94 of 101 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Muse- Melancholy
This book is in one sense a diatribe against the Happiness Industry , the whole Positive Psychology shtick, the mentality which says you have a right to happiness, and you should be happy, and if you are not happy something is wrong with you, and you must do everything possible to make yourself happy, and show the world that you are happy , because happiness is success...
Published on February 7, 2008 by Shalom Freedman
54 of 67 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant in Parts, but Seriously Flawed
This is a small book with a simple thesis: the experience of melancholy is an essential part of the human condition--when it occurs, we should embrace it, not repress it. Wilson claims that if you eliminate melancholia either through medications (like Prozac), or through a forceful cultural bias toward perpetual happiness such as currently exists in America, then life...
Published on February 23, 2008 by B. Case
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94 of 101 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Muse- Melancholy,
On the other hand and more seriously it is a study of Melancholy and its uses in literary and artistic creation. This positive side of the work seems to me a much more persuasive than the attack on the Happiness Industry. My own sense is that there is so much suffering and pain in the world, and that each human being at some point or perhaps throughout their lives has so much of it, that it doesn't make much sense to attack those who are trying to alleviate that suffering. Or to put this another way. I don't buy the figure which is cited that eighty- five percent of Americans consider themselves happy, unless that is we combine that with another figure that ninety- five percent of people lie at one time or another. In any case this is pretty much irrelevant to the heart of this book which again provides examples of the way the use and transformation of Melancholy create great Art and Literature.
Wilson is not simplistically and stupidly advocating that people become depressed. He writes, "Depression (as I see it, at least) causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another. In contrast, melancholia generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing."
Wilson writes beautifully in showing the way the great poet of Melancholy Keats was also a person of tremendous courage in contending with the very many losses and trials he had in his brief life.
As Wilson understands it Melancholy leads us to struggle with the polarities and complexities of Existence. He speaks about how it moves us toward striving towards perfection, using our freedom in a fragmented reality to move towards greater connection and wholeness.
He is of course not alone in seeing how the darker side of our heart and mind has moved us to great literature. Kay Redfield Jamison one of the world's foremost experts on Manic -Depression has written on this subject. The great Art-Historian Rudolf Wittkauer studied the Saturnic dimensions of Creation. The writer Amos Oz often says that almost all great Literature comes out of suffering, of difficulty.
I do not buy the 'Against Happiness' straw- man part of this book as I do not believe the the world is in danger of being overcome by universal happiness. The studies in fact show that Americans are not on the whole more happy today than they were half a century ago. But the literary analysis here is outstanding, and this is the real beauty and value of the book.
42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Resisting our craving for certainty,
Wilson argues that "melancholy," or a restless dissatisfaction with the status quo, serves as a check on our tendency to personal and social self-deception. Moreover, it weans us of our need for certainty by encouraging us to explore the "dark boundaries between opposites" (p. 73), thereby inviting "a vision of a healing third term" (p. 76) which embraces rather than denies ambiguity and discordance. The melancholic mood accommodates insight into the fact that the world isn't fixed, that beauty and all good things in life are possible only because they and we are transient, and that a human being is homo viator, a pilgrim open to possibilities because refusing to embrace false certainties. This "ironic" orientation to the world acknowledges the anxiety that impermanence and uncertainty bring, but also recognizes that the anxiety can go hand in hand with a sense of imaginative playfulness and profound gratitude.
Wilson insists that he's not trying to trivialize clinical depression or genuine joy. His concern is to counter what he describes as the "soul-deadening" cult of faux-happiness that breeds narcissism, an arrogant sense of control and entitlement, and a frightened blindness to the rich depths of experience. Most of us have the intuition that an honest recognition of suffering and despair is a necessary condition for living fully. Wilson's book explores this intuition with sensitivity and erudition. He adroitly illustrates his defense of melancholic restlessness by appeals to classical (Blake, Keats, Schiller, & Ficino) as well as popular culture (John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Joni Mitchell, & Bruce Springsteen)
This isn't to say that the book doesn't have its weaknesses. Wilson's style at times becomes pompously oracular. He favors repetitious short sentences that often obfuscate more than reveal, and he lapses occasionally into tedious Emersonisms: "Plumb down into your interiors. There find the sullen ruler of the underworld. On his face is an ambiguous grimace. It is possibly a clinched product of the somber dark. But it is more likely a squinting before the amber glow growing before his eyes" (p. 106). This sort of prose isn't helpful.
Moreover (again, rather like Emerson), Wilson overgeneralizes sometimes--as in his distinction between "happy" and "sad" people--and is frustratingly vague at still others--his discussion of polarities in the chapter on "Generative Melancholia" is especially unclear, falling into the very abstractionism he thinks melancholy cures.
But all in all, Wilson raises issues that need to be thought and talked about. There is value, wisdom, and insight to be found in insecurity and the melancholic restlessness that attunes us to insecurity. A hard thing to hear, perhaps, but a necessary one.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Talking About The Big Pink Elephant In The Room,
Personally, I'm sick and tired of the happiness industry, so this book found the right audience. Against Happiness explores what's wrong with the happiness industry as well as what's right with feeling down. Wilson argues that melancholy does have it's use in life, particularly a life of literary and artistic creation.
Wilson does not advocate becoming depressed or suicidal to be creative. He writes, "Depression causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another." On the other hand Wilson argues that melancholy generates "a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing." In other words, hang on to your melancholy and listen to it. It's an important tool for development.
Wilson illustrates his theories with the lives and writings of authours like Keats and Blake. His literary analysis is very good and one of the outstanding features of this book.
54 of 67 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant in Parts, but Seriously Flawed,
Much of the book is one long rant against a contemporary American culture that requires artificial happiness at all times. Wilson shows that our melancholic side is absolutely essential. He insists that melancholy is necessary to connect us to our fundamental self. He claims that to reject melancholy is to reject life.
Wilson writes: "A person seeking sleek comfort in this mysteriously mottled world--where love is always edged with resentment and baseness beds with grace--is necessarily required to perceive only small parts of the planet, those parts that fit into his preconceived mental grids... But some people strain all the time to break through their mental manacles, to cleanse the portals of their perceptions, and to see the universe as an ungraspable riddle, gorgeous and gross. Happy types, those Americans bent only on happiness and afraid of sadness, tend to forgo this labor. They sit safe in their cages. The sad ones, dissatisfied with the status quo, are more likely to beat against the bars" (p. 24). [Note: If you found this quote somewhat dense and difficult, be forewarned: this type of prose is typical of the entire volume. Although some of Wilson's writing is dynamic, rich, and lyrical, I often found it also turgid and unnecessarily arcane.]
Wilson goes on to argue that sadness is "the enabler of joy," and that the "true path to ecstatic joy is through acute melancholia." You can't have one end of the continuum without the other. Thus, people who strive for happiness at all times limit their capacity for joy.
So far so good--I truly welcomed, enjoyed, and agreed with Wilson's point of view throughout the first half of the text. But in the second half of the book, I was shocked to see the author dangerously overstepping the boundaries of his academic credentials and making serious mistakes--here, Wilson fails me, and thus my overall rating for his book slips significantly.
In the second half of the book, Wilson argues that the experience of normal melancholia makes us creative. To back up his arguments about the connection between melancholia and creativity, the author cites examples using a number of very famous historic and contemporary creative geniuses--artists, he suggests, who derived their creative power from their frequent bouts of melancholia. But that is precisely where his arguments fall. Virtually all the creative geniuses that he cites as examples to support his claims about the connection between normal melancholy and creativity were, in fact, at the far extremes of the continuum, not in the middle. These artistic geniuses suffered either from bouts of deep clinical depression, or they were manic-depressives who experienced both depressions and mania.
It is important to note that the author is a professor of English at Wake Forest University. He is not a psychiatrist or psychologist, but a "literary humanist searching for a deeper life." He makes it clear in the beginning of the book that this work is about the normal mood state of melancholia. He sets out to focus on the middle of the continuum, with happiness on one side, and melancholy on the other. He claims that this book is not about the aberrant extremes of the continuum--the ends where melancholia slips into major depression, and happiness soars into mania. Yet he supports his ideas about normal melancholy giving rise to creativity using examples about artistic geniuses who either suffered from clinical depression or manic-depressive illness.
Most of the highly creative geniuses who Wilson uses briefly as examples in the second half of his book can be found discussed in great depth in Kay Redfield Jamison's groundbreaking book "Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament." Jamison is Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is considered by most psychiatric professionals to be "the" definitive expert on manic-depressive illness. Amazingly, Jamison herself suffers from manic-depressive illness and wrote a moving memoir about her life and journeys into madness. Fifteen years ago, she published "Touched with Fire," and it instantly became an academic and popular bestseller. It is still in print and is considered to be the fundamental work on this topic. The depth of scholarship and research in this work is astonishing--not only does Jamison know psychiatry; she also appears to have a doctorate-level understanding of world literature, and many other fields of scholarship, as well. Jamison's prose is exquisite, structured, and easy to understand; in addition, she frequently makes room for elegant lyrical phrasing that leave the reader stunned with their beauty and insight.
It is interesting to note briefly how Jamison's views about the wellspring of artistic creativity differ from Wilson's. The purpose of Jamison's book, "Touched with Fire," is to explore the compelling association between the artistic and the manic-depressive. The emphasis of the book is "on understanding the relationship between moods and imagination, the nature of moods--their variety, their contrary and oppositional qualities, their flux, their extremes (causing, in some individuals, occasional episodes of "madness")--and the importance of moods in igniting thought, changing perceptions, creating chaos, forcing order upon chaos, and enabling transformation" (p. 5). She makes it clear that an artistic work "that may be inspired by, or partially executed in, a mild or even psychotically manic state may be significantly shaped or partially edited while its creator is depressed and put into final order when he or she is normal. It is the interaction, tension, and transition between changing mood states, as well as the sustenance and discipline drawn from periods of health, that is critically important; and it is these same tensions and transitions that ultimately give such power to the art that is born in this way" (p. 6).
Thus, when it comes to the connection between melancholy and artistic genius, Jamison's book is by far the more scholarly, accurate, and enjoyable to read.
In summary: I enjoyed the first half of Wilson's book, but found considerable problems with the second half. Wilson's polished literary rant about America's overemphasis on happiness and its commensurate societal dangers is well-founded--my problem is that it does not take an entire book to make this point; a magazine article would have been more appropriate.
My overall recommendation: read about Wilson's rant against the American happiness culture on the Internet; then, instead of buying Wilson's book, buy Kay Redfield Jamison's "Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament." It has been fifteen years since this book was first published, but it is still in print, and easy to obtain...it is three times as long, costs half as much, and is infinitely more enjoyable.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An ode to the power of negative thinking,
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars buy it...or not.,
This book was a fantastic way of describing the "me" that has always been indescribable. I found in its pages a reassurance that I was not alone and it was perfectly acceptable to be this way. The author does not simply rail against the "delusions of happy" today's world tries to spin for us, it opens up and describes the melancholy soul as well.
I found this book as a salve to the questions of my own inner melancholy.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wisdom in the dark places,
Those are some of the questions Eric Wilson asks in this slim, poetic book. As he points out, for so many today, happiness is generally to be found in money, in things, in status -- in short, the most superficial aspects of life. It's the creed of a consumerist culture: more, more, more, and happiness is yours! Yet More never does seem to become Enough, does it?
But Wilson isn't simply offering another critique of consumerism, however necessary. He delves into the sources of great art & great thought, of life rooted in reflection & meaning, rather than in possession of material things. To be sure, everyone needs food, shelter, clothing! But he accurately pinpoints the ways in which the frantic pursuit of happiness as an end in itself distracts us from our own painful, troubling, soul-wracking depths.
Using examples from literature & art, Wilson demonstrates how much melancholy (as distinguished from clinical depression) has served as a dark but powerful wellspring for creativity, and a richer understanding of life. These days, melancholy is viewed as an illness, something to be treated or numbed with medication & optimism, rather than as a natural human state. How often are we told to "find closure" by a specified deadline, or to "move forward" instead of reflecting on our questions & sorrows?
This is a truth long known to creative souls & many psychologists: Life is made richer, deeper, and more endurable by Meaning, rather than by chasing the illusory & ephemeral promises of Happiness. If anything, the effort to be happy & cheerful all the time leads to an emotional flatness, to homogenized existence, to an inability to experience genuine joy or rapture. Only by experiencing darkness do we truly learn to appreciate light. In other words, we must embrace both poles of life -- joy & grief, suffering & exultation, death & birth -- if we're to reach any kind of balance & wholeness.
For many people, of course, the shallow life is highly desirable, as it's all they've been taught & all they've ever known. They value ceaseless happiness above all else ... but just how happy are they, really? How many have that faintly haunted look of those who've never truly found what they seek? They exist, to be sure, but they're not living any sort of meaningful life.
If you aspire to more than that, then this book is a perfect starting point. Highly recommended!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Depression is in the eyes of the beholder (and happiness is non-partisan).,
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shiny happy people,
Now, I'm not American (which can be seen from my usage of language) and I see Wilson's text as an introductory note for understanding of one culture. It has been stated throughout the reviews that it is one-sided text, and that can be clearly seen even from my point of view, but Wilson doesn't try to summarize the complexity of the culture in few lines of text, neither he tries to say - look at me, follow my path and you'll do well. Wilson is talking about problem, one that America has been associated with, but which can also be found in many other countries as well. It is the problem of easy solutions, anti-depression pills, radical medical treatment of feelings that could be imagined as somewhat blue. Following in the footsteps of shiny happy people, those who walk untroubled and are afraid to look into the abyss (in Nietzches words), Wilson tries to shout - "stop! look back and feel the world. There is much more out there than get up at seven, work eight ours and go back home. There is much more than creating "healthy environment" in your workplace. Read! Think! Don't be a mule all of your life." In contrast with self-help manuals (and whatever you think of them as stupid, funny or neglectable, fact remains that they are being written and sold in heaps)Wilson's uses language that draws itself from 19th century, he uses phrases and words that could never be found in those books, forcing its reader to dwell upon them, to decipher them, to feel their poetic beauty. In contrast with self-help manuals, Wilson states that instant happiness cannot be achieved, and even if it could it would be meaningless. It is the process that matters, process that inevitably uses sorrow and longing to be complete and meaningful.
Wilson's book is an interesting read, not big on high philosophy, but piercing enough to captivate it's reader. It is doubtful whether it can make it's reader a better person, but it sure tries hard enough. In any case, it is an interesting perspective upon culture coming from within. Culture on which many hate mail has been written in past years. Wilson's book is a counterpoint for all US haters out there, point which teaches us (if for some reason we still don't know that) that generalized assumptions is something one should avoid.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy,
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Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Eric G. Wilson (Hardcover - January 22, 2008)
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