Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Against Happiness" (Book Review)

Against Happiness
In Praise of Melancholy
Eric G. Wilson

Americans have lost their appreciation of melancholy, argues Mr. Wilson in his somewhat poorly titled work (it is more in praise of melancholy than against happiness. Shock value, anyone?). Mr. Wilson believes that American culture is overly absorbed with being happy, and our forefathers better understood that life needs both happiness and melancholy to be truly meaningful. The author argues that one cannot help but be melancholy when one meditates on the human condition. The thrust of his argument is summarized well by the author's citation of Henri Frederic Amil:

"Melancholy is at the bottom of everything, just as at the end of all rivers is the sea. Can it be otherwise in a world where all that we have loved or shall love must die? Is death, then, the secret of life? The gloom of eternal mourning enwraps, more or less closely, every serious and thoughtful soul, as night envelopes the universe."

Understanding the temporal nature of, well, everything, leads the thinker from abstract, theoretical knowledge to personal experience. At this point Mr. Wilson brings in the big guns, quoting Blake: "To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is alone Distinction of Merit. General Knowledge [does not exist, while] Singular and Particular Detail is the Foundation of the Sublime."

Following Blake's cue, Mr. Wilson goes on to argue that this understanding doesn't end in a perpetual state of melancholy. Rather, this mindset frees the thinker from a trite existence and both allows us to enjoy the whole spectrum of emotions/states of being and forces humans into action (a rather blatant Camus rip-off).

His final message to his readers is one of encouragement: stand strong melancholy souls of America! "We want to be left alone so that we can brood for as long as we want. We want this because we feel most alive, most vital, when we suffer this confusion over the things of the universe."

By citing some of literature's most mentally disturbed character's Mr. Wilson's arguments unintentionally glorify artistic creativity over mental health, most readers will likely find this disturbing. Besides this, the author does little in the way of new argumentation. Rather he sums up modern thought concerning "meaningful" existence and throws in contemporary and personal examples to fill out these rather old ideas.

No comments: