The Marginalian
The Marginalian

How the Great Zen Master and Peace Activist Thich Nhat Hanh Found Himself and Lost His Self in a Library Epiphany

“To live, we must die every instant. We must perish again and again in the storms that make life possible.”

How the Great Zen Master and Peace Activist Thich Nhat Hanh Found Himself and Lost His Self in a Library Epiphany

“The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself… to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is,” Iris Murdoch wrote in a 1970 masterpiece — a radical idea in her era and in her culture, counter to the notions of individualism and self-actualization so foundational to Western philosophy. Today, practices like metta meditation and mindfulness — practices anchored in the dissolution of the self, which remains the most challenging of human tasks even for the most devoted meditators among us, offering only transient glimpses of reality as it really is — flood the global mainstream, drawn from the groundwater of ancient Eastern philosophy and carried across the cultural gulf by a handful of pioneers in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chief among them was the great Zen Master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (October 11, 1926–January 22, 2022), who arrived in America in 1961 to study the history of Vietnamese Buddhism at the Princeton Theological Seminary, bringing what he learned back to his native Vietnam two years and devoting himself to the project of peace, for which the South Vietnamese government punished him with a four-decade exile. Half a lifetime later — having been nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize, having founded the found of civilizational optimism that is Plum Village in France, having survived a stroke that left him unable to speak or walk — he was finally allowed to return to his motherland, leaving the West that celebrated him as the father of mindfulness.

Thich Nhat Hanh. (Photograph courtesy of Plum Village.)

The journal Thich Nhat Hanh began keeping upon his arrival in America as a young man was published half a century later as Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962–1966 (public library). These remain his most intimate writings — a rare record of his unselfing, which made him himself: the monk who brought mindfulness to the world.

In an extraordinary diary entry penned ten days before his thirty-sixth birthday — the age at which Walt Whitman opened his Leaves of Grass with the declamation “One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person” — Thich Nhat Hanh contemplates the illusory and interdependent nature of the self as he faces his own multitudes, pitted in the universal inner conflict that comes with being a person in the world, a private cosmos in a public sphere:

It’s funny how much our surroundings influence our emotions. Our joys and sorrows, likes and dislikes are colored by our environment so much that often we just let our surroundings dictate our course. We go along with “public” feelings until we no longer even know our own true aspirations. We become a stranger to ourselves, molded entirely by society… Sometimes I feel caught between two opposing selves — the “false self” imposed by society and what I would call my “true self.” How often we confuse the two and assume society’s mold to be our true self. Battles between our two selves rarely result in a peaceful reconciliation. Our mind becomes a battlefield on which the Five Aggregates — the form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness of our being — are strewn about like debris in a hurricane. Trees topple, branches snap, houses crash.

Two centuries after Coleridge considered the storm as a lens on the soul, and a century after Van Gogh extolled the clarifying force of storms in nature and human nature, Thich Nhat Hanh adds:

These are our loneliest moments. Yet every time we survive such a storm, we grow a little. Without storms like these, I would not be who I am today. But I rarely hear such a storm coming until it is already upon me. It seems to appear without warning, as though treading silently on silk slippers. I know it must have been brewing a long time, simmering in my own thoughts and mental formations, but when such a frenzied hurricane strikes, nothing outside can help. I am battered and torn apart, and I am also saved.

Art by Akiko Miyakoshi from The Storm

In consonance with Alain de Botton’s insight into the importance of breakdowns, he looks back on what the most formative storm of his life taught him:

I saw that the entity I had taken to be “me” was really a fabrication. My true nature, I realized, was much more real, both uglier and more beautiful than I could have imagined.

In a recollection that makes my own bibliophiliac soul tremble with the tenderness of recognition, he goes on to detail what occasioned the storm of his unselfing — his version of the garden epiphany that revealed to Virginia Woolf her life’s purpose:

The feeling began shortly before eleven o’clock at night on October first. I was browsing on the eleventh floor of Butler Library. I knew the library was about to close, and I saw a book that concerned the area of my research. I slid it off the shelf and held it in my two hands. It was large and heavy. I read that it had been published in 1892, and it was donated to the Columbia Library the same year. On the back cover was a slip of paper that recorded the names of borrowers and the dates they took it out of the library. The first time it had been borrowed was in 1915, the second time was in 1932. I would be the third. Can you imagine? I was only the third borrower, on October 1, 1962. For seventy years, only two other people had stood in the same spot I now stood, pulled the book from the shelf, and decided to check it out. I was overcome with the wish to meet those two people. I don’t know why, but I wanted to hug them. But they had vanished, and I, too, will soon disappear. Two points on the same straight line will never meet. I was able to encounter two people in space, but not in time.

Suddenly, all lines dissolved into a boundless field of awareness, without space or time or self:

I feel as though I’ve lived a long time and have seen so much of life. I’m almost thirty-six, which is not young. But that night, while standing amidst the stacks at Butler Library, I saw that I am neither young nor old, existent nor nonexistent. My friends know I can be as playful and mischievous as a child. I love to kid around and enter fully into the game of life. I also know what it is to get angry. And I know the pleasure of being praised. I am often on the verge of tears or laughter. But beneath all of these emotions, what else is there? How can I touch it? If there isn’t anything, why would I be so certain that there is?

Still holding the book, I felt a glimmer of insight. I understood that I am empty of ideals, hopes, viewpoints, or allegiances. I have no promises to keep with others. In that moment, the sense of myself as an entity among other entities disappeared. I knew that this insight did not arise from disappointment, despair, fear, desire, or ignorance. A veil silently lifted effortlessly. That is all. If you beat me, stone me, or even shoot me, everything that is considered to be “me” will disintegrate. Then, what is actually there will reveal itself — faint as smoke, elusive as emptiness, and yet neither smoke nor emptiness, ugly, nor not ugly, beautiful, yet not beautiful. It is like a shadow on a screen.

London’s Holland House library, home to thousands of historic and rare books, destroyed after the 1940 blitz. (Available as a print.)

But from this feeling of losing the self, from this utter demolition of identity, arose a deep sense of having arrived at himself, at an elemental oneness of his being with all being:

At that moment, I had the deep feeling that I had returned. My clothes, my shoes, even the essence of my being had vanished, and I was carefree as a grasshopper pausing on a blade of grass… When a grasshopper sits on a blade of grass, he has no thought of separation, resistance, or blame… The green grasshopper blends completely with the green grass… It neither retreats nor beckons. It knows nothing of philosophy or ideals. It is simply grateful for its ordinary life. Dash across the meadow, my dear friend, and greet yesterday’s child. When you can’t see me, you yourself will return. Even when your heart is filled with despair, you will find the same grasshopper on the same blade of grass… Some life dilemmas cannot be solved by study or rational thought. We just live with them, struggle with them, and become one with them… To live, we must die every instant. We must perish again and again in the storms that make life possible.

Thich Nhat Hanh in the south-west of France during his exile, 1980s. (Photograph courtesy of Plum Village.)

Complement this fragment of Fragrant Palm Leaves — a superb read in its totality — with the poetic physician Lewis Thomas, writing in the same era, on how a sea slug and a jellyfish illuminate the permeable boundary of the self, then revisit Thich Nhat Hanh on the art of deep listening, the four Buddhist mantras of turning fear into love, and his timelessly transformative teachings on love as the art of “interbeing.”


Sonic Hieroglyphics and Acoustic X-Ray Vision: The Fascinating Science of How Dolphins and Whales Communicate

How Victorian astronomy helped decode the secret language of the seas.

Sonic Hieroglyphics and Acoustic X-Ray Vision: The Fascinating Science of How Dolphins and Whales Communicate

“Words are events, they do things, change things… they feed energy back and forth and amplify it,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her uncommon ode to the magic of real communication. “They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”

For millennia, we have considered language — the magic-box of words — the hallmark of our species. Only in the last blink of evolutionary time have we begun to override our self-referential nature and consider the possibility that other types of channels might carry the magical energy of creatures telling each other what it is like to be alive, in the here and now of a shared reality.

From the moment we first looked up at the night sky and declared the scattering of stars to be the totality of the universe, placing ourselves at its center, over and over we have mistaken the limits of our sense-perception for the limits of all there is; over and over, our creaturely limitations have limited our grasp of reality.

So it is that an extraordinary underwater language remained undetected by humans for the vast majority of the history of our species and the history of our science.

Art from Year of the Whale, 1949.

In his altogether fascinating book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves (public library), James Nestor writes:

In a world of seven billion people, where every inch of land has been mapped, much of it developed, and too much of it destroyed, the sea remains the final unseen, untouched, and undiscovered wilderness, the planet’s last great frontier… the last truly quiet place on Earth.

Except it is only truly quiet if we limit truth to our human perceptions. Down in the indigo waters, in what Else Bostelmann called “the submarine fairyland” as she brought the undersea world to the human eye for the first time, symphonies of speech mute to us bellow across immense distances, carrying messages as urgent and delicate as danger and identity. Now, a century of science and compassionate curiosity later, we know that dolphin mothers will whistle a sound patter over and over to a newborn — a kind of christening, imprinting the baby with its given name.

Art from Field Book of Giant Fishes, 1949. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Dolphins and whales — the aquatic mammals collectively known as cetaceans — have some of the largest and most complex brains on our pale blue dot. A century after the great nature writer Henry Beston called on us to rise to a different and wiser concept of animals, for they move through this world “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear,” we know that the dolphin neocortex — the part of the brain tasked with problem-solving and higher-order thinking — is proportionately larger than ours, and that dolphins communicate in a strange and wondrous language we are only just beginning to decipher. Nestor details the dazzling creaturely mechanics of its magic:

Dolphins don’t have vocal cords or larynxes, so they can’t vocalize in a way that sounds like human speech. Instead, they use two small mouth-like structures embedded in their heads — vestiges of what were once nostrils. The dolphin can flex and bend these nasal passages, called phonic lips, to create a variety of sounds — whistles, burst pulses, clicks, and more — in frequencies that range between 75 and 150,000 Hz.

Of these, we can only hear the slenderest fraction in the lowest register — while humans can produce sounds up to 20,000 Hz, our everyday speech falls into the paltry 85-300 Hz range. But one of the most extraordinary things about our species is our stubborn, inspired refusal to let our creaturely givens confine our imagination and our hunger for truth. “We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us,” the pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell observed when a new generation of powerful telescopes began revealing cosmic truths far beyond what our naked eyes could see, “and the more we gain, the more is our desire.”

Spectra of various light sources from a 19th-century French physics textbook. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

It was a tool of her era, invented for her field — the spectrograph, first used to analyze the light of Vega, the star that a quarter millennium earlier had anchored one of Galileo’s most ingenious experiments refuting the geocentric model of the universe — that scientists applied to sound a century later to detect and decode the language of underwater mammals. Recording the high-frequency clicks and whistles of dolphins, inaudible to human ears, and playing the recordings back through a spectrogram, humans were able to perform a feat of mechanical synesthesia and see for the first time the sound of language-rich silence — sound waves that looked, in Nestor’s lovely poetic image, like “a primitive form of hieroglyphics.”

This sonic wonder is part and parcel of the same evolutionary inheritance that gave cetaceans an input channel as astonishing to us as the output of suprasonic hieroglyphics: their capacity for echolocation, conferred by jaws that serve as high-definition sonograms.

Nestor considers just how alien this form of listening is to us and what leaps in scientific ingenuity it would require for us to create a mechanical prosthesis that extends our creaturely capabilities to such Bestonian levels of suprahuman senses:

Sound doesn’t travel in a straight line, the way it looks on a spectrogram, but instead expands in three dimensions, like a mist. Ears only process sound from two channels; cetaceans have the equivalent of thousands of channels that can collect this mist from all directions… For humans to perceive sonographic images through echolocation isn’t easy. Scientists would need to construct an artificial jaw filled with thousands of little microphones to mimic the tiny receptors, then build a computer capable of processing all the data collected.

Globicephalus melas, or, long-finned pilot whale — a large species of oceanic dolphin — from A Book of Whales by Frank Evers Beddard, 1900. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

What to us is nothing less than a miracle, demanding an epic triumph of technology, is to cetaceans nothing more than a commonplace of survival amid a pitch-black world. Nestor describes the splendid otherness of the physiology that renders these mammals of the undersea both kin and alien:

When a cetacean sends out a click (its version of a sonar ping), it receives the echo information with a fatty sac located beneath the lower jaw. Unlike ears, which provide only two directional sources to gather information, this fatty sac provides the cetacean with thousands of data points. The animal can process these to gauge the distance, shape, depth, interior, and exterior of the objects and creatures around it.

Dolphins can detect the shape, position, and size of larger objects from up to six miles away. Their echolocation is so powerful and sensitive that it can penetrate over a foot deep into sand; it can even “see” beneath skin. Dolphins can peer into the lungs, stomachs, and brains of the animals around them. With all this information, scientists believe dolphins can create the equivalent of an HD-quality rendering of objects nearby — not only where these objects are, but how they look from the inside out. In essence, dolphins and other cetaceans have X-ray vision.

Art from Year of the Whale, 1949.

Complement with the wondrous world of octopus consciousness and the science of how trees communicate, even newer to us and our scientific tools than the science of cetacean communication, then revisit Year of the Whale — the poetic 1969 book about the mysterious lives of our planet’s largest creatures — and artist Jenni Desmond’s tender science serenade to the blue whale.


Nick Cave on Creativity, the Myth of Originality, and How to Find Your Voice

“Your imagination… is mostly an accidental dance between collected memory and influence… a construction that awaits spiritual ignition.”

Two years before she fused her childhood impression of a mechanical loom with her devotedly honed gift for mathematics to compose the world’s first computer program in a 65-page footnote, Ada Lovelace postulated in a letter that creativity is the art of discovering and combining — the work of an alert imagination that “seizes points in common, between subjects having no very apparent connexion, & hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition.”

Her father — the poet Lord Byron, rockstar of the Romantics — embodied this in his own work, fusing influences* as diffuse in time, space, and sensibility as Confucius and Virgil, Erasmus Darwin and Mary Shelley, Greek tragedy and Galilean astronomy, to compose some of the world’s most original* and enduring poetry.

A century and a poetic revolution after him, Rilke captured this combinatorial nature of creativity when he contemplated what it takes to write anything of beauty and substance.

All poets — “poets” in Baldwin’s broad sense of “the only people who know the truth about us,” encompassing all artists, all makers of beauty and knowledge, all shamans of our self-knowledge — understand this intimately, and therefore understand the most elemental truth about creativity: that *these two words are chimeras of the ego.

I see my soul reflected in Nature. One of artist Margaret C. Cook illustrations for a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

There is no blank slate upon which works of true originality are composed, no void out of which total novelty is created. Nothing is original because everything is an influence; everything is original because no influence makes its way into our art untransmuted by our imagination. We bring to everything we make everything we have lived and loved and tessellated into the mosaic of our being. To be an artist in the largest sense is to be fully awake to the totality of life as we encounter it, porous to it and absorbent of it, moved by it and moved to translate those inner quickenings into what we make.

That is what Nick Cave, part Byron and part Baldwin for our own time, explores in an issue of his Red Hand Files — the online journal in which he takes questions from fans and answers them in miniature essays of uncommon insight, soulfulness, and sensitivity, opening up improbable backdoors into those cavernous chambers where our most private yet common bewilderments about art and life dwell, and filling those chambers with the light of sympathetic understanding.

Nick Cave by JooHee Yoon

When a fan from my own neighborough asks Cave how he muffles all of his influences in order to hear his own inner voice and trust that he is making something wholly his own, he answers with his characteristic poetics of numinous pragmatism:

Nothing you create is ultimately your own, yet all of it is you. Your imagination, it seems to me, is mostly an accidental dance between collected memory and influence, and is not intrinsic to you, rather it is a construction that awaits spiritual ignition.

Your spirit is the part of you that is essential. It is separate from the imagination, and belongs only to you. This formless pneuma is the invisible and vital force over which we toss the blanket of our imagination — that habitual mix of received information, of memory, of experience — to give it form and language. In some this vital spirit burns fiercely and in others it is a dim flicker, but it lives in all of us, and can be made stronger through daily devotion to the work at hand.

Art by Maurice Sendak for a special 1973 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

In consonance with Black Mountain College poet and ceramicist M.C. Richards’s lovely notion of creativity as the poetry of our personhood and with anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s concept of “composing a life” — which captures with such poetic precision the fundamental fact that our very lives are the ultimate creative work — Cave adds:

Worry less about what you make — that will mostly look after itself, and is to some extent beyond your control, and perhaps even none of your business — and devote yourself to nourishing this animating spirit. Bring all your enthusiasm to bear on the development of that good and essential force. This is done by a commitment to the creative act itself. Each time you tend to that ingenious spark it grows stronger, and sets afire the ordinary gifts of the imagination. The more dedication you show to the process, the better the work, and the greater your gift to the world. Apply yourself fully to the task, let go of the outcome, and your true voice will appear. You’ll see. It can be no other way.

There are echoes here of Whitman, who declared in his “Laws of Creation” for “strong artists and leaders… and coming musicians” that to create means only to “satisfy the Soul”; there are echoes, too, of Mary Oliver and her invocation of “the third self” — that crucible of our creative energy, which demands of us to give it both power and time.

Complement with Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of algorithms and grief as a portal to aliveness, then revisit poet Naomi Shihab Nye on the two driving forces of creativity, John Coltrane on outsiderdom as a wellspring of originality, John McPhee on the relationship between originality and self-doubt, and Paul Klee on how an artist is like at tree.


The Antidote to Melancholy: Robert Burton’s Centuries-Old Salve for Depression, Epochs Ahead of Science

“Whosoever… is overrun with solitariness, or carried away with pleasing melancholy and vain conceits… or crucified with worldly care, I can prescribe him no better remedy than… to compose himself to the learning of some art or science.”

The Antidote to Melancholy: Robert Burton’s Centuries-Old Salve for Depression, Epochs Ahead of Science

Epochs before modern neuroscience came to locate the crucible of consciousness in the body, centuries before William James proffered his pioneering theory of how our bodies affect our emotions, Robert Burton (February 8, 1577–January 25, 1640) took up these questions in his 1621 tome The Anatomy of Melancholy (public library | public domain), observing that “there is almost no part of the body, which being distempered, doth not cause this malady.”

An impressive florilegium nearing a thousand pages strewn with a progenitor of hypertext, the book weaves together a cornucopia of quotations from earlier writers, from Seneca to Solomon, to illustrate Burton’s central points — many radical then, some radical still — about a subject he examines “philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened and cut up”; a subject of which he had an early and intimate experience. “That which others hear or read of,” he wrote, “I felt and practised myself; they get their knowledge by books, I mine by melancholizing.”

Robert Burton by Gilbert Jackson, 1635.

Burton was only a teenager when he was plunged into his first episode of debilitating depression — a term that did not yet exist in the modern sense, because mental health did not yet exist as a clinical concept. This “melancholy,” which often left him with “a heavy heart and an ugly head,” was so disabling that it took him more than a decade to complete his studies at Oxford. He kept trying to leave the university and start an independent life, but never quite managed, lamenting his “hopes frustrated” and feeling “left behind, as a Dolphin on shore.”

Eventually — centuries before psychologists demonstrated that revising our inner narrative about a situation is the only way to improve our experience of that situation — Burton reoriented to his circumstance, coming to feel that his “monastick life” protected him “from those tumults & troubles of the world.” Out of this conflicted isolation, he composed The Anatomy of Melancholy, subtitled What it is, with all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, & severall cures of it.” It went on to touch lives as varied as Samuel Johnson, Jorge Luis Borges, and Nick Cave. Keats — whose brief and light-giving life was punctuated by periodic onslaughts of darkness — declared it his favorite book.

Like Whitman did with his Leaves of Grass, Burton kept obsessively revising and expanding his magnum opus, publishing five more editions by the end of his life — no small triumph for a book in the first century since the Printing Revolution, or a book in any era, especially one nearly a thousand pages long.

Frontispiece of the second edition, 1626.

Burton inhabited the golden age of Renaissance anatomy, when Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings peered into the distant future of medicine. But medicine then was still as crude as a stone blade directed at the body, to the total Cartesian exclusion of the mind. Psychology was not even a faint contour in humanity’s imagination. The birth of neuroscience was still three and a half centuries away. That Burton applied a term of physiology to the understanding of a psychology not yet born is already a staggering leap of the imagination. But even as a progressive of his era, he was also — like every visionary — a product of his era. (Which is alright — as I often say, even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of understanding; to expect of them otherwise is ahistorical hubris and an act of cruelty toward the limits of their time and place, which they chose no more than we have chosen ours.) Burton endorsed the humoral theory of the human body, navigated life-decisions by astrological calculations, earnestly believed in a physiological basis for men’s intellectual superiority, celebrated barbarisms like hunting and hawking as spiritually worthy recreations, and excluded women from all recreations of the mind, relegating them to “curious needleworks,” the making and showing off of “confections, conserves, distillations, &c.,” and the tending to “sweet-smelling flowers” in the garden.

And yet, through his convoluted Old English and his epochal blind spots, there shines a bright and clear light of understanding — a beam stretching backward and forward in time, to the dawn of our species and to the far future of our science, illuminating what it means to be human and what we can do to magnify the light of our humanity even in our darkest hours.

Jacob’s Dream by William Blake, 1805. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

This, indeed, is a word Burton cherishes: Epochs before I borrowed the lovely phrase Patti Smith borrowed from William Blake in living the life-resolution to seek out what magnifies your spirit, magnify is the word Burton uses over and over for the activities he most recommends as salves for depression — he writes of how reading, walking, and art “much magnify” the person who partakes of them; four centuries before neurologist Oliver Sacks reflected on forty years of medical practice to point to gardens as one of the two things that have most helped his patients heal, Burton writes of a royal garden that “highly magnifies” the visitor’s spirit.

This is the essence of his insight — the way our physiological experience and our psychological experience can magnify each other. He writes:

To that great inconvenience, which comes on the one side by immoderate and unseasonable exercise, too much solitariness and idleness on the other, must be opposed as an antidote, a moderate and seasonable use of it… both of body and mind… conducing to… the general preservation of our health.

Perched in time between the dawn of medicine with Galen and Hippocrates, and holistic healthcare as we now know it, Burton distills what those before him prescribed for good health. He observes that of the “labours, exercises, and recreations” most commonly recommended, “some properly belong to the body, some to the mind, some more easy, some hard, some with delight, some without, some within doors, some natural, some are artificial.” He then goes on to make his own recommendation for the activities most potent as antidotes to melancholy. Alongside running and dancing, country sports and city gymnastics, he devotes an especially lovely passage to the one bodily activity most beloved by fertile minds.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

Precisely a quarter millennium before Thomas Bernhard observed that “there is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking,” and two centuries before Nietzsche extolled the mental benefits of walking, Burton writes:

To walk amongst orchards, gardens, bowers, mounts, and arbours, artificial wildernesses, green thickets, arches, groves, lawns, rivulets, fountains… brooks, pools, fishponds, between wood and water, in a fair meadow, by a river side… in some pleasant plain, park, run up a steep hill sometimes, or sit in a shady seat… [is] a delectable recreation.

Noting that such recreations can uniquely “refresh and give content to a melancholy dull spirit,” and that they are universally and readily available to just about anyone anywhere, he adds:

Every palace, every city almost hath its peculiar walks, cloisters, terraces, groves, theatres, pageants, games, and several recreations; every country, some professed gymnics to exhilarate their minds, and exercise their bodies.

One of artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

From the exercise of the body, Burton turns to the exercise of the mind, evaluating various contenders for the perfect antidote to melancholy.

There is chess, “invented (some say) by the general of an army in a famine, to keep soldiers from mutiny” — an activity he considers “good and witty exercise of the mind,” sure to allay melancholy in those who are “idle, and have extravagant impertinent thoughts, or troubled with cares, nothing better to distract their mind, and alter their meditations.” But he hastens to caution that chess “may do more harm than good” if you become too invested in its mastery — then, chess can become “too full of anxiety” and turn into “a testy choleric game” causing grave distress to the brittle ego of the loser who is already in low spirits.

The Red King and Red Queen as chess pieces. One of John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Then there are acts of charity and philanthropy, “which are harmless jests, and have their good uses,” but people often perform them “to exhilarate themselves and others” — acts often used to prop the doer’s own ego, with little long-term circumstances of those upon whom they are bestowed. (Here too Burton is far ahead of his time, presaging our still dawning understanding of the paradoxes of aid in notions like “effective altruism” and “impact investing.”)

With this, he arrives at his most confident prescription. Centuries before T.H. White dreamt up the adventures of King Arthur’s court and put into the mouth of his Merlyn the mightiest consolation for sorrow , Burton offers:

Amongst those exercises, or recreations of the mind within doors, there is none so general, so aptly to be applied to all sorts of men, so fit and proper to expel idleness and melancholy, as that of study… Who is he that is now wholly overcome with idleness, or otherwise involved in a labyrinth of worldly cares, troubles and discontents, that will not be much lightened in his mind by reading of some enticing story, true or feigned, [or] observe what our forefathers have done, the beginnings, ruins, falls, periods of commonwealths, private men’s actions displayed to the life, &c… Who is not earnestly affected with a passionate speech, well penned, an elegant poem, or some pleasant bewitching discourse?… To most kind of men it is an extraordinary delight to study. For what a world of books offers itself, in all subjects, arts, and sciences, to the sweet content and capacity of the reader? In arithmetic, geometry, perspective, optics, astronomy, architecture, sculpture, painting… in mechanics and their mysteries, military matters, navigation, riding of horses, fencing, swimming, gardening, planting… in music, metaphysics, natural and moral philosophy, philology, in policy, heraldry, genealogy, chronology… What so sure, what so pleasant?


Whosoever he is therefore that is overrun with solitariness, or carried away with pleasing melancholy and vain conceits, and for want of employment knows not how to spend his time, or crucified with worldly care, I can prescribe him no better remedy than this of study, to compose himself to the learning of some art or science.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print, benefitting the New York public library system.)

With the sensitive disclaimer that overabsorption in the life of the mind can itself become a source of melancholy, he adds:

Study is only prescribed to those that are otherwise idle, troubled in mind, or carried headlong with vain thoughts and imaginations, to distract their cogitations… and divert their continual meditations another way. Nothing in this case better than study… As meat is to the body, such is reading to the soul.

In a passage that especially gladdens my astronomically enraptured soul, Burton celebrates one particular region of curative curiosity:

In all nature what is there so stupendous as to examine and calculate the motion of the planets, their magnitudes, apogees, perigees, eccentricities, how far distant from the earth, the bigness, thickness, compass of the firmament, each star, with their diameters and circumference, apparent area, superficies, by those curious helps of glasses, astrolabes, sextants, quadrants… arithmetic, geometry, and such like arts and instruments?

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of the sun by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

Burton returns to the necessary balance of bodily and mental exercise in lifting the grey gauze of melancholy:

Body and mind must be exercised, not one, but both, and that in a mediocrity; otherwise it will cause a great inconvenience. If the body be overtired, it tires the mind. The mind oppresseth the body, as with students it oftentimes falls out, who (as Plutarch observes) have no care of the body.

Complement these fragments from the monolith of time and thought that is Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy — which goes on to offer remedies for insomnia, apathy, and other manifestations of the eternal malady — with a modern florilegium of great writers on the mightiest remedy for depression, then revisit Walt Whitman’s workout and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on how the feeling-tone of the body scores the symphony of the mind.


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