In defense of sadness

  • Article by: ETHAN RUTHERFORD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 1, 2008 - 6:16 PM

To be duped into the relentless pursuit of happiness, the author argues, is to be cheated of the "terrible beauty" of the cosmos.

It's official: Americans are obsessed with happiness. According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 85 percent of Americans claim to be "very happy or at least happy." The No. 1 bestseller on amazon.com these days is "Happy For No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy From the Inside Out," notable not for its content but simply because it's the most recent in the long line of road-to-happiness self-help books. Mood-enhancing drugs, those gorillas of Big Pharma, are advertised on billboards and during the Super Bowl. And the message is clear: If you're not happy, something is wrong with you.

So, as an American who is not "happy" 100 percent of the time, it is in a celebratory mood that I greet the publication of Eric Wilson's "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy" -- an impassioned, compelling, dare I say poetic, argument on behalf of those who "labor in the fields of sadness."

To Wilson, Americans' obsession with happiness is as "dangerous as the most apocalyptic of concerns." For in our relentless pursuit of same, we are not far from "eradicating a major cultural force, a serious inspiration to invention." And in our haste to root out and medicate what Americans call depression, "we are right at this moment annihilating melancholia."

Clearly, some definitions are in order: What is meant by happiness, sadness, melancholy -- and are there particular American brands of each? Wilson, the author of five previous books, declares he's "not a psychotherapist marshaling evidence, but a literary humanist searching for a deeper life."

He's more than up to the task, and one of the many pleasures of this book is the way he leads his reader to the aggregate, specific yet unconstrained, and (on account of his writing) unexpectedly beautiful meanings of each. "What is existence," he writes, "if not an enduring polarity, an endless dance of limping dogs and lilting crocuses, starlings that are spangled and frustrated worms?"

What troubles him is the American drive for a "desperate contentment" that, in effect, flattens the world and prevents one from seeing the universe as it is: "an ungraspable riddle, gorgeous and gross," as full of death as it is life, and beautiful to the melancholic soul -- not in spite of but because of its finitude. The irony of melancholy is that it is only when "feeling fractured and fragmented, isolated and bereft, one actually comes to experience wholeness and unity. To suffer melancholy is also to understand its polar opposite, joy."

Wilson is interested in exploring, and celebrating, the sort of vital melancholy that gives life its "edge, its friction, its exquisite frission." He makes it clear that he's not romanticizing clinical depression, apathetic detachment, or brooding unhappiness for its own sake. This book, if anything, is a call for engagement with the world -- not as you want it to be (that is the happy-type approach), but as you find it. Wilson is asking us to see the value of uncertainty.

If you can get past the occasional rhetorical and baiting broadsides ("The happy man is the hollow man"), Wilson's argument is clear: The problem with the pursuit of happiness (here also equated with the pursuit of acquisition) is that it casts those who are not content as depressives in need of fixing. And if these malcontents -- swayed by the power of American marketing -- swallow pills to fit in? We'd lose the innovators and artists who, in responding to their mottled predicament, make life worth living.

Although Wilson reaches into the past to illustrate and drive home his points, this book is not a comprehensive history of melancholy. And although he trots out many melancholy artists -- whose hearts perpetually throb between "faith and doubt" -- this is not a history of melancholy individuals (although I wouldn't have minded if he'd spent more time with Bruce Springsteen).

What it is, however, is 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.

Ethan Rutherford is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Minnesota.

  • AGAINST HAPPINESS

    BY: ERIC G. WILSON. PUBLISHER: FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, 166 PAGES, $20. REVIEW: A WONDERFULLY CONTRARY COUNTERPOINT TO THE STACKS OF SELF-HELP BOOKS THAT POINT THE WAY TO MINDLESS BLISS.

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