cover image Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy

Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy

Eric G. Wilson, . . Crichton/FSG, $20 (166pp) ISBN 978-0-374-24066-0

This slender, powerful salvo offers a sure-to-be controversial alternative to the recent cottage industry of high-brow happiness books. Wilson, chair of Wake Forest University's English Department, claims that Americans today are too interested in being happy. (He points to the widespread use of antidepressants as exhibit A.) It is inauthentic and shallow, charges Wilson, to relentlessly seek happiness in a world full of tragedy. While he does not want to “romanticize clinical depression,” Wilson argues forcefully that “melancholia” is a necessary ingredient of any culture that wishes to be innovative or inventive. In particular, we need melancholy if we want to make true, beautiful art. Though others have written on the possible connections between creativity and melancholy, Wilson's meditations about artists ranging from Melville to John Lennon are stirring. Wilson calls for Americans to recognize and embrace melancholia, and he praises as bold radicals those who already live with the truth of melancholy. Wilson's somewhat affected writing style is at times distracting: his prose is quirky, and he tends toward alliteration (“To be a patriot is to be peppy” “a person seeking slick comfort in this mysteriously mottled world”). Still, beneath the rococo wordsmithing lies provocative cultural analysis. (Feb.)