Against Happiness (review: 2.5/5)

Eric Wilson‘s book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy “challenges the recent happiness trend and celebrates the meditative virtues of melancholy.” He’s most successful when talking about the meditative virtues. The argument is simple: acknowledging the tragic, the struggle, the rain, and the inevitable decline of all things makes joy, success, the sun, and livelihood all the richer in the here and now.
Our manic urge to avoid mere discomfort keeps us from exploring these fuzzy edges, keeps us from knowing the whole. At our most important and emotional events like birth, death, and marriage, these edges become painfully, joyfully clear:

The tiny body quickly follows the head. A baby appears. You who have been watching are torn between weeping and laughing. You lament this infant’s tragic fall into the pain of time; you celebrate new life. While the baby cries in lamentation and celebration, you join it, with your tears washing over your ridiculous grin. You at this moment are two and one at once, melancholy and joyful, sorrowful and ebullient. You realize that the riches moments in life are these junctures where we realize, in our sinews, what is true all the time: the cosmos is a danced of joggled opposites, a jolted waltz.

The first quarter of the book, on challenging the happiness trend, should have been either much abridged or much expanded. It falls back on some tired excoriations of modern America (hitting all the right buzzwords: SUV, suburbs, McDonald’s, Botox, etc.), and ends up a little too thin and editorial. But later he does have some pretty interesting discussions of specific people, talking about the struggles of Colerige, Beethoven, and Keats, among others. On Beethoven:

Even though he clearly hates his inherited troubles—his melancholia, his gastric disorders, his hearing loss—he also acknowledges, though indirectly, that these very constraints are his muse. In rebelling against his “fate” by creating vital music, he actually transforms this same fate into an inspiration.

There are some funny parts, too, like talking about the strangeness of American Protestantism as a feel-good “happiness companies,” with “Jesus as some sort of blissed-out savior”.

Lastly, here are some works that Wilson referenced in his book that I also liked:

2 thoughts on “Against Happiness (review: 2.5/5)

  1. God bless Walker Percy — that man’s work definitely changed my life, if only in the ephemeral and abstract way that I wish I could write like him.

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