Book Review: Against Happiness, In Praise of Melancholy by Eric Wilson

After looking through this, I was expecting something different.  Based on the title, I was expecting to have a psychological bent to it.  It has some of it, but there’s more of a literature outlook to it.  Wilson uses various aesthetes to explain what he’s talking about.

To start, the introduction is what hooked me in.  When we think of melancholia, we think of something sad, disastrous, and a troublesome thing to have.  But Wilson laments this.  Annihilating melancholia will get rid of our creative impulses.  Would you really want to live a life of simple contentment, complacency?  The challenges of life makes life worth striving for, even if it makes us unhappy.

With this, America is overemphasizing on happiness.  It’s a half-existence.  Melancholy is an essential part of a creative life.  To desire only happiness is to have an inauthentic life.  This happiness is leading to a bland life.  It’s the life of what Nietzsche calls the untermensch.

Getting rid of melancholy shouldn’t be seen as a cure.  Rather, melancholy is the cure to the bland, comfortable, “happy” life.  We seem to want to get rid of it simply by taking pills.  Indeed, a few handful of doctors just prescribe antidepressants to patients simply because the patients don’t want to work through their sadness.

To be clear, Wilson isn’t talking about clinical depression.  Clinical depression is a serious matter where seriously depressed people have the “what’s the point” feeling.  Depressed people do need help.  Wilson is talking about melancholy and there’s a fine line between depression and melancholy.  It deals with the degree of activity.  If people think they are depressed and a pill can help them out, that it what Wilson is critiquing.  Depression, again, is apathy in a world not going right.  It’s the inability to not feel anything or to have much use.  Melancholy, on the other hand, still feels gloomy about the world, but has the ability to do something about it.  It has to do with motivation.  This motivation stirs up creativity to get out of the gloomy state.  In other words, melancholy pushes through the pain and sadness with creativity.  Our culture confuses these two and treats them as something clinical, something to get rid of, and seeking out happiness as the pursuit of all.

This stifling of melancholy isn’t helping though.  Why should we follow the utilitarian rule?  Again, it was Nietzsche who said “only the Englishmen want to be happy.”  We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that happiness is everything.  But it’s not.  Melancholy does offer something to life: creativity, values, and a full life.  If we’re happy, then we’re living a robotic life.  Happiness and bliss is actually just “flaccid grins.”

Based on this introduction, it seems like a great hook.  I’ll admit, I was expecting his to go psychological from this.  But the rest of the book is lacking in that power and zazz that Wilson had in the intro.

In the next few chapters, Wilson criticizes how the American education system focuses on skills rather than ideas.  I agree with him on that, but I don’t see how that deals with melancholy or happiness.  It seems that he’s talking about eudaimonia or what Marx says a “species-life.”  Maybe he’s taking it through all angles suggesting that happiness and melancholy isn’t just a psychological thing, but also economic.  At least, that’s what the next chapter suggested.  Some tidbits from this is that the conventional American lifestyle is happy, but it’s conformed happy.  The happy person is following a script, which isn’t true happiness.  The script is: get a good job, get married, have kids, etc.  We often deem people who don’t follow that script are “not truly happy.”  Being happy blinds us to other aspects of the world.  As Wittgenstein puts it, the world of a happy man is different than the world of a sad man.  To have melancholy is to know the sublime in life.  Sometimes the best things are tragedies, which leads to the literature like Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens, Woolf, and others.  It turns out that inspiration isn’t the muse; your sufferings and constraints are.  You look at your fate, and instead of lamenting about your fate, you make your fate into a creative masterpiece.

What makes the authors so great is that they’ve captured the melancholic life.  Painters like Van Gogh have deep melancholy, but he’s a genius when it comes to painting.  Is there a suggestion that throughout history, melancholic people have been geniuses?  I wonder is Wilson has considered the opposite as true: geniuses are usually melancholic.

There were some moments that didn’t mesh with me.  Wilson talks about how melancholy is a way to get out of what the melancholic perceives as the status quo.  But isn’t this just saying that melancholy = a creative way to not become melancholy?  That almost seems redundant.  People talk about melancholy as if to talk about it.  But why?  It’s because it gives us a new edge, a new way at looking at the world instead of the confined conformism of happiness.

To be happy means that we ignore what’s really going on in the world.  There’s a genocide happening, wars are abound, and corruptions are happening everywhere.  How can we possibly be happy?  Joy and happiness suggest that we throw away are cares, and thus our responsibilities.  Joy makes us ignore the brutalities of the world; it makes us not want to face the reality of the world.

In short, melancholy is actually good because it makes us creative.  However, if one goes too far, it could be suicidal.  Depression is good for the soul because it makes the soul grow.

I often wonder though that if one wants to have a full life, a creative life, a life with value, does that mean that one cannot have that unless they’ve experienced melancholy?  More than that, does one have to force oneself to be melancholic?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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1 Response to Book Review: Against Happiness, In Praise of Melancholy by Eric Wilson

  1. julielebo says:

    Depression is good for the soul??? Depression is bad all around! Based on your review, this book does not seem like something I would be interested in at all. Thanks for reading it for me!

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