness (the badge of gentry) or want of exercise, the bane of body and mind, the nurse of naughtiness, stepmother of discipline, the chief author of all mischief, one of the seven deadly sins, and a sole cause of this and many other maladies, the devil’s cushion, as Gaulter calls it, his pillow and chief reposal.”
Artist’s Note: I have to battle with the sleepy devil inside of me every single day in order to keep this project going, so this section really spoke to me.
See? The charm of Devon’s art does not need me as spokesperson. I hope you’ve enjoyed this colourful journey into the melancholy, and if you found yourself in any of the panels, be sure to share where – in the slugs? In the spleen? In the seven deadly sins? – below!
Interest in The Anatomy of Melancholy piqued? Join Devon’s on-going read-along and discover more of her work on her blog, Master of Literature, and follow along in squares through her intstagram. Though currently closed due to the whole you-know-what-wash-your-hands-about-it going on outside, Devon’s shop can be found here, when the time is right!
If you’ve enjoyed this post, please consider making a small contribution towards my next tea or coffee to keep me writing whilst on the devil’s cushion in melancholy’s embrace.
This piece is published as part of my Horrible Histories series – continue reading with Burton, Hippocrates, & Keats, Medical Men & Murderers, The Secret History, and The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.