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Monday, March 23, 2009

Against Happiness (an author with a massive case of egocentrism)

Against Happiness: In Defense of Melancholy argues an interesting premise. The argument's main premise is that in some fashion we should all stop running away from "the blues" and embrace melancholy's awesome power to make us live a fuller life. I first saw a review of this book in the spring of last year, and was deeply attracted to it. I had the opportunity to purchase a copy in Washington, D.C. in late summer, but was unable to get to it until now. I should say here that I am usually conciliatory even in my harsh criticism of books I don't particularly enjoy. This is one of those cases, but it has proven difficult to be in the slightest conciliatory and positive about a book gone so wrong. Of course, I DO have respect for Dr. Eric G. Wilson's many accomplishments. As an academic, I don't think I am in the position of criticizing his work since he certainly out ranks me by many, many titles and "miles." He is (as the back cover and inside flap of the dust jacket explains) "the Thomas H. Prichard Professor of English at Wake Forest University and the author of five books on the relationship between psychology and literature." I am a lowly member of the English department at a college prep, all-girls academy and the author of two unpublished novels and numerous (or should I say countless) Moleskine notebooks that will never see the light of public print. Having said that, I caution the reader/write of any level or caliber to read this book and not identify all that is wrong with it; most strikingly, its author sense of ego and "self-centeredness."

Any voracious reader/writer (even at the amateur level) understands that the writer, by definition and craft, must make appeals to his/her readers. The writer needs the reader to understand his words and one way of doing this is to cater to some of the reader's ideas, interests, and opinions. Nevertheless, when this is done too much, the book loses focus and the reader finds herself/himself in the midst of a personal confession of biblical proportions (to borrow a Dr. Kissinger line). Again, I think even the most experienced and published and successful authors/writers have difficulty with this from time to time. They tend to have a bit too much passion for their topic, and, when this takes place, the text becomes pedantic and boring. I was at first afraid of writing such a scalding entry on this book, and even now feel hesitant about my own personal/academic qualifications to do so at the level that I am going to do. I fear that if Dr. Wilson reads this he might say something like "who the hell does this punk think he is?" Fortunately, we live in America, the greatest and most free democracy in God's green earth, and if a writer can't stand any form of criticism on his work, he/she should remain in his secure hole away from prying eyes and "wanna-be" scholars like myself.

Dr. Wilson begins well enough in the introduction by stating the difference between "specific American type of happiness" and by "not questioning joy in general." He does not romanticize clinical depression making a clear distinction between this terrible illness and the melancholy that he is writing about. I think this is a good start, and certainly a safe one that puts the reader at ease. He clearly states that he is "not willing to argue against medications that simply make existence bearable for so many with biochemical disorders." It is around page 20 where things take a turn for the centric. The statement "My sense of politics is the same [to the idea previously presented relating to the 'stay happy until the next time we meet']. Formerly an area in which the difficult principles of democracy were debated and validated, politics has now become entertainment." I couldn't agree more. The statement and the prose that follows is valid in content, especially since it is so intricately link to the premise of the book. It is, however, that "My sense of..." that shifts the book into a "confession/look-at-me" narrative rather than the objective examination of melancholy it so eloquently promised at the start. Dr. Wilson begins using the pronouns that one usually associates with a writer trying to gain the acceptance and the sensitivities of his readers; this is, however, so overdone as to render most of the rest of the book useless. I suspect the reader doesn't really want to know that much about Dr. Wilson's melancholy. He harnesses "I" and "we" and "us" and then pins himself and the sympathetic reader to "them" as in "the others," or "happy types," as he calls them. So the argument of the book becomes a "us versus them" type of narrative. "All of us, of course, no matter how melancholy or not, are controlled by our preconceptions, by the abstractions that rule our minds...." is not as bad, certainly as "Unmoored from these familiar things, I am forced to look within myself, into my most mysterious interiors. Gazing within, I realize that I am ultimately alone in the world, that one one can live my life for me; not my wife, not my parents, not my culture...." and then "Why on earth do we do the exact opposite of what we should be doing? We are in love not with the actual atmospheres but with abstract predictabilities.... We melancholy souls no doubt keenly feel the loss of our great old cityscapes and our forests and marshes. We love the beautiful ruins of aged buildings. We love the intricate architectural designs, the carvings and the mosaics and the rough stones. We love high ceilings and crown moldings. We love worn-down hardwood floors...." I appreciate the turn for the poetic (and this passage goes on for a few more sentences), but I don't think it adds anything to defining the "melancholic" soul concretely. Again, the use of the "we" turns it into an appeal to sympathy from the reader that does not work at all in what this book promised in the introduction: a clear examination between melancholy and the artificial American happiness. It goes on in the remaining chapters as well: "We've had enough of sanders and shiners, of those who would make our ragged, rough world smooth all over. We want to lose ourselves in the mottled mixes of the botched cosmos. We want for hours to gaze at an old face in a black-and-white photo, one of those ancient pictures found in an attic and stained with rain...." Dr. Wilson then turns his sharp melancholy eye on those "fake melancholy" people, the ones who play a role and dramatize their melancholy for the world to see: "But those who have committed their lives to dejection are no different [than the 'Happy types']. These sad types--those black-clad posers who identify only with the darkness--choose sullenness as one picks a religion or a haircut. Like their brighter opponents, these self-consciously depressed denizens cut half of life away.... These petulant performers gall us as much as do the happy types." I am not particularly sure that one can generalize the fact that changing religion is a simple act of suddenly realizing one has different "taste" for something, including a haircut. At the risk of really sounding like an old school teacher scolding a student, I have to say that religion and haircut (when based on the hasty generalization I point out before) appear as a false analogy, an unforgivable logical fallacy in any argument. And calling these "goth" types "posers" rings of intolerance... isn't that what inclusive, liberal, well-educated, college professors should be arguing against?

Again, to engage in appealing to the reader to the level that Dr. Wilson does ruin the objectivity of the topic and argument. It is no surprise or secret that America has "gone liberal." There's absolutely nothing wrong with it; the political pendulum swings one of two ways as a result of the two party system. Eight years of George W. Bush was enough to turn the most deep-rooted conservative into a half-open minded agent of inclusion rather than exclusion. I am convinced that Dr. Wilson's views are liberal in essence and there's nothing wrong with that fact. Where polemic ignites is in what I consider the worst of all the offenses in this book. I should indicate here that I am neither conservative or liberal, but I see myself as a follower of reason and logic (defunct elements in the political world today). Again, appealing to the reader, Dr. Wilson states: "[H]appy types ultimately don't live their own lives at all. They follow some prefabricated script, some ten-step plan for bliss or some stairway to heaven. Doing so, they separate themselves from the present moment, immediate and unrepeatable and pressing. They live in the past, holding sentimentality to the affirmations handed down by their parents or priests or self-help gurus, or they live in the future, hoping for the perfection they deserve, that they've been living all of their days to realize.... Does this blindness partially account for a recent study, reported in 'Psychological Science,' that found that happy people are more likely to be bigots than sad people? Does this inability to see clearly further accounts for the fact, revealed in the 2006 Pew Report on Social Trends, that Republicans, who can be a somewhat warlike bunch, are happier than Democrats? Is our nation's happiness, its crass self-satisfaction, its wretched contentment, partially responsible for its getting behind a recent war that never should have occurred?" I find this passage disturbingly biased and unfair. Again, I don't say this to defend the Republican ideology that drove us to the present conflicts (I think that for the most part that position is indefensible), but I do have to call out bias where I see it. It is this sort of "not-well-thought-out" appeal to the reader that ruined this book for me. Yes, I do remain a sort of melancholic type, and I purchased the book mainly on the basis of that self-recognition, but if you ask me, I will tell you to get the book from your local library. Don't spend the $20.00, it's really not worth it. Sorry, Dr. Wilson, sir... good luck on your next effort!

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