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

Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson
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's review
Dec 01, 08

bookshelves: essay, lit-criticism, mental-illness, non-fiction, spiritual, z-read-in-2008
Read in November, 2008

This is, overall, a very fine essay, I thought. And enjoyable to read, too. It's an us-versus-them-style polemic in support of melancholics and against "happy types." The central premise here (that sadness and depression and grief make us more acutely aware of and appreciative of beauty, and more contemplative and broader minded in general) is probably not that profound, but the author weaves lots of other interesting arguments in along the way, too, and lots of well-
presented case studies of famous melancholics in history, like Beethoven and Keats and Mark Rothko, for example.

When he writes about "happy types," which he sees as a cause and a symptom and a scourge of modern-day American life, it's mostly with vitriol and disgust. These parts will offend some readers, I guess (especially you happy types, perhaps!). When he writes about melancholics and melancholia, it's with the utmost kindness and sympathy and respect. Empathy, also, I guess, inasmuch as the author declares himself to be a lifelong melancholic and sometime depressive.

This is mostly a very cogent and interesting and convincing essay. I strongly recommend it to melancholics and anyone else who cares to think about the human condition in modern-day America and think they might find this spin on it interesting. For my money, this is as well argued and presented, and as relevant to its times, as any Ralph Waldo Emerson essay was in its times.

Here's a couple of paragraphs that I especially appreciated. He's talking here about what he calls "romantic irony," a side effect of being sad or having a gloomy outlook on life:

"Though it often organizes literary expression, Romantic irony is basically an attitude, a disposition, a way of being. It is a method for making sense of the world without being dogmatic, for remaining open-minded in the face of inevitable indeterminacy, for being able to remain in an interpretive limbo, aware of the fact that no one perspective on the world is ever finally true. The person who is
ironic in this way ultimately takes life seriously and not seriously at the same time. He knows that his experience of the world is dynamic, vital, fascinating. But he also realizes that this same experience is utterly inadequate, incomplete, banal. He has his world and leaves it, too.

"Romantic irony and melancholia are inseparable. To be melancholy is to live in perpetual doubt, persistent confusion. Such vague bewilderment, properly seen, is not a failure of knowledge. It is rather an honest willingness to accept the fact that we can never know anything once and for all, that we are inevitably ignorant of the whole truth. Accepting this, we must often endure a gloomy limbo. But we are also open to the brisk interplay between life's oppositions and the possibility of understanding, however briefly, the nature of the interplay. Such openness is necessarily ironic, for it never grasps wholeheartedly at one interpretation or another, at one antinomy or another. This open stance is indeed playful, bordering on innocence, fully attuned to possibility, the irreducible ambiguity of experience, the uncertain and bumbling murmurings of time."
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