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Against HappinessReview - Against Happiness
In Praise of Melancholy
by Eric G. Wilson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
Review by Elisabeth Herschbach, Ph.D.
Aug 5th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 32)

"Do you not see," wrote John Keats, poet of melancholy, "how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?" According to Eric Wilson, this is a lesson that we Americans, obsessed with happiness at the expense of all those more somber, soul-making states of mind-- melancholy, sadness, gloomy introspection-- are fast forgetting.

Lured by the "gaudy glow of the pervasive American dream," we chase easy comforts and the smug trappings of conventional success. Bombarded with self-help books and prescriptions for Prozac, we think that every pang of sorrow, every lapse into gloom, must be either a sign of disease or a personal failing, something to be overcome in the quest for perfect bliss. But the pursuit of happiness-- drafters of the Declaration of Independence be darned-- is not all that it's chalked up to be. Or so Wilson argues.

In our drive to see the world at all costs as a bright, shiny place of hugs and smiley faces--these days, "to be a patriot is to be peppy," Wilson quips-- we are becoming a shallow culture of  "muted souls" and "paper-thin minds," a "dystopia of flaccid grins." Worse yet, in turning our backs on melancholia, in treating even ordinary sadness as an "aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill," we are at risk of eradicating a major cultural source for creativity and innovation, the inspiration for much art and music and literature. "Soon, perhaps, with the help of pharmaceuticals, we shall have no more unhappy people in our country," Wilson worries. But "without the agitations of the soul, would all our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?"

Despite the book's title, it turns out that Wilson is not against happiness in general. For example, he doesn't object, he says, to the "unbearable exuberance that suddenly emerges from long suffering" or to the "slow-burning bliss that issues from a life spent helping those who hurt." Instead, Wilson's beef is with what he calls American-style happiness, that bland, feel-good variety peddled by Hallmark cards and suburban shopping malls-- "happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment."

The vices of so-called "happy types"-- those who subscribe to this allegedly American brand of happiness-- are, apparently, legion. Happy types are shallow, "zombielike beings" who mindlessly accept the status quo and live stunted, one-sided, inauthentic lives. They are obsessed with "joy without tumult" and seek "bliss without discomfort, bright noon with no night." They treat the world like a vast playground or a giant department store. They want life to be like a string of perfect Kodak moments, every rough patch and jagged edge airbrushed away. Afraid to face "the world's complexity, its vagueness, its terrible beauties," they hide behind "tepid clichés" and "murmured truisms," "reduc[ing] the world's terrible tragedies... to mindless talk on the television screen." They flee from hard reality, distracting themselves with their bubble dreams, their airy, empty optimism. They are more likely to be bigots. They may even be to blame for the Iraq War.

Their melancholy counterparts, by contrast, have almost all the opposing virtues, according to Wilson, a fellow melancholic himself. Unlike those happy types "ensconced in their solipsistic silos," gloomy souls are realists. They recognize the real world for what it is: "mixed, blurred, messy, and contradictory," shot through with tragedy, uncomfortably ambiguous. They do not delude themselves with the myth of perfect contentment; they know that there's no joy without sorrow. They do not hide behind "painted grins" and false platitudes, pretending, as those chirpy, peppy people do, that everything is always A-Okay! In their sadness, they can appreciate the fragile, haunted beauty of transient things. Indeed, they find more beauty in "gloriously dilapidated buildings" and "wrinkled faces born of strain" than in the comfortably bland McMansion or the perfect model's face, "Botoxed to the max." Their turbulent hearts stoke their imagination, provoking "new ways of being and seeing." Their pensive moods incline them to be thoughtful and reflective. And above all, Wilson says, melancholics are creative.

As proof, Wilson gives us an "honor roll of brilliant men and women"-- van Gogh, Beethoven, Handel, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Keats, Coleridge, Blake-- all up to their necks in sorrow, but creative geniuses nonetheless. "Far from a mere disease or weakness of will," Wilson concludes, melancholia is an "almost miraculous invitation to transcend the banal status quo and imagine the untrapped possibilities for existence."

Regrettably, Wilson's discussion tends to suffer from his penchant for delivering up ponderous overgeneralizations in which nuance is sacrificed for the sake of coining some catchy, often highly alliterative, phrase. ("The happy man is the hollow man." "Neurosis is knowledge." "Frowning is flourishing." "To hug happiness is to hate life...The embrace of gloom stokes the heart.") His discussion of so-called "happy types," in particular, borders on caricature. Who are all these people seeking "joy without tumult" and "bliss without discomfort"?

Wilson claims to find evidence that the "push for earthly bliss is at the core of the American soul" in our rampant consumerism, in the prefabricated houses and gated communities of suburbia, in the vapidity of political discourse, in our recourse to quick fixes-- Botox, liposuction, Lunesta-- and in our readiness to pop pills to dispel the blues. He finds it in the excesses of the digital age-- thanks to which we are "more likely to witness pixels than people," more likely to be gazing at web pages than the "morning strands, shiny with dew, of the garden spider"-- and in the fact that our liberal arts institutions are turning into vocational schools. Most of all, though, he seems to find it in the masses of superficial, frivolous people he sees all around him: people who, for example, adore "smarmy" poems like Mary Stevenson's "Footprints in the Sand," are inspired by "bestsellers about the wisdom of children and coaches," go ga-ga over cute puppies and babies, enjoy the Lifetime channel, and believe in the "power of positive thinking." (Oddly, even Jell-o and Cool Whip and Book-of-the-Month clubs get indicted as signs of our dangerous addiction to happiness.)

Each of these things, Wilson argues, in some way represents the American impulse to flee from reality, to retreat into the sanctuary of the self, where you can block out the messy, bewildering world and pretend that everything is safe and easy and predictable. But isn't this analysis too quick, too facile? When we slaves to the digital age are staring at our high-tech web pages, for example, we may be missing out on the simple beauty of the spider's gauzy web, but perhaps we're reading up on the genocide in Darfur or investigating ways to help the victims of the cyclone in Burma.

In the end, Wilson's catalog of complaints against contemporary American life is just too sweeping, too oversimplified, too driven by glib generalizations to be trenchant cultural analysis. I'm not a big fan of suburbs, vapid political discourse, unfettered consumerism, or smarmy, inspirational poems, either, but are all these very different and complicated phenomena really connected? And what exactly is the link to happiness? I would guess that there are a lot of decidedly unhappy types in the suburbs, surely not all of whom are stoked up on Prozac, and no doubt many of Mary Stevenson's fans recite "Footprints in the Sand" over and over precisely because they are down in the dumps. Melancholia is no guarantee of good taste or subtlety of mind.

This is a point that gets lost in Wilson's heady rhetoric. Since he identifies "happy types" in large part by their superficiality-- they're the ones reading trite bestsellers and bad poetry instead of Keats and Blake-- he makes it seem that, by definition, all unhappy people, simply by virtue of their unhappiness, will be possessed of smoldering intellects and souls of quivering beauty, their rare sensibilities in danger of being crushed by the giddy, giggling masses.

"If you are right now suffering constant melancholia, you are included in this fascinating litany of profound men and women," he writes after reciting a long list of vaunted names, including Michelangelo, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, and Kierkegaard-- as if mere gloominess is an instant entry ticket to brilliance. But of course most of the depressed people in the world are not creative geniuses, or even brighter than average. They are just miserable.

Wilson insists that he doesn't want to romanticize depression, but romanticize he does. Fond of a rather high-flown style of prose, he saves his most melodramatic turns of phrase for rhapsodizing about melancholy folk-- those "gloomy souls who long for clouds above high windows," those yearning hearts in tune with the "great interplay of the living cosmos, its luminous gloom, its terrible beauty."

Forget raw anguish and shattering pain; forget dark despair and numb hopelessness. These depressives are all about moonlit nights and dusky landscapes. They seek out the "half-lighted room, the twilight forest, the empty cafe;" they long for "gorgeous lonely roads and the grandeur of desolate hotels." Their sadness inspires them to imagine, most alliteratively, "poems more beautiful than the quiet cruising of devious sharks and symphonies more sonorous than those songs of the aloof birds of summer." Their full-hearted sensitivity makes them alert to the fleetingly beautiful riches of nature, which apparently include "furious owls swoosh[ing] luridly from the horizon," "curious thrushes moving among autumn's brownish indolence," "desperate starlings," "toads that glisten" and "mica shining at noon." (Happy types, by contrast, are presumably too busy surfing the web, gulping down their Happy Meals, and -- since they are too shallow to appreciate the "beautiful ruins of aged buildings" -- fixing up their prefab houses to notice such things. "They've probably never moved among autumn's multihued lustrousness, through the serrated forms of orange and amber and crimson, with hearts irreparably ripped," Wilson laments. "They've probably not stared steadily at the sparrow lying stiff on the soiled snow.")

These passages are rather silly, but they're easy to dismiss as overwrought hyperbole. But Wilson also romanticizes depression in a more dangerous way. In the introduction, he draws a distinction between melancholia and depression, and assures his readers that he does not oppose medical treatments for severe clinical depression. "I realize that there are many lost souls out there who require medications to keep from killing themselves or harming their friends and families, he writes. "I don't want to question the pharmaceutical therapies of the seriously depressed... [or] argue against medications that simply make life bearable for so many with biochemical disorders." Yet Wilson makes no attempt to observe this distinction in the rest of the book, often using the terms "melancholia" and "depression" interchangeably and including in his list of "melancholy creatures [who] constitute a fascinating team of mentors" several cases of suicides, extreme depression, serious addictive disorders, and mental illness. "One of the great and enduring tragedies of our planet," he says after musing on several such examples, is that "people must suffer for beauty." Then, a few pages after vividly describing Rothko's act of suicide, committed in the depths of despair, he leaves us with this incongruously insipid thought: "Creating doesn't make us unhappy, unhappiness makes us creative."

Despite these criticisms, I do think that Against Happiness raises important issues. Certainly Wilson is right that there is much that is superficial, shallow, and dangerously self-absorbed about our culture, and any attempt to call us out on it is worth applauding. Moreover, in a culture so enamored of extroverts and go-getters and positive thinkers, as ours no doubt is, a paean to the more melancholy side of life is much appreciated. Always the imperative of perky optimism, always the enjoinder to Smile! But sometimes we just want to be left alone with our own dark thoughts.

Wilson is also wise to remind us that superficial comfort and easy pleasures are not the same thing as real joy or real fulfillment, and that the real joys often come mixed with turmoil, edged with melancholy. Incidentally, this is a point recognized by the philosopher J.S. Mill, a melancholy man who nonetheless praised happiness. "Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied," as he put it, famously. He also wrote, less famously, that "in this condition of the world... the conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of realizing such happiness as is attainable"-- a point that complements Wilson's observation that once we accept sadness as an inevitable part of life, then "the paradox comes truly alive. We actually feel, in the midst of our sorrow, something akin to joy."

Philosophers have noted a paradox about pleasure, the so-called paradox of hedonism: deliberately seek pleasure, and you'll probably fail to find it. The same thing goes for happiness, as Wilson reminds us. Make the pursuit of your own happiness your mission in life and you're bound to be thwarted. Better to aim at something other than your own happiness; aim at filling your life with things independently worth pursuing -- fraught with difficulty as they may be -- and you may find fulfillment. Glance at the self-help section of your local bookstore, where you'll see titles like Happiness Now! Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FAST! and you'll see that this is indeed a reminder we need.

Yet for all these virtues, the book as a whole doesn't work. Wilson lets himself get too carried away with overblown rhetoric and ends up being sloppy with the hard work of argumentation. For example, as evidence of the "American craze for happiness," Wilson relies heavily on a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, showing that almost 85% of Americans claim to be happy. "How can so many people be happy in the midst of all the problems that beset our globe?" he wonders. Yet the results look rather different when one consults the actual numbers.  According to the Pew report, 50% of those respondents identified themselves merely as "pretty happy," an answer hardly inconsistent with the occasional, perhaps even frequent, bout of melancholy. That leaves only 34% of respondents identifying themselves as "very happy" -- not exactly evidence of an epidemic of flaccid grins. (Moreover, as the Pew report explains, these results have stayed remarkably consistent since the poll was first conducted in 1972 -- long before the Age of Prozac, and so hardly good support for Wilson's claim that melancholia is being medicated out of existence by an overzealous pharmaceutical industry.)

Most of all, there is something disconcertingly out of touch about the book. Wilson describes his nightmare vision of masses of pill-popping, tummy-tucking, blissed-out Americans, "Botoxed to the max" and beaming big self-satisfied grins -- "thousands of glowing, perfect teeth lighting the American landscape." "We wonder if the wide array of antidepressants will one day make sweet sorrow a thing of the past," he writes. "We wonder if soon every single American will be happy." But he doesn't seem to realize how far-fetched that sounds to anyone who remembers that millions of uninsured Americans can't even afford basic healthcare, let alone a tummy tuck or cosmetic dental surgery. Wilson waxes eloquent about the "sweet decadence" of his "decomposing abode," which he likes to admire in the flickering twilight when he comes back from "melancholy walks in the neighborhood;" he gets nostalgic for the "seductive mixture of divas and drugs, gloriously dilapidated buildings and grim rings of illegal sex" that Times Square used to be before we turned it into just another bland and benign, family-friendly place. But this just sounds like the naive romanticizing of someone who has never known real squalor. Wilson accuses "happy types" of self-indulgence, of retreating into their "solipsistic silos," and fleeing from reality. "There is of course something soul-deadening about being overly in love with oneself," he says. At times, however, Wilson can seem overly in love with his own melancholy, and he shows that even gloomy souls have their own way of evading reality.

© 2008 Elisabeth Herschbach

Elisabeth Herschbach has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and teaches in Rhode Island.


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