Arguing the Upside of Being Down

Eric G. Wilson, author of  'Against Happiness,' argues for the necessity of sadn i i

hide captionEric G. Wilson, author of Against Happiness, argues for the vital need for sadness in the world.

Ken Bennett/Wake Forest University
Eric G. Wilson, author of  'Against Happiness,' argues for the necessity of sadn

Eric G. Wilson, author of Against Happiness, argues for the vital need for sadness in the world.

Ken Bennett/Wake Forest University

More with Eric G. Wilson

Author Eric G. Wilson has come to realize he was born to the blues, and he has made peace with his melancholy state.

But it took some time, as he writes in his new book, a polemic titled Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.

At the behest of well-meaning friends, I have purchased books on how to be happy. I have tried to turn my chronic scowl into a bright smile. I have attempted to become more active, to get away from my dark house and away from my somber books and participate in the world of meaningful action. ... I have contemplated getting a dog. I have started eating salads. I have tried to discipline myself in nodding knowingly. ... I have undertaken yoga. I have stopped yoga and gone into tai chi. I have thought of going to psychiatrists and getting some drugs. I have quit all of this and then started again and then once more quit. Now I plan to stay quit. The road to hell is paved with happy plans.

Wilson has embraced his inner gloom, and he wishes more people would do the same.

The English professor at Wake Forest University wants to be clear that he is not "romanticizing" clinical depression and that he believes it is a serious condition that should be treated.

But he worries that today's cornucopia of antidepressants — used to treat even what he calls "mild to moderate sadness" — might make "sweet sorrow" a thing of the past.

"And if that happens, I wonder, what will the future hold? Will our culture become less vital? Will it become less creative?" he asks.

Wilson talks to Melissa Block about why the world needs melancholy — how it pushes people to think about their relation to the world in new ways and ultimately to relate to the world in a richer, deeper way.

He also explores the link between sadness, artistic creation and depression — which has led to suicide in many well-known cases: Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, Hart Crane and Ernest Hemingway, for instance.

Wilson says perhaps this is "just part of the tragic nature of existence, that sometimes there's a great price to be paid for great works or beauty, for truth."

"We can look at the lives of Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Hart Crane and others and lament the fact that they suffered so. Yet at the same time, we're buoyed, we're overjoyed by the works they left behind," Wilson says.

The husband and father of a young daughter also acknowledges that melancholy is "difficult terrain to negotiate in domestic situations." He says there are certainly times when his family hoped he would be "happier," and yet they would not want him to pretend to feel something he doesn't.

Wilson says that by taking his melancholy seriously, his family ultimately will get to know him more deeply and develop a more intimate relationship with him.

"To get to know your partner, your spouse, your friend fully, you really have to find a way to embrace the dark as well as the light. Only then can you know that person," he says.

Excerpt: 'Against Happiness'

Cover of 'Against Happiness'

Conclusion

The gene pool — before and beyond time — froths and sloshes. What flops up onto the temporal shores is a matter of chance, a product of the waves' whims. At some point this teeming reservoir of DNA spumes forth a saturnine gene, a double helix destined to produce melancholy dispositions. From this instant onward what we know as human history begins: that striving, seemingly endless, toward an ungraspable perfection, that tragic effort to reach what exceeds the grasp, to fail magnificently. This gene, this melancholy gene, has proved the code for innovation. It has produced over the centuries our resplendent towers, yearning heavenward. It has created our great epics, god-hungry. It has concocted our memorable symphonies, as tumultuously beautiful as the first ocean. Without this sorrowful genome, these sublimities would have remained in the netherworld of nonexistence. Indeed, without this genetic information, sullen and ambitious, what we see as culture in general, that empyreal realm of straining ideas, might have never arisen from the mere quest for survival, from simple killing and eating.

We can picture this in the primitive world. While the healthy bodies of the tribe were out mindlessly hacking beasts or other humans, the melancholy soul remained behind brooding in a cave or under a tree. There he imagined new structures, oval and amber, or fresh verbal rhythms, sacred summonings, or songs superior to even those of the birds. Envisioning these things, and more, this melancholy malingerer became just as useful for his culture as did the hunters and the gatherers for theirs. He pushed his world ahead. He moved it forward. He dwelled always in the insecure realm of the avant-garde.

This primitive visionary was the first of many such avant-garde melancholics. Of course not all innovators are melancholy, and not all melancholy souls are innovative. However, the scientifically proved relationship between genius and depression, between gloom and greatness suggests that the majority of our cultural innovators, ranging from the ancient dreamer in the bush to the more recent Dadaist in the city, have grounded their originality in the melancholy mood. We can of course by now understand why.

Melancholia pushes against the easy "either/or" of the status quo. It thrives in unexplored middle ground between oppositions, in the "both/and." It fosters fresh insights into relationships between oppositions, especially that great polarity life and death. It encourages new ways of conceiving and naming the mysterious connections between antinomies. It returns us to innocence, to irony, that ability, temporary, to play in potential without being constrained to the actual. Such respites from causality refresh our relationship to the world, grant us beautiful vistas, energize our hearts and our minds.

Indeed, the world is much of the time boring, controlled as it is by staid habits. It seems overly familiar, tired, repetitious. Then along comes what Keats calls the melancholy fit, and suddenly the planet again turns interesting. The veil of familiarity falls away. There before us flare bracing possibilities. We are called to forge untested links to our environments. We are summoned to be creative.

Given these virtues of melancholia, why are thousands of psychiatrists and psychologists attempting to "cure" depression as if it were a terrible disease? Obviously, those suffering severe depression, suicidal and bordering on psychosis, require serious medications. But what of those millions of people who possess mild to moderate depression? Should these potential visionaries also be asked to eradicate their melancholia with the help of a pill? Should these possible innovators relinquish what might well be their greatest muse, their demons giving birth to angels?

Right now, if the statistics are correct, about 15 percent of Americans are not happy. Soon, perhaps, with the help of psychopharmaceuticals, we shall have no more unhappy people in our country. Melancholics will become unknown.

This would be an unparalleled tragedy, equivalent in scope to the annihilation of the sperm whale or the golden eagle. With no more melancholics, we would live in a world in which everyone simply accepted the status quo, in which everyone would simply be content with the given. This would constitute a dystopia of ubiquitous placid grins, a nightmare worthy of Philip K. Dick, a police state of Pollyannas, a flatland that offers nothing new under the sun. Why are we pushing toward such a hellish condition?

The answer is simple: fear. 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. Even though this anxiety, usually over death, is in the end exhilarating, a call to be creative, it is in the beginning rather horrifying, a feeling of hovering in an unpredictable abyss. Most immediately flee from this situation. They try to lose themselves in the laughing masses, hoping the anxiety will never again visit them. They don inauthenticity as a mask, a disguise protecting them from the abyss.

To foster a society of total happiness is to concoct a culture of fear. Do we really want to give away our courage for mere mirth? Are we ready to relinquish our most essential hearts for a good night's sleep, a season of contentment? We must ignore the seductions of our blissed-out culture and somehow hold to our sadness. We must find a way, difficult though it is, to be who we are, sullenness and all.

Suffering the gloom, inevitable as breath, we must further accept this fact that the world hates: we are forever incomplete, but fragments of some ungraspable whole. Our unfinished natures — we are never pure actualities but always vague potentials — make life a constant struggle, a bout with the persistent unknown. But this extension into the abyss is also our salvation. To be but a fragment is always to strive for something beyond oneself, something transcendent — an unexplored possibility, an unmapped avenue. This striving is always an act of freedom, of choosing one road instead of another. Though this labor is arduous — it requires constant attention to our mysterious and shifting interiors — it is also ecstatic, an almost infinite sounding of the exquisite riddles of Being.

To be against happiness, to avert contentment, is to be close to joy, to embrace ecstasy. Incompleteness is the call to life. Fragmentation is freedom. The exhilaration of never knowing anything fully is that you can perpetually imagine sublimities beyond reason. On the margins of the known is the agile edge of existence. This is the elation of circumference. This is the rapture, burning slow, of finishing a book that can never be completed, a flawed and conflicted text, vexed as twilight.

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.

Books Featured In This Story

Against Happiness
Against Happiness

In Praise of Melancholy

by Eric G. Wilson

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