Anatomy of Melancholy, 233 – 237 – Pt. I, Sec. 2, Mem. II, Subs. 5 – Bad Air a Cause of Melancholy

AofM 237-241


Well, this section offers up just what I would expect from Burton at this point: Air should be neither too hot nor too cold, and melancholics should absolutely not sleep with their windows open because that nasty, dark night air will make their usual state of despondence… even more despondent:

“The night and darkness makes men sad, the like do all subterranean vaults, dark houses in caves and rocks; desert places cause melancholy in an instant, especially such as have not been used to it, or otherwise accustomed. Read more of air in Hippocrates…”

Etc. & Etc.

Dark houses in caves and rocks are kind of funny. But you know what? “Bad air a cause of melancholy” immediately made me think of something not that funny. You know what kind of bad air really super duper causes melancholy? Global warming full-of-carbon-emissions bad air. That right there is the baddest, most melancholic air there ever, ever was. It is so much worse than nighttime windy air, because carbon emissions air is also no-more-planet-air, and that makes me beyond sad. It makes me deeply melancholic. It makes me think too much.

All of thinking took me back to the day I decided to start this project. Does anyone remember? It was a couple of weeks after His Holiness the Nuclear Yam-face was elected president of the United States. I was melancholic, about everything, but mostly because he-who-shall-not-be-named almost immediately rendered the Environmental Protection Agency useless, lifted restrictions on offshore drilling, car emission standards, fracking, dumping toxic garbage in rivers, etc. (Seriously, he did that last one. Not exaggerating. I will find a citation later.)

I got very, very worried that my kids would not have a planet to live on at some point during their lifetimes. Or if they did, it would be one saturated with human suffering on a level difficult to comprehend. Probably both. It appeared, and still appears, likely that both things can happen to my kids, and definitely will happen to my kids’ kids. The Road is a great novel, but dear lord I wish I had never read it, because it embedded a very realistic and very horrifying post-apocalyptic future in my head, and it stops by to say hello way too often.

Some kind, gentle types wonder why Trump and other billionaire right-wing extremists don’t care about the world ending. No, it is not because they are “deniers” who do not believe it will actually happen. They know it will, and they are planning for it. The reason they do not care is that they will retreat to their massive compounds (above sea-level, naturally) with security forces specially trained to defend them during the apocalypse. I’m not kidding, read this. Or they will just blast off into space to the fertile utopia they have created on Mars.

(Personally I think they are looking forward to cleansing the earth of the great unwashed masses with a nice, gentle flood that kills everyone. That’s why they are doing everything they can to speed up this whole rising sea level thing, right? Isn’t there something in the Bible about that?)

But anyhow, right, so the original point of this reading/writing/drawing project or whatever it is that I am doing was to make us all feel better in the face of The Badness. Not worse. Better. Ideally I would like to avoid outright denial, and instead go for light philosophizing laced with “I just need to cope somehow” dark humor, inspired by our great author Mr. Burton.

(Did I ever mention that Burton insisted on publishing his book in English, rather than Latin? At the time, “great books” were written and published for the elite in Latin, to keep them safe from rabble-rousers. But Mr. Robert Awesome Burton insisted on English, against the advice of his publisher.)

Back to wherever it was that I was: I have thought about all this climate change anxiety – or more accurately: realistic thinking – thing… a lot… since my mind started wandering while trying repeatedly to read this air section. Here is, briefly, what I thought:

Well wait a minute, to understand what I am about to write, I think I have to confess something that I do not really like to talk about in anything more than a single sentence or two. I was once really super duper crazy sick. Not for a week or two, or a month or two, but for more like fifteen years. From ages fifteen to around thirty, I had severe endometriosis. I was living with mild to severe pain around 60% of the time during the good years, and… moderate to severe pain 100% of the time for the last half of it. On top of that I had surgery, and I took a lot of very serious medications that did strange things like put me through the worst menopause money can buy three times in ten years.

None of this is fun to talk about, so, moving on. Suffice to say, that because I was living a very strange, pretty extreme survivalist existence in my twenties, I thought about things people don’t usually dwell on at age twenty-two, and I dwelt on these things for a very long time.

One of those things was dying, and whether things on that particular day were so bad that I didn’t want to be alive. Don’t worry, people who care about me, I always knew the answer to that was no. It was more like philosophizing than thinking. (Hard times will drive you to philosophy.) What I thought about was why my answer was a hard no, when seriously, my body was sending me a lot of frenzied messages to say that being alive was a bad idea that day, every day.

The stupidly simple conclusion I came to was that even in really, terribly bad physical pain – when it literally hurt (a lot) to be alive – I still preferred living. It is better to be alive than to not, even when things are very dark. I could not do the things I wanted to do in my life (and this was a different, additional pain), and my relationships with people were total car wrecks because I was a car wreck of a person, but still there were still good things to feel. Earth kept me here. God it’s so cheesy, but just being able to walk outside to an abandoned lot and pick some wildflowers for my dorm room was hugely, disproportionately wonderful in the context of consuming pain. Feeling rain drops on my skin. Remembering a passage from a poem about how the wind formed the whorls on our fingertips. Laughing when I walked by some fresh graffiti that just said, “GRAFFITI,” because it was what it was. Little things like that, I guess. I think what happened was that the ugly gray backdrop of my excruciating, failing body threw all the unnoticeable little beauties out there in the world into sharp relief, and I held onto them like gorgeous little life preservers. Each thing was like a sweet little bumble bee buzzing into my jail cell.

These were not just nice little things to notice – they were distilled bits of being on earth that rushed through me with incredible potency. They made me feel happy to be alive, and they kept me alive.

At this point, I do not want to sound like I am glorifying illness in any way. I am not writing about the ugly parts, and there were many. For balance, I should probably paste in something here that I wrote while I was sick. But I won’t, because it was mostly ugly and sad.

It is, without doubt, better to be well than to be sick. But I guess the thing is, if you are sick, you learn some things. Have you had a bad stomach flu? Like the kind where you can’t eat for three or more days? Remember the exhilaration you felt once your body started functioning again? The joy of eating, and digesting, a saltine?

I guess that is the pukey version what I am driving at: there is divine exhilaration lurking in the ordinary, overlooked detritus of life. I was sick long enough that it became a way of life for me: all the beautiful detritus of the world. It is so nice that there is a lot of it and it is literally everywhere.

So at long last, this is what I hope for for our children, growing up with climate change that is potentially utterly catastrophic:

That they will safely move to their secret luxury compounds deep in the Rocky Mountains without any irritating corpse-related road blocks.

Just kidding! (I threw that in just in case you forgot who was writing this, ha.)

No really, I think that – hope that – when the shit really hits the climate fan, our kids will still feel happiness. No matter how bad it gets, even if they are here to witness the absolute end of everything: they will still prefer to have be here than to not. They will experience joy on their road to the end, even if it is the insignificant joy of feeling rain drops on their skin. What I am trying to tell you is that in the right context, that rain is everything. None of us get to be here forever anyhow, and even without an apocalypse, life can be hard. Feeling your feet hit earth (or pavement) is still a miracle. Breathing in air that has been inhaled, exhaled, and whirled in fingerprint whorls for hundreds of thousands of years: miracle. It feels good.

Oh and by the way, this did all start a long, long time ago. “This” being humans harping at other humans to take better care of our home planet:

“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?” (Burton 240)

“Sluttishness.” Giggle.


This post is part of a long, tedious, and very illustrated read-along of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. More info here and follow along on Facebook here. Illustrations posted via devon_isadevon on Instagram.


Leave a Reply