Interview: Eric G. Wilson

Why the pursuit of happiness naturally includes melancholy

Cheryl Carlin

Eighty-four percent of Americans claim to be happy, a statistic that Wake Forest University English professor Eric G. Wilson finds "strange at best, troubling at worst." With a litany of self-help books, pills and plastic surgery to feed Americans' addiction to happiness, he says, "It's now easier than ever before to live a trouble-free life, to smooth out the rough edges, to hide the darkness." In his recent book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Wilson—a non-recovering melancholic by choice—praises sorrow as the muse of many writers and songwriters, warning that to rid life of it is to rid life of a vital source of creativity.

You compare the loss of melancholy to other apocalyptic concerns: global warming, rising oceans and nuclear war. What about happiness is life threatening?
Obviously that opening is a bit hyperbolic for rhetorical effect. I will admit that. But it is, at the same time, a kind of expression of real danger. I think that being melancholy is an essential part of being a human being. I think to be a fully expressed human being you must be willing to delve into melancholy as much as into joy. If we try too hard to get rid of that melancholy it's almost like we're settling for a half-life.

Why do you think people are aiming for a constant happy?
That is the question. My suspicion is that American culture has inculcated into most people that to be an American is to be happy. It's in our founding document, isn't it? We have the right to the pursuit of happiness. Many Americans think that America is a blessed nation. This grows out of 19th-century ideas like Manifest Destiny, the idea that America is a nation blessed by God that should spread its principles throughout the world. America is a fairly wealthy nation. America has a lot of military power. America has also kind of cast itself as the moral voice of the world. I think Americans growing up in that milieu tend to think, well, gosh, to be an American is really great, why shouldn't I be happy?

You're pretty harsh on the "happy type," making sweeping generalizations like happy types like the Lifetime channel and eat Jell-O with Cool Whip. What are you trying to get at in describing the happy type this way?
I am using a technique that one of my literary heroes, Henry David Thoreau, used in Walden, and that is hyperbole, satire, exaggeration, the idea being that if I kind of blow up large these behaviors of these happy types, I'm going to shock people into thinking about their lives. I'm trying to give people a kind of jolt. I guess I am a little bit angry at these happy types, such as I define them, and the anger does show through a bit. My book is a polemic. It is an attack on what I see as excessive in America's addictions to happiness. But ultimately I'm just trying to clear ground so that I can start making my more positive point, which is of course to embrace melancholy is ultimately to embrace joy.

You desire authenticity. But what is authentic?
Authenticity is embracing the fact that we're necessarily duplicitous beings. I think there's a tendency in our culture to use an either/or logic. One is either happy or sad. One is either liberal or conservative. One is either Republican or Democrat. One is either religious or secular. That's the kind of discourse that is used in our public arenas all the time. I think that leads people to jump on one side or the other. There are all sorts of oppositions that organize our being—reason/emotion, joy/sorrow, consciousness/unconsciousness, pessimism/optimism—and it seems to me that when we latch on to one of those polarities, at the expense of the other, that's an inauthentic life. An authentic life is an endless interplay between these oppositions in which one tries to put them in a creative conversation with one another, realizing that the light shines more brightly when compared to darkness and the darkness becomes richer and more interesting when compared to brightness. I'm just trying to call people to return to a balance, to consider that part of human experience that many people seem to be repressing, ignoring or flying from.

Is there always sadness on the road to joy?
Joy is the polar opposite of melancholy. You can't have one without the other. I think we can think about this when we put ourselves in memories of witnessing a birth or a wedding or a funeral, those times when we're so overwrought with emotion that we don't know whether to laugh or to cry. It's exactly those moments when we feel most alive, I would argue. Usually when we feel that way there's this strange mix of joy and sorrow at the same time. I'm trying to suggest ways to live that can cultivate as many minutes like that as possible.

So you're in praise of melancholy. Define melancholy.
It is best defined against depression. Depression is usually a passive state. It's not a creative state. It's a state of lethargy, paralysis, apathy, great pain, and therefore should be treated any way possible. Melancholy, in contrast, as I define it, and I'm drawing this definition out of a long philosophical and literary history of the term, is a very active state. When we're melancholy, we feel uneasy in relation to the way things are, the status quo, the conventions of our society. We yearn for a deeper, richer relationship to the world, and in yearning for that, we're forced to explore potentialities in ourselves that we would not have explored if we were simply content. We come up with new ways of seeing the world and new ways of being in the world. For this reason, I conclude that melancholy often fosters creativity.

You provide some examples of creative melancholics in the book: Keats, Crane, Woolf, Lennon, even Springsteen. Are you suggesting there may not be a Keats or Lennon of our day?
I wonder if we continue to try to get rid of melancholy entirely, will we eventually be a culture that can't create a Keats or a Melville? I don't really see right now our culture being such that we can't produce geniuses in art. I'm also not saying that all geniuses are melancholy. Obviously, there are a lot of artists who are very happy and created great works. I'm just trying to draw this connection between melancholy and creativity in certain cases.

Some of your melancholics really suffered for their work. Where do you draw the line between pain that should be suffered through and pain that deserves treatment?
I don't feel qualified to do that. I can say this though. I can distinguish it in myself. I know when I feel depressed. I don't want to get out of bed in the morning. I don't want to do anything. I just want to stay in this dark, safe womb. But when I feel sad, I want to do something. I want to play with my daughter and have a richer relationship with her. I want to be with my wife. I want to read. I want to write.

How do you suggest we reverse this trend of dealing with sadness as a sickness?
Slow down. I really think that American culture especially moves at a blinding rate. I think if we can find a way to carve out of any given day a time for quiet, for contemplation, for brooding, for solitude, when we turn the computer or cell phone off, then we might go within. Who knows, maybe we'd realize the value of that and the value of the brooding dark side. If that could happen, maybe we would be more willing to embrace natural sadness.

Do you think you'll forever be known as a grump?
Frankly, I worry about that. My colleagues called me the Melancholy Dane the other day, comparing me to Hamlet. I think I'm a cynical person. In my mind a cynic is someone who is suspicious, a little willing to question what most people believe. In questioning things, often I do find that there's a big gap between reality and appearance. I'm really trying to explore what a rich, deep, profound life would be, and, for me, to go through life expecting and wanting only happiness is not the way to achieve that. To me, cynicism falls in between optimism and pessimism. It's a golden mean.

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