Against Happiness: Why Can't Grownups Be Emo?

Illustration for article titled Against Happiness: Why Can't Grownups Be Emo?

Remember how "depression" used to be called "melancholy"? Well, Eric G. Wilson just wrote a book called Against Happiness that aims to return "melancholia" to the public lexicon, and basically bring back sadness and its "integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos." It is sort of like anti-self-help. Oooh, new genre title: "self-pity"? "self-flagellate"? Neither really do it justice. Anyway, the key is saying "fuck you" to happiness. Joy is okay, but like with carbs on the South Beach it's got to be the right kind of joy, such as: "that unbearable exuberance that suddenly emerges from long suffering" or "that hard-earned tranquillity that comes from long meditation on the world's sorrows." Meanwhile, you must throw out your self-help books and seratonics and commence basking, dwelling and reveling in the cruel radiance of whatever. Here's how he explains the difference between what he advocates and clinical depression:

Depression (as I see it, at least) causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another. In contrast, melancholia generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.


Don't think you can really get one without the other? I'll show you something:

The American dream of happiness might be a nightmare. What passes for bliss could well be a dystopia of flaccid grins. Our passion for felicity hints at an ominous hatred for all that grows and thrives and then dies. I'd hate for us to awaken one morning and regret what we've done in the name of untroubled enjoyment. I'd hate for us to crawl out of our beds and walk out into a country denuded of gorgeous lonely roads and the grandeur of desolate hotels, of half-cracked geniuses and their frantic poems. I'd hate for us to come to consciousness when it's too late to live.

Ohhhh kay. It was really difficult to decide which paragraph to quote, because it's pretty much 8000 straight words of this. But my thinking is that a depressive person could be made happier, upon Wilson's book, to think that what she had was "depression" and not this man's melancholia thing. Because even if someone with depression mustered the self-esteem to write something so florid and circular and beautifully, naively, passionately sincere, she would wake up the next morning, scan the open file and see the section where she inadvertently plagiarized the Flaming Lips, and knock her head against the wall before dragging it all to the trash and emptying.

And calling a shrink. And maybe getting a job in marketing.

The Secret To Happiness: It's In Iceland [Economist]
In Praise Of Melancholia [ChronicleReview]



It is true that people don't think sadness can be a part of life. A patient of my cousin's and her daughter went in to see her, and the daughter asked to talk to my cousin in private. The mother's husband had just died 10 days ago, and the daughter wanted my cousin to prescribe antidepressants to the mother, cause she was very sad. My cousin had to explain that being sad 10 days after you lose your spouse is normal and does not require Prozac.