Friday, April 11, 2008

Frustrated Melancholia

"To argue for melancholia as a force for creativity prompts the question, Why isn't this a better book, since the author is so miserable? And a Minnesotan reading Wilson, a North Carolinian, on the tonic effect of melancholy winter has to smile."
Garrison Keillor, "Woe Be Gone"

I was strangely happy when I first read this review of Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Eric Wilson. I laughed when Keillor questioned how someone so down in the dumps could write such "effusive thank-yous"..."to the folks who enabled him to write a not very good book." That was mean.

Every once in a while a book gets under your skin and you get roused from your little world of books and want to say something to the world. I so much wanted this book to be good. And it is good, in part, as it explores different dimensions of our dark moods. I have some special affection for books about solitude, noir photographs of cities, secret introverts, and Kafkaesque labyrinths. This little book promised to be an antidote to the "sunny state of mind." Didn't happen. It ended up being one more slim volume in the growing pile of philosophical self-help books.

But Keillor, like me, was conflicted. His review reminded me of the old future search model of picking off the petals of a flower. I like this book, I like it not. I like this book, I like it not, and so on. What's the problem? For me, the problem was one of over reach. The book begins, perhaps tongue in cheek, knocking every aspect America's addiction to superficial happiness. It reminded me of those old-fashioned elitist denunciations by know-it-all Marxists about about who is caught in the snare of "false consciousness." And sure, the suburbs have their problems, but at least now you can get Thai food and go to Borders.

And then, every few pages, Wilson lets us in on what true, non-superficial happiness is about, happiness that lives in peaceful co-existence with melancholia, even soaring, at times, from the creative output of depressive artists. These are the author's special moments, ensconced on a college campus. Great!

In leafing through the book again I found my quotient of underlinings that I might remember if I remembered to look. And there was some good vocabulary practice. What else could you want in a book? How about this notion: " This is one of the great bifurcations in American culture, between those who meet and greet and those who mull and scowl." Yep, that's it!

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