Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ode to Melancholy

English professor Eric G. Wilson has a really interesting essay on melancholy and the dangers associated with trying to avoid it at all costs. It's analogous to a society hyper-concerned about microbes; people who bleach their bodies after pressing a button in an elevator; and anti-biotic prescriptions written faster than blogs. So any serious bug goes around, we drop like flies because our immune systems have been overly coddled, placed in a retirement trance. Wilson makes the connection between culture and sadness. He says, "What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment?"

Wilson also says.

I for one am afraid that American culture's overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society's efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life's enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.

Read it here. It's brief ... just right for attention spans like mine.



Anonymous Maliha said...

Without melancholy there would be no art that is true to its form and purpose. And that would truly be depressing.

1/17/2008 10:00 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

And for depression, there are pills to take. And to balance the pills, some more pills.

1/18/2008 9:25 AM  
Blogger Mohammed said...


I am inclined to agree with you, and also the author. But I tried to read the article from a perspective other than my own, as other friends of mine- more pragmatically inclined- might have, and I couldn't help feeling that it was hopelessly idealistic. Who is it that will accept sadness when there is a [real or percieved] way out? Who can authentically long for melancholy without compromising honesty?

The article mentioned the loss of the source of art and verse with the loss of melancholy. But no one intentionally becomes a "sacrificial lamb," if you will, for the sake of art. Who would choose a life of misery for a small chance of being a brilliant but nonetheless miserable artist. Sadness happens, and sometimes great beauty and art results. There is little that we can do to interfere, it seems. I don't think sadness is going anywhere anytime soon for the majority of people in this world- it seems built in- so why worry about its loss?

1/18/2008 7:48 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Really interesting points, Mohammed, and engagement with the article. It's a fair perspective, not necessarily inconsistent with these kinds of articles and observations. They provoke, as they should. And provocation suffices. But back to your point about honesty and seeking out sadness for the sake of art is insightful. It’s called “art” and not “artifice” or “artificial.” Again, nice. However, I think the author may be saying that we are so sadness-averse, when we do feel it, we think that something "abnormal" is happening, something symptomatic, something to actually name and ultimately get a pill to fix. I've never met anyone who seeks sadness. True. But when we don't understand its role--a logical result of a profane world and serious decline of the sacred--then sadness becomes something else. It can lose its inspiration. Thank you.

1/18/2008 11:41 PM  
Anonymous hijabihoodlum said...

i've never really seen it like that. personally, i don't think melancholy is a thing to be cured, but certainly there's depression. when your state of being is constantly consumed by melancholy, surely something must be wrong? really, i feel like we should be able to run the gamut of emotions in order to consider ourselves balanced.

2/11/2008 6:07 PM  
Blogger Amina said...

there is a thin line between melancholy and depression, however from both soemthing bigger can be created...depends how one will use it

3/22/2008 10:05 AM  

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