Against Happiness, by Eric G. Wilson
I wanted to like this book more than I ended up liking it. On the face of it, as a deeply melancholy person who has long struggled with chronic depression and related issues, and who has empathetically read about a variety of melancholy people who were nonetheless intensely creative and deeply humane (like Abraham Lincoln), this book ought to be aimed at a sympathetic audience. And yet this author manages to screw up the approach by making this book against a lot more than the fake happiness that is common all around us. The author’s discontent appears far deeper than that, leading him to excuse all kinds of wickedness from people on account of their being creative people who do not need to be held to the moral standards that are applied to humanity as a whole, and leading him not only to oppose fake happiness but to oppose the genuine joy that comes through a life of loyal love to God and service of others. Instead, the author promotes the solipsistic view that people who are rebellious against God’s ways and against society are always to be praised for that rebelliousness, and to be excused of any of their flaws on account of their melancholy.
This short book of about 150 pages begins with an introduction and quickly moves to a highly critical attitude towards America’s war on melancholy through self-help books, the cultivation of relentless false cheer, and mind-altering chemicals that view sadness as something to eliminate rather than something to (at least occasionally) cultivate (1). After that the author looks at the man of sorrows that presents Christ as a sorrowful person rather than the happy and joyful person that he is often seen by others (2)–though it should be remembered that Jesus Christ showed both a great deal of cheer and happiness as well as a great deal of sorrow during his earthly life, and the author misses the sense of balance and proportion. The author then moves to a discussion of generative melancholia, which is the deep sadness that is associated with creative people like Salvador Dali or John Lennon or this reviewer (3), as opposed to the sort of melancholy that leads to mere passivity or addictive behaviors. The author’s next chapter on terrible beauty praises the heavy cost of creativity for people like Beethoven and praises the rebellion that creative people often show to established ways of belief and behavior (4). Finally, the book ends with a conclusion, biographical notes, and acknowledgements.
As is often the case in a book like this, the author is engaging in a false dilemma when he praises melancholy in the condemnation of fake happiness. There is, of course, a third way besides fake happiness and genuine suffering and spiritual and emotional torment. Even as someone well familiar with deep anguish, there is the longing for genuine happiness. And at frequent times, usually spent in the enjoyment of godly and friendly company, there is the achievement of such joy, which does not require fake smiles or empty platitudes but which involves genuine creativity and cooperation and happiness. Apparently the author, though, only finds value in the rejection of God and His ways as well as a hostility to society at large and a misanthropy towards other people. The fact that the author misses the fact that he is engaging in a false dilemma suggests the way that it is easy to pit ourselves against something we recognize as evil without recognizing in ourselves that we are merely in the opposite ditch rather than providing insight and wisdom to others, and that avoiding this trap requires a perspective that is above that of this author.