Book Review: Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy

BookReviewLogoStephanie Shirilan’s first monograph, Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy (Ashgate, 2015) is a tremendous example of close-reading technique and elaboration, an excellent model for anyone interested in following a similar path with a text from almost any period.

Begun as a dissertation at Brandeis University, Transformative Powers is a top-notch example of a dissertation raised to to the level of publishable monograph. Shirilan — now Assistant Professor of English at Syracuse University — has set herself no small task:

The reader who hopes to profit from [Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy should] approach it sympathetically [sic], that is, with a willingness to be transformed, especially by the pleasures of the experience. The present study is an attempt to demonstrate and elaborate this therapeutic principle by situating it in its rhetorical, physiological, theological contexts. (1)

SolomonThe placement and exploration of The Anatomy in any one of these contexts would be sufficient for a monograph but Shirilan balances them well while making it clear that there is more to be written in each area.

Transformative Powers is divided into four parts, the first an exploration of the author himself, followed by close examination of different aspects of melancholy: hypochondria, “study as cure for…melancholy,” and the usefulness of melancholy as an experience. The author includes a lengthy “Works Cited” bibliography as well as an index and — joy of joys — footnotes!

Shirilan’s writing is dense and rewarding, suggesting many interesting sidelights on early medical writing as well as re-interpretations of Burton’s text. She engages directly and firmly with the pre-existing Burton scholarship, making her view of the text clear without castigating or denigrating her predecessors. Anyone interested in doing close readings as part of their research and writing will find Shirilan’s approach valuable whether or not they have any particular interest in Burton. The reader without an extensive literary theory or rhetoric background may wish to have something like the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms close to hand.

Book Review: The Book of Magic

BookReviewLogoIn The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment (Penguin, 2016), Brian Copenhaver, professor of philosophy and history at UCLA, has drawn together a wide variety of texts into a kind of buffet of writing on magic, defining ‘magic’ loosely. The collection stops a little short — mid-seventeenth century — for my taste but, given the massive amount of material to choose from, such a time-bound anthology makes sense. The book is already quite lengthy — taking it into the eighteenth century might have required the publisher to sell it with an accompanying lectern. Perhaps Copenhaver has plans for a second volume! As it is, The Book of Magic will be a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the interstices of medicine and magic or in the source texts drawn on by many weird lit authors. Continue reading “Book Review: The Book of Magic”

MedHum Monday Book Review: From Eve to Evolution

DailyDose2Feminist and women’s rights activists, like queer activists, have long had an uneasy relationship with the male-dominated fields of scientific inquiry. Evolutionary theories, the science of sex difference, and more recently the field of evolutionary psychology, have all been wielded as proof positive of innate disparities between women and men, used to support arguments against women in higher education, in the workplace, in politics, and more. However, a less-examined parallel history also exists: one in which scientists — many of them women — have used scientific methods and evidence to advance the case for women’s rights. It is one chapter in this history that Kimberly Hamlin seeks to tell in From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America (University of Chicago, 2014).

9780226324777During the fifty years following the American civil war, there was an explosion of popular interest in scientific inquiry in America, including the popularization of Darwinian theories of evolution (Origin of Species was published in 1859). In Gilded Age America, evolutionary theories competed with, and at times displaced, the dominant Christian, Bible-based explanations of human nature and society. Racial and sexual differences were increasingly explained not through the language of God’s will but rather in terms of natural selection and species survival. Women’s rights advocates — who during the antebellum period may have argued about their capacity for virtue or turned to Biblical exegesis to bolster their case for equality — found, in the postwar period, that evolutionary biology was key front in the struggle for rights. Continue reading “MedHum Monday Book Review: From Eve to Evolution”