creativity


This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

I recently saw Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic now in theaters. The movie shuttles between the ’60s, when Brian (played by Paul Dano) was the creative genius behind the Beach Boys, and the ’80s, subsequent to major problems with addiction and mental illness, when Brian (John Cusack) was exploited by Svengali-like psychologist Eugene (“Gene”) Landy (Paul Giamatti). The 60s scenes are about genius and psychic torment; the 80s scenes, apparently meant to be about love and mercy (after a Wilson song by that name), are really more the story of a heroine’s adventure.

Brian Wilson

Brian’s genius is amply illustrated in the recording studio, where he leads musicians through the creation of the “Pet Sounds” tracks. As portrayed by Dano, Brian is frenetic and joyful while making music, fully confident in what he was doing. It may be something of a misnomer to call the process “making music;” Brian is acutely sensitive to sounds of all sorts, and his consciousness is devoted largely to internally replaying, revising and combining these sounds into the music that then spills out in a geyser of song.

Confident in the studio, Brian is troubled everywhere else. His intense stage fright keeps him from touring with the band. He craves approval. Though some people praised him, he can’t handle two who didn’t–cousin and fellow Beach Boy Mike Love and his father, Murry Wilson (Bill Camp), who had been fired as manager of the band.

The movie makes a good deal of Brian’s relationship with his father. Murry had been physically abusive–we learn that Brian was almost deaf in his right ear because when he was a child his father had hit that side of his face. In one poignant scene, Brian plays his recently composed “God Only Knows” for his father, obviously looking for support. The elder Wilson scowls, refuses to comment, throws in a dig about having been fired as manager, and finally renders his judgment: the song is “wishy-washy … a love song and a suicide note.” In another scene Murry disrupts a recording session to tout a group he recently signed that plays the music he thinks the Beach Boys should (but aren’t) playing. Thanks for all the support, dad.

This being the 60s, Brian uses drugs to escape, but they just make it more difficult to cope with life. He reveals at one point that he started hearing voices in 1963; a hallucinating brain is typically not improved by hallucinogens.

There was another approach that friends offered Brian as a way to deal with his demons, but this, too, was counterproductive. In one scene, Brian is at a dinner celebrating the success of his song “Good Vibrations.”

One friend says “You can do whatever you want”

Another asks, “What are you going to do with all that freedom?”

Brian smiles wanly and asks “Has my dad called?”

60s-style freedoms don’t do him much good in the prison in which his childhood has incarcerated him. Freedom without a sense of direction is terrifying, not liberating.

It’s not surprising that the 80s find Brian in the thrall of a psychologist who serves as something of a stern father figure. As Gene–the psychologist–tells it, he saved Brian from himself, and indeed Brian weighed 300 lb., was bedridden, and was addicted to drugs and alcohol when Gene took control. Gene may have kept Brian from dying. Years later, though, Gene’s control even extends to yelling at Brian for taking a bite of hamburger after Gene had told him to wait. In the Drama Triangle, Gene has gone from Rescuer to Persecutor, while Brian has remained in the Victim role.

We see the middle-aged Brian largely through the eyes of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac saleswoman uncertain of what to make of this perplexed man who wanders in her showroom and, before buying a car, rambles on about his difficulty dealing with his brother’s death. Brian doesn’t filter what he says, just like he couldn’t filter out environmental noise in the 60s. Is this lack of filters a sign of genius or mental illness? Maybe a little of each.

Dr. Landy and his minions invade the dealership and whisk Brian away, but Brian manages to contact Melinda by phone and they start dating. I think we are meant to believe that Brian was freed from Gene by virtue of Melinda’s love for him, but I have a somewhat different reading of this part of the movie. Melinda is clearly troubled by Gene’s mistreatment of Brian and Brian cowering in response. She urges Brian to resist, but, when he remains passive, she orchestratedsa lawsuit against Gene by Brian’s family that eventually leads to Gene being barred from ever contacting Brian. Love may be present; Brian and Melinda did eventually marry. In the immediate situation, though, Melinda seems to be motivated mainly by a desire to save someone who doesn’t seem able to save himself. She is a heroine who slays the dragon and rescues the gentle-man in distress.

The viewer is left with some questions. Having been passive while others fought for his freedom, did Brain remain quiescent or did he eventually take charge of his life? Did his problems with addiction surface again? What sort of relationship developed between him and Melinda? Successful biopics typically leave us with questions such as these; that’s what makes them good stories. I walked out of the movie with greater appreciation both of Brian’s music and of the struggles he went through to bring that music into the world.

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national poetry month

 

Babes and beasts alike pay little heed
to time’s progress–its clattering or stealth.
Attending to the clock becomes a need
only after I’ve become a self.

It’s National Poetry Month, so I figured I should try to rouse my creative energies enough to produce a poem or two.  I wrote the brief verse above early in the month, and thought that was all I would do.  Last night, though, I managed another effort:

 

 STATIONS

My father, shouldering the gravity of years

grips the handles like an ancient farmer

bent to his plow.  His walker, an insensate

mule, pulls him through the ruts

to the stations of his life—

commode, recliner, wheelchair, bed.

Meanwhile I visit the gymnasium’s altars—

Nautilus. elliptical, and stationary bike.  Why

do I imagine that the sacrifices offered there

will give me any different end?

Two poems in 30 days–that’s better than my combined output of zero for the year to this point.  I can’t wait to see what I’ll do for next year’s National Poetry Month!

Conceptions of art and artists have changed over the centuries.  In the middle ages, painters and sculptors were artisans, their status little different from that of stonemasons or seamstresses. The category of fine art was created during the Renaissance, and artists were accorded a more elevated status than had been the case previously.  The reasoning behind this improved regard was both that painters and sculptors needed specialized knowledge in fields such as geometry and anatomy to create realistic portrayals and that poets—and by extension artists—were thought to receive divine inspiration enabling them to provide revelations similar to those given by a prophet (see a description of the Renaissance idea of art here).  Art was thus a special, profound vision of reality, and the artist was endowed with a unique capacity to see deeper and experience more fully than could ordinary mortals.  Art didn’t maintain its perch atop the holy mountain, though.  In the early 20th century, Marcel Duchamp proclaimed that art was anything the artist produced—thus, he could (and did) proclaim a urinal was a piece of art.  Art might still retain some distinction if the artist had some sort of exalted vision of the world so that what was declared art really had hidden value.  For Duchamp, though, the artist didn’t create value and bring it to the masses.  Those who viewed the art were co-creators of its worth:

“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

Presumably, any spectator can co-create a work of art, and anyone can be an artist.  You don’t have to have dazzling technical skills, original insights into the nature of reality, or even anything much to say.  Then again, you may have all these things in abundance.

I found Duchamp’s conception of art to fit well the works on display at the fourth annual Artprize, currently taking place in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Artprize is an art competition in which the winning entry is selected by popular vote (there are also separate prizes awarded by a jury of experts).  With 1517 entries displayed in 161 venues in and around downtown Grand Rapids, it is said to be the biggest competition of its sort in the world. I’ve been trekking from venue to venue—I’ve probably hit about 30 of them—and have seen hundreds of entries.

“Small Parts”–teabags as art

So, what is art?  It can be 2,000 used tea bags hung on a wall, or a portrait made entirely of jelly beans, or Harley motorcycle parts assembled to look like people, or someone dressed up in a worm costume slithering around on the ground , as long as someone calls it art and an audience accepts it as such.  All these works were in Artprize, by the way, and I saw all of them except the worm-man.  Aren’t they all art just as much as Warhol’s soup cans and Brillo boxes were?  Maybe art can be defined as anything that an originator (I don’t know that the term “artist” means much of anything in this context) can convince an audience to accept as art.  That makes art parallel to Foucault’s concept of truth: something is true if you can get others to accept it as true.

Here are some other observations from the time I spent at Artprize:

  • Most of the art I saw clustered around relatively few themes.  There are lots of landscapes (divided largely between rural settings and cityscapes), plenty of animals, human portraiture, and, especially among the sculptures, human figures.  There is more representational art than abstract art, but abstract art is fairly well represented.  Quite a few pieces have religious themes, but these are almost all either of Christ or of personal religious experiences—other Biblical stories and historical religious figures are almost totally absent.  There aren’t many still lifes.
  • Given the limited range of themes, after a while the art started to seem quite repetitive.  Often what was original about a piece was the material or technique that the artist used.  Thus, as mentioned above, there were tea leaves, motorcycle parts, and jelly beans.  Someone reproduced van Gogh’s “Starry Night” using rice grains.  There was a piece consisting entirely of candle soot on paper.  An eight-foot tall self portrait was made of plastic bottle caps.  “Found objects” are a particularly popular construction material.  I wondered at times whether those who didn’t really have any creative ideas were trying to simulate creativity by using unusual materials.
  • A number of works appear to offer some sort of social commentary. For example, “Mr. Weekend,” a huge sock puppet

    “Mr. Weekend”

    covering an obsolete mechanical arm from a car factory, makes rueful comments about his former and current life; I take this to be a comment on the nature of work and both mechanical and human obsolescence. “Marilyn,” a portrait of Marilyn Monroe made with discarded plastic objects, seems to allude to the artificial and impermanent quality of both fame and of the things that surround us.  Among the entries that offer social comment, there is a subset of pieces that advocate for some social cause.  The pieces at Fountain Street Church, a outspokenly liberal church in downtown Grand Rapids, are almost all of this sort.  For example, “Disturbing Reality,” a painting of a naked woman chained and lying in a bed, is about abolishing slavery.  The majority of entries don’t seem to be political or social statements of any kind, though.  It seemed to me that local artists were especially unlikely to make any sort of social statement.

  • People love animals.  In the 25 top vote getters, there were two featuring herds of running horses, two dragons, a fish, polar bears, penguins, a moose pursued by wolves, elephants, and a wall of trophy heads made out of recycled materials. Animal art doesn’t put many demands on the viewer—there usually aren’t many complexities to unravel.  Art tames the creatures’ ferocity, so they aren’t wild and unchained as they are in the natural world.  To some degree we may identify with the creatures being portrayed, in which case they represent versions of ourselves shorn of the complications of human self-awareness.

    From “Elephants”

  • Artists—at least the ones here–are dedicated and passionate.  Some of the works took thousands of hours to construct.  A dragon consisting of buttons along thousands of strings took about 1,800 hours, and the tyrannosaurus rex took 4,000 hours.  I spent some time talking to Fraser Smith, an artist from Florida who makes “quilts” and other fabric objects out of wood.  He has made 17 such quilts.  The one he is displaying (named The Lake) took about 1.200 hours, “mostly sanding.”  He said that the creative process is difficult and not all that enjoyable, but he gets tremendous satisfaction from the finished product.  Talking about it clearly filled him with pride.  I can’t imagine spending that kind of time on a single work of art.
  • Lots of wood, metal, paper, and pigment went into the creation of these 1,517 entries. What’s going to happen to all this stuff?  In years to come, is anybody really going to want a full-scale reproduction of a dinosaur skeleton cluttering up their lawn?  Who is going to house 4,000 clay flowers that take up close to 900 feet of floor space (it’s a piece called Floral Metamorphicae 2012)?  Who wants 2,000 tea bags hanging on the wall? I can’t help but wonder if many of the works will end up in landfills someday, or maybe be recycled into new works for Artprize 2032.  If an object becomes art when it is presented and received as such, is the object no longer art when someone decides it’s junk?

Artprize continues through October 7. Anyone can register as a voter and can vote as many times as he or she wants. I voted for about thirty pieces. The first week and a half of Artprize narrows to 10 the contenders for the $250,000 top prize; those finalists were announced this past Sunday, September 30.  In the second round, everyone has just one vote for their top choice.  I’m still trying to decide which piece I’ll vote for.

Fraser Smith and “The Lake”

Two days before Christmas I went to see the exhibit “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” (at the Detroit Art Institute through February 12). The thesis of the exhibit is that Rembrandt discovered a new way to picture Christ. During the Renaissance, artists tended to paint a brown-haired, light-skinned Christ, often with a muscular, well-proportioned anatomy patterned on the Greek ideal. This Christ is active and heroic, typically gesturing with emphasis or emoting openly. Rembrandt’s early representations of Christ usually fit this mold. However, over the course of years, Rembrandt’s portrayals of Christ changed. For example, an early print showing the raising of Lazarus has Christ dramatically raising his arm over the grave, while a later version of the same event shows a much more subdued miracle worker. An early print of Christ’s trial shows him as a bold and dramatic, but, in a print made 20 years later, Christ is so unobtrusive that the viewer has to look carefully to pick him out from a clutch of figures.

The curators are particularly attentive to tracing Rembrandt’s change from painting fair-haired European Christs to painting dark-haired, Jewish Christs. Rembrandt lived much of his life in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam and became quite familiar with his Jewish neighbors. In the mid-1640s, he made studies of a young Sephardic Jew, and, shortly thereafter, he and his school produced several pictures of Christ that had the hair style and facial features of that Jew. Rembrandt had discovered Christ’s Jewishness. (The view that Rembrandt was influenced in his portrayal of Christ by his interactions with his Jewish neighbors is disputed by some scholars, as noted in an article in the Huffington Post.) Rembrandt’s new way of picturing Christ continues his tendency towards a less active, more subdued Christ, but also evokes a new interiority. This is a contemplative figure whose serenity is suggestive of inner depths of spirit. The portraits of Christ made in the late 1640s are small, with a dark background that pushes the image of Christ towards the viewer. They invite intimacy.

The exhibit prompted a fair amount of reflection on my part. I was fascinated by the process of discovery that Rembrandt had to go through to find this Christ. The preconceptions bequeathed from his culture had to be stripped away little by little until he discovered a Christ freed from those preconceptions. It was courageous to follow this road of discovery to its end. Though Amsterdam was a city of relative tolerance, presenting a very Jewish Christ to a society that looked down on Jews took boldness, especially for someone whose livelihood was dependent on how the public received his work.

I also am interested in how the change in his representation of Christ is correlated with events in Rembrandt’s life. He achieved prominence in his twenties, moving to Amsterdam when he was about 25 and quickly becoming a successful and sought-after portrait painter. However, three of the four children he fathered with his wife Saskia died in infancy, and Saskia herself died when Rembrandt was about 35. Though he earned a decent income, Rembrandt lived beyond his means and went bankrupt when he was about 50. Isn’t it likely that these losses and struggles influenced his art by making it less showy and more subdued? Might the contemplative Christ reflect a more contemplative Rembrandt?

I also wonder whether Rembrandt’s process of discovery of a more interior Christ entailed a progression in his religious understanding. The earlier Christ is patently God-like—a distinctive figure who stood out from those around him and exercised his power in a dramatic fashion. The later Christ is more human—a man who was remarkable primarily in the sensitive and meditative qualities he displayed. This Christ is less intimidating and more approachable than the earlier version. Many followers of Christ go though a similar progression in how they view him. Early on, he is much different from us: the great prophet, the worker of miracles, the savior of the world. Though none of these elements disappear, they come to be counterbalanced by Christ’s humanity. He experienced the same times of confusion and struggle that we do; he felt the same feelings as we experience, and he sometimes faced daunting obstacles, just as we do. This is a Christ we not only respect, but one with whom we can relate. Perhaps in his later works Rembrandt was portraying Christ as he had personally come to know him.

The earlier, Classical portrayal of Christ evokes the universal myth of the hero. A more ethnically distinct Christ is a more parochial, less universal figure. Rembrandt was inviting his viewers to consider Christ as having been embedded in a particular culture and living in a particular time and place. At first, this might seem to make Christ less relevant to those from other cultures or living in other circumstances. Yet being tied to a certain time and place is a universal human experience. Like Christ, we all need to be engaged with our particular place and time. None of us lives as a universal man or woman; we all live as Jews or Dutchmen or Argentines or Americans, born in a specific era, with unique challenges and opportunities. Christ the Jew was Christ in the flesh, dealing with all the limitations that implies. He lived a life in the particular; he was human.

On Saturday February 5, I attended a chorale concert at Methodist University, where I teach.  The previous Monday the chairperson of the Music Department informed faculty that Weston Noble, one of the nation’s top chorale conductors, would be directing some local choirs during the concert.  I hadn’t heard of Mr. Noble, but was curious enough that I decided to attend.

The program notes informed me that Weston Noble was the director of the Nordic Choir at Luther College until his retirement in 2005.  The Nordic Choir was reportedly “one of the most elite a cappella college choirs in the United States,” and Mr. Noble “has served as guest conductor at more than 900 music festivals around the world.”  Impressive.  What really caught my attention, though, was that Weston Noble was born in 1922.  That makes him 89 years old, an age at which few people still attend concerts, much less direct them.  He began directing the Nordic Choir in 1948, the year I was born.

In his opening remarks, Michael Martin, the director of the MU Chorale, indicated that Mr. Noble’s visit was almost cancelled because of the severe snowstorm that crossed the Midwest that week.  The parents of a MU Chorale member were driving Mr. Noble to North Carolina from Iowa, and they almost had to turn back because of the poor road conditions.  I wondered why someone whose reputation was well-established and who certainly had nothing to prove would endure the hardship, discomfort, and danger that such a trip entailed.

The concert was a delight.  The MU Chorale and a choir from Sanderson High School in Raleigh performed.  I had never heard the MU Chorale sound better than under Mr. Noble’s direction.  After the Chorale’s performance, the two choirs sang together under Mr. Noble’s direction.  I was particularly moved by the number “Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace,” based on the prayer St Francis.  The Sanderson choir had apparently come to Fayetteville Saturday morning.  Thus, though they must have previously learned the numbers that the combined choirs performed, that morning was the first time they had performed those works either under Noble’s direction or with the MU Chorale.  Yet the choirs sounded as if they had been singing together for a long time.   

When I later described the concert to Collette Shedd, a friend of mine, she said, “I think I know who you’re talking about.”  When she was in high school near Los Angeles around 1970, her choir went to northern California for a choral festival.  Her choir was combined with a dozen or so other high school choirs; she thinks that Weston Noble conducted those massed choirs.  Even back then, he was a prominent conductor, and her choir director emphasized that they were privileged to work with him.  According to her, the conductor that day explained carefully and thoroughly exactly what the singers were to do and took them through the difficult parts over and over again until they got it right.  Under his direction, a couple hundred normally unruly high school students came together, intensely focused on the task at hand.  She said, “We had a sense of what he was trying to get us to do.  We tried really hard; none of us wanted to be the one who messed up.”  She added, “It was the first time that I realized someone had such passion to work with choirs.”

Whether or not he was the conductor back then, Mr. Noble fits her description of a conductor who has the ability to evoke excellence.   Jane Gardiner, a Methodist University music faculty member who saw him work in rehearsal with the MU Chorale, said that he was “a perfectionist, in a good way.”  He listened carefully and stopped the singers every few bars to explain something about the music or give instruction about what he wanted.  The spell he cast certainly worked; during the performance, the choirs combined to form a rich and melodious musical instrument. After the finale, he praised the Sanderson students for their dedication, saying, “I didn’t ask how early you had to get going this morning, but I know it has been a long day.”  Not a word about the difficult and demanding week it had been for him.  He added, “I hope that one or two of you might have gotten a sense today of something you hadn’t experienced before.”  He spoke as a man who has been given an incredibly precious gift, the gift of music, and who has the honor and privilege of distributing it to others.  Perhaps age and a huge snowstorm are only minor inconveniences when you bear such a gift.  Few of us have the talent of Weston Noble, but haven’t each of us received some gift whose value depends on it being shared with those around us?  Seeing Weston Noble reminded me to be cognizant of what has been given me and to share it whenever I have the opportunity.

Weston Noble

soloist2

I haven’t written anything for the blog lately.  I’m on summer break from teaching, and will be devoting myself to other things.  I’ll try to post occasionally, though. 

In my most recent post I wrote about the movie “The Soloist.”  One of the main protagonists, Nathaniel Ayers, is a classically trained musician who is also homeless and schizophrenic.  I wrote this about him:

“It’s not surprising that Nathaniel’s guiding spirit is Beethoven; what other composer would be so likely to bless enduring a life of misery in order to achieve occasional moments of transcendent joy from music?  The “soloist” of the title can be taken as a reference to Nathaniel’s isolation; I take it to be a reference to his singular devotion.”

I want to follow up on that comment by talking a little about the Romantic notion of joy.  My main source for this is Darrin McMahon’s excellent Happiness: A History, which I’ve referred to a couple times previously. 

To the Romantic, joy is not the same thing as happiness.  Abstracting the concept from Coleridge’s poem “Dejection: An Ode,” McMahon characterizes joy as follows: “Joy is light ,joy is glory, joy is reserved for the pure of heart.  An when its sweet music wafts through the soul, it transforms us, as it transforms the world, making a new heaven and a new earth, wedding Nature to the self.” (p. 285)  Unlike happiness, then, which I can experience in isolation and largely by my own initiative, joy is a force that comes upon me from without (or wells up from some spring deep within); I can’t achieve it, I can only hope to be worthy of it.  When it comes, it unites me with a larger force, be it Nature, Spirit, Being, or the Infinite.

This transforming force seems to be what Nathaniel is after.  He surrounds himself with the sounds of the street, as if they were the voice of some organismic force of nature.  The sounds flow through him, and, inspired, his hands move, so that the sounds of the street and the sounds of the cello join seamlessly in music.  His surrender to an indwelling spirit is his joy.

And what of Nathaniel’s schizophrenia?  He rejects the diagnosis, though it seems that he does recognize that he is atypical in some way.  Though most of us view hallucinations, delusions, and loose associations as undesirable, it’s not clear that Nathaniel does.  I recently read an article in Newsweek about Icarus, a group that advocates viewing psychiatric conditions as gifts rather than impairments.  The author of the article describes the organization this way:   “The group, which now has a membership of 8,000 people across the U.S., argues that mental-health conditions can be made into ‘something beautiful.’ They mean that one can transform what are often considered simply horrible diseases into an ecstatic, creative, productive or broadly ‘spiritual’ condition.”   Perhaps the real-life Nathaniel Ayers holds to the oddities of his mental functioning as necessary for him to be possessed by the spirit of music.  And who is to say that isn’t so?

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.