Misery

"We are annihilating melancholia," Professor Eric G. Wilson warns. Reading his essay, "In Praise of Melancholy," excerpted from his book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, we discover, to our surprise, this is a bad thing.  At first glance, Wilson’s book seems like more definitive proof that people will complain about anything, especially if they’re given a book contract to do it.

The evidence is chilling: according to a Pew survey, 85% of Americans are happy. Apparently, none of those 85% live in a state that’s held a presidential primary so far. The presidential candidates have discovered that each primary state has its unique set of gripes. So who’s to blame for rampant contentment across America?  Scientists. Wilson traces the conspiracy specifically to happiness studies, which, last time I checked, had found that we feel happiness and sadness in equal measures. In their determination to brighten our moods scientists have also come up with anti-depressants for doctors to foist upon an unsuspecting public. Never mind that anti-depressants can help with the unbearable anxieties our environments provoke. Nietzsche didn’t take anti-depressants, so neither should you.

You know the rest of the argument. Drugs are blunting us from feeling depressed, a fundamental, and useful, human emotion. We suffer, although we don’t know it because we’re on anti-depressants, and our artists become insipid, for without depression we’d no longer have the stereotype of the suffering artist. Wilson says we should be very worried:

I for one am afraid that American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

The link between madness and creativity is as old as the Romantic poets. Before that, we should remember, artists were depressed a lot, but they were depressed in a way ordinary, non-artists could recognize and experience themselves. In other words, "the agitations of the soul" as the (perhaps sole) source of creativity is an ideology linked to the changing social position of the artist.

Then again, joie de vivre is an ideological belief, too, and undoubtedly a more pernicious one as well. Almost twenty years ago Phillip Lopate published Against Joie de Vivre in which he dismissed the whole self-help bromide to live in the moment as self-defeating narcissism. Jacques Lacan, with more theoretical élan, darkly warned against Anglo-American psychiatry and its "cult of the normal man," in which any anti-social behavior was hunted down and eradicated, by surgery if necessary.

Freud himself said, "the intention that man should be happy is not included in the plan of Creation." The whole post-Freudian European philosophical tradition has taught us to think of happiness as a trivial pursuit for the Oprah generation, a Shangri-La perpetuated by self-help gurus. Greatness of soul has always been linked to a clear-eyed stoicism. Lincoln’s law partner, W.H. Herndon, once observed that Lincoln, prone to bouts of depression throughout his life, "crushed the unreal, the inexact, the hollow, and the sham." Lincoln’s "fault, if any," Herndon said, "was that he saw things less than they really were." What Herndon is describing here is a kind of depressive realism, in which depression can stem from fundamentally accurate perceptions—a worldview that, in some situations, can be an advantage.

Depression, like wine and butter, is good for you in small doses. Depression can be the first step to changing one’s life. Misery is a recognition that not all is right in one’s life, and in this sense depression is a part of happiness. I don’t think we have a chronic shortage of depression in this country, as Wilson wants us to believe. But cutting ourselves off from a human emotion makes us less human. People have jokingly speculated what Dostoevsky would have been like on Prozac. We should wonder how people on Prozac read Dostoevsky, or how they truly understand the world around them.

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