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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.
Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy
The Strange World of David Lynch: Transcendental Irony from Eraserhead to Mulholland Dr.
Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film
The Melancholy Android: On the Psychology of Sacred Machines
Coleridge's Melancholia: An Anatomy of Limbo
The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination
Romantic Turbulence: Chaos, Ecology, and American Space
Emerson's Sublime Science
Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy
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.