The Down Side

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Reviewed by Louis Bayard
Sunday, March 2, 2008


In Praise of Melancholy

By Eric G. Wilson

Farrar Straus Giroux. 166 pp. $20

If only we'd listened to John Locke. In his Second Treatise of Government, he declared that human beings were entitled only to "life, liberty and" -- get ready -- "estate." As in property. Leave it to Mr. Jefferson of Virginia to change that last item in the trinity to "pursuit of happiness." What he neglected to tell us was that, 230 years later, we would still be pursuing it.

Make even a passing scan of today's bestseller lists, and you'll find a veritable happiness racket: titles urging us to start "Living Well" and "Become a Better You" and master "The Secret" and (my personal favorite) be "Happy for No Reason." Between all the Tony Robbinses and Rick Warrens and Deepak Chopras of the world, happiness is perhaps our last growth industry, and it even has a volunteer sales force. "Smile!" a stranger recently exhorted me on the street. "It can't be that bad." To which my only response was: "How do you know?"

Maybe it's all paying off, though. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, nearly 85 percent of us believe ourselves to be happy or very happy. All power, then, to Eric G. Wilson for writing a book with the refreshing title Against Happiness. Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University, is seriously bummed by the cultural landscape. "Everywhere I see advertisements offering even more happiness, happiness on land or by sea, in a car or under the stars. . . . 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." This "overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness," he writes, produces only blandness, conformity, "a dystopia of flaccid grins" fueled by Lexapro and Paxil.

Melancholia, by contrast, is "the profane ground out of which springs the sacred." To prove his point, Wilson takes us on a private survey course, retreading the lonely paths of Beethoven and Coleridge and Rothko and even Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon and Joni Mitchell. In each case, he finds the same equation of melancholy and creation. "Our sadness," suggests Wilson, "is not aberrant or unseemly or weakness but instead a call to interior depths, to cauldrons out of which will bubble new solutions, crimson and sweet and unforgettable."

As you may have guessed, Wilson's idea of melancholia is thoroughly Romantic and more than a little romantic. He's the kind of guy who likes to wander through solitary landscapes, thinking sad and beautiful thoughts. Unfortunately, once he's refracted his thoughts through the prism of his prose, they sound pretty goofy: "What is existence if not an enduring polarity, an endless dance of limping dogs and lilting crocuses, starlings that are spangled and frustrated worms?"

Even laughter, I'm afraid, eventually falters beneath the weight of Wilson's inflated sentences. "I'm trying to imagine poems more beautiful than the quiet cruising of devious sharks and symphonies more sonorous than those songs of the aloof birds of summer. I'm attempting to concoct a cosmos out of chaos." He's also attempting to repeat every consonant he hears. The hard "c" is a particular favorite -- "the crepuscular continuum between clarity and clarity" -- but there's also "mulling over moons" and "solipsistic silos" and "bizarre breathings" and "grimaced grin." If you weren't depressed before you started reading, a sentence like "Invisible potencies would actualize in the palpable" might just do the trick.

Even these stylistic horrors wouldn't matter so much if there weren't, lying beneath them, an unseemly preening. Sadness, in Wilson's eyes, isn't just good philosophy, it's good living. Not for him the gated suburb. "We melancholy souls," he writes, "love the beautiful ruins of aged buildings. We love the intricate architectural designs, the carvings and the mosaics and the rough stones. We love high ceilings and crown moldings. We love worn-down hardwood floors. We love the smell of rusting radiators. We love rickety windows that rattle in the wind. We also adore those ancient and lovely woodlands where we can walk alone and hear geese honking over the horizon." I see nothing here to distinguish melancholics from Martha Stewart.

What really exercises Wilson's glum aesthetic, though, is the prospect that antidepressants will one day "destroy dejection completely." Yeah, yeah, we've heard it all before: The pharmaceutical industry is turning us into blissed-out zombies. But have the folks behind this argument ever met the zombies in question? In my experience, people on antidepressants don't walk around in a cloud of Disney birds; they have simply hoisted themselves from a prone to a sitting position. And they are wise enough to know that no drug could possibly "eradicate depression forever." It's hard-wired into life, largely by virtue of death's inevitability.

Wilson at least has the good grace to quote Ecclesiastes, that skeptic in biblical clothing, whose thoughts on the subject are still unimprovable after 2,250 years. "Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. . . . All go to one place. All are from the dust, and all turn to dust again." *

Louis Bayard is a novelist and a book reviewer for the online magazine Salon.

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