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Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy…
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Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (2008)

by Eric G. Wilson

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I expected to like this book more than I did. I am often exasperated by “happiness-mongers” who think they are spreading cheer and are often spreading irritation. I don't believe that anyone was ever successfully nagged into being happy. Not all happiness-mongers are happy; some just don't want others to waste time being negative that could spent listening to them complain. Wilson, on the other hand, is an unhappiness-monger, which is no improvement. He isn't satisfied to claim his right to his own point of view, he wants converts and attacks others.

An underlying problem is the survey that Wilson references. Asking people whether they are happy or unhappy is a silly unnuanced question. That binary choice does not begin to cover the range of human personalities and attitudes. How about "reasonably satisfied" or "aware of my advantages or so-so?" I also recoil from generalizations about large groups of people. According to Census, there are more than 227 million people of voting age in the US. If 85% are happy, that is 193 million people that Wilson thinks he can sum up in a few sentences. I don't find that credible or consistent with my own experience. Interestingly enough, and unconsidered by Wilson, lifetime rates of depression in the developed world vary, but average 15%. He gives no thought to temperament, circumstances, personality, or consideration of what various people regard as happiness. Christine Wicker said of herself "I am an upbeat, cheerful person. [...] I have a perfectly reasonable sense that happiness is fleeting, that death, pain, and destruction could befall me and the people I love at any minute. That's normal, I think." William Bradford and Benjamin Franklin are odd choices as the founding fathers of the vapid and the vacuous. I suppose that if one fancies oneself to be elite, one needs a madding crowd to look down on. The book begins as a rant, which is wearing to read and the latter part is repetitious. Wilson has some nice turns of phrase, but he repeats the same things in different ways. This would have made a better essay.

It is unclear what Wilson means by “melancholy.” It is hard to believe that he is unhappy when he seems so smugly self-satisfied and pleased with all the gifts of his melancholy with which he hopes to attract disciples. It is often used as a synonym for clinical depression; he that he is referring to something different, but never says how it differs. It appears to me that it is a slightly morbid Romanticism. He was inspired partly by Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched with Fire : Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperment. I call attention to the words “manic” and “illness.” The people that he offers as examples of how melancholy provides inspiration in fact had serious mood disorders. According to Jamison, some worked best when depressed, others when they were manic, in a mixed state, or normal. They also had a high suicide rate, contrary to Wilson's claim that melancholy makes life more precious. Jamison, while questioning the wisdom of eliminating manic-depressive (bipolar) disease, also remarks “it would be irresponsible to romanticize an extremely painful, destructive and lethal disease.” The minority who stop taking their medicines do so because they miss their hypomania, not their depression. Many creative people are normal, and people with mood disorders have periods of normalcy. Wilson does say that he knows this, but in proportion to the amount of space that he has used saying the opposite, the caveat is feeble. While I wish him all the melancholy that he and his allies could desire while wandering through the winter woods or roamin' through the gloamin', he is wrong to distort other people's lives.

Wilson is also unhappy with Peter D. Kramer's Against Depression, a book that I strongly recommend. I think that Wilson is wrong for one of two reasons. If he is really not talking about clinical depression, that he can have no argument with Kramer, who is discussing that subject. Kramer makes it quite clear that he is only interested in treating a disease, he would not like to see drugs to change healthy people's personalities. If there is a contest between the two books, I think that Wilson is metaphorically trying to bring down a fortress with graffiti, so inferior is his book to Kramer's.

Wilson oversteps when he “forgives” creative depressives who commit suicide. He has no right, he is not an injured party. Similarly, people argue that depressives should not be allowed anti-depressants lest it diminish their creativity. Arguing that someone should suffer so that others can enjoy the fruits of their suffering is akin to arguing for slavery. Only the person with the mood disorder has the right to choose. ( )
  juglicerr | Nov 7, 2016 |
A book with a title like this is irresistible to a pessimistic, curmudegeonly misanthrope like me and I was not at all disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed the witty, eloquent case Wilson makes to recognize the beauty and necessity of melancholy, a state in which I frequently find myself. Wilson's approach to the subject is more literary and artistic than psychological which I found all the more appealing. This book is an excellent complement to Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided which skewers the positive-thinking movement and industry. ( )
1 vote Sullywriter | Apr 3, 2013 |
Didn't love this, but am inclined to think that is more my fault than the author's; not sure. The prose did not seem well organized, and I was put off by the author's constant "us-them" positioning (where "us" refers to the melancholy types and "them" refers to the happy types). Had trouble concentrating on it but I started to come round toward the end.

"Insights, we realize, are like coats for the celeritous seasons; they are good only for a brief time. We are always searching for a new garment appropriate to the moment." (85)

"Chase away the demons, and they will take the angels with them" -Joni Mitchell (99)

"Creating doesn't make us unhappy; unhappiness makes us creative." (106)

"...Melancholia, far from a mere disease or weakness of will, is an almost miraculous invitation to transcend the banal status quo and imagine the untapped possibilities for existence." (145)

"Of course not all innovators are melancholy, and not all melancholy souls are innovative." (148) ( )
  JennyArch | Apr 3, 2013 |
insufferably pretentious
1 vote betsyhartman | Mar 31, 2010 |
Although it could have been halved, all I could think was, "Thank God, somebody finally gets me!" ;-) ( )
  Laurenbdavis | May 13, 2009 |
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Epigraph
Dedication
For Sandi and Una
First words
Introduction
Ours are ominous times.
In the winter of 1620 William Bradford's battered and scarred ship—called, perhaps not too hopefully, the Mayflower—hit land at Cape Cod.
Quotations
If I reduce my teeming environment to a strategy for salvation or a plan for savings, then I perceive the landscape only through the windows of my own desire for perfect happiness, for total security and contentment. In other words, I see only what fits into the grids of my own mind, networks devoted solely to my personal comfort. I am attuned only to those parts that I can transform into material that I can use to boost my ego.
I am, though, suggesting this: a person seeking sleek comfort in this mysteriously mottled world—where love is always edged with resentment and baseness beds with grace—is necessarily required to perceive only small parts of the planet, those parts that fit into his preconceived mental grids. These grids allow in only data that reinforce a narrow sense of correctness.
Melancholy living shows us that our demons—the dark parts of our hearts, our agitations and our loathings, our cynicisms and our acerbities—are integral parts of ourselves, absolutely essential. Indeed, it is our acidity that actually makes us unique individuals.
Most hide behind the smile because they are afraid of facing the world's complexity, its vagueness, its terrible beauties. If they stay safely ensconced behind their painted grins, then they won't have to encounter the insecurities attendant upon dwelling in possibility, those anxious moments when one doesn't know this from that, when one could suddenly become almost anything at all.
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Book description
Contents:

The American dream -- The man of sorrows -- Generative melancholia -- Terrible beauty.
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374240663, Hardcover)

Americans are addicted to happiness. When we’re not popping pills, we leaf through scientific studies that take for granted our quest for happiness, or read self-help books by everyone from armchair philosophers and clinical psychologists to the Dalai Lama on how to achieve a trouble-free life: Stumbling on Happiness; Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment; The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. The titles themselves draw a stark portrait of the war on melancholy.
 
More than any other generation, Americans of today believe in the transformative power of positive thinking. But who says we’re supposed to be happy? Where does it say that in the Bible, or in the Constitution? 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. Francisco Goya, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, and Abraham Lincoln were all confirmed melancholics. So enough Prozac-ing of our brains. Let’s embrace our depressive sides as the wellspring of creativity. What most people take for contentment, Wilson argues, is living death, and what the majority takes for depression is a vital force. In Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Wilson suggests it would be better to relish the blues that make humans people.
Eric G. Wilson is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The recipient of several important awards, including a National Humanities Center year-long fellowship, he is the author of five books on the relationship between literature and psychology.
Consumer trends and popular medical and psychological interests indicate that Americans are addicted to happiness.  At an increasing rate, they pop pills, seek both clinical and non-traditional therapies, read recent scientific studies that take for granted the population's quest for happiness, or buy self-help books by everyone from armchair philosophers and clinical psychologists to the Dalai Lama on how to achieve a trouble-free life: Stumbling on Happiness, Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment; The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. The titles themselves draw a stark portrait of the war on melancholy.

More than any other generation, Americans today believe in the transformative power of positive thinking. Happiness is considered a liberty, if not an ultimate life goal.  But 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. Francisco Goya, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, and Abraham Lincoln—all confirmed melancholics.

What most people take for contentment, Wilson argues, is living death, and what the majority sees as depressive is a vital force that inspires creativity, spurs ambition, and helps people form more intimate bonds with one another. It's time to throw off the shackles of positivity and relish the blues that make us human.
"Mr. Wilson's basic thesis is that, without suffering, the human soul becomes stagnant and empty . . . We must live between the poles of sadness and joy and not try to expunge misery from our lives. Mr. Wilson makes a strong case . . . to deny our essential sadness in the face of a tragic world is to suppress a large part of what we are as human beings."—Colin McGinn, The Wall Street Journal
"Utilitarianism is the philosophical doctrine according to which happiness is the sole intrinsic value—the only thing that is good in itself. Although invented by 19th-century Britons, notably Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill, utilitarianism has some claim to be the official philosophy of the U.S.A. or, as a philosopher might have it, the 'Utilitarian States of America.' In America, happiness is what makes life good, and unhappiness is what makes it bad. We must therefore seize the former and avoid the latter. Eric G. Wilson, a professor of English at Wake Forest University, disagrees, contending that utilitarianism has it the wrong way around. The 'happy types,' as he calls them, are apt to be bland, superficial, static, hollow, one-sided, bovine, acquisitive, deluded and foolish. Sold on the ideal of the happy smile and the cheerful salutation, they patrol the malls in dull uniformity, zombie-like, searching for contentment and pleasure, locked inside their own dreams of a secure and unblemished world, oblivious to objective reality, cocooned in a protective layer of bemused well-being . . . Mr. Wilson's basic thesis is that, without suffering, the human soul becomes stagnant and empty. We can only reach our full potential through pain—not a pathological kind of pain but the kind that comes from a recognition of death, decay and the bad day (or decade). We must live between the poles of sadness and joy and not try to expunge misery from our lives. Mr. Wilson makes a strong case for this anti-utilitarianism, in prose both spare and lavish. (Of Coleridge he writes: 'He was hurt into these sublimities. He was axed into ecstasy.') And indeed, to deny our essential sadness in the face of a tragic world is to suppress a large part of what we are as human beings. It is to retreat into a fearful solipsism, refusing to peep out into the world beyond—an approach to life that is all the more fatuous in that it can never succeed . . . 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

"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 rele

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:11 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"More than any other generation, Americans today believe in the transformative power of positive thinking. But who says we're supposed to be happy? In Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, 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. Francisco Goya, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, an Abraham Lincoln - all confirmed melancholics." "So enough Prozac-ing our brains. Let's embrace our depressive sides as the wellspring of creativity. What most people take for contentment, Wilson argues, is living death, and what the majority sees as depression is a vital force. It's time to throw off the shackles of positivity and relish the blues that make us human."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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