My basic instinct is toward melancholia — a state I must nourish. In fostering my essential nature, I’m trying to live according to what I see as my deep calling. Granted, it’s difficult at times to hold hard to this vocation, this labor in the fields of sadness. But I realize somewhere in the core of my bones that I was born to the blues.
Thus Eric G. Wilson in his book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (2008, Farrar, Straus & Giroux). In an essay adapted from the book and published at The Chronicle of Higher Education, he considers the mass quest for happiness in America as, ironically, a death wish because he believes that the escape from melancholia is also an escape from a fuller life, “a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life”. “[T]his rabid focus on exuberance,” he says, “leads to half-lives, to bland existences, to wastelands of mechanistic behavior” (“In Praise of Melancholy”).
Right now, if the statistics are correct, about 15 percent of Americans are not happy. Soon, perhaps, with the help of psychopharmaceuticals, melancholics will become unknown. That 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 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 a smile because they are afraid of facing the world’s complexity, its vagueness, its terrible beauties. If we stay safely ensconced behind our painted grins, then we 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 of us habitually flee from that state of mind, try to lose ourselves in distraction and good cheer. We don inauthenticity as a mask, a disguise to protect us from the abyss.
Read “In Praise of Melancholy”, which also considers the place of melancholia in the life and work of John Keats.
Eric G. Wilson’s homepage.
Coming across like a Michael Moore rant, here’s Garrison Keillor’s folkish review of Wilson’s book at The New York Times.