Melancholy in Cuernavaca

by Jenny Dowling.


    According to Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, our souls are hardwired into our various organs: liver, heart, brain, " a triangle in a quadrangle." My sister, Jose, my mother's cook, and I are keeping watch over my mother's triangulated soul as it departs. In turns,we each keep a four-hour watch. The Doctors have made her comfortable and have said any moment now, but she has made it a Mexican moment and a week has passed. It is not that she isn't in a hurry. She has demanded that her bags be packed. She has asked for the keys. She is ready to ride with the four horsemen, but her heart's life won't stop.

    Burton has a prescription against sadness, " ...That which Pythagoras said to his scholars of old, may be forever applied to melancholy men, a fabis abstineti, eat no beans." This is unfortunate, because ever since Jose took the pledge to abstain from booze, this is all he can remember how to cook. We eat beans for breakfast, refried beans for lunch, beans with calabazitas for supper.

    As we sit with my mother we can sew, knit, read, talk to her or amongst ourselves, but if we should start to nod, our eyes closing against our will, she becomes as petulant as a three-year old.

    Pay Attention! Our four hour stints become a scramble. It is so long and lonesome that the three of us spend most of our time together, at her bedside, drawn to it like moths. We leave only for cat naps and even then often sleep on the grass just outside the sliding screen door to her room.

    Did you know that God can make you sad? It is right here; SECT. II MEMB. I, subsec. 1 -- Causes of Melancholy. God a cause. "General causes are either supernatural or natural. Supernatural are from God and his angels, or, by God's permission from the devil and his ministers." He sends down plagues and famines, flails us for our transgressions, strikes us down with leprosy, madness, great diseases of the bowels, blindness and an astonishment of the heart. On the whole, Burton says, He can leave you feeling like smoke corked in a bottle. Of course, the cause of all this misery is due to our great ancestor Adam who was tempted, etc. and left us " his own nature, an unregenerate man and, and so obscured by his fall (that some few reliques excepted) he is inferior to a beast, to a fox, a dog, a hog, what not?" Our neighbor Beatriz has taken pity on our steady diet of beans and has made us a roast pork. I, for one, am eager to dine on my betters.

    My sister Rose whose best friends are in the nether world, is as anxious as my mother for the cessation of breath. She automatically writes from her channeled friend, the improbable Pancho O'Clark who urges my mother to come on over and play, " Your frends awate you (my sister can't spell for beans) and you will be as before, before age was a problem, and we will have good times, your loving frend, Pancho O'Clark, Spirit Werld." Burton has a digression (60 or so pages) dealing with the nature of spirits because as Paracelsus pointed out, "Not so much as an hair breadth empty in heaven, earth, or waters, above or under the earth. The air is not so full of flies in summer, as it is at all times of invisible devils and they have every one their several chaos." There are seven or nine types of spirits or devils depending on whether you follow Tholosanus or Plato. Some are good, some not so good, some terribly bad and some just plain sappy, like Pancho. The nasty ones we encounter come in the guise of small women wearing black, with veils, the kind who dare you to ask them if they have ever seen a penis - I believe my dear father had one but I have never seen one in the flesh, as it were - type women. They ferret their way into the bedroom, having gotten past our watch-dog alertness, their tapered fingers glossing over everything that could have been contaminated with the death watch, leaving a palpable filth behind. Mop, my mother groans and we scrub until our fingers are nubs.

    In Burton's digression on anatomy (which runs God knows how many pages) he talks of the division of humours and spirits. A humour he points out is a liquid or "fluent part proceeding from the first concoction in the liver," which flows and is picked up and changed through the spirits of the blood, pituita, choler, and melancholia. There is much talk about excrementa, and humours divided into profitable and excrementitious fluids, so much so that one can come to believe that Burton is more interested in bowel function than in the soul. A soul, even a troubled soul he admits is an evanescent and mysterious thing. He tells of Hippocrates coming upon his friend Democritus laughing in a glen as he stands over the carcasses of diverse animals he has cut up and anatomized to find the seat of the atra bilis (or melancholy). Why Democritus is laughing I don't know and Burton does not tell us. Perhaps at the futility or invisibility; but excrementa, well, it's there, it's substantial.

    Burton lived at Brasenose College at Oxford. From his portrait in the frontispiece you can tell that he had a long, long nose and a thin smirking mouth, slightly hidden above a vandyke beard which pokes up above his pleated ruff. He died before his life's work was published in 1671. You wonder if, like Moses, God did not permit him to see the fruits of his labor, kept him from the promised land. Will I, I wonder, on my death bed even if I am unaware that there have been pursuits, something I await an outcome of, suddenly discover the why, and so will lie there waiting for death asking where are the fruits, show me the fruits?

    And speaking about death, or the Death of Friends: it does not rate, as far as Burton is concerned, as a great cause for melancholy and is dumped into a subsec. titled "An Heap of other Accidents Causing Melancholy" and there is not much discussion on the death of mothers, except for Conciliator who ...confesseth he saw his mother's ghost presenting herself still before him.. Now there's a thought. I turn quickly to the "A Consolatory Digression Containing The Remedies Of All Manners Of Discontents" (which is pretty slim considering the manifold causes) and come to the remedies for the death of friends, lovers, husbands, wifes, children, but no mothers, not even a mention. Now we know that mothers are not inconsequential, even in the good old days, but back then they probably dropped like flies. The remedies in this digression are simple: grieve, lament, but just so much, for even Job's friends sat with him in silence for only the first seven days to let sorrow and discontent take their course, and then expected him to pull himself together and carry on.

    As Epicurus tells us there is no remedy, " 'Tis a misery to be born, a pain to live, and a trouble to die."

    "Where we are death is not, but when death is, we are not," says Epicurus. Even so we have washed and pressed her dress, the royal purple of a queen and party-time girl. It is hanging, airing outside her door, waiting for the moment when she is ready to ride over the mountain (I want a silver chariot), past Tres Cumbres where once she and I watched the sunrise turn the sky a parrot green, down the mountain into Mexico City for the last time, and past it to Huizquilucan, to be raised on a tray in her wooden box and passed through the flames.

    Sect. III, Memb. I, Cause of Melancholy. Love a cause. This alone takes up 300 hundred pages, and I don't want to talk of love, so I will just gloss it. For a cure there is Borage and Hellebore, but Burton's greatest nostrum is that "nature is content with bread and water."

    What about ashes?


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