Over the last decade, at least, authors have come out against bioethics, depression, capitalism, love, Christianity, common sense, Freud, and consolation, among any number of other subjects. Blame it on Susan Sontag. The polemical muscle of her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation” gave license to an essayistic discourse that, in announcing outright its position, is far more assertive than the open-ended, digressive ruminations of, say, Montaigne (“On cannibals,” “On repentance”) or the amused musings of Charles Lamb (“On the Inconveniences Resulting from Being Hanged”). Few agitators have wielded the polemical pen as well as Sontag, though, and in recent years, the familiar essay has largely become either a solipsistic memoir or a hectoring attempt at contrarian thinking. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to discover that Eric G. Wilson’s Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy is no mere corrosive squawk, but rather a lively, reasoned call for the preservation of melancholy in the face of all-too-rampant cheerfulness.
Wilson, professor of English at Wake Forest University, presents a helpfully narrow definition of the word happiness that belies the breadth of his book’s title. Joy, satisfaction with work well done, and other vivid, authentic pleasures are still to be savored. Instead, it’s “happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment,” all three particularly American obsessions, that Wilson fears may annihilate melancholia, a threat “perhaps as dangerous as the most apocalyptic of concerns.” The claim may sound a bit outlandish, but contrast the effervescent backbeat underpinning much public rhetoric in America with the inescapably tragic nature of life on this planet. It’s difficult not to acknowledge just how shallowly many experience the deep miseries of the world. In essence, Wilson wants to redraw topographic lines on the map of the American soul.
One can extract the rest of this book’s compact thesis from a few choice quotes: “The predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness.” “American seekers of happiness are in danger of deluding themselves into believing that only one part of the world exists, the part that gladdens their egos.” “Sorrowful thinkers delve into the crepuscular continuum between clarity and clarity.” “Melancholia is the profane ground out of which springs the sacred.” “Melancholy irony—Romantic irony—is the ability to play among various forms without becoming overly attached to any one form.”
Wilson’s line of thinking is played out in a thesaurus-scouring feat of minute variations. Clichés are thankfully rare as the author formulates the twin poles of his spectrum, “that interplay, rich and terrific, between antagonisms.” His writing is pithy and epigrammatic, as he asks readers to “trade timid comfort for furious exuberance,” describes our world as “replete with stumps as much as stalks,” and catalogues its “swift interplay of horrible and holy.” If we were reconcile these outliers of feeling, Wilson says, “we would enjoy a profoundly tense peace, a sinister shining.” One eventually partakes in a kind of parlor game, guessing how the author will restate his thesis; his felicitous phrase-making itself staves off boredom with the repetition.
Wilson has smoothly parlayed his academic specialties––Romantic poetry and nineteenth-century American literature in particular––into an entertaining general-interest polemic. He draws on William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats as examples of an artistic temperament that plumbs the depths of gloom in order to bring forth the most exalted glories, leavening the mix with references to Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and John Lennon. Readers will likely concoct their own lineups; mine includes the Conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader and the singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, whose “Everything Means Nothing to Me” is the most uplifting chronicle of abject depression I’ve heard. There is to my mind only one crucial omission from Wilson’s protestation: William Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, a deliriously sublime meditation on “the color of interior life” and among the best written evidence we have of the quivering alertness to all emotional states for which Wilson calls. That book and two heftier recent studies—Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (2001) and Sandra M. Gilbert’s Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve (2006)—would make the ideal short course for those stimulated by the arguments in Against Happiness.
Wilson’s case studies, chronicled regularly in books (dutifully cited) such as Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, make intuitive sense; only in his zealousness as a broader cultural diagnostician does he strike false notes. In one two-page passage, he skates from higher education to religion to politics, and in a later ten-page section, he criticizes evangelical ministering, gated communities, the “transformation of American cities into suburban malls,” and Americans’ environmental callousness. Needless to say, none of these weighty topics can adequately be addressed by a single theory, let alone one about the deficiencies of a particular kind of happiness. (Nor does it help that Wilson lovingly details the environmental inefficiencies of his admittedly charming-sounding home.) Solutions to this welter of interrelated problems will arrive only when attitudes toward the maintenance of our internal and external landscapes are fully integrated, when our characters are built up and our buildings have character.
Brian Sholis is editor of Artforum.com.