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Arguing the Upside of Being Down

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Arguing the Upside of Being Down

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Arguing the Upside of Being Down

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Writer and professor Eric Wilson has come to realize he was born to the blues. He's made peace with his melancholy state, but it took some effort, as he writes in his new book, a polemic titled "Against Happiness."

Professor ERIC WILSON (English, Wake Forest University; Author, "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy"): At the behest of well-meaning friends, I've purchased books on how to be happy. I've contemplated getting a dog. I've started eating salads. I've tried to discipline myself in nodding knowingly. I've undertaken yoga. I've stopped yoga and gone into tai chi.

I've thought of going to psychiatrists and getting some drugs. I've 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.

BLOCK: So Eric Wilson has embraced his inner gloom, and he wishes more of us might do the same. He worries that today's cornucopia of antidepressants might make sweet sorrow a thing of the past.

Prof. WILSON: I want to be clear that in my book I'm not romanticizing clinical depression - obviously that's a very serious condition that should be treated in any way. However, I do have a sense that in our culture now, even mild to moderate sadness is being treated rather quickly with antidepressants. And I think that that could lead, ultimately, to a society in which melancholy is seen as merely a sickness that needs to be treated with a pill, something like a headache or the flu.

And if that happens then, I wonder, what will the future hold? Will our culture become less vital? Will it become less creative? It's certainly a question worth thinking about.

BLOCK: That is a pretty hard line to draw, though, isn't it? I mean, there may be a lot of people who suffer from maybe mild to moderate depression who feel that those pills are what keep them going. It may not be severe, clinically accurate depression, but they are suffering, and they are getting help.

Prof. WILSON: Well, I think each person, obviously, has to find his or her own way to relate to the world. What I fear is that people who do get the quick pharmaceutical fix without, say, supplementing that with psychotherapy won't see their sadness as what Jung would call kind of information from the soul. The idea being that when we are sad, we are kind of sick, but it's the self sending us information to push to think about our relation to the world in new ways and, ultimately, to relate to the world in a richer, deeper way.

BLOCK: One of your ideas is that it's through sadness that joy becomes joyful. In other words that it's the tension between those opposites that makes things rich and complete.

Prof. WILSON: Yes. The best example I can think of is the life of the early 19th century British poet John Keats. Keats believed that we can only experience the beauty of something, say a flower, when we know it's going to die, when we sense how fragile it is. So when we experience the beauty of something, we also feel sadness, sorrow at the - a world's passing.

So for Keats there's this very interesting relationship among sorrow, death, beauty, and the joy that comes from beholding beautiful things in the Earth. This why we often cry when we feel very happy or laugh when we feel very sad. It's that mixture, that fullness of being, that ultimately I would say make us human.

BLOCK: You also mention a number of other artists who suffered from profound depression - and this is just an honor roll of tragedy. I mean, Virginia Woolf drowns herself. Vincent Van Gogh shoots himself. Ernest Hemingway also. Dylan Thomas drinks himself to death. Hart Crane throws himself off a ship and drowns. I mean, this seems to be a testament to the negative undertow of this creative melancholia that you're praising here.

Prof. WILSON: Yes. At one point on the book, I actually asked myself, what am I doing? Am I romanticizing states that are so painful that they can lead to suicide, that they can lead to madness? And ultimately, I conclude that maybe this is just part of the tragic nature of existence, that sometimes there's a great price to be paid for great works, for beauty, for truth.

And we can look at the lives of Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Hart Crane and others and lament the fact that they suffered so, but yet, at the same time, we're buoyed, we're overjoyed by the works they left behind. In some ways this is just one of the great mysteries of the world. I have to admit I'm a little perplexed over that. How can we valorize a state that can lead to such pain in some people if that state leads to the creation of beautiful art?

BLOCK: You know, Mr. Wilson, so much of the effects of depression and melancholy are born by people around us, not necessarily ourselves. You're married. You have a young daughter. And I wonder whether they would want you to be happier than you are. Maybe they're not as enamored of the blues as you seem to be.

Prof. WILSON: Right. Right. I think melancholy is a difficult terrain to negotiate in domestic situations. There have been certain times when my family members have wanted me to be a little brighter, but at the same time I don't think my family would want me to perform happiness. I think in taking my melancholy moods seriously, my family ultimately will get to know me better, more deeply, and finally feel a more intimate relationship with me.

So I feel like that's just part of - one of the ordeals of a marriage or any close relationship is that 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.

BLOCK: Well, Eric Wilson, it's been good talking to you. Thanks so much.

Prof. WILSON: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

BLOCK: Eric Wilson is author of the book "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy."

NORRIS: And you can read the conclusion of Eric Wilson's book at npr.org.

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