A light-hearted look at melancholy….

A light-hearted look at melancholy….

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That’s just what you won’t get with Eric G. Wilson’s essay, “In Praise of Melancholy,” published in a recent edition of The Chronicle Review.  This essay is adapted from Wilson’s new book, Against Happiness, which, for his sake, I suppose I hope does not sell.  Unfortunately–for him, I guess–I think it might do fairly well, especially with the readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  The essay begins like this:

Ours are ominous times. We are on the verge of eroding away our ozone layer. Within decades we could face major oceanic flooding. We are close to annihilating hundreds of exquisite animal species. Soon our forests will be as bland as pavement. Moreover, we now find ourselves on the verge of a new cold war.

But there is another threat, perhaps as dangerous: We are eradicating a major cultural force, the muse behind much art and poetry and music. We are annihilating melancholia.

How should we take this warning?  Fires, floods, deforestation, extinction, wars cold and hot–none of this is as bad as the loss of a particular mood?  Is this a proposition only an academic can love?

The first question that arises, though, is whether melancholy really is an endangered species.  Do the rise of “happiness studies” and the ever-increasing variety and sales of antidepressants signal the end of sadness (i.e., are they really working?) or is that testimony to melancholy’s ineradicability?  I don’t see any reason to be other than very optimistic about the future of pessimism.

But is melancholy even all its cracked up to be by Wilson?  As you would expect from someone “against happiness,” the argument Wilson offers is overwrought and overstated, although it has touches of insight and poetry about it as well.  Wilson has no interest in looking at the bright side of happiness.  To be fair, he does try to offer qualifications to his thesis:  he is not against genuine joy (which would seem to come only after long-suffering), he is not romanticizing clinical depression, he is not against a spiritual tranquility that might come from a life of meditating on the ills of the world, nor is he against any bliss that might follow from helping or serving others.  But your basic everyday “happiness” is suspect, in that, according to Wilson, it stems from a perverse idea that sadness or the “blues” is an aberrant and unacceptable condition.

One reason Wilson might be saying the things he says about happiness is that he’s forgotten Aristotle’s teaching on the subject.  In the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines happiness, or rather at this stage defines its role in a full human life:

Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else….

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself. [ch. 7]


[H]appiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue…. [ch. 13]


Happiness then is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world…. [8]

According to Aristotle, happiness (rightly understood) is the end of every human action, or to put it another way, whatever we do we do for the sake of happiness.  Why else would we do it?  To make ourselves miserable?  Well, okay, sometimes we do things we are fairly sure will make us miserable…sort of.  In fact, we have this perverted sense of what makes us “happy,” and it is this sort of thing our better selves tell us will not make us happy even though we go ahead and do it anyway (you have to add a little St. Paul to your Aristotle…).  But when we are being about as good (authentic) as we can be, we will act for the sake of genuine happiness, and unhappiness will be a sign we have more work to do.

Wilson worries that an “obsession with happiness” will make us less, not more, authentic, but he can only write this because he has an un-Aristotelian (in other words, a very attenuated) view of happiness. 

Now, instead of opposing Wilson to Aristotle, let’s join them for the sake of an argument.  Suppose the sort of experience Wilson intends by “joy” (as opposed to happiness) is just what Aristotle means when he uses the word “happiness.”  Both would agree that we could be wrong about what would make us genuinely happy/joyful.  We could, for instance, mistake a drug-induced stupor for joy, conformity for authenticity, pleasantness for beauty.  If we can clear up the mistunderstanding between Wilson and Aristotle, then Wilson can be seen to be offering an Aristotelian warning against misunderstanding true human happiness.  It is a warning against self-satisfaction with manufactured solutions to the great difficulties with which life presents us.

When we, with apparent happiness, grab hard onto one ideology or another, this world suddenly seems to take on a static coherence, a rigid division between right and wrong. The world in this way becomes uninteresting, dead. But when we allow our melancholy mood to bloom in our hearts, this universe, formerly inanimate, comes suddenly to life. Finite rules dissolve before infinite possibilities. Happiness to us is no longer viable. We want something more: joy. Melancholia galvanizes us, shocks us to life.

Melancholia pushes against the easy “either/or” of the status quo. It thrives in unexplored middle ground between oppositions, in the “both/and.” It fosters fresh insights into relationships between oppositions, especially that great polarity life and death. It encourages new ways of conceiving and naming the mysterious connections between antinomies. It returns us to innocence, to the ability to play in the potential without being constrained to the actual. Such respites from causality refresh our relationship to the world, grant us beautiful vistas, energize our hearts and our minds. 

In this way of looking at things, Wilson is saying that (phony) happiness is whitewash over a melancholy which, if allowed to breathe, would lead us towards a more genuine and authentic happiness.  We tend to apply the whitewash for basically one reason:  fear.

Most hide behind a smile because they are afraid of facing the world’s complexity, its vagueness, its terrible beauties. If we stay safely ensconced behind our painted grins, then we won’t have to encounter the insecurities attendant upon dwelling in possibility, those anxious moments when one doesn’t know this from that, when one could suddenly become almost anything at all. Even though this anxiety, usually over death, is in the end exhilarating, a call to be creative, it is in the beginning rather horrifying, a feeling of hovering in an unpredictable abyss. Most of us habitually flee from that state of mind, try to lose ourselves in distraction and good cheer. We don inauthenticity as a mask, a disguise to protect us from the abyss.

Wilson argues that we should stand resolute before the abyss and embrace the melancholy it produces (let the abyss stare into us, as Nietzsche might put it).  We should recognize that wholeness eludes us.

We are forever incomplete, fragments of some ungraspable whole. Our unfinished natures — we are never pure actualities but always vague potentials — make life a constant struggle, a bout with the persistent unknown. But this extension into the abyss is also our salvation. To be only a fragment is always to strive for something beyond ourselves, something transcendent. That striving is always an act of freedom, of choosing one road instead of another. Though this labor is arduous — it requires constant attention to our mysterious and shifting interiors — it is also ecstatic, an almost infinite sounding of the exquisite riddles of Being.

To be against happiness is to embrace ecstasy. Incompleteness is a call to life. Fragmentation is freedom. The exhilaration of never knowing anything fully is that you can perpetually imagine sublimities beyond reason. On the margins of the known is the agile edge of existence.

I think there is wisdom here, but there is also a need of a counter-warning.   The wisdom in melancholy is the ever-present reminder of the brokenness of life and of a fundamental dissatisfaction it produces.  The counter-warning is required to remind us that obsession with fragmentation can be as insidious as obsession with store-bought happiness.  To return to the allusion to Nietzsche above, let’s hear the whole aphorism:

Anyone who fights with monsters should make sure that he does not in the process become a monster himself. And when you look for a long time into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. (Beyond Good and Evil, 146)

A stubborn insistence at remaining fragmented, a stubborn demand for ”deconstructing” all that allows of deconstruction solely for the sake of staving off any attempt at wholeness can, alas, easily become monstrous.  Wallowing in forced or feigned melancholy because the world can often be cruel and inhospitable is as problematic as phony “happiness.”  Wilson sees melancholy as a potential goad to creativity and action, just as “deconstruction” can release creative readings and emancipate suppressed potentials.  And so they can be.  But they can be temptations, too.

I can’t help offering an aside here about the relationship between melancholy and transdisciplinary work, the quest for wholeness, and wisdom in university life.  I think that when one reflects on one’s education, one cannot help but feel melancholic, that one has been confronted with the myriad of fragments of knowledge without more than a passing glimpse (if one were lucky) at the elusive and transcendent whole.  Perhaps it is this experience of melancholy that drives efforts at, for instance, the constructive engagement of science and religion.  And perhaps it is my sensing a too-easily won satisfaction that drives my criticisms of a good deal of the work being done in the science and religion movement.  But just as melancholy is kept alive by the hopes of wholeness, the critical eye applied to transdisciplinary programs is at the service of the very aims of those programs.  Melancholy really is not “against happiness;” it is driven by a foretaste of it.  Transdisciplinary work is not “against disciplinarity;” it is driven by a foretaste, a wonder and a hope that through and beyond disciplinary knowledge, wisdom and wholeness might be possible.

Anyway, before this whole thing brings you down, let’s remember that Wilson is a professor of English.  He’s a scholar.  He spends a lot of time in his study, I’m sure.  Maybe we (he and I, both) should read a little bit of that masterwork of misery, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy: What it is, with all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostics, and Several Cures of It. In Three Partitions. With their several Sections, Members and Subsections, Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically Opened and Cut Up, particularly Part 1, Section 2, Member 3, Subsection 15:  “Love of Learning, or overmuch Study. With a Digression of the Misery of Scholars, and why the Muses are Melancholy”:

[H]ard students are commonly troubled with gowts, catarrhes, rheums, cachexia, bradypepsia, bad eyes, stone, and collick, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, winds, consumptions, and all such diseases as come by over-much sitting: they are most part lean, dry, ill-coloured, spend their fortunes, lose their wits, and many times their lives; and all through immoderate pains, and extraordinary studies.

Wilson and I get the blues because it is an occupational hazard.

 I am going for a walk.  You should, too, but afterwards you can start up a conversation about this piece at www.peripateticpraxis.com/blog.