El's Reviews > Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy

Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson
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May 12, 08

bookshelves: cultural-studies-and-other
Recommended to El by: Rhonda
Read in May, 2008

In our society Happiness is key. It is found in the media, it is prevalent in almost everything people say and do. It is what most people claim is their number one goal in life: "I just want to be happy." What Eric Wilson suggests with Against Happiness is that instead of following the Pied Piper of Happiness, one should embrace the Melancholy that one usually struggles to fight. His strongest argument is that out of melancholy comes creativity (not a new argument there) as evidenced by some greats - Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, Virginia Woolf, Beethoven.

The other side of his argument (specifically that all happiness is fake and usually a product of unnecessary medications) is weak. He tries to prove that happy people are identical which may in fact be true; however, his woe-is-me attitude about the whole thing is a real turn-off. For each paragraph about joy he turns around and writes another few pages about how people like Coleridge and Keats (the forerunners of Emo) were incredible people because of their accomplishments which - ding ding ding! - came out of depression (not to mention a lot of drugs which, hmm, is part of his argument against happy people...).

I appreciate the beauty that comes out of depressed artists, and that is what Wilson is striving to impress upon his readers. He suggests that a person is unable to appreciate beauty without having dwelt in the mud for a while themselves. But what of the beauty that comes out of the minds of happy artists? (This is not entirely an oxymoron - they do exist.) Is the implication that work produced during times of happiness is still a byproduct of the melancholy of everyday life? Wilson glazes over this. He impresses upon the reader the work that John Lennon produced with the love of his life, Yoko Ono - while a melancholic person Lennon produced incredible music, but with his true love they produced this other incredible work. This seems somewhat conflicting - on one hand Lennon was melancholic and creative, but he left his wife for Yoko (not to mention the band), claiming he never knew happiness before Yoko. If this is true, then how could he create anything worthy? Wouldn't Wilson's argument that creativity only comes from melancholy blow up once one sees what else happiness can create?

I am all for the melancholia. I don't think it's healthy to be 100% happy all of the time. What Wilson suggests is to strive to embrace the melancholy and stop trying to attain happiness, despite what the media tells us. But really wouldn't the healthier thing to be to go through moods as they come? To go with the flow? And if creativity is such an important aspect of it (per Wilson) then create out of happiness as much as you create out of melancholy and by god, see what happens. Wilson's attempt at the anti-self-help-book was hypocritical and only made him a product of his own environment - the one thing he said he was not.
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