My Desert Island Books

Robert Burton – The Anatomy of Melancholy (NYRB Classics, 2001)

First published in 1621, it is still a fairly accurate medical treatise, in spite of modern advances beyond the ‘four humours’. The melancholia here corresponds to modern day clinical depression, but chiefly it’s a fascinating, informative and entertaining account of those afflicted, an analysis of a variety of emotions and experiences that go beyond the original subject matter. It is especially noteworthy for its sources from classical literature, such as Aristotle and Cicero, although much remains untranslated. Furthermore, Burton’s studies in psychology, theology and physiology are advanced for his time. Its structure is convoluted with headings and subheadings, chapters and sub-chapters, in the scholastic tradition of the time, but none of that seemed to detract the romantic poets, whose on brand of melancholy may have found their inspiration in the pages of ‘Democritus Junior’. As Burton tells us: ‘In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy, that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill-disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoic, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it’.

 

Wolfram von Eschenbach – Parzival (Oxford World Classics, 2009)

Parzifal dates from the 13th century, and remains one of the two of three greatest works of German verse. If I’m to be stranded on a desert island then I would need to have an adventure in my mind’s eye as well as in reality, and the transformative nature of the hero’s travails and insights which lead him back to the Holy Grail are still a powerful lesson in self realization, fortitude and morality. Although based on Chrétien de Troyes earlier work, it also draws on sources from Kyot the Provençal, who may or may not exist, with the addition of many humorous asides. The hero lives out his formative years in ignorance of his princely background, as the true heir to the Holy Grail. When he comes face to face with it and his dying uncle, the Fisher King Anfortas, he cannot even come to asking what ails the King, as he was following the foolish advice of Gurnemanz that he ought not to be too curious. As the narrators writes: ‘Alas that he did not ask the question then! I still sorrow for him on that account. For when the sword was put into his hand, it was a sign to him that he should ask. And I pity too his sweet host whom God’s displeasure does not spare and who could have been freed from it by a question.’ In the morning, the castle and the Grail disappear. Parzival must do penance for his vices and come to terms with living the life of a virtuous knight, and must his way back to God, from whom he feels alienated, if he is to see the Grail again.

 

John Keats – The Complete Poems of John Keats (Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994)

There is no more lyrical poet than John Keats. I would need to keep reminding myself, in times of loneliness and isolation on the desert island, that ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’ – such words would make the perfect companion. It’s a shame that he died so young, as so much of his youthful published work is uneven, especially in the epic works, where occasional diamonds are to be found in a vast rough. It is the shorter works where he excels, as the idealised, imagined representation of nature captures the reader in the way that a more anatomically accurate description would fail. A line such as ‘heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter’ perfectly encapsulates the hidden world, in sound and vision, that one finds if one removes oneself from the everyday world, in order to hear the sounds and see the visions of a higher spirit. One assumes that Keats is writing from such a mystical standpoint, when writing ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ and not paraphrasing Plotinus or other such philosophical aesthetes. He also affirms that ‘nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced’. Is it a journey into the mind of a physical one, when he writes ‘much have I travelled in the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen’? Such is the nature of the literary form, it is only the likeness of what one has experienced, written down so that others may experience it for themselves.

 

© 2018 AGP

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