Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy

Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy

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by Eric G. Wilson
     
 

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We are addicted to happiness. More than any other generation, Americans today believe in the power of positive thinking. But who says we're supposed to be happy? In Against Happiness, the scholar Eric G. Wilson argues that melancholia is necessary to any thriving culture, that it is the muse of great literature, painting, music, and innovation—and that

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Overview

We are addicted to happiness. More than any other generation, Americans today believe in the power of positive thinking. But who says we're supposed to be happy? In Against Happiness, the scholar Eric G. Wilson argues that melancholia is necessary to any thriving culture, that it is the muse of great literature, painting, music, and innovation—and that it is the force underlying original insights.

So enough Prozac-ing of our brains. Let's embrace our depressive side as the wellspring of creativity. It's time to throw off the shackles of positivity and relish the blues thatmake us human.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Mr. Wilson's case for the dark night of the soul brings a much needed corrective to today's mania for cheerfulness. One would almost say that, in its eloquent contrarianism and earnest search for meaning, Against Happiness lifts the spirits.” —Colin McGinn, The Wall Street Journal

“[Wilson has] the passionate soul of a nineteenth-century romantic who, made wise by encounters with his own personal darkness, invites readers to share his reverence for nature and exuberance for life. Providing a powerful literary complement to recent psychological discussions of melancholy . . . this treatment is variously gloomy and ecstatic, infuriating and even inspiring.” —Booklist

“An impassioned, compelling, dare I say poetic, argument on behalf of those who ‘labor in the fields of sadness'. . . a loose and compelling argument for fully embracing one's existence, for it is a miracle itself -- a call to live hard and full, to participate in the great rondure of life and to be aware of the fact that no one perspective on the world is ever finally true.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[A] lively, reasoned call for the preservation of melancholy in the face of all-too-rampant cheerfulness. . . . pithy and epigrammatic.” —Bookforum

“Wilson's argument is important, and he makes it with passion.” —Raleigh News and Observer

“Gleefully peevish . . .” —New York Review of Books

“[A] potent little polemic . . . poetic prose . . . If you think the world is being overrun by zombie Pollyannas intent on spreading their insidious joy, Against Happiness will gladden your heart.” —Globe and Mail

“[A] deeply philosophical polemic . . . lucid and engaging prose.” —Playboy.com

“I have never been Mr. Happy, but after reading Against Happiness, I felt a lot better about myself. It almost made me happy. An important book and a stunning reminder, in these troubled times, that there are important lessons in our pain and that a smile may make a better moment, but not a better world.” —Lewis Black

“A lucid, literate defense of feeling like hell--and, in fact, of feeling itself.” —David Gates, author of Jernigan

“With his merry diatribe and his spiritual wisdom, Eric Wilson brings us to our senses and gives us a book that really helps. Dare to be against mere contentment and you can end up embracing ecstasy.” —Robert D. Richardson, author of William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

“This book will change your mind, and maybe your life, with its pitiless account of the value of happiness and the price we Americans pay for pursuing it so compulsively. Almost every American claims to be happy, and yet we are a nation increasingly benumbed by drugs, opiated by messianic religion and buffed smooth by surgery, as we chase the illusions of perpetual youth, of life without death and joy without pain. This movingly written book may help us stand up before it's too late and face our demons, by learning to love the melancholy realism and the creative powers that arise out of the darkness in our hearts.” —Richard Klein, author of Cigarettes Are Sublime

Publishers Weekly

This slender, powerful salvo offers a sure-to-be controversial alternative to the recent cottage industry of high-brow happiness books. Wilson, chair of Wake Forest University's English Department, claims that Americans today are too interested in being happy. (He points to the widespread use of antidepressants as exhibit A.) It is inauthentic and shallow, charges Wilson, to relentlessly seek happiness in a world full of tragedy. While he does not want to "romanticize clinical depression," Wilson argues forcefully that "melancholia" is a necessary ingredient of any culture that wishes to be innovative or inventive. In particular, we need melancholy if we want to make true, beautiful art. Though others have written on the possible connections between creativity and melancholy, Wilson's meditations about artists ranging from Melville to John Lennon are stirring. Wilson calls for Americans to recognize and embrace melancholia, and he praises as bold radicals those who already live with the truth of melancholy. Wilson's somewhat affected writing style is at times distracting: his prose is quirky, and he tends toward alliteration ("To be a patriot is to be peppy" "a person seeking slick comfort in this mysteriously mottled world"). Still, beneath the rococo wordsmithing lies provocative cultural analysis. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374531669
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
01/20/2009
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
176
Sales rank:
406,361
Product dimensions:
7.50(w) x 4.98(h) x 0.48(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Ours are ominous times. Each nervous glance portends some potential disaster. Paranoia most mornings shocks us to wakefulness, and we totter out under the ghostly sun. At night fear agitates the darkness. Dreams of empty streets flitter through our fitful heads. Enduring these omens, as vague and elusive as the obscure horror they suggest, we strain to think of exactly what scares us. Our minds run over a daunting litany of global problems. We hope with our listing to find a meaning, a clue to our unease.

We mentally scan the scene. We are on the verge of eroding away our ozone layer. Even as I write, this erosion is causing melting of the polar ice cap. Within decades we could face major oceanic flooding. Even our greatest skyscrapers, yearning heavenward, could soon be devoured by indifferent waves. We are also close to annihilating hundreds of exquisite animals. These beasts—white rhinos and Sumatran tigers and California condors—have been in the making for millions of years. Within almost a human lifetime our disregard for nature has put these sublime creatures almost into extinction. Soon our forests will be empty of colorful torsos and exotic wings. These formerly teeming groves will be as bland as pavement. Moreover, we now find ourselves on the verge of a new cold war. Nuclear warheads before long will be on the rise again. The fears of the middle of the last century will return. We’ll wonder: Will this year be the last that humans breathe and walk on this time-rending earth?

I can now add another threat, perhaps as dangerous as the most apocalyptic of concerns. We are possibly not far away from eradicating a major cultural force, a serious inspiration to invention, the muse behind much art and poetry and music. We are wantonly hankering to rid the world of numerous ideas and visions, multitudinous innovations and meditations. We are right at this moment annihilating melancholia.

We wonder if the wide array of antidepressants will one day make sweet sorrow a thing of the past. We wonder if soon enough every single American will be happy. We wonder if we will become a society of self-satisfied smiles. Treacly expressions will be painted on our faces as we parade through the pastel aisles. Bedazzling neon will spotlight our way.

What is behind this desire to purge sadness from our lives, especially in America, the land of splendid dreams and wild success? Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, for the innocuous smile? What fosters this desperate contentment?

These questions of course cut against the grain of what most Americans claim to think. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least happy. The psychological world is now abuzz with a new field, positive psychology, devoted to finding ways to enhance happiness through pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Psychologists practicing this brand of therapy are leaders in a novel sort of science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are now learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy and on why we are happy. The self-help press fills the shelves with step-by-step plans for worldly satisfaction. Everywhere I see advertisements offering even more happiness, happiness on land or by sea, in a car or under the stars. And as I have already noted, doctors now offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly, perhaps more than ever before, an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.

Surely all this happiness can’t be for real. How can so many people be happy in the midst of all the problems that beset our globe—not only the collective and apocalyptic ills just mentioned but also those particular irritations that bedevil our everyday existences, those money issues and marital spats, those stifling vocations and lonely dawns? Are we to believe that four out of every five Americans can be content amid the general woe? Are some people lying, or are they simply afraid to be honest in a culture in which the status quo is nothing short of manic bliss? Aren’t we suspicious of this statistic? Aren’t we further troubled by our culture’s overemphasis on happiness? Don’t we fear that this rabid focus on exuberance leads to half-lives, to bland existences, to wastelands of mechanistic behavior?

I for one am afraid that our American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am wary in the face of this possibility: to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful over our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia from the system. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

I want to get to the bottom of these fears, to see if they’re legitimate or just neurotic grumblings. My feeling right now is that they are valid. This sense grows out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to entertain a craven disregard for the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ongoing ignorance of life’s enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebulliance. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates in the end that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.

Let me be clear. I’m right now thinking only of this specific American type of happiness. I’m not questioning joy in general. For instance, I’m not challenging that unbearable exuberance that suddenly emerges from long suffering. I’m not troubled by that hard-earned tranquillity that comes from long meditation on the world’s sorrows. I’m not criticizing that slow-burning bliss that issues from a life spent helping those that hurt.

Likewise, I’d like to be clear about this: I don’t want to romanticize clinical depression. I realize that there are many lost souls out there who require medication to keep from killing themselves or harming their friends and families. I don’t want to question the pharmaceutical therapies of the seriously depressed. Not only am I not qualified to do this (I’m not a psychotherapist marshaling evidence, but a literary humanist searching for a deeper life), I’m also not willing to argue against medications that simply make existence bearable for so many with biochemical disorders.

I do, however, wonder why so many people experiencing melancholia are now taking pills meant simply to ease the pain, to turn scowls once more into smiles. Of course there is a fine line between what I’m calling melancholia and what society calls depression. In my mind, what separates the two is degree of activity. Both forms are more or less chronic sadness that leads to ongoing unease with how things are—persistent feelings that the world as it is is not quite right, that it is a place of suffering, stupidity, and evil. Depression (as I see it, at least) causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another. In contrast, melancholia (in my eyes) generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.

Our culture seems to confuse these two and thus treat melancholia as an aberrant state, a vile threat to our pervasive notions of happiness—happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment. Of course the question immediately arises: Who wouldn’t question this apparently hollow form of American happiness? Aren’t all of us late at night, when we’re honest with ourselves, opposed to shallow happiness? Most likely we are, but isn’t it possible that many of us fall into superficiality without knowing it? Aren’t some of us so smitten with the American dream that we have become brainwashed into believing that our sole purpose on this earth is to be happy? Doesn’t this unwitting affection for happiness over sadness lead us to a one-sided life, to bliss without discomfort, bright noon with no night?

My sense is that most of us have been duped by the American craze for happiness. We might think that we’re leading a truly honest existence, one attuned to vivid realities and blooded hearts, when we’re really just behaving as predictably and artificially as robots, falling easily into well-worn “happy” behaviors, into the conventions of contentment, into obvious grins. Deceived, we miss out on the great interplay of the living cosmos, its luminous gloom, its terrible beauty.

The American dream might be a nightmare. What passes for bliss could well be a dystopia of flaccid grins. Our passion for felicity hints at an ominous hatred for all that grows and thrives and then dies—for all those curious thrushes moving among autumn’s brownish indolence, for those blue dahlias seemingly hollowed with sorrow, for all those gloomy souls who long for clouds above high windows. I’d hate for us to awaken one morning and regret what we’ve done in the name of untroubled enjoyment. I’d hate for us to crawl out of our beds and walk out into a country denuded of gorgeous lonely roads and the grandeur of desolate hotels, of half-cracked geniuses and their frantic poems. I’d hate for us to come to consciousness when it’s too late to live.

Excerpted from Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson. Copyright © 2008 by Eric G. Wilson. Published in January 2008 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Eric G. Wilson is Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of five books on the relationship between literature and psychology.

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