Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Ode to Joy

Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Eric G. Wilson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 176 pages

In a village junk store in the Adirondacks, I recently found a 1950 jack-in-the-box sitting in its original paper carton. It was perfectly preserved except that the little crank to wind out pop-goes-the-weasel was defunct. Wind it as you would, the box was silent and jack was permanently immured. Naturally, I bought it.

If one goes searching for evidence of wistful melancholia in American life, junk stores are a good place to begin. Here are the campaign buttons of candidates who paraded into dust; there, the chipped china and tarnished silverware of Thanksgivings past; bins of long-unplayed phonograph records; keepsakes transformed into memento mori.

Discarded toys, however, contain the purest concentrated pathos: rosebuds shoveled into the furnace of time.

Americans as a whole may be punishingly ignorant of history, but we love the flotsam of the past, as evidenced by the thousands of junk stores and antiquaries, not to mention flea markets, garage sales, and eBay auctions. Bargain-hunting hardly begins to explain this. Junk-store commerce is mainly about the sentiments that objects conjure from us, from nostalgia to irony, touched everywhere with a sunbeam of sadness.

Eric Wilson’s new book Against Happiness is the work of a cultural critic who has somehow missed all this. Surrounded by the vast landscape of melancholic remembrance in American life, he sees only a nation in love with cheap and superficial contentment.

He directs his blowtorch of disappointment at his countrymen for 151 pages—shorter than a migraine but perhaps long enough. The main thread of his two-stranded book is Wilson’s argument that melancholy is a creative force in human life and, by fleeing from it into Happy Meals, Prozac, and mere consumerism, we flatten our souls. The other, more elusive thread isn’t an argument at all but a tone of luxuriant disdain for the American character. Wilson’s America is a place of giddy stupidity, in love with shopping and deaf to suffering—including our own.

This is not just an indictment of contemporary Americans. His critique stretches back beyond the credit-fueled consumption orgies of our day and even the bubbles of yesteryear. He takes it all back to the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. We may be accustomed to seeing those dour religious recusants as the very embodiment of melancholic exile, performing their “errand in the wilderness,” but no, says Wilson, “they believed that America, that fresh and innocent country, would fulfill all their desires for religious bliss.” Wilson misreads Pilgrim theology, which trusted in the bliss of the world to come rather than the bliss of New England winters, but no matter. His point is simply that Americans have been seeking the life of Riley from the get-go. Ben Franklin also gets a whipping for encouraging Americans to practice optimistic thrift, though it is a bit hard to tell which Wilson dislikes more: the optimism or the aspiration for material success.

Wilson spots one more original sin in the founding of America. When Jefferson put the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” into the Declaration, he was adjusting John Locke’s phrase of 1690: “life, liberty, and property.” As Wilson sees it, this wasn’t so much a change as a euphemism. The wording “secretly” connects pursuing happiness with seeking property, as if “the true road to earthly joy is through the accumulation of stuff.” Apparently, ever since, Americans have been in on the secret. Though it is “hidden” in the Declaration of Independence, “many folks past and present” understood it. America “was and still is the place where one can find happiness through acquisition.” This kind of glib judgment is, unfortunately, the bedrock of Wilson’s analysis. He can’t or won’t see “the accumulation of stuff” in relation to the other ways we pursue happiness, such as marriage, family, religion, education, friendship, the arts, charity, and service. He is even blank to such pursuits of happiness as moving on, hitting the road, or building yourself a cabin in the woods.

Perhaps if you are writing a short book denouncing society’s fondness for flimsier pleasures, you are entitled to exaggerate. Yet even allowing for overstatement, Wilson presents an image of contemporary America that I find unrecognizable. A year ago, I published a book that also attempted to take the emotional temperature of America, but what I reported in A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now stands in odd contrast to Wilson’s image of a land of bovine contentment. It is as though we had visited the same country and come away reporting opposite accounts. In Wilson’s view, contemporary Americans are blandly nonconfrontational, anesthetized to existential realities, fearful of anything that jars them loose from the routine, soothing fakeness of manufactured comfort.

In A Bee in the Mouth, by contrast, I argue that contemporary Americans are gripped by the anxiety to discover their authentic “selves.” The older American ethic of emotional self-control has been surpassed by a new cultural edict: Express yourself! And the most empowering, authentic-feeling form of expression many Americans can reach is anger. Far from being blandly nonconfrontational, we have become a nation of chip-on-our-shoulder swaggerers. The anger that bubbles up from the expressive individualism of our age is frequently unprovoked, or at least under-provoked, and it relishes its own occasions, showing off our mastery of contempt for others through practiced vituperation. It is on the Left (think Daily Kos), the Right (think talk radio), in our sports (since McEnroe), our movies (satirized in “Anger Management”), popular entertainment (“Rosie vs. Donald”), our private lives, even our child rearing (“grrrrl power”).

Possibly there is some way to reconcile Wilson’s lament that Americans are just too damn happy with my account that we have de-stigmatized anger to the point where we are seldom so enraptured as when we are enraged. But let’s not paper over the differences. Wilson is an English professor who supports his view with reflections on Keats, Beethoven, Blake, and—when he is reaching for the near present—Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, and Yoko Ono: melancholics all, their creative spirit liberated by a willingness to touch the darker depths of the soul. I, on the other hand, am an anthropologist trying to trace a profound change in American culture that we have no easy way to talk about.

Wilson thinks that our aversion to life-enhancing melancholy goes back to Plymouth Rock and Pilgrims all too eager to see the sunny side of life. I think this historical and cultural nonsense. Americans, like all humanity, have always lived in the shadow of the fear of death, and life is always a checkered story. The important difference between then and now is that somewhere in the middle of the last century, we began to shuck off the governing ideas that we owe it to others to restrain ourselves and that those who abandon themselves to their impulses are unworthy. The mid-century popularization of the Freudian idea that repression will come back as neurosis; the post-war migration to America of the existential creed that we combat the nothingness of life with strenuous assertion of our authentic selves; the rise of a feminist movement that incorporated both psychoanalytic and existential themes—a synthesis exemplified in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; the early stirring of the counterculture in figures such as Allen Ginsberg, whose angry Howl was first heard in 1955, are mileposts of this transformation from a nation that exalted a slow-to-anger ethic to one that now celebrates it’s-cool-to-be-angry.

I have a snide Happy Bunny button that declares, “Your anger makes me happy.” The target market for Happy Bunny products is adolescent girls. I suspect this isn’t the bland happiness that Wilson thinks is corroding our melancholic edge, but it is indeed acidic. There is this much to say for Wilson’s thesis: the “pursuit of happiness” is no stand-alone prescription for a worthy life. The Founders never imagined, though, that it would be understood as a way of blotting out the complications of existence or as a license for lifestyles focused on cannabis or harder stuff. Jefferson didn’t write, “Follow your bliss.”

Wilson thus has a point of sorts about some Americans being too easily pleased and missing the mountain peaks of aesthetic or spiritual exhilaration for contentment in the shopping mall. But I would say it is a small point that he exaggerates into an encompassing picture. Wilson in effect blames Americans for not sharing his taste for the High Romantic, with its sublime highs and lows. Well, OK. We generally don’t live our lives in the emotional tenor of Keats or Beethoven. That said, many Americans do shape their lives around aspirations to the sublime. Wilson seems not to register the millions of Americans testing themselves on weekends by mountain climbing, deep-sea diving, and jumping out of airplanes, as well as the millions more whose religious aspirations take them on profound journeys.

But this is to treat Wilson’s book as though it were seriously argued, and that is probably a mistake. Against Happiness is really more of a poetic effusion than an attempt at cogent criticism. The style resembles a dense essay by Emerson, in which nearly every sentence must be re-read and weighed. You can tell by the bibliographic notes at the end that Wilson can, in fact, write a straightforward declarative sentence, so the convoluted text of the book has to be taken as deliberate reaching for a manner that will demonstrate what a proponent of robust melancholy should read like.

It is prose not for the fainthearted. Almost every paragraph has at least one sentence spitting out alliteration, swooning in assonance, reaching for the highest rhetorical apple on the tree. While I could can glide past some of this, on occasion I had to put the book down until I stopped laughing: “poems more beautiful than the quiet cruising of devious sharks and symphonies more sonorous than those songs of the aloof birds of summer.” And I am still not fully recovered from Wilson’s lament for the good old days in the Big Apple: “As late as the eighties and early nineties Times Square was a seedy synecdoche of all that was glorious and grimy about New York City. One could around Forty-second Street encounter a seductive mixture of divas and drugs, gloriously dilapidate buildings and grim rings of illegal sex.”

He proffers prating pronouncements of pismire presumption—two can play this game—when he writes, “[Coleridge] in his sadness offered a healing and a hope far more capacious and powerful than the paltry poultices and promises of the merely happy.”

One reason to buy Against Happiness is for the sheer unintended comedy of the prose. I don’t want to go overboard making fun of the book. Clearly Wilson is earnest in his thesis and has labored hard to achieve an intensity of presentation. But it happens that his argument is weak and his writing comes off mostly as straining after gnats. On both scores, the book defeats its purpose. I come away with renewed appreciation for the happiness that America does make possible and a slightly guilty conscience for having such a good time at the expense of Professor Wilson’s gloom.   

Peter W. Wood is executive director of the National Association of Scholars and author of A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now.