Don't Worry, Be Weepy

AGAINST HAPPINESS: IN PRAISE OF MELANCHOLYBy Eric G. Wilson Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 151 pages, $20 If all productive misery

By Eric G. Wilson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 151 pages, $20

If all productive misery reads like this, give me idle joy.

Americans are plump and satisfied, complains Eric G. Wilson, and the tragedy is that their rose-colored glasses and SSRI’s prevent them from channeling the creative inner torment of noted melancholics such as Coleridge, Keats, Beethoven and Lennon. And, oh yes, Eric G. Wilson.

As he strenuously insists on page after violet page of Against Happiness—the prose is roughly the color of a Grade 3 ankle sprain—Mr. Wilson is just as much a sad sack as the great men of history, and thus much closer to Truth than the so-called “happy types.” (Manic depression is the closest he ever gets to defining his own vaunted “melancholy.”)

Truth, as Mr. Wilson sees it, involves sensing the closeness between life and death. But mostly it involves writing books. Unfortunately, when one chooses to write contemporary nonfiction and not 19th-century verse, the burden of proof tends to impinge a bit on the big T. And here’s where Mr. Wilson reveals himself to be rather more glib and lazy than he’d like to admit.

The first principle of the modern cultural polemic, after all, is proving the existence of that which you stand against. (Imagine The Communist Manifesto if that condition weren’t met.) For hard evidence of the epidemic of happiness threatening to “annihilate melancholia,” Mr. Wilson cites a Pew Research Center study that shows 85 percent of Americans identify as “happy” or “very happy.” That’s the sum total of his proof.

And yet he spins a web to the heart of the American character, connecting the Massachusetts pilgrims (such insistent optimists, they) and Benjamin Franklin to Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham in one Illuminati of good feeling.

You go to war with the statistics you’ve got. I wonder if Mr. Wilson cares to revise his thesis, now that something like that same plucky 85 percent seem to think, in poll after poll, that the country is going in the wrong direction.

Probably not. He’s not into changing his mind.

Or looking stuff up. On the first page, the reader is told that “We are on the verge of eroding away our ozone layer. Even as I write this erosion is causing melting of the polar ice cap.” I’m sure Mr. Wilson is truly sad about global warming, but in point of fact, the ozone holes have little to do with the melting of the ice caps, and certainly don’t “cause” it.

“I tried my best,” he affirms in an early passage on his childhood, “to make Bs and Cs on my tests, just so I could fit in with the other athletic mediocrities. But in spite of myself, I never did. My fervid mind always kicked in, and I reluctantly took my nerdy A.” It’s peculiar how lacking in self-consciousness Mr. Wilson is; he seems to hope to endear us with this kind of self-serving confession.

It’s equally surprising that the former chair of Wake Forest’s English department should be so clumsy. You don’t have to try twice to visualize “ensconced in their solipsistic silos” to realize that the metaphor is fatally mixed.

By the time Mr. Wilson turns to brief lists of psychological grievances from history’s VIP’s (why is our Prozac lamentable and Coleridge’s opium laudable?), he’s already lost all credibility as narrator and thinker. Like many a pubescent diary scribbler, this very adult professor seems to have confused sadness with sadism.


WHAT’S INFURIATING IS that Mr. Wilson is right. There does seem to be something about depression and anxiety and psychological loss associated with, if not art, then at least insight. But the days of making such claims through affiliation and affectation are thankfully over; if Freud had had fMRI’s and LexisNexis at his disposal, one imagines the author of “Mourning and Melancholia” would have produced something far more substantive than Against Happiness. He might have also corrected the assumption behind Eric Wilson’s premise: Sadness doesn’t lead to greatness, greatness leads to sadness. The merely sad are, as they’ve always been, just plain sad.


Jonathan Liu is a writer living in Queens. He can be reached at

Don't Worry, Be Weepy