In praise of melancholy

In: Uncategorized

17 Jan 2008

Eric G Wilson, a professor of English at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, has written a wonderful essay on the value of melancholy as opposed to happiness in the Chronicle Review (18 January). It is adapted from his book Against Happiness which is about to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in America (and is also reviewed in the issue of the Economist that is about to be published).

He starts with the observation that, in recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, almost 85 percent of Americans said they were very happy or at least pretty happy. Then he goes on to argue:

“Surely all this happiness can’t be for real. How can so many people be happy in the midst of all the problems that beset our globe — not only the collective and apocalyptic ills but also those particular irritations that bedevil our everyday existences, those money issues and marital spats, those stifling vocations and lonely dawns? Are we to believe that four out of every five Americans can be content amid the general woe? Are some people lying, or are they simply afraid to be honest in a culture in which the status quo is nothing short of manic bliss? Aren’t we suspicious of this statistic? Aren’t we further troubled by our culture’s overemphasis on happiness? Don’t we fear that this rabid focus on exuberance leads to half-lives, to bland existences, to wastelands of mechanistic behavior?”

He later goes on:

“Melancholia, far from a mere disease or weakness of will, is an almost miraculous invitation to transcend the banal status quo and imagine the untapped possibilities for existence. Without melancholia, the earth would likely freeze over into a fixed state, as predictable as metal. Only with the help of constant sorrow can this dying world be changed, enlivened, pushed to the new.”

At the end of the article also reproduces the “Ode on Melancholy” (1919) by John Keats.

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