English Department

at the University of Michigan-Flint

Students, are you feeling isolated, overwhelmed, swamped with reading, and even a little depressed?  Robert Burton, a seventeenth-century writer, working in what he called a “scribbling age,” wrote a massive tome, The Anatomy of Melancholy, to cure his own depression.  His send-up of students and scholars who sit and sit and read and read, neglecting worldly affairs and their own health, only to wind up with no job after years of study will seem all too familiar to today’s English major.  If you don’t have time to check out Burton’s work at the moment, Bethany Hickey, in a very smart essay, makes connections between Burton’s “melancholizing” and millenials’ meme-making in ways that highlight similarities in the ways human beings, past and present, have used their creativity to combat mental distress.

Melancholy Memes
by Bethany Hickey

            As long as history continues to repeat itself, humor will follow. In “The Anatomy of Melancholy” by Robert Burton, originally published in 1621, he explores the depression of students, the degradation of the art and literary world, and attempts to discover the root of his own melancholy. Burton discusses how the literary world is only rehashing old ideas and how scholars are underappreciated and unpaid; all in a humorous, smart, and self-hating style. He also writes how the tragedies of his time bombard him, and how writing this piece is an attempt to work through his own madness. Today, using the Internet, Millennials, and even the younger generations, are criticizing their own discontent in an extremely diverse way in a simpler form: memes. Memes are used to explain complicated feelings, and often one meme contains many levels. Each level is built by years of internet culture, pop culture, and some awkwardly taken photos. They are quick and an effective way to convey thoughts, so several ideas are being conveyed in an instant. Common themes for memes are existential dread, depression, anxiety, and the hypocrisy of society. Burton’s piece could be viewed as complicated, artistic, and thoughtful, and you could argue the same for memes. Millennials are feeling the same melancholy that Burton felt while writing about his depression, and there are many parallels between his writing and current meme culture today.

            By using current pop culture references, illustrations from history, or even candid pictures of everyday people, memes come in all shapes and sizes. They can represent frustration, depression, or even anti-humor. The top definition of “meme” on Urban Dictionary is, “The cure of depression”, which is a joke itself. Many Millennials say memes are used to depict depression while simultaneously curing it. By posting a meme about depression, and laughing at it, the punchline is that the joke itself has temporarily lifted the feeling of hopelessness and sadness. A perfect example of the joke, “memes cured my depression”, is figure 1.
This snapshot is from a Japanese anime in the 1990s, and the format is commonly referred to as “Is this a pigeon”. In the original context, the character is asking if the butterfly in the picture is a pigeon. The question is laughable, because it is obviously a butterfly. People started using the screenshot to write in their own obviously wrong questions, such as “Is this a cure for depression?”, or just as a way to express confusion. By posting this on social media, the poster is making fun of their own coping mechanisms. In a way, Burton does the same in “The Anatomy of Melancholy”. He writes about his depression and laughs at himself, all in an attempt to cure his own melancholy. He writes, “…melancholy, whence it proceeds, and how it was engendered in men’s bodies, to the intent he might better cure it in himself, by his writings and observations, teach others how to prevent and avoid it” (Burton 192). Burton wishes to find the root of his depression by writing through his feelings and the sorting out the reasons, all in an effort to prevent it for further generations. He describes his intentions best here, “If any man except against the matter or manner of treating of this my subject, and will demand a reason of it, I can allege more than one, I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy” (192). To avoid sinking further into depression, Burton writes about his unhappiness.

            Meme culture does the same and can temporarily lift the spirits of those who view the joke. Burton pokes fun at himself and this piece, knowing that others will judge him for writing something that will most likely not cure depression or melancholy. He says, “…thou canst not think worse of me than I do of myself. ‘Tis not worth the reading, I yield it. I desire thee not to lose time in perusing so vain a subject, I should be peradventure loath myself to read him or thee, so writing, ‘tis not opera pretium [worthwhile]” (Burton 196). After describing the reasoning for why he is writing this piece, he then turns around and calls this very same piece unworthy of being read or considered. This could be viewed as a way to protect himself from criticism that he knows will come after publishing this piece. There is also self-hatred in the above quote, a common theme in memes. An example of this self-deprecating format is figure 2. A skeleton is a common picture used to depict how someone is ‘dead inside’ and nothing can hurt them any longer in meme and overall internet culture. Another example of how people use memes as a way to express how insults can no longer hurt them is depicted in figure 3. Here, we see a candid picture of two people playing with light sabers with inserted writing on the swords and the people. The key in this picture is not the context, but the expression of the person marked ‘Me’. They have a blank expression and appear to be effortlessly blocking ‘insults’ from others, as though they are used to this behavior and have long ago learned how to cope with verbal abuse or ridicule. Burton seem to be saying all of this when he states “…thou canst not think worse of me than I do myself” (196). He says to the readers that they can criticize his work all they wish; it will not hurt him because he already thinks so horribly of himself, and he could not possibly sink any lower into depression. In fact, he urges his readers to judge his writing, “Go now, censure, criticize, scoff, and rail” (Burton 196).

            Burton does more than just criticize his own depression and writing. He discusses how the tragedies of everyday life affects him and how mixed the news can be, “I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumors of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums…” (Burton 191). He goes on describing all of the different forms of news and media, “New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, doxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion” (Burton 191). Then, almost as if he is annoyed, goes on to explain how good things are also spread through the news, “Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts, and tournaments” (Burton 191). Burton appears to be overwhelmed by the tragedies of the world, and the distractions posed to keep everyone is good spirits:

            Thus I daily hear, and suchlike, both private, and public news, amidst the gallantry and misery of the world; jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candor and integrity, mutually mixed and offering themselves (Burton 191).

            He decides to continue to live a solitary life, overwhelmed by the daily news of misfortune and happiness, mixed together nonchalantly.

            Memes have also reflected this overwhelming feeling of watching or reading the news and the distractions posed by the media. A variety of internet users share Burton’s discontent for society. Most memes have a small amount of text, because they are traditionally meant be read quickly. A meme that has multiple levels or tiers can be used to describe the complex frustration of the poster. In Figure 4, we see three tiers of meme culture in one: Arthur’s Fist, “When you…”, and size of the text. Figure 4 is referred to as an ‘Arthur’s Fist’ meme, and the screenshot comes from the kid’s TV show, Arthur, an episode where Arthur punches his sister D.W., who breaks his model plane. This meme, of course, is not about Arthur punching his sister, or even about the poster wanting to punch anyone. The screenshot of the fist is used here to describe how someone clenches their fist in anger or frustration. In a traditional Arthur’s Fist meme, we would not normally see that much text, as shown in figure 4.  The amount of text is a joke on the meme format itself and is self-mockery. The meme is mocking memes for being a distraction from depression, and how the meme doesn’t actually do anything to help with that depression. It represents helplessness, frustration, and discontent with the social media’s meme culture; a satire of satire. The “When you…” format is very common, and immediately puts the reader in a position of self-reflection, and helps the reader understand that the meme is going to be relatable at first glance. Relatability is arguably the most important factor of a meme’s popularity. Figure 4 is playing on that format, since the “When you…” format is usually a single, specific reference that most people will understand. However, the long paragraph of text above Arthur’s Fist starts with “When you…”, then goes on to rant about something not commonly thought about, is not light-hearted, and is very intricate. This adds another layer to the satire. Burton’s work is the same in that regard in the way he writes his own satirical style of this piece. He writes this satire as a way to work through his depression but understands that his work will most likely do nothing to help with society’s issues, but he writes because he feels it is all he can do to avoid his own melancholy. Memes and Burton’s work use multiple layers of satire to explain depression, while simultaneously making fun of themselves and the format itself.

            Satire of depression seems to be rooted in self-deprecating, self-hatred humor. With the feeling of helplessness, a writer will do anything in an attempt to understand their own depression and anxiety. Burton understands his piece does nothing to cure his own depression, only delay it, just as meme creators and sharers understand that memes will not help with existential dread. It can, perhaps, help us alleviate the isolation that comes with depression by sharing or writing these satires, and having others read and understand them. Relating to memes is the driving force in their popularity, and if no one relates to the format, it will not become mainstream or rehashed into another joke. One could argue that the same goes for Burton’s work, that it has survived because so many relate to his feelings of isolation that comes with being a scholar, his feelings of depression, and his feelings of being overwhelmed by society. Burton had stated he wanted to help teach others how to prevent depression, but perhaps he was only looking for someone to read his work and relate to his own melancholy.

09 October 2018


Works Cited

Burton, Robert. “The Anatomy of Melancholy”. The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse & Prose, Alan Rudrum, Joseph Black, Holly Faith Nelson, Broadview Press, Ltd., 2000, pp.188-217.

DepressedMemer. “Is this a pigeon”. Imgflip. Imgflip.com, 2018. Accessed 04 Oct. 2018.

Domers_. “Arthur’s Fist”. Dorkly. Dorkly.com, 2018. Accessed 04 Oct. 2018.

ifunny.co. “Skeleton”. Animo. animoapps.com, 2018. Accessed 05 Oct. 2018

Memebase. “Insults”. CHEEZburger. memebase.cheezburger.com, 2018. Accessed 04 Oct. 2018

sodium-chloride. “Memes”. Urban Dictionary. 08 June 2018. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Memes. Accessed 05 Oct. 2018.