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[552] Against Happiness – Eric G. Wilson

happiness

” You at this moment are two and one at once, melancholy and joyful, sorrowful and ebullient. You realize that the richest moments in life are these junctures where we realize, in our sinews, what is true all the time: the cosmos is a dance of joggled opposites, a jolted waltz . . . they are the most profound ones we can imagine—suggest that we are most deeply vital when we realize that joy and sorrow go together, that one cannot exist without the other. ” (Generative Melancholia, p.78-79)

The message of Against Happiness is nothing new or earth-shattering: Eric Wilson argues that melancholy (good, as to depression is bad) is necessary in any thriving culture. His point is that melancholy can be fertile state of mind that allows us to look inward and be enlightened to the actions we have to take in order to fulfill our short life. In other word, he advocates for a middle ground in which we always have to fight certainty, adopt some limbo of confusion, because the world is dynamic and capacious, and no one perspective on the world is ever finally true.

[The happy types] could realize that there is no joy without sorrow, no vivacious sun without the pockmarked moon. If they could understand this hard fact, deep, deep in their bones, then they could accept the scrambling of the cosmos, its ramming and slamming of opposing yet interdependent potencies. Suddenly sadness would not seem an aberration but instead a vital power, the enabler of joy. (The American Dream, p.30)

Wilson sees these “happy types” as a cause, symptom, and scourge of modern-day American life and he denounces them with vitriol and disgust. He links the American fixation on happiness with the American dream, which, trimmed to the bone, is greed-driven, bland, and insular. He expresses concern for this obsession with happiness out of fear and makes the case that hollow happiness, usually in the form of instant gratification and oversimplification of deeper issues, breeds blandness. This self-deceiving happiness forgets and forfeits an essential part of a full human life. Up to this point, I generally agree with Wilson’s claim. Who doesn’t take the easy way to happiness? Then he goes on, to the offense of some readers, to over-generalize that the “mall mentality” is responsible for people who want to boil the world down to quick contentment. While he completely avoids the fertile relationship between capitalism, consumerism, and “happiness”, he rails against this mall mentality that encourages people to view the world in abstractions, drawing the dangerously oversimplified conclusion that “happy people” reduce the earth to a series of glittering boxes, while the melancholics stick with the decrepitude of old cottages like his house.

Against Happiness, for the most part, is one long rant against a contemporary American culture that requires artificial happiness at all time. The first half of the book is plausible. The second half, which argues that the experience of normal melancholia makes us creative, is seriously flawed. To back up his arguments he cites examples using historic and contemporary creative geniuses. He sets out to focus on the middle of the continuum, with happiness on one side, and melancholy on the other. Claiming that the book is not about the aberrant extremes, yet he supports his claim about normal melancholy giving rise to creativity using examples, John Lenin being the most prominent, who suffered from clinical depression. This leads him into into cross-eyed parallels between Herman Melville and Bruce Springsteen, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Joni Mitchell. None of which make any sense. The first half on America’s overemphasis on happiness is well-founded, and could be done in as essay. Wilson’s holier-than-thou attitude also makes this book difficult to read with a straight face.

To argue for melancholia as a force for creativity prompts the question: why isn’t this a better book, since the author is so miserable?

166 pp. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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