I recently read  Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Wake Forest University English professor Eric G. Wilson.  Why would anyone be against happiness?  Because, says Wilson, happy people—here he means a peculiarly American breed of happy people, those inhabiting our malls and gated communities, spending their days chatting on cell phones or wandering the Internet—are smug and superficial.  They seek total control over the uncertainties of life, and, in so doing, “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.” (p. 28 ) 

Wilson spends much less time cataloging the faults of the happy masses than he does singing the praises of the melancholy few.  He believes that melancholy forces one to look within:

“At this moment, when I am stripped of the familiar, I get in touch with what is most intimate: I am this person and no one else.  I must find my unique potentialities, my own horizons.  I must live my own life and die my own death. . . .  Embracing my own death, I am shocked into living.  Feeling my finitude, I envision infinite horizons for being.”   (p. 43-44)

The melancholy soul embraces the particular rather than getting lost in abstractions and generalities.  He or she doesn’t oversimplify reality by choosing one side or the other of life’s complexities, but instead explores opposites and brings together antimonies.   Regarding the latter point, Wilson points out a similarity between the happy multitudes and those who are unrelentingly miserable:

“We realize that those committed to happiness at any cost and those bent on sadness no matter what are not very different from each other.  Both are afraid of the wispy middle, that fertile and often febrile ambiguity between the poles of the cosmos.”  (p. 82)

Too, melancholia is midwife to creativity.  Wilson lists dozens of writers and artists whose sadness inspired their creative works, describing a half-dozen in some depth, among them  William Blake, Beethoven, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats.  He also describes Jesus Christ as a melancholy figure, though to do so he emphasizes Christ’s humanity over his divinity, and even within that limitation gives a truncated portrayal.  Among the melancholy lot that Wilson describes, Keats is a particularly sympathetic figure.  Deathly ill with tuberculosis in his twenties, he made melancholy, death, and beauty central themes of his poetry.  For him, beauty is tied to death. 

Melancholy also heightenes our awareness of the world around us and of ourselves.  All that our senses encounter is transient, and this ephemeral nature of the world around us—the clouds and rainbows and roses—heightens our appreciation of its beauty.   As Wilson points out, we all yearn for what is lost and fear our own end, but, whereas the melancholic doesn’t avoid such inevitabilities, “happy types” paper them over with “”some clichéd affirmation about how they’re good people and deserve to be happy.” (p. 121)

There is much more to Wilson’s brief for melancholia than I’ve described: sections on the concepts of dynamic innocence and Romantic irony are particularly effective.  To him, the only “true path to ecstatic joy” is by way of melancholia, for one needs to have wandered through the dark night in order to appreciate the brilliant dawn.  Even those who grant the benefits of melancholia, though, can protest that Wilson gives insufficient attention to the harm that extreme sadness can wreck.  He tries to distinguish between melancholia and depression, stating that the latter produces apathy and paralysis, while the former generates deep feeling and “a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.” (p. 8 )  He agrees that those suffering severe depression should receive treatment, but asks, “what of those millions of people who possess mild to moderate depression?  Should these potential visionaries also be asked to eradicate their melancholia with the help of a pill?” (p. 149)   Many of these “potential visionaries” are involuntary recruits into the ranks of the troubled, and would be more than happy to desert the cause by taking medication or receiving therapy.    Even if something valuable can be learned from most bouts of depression, the experience clouds the mind, weighs down the body, and saps the soul.  Wilson recognizes some of the costs— he mentions suicide and substance abuse, for example—but in the end seems to accept these as a price to be paid for genius.   Isn’t the price paid by sufferers and their families too high, though?  We may be enriched by the suffering of the suicidal, but that’s a form of wealth we can do without.